I recently screened Dancing Lady, an early Joan Crawford vehicle made when she was under contract to MGM. I was struck by how unlike the persona she was that most people envision when they hear her name. Watching Flamingo Road, which was released four years after her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce, I was finally able to see the woman that always comes to mind when someone says the name “Joan Crawford.”
In this dramatic noir, Crawford portrays Lane Bellamy, a carnival dancer who arrives and decides to settle in the fictional southern town of Boldon City. She’s discovered living in an old tent left by the carnival on the wrong side of the tracks by Deputy Sheriff Field Carlisle (Zachary Scott), who immediately takes a liking to her. He brings her into town, buys her dinner at the local café, and also manages to snag her a job there, all in one evening. They begin to form a relationship, but this doesn’t sit well with Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet), who has been grooming Carlisle as a state senator.
Like a lot of Crawford’s characters, Lane endures an immense amount of suffering. Semple will do just about anything to get rid of her. She’s fired from her job at the café and even framed for prostitution in an effort to have her run out of town. She won’t back down, though. After her stint in jail, she returns to Boldon and takes a job at a roadhouse owned by Lute Mae (Gladys George). There, she meets Dan Reynolds (David Brian), a prominent local businessman and political impresario. The two quickly become an item, get married, and move to the titular, affluent burg of “Flamingo Road,” much to the chagrin of both Semple, who sees Lane as a threat to his political ambitions, and also to Carlisle, who’s still in love with her.
Collaborating once again with Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce), Crawford and her famed director are able to take what could have come across as cheap camp and elevate it. While there’s a lot of good melodrama going down, it’s a little too jam-packed for one 94 minute film. In fact, it would have made for an excellent primetime soap…oh, wait, I’m not the first with that idea: it became one in 1980.
Other issues aside from the convoluted plot include the murkiness of Semple’s vendetta against Lane and the fact that Crawford’s role very likely should have been played by a much younger actress. In her early 40’s, Crawford was a bit “long in the tooth” for the role of a femme fatale former carnival dancer, evidenced by how “greased” the lens is during her close-ups. It reminded me of the incident referenced in adopted daughter Christina’s tell-all memoir, “Mommie Dearest,” where the 68-year-old Crawford portrayed her daughter’s character on the soap The Secret Storm.
Despite age issues, watching Flamingo Road, it’s obvious Crawford is utterly fantastic. She’s able to chew up the scenery and spit it back out. A damned powerhouse in her later career, Crawford was grabbing hold of the audience as only she knew how to do.
Released by the Warner Archive Collection, the DVD of Flamingo Road boasts quite a few great special features, including a 1950 radio adaptation with Crawford reprising her role, a short documentary about the actress’ work with Warner Bros., a Porky Pig Looney Tunes short, and a theatrical trailer.
I, too, watched The Dancing Lady for the first time, and I chose it because of Joan Crawford’s early start in show business as a dancer. Her dancing was torrid and vivacious, although not as graceful as, say, Cyd Cherisse or Ann Miller. But Joan’s dancing scenes reflect the vital energy and heat she needed in an industry where a leading lady can get lost in the testosterone of a major motion picture. Clark Gable was still a newbie at MGM (1933), and already the competition was formidable for screen time and who is going to carry the film. Robert Z. Leonard and his lighting crew made Joan Crawford absolutely gorgeous, with lighting that Joan requested thereafter; it softened her face without diminishing the energy and determination smoldering underneath. There’s no doubt whose film it was, with Joan holding the reins of both Franchot Tone (soon to be husband #2) and Clark Gable, with whom she was having an affair.
I enjoyed this Crawford, confident, beautiful, not hard and impenetrable as her characters in her later career. Obviously her later look and demeanor were how Joan saw herself – a fully changed person from young Lucille Le Sueur, a nobody from San Antonio.