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"She was too hungry for love...to care where she found it!" -- Tagline for Female on the Beach
The 1955 Joan Crawford melodrama Female on the Beach has achieved cult status thanks to its plummy dialogue and the on-screen teaming of the iconic star with Universal's top action star and the future Lovey Howell (of Gilligan's Island fame). But its real claim to camp status may actually derive from the involvement of producer Albert Zugsmith, breaking into the big time at Universal in a career focused largely on exploitation classics like High School Confidential! (1958) and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960).
By the 1950s, Crawford was too old for the shop-girl-makes-good stories on which she had built her stardom at MGM. Instead, she played a variation on them, as women who had risen from humble beginnings only to struggle with the loneliness brought on by a strength that drove most men away. She had first mined the film noir potential of such a role in Sudden Fear (1952) as a wealthy playwright set up for murder when she marries a younger actor (Jack Palance). The film had revived her career and brought her the last of her three Oscar® nominations. Three years later, she was dating Milton Rackmil, the president of Universal Pictures, when he offered her a similar role. Lynn Markham had started life as a "specialty dancer" (i.e., stripper), then married a wealthy Las Vegas gambler. His death leaves her rich, lonely and vulnerable, despite her hard-as-nails surface. So when she moves into a beach house her husband had rented to a recently deceased widow (who died under mysterious circumstances, of course), she finds herself pursued by the late woman's former lover, a beach bum romancing lonely women so his card-sharp partners can take them to the cleaners.
Rackmil gave Crawford the run of the lot. She not only commandeered the largest dressing room, but also demanded script changes to enlarge her role and had her pick of leading men. Having learned from Sudden Fear that in her mature years she needed a co-star whose masculine presence could stand up to her own powerful screen image, she chose the studio's top action star, Jeff Chandler. It didn't hurt that he was also their top box-office star. The role of the aging beach bum gave the studio ample opportunities to display Chandler's ample chest, making him more than a match for Crawford's powerhouse acting and still impressive figure. The skilled Chandler, an Oscar® nominee for playing Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950), was also more than a match for Crawford as an actor, perfectly capturing his character's growing disgust with his dissolute lifestyle.
Helping push the whole project over the edge of melodrama to pure camp was producer Zugsmith. After a few low-budget films and the screen version of Phil Silvers's stage hit Top Banana (1954), he had bought the film rights to Robert Hill's play The Besieged Heart. Zugsmith worked extensively with the writer to turn the script into the film he wanted to produce, although he could not take credit for the adaptation since he didn't belong to the Writer's Guild. He was already friends with Rackmil, who suggested he offer the project to Universal's head of production, Ed Muhl. Eager for a women's picture that would draw audiences, Muhl not only bought the script, but also agreed to let Zugsmith produce on a week-to-week contract. At the end of each week the studio could fire Zugsmith, or he could quit. Universal also paid him their top rate for producers, $450 a week.
The type of script Zugsmith wanted turned out to be one of the ripest in screen history. Although tame by modern standards, the level of sexual innuendo earned Female on the Beach an adults-only rating from the Legion of Decency. For example, when Mrs. Sorenson urges Chandler to go after Crawford, she says "It'd be an act of kindness to offer her your friendship -- all of it." Today, the dialogue tends to elicit howls, particularly for Crawford's putdowns of everyone around her. When Chandler first comes on to her while she's sunning on her dock, she tells him "You're about as friendly as a suction pump." Later, when she finds him in her house, she dismisses him with "I'd like to ask you to stay and have a drink, but I'm afraid you might." When her real estate agent warns her about Chandler, she gets rid of her, too, with, "I have a nasty imagination, and I'd like to be left alone with it." Best of all, is her attack on Chandler after she reads his former mark's diary: "You were made for your profession -- all very nicely put together -- nice to look at, nice to touch; the great god of the senses, sparkling on the beach. Until you realize that sewers empty into the ocean. I wouldn't have you if you were hung with diamonds, upside down!"
Zugsmith and Universal put together a dynamite supporting cast that only adds to the film's appeal today. As the love-starved real-estate agent who wants Chandler to herself, they cast Jan Sterling, who had played one of the toughest femmes fatale in film history opposite Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). The gambling couple intent on cheating Crawford is played by classic character actor Cecil Kellaway and future Gilligan's Island star Natalie Schafer (who had earlier crossed swords with Crawford as a Nazi's mistress in the hilarious Reunion in France in 1942). Stage veteran Judith Evelyn, who had played opposite Vincent Price on Broadway in Angel Street before playing Miss Lonelyhearts in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), is cast as the ill-fated paramour of Chandler. And physique model and future "Son of Hercules" star Ed Fury appears briefly as the muscleman Kellaway and Schafer pick up to replace Chandler after he marries Crawford.
Thanks to Crawford's popularity, Female on the Beach performed well enough to keep her career going and move Zugsmith into a more permanent berth at Universal. Crawford did not stay at Universal, instead signing a short-term deal at Columbia. The relationship with Rackmil didn't last either. The film wrapped on New Year's Eve, and Crawford stayed in her dressing room to finish answering fan mail, eventually deciding to spend the night. It was there she received a holiday phone call from friends in Las Vegas who took the opportunity to introduce her to Pepsi Cola executive Al Steele, who would become her fourth husband. Eventually Female on the Beach would become a part of the Crawford legend in another way when Faye Dunaway studied it to capture Crawford's mannerisms and makeup style for Mommie Dearest (1981).
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Joseph Pevney
Screenplay: Robert Hill, Richard Alan Simmons
Based on the play The Besieged Heart by Hill
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Score: Heinz Roemheld, Herman Stein
Cast: Joan Crawford (Lynn Markham), Jeff Chandler (Drummond Hall), Jan Sterling (Amy Rawlinson), Cecil Kellaway (Osbert Sorenson), Judith Evelyn (Eloise Crandall), Charles Drake (Police Lieutenant Galley), Natalie Schafer (Queenie Sorenson), Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Murchison), Ed Fury (Roddy).
by Frank Miller