FLAMINGO ROAD (Warner Bros. 1949) Warner Archive
By the time Joan Crawford appeared before the cameras for Michael Curtiz’s Flamingo Road (1949) she had already done her best work at Warner Bros., and, won an Oscar for her efforts in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. What followed were thematic variations on the woman’s weepy, increasingly given the ole Warner sheen that had helped to make Bette Davis a great star. In Crawford’s wake, Davis’ career prospects at Warner’s had sincerely suffered; Davis, exponentially slipping into more cheaply wrought fluff while Crawford proved, in every way, to be her successor on the back lot. Naturally, this stuck in Davis’ craw. Indeed, Jack Warner’s only real reason for hiring Crawford back in 1943 was to keep Davis’ ego in check – a sort of ineffectual micro-management that caused both ladies to go for the jugular. But by 1949, Jack’s interests in Crawford’s career had also cooled. Crawford was 43 in 1949, and, although still quite glamorous, had steadily begun to acquire what would later be referenced as her ‘warrior princess’ look; her jaw, becoming squared off, her eyebrows - thick and arched, her hair - short and cropped. Crawford’s appearance in her glamour days at MGM had concentrated primarily on those exaggerated lips and immaculately coiffed hair. And, if the effects of the ‘warrior princess’ was tempered in Flamingo Road, it remained difficult to digest Crawford as carnival belly dancer, Lane Bellamy, a victim of the vial machinations of southern caricature, Sheriff Titus Semple (Sidney Greenstreet – at his most menacing). We have to give major props to Crawford for fighting the specter of middle-age as long as she did, and, in some ways, maintaining it with class at a distance. If only the parts she had been allowed to play cast her as more appropriately a woman of her years, she might have been able to feign 40 or even 35 for a few years more. Alas, the heroine of Robert and Sally Wilder’s stagecraft was of the ingenue class – young and vibrant. As Crawford was neither, she substituted ‘enterprising’ and ‘social-climbing’ as viable attributes – qualities Crawford knew a lot about.
So, Crawford’s Lane is a fairly determined sort. The harder she is pressed to get out of town by Semple and his deputy, Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) – a very reluctant protégée – the more Lane pushes back, with low-down resolve and out of necessity, always the ‘mother’ of invention. After an unrequited affection develops between Fielding and Lane, Semple sets about to destroy Lane's morale and run her out of town. Fielding gets Lane a job at a greasy spoon – a step, barely up from the carnival. But Semple has her fired and then trumps up a charge of prostitution. The charge sticks and Lane is sent to prison. Now, Semple throws socialite, Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston) at Fielding’s head, forcing a marriage. But Lane is not about to be discounted just yet. Determined to exact her revenge on Semple after her prison stay, Lane gets a fresh start and a job at a bawdy roadhouse run by hard-knock madam, Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George). One of Lute Mae’s frequent clients is fast-rising politico, Dan Reynolds (David Brian), a man caught in a power-struggle with Semple over control of the town. Dan suits Lane’s purpose and the two begin dating. Eventually, they marry and Lane, invigorated with position to exact her revenge, confronts Semple who has set out to ruin Dan by whatever means he can. In the meantime, Fielding’s marriage to Annabelle crumbles. Distraught and with nowhere else to turn, Fielding shows up at the Reynolds' home. Consumed with self-pity he takes his own life. The suicide generates a public scandal Semple exploits to his advantage. However, Lane has had enough. She returns to Semple’s country estate with a gun and accidentally kills him after a struggle ensues. While his wife waits to be sentenced, Dan realizes how much Lane loved him and vows to remain at her side, whatever the verdict.
Flamingo Road is a rather self-indulgent soap opera. It takes itself much too seriously. Max Steiner’s overwrought score is ideally suited for this soppy froth of this bizarre and oft’ gritty garage of oddities. But the narrative is largely forgettable. The wild and woolly frivolities in the screenplay have little merit, except to act as dubious sign posts, adding misdirection to the hyperbole and romantic calamities experienced along the way. Crawford chews up the scenery and makes for an admirable adversary against the formidable ‘fat man’ - Sidney Greenstreet. Given the combative chemistry Crawford had with Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce, it must have seemed like sound insurance to cast him here and make their bedraggled romance crackle with bittersweet embers of self-doubt and regrets. But Scott never rises above the level of mediocrity. This emasculates his performance at every possible turn. He looks so out of place in his Deputy Sheriff’s garb, his slithery charm, exhibited in Mildred Pierce as an amiable lounge lizard, herein gets distilled as the transplanted hick of Mayberry. It is a clumsy performance at best, and wholly unconvincing to say the least. Ted D. McCord’s gorgeous B&W cinematography gives the picture its plush southern Gothic charm, albeit without any glimmers of Tennessee Williams to inflict that intrigue with the rot and decay in these lives on a collision course to self-destruct in the end. Flamingo Road is a passable entertainment, but hardly Crawford’s best effort at WB. Good, but not great, if you have never seen it before, then you probably should. Just do not expect to be all that impressed by it.
Warner Home Video’s B&W transfer is impressive with refined image quality, a good spread of tonality and limited age-related artifacts. There is some minor digital noise but nothing that will distract. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are very deep. Whites are almost pristine. Overall, the image is smooth and sharp without appearing digitally harsh. The audio is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and adequately represented for this dialogue driven melodrama. Extras include Warner’s usual smattering of cartoons, short subjects and a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)