Jane Russell heats up an Arizona mining town but she’s just trying to help her new husband with his ethnic identity issues, Jeff Chandler. Superb color cinematography (forget the B&W photos here) and beautiful desert locations help, but the real appeal is seeing Russell and gorgeous co-star Mara Corday in all their glory.
KL Studio Classics
1955 / Color / 2:00 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date , 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jane Russell, Jeff Chandler, Dan Duryea, Mara Corday, Barton MacLane, Frieda Inescort, Celia Lovsky, Eddy Waller, Robert F. Simon, Charlotte Wynters, Robert Bice, Arthur Space, Beulah Archuletta, Dabbs Greer, Grace Lenard, Vici Raaf.
Cinematography: William Daniels
Film Editor: Ted. J. Kent
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by Ketti Frings, from the novel by Anya Seton
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Joseph Pevney
A medium-wattage relationship soap, Foxfire is an Eisenhower-era blueprint for consensus attitudes about race and class out in the reality of American working class life. A moneyed ‘socialite’ from back East falls hard for a half-Apache mining engineer and does her best to fit into his workaday lifestyle. Although the writing and execution are as blunt and obvious as any ’50s ‘meller’ from Universal-International, Aaron Rosenberg’s production earns good grades in multiple categories. William Daniels’ Technicolor cinematography is beautiful, the desert landscapes are handsome, and star Jane Russell is at her best. Finally freed from the tyranny of Howard Hughes, Ms. Russell had a producing hand in this show, as well as the next year’s Jane Greer/Richard Widmark thriller Run for the Sun.
[Note about the photos: Foxfire has excellent color not reflected in these B&W images.]
Author Anya Seton was mainly known for Dragonwyck, a not wholly dissimilar American gothic about a marriage strained by politics and class tensions. Setting-wise Foxfire starts almost where the thriller Inferno ends: stuck in the desert, the drop-dead gorgeous Amanda Lawrence (Jane Russell) accepts a ride to her luxury hotel from the chief engineer and doctor of a nearby mining town. Doc Hugh Slater (Dan Duryea) is an alcoholic given to loudmouthed vulgar remarks; the darkly handsome John Dartland (Jeff Chandler) is quiet and shy… at first. John is acutely aware that many look down on him because of his Native American heritage. Despite their social differences, a lust-at-first-sight reaction leads to an immediate marriage. Amanda is all too willing to split from her fast lifestyle and sophisticated mother (Frieda Inescort), to make a home for John in his cockroach-ridden dusty mining town shack. The change mainly means no more low-cut gowns before dark and plenty of hiking up and down the unpaved hills in slacks and a shirt.
We take for granted that the physical end of the marriage is a success, but Amanda encounters other problems with the unfamiliar surroundings. She learns the hard way that women are never to go anywhere near one of the mines. Dartland’s small-minded mining supervisor Mablett (Barton MacLane) and his opinionated wife (Charlotte Wynters) are critical of everybody. Amanda is slow to realize that ‘those nice girls down the street’ Rose and Cleo (Grace Lenard & Vici Raaf) are actually hookers. The drunken doc Slater keeps coming on to Amanda, which starts rumors that the attractive new wife in town is a loose woman.
John has difficulty selling the potential investor Tyson (Robert F. Simon) on re-opening a long-abandoned Apache gold mine; and the pessimistic grousing of Mablett doesn’t help. Amanda helps get the deal rolling by being a good hostess, which gives the gossips something more to talk about.
And since John hides his Apache background as if he’s ashamed of it, Amanda must take a bus alone to meet her ‘orthodox’ Apache mother-in-law Princess Saba. The aged woman remains emotionally remote from her son’s life and new bride. Just by disappearing for an afternoon, Amanda fuels suspicions that she’s sleeping around.
Kissing with Amanda on their front porch, John points to an odd green glow from the old Apache mine on a nearby hill. He says it’s ‘foxfire,’ a bioluminescence given off by rotting wood. The phenomenon is apparently real; as it comes from a fungus it seems an odd thing to encounter in the arid desert. Foxfire clearly uses the glow to represent John & Amanda’s passion, you know, to thrill the readers of women’s magazines. Director Joseph Pevney just puts this notion out there; it doesn’t develop into a visual theme.
Poor Jeff Chandler had to spend too much of his early career playing native chiefs — Universal required him to play the Indian Cochise twice in just two years. Here’s he’s again a ‘half-breed’ and feeling self-conscious about it, even though attracting Jane Russell should be enough proof that he’s good enough for anybody. John Dartland attended college in the East yet is still somewhat warped (ashamed?) of his partial Apache heritage, and the un-subtle script doesn’t do that aspect of the character any favors. It’s just another one of those (sigh) ‘husband problems’ for Amanda to overcome. Completely unschooled in expressing his emotions, John relates to Amanda only through sex… at one point when he motions her inside the house, she stops him with the admonition that they need to talk sometimes as well.
Amanda’s visit with John’s mother ‘Princess Saba’ is a difficult scene not well thought-out. Amanda has to approach the woman as she conducts a tour for gawking visitors. Saba is played by the great Czech actress Celia Lovsky, who is well known to Star Trek fans. Half a century before, Lovsky introduced Peter Lorre to Fritz Lang, and married Lorre when they fled together to America in 1933. Princess Saba has a terrific face but an overpowering ‘mittel-Europ’ accent, as she guides tourists between teepees, like Vanna White in buckskins. Then Saba dispenses a few tips on Apache coldness to the overdressed, unaccompanied Amanda, who is simultaneously being hit on by the bus driver (Dabbs Greer). Were this scene played for irony, it might have been perfect for Douglas Sirk, Universal’s reigning chronicler of bourgeois American hypocrisy. We love the soulful Lovsky, and the scene does ‘explain’ John’s contrary nature. Awful as it is, the ‘Indian tourist stopover’ is likely less offensive than the real attractions that proliferated in the 1950s.
Also somewhat overcooked is Dan Duryea’s doc Slater, who can’t say three words to Amanda without implying that his intention is to someday get her into the sack. If Foxfire were a western, Dartland would shoot Slater dead for talking like that. Instead, we’re to think that it’s just the booze talking, for when Slater sobers up his libido automatically readjusts. I don’t think of Duryea as the kind of over-actor that needs to be pulled back; maybe he or director Pevney thought the character needed to be exaggerated just to perk up the general tension.
The other out-of balance element is Slater’s nurse, Maria, played by U-I’s hottest starlet Mara Corday. Even in a plain uniform Maria looks ready for a photo layout in Vogue; just three years later she’d become a Playboy centerfold. With Maria dispensing aspirin in the same room with him, it seems completely irrational that Slater should give Amanda a second glance. Simply identified as a ‘half-breed,’ Corday is given no strong scenes to play yet well justifies her presence. She at least has more screen time than does her saloon girl in King Vidor’s Man Without A Star. Although Mara stars in her next film Tarantula, she’s far more attractive here. We can only blame Jack Arnold for dulling Mara’s appeal, although the big bug movie curse is likely what curbed her career. All three pictures were released in 1955.
This is still Jane Russell’s picture all the way, and I think it’s one of her best. Although not as glamorous a part as her Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Lenore Brent in His Kind of Woman, Russell’s Amanda Lawrence is given more to do than just look sultry and recite provocative dialogue. Amanda Lawrence convinces as a cheerful head-turner who must deal with the attentions of men and the jealousy of other women. She walks about the shack-town proudly, when the only other women who do so are prostitutes. In an interesting twist, before she knows John’s background, Amanda announces her distaste for some Apaches she met on the open road. We’re surprised that it doesn’t bother him too badly.
Russell of course looks good. As my mother would say, she’s a ‘big girl’ who carries herself well. Jane always had an odd face — when she sneers she stops looking pretty, and from some angles she seems coarse, with a hatchet-like profile. But the warm smile and bright eyes have genuine star appeal. Her naturalness on camera and dialogue delivery is excellent. The truth be told, Jane Russell’s star wattage carries movies much less ‘together’ than this one. The Revolt of Mamie Stover is a weak drama that plays well enough, although I finally saw The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown on TCM, and it was rough sledding at best.
Foxfire looks terrific. It is often listed as the final Hollywood film to be shot in the old 3-Strip Technicolor process. The Eastman composite on view here looks extremely good. The blazing sunsets in the opening title sequence (top photo), backed by a strong music score, get the show off to a strong start. I was surprised to see that most of the movie was filmed in Arizona’s Mojave County, at Kingman and especially the tiny town of Oatman, just above Route 66 and across the Colorado River from Needles. Oatman’s dramatic desert topography is given heavy use in 1959’s Edge of Eternity as well as in the ‘train robbery’ sequence in How the West Was Won. The main ‘foxfire’ Apache mine construction repeats as a key location in both of those films.
Veteran actress Frieda Inescourt must have had a good sense of humor about her work; when mainstream roles grew thin she showed up in the edgy noir The Underworld Story, and later on helped make no-win favorites like The She-Creature and The Alligator People more than watchable.
Remember Beulah Archletta, unforgettable as ‘Look’ in The Searchers? She has a nice bit here, as an Apache who laughs at Amanda instead of letting her hitch a needed ride off the desert.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Foxfire looks and sounds terrific. We were told that Kino is tapping into the ’50s catalog of Universal-International, and this show must have been picked just because it looks so good. Director Pevney doesn’t make the acting ensemble seamless as it might be, but he and cameraman William Daniels have a good eye for where to put the camera in the rugged desert location. Color frame grabs (discouraged at CineSavant) are available in the coverage at DVD Beaver.
By the way, the wide 2.00:1 aspect radio is not SuperScope, but simple flat-matted projection. For much of 1955 U-I proclaimed that some of its releases were meant for the wider frame, anywhere between 1:66 and 2:1. By 1955 the industry standard was beginning to settle down to a compromise of 1:85. No neighborhood theater could possibly stock all the lenses and aperture gates necessary to show every widescreen ‘tryout’ format for the changeover, so Foxfire was likely projected every which-way depending on the venue. When the picture was shown full-frame on old TV broadcasts, many scenes must have looked very loose — lots of floors and ceilings.
Perhaps Jeff Chandler needed extra motivation to get interested in the show, as he’s credited with writing the lyrics for and singing Henry Mancini’s title tune. I’m not entirely sure if the ‘big’ title music that kicks Foxfire off so well is Mancini’s doing, or by the credited composer Frank Skinner. Credits were frequently cheated by fickle department heads at Universal. Very often no specific composer was named, with ‘music supervision’ credited to Joseph Gershenson, a producer.
The disc extras are a trailer and a full commentary by Kat Ellinger. She has become a frequent contributor to discs from Kino and others, and not only on genre or ‘feminist’- themed pictures. Foxfire’s thick veneer of social observation gives Ellinger a lot to talk about, in addition to her thorough career rundown for the stars. Her lively talk has a conversational tone yet doesn’t drift too much; she hones in on relevant topics, a couple of which wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’ve certainly fallen into the habit of trying to ‘explain’ older movies to newer audiences, as I think that’s essential to understand where outmoded attitudes come from. Either Ellinger avoids expressing her own bias, or it’s close enough to my own that I’m not bothered by it (!).
Plenty of sources list the title as two words: Fox Fire, an interpretation encouraged by some of the ad art logos. But on the film itself it’s one word only.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailer, commentary by Kat Ellinger
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson