Rhonda Fleming, flame-haired beauty who ruffled the film censors in Hitchcock’s Spellbound – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·7-min read
Rhonda Fleming at her California home in the late 1950s - Bettmann
Rhonda Fleming at her California home in the late 1950s - Bettmann

Rhonda Fleming, who has died aged 97, was a film star of the 1940s and 1950s whose startling flame-haired beauty and reliable screen presence saw her proclaimed “the Queen of Technicolor”.

Though she had made an impressive start at the age of 22, working with Alfred Hitchcock and beginning a lengthy career in westerns, it was the rise of colour films that showed her to her best advantage.

In 1949 her first Technicolor role, opposite Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, launched her as a leading lady. She would appear in two dozen films over the next decade. But Rhonda Fleming initially disliked the technology, considering it “far too unnatural. If you eyes were green, they were really green, and your skin was so pinky white. I just wanted to prove that I was a good actress.”

Rhonda Fleming and director Alfred Hitchcock on set filming Spellbound, 1945 - Alamy
Rhonda Fleming and director Alfred Hitchcock on set filming Spellbound, 1945 - Alamy

Born Marilyn Louis on August 10 1923 in Hollywood, California, she belonged to a showbusiness family. Her mother, Effie Graham, had been a celebrated New York model and actress, her grandfather, John Graham, an actor in Utah.

The young Marilyn initially aspired to a singing career, taking lessons at Beverly Hills High School; but at 17 her fortunes took a different turn when a car that had been circling the block drew up alongside her. Its occupant was Henry Willson, an agent who would later work for David Selznick’s subsidiary company, Vanguard Pictures. “Young lady”, he said, “have you ever thought of being in motion pictures?”

Willson introduced her to Selznick, who offered her a seven-year contract and a feature role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), alongside Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Her character, Mary Carmichael, is a hysterical nymphomaniac, doubling as a scantily clad “kissing bug” for a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali.

Her appearance provoked the disapproval of the Production Code Administration, which insisted that she be substantially “more covered” for the final cut, but the sexual subtext mostly passed her by.

She had grown up in a devout Mormon household, and neither she nor her family were quite prepared for Hollywood’s crude depiction of the newly fashionable discipline of psychoanalysis; she recalled how, when describing the role to her mother, “we had to look the word up in a dictionary, we had no idea what a nymphomaniac was.”

Out Of The Past, a classic film noir with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming, 1947  - LMPC via Getty Images
Out Of The Past, a classic film noir with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming, 1947 - LMPC via Getty Images

On set with Hitchcock, she learned fast. The director loved to shock his actors, and would confront her in the middle of shooting, whispering “How’s your sex life?”. Selznick hired Anita Colby – known as “The Face” for her hugely successful modelling work – to teach Rhonda how to walk like a bona fide film star. She struggled with a lisp throughout, but the performance earned her widespread critical acclaim.

During the same year she played a supporting role in Robert Siodmark’s The Spiral Staircase, released in 1946.

With Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, aka Build My Gallows High, directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1947 - Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
With Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, aka Build My Gallows High, directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1947 - Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In 1947, as the femme fatale in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (known in the UK as Build My Gallows High), she involved Robert Mitchum’s hero Jeff in a web of deception, described by the film critic Roger Ebert as “so labyrinthine it’s remarkable even the characters can figure out who is being double-crossed, and why”.

She would again portray a double-dealing beauty in a film noir four years later, with star billing about the title, opposite Dick Powell in Cry Danger.

The Great Lover (1949), seven months after the release of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, was her second leading role, this time alongside the actor and comedian Bob Hope. Hope hired her on the set of A Connecticut Yankee, and the pair remained great friends throughout Hope’s life, appearing together in several of his television specials.

Rhonda Fleming with Bob Hope in a scene from The Great Lover - AFP/Getty
Rhonda Fleming with Bob Hope in a scene from The Great Lover - AFP/Getty

Rhonda Fleming left Selznick International Pictures in 1950 and starred in The Eagle and the Hawk, though her natural liveliness as an actress was somewhat inhibited by her costumes, the heaviest of which weighed 12 pounds. But she acquitted herself well enough to play the lead in The Redhead and the Cowboy the following year.

Co-starring with Glenn Ford, she was required in one scene to ride at full-pelt towards a hilltop, and then rear up. Though she was an experienced rider, the stunt nearly ended disastrously when the horse fell back on top of her and knocked her unconscious. Later, Ford required hospital treatment when she accidentally struck him in the eye during a fight scene.

Her second film of that year, The Last Outpost, was her first and arguably her best collaboration with Ronald Reagan. Grossing $1,225,000 upon its release, the film was the biggest commercial success to emerge from Pine-Thomas Productions.

She and Reagan worked together on three further occasions, the last being Tennessee’s Partner in 1955. They remembered each other with great affection. To Rhonda, Reagan was “a wonderful peacemaker”, capable of soothing even the most irascible directors. On a visit to the White House many years later she greeted the newly-inaugurated President of the United States with an embrace and the words “Hi, Tennessee’s partner.”

Rhonda Fleming and Margaret Thatcher: the actress worked with Ronald Reagan  - Bei/Shutterstock
Rhonda Fleming and Margaret Thatcher: the actress worked with Ronald Reagan - Bei/Shutterstock

In 1966 she retired from acting following her fourth marriage, to the producer Hall Bartlett. But before long the couple were estranged from each other. They divided up the rooms of their Los Angeles home and established a rota for use of the kitchen and swimming pool, before finally agreeing upon a divorce in 1972.

Rhonda soon discovered that Hollywood loyalties were fleeting. After six years away from the industry, she struggled to find work, and turned instead to Broadway, making her stage debut in the 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. Her film career never regained its former momentum, and she was mainly remembered, albeit fondly, as a relic of Hollywood’s golden era, an impression given further credence in one of her few roles of the period, a cameo as “Rhoda Flaming” in Michael Winner’s 1976 spoof Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

In 1990, following the death of her sister Beverly from ovarian cancer, Rhonda Fleming retired for good. She dedicated her remaining years to charitable pursuits, with a particular focus on cancer research. The Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women’s Comprehensive Care opened at the UCLA Medical Center in 1991. A second facility followed three years later, the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer, dedicated to providing support and information for families affected by the illness.

Intensely religious from the age of 18, Rhonda was a close associate of Media Fellowship International, an organisation dedicated to nurturing Christian values in the entertainment industry.

Rhonda Fleming married, first, in 1940, to Thomas Lane, an interior decorator. The marriage was dissolved and in 1952, she married, secondly, Dr Lew Morrell. They divorced in 1958, and she married the actor Lang Jeffries two years later. Her fourth marriage, to Hall Bartlett, was dissolved in 1972. In 1978 she married the producer Ted Mann. He died in 2001, and in 2003 she married Darol Wayne Carlson, who died in 2017. She is survived by a son from her first marriage.

Rhonda Fleming, born August 10 1923, died October 14 2020