Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.

SCOTT (WITHOUT MUSTACHE) WOOS CRAWFORD

SCOTT (WITHOUT MUSTACHE) WOOS CRAWFORD

French film scholar Jean Loup Bourget once dubbed Joan Crawford “the face of melodrama.” It’s the face of her films for Warner Bros., beginning with Mildred Pierce in 1945 and concluding with This Woman Is Dangerous in 1951. Middle-aged by this time, Crawford sported the dark eyebrows, big eyes, strong jawline, and prominent mouth that most viewers associate with her. I like Crawford’s characters from the post-war era, because they are good examples of what historian Molly Haskell called “the Treacherous Woman,” an archetype prominent during this period. Inspired by the femme fatales of film noir but not cruel or hardened, treacherous females can be found in a variety of genres, including adventure films, urban crime stories, and westerns, but they flourished in 1940s melodramas. Treacherous women tend to be tough on the outside but remain soft on the inside, giving them that worldly appeal. Most are intensely passionate, which causes them to make mistakes in romance, often with dire consequences. Some are tainted by their experiences in a morally ambiguous world. While they themselves are not evil, they inspire evil in men. Treacherous women tend to come from the wrong side of the tracks, and they know all too well where those tracks lead—to the wrong side of the law. Crawford’s character Lane Bellamy from Flamingo Road, which airs on January 23 at 12:15am offers a good example of a treacherous woman.

TRAVILLA DESIGNED THE COSTUMES FOR 'FLAMINGO ROAD'

TRAVILLA DESIGNED THE COSTUMES FOR ‘FLAMINGO ROAD’

In 1949, Joan Crawford reunited with Michael Curtiz and Zachary Scott—her director and costar from Mildred Pierce—to make Flamingo Road. Just before Flamingo Road went into production, studio head Jack Warner expressed his dissatisfaction with Crawford in a telegram to Warners’ vice president Samuel Schneider.  Warner wrote: “From present situation appears to me we going have lot trouble with Joan Crawford, temperament and such things . . . . may have suspend her this week. Secondly, what do you think of dropping her entirely. We had semi failure in Humoresque (1947) and exceptional failure in Possessed (1947). Instead worrying about her could be devoting my time to worthwhile productions and new personalities . . . .However, this only way I feel today. If she straightens out by end week may not feel this way but facts must be faced as these things take all your time. . . .”

THE DESIGN COMES TO FRUITION AS LANE'S UPSCALE DRESS AFTER HER MARRIAGE TO A POLITICIAN.

THE DESIGN BECOMES THE DRESS.

Depending on the source, teaming Crawford with Curtiz and Scott was either a bid to duplicate the success of Mildred Pierce or an attempt to keep her placated. Also, Jack Warner exaggerated the financial outcomes of Humoresque and Possessed. While not the critical and financial success of Mildred Pierce, they did just fine at the box office.

Flamingo Road opens with Crawford in voice-over: “There’s a Flamingo Road in every town. It’s the street of social success, the avenue of achievement.” In the beginning, Lane Bellamy, a carnival kootch dancer, is as far from Flamingo Road as she could get. When the carnival is forced to move on, she stays behind in Bolden City, falling in love with deputy sheriff Fielding Carlisle, played by Scott (without his mustache). Scott feels the same about Lane, though he is engaged to shallow, small-town girl Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston). Lane and Fielding’s love affair gets in the way of plans made by local sheriff and political kingmaker Titus Semple, played by Sidney Greenstreet. Semple wants Fielding to be the puppet gubernatorial candidate for a corrupt political machine.

Fielding is too weak-willed to fight for the woman he loves and so marries Annabelle, while the venal Semple frames Lane for streetwalking. After serving 30 days in jail, Lane takes a job in the roadhouse of Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George), who is politically connected.  In the 1946 play version of Flamingo Road by Robert and Sally Wilder, Lute Mae’s was an old-fashioned Southern brothel, but given the restrictions of the Production Code, the establishment is dubbed a roadhouse in the film. However, an exotic dance by a woman of unnamed ethnicity for the pleasure of male viewers suggests the true nature of Luta Mae’s establishment even if viewers see the female residents do little more than wait tables.  Local politicos, including powerful Dan Reynolds (David Brian), conduct their business at Lute Mae’s, sometimes spending the night in the upstairs rooms. Dan meets and falls in love with Lane; after the two are married, they set up residence on Flamingo Road. By marrying Dan Reynolds, Lane—the Treacherous Woman—upsets the balance of power and position in Bolden City, and nothing will ever be the same.

LANE TELLS A STORY ABOUT THE FATE OF A ROGUE ELEPHANT IN THE CARNIVAL. SHE TELLS TITUS, "YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO DISPOSE OF A DEAD ELEPHANT."

LANE TELLS THE STORY OF A ROGUE ELEPHANT FROM HER CARNIVAL DAYS. SHE LOOKS AT TITUS AND NOTES, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO DISPOSE OF A DEAD ELEPHANT.”

Nicely paced, with a bitter edge, and a surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude toward political corruption, Flamingo Road is a solid melodrama with a terrific onscreen pairing between Crawford and Greenstreet. Their personas and acting styles make a deliberate contrast: Crawford dashes and darts through the film with her usual fierce intensity, while Greenstreet exudes a quiet malevolence through his commanding presence and array of sinister expressions. Despite its strengths, the film doesn’t get much respect from contemporary critics and scholars. Some describe it as one of Crawford’s many rags to riches tales, but that is not a fair description. Lane Bellamy does not make a plan to live on Flamingo Road in order to be a major success or to elevate her social status. She ends up there by fate or circumstance. And, she turns her full fury against the sheriff after her husband is threatened, not against the snobs who look down on her. Class prejudice in Flamingo Road is secondary to the theme of power and its corrupting influence, so it doesn’t really fit a typical rags-to-riches narrative. Also, a number of reviewers seemed way too eager to declare Crawford too old for the character, hinting that the star was unable to age gracefully.  One writer claimed that Crawford forced the studio to find unattractive women to play the other kootch dancers, so that she would not look her age. But, the character of Lane Bellamy is hard-edged, and she has been around the block a few times. Plus, she is so tired of being on the road with the carnival life that she wants to settle down in Bolton City, despite having no money.  I don’t think she is supposed to be in her 20s; I would argue that Crawford’s age suits the character.

LANE AS A KOOTCH DANCER DURING HER CARNIVAL DAYS

LANE AS A KOOTCH DANCER DURING HER CARNIVAL DAYS

As a melodrama, Flamingo Road is filled with the plot twists and coincidences typical of the genre, but the screenplay is really quite good, offering distinctive characters and memorable lines. Even characters who are onscreen for only one scene are vivid and lively. When Lane serves her time in the county jail, she befriends a young woman who shows her the ropes. “What are you in for?” she asks her new friend. “My boyfriend cut himself on a knife I was holding,” remarks the girl, with just the slightest touch of sarcasm.

After Flaming Road was released in the summer of 1949, Jack Warner changed his tune about Joan Crawford. And, he certainly did not consider her too old for the role. In a telegram to studio scriptwriter Mort Blumenstock, Jack Warner noted: “The campaign on Flamingo Road (1949) with that hot photo of Crawford with cigarette in mouth, gams showing, etc. had much to do with public going for this picture. Try to use this type photo on any picture you can in future. . . .”

16 Responses Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama
Posted By Vienna : January 6, 2014 1:05 pm

Enjoyed your review I’ve always liked Flamingo Road. The combo of Joan,Zachary Scott and David Brian is a big plus, Then add the great Greenstreet.

Posted By Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: ‘The face of melodrama’ : January 6, 2014 4:40 pm

[…] Moorlocks: […]

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 6, 2014 4:57 pm

This was a wonderful kick start to our week-long Crawford, tribute, Susan!

Posted By LD : January 6, 2014 5:34 pm

The first time I saw FLAMINGO ROAD Crawford did seem older. The lighter hair didn’t help. That was my prejudice, expecting the “Crawford Look”. You are so right. Her character was suppose to be, if not burnt out, certainly singed. Once she leaves the carnival and marries Dan Reynolds she seems younger or at least age appropriate.

For me the strongest part of the movie is the struggle between Crawford’s and Greenstreet’s characters.

Posted By Doug : January 6, 2014 5:44 pm

I picked up “Dancing Lady” the other day,which was mentioned here recently.
Sad, but true-even the finest of us are eventually reduced to footnotes-George Washington is remembered with a few anecdotes,Napoleon his hat, George Gershwin for “Rhapsody In Blue” and “An American In Paris”.
Crawford had a long, great career, and it is wonderful that Morlocks and TCM exist to keep such stars shining brightly in our memories.

Posted By Lulu : January 6, 2014 8:14 pm

Thanks for this great write up! I’ve been trying to rebuild Crawford’s image among my film buff friends for years and stuff like this certainly helps! I’d not seen that costume sketch before either – very nice!!!

Posted By george : January 6, 2014 8:56 pm

Doug wrote: “Sad, but true-even the finest of us are eventually reduced to footnotes-George Washington is remembered with a few anecdotes,Napoleon his hat, George Gershwin for “Rhapsody In Blue” and “An American In Paris”.”

I’ve met people who were shocked to learn Jeff Bridges appeared in movies other than THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and that Alec Guiness had a 30-year movie career before STAR WARS.

As for Crawford, I tend to prefer her in her sexy flapper phase (roughly 1928 to 1933). In other words, the pre-Code Crawford.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2014 12:59 am

Great comments to kick off our Morlocks tribute to Joan Crawford. Thanks everyone for the kind comments about the post and about Crawford.

Posted By Karen : January 7, 2014 2:58 am

I loved your write-up and I dearly love Joan Crawford, so I especially appreciated your sentiments regarding the bio you found on her in that book. Also, I’ve always thought of Flamingo Road as my “guilty pleasure” Crawford film, because there’s something slightly campy and over-the-top about it to me. But that doesn’t make me love it — or Crawford — any less. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it (I’ve been so caught up in Crawford’s pre-Codes lately) — I think it’s about time for a re-watch! Thanks so much for covering this one.

Posted By Adam : January 7, 2014 3:26 am

Thanks so much for giving Flamingo Road the analysis it deserves. I always really enjoyed Crawford’s performance and the film itself even though critics, scholars, and film buffs unjustly overlook the film.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2014 3:33 am

Karen and Adam: I am glad you agree with me about Flamingo Road. Thanks so much for you comments.

Posted By michaelgsmith : January 7, 2014 1:36 pm

Terrific piece. I’ve always preferred FLAMINGO ROAD to MILDRED PIERCE. (And so did Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who named FR one of his 10 favorite films of all time.)

Posted By kingrat : January 7, 2014 6:20 pm

Whether FLAMINGO ROAD is a guilty pleasure or simply a pleasure, it’s hard to stop watching once you start. Susan, thank you for taking FLAMINGO ROAD and others of its kind seriously. Joan Crawford had a hard life growing up, and she uses that to make Lane Bellamy so believable. Doesn’t the story mean more if Lane isn’t a young woman down for the moment, but a not-so-young woman who might be grasping at her last chance?

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2014 7:06 pm

Kingrat: That was exactly my take on the character. I thought those reviewers who were snarky about her age were blinded by the exposes about her life and personality after she died. They didn’t see the fictional character in a story; they saw Joan Crawford.

Posted By Doug : January 7, 2014 8:09 pm

I watched “Dancing Lady” last night; Crawford shines as best she can in a clunky plot.
Her expressive face showed conflicting emotions well; if there had been a tighter script, a bit more time for rehearsal of the dramatic scenes, it would have been a better film.
I know, I know-appreciate what we have rather than bemoaning what wasn’t.
It was fun to see Bob Benchley and of course Ted Healy and his Stooges, though they had nearly nothing to do with Crawford and Gable.
Those two had chemistry in spades, and I’ll be looking for more of their films together.

Posted By MP : January 10, 2014 4:02 pm

Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood’s most durable stars. I admired her professionalism and commitment to her craft. Can you believe she only received three Oscar nominations — and only one Oscar in her entire career? She deserved far more than that. I applaud TCM for saluting Joan Crawford as “Star of the Month.” A star she was, which we seriously lack today in movies.

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