Like nearly all of director Joseph Pevney’s films, 1955’s Foxfire has been more or less forgotten, despite starring Jane Russell. It’s a pity considering the film’s significant condemnation of racism, something the narrative is inextricably intertwined with rather than as a blunt subtext, an uncommon tangent for a 1950s era romantic melodrama. Strikingly, the film was one of two 1955 dramas directed by Pevney starring Jeff Chandler, the other being the equally obscure (but corrosively, deliciously campy) Female on the Beach with Joan Crawford, and was only two years before Pevney’s most successful cinematic offering, Tammy and the Bachelor, the Debbie Reynolds hit which inspired a celebrated song and franchise for the star.
Socialite Amanda Lawrence (Russell) finds herself in a whirlwind romance while vacationing in Arizona when she meets Jonathan ‘Dart’ Dartland, an engineer at a local copper mine. Not recognizing and then not really caring he is half Apache, the two are married despite minor concerns from her mother (Frieda Inescort) and a healthy helping of troubling micro-aggressions in their local community. Their lack of communication tends to lead them into some toxic misunderstandings, forcing Amanda to lean on local Dr. Slater (Dan Duryea) for sympathy despite his amorous feelings for her.
One of only two adaptations of novelist Anya Seton (the other being Joseph Mankiewicz’s directorial debut, Dragonwyck, 1946), known for a particular genre of historical/biographical novels, the Arizona set tale is named for the particular phosphorescent light emitted by fungus in rotting timber. It’s also obviously a metaphor for the cultural decrepitude of American social mores, as evidenced by the film’s obvious disdain for the formidable racism and classism exacted upon a small mining town’s Native American and lower class populations.
Russell was in her post Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) phase, and what’s most curious about this title, amongst others in her oft underappreciated body of work, is how progressive it feels considering the actor’s later outspokenness concerning her conservative and religious views. She playfully chides her mother (Frieda Inescort) on how they’re about to have Indians in the family following her initial rendezvous with Chandler, and her entire character progression charts her sudden awareness of privilege. From the moment she derides an Apache family for not picking her up to take her to town to the moment where is able to vocalize her whiteness (and femininity) to assist her husband’s business ventures, Foxfire’s handling of the accentuated bubble of whiteness (“Is that still a thing?” she inquires when faced with initial chilliness about her interracial marriage) is intriguing to revisit.
At the same time, unfortunately, the lack of actual Native American actors amongst the cast succeeds in sinking whatever good will the film once retained, including with the iron-jawed Chandler as the supposed mixed race lead. It’s the brown face on the supporting players which seems even more egregious, particularly with Czech actress Celia Lovsky (wife of Peter Lorre) as Chandler’s Apache mother, Princess Saba, as miscast as Judith Anderson in 1970’s A Man Called Horse.
Kino Lorber presents Foxfire in 2.00:1 as part of their Studio Classics selections. Picture and sound quality are serviceable in this colorful representation of a dusty Arizona mining town (conversely, Pevney’s Female on the Beach was shot in stark black and white). An audio commentary track from film historian Kat Ellinger is available, while the film’s theatrical trailer is the sole extra feature.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆