Monday, 13 August 2007
Flamingo Road (1949) dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford, Sidney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott
"She can handle her job, make a whiskey sour and cook bacon, crisp. A man's gotta know more about a girl like that."
“Flamingo Road” is terrific Hollywood melodrama. The studio system at its best - a top notch director (Curtiz) with one of the best-ever leading ladies (Crawford) reuniting after 1945's "Mildred Pierce". The film is about female empowerment in a sexist age of specifically-defined domestic and gender roles. It’s an engrossing story of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who fights prejudice and sexism as she moves up into high society and the corrupt world of American State politics.
Joan Crawford plays Lane Bellamy, a wearied and weathered girl who dances in a two-bit traveling carnival. When the carnival can’t pay its debts, like usual, it packs up and quickly moves out of town. But this is one too many times for Lane. She’s been on the road her whole life, and wants to stay in the quaint Southern town. She meets local deputy Fielding Carlyle and falls in love. The big boss in town is the larger than life Sheriff Titus Semple (Sidney Greenstreet). He resents Lane’s presence in the town and her stubbornness to stay fuels his impassionated hatred of her. Through backdoor deals, Titus has plans to get Fielding into the state Senate. He engineers Fielding’s breakup with Lane and gets her unlawfully imprisoned for prostitution.
Lane is strong and survives her prison sentence. When she’s out and returns to town, with an even greater determination to make an honest living. While waitressing for a local high society social club she meets and courts local influential business owner, Dan Reynolds – a man of equal if not greater stature than Titus. Lane’s finally makes it onto “Flamingo Road”, the local street symbolic of respectable society, only to face off against Titus once again. Lane, Reynolds, Titus and Carlyle rekindle their battles in the political ring where the consequences will be deadly.
Joan Crawford carries the film like few can. When we first see her as an exotic bellydancer, she looks out of place in age and culture. She’s a survivor, a tough broad who lives paycheck to paycheck and has never been able to plant roots anywhere. It all shows on her face. Crawford was 44 when the film was made, and though the role was likely written for a 25 year old, it needed someone with both innocence and toughness to pull it off. All of that is etched in Crawford’s course face. Her big saucer eyes are the innocence and her crows feet are the toughness.
Titus Semple is an equally meaty role and the great character actor Sidney Greenstreet (“Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon”) fills the shoes well. Titus is one cinema’s great bad guys. He’s like Iago in “Othello” – behind the scenes politicking his way through the world to get what he wants. His shear size commands a room but he also has the subtle skills and confidence to intimidate and control people to do his bidding.
Michael Curtiz directs with his usual panache. His great choreography, editing and efficiency with his narrative make this plot-heavy film a fast-paced breeze. Max Steiner’s music, as always, emphatically hits the melodramatic beats with the right mood. Viewers unaccustomed to the style of filmmaking at the time may be distracted by the overdramatization and on-the-nose dialogue, but despite this there’s a lot of significant and important subtext going on.
The film has a lot to say about class and sexism. As a drifter and a woman without any discernable talent or skills, Lane has very little chance of achieving any kind of success. But she’s a woman of the world, with a decent heart, who genuinely falls in love with Reynolds. She doesn’t manipulate him or deceive him into marrying her. And when she finally makes it to “Flamingo Road” she never exploits it. She always knows where she came from and is grateful for everything she has.
I do think the ending cops out though. With her husband in Titus’ political grasp and about to be sent to prison, Lane takes the matters into her own hands to save him. We want the street-smart Lane to use Titus’ own weapons or vulnerabilities against him, instead she resorts to the “gun” to solve the problem. By resorting to this easy device, the film demeans everything Lane has earned from us. In the end though she does sacrifice herself, and goes to prison for her husband which, considering the time and place the film was made, is a shocking anti-type role reversal.
“Flamingo Road” not only empowers women at a time when domestic roles were classically defined, it’s an example of a great studio picture that entertains and send us a positive message. Unfortunately it’s not available on DVD, but hopefully soon Warner Bros will take it out of its library for us to rediscover. Enjoy.