|Joan Crawford wears a waitress uniform once again for 'Flamingo Road!'|
Some say that studio head Jack Warner re-teamed Joan Crawford with Michael Curtiz, who guided her Mildred Pierce comeback, in 1949’s Flamingo Road because the star was slipping. Critics point to the box office returns of Crawford’s post-Mildred pictures as proof.
I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. While those films did about half the box office business of 1945’s Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s Oscar winning role as a waitress turned tycoon was a once in a life time blockbuster, her all-time highest-grossing movie. Joan’s first three post-Mildred movies all made it over the 100 million mark, in today’s dollars. And they were not typical Crawford films: in Humoresque, Joan was an alcoholic socialite; in Possessed, Crawford played crazy; and in Daisy Kenyon, she was a career girl at a crossroads.
|This WB poster pushes the 'Mildred Pierce' connection and the star's still shapely figure.|
Warner may have wanted to shore up Crawford’s continued popularity with a more commercial picture, which Flamingo Road certainly was. In fact, this was her last bonafide hit film for Warner Brothers. The noir southern soap opera was the beginning of a series of Crawford shady lady roles, and what followed was a case of diminishing returns. Next year’s stylish Crawford mashup, The Damned Don’t Cry, marked a huge drop off in Joan’s drawing power, and with a few exceptions, stayed that way from 1950 on.
|Joan was born in a wagon of a travelling show... and yes, Crawford still has IT (look above her head!)|
Flamingo Road is often described as campy Crawford cinema. Imagine my surprise to find that it was not—except for the hooty opening sequence, with Joan as a hoochie mama dancer in a travelling carnival show—complete with a veil. The scene hilariously shows Joan performing for a gaggle of gaga adolescent boys. Joan, who was officially 41—I’m of the school who think that Crawford was actually a few years older—either way, was too mature for this. When Joan’s Lane Bellamy falls for Zachary Scott’s deputy, her love rival is played by Virginia Huston, who was 24 here!
|Joan with some of her favorite WB leading men, David Brian at left, and Zachary Scott on the right.|
This film came out the same year that Bette Davis was trying to convince audiences she was a small town sex bomb in Beyond the Forest. Davis commented that WB should have had cast studio star Virginia Mayo in her role. The same thought crossed my mind when I first saw Joan here as Lane Bellamy—Mayo would have been a no-brainer. Whatever—let’s just say that Joan was MUCH better preserved in Flamingo Road than Bette was in Beyond the Forest.
|Joan as Lane Bellamy, carny girl turned waitress, and on her way up!|
Once that suspension of disbelief is dispensed with, Flamingo Road is a highly watchable melodrama that has a strong story, cast, production, and direction. Under Warners’ top director Michael Curtiz, Joan gives an intense, yet restrained performance as the ex-carny girl who wants to put down roots. Lane’s weak-willed beau Field Carlisle is under the thumb of crooked sheriff, Titus Semple, played by Sydney Greenstreet. The sheriff has political plans for the deputy. So, Zachary Scott’s weak charmer (did he ever play anything else?) marries the rich girl from Flamingo Road and immediately hits the bottle. Meanwhile, Titus does everything he can to run Lane out of town. Crawford’s character must really like the real estate in Boldon, because she will not leave. After release from a jail stint, railroaded by Titus, Lane goes to work at Lute Mae’s a “roadhouse.” Lute is played by the great Gladys George, the best wisecracking scene stealer since Thelma Ritter. Note all George’s world-weary talk of getting “old,” while Joan is constantly referred to as a “girl,” and they’re nearly the same age.
|Joan Crawford gets great lighting as well as lines in 'Flamingo Road': "I'm not a carny girl anymore!"|
At Lute Mae’s, Lane meets Dan Reynolds, played by David Brian, who was also Bette Davis’ tough businessman lover in Beyond the Forest. This was the first of Brian’s several pairings with Crawford, who “discovered” him. As always, Crawford has men fighting over her. The thing is, the two leading men are only mildly appealing, so the real interest comes when Crawford and Greenstreet square off. As Sheriff Semple, Sydney Greenstreet is a worthy adversary for Joan, a forerunner to Orson Welles sweaty slob of a sheriff in Touch of Evil.
|Sydney Greenstreet's crooked sheriff and Joan's former carny girl tussle at 'Flamingo Road's' climax!|
The indomitable Lane is at first unnerved by sweaty, sinister Titus, but quickly asserts herself—after all, she is played by Joan Crawford! Flamingo Road’s most famous line comes after Titus Semple says he never forgets anything. Joan’s Lane Bellamy replies: “You know, Sheriff, we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he'd held a grudge against for almost 15 years—had to be shot. You just wouldn't believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant.”
|Gladys George is great as Lute Mae, wondering if new hire Joan Crawford will be worth the trouble.|
Coming from a campy ‘50s Crawford vehicle, Joan would have dropped this line like a piano from a twenty story building. Here, the star’s delivery is snapped, but simply said. Director Curtiz was able to keep Crawford as understated here as he did in Mildred Pierce. Oh, occasionally the MGM “English” creeps in, especially once Lane becomes a “lady,” but here it works. I always thought that Joan more fun as a working class girl, which is where she came from in real life. At the Flamingo’s early scenes, Joan sports dishwater blonde hair and curls. Her clothes are tight and manner plain-spoken. Crawford’s demeanor as Lane is no-nonsense but game, with her vulnerability just below the surface. Crawford is actually most appealing when her characters are on their way up, as in Mildred Pierce, as opposed to later scenes, when she’s suffering in mink.
|For Joan Crawford, guns and minks go together like Pepsi and vodka!|
While Flamingo Road is pure melodrama, from Written on the Wind author Robert Wilder, there’s a real story to hold audience interest. Michael Curtiz elevates the book’s atmospheric world of a southern town and its class system. Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord bring great visual style to the storytelling and the scenes at Lute Mae’s roadhouse especially pop. McCord’s deep focus photography is reminiscent of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes).
|Once JC's a stylish "lady," she gets to wear some swanky duds by Travilla.|
Caricature for Crawford was just around the corner in the ‘50s. But here, in Flamingo Road, Joan goes from cheap to chic, and is framed throughout in soft lighting and deep shadows. Travilla, who famously dressed Marilyn Monroe over at 20 Century Fox, and later infamously overdressed those Valley of the Dolls, creates Crawford some sexy frocks as the waitress and sleek outfits as the wealthy wife. Whatever age Joan was, she is in super-fine form here, and wears it all with her usual aplomb.
Warner Brothers made many film noir soap operas with their female stars in the last half of the ‘40s, but most were dark and dreary. Joan Crawford moved mountains to elevate hers, while holding her ground for better roles. In my research, I was amazed at how many Warner Brothers’ female stars were suspended for turning down bad movies, and some even sued: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and even sweet Joan Leslie!
After leaving long-time studio MGM, Joan Crawford was off-screen for two years after signing with WB, waiting for a proper comeback vehicle. While none of Joan’s WB films topped Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road is a finely crafted, fun film that crosses several genres, and provides Crawford with a worthy vehicle.
|Just a reminder, 'Flamingo Road' is by the same folks who brought you 'Mildred Pierce!'|