Flamingo Road (1949)
Mildred Pierce is one of Michael Curtiz’ most famous films, and it may be the role that Joan Crawford is best known for. But a few years later the two collaborated on another film, which is lesser known today, but I think actually more interesting.
Flamingo Road tells the story of Lane Bellamy, a woman who we first see dancing in a cheap carnival, but who rises to become the wife of a powerful politician. The story is pure melodrama, but the film is an interesting study of power and corruption. The action plays out in a small town, and the title refers to the section where the rich folks live. When the carnival she dances in skips town to escape the law, Lane decides she’s tired of running and stays behind, going to work as a waitress in a local cafe. All she wants to do is work a job and make a living, but she inadvertently gets drawn into a conflict between two powerful politicians.
Lane is a woman living in a world run by men. She’s happy enough waiting tables in the local diner, but when she falls for lawman Fielding Carlisle she incurs the wrath of Sheriff Semple, who has other plans for his deputy. Semple has her fired, and tells her she’d best leave town. Angered by the way she’s been mistreated, Lane decides to stick around and goes to work as a “hostess” in a “road house”. Here she meets politically connected businessman Dan Reynolds, who is immediately taken with her.
This sets up the conflict that drives the movie on more than one level. On the one hand, you have Lane growing closer to Dan, even though she’s still in love with Fielding. At the same time, Semple is infuriated by Lane’s rise in society, and ends up mounting a political attack on Dan as part of a power grab.
Robert Wilder’s screenplay offers a fascinating view of the way politics and business intertwine, showing how deals are made behind closed doors long before they ever see the light of day. (Wilder also authored the original novel, and adapted it for the stage with his wife, Sally.) Curtiz knows this territory well. In the later part of his career, the director made a number of films exploring the crooked world we live in, notably in Casablanca, but also in Four’s a Crowd, The Breaking Point, The Helen Morgan Story and King Creole. Lane, like many of Curtiz’ protagonists, is someone just trying to stay in the game even though she knows the deck is stacked against her. In the 40s and 50s the director repeatedly focussed on characters who struggle to survive in a world that seems bent on grinding them down.
The most complex character in the film is Dan Reynolds, the powerful contractor who falls for Lane. He’s essentially an honest man who knows that projects don’t get built on honesty. Dan understands that everybody’s looking out for themselves, and he’s willing to play the game, but he tries to make sure all the players get taken care of. Curtiz takes us into the smoke-filled rooms where local businessmen play cards, booze it up, and make deals. These scenes play out with a smooth, matter-of-fact ease. The screenwriter and the director both know this melieu, and they also know that, whether we like it or not, this is how the world works.
There are people who say Crawford is too old for the role, but I disagree. I have no idea how old the character was in the novel, but I think the fact that Crawford was in her 40s when she played the part brings added layers to it. When we first see Lane dancing in the carnival it’s clear she’s been in this game way too long. A young woman might see it as an adventure. A middle-aged woman can’t see it as anything more than a way to make ends meet. After the carnival has fled, we see Lane by herself, lying on a cot in a tent, listening to the radio. She’s tired. She feels ground down. A younger actress couldn’t have expressed the weariness that Crawford brings to this scene. When the deputy walks in on her, she’s too tired to be fearful. She’s been hassled by the law before.
This is the kind of role that Crawford knew well. She probably could have played it in her sleep, but she’s not sleepwalking here. Lane’s weary cynicism rings true. The way Crawford plays the part, we know she’s been around the block a few times. And she makes her part in the love triangle believable. Lane likes and respects Dan, but she can’t get Fielding out of her mind. And when Dan realizes where he stands and walks out, Crawford makes us feel Lane’s misery and shame. Yeah, she’s done all this before, but she still does it really well.
David Brian has a smoothness and an easy charm as Dan that makes it easy to believe he’s one of the boys in the back room, but he also projects a strength that makes it clear he’s got principles. He’s not just out for a buck. As always, Zachary Scott slides right into his character and makes us forget he’s playing a part. Maybe his unobtrusive skill is the reason his flawless performances never attracted the attention that lesser actors got. Scott shows us early on that Deputy Fielding Carlisle is basically a decent guy with absolutely no backbone. He loves Lane, but he won’t fight for her, and so he not only loses her respect but his own self-respect.
But maybe the most impressive performance in the film is Sydney Greenstreet as the Machiavellian sheriff. Greenstreet was a masterful actor, and he’s a powerful presence in this movie. There’s no ambiguity in the character. Sherrif Semple is absolutely ruthless and completely corrupt. So it’s impressive that Greenstreet’s performance is as compelling as it is. It could have been a total cliche, but the actor brings so much life to the role, he makes this vile old man so vivid, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Part of the reason this melodrama works so well is that the world these characters inhabit is so completely imagined. Curtiz was surrounded by technicians who were masters of their craft, and they were expert at creating cafes, carnivals and construction sites on a soundstage. Art director Leo K. Kuter and set decorator Howard Winterbottom breathe life into all the places and spaces that make up this small town. Ted McCord’s subtly textured cinematography brings everything together as an expressive whole. I can’t understand why McCord has never gotten the attention he deserves. A seasoned pro with an incredible eye, he had gift for creating images with depth and texture whether he was working on a set or on location. Curtiz and McCord worked together a number of times, which leads me to believe the director valued his abilities. I don’t see how anyone could look at his work on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Breaking Point, and East of Eden without coming to the conclusion that he was one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Lane’s situation goes from bad to worse, until the film comes to a harrowing climax, and then quickly settles into a reassuring resolution. I’m sure you already know the territory. Curtiz knew it, too, and he knew he had to deliver what audiences expected. It’s not the big dramatic moments that make this film, it’s what comes in between. It’s the way the townspeople bend over backwards to stay on the sherrif’s good side. It’s the glimpses we get of men making deals over liquor and cigars. And it’s the way the director presents the poignant reality of a middle-aged woman stranded in a small town, trying to figure out what her next move is.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
It’s important to start by saying that Anderson’s version of events was not historically accurate, and that Warners’ took further liberties with the facts. What makes the play so compelling is the way the author digs into the two central characters, ripping away the layers of pride and pretense as Elizabeth and Essex battle for control of the relationship and control of England. The screenplay, by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, discards much of Anderson’s dialogue and completely alters the structure, but actually ends up being nearly as complex and involving as the original play. The film is surprisingly literate for Hollywood, and what’s even more surprising is that the screenwriters manage to create a historical love story that is lively and interesting.
The film goes far beyond the narrow emotional range of most Hollywood films, and Curtiz is up to the challenge. He understands the possibilities in the material and uses his considerable gifts as a filmmaker to dramatize the screenplay. While the background is brimming with pomp and pageantry, in the foreground we see two people who are intelligent and passionate, vain and insecure, struggling to come to terms with each other. Art director Anton Grot creates spaces both vast and intimate, using vibrant color to set the emotional tone for each scene. Cinematographer Sol Polito finishes the job beautifully with his fluent use of light and shadow.
The heart of the film is Davis’ performance, and she is amazing. She was clearly fascinated by Elizabeth, and her commitment to the part is obvious. Her performance has nothing to do with Hollywood’s standard notions of romance. Her Elizabeth is not attractive or seductive. She does not try to ingratiate herself to us in any way. Davis plays the queen as a brilliant and neurotic woman, desperately wanting to be loved and absolutely determined not to show it.
Flynn, on the other hand, plays Errol Flynn. It’s not that he’s bad, but his performance isn’t in the same league as his co-star’s. He brings the same level of commitment to this role as he did to Captain Blood or Robin Hood, but the script demands more. He handles the dialogue well enough, but his performance is all on the surface. It’s possible that at this point in his career Flynn couldn’t dig any deeper. But the rest of the cast is solid, and there are a few standouts. Apparently the experience of making the film was traumatic for Olivia de Havilland, but she is excellent as Penelope. The role gives her a chance to step away from the wholesome, good girl image that Warners had forced on her. And Donald Crisp plays Francis Bacon with impressive skill and subtlety.
The adventure films that Flynn and Curtiz made all have simple, clear stories that outline a basic struggle between good and evil. Though they’re ostensibly about heroism, for the most part they’re really about exploiting our childish desire for reassurance. The leadership at Warners made an effort to fit Elizabeth and Essex into that mold, but the basic premise of the film defied that kind of simplification. Though not historically accurate, it’s a real story about real people and real human failings. We are made to see that the brave and dashing Essex is a vain, impetuous egotist who understands little about the realities of running a country. And we can’t even fully sympathize with Elizabeth, who is a jealous, neurotic egotist willing to sacrifice the man she loves to retain her power. It’s the antithesis of the standard formula, because it shows how empires are really built. And there’s nothing reassuring in the outcome.
I’ve been interested in art director Anton Grot’s work for a while. He worked on many films with Curtiz, and is credited on numerous other Warner features in the thirties and forties. It’s been really hard to find information on Grot, but I did come across a blog which features several of his drawings. As far as I can tell, most of them were done for Captain Blood, but it looks like at least one was for Mildred Pierce, and the last one is probably for Elizabeth and Essex or The Sea Hawk (the two films share a number of sets). If you’d like to check the drawings out, click here.
The Breaking Point (1950)
Anybody who’s a fan of movies from the studio era probably has a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. It’s hard to beat for sheer entertainment, taking full advantage of its charismatic stars and a top-notch supporting cast. It’s also totally superficial. We know from the start that the good guys are going to win and that Bogart is going to walk off with Bacall. It’s a classic example of the way the studios would take a book and transform it into something almost unrecognizable. In the case of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, Hawks took the premise of a guy on a boat in the Carribean and dumped everything else.
Really, he had to, because the original novel is extremely unusual and brutally cynical. Actually, I think the book is pretty interesting, but its fragmented narrative and strange digressions pretty much defy all the conventions of commercial filmmaking. On top of that, it was wartime, and the studios were determined to keep everything upbeat and positive.
But by nineteen fifty things had changed. There was a strong undercurrent of cynicism running beneath Hollywood’s glamorous surface. People were making films that not only questioned the status quo, but suggested that we were living in a world where the deck was stacked against us. That’s pretty much the thrust of Hemingway’s novel. The book is about those who have money and those who don’t. And the conclusion that the main character reaches by the end is “A man don’t stand a chance.”
According to Eddie Muller, it was John Garfield who suggested doing a remake. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall was brought on board to do the adaptation. Though he moved the story into the present and changed the location to Long Beach, it’s much closer to both to the letter and the spirit of the book than the Hawks version. Harry Morgan is a fisherman struggling to support his family and hang on to his boat. The story shows how he’s driven to ever more desperate measures to make money, finally agreeing to take part in a robbery.
Garfield’s gripping, lively performance is the heart of the movie. Harry starts out as a fairly easygoing guy who just wants to make a living, but as he feels the screws tighten we can feel him tighten up as well. Garfield had a gift for playing average guys, and did it without sentimentalizing his characters. He doesn’t ask for our sympathy, he just plays the role as honestly as he can.
Harry loves his wife, and he works hard to provide for her and the kids. Lucy Morgan loves her husband but she’s slowly getting ground down by the stress of making do with almost nothing. Phyllis Thaxter plays the part with admirable simplicity and sublety. The one character that’s borrowed from the Hawks version is the sexy drifter, who in this case tests Harry’s commitment to his wife. The role was probably created to make the movie more commercial, but Patricia Neal is so good that it’s hard to complain. She’s tough, smooth, cynical, and still vulnerable in a way that makes her seem human.
Those who are mostly familiar with Curtiz’ polished films of the forties might be surprised by the gritty intensity of The Breaking Point. It has the energy and the tension you can find in some of his thirties melodramas, but here the characters are more complex. Curtiz keeps his camera close to the actors, and MacDougall’s script allows them to dig into their roles. We have no trouble believing that they inhabit this world, that their lives are rooted in this small seaside town. Cinematographer Ted McCord is amazingly sensitive to the ways in which light can define a location and the subtle nuances of mood it creates. He makes a working class kitchen and a waterfront bar equally real and vivid. Whether he’s shooting on location or on a soundstage the images have the same attention to texture and the same vibrant immediacy.
At the end of the film Harry has survived a shootout with the robbers, but it looks like he’s going to lose his arm. Delirious, he rambles on about how “a man don’t stand a chance”, but calms down when his wife arrives. She convinces Harry to let the doctor amputate, and she’s with him as they carry him to the ambulance. Not the happiest of endings, but we feel a sense of hope. Then the camera pulls back and we’re left with the final startling image. Harry’s sometime partner Wesley was killed in the shootout. As Harry and his wife, the police and the doctors exit the frame, we’re left with a shot of Wesley’s young son standing by himself on the pier. This image of a child, alone and forgotten, is the film’s most powerful moment. It’s totally unexpected, and the movie is over before we can absorb it, but it lingers in the memory. Hollywood movies generally end with the promise that everything’s going to be all right. The Breaking Point does not, and it’s all the more powerful because of its honesty. It tells us that everything is not going to be all right.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.
The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.
The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.
The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.
Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.
Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.