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 Female on the Beach

 

by David Del Valle

Originally appeared in Scarlet Street, Issue 53, Fall 2005

 

(Reprinted with permission from the author.)

 


Joan Crawford, more than any other movie star of her era, epitomized the glamour and charisma the public came to associate with Hollywood royalty. However, Crawford was also a woman with issues, a woman in menopausal crisis dominating her environment against overwhelming odds. This scenario was reflected in both her real life and reel life. By the 1950s, Crawford was fighting not only the studios that created her image, but time itself.

Crawford began the fifties on a high note with her Oscar-nominated performance in SUDDEN FEAR (1952), a film in which she is victimized by a psychotic actor (Jack Palance) who plans to hustle her into marriage and murder her for her money. The premise would crystallize later in FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955).

During this period, the Crawford screen persona included a variation on the familiar plot of the shop girl’s rise to respectability, embracing the more unsavory elements found in film noir—racketeers, gambling, prostitution, and murder. In 1950, she starred in Warner Bros.’s THE DAMNED DON’T CRY, directed by Vincent Sherman (her off-screen lover as well). This film set the tone for all Crawford films to follow. As Ethel Whitehead, she’s the naive mother of a small boy. When he’s tragically struck down by a truck, Ethel, numb with grief, exits her loveless marriage to try her luck in the Big City. In no time she’s courted by both a milquetoast CPA (Kent Smith) and a ruthless mob boss (David Bryan). Ethel is dazzled by the power of crime and allows herself to be transformed into the fashionable and enigmatic Lorna Hanson Forbes.

DAMNED established Crawford as an ageless siren whose sex appeal and power over men is unquestionable. Her characters are not without a moral compass, but sometimes one has to rely on a third act to get the message. Except for TORCH SONG ( 1953) and the delirious JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), the Crawford films from this period are black-and-white, allowing our heroine to be lit in shadows that crisscross her handsome features in such a way as to keep time at a distance. The films include HARRIET CRAIG (1950), THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS (1952), QUEEN BEE (1955), and AUTUMN LEAVES (1956). These custom-made vehicles offer a Crawford who is center stage and supported by no one equal in star power. Her leading men are either on their way up (Cliff Robertson in AUTUMN LEAVES) or reliable support (Kent Smith and Barry Sullivan).

By 1955, Crawford was having a fling with Milton Rackmil (the head of Universal) and talk of marriage filled the gossip columns. Never one to miss an opportunity, Joan secured the lead in FEMALE ON THE BEACH with perks galore. She had the largest dressing room on the lot and handpicked heartthrob Jeff Chandler—formerly Mr. Boynton to Eve Arden’s OUR MISS BROOKS on the radio and, according to Esther Williams, a closet crossdresser—as her leading man.

What makes the film so special is the calculated abandon with which it was put together. No one seemed to care that the storyline involves a male hustler being pimped by an older couple with the unlikely names of Osbert and Queenie (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer). Few films of this era have such built-in gay camp awareness—and starring Joan Crawford, no less! The dialogue is pure Mart (THE BOYS IN THE BAND) Crowley with a dash of John (The Sexual Outlaw) Rechy. When Drummond Hall (Chandler) really falls for our Female on the Beach, Osbert and Queenie pick up the studly, well-named Roddy (Ed Fury) as a replacement and show him off to their former protégé and his bride, like a new car—convertible, of course!

The opening shot shows a silhouetted Crawford walking in the sand to the lazy melody of a harmonica. It is quintessential fifties soap—and yet the She Creature could turn up at any moment with Chester Morris in tow! Crawford’s films of this period have an offbeat horror film flavor to them. It’s no accident that both she and Bette Davis would end up making genuine fright films at the twilight of their careers.

FEMALE ON THE BEACH unfolds like a noirish murder mystery. From a shadowy beach house echo the angry and desperate voices of Osbert and Queenie Sorenson, two middle-aged con artists. Eloise Crandall (Judith Evelyn) is about to take a “swan dive off the top of a brandy bottle” over a gigolo. Faulty railing does the rest—and R.I.P. Mrs. Crandall.

Judith Evelyn was no stranger to melodrama or the macabre. A specialist in neurotic characters, she made her mark on Broadway with ANGEL STREET (1941) opposite Vincent Price and later on television with Henry Daniell as the evil husband out to drive his wife mad. Genre fans remember her from Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) as the touching “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and her signature performance as the mute owner of a silent movie theater in THE TINGLER (1959). Vincent Price once told this writer that “Judith really was like those neurotic characters she played so well and as a result was not terribly happy in life.”

Lynn Markham (Crawford) enters the picture, taking her late husband’s residence from the recently departed Mrs. Crandall. It only takes a glance at the empty liquor bottles that the cleaning woman (Helen Heigh) is indiscreetly removing to establish the former tenant as a lush. Despite a vain attempt at a cover-up by the real estate broker, Amy Rawlinson (Jan Sterling), Lynn becomes aware of a male presence in the house—a pipe and jacket are left scattered about and his boat is tied up on her dock.

Lynn dismisses Amy and tries to enjoy her new surroundings—but the weary “Newport Beach cop,” Lieutenant Galley (Charles Drake), turns up with the true circumstances of her tenant’s departure. The cop is also a bit taken with the glamourous widow, overplaying his hand by mentioning her previous history with the late Ben Markham (a gambler) and speculating that “she couldn’t compete with the dice.” The cop also spouts one of the film’s most notorious howlers by saying Lynn was “a Vegas specialty dancer” before marriage! The concept of the middle-aged Crawford lap dancing her way through Sin City is mind-boggling!

The introduction of Drummond Hall is a set piece in itself. As Lynn spends the first night in her dream house, she’s awakened by the noise of a boat engine. On closer inspection she is confronted with “Drummy,” the tanned and muscled Silver Fox of Newport Beach. Some time later, Drummy shows up again in her kitchen. He prepares breakfast and asks Lynn how she likes her coffee. Her reply: “Alone!” 

Next we meet—in the flesh—Drummond’s ersatz aunt and uncle, Queenie and Osbert, played to the hilt by Kellaway and Schafer. As they repose in the sun, Queenie reminds Drummy to not shade his face, remarking “We have a lot invested in that tan.” They’re annoyed that the late Mrs. Crandall died before they could make any money off her.

Jeff Chandler is ideal as the reluctant stud for hire, disgusted with the lifestyle forced on him by his association with Queenie and Osbert. Drummy longs for a real job as part owner of a fishing boat business. However, the script calls for Drummy to zero in on Lynn and her money and zero in he does. As Lynn relaxes on her pier in white shorts and Lolita shades, Drummy swims over and renews his seduction, this time trying in vain to put suntan lotion on the famous Crawford gams. “You must come with the house like the plumbing” she tells him. Later, when he discovers Lynn reading a racy poem about standing naked in the sun, she lets him have it with one of the film’s best zingers:“"You have all the charm of a suction pump!” Mrs. Markham isn’t buying any, but Drummy’s phony relatives are running out of time and money and push him into more aggressive action with the hard-nosed widow.

At this point the script for FEMALE ON THE BEACH becomes erratic, to say the least. As Lynn’s attitude softens toward Drummy, primarily from the tedium of living the lonely existence of a rich widow, she stumbles upon the diary of the late Eloise Crandall—and the film takes off on a brief LAURAesque tangent. Judith Evelyn returns in flashback form as we witness the last days and nights of Eloise Crandall and her hopeless pursuit of Drummond Hall. The mystery of how Mrs. Crandall fell to her death is left unsolved, but the diary destroys any chance of Queenie and Osbert fleecing the savvy Mrs. Markham. Drummy, meanwhile, has really fallen for the glamorous widow and reforms on the spot. (This is typical of the Crawford canon in this period. No man can resist her charms. In the case of FEMALE, even a gigolo surrenders in the afterglow of Crawford’s key light.)

As Lynn Markham—in spite of all she knows about his past—plans to marry Drummond Hall, the specter of murder shadows the proceedings . . .

FEMALE ON THE BEACH is one of Joan Crawford’s most amusing efforts during this period. That one man after another falls for Joan’s mantrap of a widow stretches the required suspension of disbelief to its limits. The one liners are unforgettable. Before the wedding, a very intoxicated Amy Rawlinson bursts into Lynn’s bedroom to congratulate the bride, only to be told that, if she wants a man like Drummy, “you better save your pennies and then maybe you can have one.”

Crawford has a wonderful drunk scene as Lynn waits like her predecessor, Mrs. Crandall, for a call from the “God of the Senses.” If MOMMY DEAREST (1980) made you curious about the “real” Crawford, then a screening of FEMALE is a must. Faye Dunaway used it as a textbook on Crawford mannerisms and Kabuki-like makeup.

As Lynn glides through her spacious Newport Beach house drunk or sober, the recurring love theme by Heinz Roemheld and Herman Stein is milked for all it’s worth, unintentionally providing another link to fifties horror—Roemheld and Stein also scored such Universal-International shockers as THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE (1958) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958). Roemheld is also responsible for the jazzy rendition of “Ruby” used to such advantage by Fellini in the “Toby Dammit” sequence SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1968).

This writer has always loved FEMALE ON THE BEACH and often wondered why. The reasons are never simple when you’re very young, but as one grows older the symbols become clear. FEMALE is filled with anxiety and fears that speak silently to impressionable youth. One is intimidated by the power of such icons of the screen as Joan Crawford—and yet their vulnerability filters through the camp to move one to admiration for their talent and personalities.

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