A Woman's Face (1941) / Flamingo Road (1949) DVD Reviews: The Dark Side of Joan

Two classic features from the one and only Joan Crawford return to DVD thanks to the Warner Archive Collection.
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While previously released to DVD by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, a number of Joan Crawford classics had fallen into that unfavorable "Out of Print" status movie collectors so hate to see. Fortunately, a total of six Crawford vehicles ‒ Dancing Lady, Sadie McKee, Strange Cargo, A Woman's Face, Flamingo Road, and Torch Song (the latter five of which comprised the bulk of The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 from 2008) ‒ have re-emerged from moratorium thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, two of which are reviewed here.

In A Woman's Face, a 1941 thriller from director George Cukor, we not only see the early years of the celebrated film noir at play, but also an early example of what happens when Hollywood decides to remake a foreign flick. In this case, a 1938 Swedish drama named En kvinnas ansikte with Ingrid Bergman was the original source of inspiration. But, of course, when Joan Crawford is attached to a starring project previously brought to life by another attractive actress, you can bet your bottom dollar she's going to do everything she can to make it her own movie.

And she succeeds admirably in this engaging tale of the things we do for love.

Told mostly in flashback (like any good noir), A Woman's Face finds Crawford as a minor underworld empress of blackmail named Anna, whose half-disfigured face serves as a permanent reminder to her as to how genuinely cruel the world can be (it was a parting gift from her less-than-lovable father). When her latest scheme goes awry a tad, a reputable plastic surgeon (that sexy Melvyn Douglas fellow) not only sets his eyes upon the otherwise beautiful woman, but decides to cast his scalpel to her kisser in a noble attempt to improve her social outlook.

But Anna's blackened heart instead chooses to accept the attention of an aristocrat named Torsten (Conrad Veidt, the inspiration of The Joker in the Batman comics), whose obvious villainy is just the type of thing the bad girl likes. At the request of her bad beau, Anna uses her new face and identity to her advantage, traveling to the remote country home of Torsten's wealthy uncle (Albert Bassermann) estate to serve as the governess to the elderly Consul's four-year-old nephew ‒ who is the only person standing in the way between Torsten and his uncle's sizeable estate.

Co-starring in this MGM hit which made for a darn fine transition from glamour girl Joan to villainess extraordinaire are Osa Massen, Reginald Owen, Marjorie Main, and child star Richard Nichols (recently seen in the WAC releases of Hitler's Madman and A Dispatch from Reuter's). There's also a fine meaty role for classic character actor Donald Meek. Interestingly, two actors to have portrayed Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series from 20 Century Fox/Universal ‒ George Zucco and Henry Daniell ‒ play lawyers from opposite sides of the courtroom.

Eight years after A Woman's Face left us all with a memorable scar, Joan Crawford went South for a torrid adaptation of Robert and Sally Wilder's play about the ugliness of sordid small town drama, Flamingo Road (1949). The story here centers on a lady named Lane (our lady Joan), who works in one of those tiny traveling carnivals we rarely see anymore as ‒ among other things ‒ a dancer. When a rather feeble excuse for a deputy sheriff named Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) is sent to chase the freeloaders out of the county, he discovers everyone else has left Lane behind.

But it's no life in the fast lane for Lane when she is instantly targeted by the community's corrupt, vile excuse for a human being, Sheriff Titus Semple, who is played to the hilt by the great Sidney Greenstreet in one of his final film roles. After sensing the love affair forming between wayfarer Lane and the decidedly dense Fielding, the sheriff soon uses his deputy's own political ambitions against him to end the romance, souring the deal that much further by tossing Lane in jail on a bogus morality charge whilst beginning to promote the deputy in his pocket to his crooked cronies as the next governor.

When Lane finally manages to find some work at a nearby roadhouse ‒ where all sorts of bad doings are going on ‒ she also succeeds in discovering handsome (and yes, also corrupt) businessman Dan Reynolds (David Brian), whom she figures marrying should get under the sheriff's thick skin. And it does ‒ but that's just the tip of the iceberg of despair that is rapidly melting away on Flamingo Road. Gladys George, Virginia Huston, and Fred Clark (Bells Are Ringing) also star. Be sure to look quick for cameos by Tristram Coffin, Frank Cady, and Fred Kelsey.

The wonderful Michael Curtiz directs this southern noir with great efficiency, delivering a torrid mini-masterpiece which would later be transformed into a short-lived primetime television soap opera in 1980 with Morgan Fairchild, Mark Harmon, Howard Duff, John Beck, Kevin McCarthy, and Cristina Raines. Batman fans may wish to check this one out for Sidney Greenstreet's performance, as his wobbly posture, lack of manners, and occasional cackling (all attributable to his failing health in real life) in this picture almost makes him seem like an early cinematic prototype of The Penguin.

As these two DVD re-releases are re-pressings of the original discs as Manufactured-on-Demand titles, all of the bells and whistles from the previous 2008 versions are included here. A Woman's Face includes the vintage short You Can't Fool the Camera, a cartoon (Little Cesario), and two radio adaptations of the film: one starring Ida Lupino, the other with Bette Davis. Flamingo Road sports the 2008 featurette Crawford at Warners, another cartoon (Curtain Razor), and a radio version (this time with Crawford). Each film's original theatrical trailer wrap both releases up.

Both A Woman's Face and Flamingo Road are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and feature a nice crisp English mono soundtrack. Optional subtitles are provided for this wonderful pairing of dark dramas in English (SDH) and French. These titles, along with the other four WAC MOD reduxs, are all available to order now, and both of the reviewed items come personally recommended by yours truly.

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