A wrong girl for the right side of the tracks.
Director Michael Curtiz reunited with Mildred Pierce star Joan Crawford for 1949’s Flamingo Road, a Southern story with noir leanings full of politics and intrigue. Thankfully the politics never take center stage and stay in the near background so that we can enjoy what’s a pretty darn good picture.
Joan Crawford is Lane Bellamy, a dancer in a traveling carnival. Though she gives it a college try, she’s just a bit beyond the age where she can effectively pull off the role. Thankfully the film doesn’t fixate on the carnival – though it does continually refer to her time with the carnival- but moves her on to bigger and better things.
With the carnival forced to leave town due presumably to some unpaid bills, Lane stays behind listening to the radio in a damp tent while she ponders her next move. Deputy Sheriff Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) comes round to make sure the carnival has left town and come across her. Sparks fly and before we know it he’s not only taken her out to dinner at a local diner but also found her a job!
Though we’ve seen Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet) briefly earlier, it’s now that he becomes a major player for the balance of the picture. Semple sees the sparks between the two of them and puts the brakes on it quickly, as he’s got plans to get Deputy Fielding into the state Senate as a precursor to the Governorship. Semple gives us the first glimpse into the depths of his evil as he has Lane fired and then frames her on a prostitution rap when she refuses to take the hint and leave town.
Fielding takes the hint however, and breaks things off with Lane to marry a proper town girl who’ll help promote his political career. Lane’s hurt but moves on, finally getting a job at a local road house run by Lute May (Gladys George). Though Lute May is an independent sort that looks askew at the parties and card games the politicians have at her place, she still welcomes their business.
It’s here that Lane meets state political boss Dan Reynolds (David Brian), taking care of him after a particularly drunken evening and reviving him with a stiff whiskey sour and some breakfast in the morning. Soon they are married, which get old Titus all wound up.
Before long Titus is busy setting up Dan’s construction business for a fall and also pushing Fielding ahead of other agreed upon candidates for the governorship. After the political machine initially rejects Titus’ proposal, he unveils thick folders on each of the men, with each folder packed with incriminating evidence against them.
With their careers in the balance, the politicians- with the sole exception of Reynolds- immediately agree to support Titus. Now that Titus holds the keys to the state’s political operation, he proceeds to ruin Reynolds and have him indicted.
Flamingo Road cast overcomes a plot that is ludicrous at points to make the film an enjoyable romp. Curtiz brings his usual workmanlike excellence to the picture and the film bursts with activity and excellent shots- especially a few outstanding ones which look down from above on the action. The only drawback visually is a few poor rear projection scenes at a construction site.
The stars of the show are Joan Crawford and Sydney Greenstreet. Though drawing an awkward start, Crawford overcomes her corny carnival beginnings and provides a sterling performance. She emotes more than is typical for her- we can feel her disgust at Fielding’s decent into alcoholism as well as her pride in Reynolds’ going it alone in standing up to the despicable Titus Semple.
Some of the best scenes are those between Titus and Lane and the dialogue is outstanding. They exchange subtle (and some not so subtle) barbs throughout, Semple usually while looking from under his brow and Lane looking him dead in the face. Here’s one of the best examples:
Sheriff Titus Semple: Now me, I never forget anything.
Lane Bellamy: You know sheriff; we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he’d held a grudge against for almost 15 years. Had to be shot. You just wouldn’t believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant.
Of course given Greenstreet’s ample size the comparison to an elephant takes on perhaps another angle as well. Greenstreet here is at his most despicable and takes on a more sinister and imposing role than even he was accustomed too. He sneers and growls almost like a caged animal (do elephants growl?) while he whips up salacious plans against those he feels stand in his way. Here mostly it’s his perverse fixation on driving Lane out of town that seems so odd- even after she’s moved on from his star pupil.
Greenstreet himself looks wane and almost pale, with his clothes sagging limply on his frame. Though he starts fresh in many seems he seems tired and worn out. Sadly Flamingo Road would be his next to final picture.
Both of the love interests for Crawford are paper thin characters at best. Neither Zachary Scott or David Brian draw the viewer’s interest for anything beyond moving the plot forward. Only in the somewhat hurried finale does Brian come to life a bit in his role as the conflicted political boss.
Of better note is Gladys George’s portrayal of Lute. Though she only has a few scenes scattered in the middle third of the picture she come full bore in all of them with a sassy spunkiness that makes you want a bit more. It’s interesting that the only two people that consistently stand up to Titus are these two strong women in the forms of Lane and Lute.
It’s hard to say Flamingo Road has been forgotten, because it garners more attention than many of the films we look at. Perhaps better to say it’s a little nugget of gold waiting to be looked at once again.