Beach Movies and Women II: Female on the Beach
Our second essay in our two-part look at women and beach movies is now up at our Grand Old Movies Wordpress blog: 1955’s Joan Crawford starrer, Female on the Beach. As we note in our post, Joan’s presence pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this film. She is the Star, the focus, the reason for its being. And she’s damn fine in the film, both tough and tremulous, as well as looking utterly fabulous in her tailored wardrobe. She also gets to show lots of leg, and Joan has legs that are always worth a look.
What’s fascinating about Female on the Beach is how, for its time period, it’s daringly open about its subject matter: Wealthy, widowed, middle-aged women (such as Crawford’s character, Lynn Markham) buy the favors of a sleazy beach hustler named Drummy (Jeff Chandler), who’s being pimped by a card-sharping couple, the Sorensens (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schaefer), who then fleece the hustler’s conquests in card games. The trio have a very interesting relationship: The Sorensens give the hustler room and board and treat him like a spoiled son; in exchange, Drummy is expected to pay the bills (“We do have a fiscal problem, darling,” coos Schaefer, “anything would be appreciated”). Yet Drummy feels a peculiar gratitude towards them. “I owe ‘em a lot,” he explains to Lynn, “and I like to pay my debts.” It’s a gratitude that Crawford’s Lynn can understand. She herself entered a loveless marriage for money and to escape a career as a “specialty dancer.” As a seaside real-estate agent (Jan Sterling) remarks, “Around here, love has a very low cash surrender value.”
We’d also call Female on the Beach a proto-feminist film; it revolves around issues of female space and sexual desire. Lynn sees wealth and her spacious beach house not as luxury goods but as a way to gain privacy. As she explains to a detective (investigating the suspicious death of one of Drummy’s ‘clients’), she grew up with two sisters in “a very small room,” and only wants “to be alone, all by myself in a great big house just like this one.” When Drummy flirts with her in an effort to win her attention (financial and otherwise), we can feel Lynn’s annoyance, her sense of being invaded and manipulated. “You’re about as friendly as a suction pump,” she snaps at him when he tries massaging her leg. But Lynn’s not immune to the hustler’s dubious charms; she ends up visiting him on his docked boat at night and waiting desperately for his phone calls during the day. In examining the pair’s relationship, the film plays provokingly with gender roles, with Lynn frequently the aggressor (she orders Drummy not to move his boat from her pier), and her hunger for him is conveyed with straightforward ardor on Crawford’s part.
At this point in her career Crawford seems to have been seeking roles that allowed her such fluidity in expressions of gender. The year before saw her as the pants-wearing Vienna in Johnny Guitar, in which she similarly pursued Sterling Hayden with a sexual frankness that seems startling in the staid ’50s era. Her following film would find her as the emasculating Queen Bee, bullying a Southern household through force of personality alone. In tracing Crawford’s career, you can see why she lasted so long and why she’s still popular today; she both anticipated trends and resisted typecasting, always surprising us in her screen incarnations.
And perhaps not since the 1953 Torch Song was Crawford’s diva persona so completely incarnated than in Female on the Beach. The film’s reputation today is as a camp classic (and it has more of its share of outrageous lines and situations to earn it that status). It’s certainly campy fun to watch, while at the same time it confirms Crawford as the Prima Donna of the Silver Screen. She dominates this film by her characteristic, burning intensity—what Michael Redgrave is said to have called her ability to outstare the rest of us. We certainly agree. Please click here to read our blog post. And save a space in the beach house for us.