Posted by Susan Doll on January 6, 2014
A 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.
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.
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. . . .”
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.
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.
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. . . .”
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