Monday, July 8, 2024

‘Slightly Scarlet’ is Mostly Camp 1956

Rhonda Fleming & Arlene Dahl as sisters, one good & one bad, and both are
"Slightly Scarlet!"

Slightly Scarlet, a latter day film noir from ’56, teams starlets Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl as sisters, with John Payne as the mister who makes their heartbeats flutter.  I always got Fleming and Dahl mixed up, more for what they had in common than any real resemblance: red hair and creamy skin; born two years apart with long lives (Fleming, 97 & Dahl, 96); six marriages; successful business careers; and eternal glamour.

The stars of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet": Arlene Dahl, John Payne, and Rhonda Fleming.
Fleming's good sister has good reason to look concerned!

A genial leading man for most of the ‘40s, John Payne became a dour film noir or western hero in his ‘40s, much like Dick Powell. Slightly Scarlet is loosely based on a James M. Cain novel, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit. The movie plays like a mashup of Cain’s Mildred Pierce and many crime noirs where the hero, like Payne’s Ben Grace, gets his hands dirty playing both sides to the middle. On the political side, Ben tries to butter up a local hero who’s running for office. On the flip criminal side is “Solly” Caspar, a thug whose temper comes in handy, and who Ben tries to handle him with care, with mixed results.

The above tawdry tagline pretty much sums up the stakes of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

The opening of Slightly Scarlet reminds me of a Douglas Sirk soap opera. Each member of the love triangle gets their own dramatic close-up. The good sister-bad sister trope was one of Hollywood’s favorite film plots. The good sister was a bit shady in this film, even though Rhonda Fleming plays June Lyons more like a lamb. Frankly, the women’s angle is more entertaining than the gangster noir, the plot of the anti-hero in over his head with gangsters has been done a hundred times before. The big shoot out finale involves the four leads, with bad sister Dorothy Lyons losing her grip, good sister June suffering nobly, bad boy Ben dying nobly, and Solly shooting everyone in sight.

The opening titles of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet" remind me of a Douglas Sirk soap!

Rhonda Fleming's June Lyons arrives to pick up troubled sister from prison,
in 1956's crime noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

Arlene Dahl as Dorothy Lyons, just sprung from her cage, in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

John Payne as Ben Grace, prison paparazzi, in "Slightly Scarlet."

Rhonda Fleming's sis later sees Ben Grace's talent at capturing those special moments,
 in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

Rhonda Fleming does well enough as the good sister, who seems a bit self-rationalizing, and a very successful secretary to her sugar daddy boss. Fleming is glam at all times—even her nightgown straps have rhinestones on them! Rhonda looks stunning in her tailored secretary attire and a va-va-va-voom doll in her casual wear. Then there’s the bad sister, played by Arlene Dahl. A precursor to Kitten with a Whip, Dahl’s Dorothy Lyons does everything but roar. “Dor” blames her troubles on her sister, yet always relies on June to bail her out. Dorothy is over the top since she embodies all of the three “O’s”: Klepto, nympho, and psycho! An ex-con just out of prison, as soon as Arlene opens her mouth, every tawdry line is an accusation or an insinuation. I kept wishing for Eleanor Parker’s dramatic chops! The camp value comes from Dahl’s misguided performance of deranged Dorothy. Her playing reminds me of Lucy Ricardo pretending to be a vamp. Both sisters fall immediately in love with weary John Payne, which seems ludicrous. At least the crazy sister has an excuse for her lack of judgment, but Fleming’s June, with a cake job and silver daddy boss—what’s up, sister? Even when Dahl’s alone, she’s posturing and purring. When she steals a pearl necklace, Dahl’s doll drapes them over her head, jutting out her jaw and emoting like Norma Desmond as Salome. The scene where Dorothy is using a back scratcher like a sex toy is an amusing eyebrow raiser. Arlene is sexy in the same overt way that Jennifer Jones and Bette Davis played in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and Beyond the Forest. What’s interesting is that Rhonda Fleming got one of her big breaks in 1945’s Spellbound, where she played—yep—an unhinged nympho!

Arlene Dahl's a campy scream as unhinged sister "Dor" in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."
Arlene Dahl's psycho sister is a real cutup in 1956's crime noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

The director of Slightly Scarlet is Allan Dwan, who has a devoted following of fans, in regards his 50 year history in Hollywood, with some 125 films to his credit. And Dwan lived as long as his leading ladies—96. The stunning color and visuals, the musical score, and lovely leading ladies are well-utilized by this old pro here. Slightly Scarlet is basically a B movie upgraded to a B+ because of Dwan’s solid style and the star watching.

John Payne as bad boy Ben Grace always looks like he has a headache, in 1956's
 "Slightly Scarlet."
Hey, eyes up here, John Payne! Rhonda Fleming upstages Payne in "Slightly Scarlet."

John Payne acted until the mid-70s and while Fleming and Dahl were just in their early 30s, their best days onscreen had already passed, according to ‘50s Hollywood wisdom. However, all three stars became successful business people, as they phased out of full-time acting, yet occasionally performed onstage and in television, to their fans’ appreciation. Slightly Scarlet may be campy, but it is highly colorful fun.

When the leading lady brushes her hair silently, something's up! Rhonda Fleming
in 1956's colorful noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

Arlene Dahl was considered one of Hollywood's great beauties in the 1950s,
seen here in 1956's crime noir "Slightly Scarlet."


  1. I went from never hearing of this film to immediately wanting to see it. Great review!

    1. Thank you, though it's very campy, there's a lot to like about Slightly Scarlet. There are a number of free copies on YouTube, but here's the best one:

  2. I can't believe I've never seen this movie, but I definitely want to. It occurred to me that I've seen very few movies featuring Miss Fleming or Miss Dahl. My most vivid memory of Dahl is in WOMAN'S WORLD (1954), which is terrific. I did see Fleming in two excellent films recently: THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956) and CRY DANGER (1951), and she's very impressive in both. I love your comment about Dahl's character: "klepto, nympho and psycho"! What could be better for a 1950s Noir/gangster flick/soap opera? Great post, Rick!

  3. Thank you Rick!!!

  4. Probably all through my 20s and even beyond, I had difficulty telling them apart. Then you see them side by side and they're really quite individually distinctive! Rhonda's face is so much broader and Arlene has that beauty mark and curled lips. I loved "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which features Arlene and "The Crowded Sky" which features Rhonda. (I always felt like Rhonda, same way with Joanne Dru, sounded like she had a cold when she spoke! LOL) Arlene gave the world Lorenzo Lamas, don't forget... HA HA! I've never seen this, but clearly need to. Thanks.

    1. Poseidon, you'd have a field day with this one! While Rhonda was quite lovely, Arlene's face was much more fine-featured. It's like people who think Natalie Wood and Susan Kohner looked alike, but when you see them in "All the Fine Young Cannibals," Nat is much more softer and fine-featured... Yes, this movie is lovely and hilarious to watch! Cheers, Rick