Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at on TCM #61 (“Hello, This is Joanie” edition)


Joan Crawford was January’s Star of the Month on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ and since I noticed on one of the SOM nights that they were going to show one of my favorite Crawford pictures, Flamingo Road (1949), I decided to use the awesome powers of the U-Verse Total DVR For Life© and record it for viewing at a more convenient time.  (I also grabbed Possessed [1947] and The Damned Don’t Cry [1950]—two Joan vehicles I had not previously seen…which is why I am able to present for your edification a Crawford hat trick.)

In Flamingo, Joanie is Lane Bellamy, a carnival cooch dancer who decides to stay behind in beautiful Boudon City, a sleepy little Southern hamlet in the clutches of the chubby autocratic fist of Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet).  His deputy, Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott), falls hard for Lane and helps her get a foothold in B.C. by talking a diner owner (Tito Vuolo) into hiring her on as a waitress…something that doesn’t sit particularly well with Sheriff Semple who, while the subtext is so blatant a blind man could see it, has big plans for his “Bud”—he’s going to get Field a state Senate seat and marry him off to Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston), daughter of one of the prominent families in Boudon (the title of the film refers to the tony section where all the high muckety-mucks live).

Semple arranges to have Lane lose her job at the diner…and to make sure she’s received the message loud and clear, has her sent to the sneezer for thirty days on a trumped-up charge of solicitation.  (Bellamy’s cellmate is played by uncredited TDOY fave Iris Adrian, who explains that she’s living on the bounty of the county because her husband “cut himself on a knife I was holdin’.”)  Once she’s out of the hoosegow, Lane gets a job at the roadhouse run by Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George), and to piss Titus off further, ingratiates herself with the area’s big political boss, Dan Reynolds (David Brian), by wooing and marrying him.  There will eventually be a showdown between Lane and Titus, of course—and while I won’t give too much away I will simply remind you of Crawford’s immortal line in Mommie Dearest (1981) when she’s addressing the gentlemen in the Pepsi boardroom.

After her arrival at Warner Bros. in 1945, Joan was doing boffo box office with films like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946)…but her last pictures had been slight disappointments, so the studio reassembled some of the Pierce team (co-star Scott, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner) to see if they could recapture lightning in a bottle.  Adapted by Robert Wilder from his book/play (co-written with his wife Sally), Flamingo Road isn’t necessarily a great Crawford film but I seriously doubt you’ll be able to find one that’s more over-the-top entertaining.  Joan squaring off against Sydney Greenstreet is worth the price of admission alone (all I have to do is hear that man laugh and I’m in for the long haul), and to me the film’s true strengths are the superb female characters in Lute Mae (one of my favorite Gladys George showcases) and waitress pal Millie (Gertrude Michael).

Scott’s trademark scumbag ‘stache is missing in this one, and David Brian is more-or-less Joanie’s George Brent…but there are a lot of entertaining small contributions from the likes of Fred Clark (as the town’s crusading newspaperman), Frank “Sam Drucker” Cady, Tristam Coffin, Dick Elliott, Fred Kelsey, Dale Robertson (as one of Joan and Gertrude’s double-dates) and Pierre Watkin.  Flamingo Road later became a short-lived 1981-82 nighttime soap that featured Morgan Fairchild, Mark Harmon, Kevin McCarthy, Stella Stevens and Howard Duff—who played the Greenstreet role (and while I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for radio’s Sam Spade, he just wasn’t up to the task).

Possessed (1947) – Crawford nabbed her second Academy Award Best Actress nomination for this mellerdrammer that casts her as Louise Howell, a nurse in the employ of bidnessman Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) whose wife Pauline is…well, she is not well.  Nurse Louise has been seeing an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin), whom she is mahdly in love with…but her amorous intentions are not reciprocated by Davey.  When Pauline (played by an uncredited Nana Bryant) commits suicide, hubby Dean asks Louise to stay on as a nanny to his young son Wynn (Gerald Perreau)…and after a year, proposes marriage to Louise even though she’s still pining for David.  (Hey, Dean’s lonely…)

David continues to be the sand in the bathing suit that is the Graham’s marriage; because he works for Dean, he turns up at the house from time to time even though Louise has made it clear he’s not welcome—he even crashed their wedding reception, and in the process became infatuated with Graham’s daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks).  This kind of puts Louise in a spot because relations between her and her stepdaughter are a little strained: Carol believed for the longest time that her stepma and her dad were carrying on while her mother was still alive…but even after straightening all that out, now the man Louise still loves is making a play for her stepdaughter.  (Oh, this does not bode well…)

The outcome of Possessed is never really in doubt because Louise’s sordid story is told via flashbacks after she’s found wandering around in a catatonic state around L.A. calling David’s name and is rushed off to the psych ward, where dedicated psychiatrist Harvey Willard (Stanley Ridges) attempts to cure Ms. Graham with the usual Hollywood psychobabble.  Possessed is essentially a blend of Mildred Pierce (the relationship between Joan and Geraldine is similar to the Crawford-Ann Blyth entanglements in that earlier film) and the mental illness craze in movies at that time (Spellbound, The Snake Pit, etc.).  Director Curtis Bernhardt (who also directed High Wall, another mental illness flick that same year), in addition to utilizing first-rate German expressionistic techniques, coaxes a nice performance out of Joanie; I can see why she was nominated for an Oscar because she’s marvelous at getting the audience to sympathize with a woman whose cheese has kinda slid off her cracker.  (To be fair, Heflin gives her an assist by playing his character as a bit of a wanker.)  A box office success, Possessed was entered into the Cannes Film Festival that same year.

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) – I have author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) to thank for bringing this one to my attention; I knew I had to see it after he reviewed it in his great book on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films.  Joan’s a frumpy hausfrau named Ethel Whitehead in this one, whose stifling existence in the Texas oil fields is made palatable only by the love for her son (Jimmy Moss).  The kid begs his mom for a bicycle and Ethel’s able to get him one on sale…which pisses off her dinkerplatz husband Roy (Richard Egan).  He lays down the law: Ethel’s got to take the bike back, and when he yells at his son to return the bike to the house the kid is hit by an automobile while crossing the street and is killed.  (Nice going, Roy.)

Ethel’s got no other reason to hang around the Lone Star State so she packs her bags and heads off for greener pastures (her father-in-law, played by Morris Ankrum, says prophetically “She’ll be back”), where she starts in working a series of Mildred Pierce jobs—newsstand clerk, modeling, etc.  It’s while working as a model (and as the film subtly suggests, a part-time “escort”) that she meets up with milquetoast C.P.A. Martin Blankford (Kent Smith), whom she’s able to introduce to a small-change nightclub owner (Hugh Sanders) for the purpose of overseeing his books…as well as a few of his friends.  Ethel and Martin eventually attract the attention of mobster George Castleman (David Brian), who appoints Marty his bookkeeper and Ethel his moll.  (Marty’s not all that keen on working for the mob, but he agrees because he thinks he has a future with Ethel.)

Castleman is married, but Mrs. C (Edith Evanson) must be broadminded because pretty soon Ethel is firmly ensconced as George’s courtesan.  A friend (Selena Royle) of George’s has even made Ethel over into a phony socialite, with the new name of Lorna Hansen Forbes.  When an associate of Castleman’s, greasy hood Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), starts overbounding his steps as the man in charge of West Coast operations, George sends “Lorna” out to be his Mata Hari, gathering up enough evidence that will allow him to terminate Nick with extreme prejudice.  Well, Lorna’s already gone through three men in this picture (Roy, Marty and George)—one more won’t make any difference.

The events in the film are similar to the backstory of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his lady friend Virginia Hill; the screenplay for The Damned Don’t Cry was penned by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, based on a short story (“Case History”) by Gertrude Walker.  It’s anything but subtle; a lot of the plot contrivances are enough to cause severe eyeball-rolling…but if you simply accept it as the camp melodrama it’s supposed to be I think you’ll have fun with it.  Sadly, it’s not one of Crawford’s stronger performances (though watching her transform to dowdy housewife to hard-boiled B-girl to continental sophisticate is a hoot) but Brian is better than usual (he doesn’t seem so bland when he plays bad guys) and I liked Smith’s character even though his conversion from mousey accountant to loyal lieutenant convinces no one.  Damned was directed by Vincent Sherman, who’d go on to supervise La Joan in Harriet Craig (1950) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951); Sherman had an affair with Joan during the making of this one…just like he did with Bette Davis (on Old Acquaintance) and would later with Rita Hayworth.  (They should’ve billed him as Vincent “Horndog” Sherman.)  Of interest to the character actor fans in the crowd: Herb Vigran plays one of the buyers ogling Joanie in her modeling career, Ned Glass a smart-alecky cabbie, and Dabbs Greer is one of the reporters towards the end of the film.

3 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Quite a Joanfest you had going there.

"The Damned Don't Cry" works best for me in the after midnight hours.

I've grown fonder of "Flamingo Road" as the years go by, but the first time I saw it I couldn't help thinking the role was better suited to Barbara Stanwyck. Still think so.

Must have a look at "Possessed" one of these days. I like crazy people. They make me feel so sane.

grouchomarxist said...

I agree with Caftan Woman: Stanwyck probably would have done a better job. Still, "Flamingo Road" is a fun Crawford vehicle for all the reasons you mentioned. I also enjoy it for its corrupt power politics sub-plot. It's not "All the King's Men", but it manages to show something of the way government worked back then in many parts of the rural South.

I never made the connection until I read these recent posts, but Crawford's "Louise Howell" seems very much like a precursor to Jessica Walter's "Evelyn Draper" in "Play Misty for Me". They're both emotional black holes who -- to put it lightly -- do not take rejection well. Of course, for obvious reasons Louise is played much more sympathetically, but you have to admit there are some major points of similarity.

For my money, "Possessed" is the best of this trio of lesser Joan Crawford films. I'm a sucker for German Expressionist influences, and when you throw Van Heflin into the mix, for me it's like catnip to a cat.

Stacia said...

THE DAMNED DON'T CRY is one of those films I caught on Encore or Starz back in the day, and as I tell anyone who will listen (why won't anybody listen?!) our cable guide listed it as {I KNOW WHY) THE DAMNED DON'T CRY. For 15 years I was sure that was the full but lesser-known title, but I have searched high and low and haven't seen any reference to that title ever again. I can't imagine what lead up to that mistake.

Grabbed a DVD copy of it a few years ago since it went out of print, because I'm a sucker for Joan and these late-career melodramas -- HARRIET CRAIG is another good one.