Let’s talk about Joan Crawford in 1955’s Female on the Beach today, because I’ve watched it twice in the last 48 hours.
I hadn’t seen it in probably 15 or so years, but it was always one of my favorites. What fun to watch it in the full flush of adulthood and see what a burgeoning little gay boy I was! From the moment the opening credits, scrawled in the sand, are washed away by the incoming tide, you know you’re in for a treat.
And what a treat! When Miss Lonelyhearts Eloise Crandall plummets over the railing of her beach house on her final night there, real estate agent Miss Rawlinson (Rawly to her friends) sees no point in telling the house’s owner, who was eager to move in anyway. “Miss Crandall departed last night,” Rawly says, cheerfully ignoring the man’s sportscoat and pipe that were left behind when she calls dear Eloise “a quiet little old lady” and feigning ignorance when it comes to what those police officers are doing just under the balcony.
After shooing Rawly away, Crawford’s Lynn Markham walks out on the terrace triumphantly (if a trifle mannishly). A kindly cop informs her of what has happened, and Lynn’s response is, “I’m getting a new real estate agent.” That kindly cop drops a few more truths, such as Lynn’s past as a “specialty dancer” and her unsuccessful seven-year marriage to a much older man that left her widowed a year before.
Before long, Lynn has fallen under the spell of “charm boy” Drummy (Jeff Chandler!), who works with his “aunt” and “uncle” Queenie and Osbert. They had been working on Eloise, winning at cards and borrowing money here and there until she fell down a bottle of brandy and off the balcony. Now it’s Lynn’s turn, but Lynn’s smarter than she looks. Sure, she falls in love with Drummy and they get married and then she realizes that it’s entirely possible that he killed Eloise, but still. She’s smart enough to… Oh, I don’t want to give anything away.
What is most amazing about revisiting this movie is that everything that appeals to me now was surely seeded back then. “I had two sisters,” Lynn tells that nosy cop. “When we were little girls we all had to sleep in the same room. It was a very small room. I was never alone. That was something I grew up hungry for, just to be alone, all by myself, in a great big house like this one.”
And then later, we see Crawford wandering around her beautiful beach house, listening to jazz, smoking, and drinking. Bliss. Not to mention she has a fancy way with a retort.
“I’d like to ask you to stay and have a drink, but I’m afraid you might accept.”
“I have a nasty imagination, and I’d like to be left alone with it.”
When asked how she likes her coffee, she snaps, “Alone!”
“I have a long list of dislikes. It’s getting longer.”
The movie also works as a coded gay story: Older, lonely gay man moves into a dream house, meets a younger, hunky man who offers his services at a price, then true love overwhelms them both and the younger man gives up his life of high-priced services to putter around the house. And if he’s played by Jeff Chandler, that means often shirtless or in a skintight black turtleneck that reveals every muscle and sinew.
Female on the Beach was recently released on DVD, but it’s also available to watch in full on YouTube. Treat yourself!