Joan Crawford takes no prisoners as she climbs the social ladder in Flamingo Road, a terrifically entertaining guilty pleasure about an ex-carnival dancer who must fight for respectability after the corrupt town sheriff labels her a pariah. Director Michael Curtiz gives the tawdry material some polish and a scenery-chewing Sydney Greenstreet menaces Crawford with maniacal glee. A brand new HD master struck from preservation elements gives this brassy film a glossy look, while solid audio, all the extras from the 2008 DVD, and a rare vintage blooper reel enhance Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation. Recommended.
After she reinvented herself with Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford adopted a tougher screen persona that would become more brittle after she starred in 1949's Flamingo Road, a pulpy adaptation of Robert Wilder's salacious novel about an ex-carnival dancer who doggedly fights for respectability in a small, corrupt Southern town. Crawford's newfound hardness would both sustain her professionally through the 1950s and transform her into a caricature who used her femininity as a weapon to gain power and stature in a man's world. For better or worse, Flamingo Road launched the next chapter in Crawford's multi-faceted career, and though it's little more than a melodramatic soap opera (ironically, it would become a short-lived primetime serial in the heyday of Dallas and Dynasty), it remains a hoot today.
When local authorities shut down the carnival that has employed her as an exotic dancer, Lane Bellamy (Crawford) finds herself adrift in Boldon City, a sleepy town run by its tyrannical, rotund, milk-swilling sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet) and his weak-willed deputy Field Carlisle (Zachary Scott). Field takes a shine to Lane and helps her get a job as a waitress at a local diner, but Titus disapproves of their relationship, fearing it will interfere with his plans to install Field as a state senator. Titus convinces Field to dump Lane and marry spoiled socialite Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston) to bolster his political prospects, and when Lane confronts Titus about it and slaps his face (see clip below), he has her jailed on a trumped up sexual solicitation charge.
After she gets out of prison, Lane lands a position as a "hostess" in a ritzy roadhouse run by Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George). That's where she meets construction magnate and political mover-and-shaker Dan Reynolds (David Brian), who falls instantly in love with her. Lane marries Dan on the rebound from Field and the two set up housekeeping in a mansion on the prestigious Flamingo Road. Titus still has it in for Lane, but when Dan won't go along with Titus' plan to run Field (whose unhappy marriage has turned him into an alcoholic) for governor, Titus plots to destroy Dan, too.
Flamingo Road should have been a vehicle for a younger, more alluring actress like Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan (who reportedly turned it down), or Virginia Mayo. As always, Crawford tries her best and files a believable, often compelling portrayal, but at age 44 she's far too old to play a character who's at least 15-20 years younger. Lane should be a vivacious, sexy dish, not a middle-aged matron, and though Crawford lightens her hair and wears a few slinky outfits to look more youthful, she can't quite pull off the ruse.
Of course, hell hath no fury like Joan Crawford scorned, so it's no surprise her most magnetic scenes are the ones in which she confronts, berates, challenges, and ultimately pulls a gun on the oily, Machiavellian Greenstreet, who previews in look, manner, and accent Orson Welles' corrupt border cop in Touch of Evil. It's hard to understand half of what Greenstreet says in the film, but the nefarious meaning comes through loud and clear. The trademark giggle Greenstreet uses so effectively in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and even Christmas in Connecticut is here and lends a creepy, maniacal slant to his machinations and manipulations.
Curtiz, who also directed Crawford and Scott in Mildred Pierce and Greenstreet in Casablanca and Passage to Marseille, does what he can with the sensational material. Some interesting camera angles and noir lighting add visual interest and Wilder's snappy script, packed with witty, cynical one-liners that enliven myriad exchanges, keeps the narrative rolling. I laughed out loud on many occasions...a telltale sign the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, despite all the dire doings on display.
Like a juicy steak, audiences gobbled up Flamingo Road, which earned Warner Bros a tidy profit. Crawford, though, never held the film in high regard. In a series of interviews with Roy Newquist that would become a book called Conversations with Joan Crawford, the star assessed the movie thusly: "Another boner. The script missed, Curtiz missed, I missed. It just didn't jell [sic], that's all, and it's another time when my judgment screwed up completely, because while we were shooting it I thought it would be good. I often wonder if that wasn't one of the films I made that was destroyed by bad editing."
I think Crawford is a bit hard on Flamingo Road. It's not a great movie, but it's loads of fun and her tough-as-nails performance (as well as the colorful turns by Scott, Greenstreet, Brian, and George) keeps its engine humming for 94 trashy minutes. If you like your Crawford brusque and ballsy, take a stroll down Flamingo Road and enjoy the fireworks.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Flamingo Road arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new HD master struck from preservation elements yields a beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors the cinematography of three-time Oscar nominee Ted McCord. All the nicks and marks that dotted the 2008 DVD have been meticulously erased and the overall image flaunts more clarity and vibrancy. Faint grain preserves the film-like feel, excellent contrast enhances depth, and top-notch shadow delineation heightens the noir-ish atmosphere. Deep blacks, bright, stable whites, and wonderfully graded grays produce a vivid picture, and though razor-sharp close-ups draw attention to Crawford's advancing age, they also showcase her saucer eyes and heavy brows, Greenstreet's jowls and sweaty complexion, and Brian's ruggedness. Background details are crisp, costume textures are easy to discern, and patterns resist shimmering. The picture is so clear, the fake backdrops in certain scenes are very noticeable and in one scene where Crawford is supposed to be singing along with the radio while engulfed in shadows you can see that her lips are not moving.
Flamingo Road has never looked better and that's great news for Crawford's legion of fans, who shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that's free of any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Max Steiner's melodramatic score without any distortion and all the dialogue, except for some of Greenstreet's mumbling, is easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like Crawford's facial slaps, gunshots, and shattering glass are distinct and subtle atmospherics nicely shade the action.
All the extras from the 2008 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. In addition, Warner Archive includes an amusing blooper reel from 1948-49 Warner films.
Featurette: "Crawford at Warners" (SD, 12 minutes) - In this absorbing 2007 featurette, film historians Richard Barrios, Molly Haskell, and Jeanine Basinger, Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, and Crawford's daughter Christina discuss Crawford's transition from MGM to Warner Bros, her Oscar-winning role in Mildred Pierce, her subsequent triumphs in Humoresque and Possessed, and how Flamingo Road changed and hardened the Crawford persona.
Vintage Cartoon: Curtain Razor (HD, 7 minutes) - Porky Pig stars as a talent agent who auditions various acts in this amusing cartoon that spoofs Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and even Mel Blanc himself. It also looks amazing in full HD.
Vintage Short: Breakdowns of 1949 (SD, 10 minutes) - The last edition of the annual Warner Bros blooper reel includes gaffes (and a few expletives) by such esteemed stars as David Niven, Jane Wyman, Broderick Crawford, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan, Gary Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Danny Kaye, Lloyd Bridges, Kirk Douglas, and Milton Berle. You'll also catch glimpses of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (24 minutes) - This (very) truncated adaptation of Flamingo Road, which aired as part of the Screen Director's Playhouse series, allows Crawford and David Brian the chance to reprise their film roles. The broadcast is especially noteworthy for the comments by director Michael Curtiz at the end.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes Flamingo Road as "the revealing story of a woman who came from the wrong side of life, but made love to the right side of town!"
Flamingo Road will never rank among the best films of either Joan Crawford or director Michael Curtiz, but they both try their damnedest to make this melodramatic tale of discrimination and political corruption palatable. ..and they succeed. Lots of tasty morsels distinguish this guilty pleasure that looks and sounds great, thanks to a new HD scan from preservation elements and remastered audio. A substantive extras package also distinguishes Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation. Recommended.