II. Female on the Beach
In our earlier post in our two-part series on women and beach movies, we looked at Jean Renoir’s 1947 American film The Woman on the Beach (click here to read). Our second post focuses on the 1955 melodrama-cum-noir Female on the Beach, a sex-in-the-surf tale starring Joan Crawford. That last detail says it all. It’s a Joan Crawford movie, and that means Joan front and center; other actors stand to the side and six feet behind, please. When Joan enters a room, as she does here—with those marvelous shoulders pulled down and back, the back ramrod-straight, the face lifted and open to the camera’s gaze—everything stops cold, even if for just the length of time that can be measured on an eyelash, while the camera registers the Presence. You can almost hear a voice crying out from the sand dunes, “Look! It’s Joan Crawford!”
And right off the bat Joan has a Joan-Crawford moment. What a moment it is! She’s Lynn Markham, a wealthy widow come to inspect one of her properties, a pricey furnished beach house in Newport, which she’s decided to move into. She’s being shown round the place by a nervous real-estate agent, Amy Rawlinson (Jan Sterling), who, desperate to make a good impression, is babbling like a parrot on speed. “You’re probably wondering who I am,” Jan prattles in a please-notice-me-I’m-in-this-film-too manner, though we can tell by Joan’s expression that she doesn’t give a rat’s ass as to who this motor-mouth blonde is. She’s too busy looking around, her eyes big and bright and not missing a thing. Joan is acting here, she’s registering the surrounding space, showing us how she’s taking it in, how she’s thinking, how she’s reacting to what she sees.
And then she sees a sofa cushion lying on the floor.
She reacts to that, by golly. Picking up the cushion, Joan throws it back on the sofa, where it belongs. But watch how she does it: She doesn’t even look at what she’s doing, she gives her gesture no visual follow-through. She keeps right on gazing round the room as she tosses the cushion, she doesn’t need to watch. It’s as if she’s letting us know, I’m the ONLY one here who has any idea on how to do things RIGHT. It’s a true Diva moment; it’s what make you sit up and notice the Presence onscreen.
Did we say that we loved this bit? We loved it, oh we ABSOLUTELY loved it. We liken it to a moment in a recording we have, of Maria Callas singing Norma live at La Scala in 1955. When, in the last act, Callas hits that high, soft note for her big dramatic line, “Son io,” floating it out on a long, silvery phrase of gossamer and glory, you can hear the entire La Scala audience draw in its collective breath and then scream. Joan has that same The-Diva-Has-Entered-The-Building effect on us. Watching her throw that cushion (a throw cushion in every sense of the word), we found ourselves applauding and shouting bravo!; the whole thing is so damn Joan. Who else would have the brass balls to do this through another actor’s speech? And who else would understand how this little gesture tells us SO much about her character? (It also recalls Joan’s real-life control-freakery, how everything had to rise to her standards—like Dietrich, she would get down on her knees and scrub a floor to get it clean, her level of clean.) Joan makes Lynn into a lady who wants and demands to get things right, she’s earned that privilege. And that means—sofa cushions on the sofa, please. (Later in the scene, she stops to rearrange a lounge chair. She moves it maybe two inches—but it’s the right two inches.)
More is going on in Joan’s opening scene. She notices other odd, out-of-place things. Such as a man’s jacket lying on a chair. And a man’s pipe. The former, just-departed tenant, Eloise Crandall (Judith Evelyn), was a respectable widow, “a quiet little old lady,” and Joan has a gut feeling that this dame didn’t puff a pipe. There’s also a man’s shirt and cufflinks lying about, not the usual possessions in an upright widow-lady’s wardrobe. Joan registers all these anomalies, and then sweetly—by which we mean in tones soaked in finely distilled acid—asks Jan to return all these masculine objects to their owner (“I have such a nasty imagination,” she snarks). Jan profusely apologizes, stammers, looks worried and distraught. She’s no match for Joan here; she’s out of her class. However, she’s overtly relieved when Joan takes the place. She’s made the sale, she’s got her commish, and she’s survived a scene with Joan Crawford without being eaten alive. Not a bad day’s work, we’d say.
Especially since Jan has managed to keep Joan from noticing the one most blatantly out-of-place object in the house: The smashed balcony railing via which the just-departed respectable widow happened to depart the night before (“a swan dive off the top of a brandy bottle,” says a detective) and land in a messy state on the beach below (and thus becoming the dear departed). There’s our female on the beach.
How poor Eloise ended up on the beach like a slab of driftwood and whether Lynn will end up the same way is pretty much the film’s slim plot. Other characters appear as suspects and clues: A beach-bumming gigolo, Drummond “Drummy” Hall (Jeff Chandler), the possessor of pipe, jacket, and cufflinks, who was involved with Eloise before she took her swan dive; a card-sharping couple, Osbert and Queenie Sorensen (Cecil Kellaway, Natalie Schaefer), who use Drummy to lure lonely ladies, languishing in forlorn luxury, into a hot game with a cold deck; the detective, Lieutenant Galley (Charles Drake), who suspects that Eloise’s death was more deliberate than accidental; and agent Amy, who keeps popping up in Lynn’s house like a ghost looking for a place to haunt. (All these characters keep materializing, unannounced, in Lynn’s house, till you might wonder if she’s living in the Plaza Hotel lobby.) The other actors are fine in what they do. Chandler provides some nice eye candy in scenes in which he wears very little. Sterling adds some telling histrionics. And Kellaway and Schaefer are hilarious, playing their scenes like a pair of gleefully amoral kids. Particularly Schaefer, who giddily speaks her lines like Carol Channing crossed with a proto-Mrs. Thurston Howell III. We loved her bit when she chucks Chandler under his chin and purrs, “Naughty boy!,” as if this strapping, 6’4” actor were a toy poodle.
But this is Joan’s film. She’s the center of its universe. She brings in the autobiographical details (Lynn’s an ex-dancer from a poor background, like Joan); she brings in the high fashion (note the dressed-to-kill party gown with plenty of exposed shoulder); she brings in the confidence, the aggression, what we can only call her macho quality. Joan was well into her mannish look here: The big eyebrows, the heavy-lipped mouth, the square jaw and high, flat cheekbones. But she looks stunning. She was nearly 50 when she made the film, but there’s not an ounce of flab on her. She’s tight and trim and flat-bellied, and she shows off those dazzling legs every chance she gets. (In one scene she even pulls up a baby-doll nightgown to display her slim thighs topped by panties—Oh Joan!) And there’s that inimitable Crawford quality, of knowing she’s good, knowing down to her bone marrow that she’s fabulous. When one character calls her a “beautiful woman,” Joan acknowledges the compliment with a slight incline of the head, a flicker of the eyelids—she doesn’t overdo it, but she lets us know that she’s heard the words and that we are to hear them, too.
What’s also fabulous about FOB is its glossy fifties look. Everything shines, like the gigantic, curving bar with rows and rows of booze bottles lining its gleaming glass shelves. Stick a sail on that bar and you could float off to sea in it. Then there are the accessories, like the clunky necklaces and rings that look like artifacts from King Tut’s tomb; and the neat white gloves and small hats (you didn’t leave the house then without gloves and hat) and the matching purses and shoes. And the phones. Anyone born after 1990 has no idea what a real telephone is. They’re not those teensy-weensy flip things, dears. They were like cars, big, shiny, and solid; they came in designer colors (you could have a different shade for every room); and they had a ring tone like a tocsin. You could clutch them as you picked them up or bang them as you put them down. You needed two hands to use them, pressing one part to your face and hugging the other part to your chest as you chatted, strolling round the living room while their cords unwound after you like Ariadne’s thread. And you could use them as a weapon—which Joan does, bashing Chandler’s head with the receiver and stretching him out cold.
Did we say Joan was tough in this film? Oh boy, she’s tough. She strides into a room (Joan never just walks) on those lethal ankle-strapped heels as if she owns it. Now you know why the ‘50s obsessed over those duck-and-cover drills: It’s to hide from these dangerous females. We noted in our earlier beach post that the title of The Woman on the Beach suggested a painting, a quiet landscape on which stood a woman gazing out to sea. But Female on the Beach sounds like a warning. You can almost hear that voice again shouting from the sand dunes, “Look out! There’s a female on the beach!” Such as Lynn Markham: Wealthy, independent, and not afraid to express her mind. She does so when dealing with that pesky gigolo, who still has a key to her house (courtesy of Eloise) and barges in, unasked, to prepare her breakfast. “How do you like your coffee?”, he coos; “Alone,” she ripostes. Damn, she’s good. The gigolo keeps trying, though, even rubbing her bare calves with suntan oil—also unasked. (Did we say this guy was creepy? He’s creepy, to the tenth power.) “You must go with the house,” says Lynn with congealed calm, “like the plumbing.” (That’s not static you see on the screen, but icicles.) Our own method with Drummy would have been to shove him in the ocean and hope for a passing shark. But Lynn can flick this pest off with one well-manicured fingernail and not have to re-touch the polish. That’s class.
Not the standard type: Joan lets Jeff know who’s the boss in this scene from Female on the Beach:
However, this is the 1950s, and not even Lynn can do without a man. Soon, to the strains of a sleazy soundtrack sax, she’s visiting the hunky gigolo on his minor yacht tied up at her pier, trying to get chummy. “I wish I could afford you,” she says. The film is surprisingly direct about this nexus of sex, money, and female desire (“don’t move your boat,” Lynn orders Drummy). If The Woman on the Beach saw the beach as the ebb and flow of nature contrasted with the unhappy human lives on its border, Female on the Beach sees it as the site of female purchase power, whether of desirable real estate or of desirable men. It’s where studs like Drummy leech off well-heeled females, or where beach cops like Galley spend their time “being polite to rich people who have places like this”—meaning expensive beach property where the One Percent can have access to their own private part of the ocean. And it’s where wealthy, lonely, and desperate middle-aged females gather to booze, buy, and bury all sense of self in their craving to feel young and loved again.
Such as poor Eloise. She’s head over heels in love with Drummy and can’t get enough of him, even as he manipulates her into being so. Judith Evelyn plays Eloise (in flashbacks) in a strung-out, over-the-top manner; you become aware of how tense are the muscles of her throat and (wringing) hands. Her performance can be seen as high camp (she’s best known today for her very serious playing of the hysteria-ridden deaf-mute in William Castle’s deliberately campy The Tingler), and it probably raises derisive hoots from viewers. And the filmmakers are not kind to her; she’s shown as literally clinging to Drummy’s torso. Yet the nakedness of this woman’s need compels a sense of sorrow. In spite of her obvious wealth and comfort, she has so little in her life. Her desire strips away her defenses and leaves her pleading for the tiniest crumb of attention from the louse she’s fallen for; it’s depressing to watch. It’s easy to sneer at such women when you’re young and secure and everything is still open to you. The limits that come with age, the boundaries and the cut-offs it creates, are frightening to face alone. Sometimes not even the strongest survive.
The same with Lynn; even a tough cookie like her succumbs to the same desperation. Though she suspects Drummy may be involved in Eloise’s murder, she still falls, hard, for the guy. The film toes a skeevy line in the scene of Lynn’s surrender to Drummy, which is nastily close to rape. She flees him; he follows and grabs her; she struggles while he kisses her; then she grabs back, arms clutching him like grappling hooks. An act of violence becomes a female fantasy of ravishment, and the film fades to black on what’s understood to be a bout of hot, dirty sex. The next day finds Lynn (in masculine pants and shirt) waiting longingly for Drummy’s call, which doesn’t come. The whole thing seems a set-up, meant to bring down the assertive, autonomous Lynn and make her as helpless and passive as Eloise. Later, after she’s married the bum, Lynn panics, thinking he’s trying to kill her, and calls the police; only Drummy intercepts the cop’s call. “Yes, I’m sure she sounded upset to you,” he says in that smug one-man-to-another tone, “you know how women are.” Ohhhhh, so that’s how women are. If you want to know how the feminist movement of the ‘60s began, turn to the movies of the ‘50s. Watch and learn.
We’ll say this for Drummy: He knows his job. It takes more than a nice set of pecs and some rough beach sex. He’s like a waiter angling for a good tip, eager to oblige and supplying a nice flow of patter: “You’re cold, let me warm you,” he croons. The film tries to leaven his unpleasantness by gussying him up with a scar and a sad back story, but he’s still a creep, and Chandler doesn’t succeed in making him sympathetic. Perhaps the actor was being more honest than the script. A big, sober-looking man, Chandler was sober and straightforward in his acting; it went with his prematurely gray hair and deep, Gregory-Peckish-sounding voice. Chandler looked different from other 1950s male movie stars. He wasn’t conventionally handsome like Peck or Rock Hudson, nor was he an adolescent-looking pretty boy, like Elvis Presley or James Dean. He looked and acted like a real grown-up. Maybe that’s why he seems slightly embarrassed to be playing this “charm boy,” as Lynn calls Drummy. It’s more a role for Montgomery Clift, who could have done this part in his sleep; he had the looks, the attitude, and the experience (he’s superb as the slick opportunist in The Heiress, where you want to believe that he’s honest). Chandler looks like he should be chairing a board meeting and then catching the 5:55 back to the suburbs. However, per IMDB, Crawford requested Chandler as her leading man. And what Joan wants, Joan gets.
And Joan gets it all here. She gets the star billing, of course, but she also gets the man, the money, the beach house, the clothes, the jewels, even the minor yacht. She may end up dangling off a balcony rail, but she’ll eventually get the happy ending, as well as any man she wants, even the younger, more potent ones. It’s a warning to any young upstarts out there: Don’t Mess With Joan. Just look what happens to such young blondes as Jan Sterling in FOB, Betsy Palmer in Queen Bee, and Gloria Grahame in Sudden Fear (hell, look what happens to Jack Palance in Sudden Fear!). By the time of FOB, Joan had been making pictures for thirty years. She survived the silent era, the talkies, the Depression, box office poison, firing by MGM, World War Two, Warner Brothers, and the beginnings of television. But she still Ruled. (Her greatest challenge was yet to come, when she and Bette Davis would face off in what could justifiably be called the Battle of the Century. We’ll call that one a draw.) Joan’s the Ultimate Survivor and the Ultimate Feminist Icon. And she’s the Ultimate Diva. At the very least, we should all haul in our breaths and yell our joint heads off whenever she appears. It’s what this diva merits.
You can watch the complete Female on the Beach here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOZkJIc2pl0
BONUS CLIP: Here’s a fun TV trailer for Female on the Beach – “I wouldn’t have you if you were hung with diamonds upside down!”: