Jane And Joan Have Jeff, Under Watchful Eye Of Director Joseph Pevney

FOXFIRE (1955)






The actor who one imagines was dubbed The Silver Fox by tabloid outlets on at least a few occasions may be unfamiliar to even the most devoted classic movie fan today — having died of injuries sustained from an accident on the location shoot of Samuel Fuller’s 1961 World War II film Merrill’s Maurauders at the untimely age of 42 — but salt-and-pepper haired, strongly-featured Jeff Chandler was and remains a considerable presence in movies of the 1950’s. Quickly rising to stardom after his Academy Award-nominated performance as Apache chief Cochise, for Delmer Daves’s 1950 Western Broken Arrow (like many of his male star contemporaries, including Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson, Chandler was cast early in his career as a Native American), two back-to-back features released by Universal-International in 1955, Foxfire and Female on the Beach, romantically solidified his popular image as Tall, Dark, and Handsome for adoring female fans. “Jane’s Got Jeff” read the tagline for the first of Chandler’s star-changing romantic melodramas of 1955, and opposite Jane Russell in Foxfire the screen certainly sparks with the nighttime, phosphorescent glow of the title. Female on the Beach offers an even more incendiary matching with legendary screen force Joan Crawford in the title role, who could consume lesser male mortals whole with a mere arch of a formidable eyebrow. Individually held to screen-searing course by dependable studio journeyman-director Joseph Pevney, Kino Lorber’s peerless presentation and beautiful transfers of these mid-50’s romantic scorchers reveal the watchful eye of a studio filmmaker on his larger-than-life screen subjects.

Foxfire is again title-imbued with the passion-hued palette of its bold Technicolor photography; the very last Hollywood feature to utilize the color process’s virtual rainbow of visual possibilities in its three-tone, classic-era form. Following the dramatic titles accompanied by the title tune (sung and co-written by co-star Chandler, who also had a thriving career in this period as a recording artist), a flat tire strands stunning Jane Russell in the middle of the equally stunning Arizona desert in the film’s opening.

The car jack-less beauty, after being rebuffed (and hilariously mocked) by a passing Apache family’s truck, is eventually rescued from the burnt orange heat of broiling midday by jeep-driving mining engineer Jeff Chandler and his half-drunken doctor pal Dan Duryea. A casually racist remark from Russell’s character, indignantly referring to her encounter with the Apache family, registers in its full cruelty when, after dropping Russell off at her resort destination, Duryea (balancing weaselly sarcasm and wounded nobility in an as always great supporting performance) mentions Chandler’s character’s own half-Apache heritage. The attitude behind the remark, even after heartfelt apologies, a whirlwind romance, and eventual marriage by the thirty-minute mark(!), continues to reverberate through the constant reversals in the tempestuous pair’s troubled relationship. A workaholic devotion to mining on his end and a thwarted desire to understand her husband’s divided background on her’s threaten to dramatically upend the film’s advertising tagline at every story-turn: Jane may initially have Jeff, but Jeff’s work-sublimated self-hatred may exclude Jane’s long-term presence in his life from the get-go. The fascinating time capsule of racial attitudes and social mores — as reinforced by a supporting performance from Mara Corday as Duryea’s similarly mixed heritage (and love-unrequited) nurse; along with a film passage where Russell has an unnerving encounter with Chandler’s absent mother, played by Frieda Inescourt, at the nearby Apache reservation — gains much in viewing today from its wonderfully bursting-at-the-seams style of mid-50’s (over-)production values; the clashing multi-tones of Foxfire’s setting, moods, personalities, and themes nonetheless held together by an unusually frank story aesthetic and (especially) by the honesty and believability of its two leads.

Female on the Beach offers more considerable story challenges — especially regarding an audience’s sympathy towards or identification with its scorpion pair of stinging romantic combatants — but yields even greater story rewards in the dramatic clash between He Man and Grand Dame. The black-and-white photography of master cameraman Charles Lang drenches the filmed shores and open-aired interiors with a certain unmistakable atmosphere, true, but overpowering in her bewildering array of outfits, accessories, and emotional states is the Classic Hollywood presence who undoubtedly demanded, and unreservedly deserved, to be top-billed in every inch of celluloid she appeared.

Romantically-wounded Judith Evelyn’s “swan dive off the top of a brandy bottle” opens the singularly lurid proceedings, with white-tuxedoed Jeff Chandler and stylish middle-aged couple Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schaefer (in two deliciously acid-tinged performances) providing highly ambiguous witness. A broken railing and the mortal end of the beach house’s now-former tenant dissolves to cops picking up broken brandy glass on the beach below, transitioning to the brisk, business-like tidying up of real estate agent Jan Swerling preparing — as it turns out, ill-preparing — for the brusque, no-nonsense arrival of the shore home’s owner, Joan Crawford. Recently widowed, a one-time showgirl formerly married to a late Las Vegas gambler, Joan’s self-possessed character seems initially immune to the mercenary charms of Jeff’s character’s boat-boy — unwelcomely (and unambiguously) “parked in [her] dock” at her arrival — the pair meet in terms decidedly un-cute in her kitchen the next morning, where he has surprised her, in decidedly trespassing terms, by already having cooked her breakfast(!). But even after the full story-and-flashback disclosure of her dead tenant’s history with the beach-stud and his cash-predatory “sponsors”, the supremely capable, worldly Joan can hardly resist Jeff’s unmistakable charms through plot complications, sinister revelations, and mounting mysteries. Emerging one evening in a floating white wrapper over a surf-billowing skirt on the midnight sand (in inches-high heels, no less; a moody, bravura visual passage that also underscores the film’s opening credits), Joan ineluctably draws towards her uncompromising heart’s desire despite the sordid layers of their mutually untrusting relationship. A 97-minute B-flick becomes so so much more due first to the unquestioned chemistry of its leads, but also the A+-level of style, production, and supporting performances by which they are surrounded.

Lending class and even a certain style of restraint to Universal-International’s pair of 1955 Big-D-ramas, director Joseph Pevney emerges unassumingly from brightly-colored desert backdrops and shadow-sculpted beachscapes alike to rein-in and re-focus the romantically-charged performances of both Foxfire and Female on the Beach. Providing additional witness to the anti-auteurist approach, in shaded star-wattage and story-economy, Kino Lorber’s unofficial double-feature come with a pair of essential commentaries from frequent KL contributor Kat Ellinger, who individually makes very compelling cases for Jeff Chandler’s distinctive film presence, strongly elucidates each film’s overlooked complexities, and recounts the marvelously transferred passion of real-to-reel life under a journeyman director’s retiring yet watchful eye. Female on the Beach also comes with a fun co-commentary from David Del Valle and David DeCouteau, who infectiously sing the praises of everything Joan while also reserving praise for Jeff Chandler’s likability in an essentially unlikable role.

Perhaps the most surprising and admirable special feature included, however, is an over 15-minute slideshow gallery of posters, promotional material, and – most valuably – production stills from the December-January 1954-’55 production of Female on the Beach. The winter production, even in its Balboa, Southern California location, was doubly challenging for giving the artistic impression of mid-summer, but the supreme professionalism of its hard-working crew clearly shows through its difficulties. Finally, and tellingly, although one may be at pains to identify the guiding figure among the pictured technicians, one may be sure by the evidence of the screen that Pevney’s directorial persistence and responsibility gave Joan Crawford necessary support in her appearance through every matching wardrobe accessory and Jeff Chandler essential resolve in his performance to withstand every manner of emotional histrionics. As noted, a show of female strength has been known to intimidate lesser men; possibly Jeff Chandler’s and Joseph Pevney’s greater contribution in Foxfire and Female on the Beach was allowing Jane and Joan to have Jeff on their own terms.

Images are credited to Kino Lorber and DVDBeaver.