Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road: The Face of Melodrama
By Susan Doll
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.” 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, which causes them to make mistakes in romance, often with dire consequences. While they themselves are not bad, they inspire the worst 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 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 of 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…”
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.
Flaming 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 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 repertoire 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. Class prejudice in Flamingo Road is secondary to the theme of power and its corruptive 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 entertaining plot twists and coincidences typical of the genre. And, the screenplay is 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 Flamingo 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…”
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).