Judge Clark Douglas wants to sing a torch song about strange cargo on Flamingo Road with Sadie McKee (who has a woman's face).
Trailblazer. Heartbreaker. Powerbroker.
For a DVD collection like this, I'd usually write a little paragraph right here about the actor or actress being featured. But in the case of someone as bold and honest as Joan Crawford, I think it's best to let the actress introduce herself: "Nobody can imitate me. You can always see impressions of Katherine Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe. But not me. Because I've always drawn on myself only."
Facts of the Case
Five films are spread across five discs in this collection. All five discs are housed in an attractive accordion case.
First up is Sadie McKee from 1934, when Joan Crawford was at the height of her box office power (if not critical acclaim). Crawford plays the title character, a young housemaid whose life goes through a series of tumultuous turns. The film centers on Sadie's relationships with three different men: a poor singer (Gene Raymond, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), a drunkard millionaire (Edward Arnold, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and a lawyer (Franchot Tone, In Harm's Way) Sadie has known for many years. Which man will ultimately win the heart of Sadie McKee?
Fast forward six years to 1940 as the collection spotlights one of the most famous early cinema screen pairings: Joan Crawford and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind). Gable plays a convict who (along with six other prisoners) is attempting to escape from Devil's Island. As Gable is making his escape, he strikes up a partnership with a beautiful woman (Crawford) who is also attempting to get off the island. A tempestuous romance forms against a backdrop of action and adventure, but that's only the beginning…there some dark clouds brewing on the horizon in Strange Cargo.
A year later we find Crawford starring in A Woman's Face, a dramatic thriller directed by George Cukor. Crawford plays a bitter, loveless woman with a terribly scarred face. She leads a life of crime (specifically blackmail), and generally feels quite inferior to the rest of humanity. That begins to change when she meets a charming suitor (Conrad Veidt, Casablanca). Veidt tells Crawford that she is quite beautiful, and he continues to tell her so when she undergoes successful plastic surgery to change her face. However, there's a small favor he'd like to ask of her, just a small thing: would she mind murdering his four-year-old nephew?
Another rags-to-riches Crawford tale is featured in the small-town drama Flamingo Road. Crawford plays an exotic dancer who decides to settle down in a small town when she sparks the romantic interest of a young deputy sheriff (Zachary Scott, Mildred Pierce). Unfortunately, the evil town sheriff (Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon) has other plans, and determines to run the woman out of town before she spoils the carefully preserved image of Flamingo Road. Will Crawford be able to withstand the personal and political attacks on the horizon?
Finally, a cult musical of sorts from 1953 wraps up the collection. In Torch Song, Crawford plays a hardened singer who is used to getting what she wants…all the time, every time. Naturally she becomes quite angry when her new piano player (Michael Wilding, The Egyptian), a calm but firm blind man, begins to tell her she should do things differently. Sparks of anger soon begin to turn into sparks of romance in this musical melodrama.
Considering the forming plot and some of the sly innuendo in the early moments of Sadie McKee, I expected what would follow to be a juicy, old-fashioned melodrama. Surprisingly, Sadie McKee takes itself quite seriously, and perhaps even more surprisingly, it is all the better for that. The movie is ultimately a rather affecting and honest look at a woman's life. Sadie is a very well-developed character…there's a certain part of her that wants to take advantage of the men in her life in order to climb to the top, but another part of her that values genuine love above all else.
Joan Crawford is splendid in the role, offering a very sympathetic performance. Even at her worst, we never see Sadie as a manipulator of any sort; she's simply making the best of each situation while trying to find her place in life. Of the three male leads, Edward Arnold fares the best as the drunken millionaire, bringing considerable color and humor early on and surprising dramatic tones later. Raymond and Tone are a little less interesting, both are a little bit one-note. Even so, it seems that Tone made a pretty big impression in real life…he and Crawford were married shortly after the filming of Sadie McKee. It's not one of Crawford's great films, but it is a very satisfying and touching romantic drama.
Vastly different is the action/adventure/romance/drama Strange Cargo, which is truly a strange movie. In begins in standard movie fashion, with a bold guy and a hot-tempered girl on the run with a group of convicts in the jungle. However, as it progresses, the film turns into a rather unpredictable religious allegory, with Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood) moving into the center of attention as a Christ-like figure. Thoughtful (though occasionally heavy-handed) meditations on life, death, religion, God, and Satan appear frequently, and the movie works it's way into an odd but somehow very compelling tone.
The rather unusual plot developments are sold admirably by the performances. Clark Gable is exceptionally strong, creating a character that has the capability of being both charming and rather nasty. Joan Crawford is a perfect match, offering sneering anger in the first half of the film and bedraggled weariness in the second half. Her performance is quite excellent, and Crawford was apparently quite proud of the way she managed to remove her glamorous façade in the role. Ian Hunter is deeply serene in his role, while Paul Lukas (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is another standout in a fine supporting cast. Perhaps best of all is the wonderful Peter Lorre (M), who does one of his perfect little turns as a sleazy low-life aptly named "Monsieur Pig."
George Cukor's A Woman's Face is perhaps the most interesting film of the collection, a very engaging and suspenseful tale of murder. We know who the murderer is (Crawford), but we aren't told upfront who she murdered, or why. The story unfolds in a courtroom setting, as various witnesses tell their part of the sordid tale. Cukor creates some nicely atmospheric moments early on, and generates some real excitement late in the film with a superbly-staged sled chase. It's a very solid film, and once again the performances carry the day.
Viewers who are unfamiliar with Crawford will be quite surprised by the versatility she displays over the course of the films in this collection. In A Woman's Face, Crawford again manages to make a rather hardened, bitter, and potentially murderous character quite sympathetic and believable. She's certainly the lesser of two evils in the film, as the ominous Conreid Veidt simply oozes seething menace. The two have a kind of creepy chemistry together during certain scenes, particularly a sequence in Veidt's apartment midway through the film. To a lesser degree, Crawford also generates some chemistry with the good-hearted Melvyn Douglas (Hud), who plays the plastic surgeon who operates on Crawford. Music certainly helps things, too, as Bronislau Kaper's score (along with a variety of folk tunes and classical pieces) sets the tone very effectively.
For one reason or another, I didn't expect too much of Flamingo Road, which looked to be just another melodrama about a woman trying to make her way in the world. However, under the craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce), the film turns into a very riveting and rather angry drama of politics and passion. The film could have easily been a cheap melodrama, but Curtiz's steady direction always keeps things credible. Joan Crawford is excellent in her role as a woman trying to reclaim some sort of dignity; it may very well be her best performance here.
As good as Crawford is, this movie is stolen by none other than Sydney Greenstreet, who gives one of his very best performances as a force of magnificent evil. Greenstreet is such an ominous and hateful presence in this movie, he loads every sentence he says with gallons of hatred and malice. There are some sensational scenes between Greenstreet and Crawford, particularly a startling moment when Crawford slaps Greenstreet numerous times. Rather than responding with violence, Greenstreet simply stares cruelly at Crawford, making her an unspoken promise of vengeance. It's a chilling performance that makes a good movie much better. The rest of the cast in Flamingo Road fares well enough, but they don't hold a candle to Crawford or Greenstreet. Zachary Scott is really quite boring as Crawford's romantic interest, while David Brian (The High and the Mighty) is reasonably engaging as a powerful politician (incidentally, it was Brian's first performance).
I'll touch on Torch Song in the next portion of this review, but at the moment, let me inform you all of these films are looking quite strong. As Sadie McKee is the oldest, it naturally looks and sounds a little less impressive than the rest, but it is nonetheless quite excellent for a 1934 film. Flamingo Road, Strange Cargo, and A Woman's Face are more or less all in the same category, with only a minimal amount of scratches and flecks on each film, and solid mono audio that is free of crackling or distortion. Torch Song is the only color film of the collection, and also the only widescreen presentation. It is by far the best-looking of the five, with very good-looking Technicolor and strong sound (particularly during the musical numbers).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So, there are four good films in the Joan Crawford Collection: Volume Two, but the fifth and final one is a real stinker. Torch Song is hailed as being a fascinatingly bad cult classic, but I feel that it's not only bad, it's very banal. Crawford's tough-as-nails performance comes across as artificial posing in the movie, and the plot wanders around in circles without ever going anywhere interesting. Will she and the blind piano player fall in love? The relationship goes on and off, and we never really care much either way.
One would hope that the musical numbers (which are dubbed by other vocalists) would provide some light entertainment, but most of them seem to fall rather flat. The film's most bizarre sequence is a musical number called Two-Faced Woman in which Crawford (and a host of backup singers) performs in blackface. There doesn't seem to be any discernable reason for this, and the historians on the featurette included on the DVD seem just as baffled. If anything, the sequence only seems to offer a bit of historical perspective, making a note of the fact that such things were still being done in Hollywood in 1953.
As for the bonus features in this collection, they fall a little bit short as well. Each film is accompanied by a vintage cartoon and/or live action short. These are not particularly interesting in and of themselves (save for a good Porky Pig cartoon included on Flamingo Road), but I suppose they might be a little amusing to watch before the main feature. It should be noted that some of these cartoons aren't kid-friendly, featuring some rather offensive ethnic stereotypes (such as the inclusion of the "Sambo Jazz Band" in Toyland Broadcast). Of slightly more interest are the radio show adaptations of Flamingo Road (starring the cast of the film) and A Woman's Face (one with Bette Davis, one with Ida Lupino). There are also three brief featurettes: "Gable and Crawford" covers the relationship between those two movie stars, "Crawford at Warners" examines…well, obviously Crawford's time at Warner Brothers, and "Tough Baby: Torch Song" is a featurette specifically devoted to that particular film (probably a good idea, considering that most viewers won't have any idea what to make of Torch Song). These featurettes are all okay, the sort of things you might see on Turner Classic Movies between films.
Despite one terrible film and a rather thin batch of extras, this is nonetheless a solid collection. There's a great deal of diversity here, so whether you're into romance, adventure, drama, mystery, or musicals, there's sure to be something you'll like. The films look and sound superb, so if you're a fan of Joan Crawford and/or classic cinema, this collection is well worth looking into.
Torch Song is guilty of being just plain bad in every way, but the collection as a whole is by all means free to go.
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Scales of Justice, Flamingo Road
Perp Profile, Flamingo Road
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Flamingo Road
• "Crawford at Warners"
Scales of Justice, Sadie Mckee
Perp Profile, Sadie Mckee
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Sadie Mckee
• Vintage Comedy Short Goofy Movies #4
Scales of Justice, Strange Cargo
Perp Profile, Strange Cargo
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Strange Cargo
• "Gable and Crawford"
Scales of Justice, A Woman's Face
Perp Profile, A Woman's Face
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, A Woman's Face
• Vintage Short You Can't Fool a Camera
Scales of Justice, Torch Song
Perp Profile, Torch Song
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Torch Song
• "Tough Baby: Torch Song"
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