Tuesday, August 18

Good 40s Films: Mildred Pierce

1945 Film Noir
From Warner Brothers
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Joan Crawford
Jack Carson
Zachary Scott
Ann Blyth
Eve Arden
Bruce Bennett
Butterfly McQueen

Let it be known that Mildred was on the list of the 25 films we will review for the 40s segment but it was not coming for a couple of months.  Then a friend called and said it was playing at our retro theater and would we like to go?  Would we?  Would we?  Geez, the timing couldn't be better.  So we rounded up some of the boys and off we went.

Uh-huh, let's talk about that rounding up of the boys.  Five strapping lads walking into a showing of Mildred Pierce, or I suppose most any Crawford movie, couldn't be more obvious had we been wearing pink-and-purple-checked shirts and playing Hello Dolly on our harmonicas.

The theater is a grand old palace (opened in 1928) and comes with a perky, old virtuoso playing a thundering, period organ in the pit.  He plays again during the intermission.  Intermission?  Mildred has an intermission?  Well, this one did and it gave everyone a chance to move about and then scurry back for a 50/50 drawing.  The copy of the film wasn't the greatest nor was the soundtrack but it was great fun seeing Crawford's big eyes, big shoulder pads and big personality up there on the big screen and my besties sitting there with me in the front row of the balcony.

I have always been drawn to this movie because it is a wonderful film noir.  Novelist James M. Cain, who knew something about the dark world of noir, had a thing for women in the leading roles.  The 1944 movie version of his Double Indemnity starred Barbara Stanwyck in one of her best roles, and the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice featured just about the best work Lana Turner ever did.  Likewise Mildred gives us Joan Crawford in the finest work of her career.

Noir almost always serves up a bad girl and Stanwyck and Turner had such roles.  Oddly, Mildred is not the bad girl, so Crawford, who actually spent decades playing bad girls of one stripe or another, here is the good one.  Innocent-looking Ann Blyth, more known for MGM musicals and antiseptic costume dramas, steps in as the bad girl, Mildred's daughter, Veda.

At the time Crawford was in need of a hit.  She had been unceremoniously dumped from a long tenure at MGM.  Her last films there met with little enthusiasm.  Warner Bros was always on the lookout for another tough dame and she qualified.  She was aware that her rival, Bette Davis, was queen of the Burbank lot and Crawford would have somewhat of a secondary status but she needed to work.  I've heard that when she was in between film assignments, she could be a real bear at home.

She campaigned hard for Mildred.  She had important people over for tea, she sent them thoughtful cards, she gave them rides home from the studio.  She remembered their children's birthdays.  She had always been a champion ass-kisser and became accustomed to it working.  But word was out that the studio wanted Davis for Mildred and that she turned it down.   Contract stars Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland were considered as were Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell and even Joan Fontaine.

The director, Mike Curtiz, didn't want Crawford at all, publicly saying she was a has-been and too much trouble.  He had his nerve because among the studio's resident directors, he was quite difficult to get along with. 

Jack Warner had not used Crawford in anything since she'd arrived at the studio except for a cameo in their all-star Hollywood Canteen (1944).  And since she was not commanding the salaries that the other Warners' ladies were, her inclusion would help keep the costs down.  In addition to being a noir, it was also obviously a woman's picture which may be why the big male guns took a powder for the two leading male roles.  They would go to second-tier contract players, Jack Carson as Wally and Zachary Scott as Monty.

Even before she got the part, Crawford did all she could to get Blyth the daughter's role.  The resistance to Blyth was that she was under contract to Universal which meant her services would actually cost the studio more money.  But both actresses were determined.  Crawford had not tested for the role and since Warners insisted that Blyth test, Crawford offered to perform one of the film's key scenes with her.  And it worked.  Both were hired.  Curtiz had to walk off his anger.  Production was ready to go.

The film opens with the murder of Mildred's sleazy second husband, Monty.  As he is dying on the floor of his beach house, he calls out Mildred.  Through a most effective use of flashbacks we learn that when Mildred's first husband leaves her and their two daughters, she must go to work.  She gets a job as a waitress and eventually parlays that into her own restaurant and then a series of them.

Loyal, longtime family friend, Wally, would like to become husband number two but instead looks out for her business interests when Mildred shuns his clumsy advances.  Mildred, in turn, marries Monty, a man she doesn't really love, and a man who will deceive her from start to finish.

At the center of the plot is the spoiled daughter, a brat as noir treacherous as they come.  She is embarrassed by her mother's choice of occupations, especially in contrast to her own lofty ambitions.  Veda is determined to have lots of money and doesn't care whom she walks over to get it.  Here is a story of obsessive and unrequited mother love.  Mildred doesn't give nearly the same attention to her younger daughter before the girl dies unexpectedly.  In the book Monty does not die but instead  runs off with Veda.  The change works very well for here.

The film version has Veda thinking she's going to go off with him but when he laughs off that possibility, she shoots him, she shoots him four times.  Mildred finally comes to accept that her wild daughter is beyond help and the final scene shows her walking off with her first husband.

I think this movie continues to capture the imagination of audiences because of this mother-daughter relationship.  Their scenes together are sizzling. (A clip of the best of them and the most famous is at the end of the posting.)   In our showing the audience hooted and hollered and applauded when Veda got her occasional comeuppance.  Both actresses were nominated for Oscars.  Crawford won and Blyth should have (sorry Ethel Barrymore).

The look of the black and white film is gorgeous.  The shadows across faces, the lighting of the beach house, the homey feeling of Mildred's restaurant, the harshness of police headquarters, the automobiles, the clothing, the hair, the makeup... all just right.  The clothing became an issue between Crawford and Curtiz.  He was annoyed that she seemed to do things (like sneaking in those shoulder pads) that glammed up Mildred, which the director thought was wrong.  From what I saw the other day, she won.  (That beach house, by the way, was actually the home of Curtiz.)

Crawford pulled out all stops to play Mildred and even Curtiz begrudgingly came to appreciate her hard work and acknowledged she was perfection itself.  She had hoped her entire career to win an Oscar but as good as she could be, her roles had a sameness to them and few ever stood out enough to attract the Academy's attention.  Until Mildred Pierce.  She was ecstatic when she was nominated but by the night of the awards, she was too sick to attend.  Actually, she was too nervous and couldn't handle sitting in that large gathering as a loser.  After she won, someone rushed the Oscar over to her bedroom for the photo-op the reporters and photographers outside her Brentwood home were waiting for.

She deserved the Oscar, too.  I've always found Mildred Pierce to be her best work.  What has always perplexed me is why she's often mentioned alongside Davis, Stanwyck and Hepburn as part of the some sort of grande dame club of Hollywood.  Crawford wasn't that good.  Should she be mentioned in the same breath and with the same nod as a four-time Oscar winner?  I dun thin' so, Lucy.  Hepburn and Stanwyck ran from publicity and public grandstanding while Crawford courted it.  Can you imagine Hepburn inviting photographers to her home to record for posterity her writing out thank-you notes to fans?  For three decades, La Crawford was a magnificent movie star and a good but not great actress.  And for sure, her body of work, while extensive, is not as glorious as the films those other three actresses can claim.  Therefore, hooray for Mildred Pierce.  An Oscar win makes the magnificent movie star immortal.

And so does something else as well, of course.  Ever since the 1978 publication of Mommie Dearest, when I have seen Mildred Pierce, I think that Joan indeed deserved the Oscar for portraying such a devoted and loving mother.  Well, that is, if one believes Christina Crawford's tale of child abuse... and I do.  Ann Blyth apparently doesn't believe it or so she has more or less said on her piece for TCM on Crawford.  One assumes therefore that she'd seen Crawford occasionally through the years since the abuse wasn't occurring to any great degree in 1944 when they shot Mildred.  And during these subsequent visits, one assumes Crawford wouldn't simply volunteer... oh Ann, dear, did you know I abuse my kids?  That would be as on the down-low as Hollywood secret lives can be.  Most of Hollywood knew what a troublesome, exacting, scary woman she could be.  They knew she was really Mildred Fierce.  And the Oscar goes to...

After writer Cain saw the film, he sent the leading lady a first edition of the novel with the inscription: To Joan Crawford who brought Mildred Pierce to life just as I had always hoped she would be, and who has my lifelong gratitude.

I knew a girl in my childhood like Veda.  She's probably married to a Washington politician today.  So it's always chilling to see Blyth in this role.  She is the most fascinating character in the story.  Her gorgeous singing voice pigeon-holed her in musicals.  The few dramatic attempts she made (good as she was in 1950s Our Very Own and 1957s The Helen Morgan Story) never produced quite the spark that Veda did.

Carson was a wonderful second lead.  Any film he made was better because he was in it.  Although usually in comedy roles, he was a compelling dramatic actor.  He also tested for the Monty role but was better advantaged as the amorous Wally.  Scott was perfection itself as the smarmy Monty.  When he popped that cigarette in those holders, donned his dickies, brushed the pencil-thin moustache with his finger, lowered his eyes and sloshed out some boozy invective, you knew he shouldn't live much longer.

Eve Arden was about as fun to watch on the screen as anyone I know.  True, she was the same in nearly every film... the best friend or coworker or sister of the leading lady, with the wickedly cynical throwaway lines... and no one did it better than she did.  For an added source of amusement, there's even Butterfly McQueen (omg that voice...!!!) with some cute lines as Mildred's maid.

If you're one of the few who hasn't seen it and you are a fan of films of the 1940s, treat yourself.  In the meantime, here are Mildred and Veda:

Next posting:  The Directors

1 comment:

  1. With your posting I felt as I was watching the movie for the second time so perfect were your descriptions of the scenes. You mention Double Indemnity which in my opinion is one of the best noir of the forties and not only, but I am forced to admit that Mildred was an excellent movie. I say "I have to admit", because I never fell for Crawford. If I had to save a movie with Crawford I'd save Grand Hotel. Kind of naughty ,am I not?Please, more films from the forties. How I'd love to exchange opinions on movies and Actors with you. Lo. Ciao.