Saturday, October 10, 2009

'Mildred': Fierce Indeed

It was Joan's comeback role and scored big at the box office.

And I really should thank Carol Burnett for introducing me to "Mildred Pierce." As any fans of Burnett's variety show know, she grew up going to movies with her grandmother and loved them. She translated that into super sketches that parodied film classics, from "Gone With the Wind" to "Rebecca." As I began getting into old movies, I'd come across one that, halfway though, I'd say, "Oh yeah, Carol Burnett did a parody of this."

Apparently, she did two of "Mildred Pierce" called "Mildred Fierce." But it's the one from the mid-'70s that I love, with Carol in classic '40s hairstyle and shoulder pads, Vicki Lawrence as selfish daughter Veda, and Harvey Korman as Monte. The parody may be short, but for anyone who's seen the 1945 film, it's 10 minutes of brilliance -- and remains one of my favorite Carol Burnett movie parodies.

I also want to thank the three people (three? am I losing my touch?) who voted in my recent poll to say that they don't mind Kate Winslet tackling the role. While I worship Kate, I'm still hesitant to believe the 2010 miniseries will work, as my love of the original still remains strong.

To understand the original's importance in film history is to know more about its star, film noir's popularity and what I like to think of as this film's own unique spin on the genre.

Joan Crawford was a star. She spent 18 years at MGM, and her persona embodied everything from carefree youth roles in the late 1920s to hard-working shop girl-type roles during the Depression. In 1938, the Independent Theater Owners of America labeled Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as box-office poison. Within two years all were back in fine form, with Crawford in the all-female ensemble "The Women." But it was a momentary bump in popularity, and she left MGM. Warner Brothers snapped her up in 1943, but outside of an appearance in "Hollywood Canteen," she refused all scripts, waiting for the right one to come along. Bette Davis, then under contract at Warners, turned the role down of Mildred. However, Joan snapped it up. Even though she had resisted playing mothers during her career so far, seeing herself as the star and leading romantic love interest, she loved the role and wisely realized it could start a new chapter to her career.

Director Michael Curtiz wasn't so sure. He didn't want to work with a person known to be difficult. So she consented to a screen test for him, and he acquiesced.

"Mildred" is based upon a 1941 book by James M. Cain (who also wrote "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice"). Although I have not read the book, apparently all of the characters are unpleasant, but each has a redeeming value. For the movie, the story was changed to turn Mildred into a self-sacrificing mom who becomes a victim of circumstances. Daughter Veda and second husband Monte lose their redeeming values to become antagonists.

"Mildred Pierce" has the uncanny knack of combining elements of a woman's picture and film noir, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. In fact, the movie opens with Monte being shot, and after falling to the ground, he utters one dying word, "Mildred." Then we see Mildred walking along a dock late at night, hugging her massive fur coat close to her in the swirling mist. As she stops along a railing, looking down at the water, despondent, fighting back tears, we know she wants to jump. But a police officer stops her. As Mildred and other suspects are hauled down to the police station, the story unfolds in flashbacks -- Mildred's unhappy marriage breaking up, her desire to give both daughters everything she never had, resulting in her working night and day to do so. Mildred's oldest daughter, Veda (the devilish Ann Blyth, above two photos), grows up to be spoiled and ungrateful. Mildred ends up in the restaurant business with Ida Corwin (a wonderfully wisecracking Eve Arden, above at far right) and falls in love with cad Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Throw in sleazy lawyer Wally Fay (the underrated Jack Carson), who hounds Mildred even while married, and you've got one doozy of a story.

Film noir is one of the most famous genres of the 1940s. Certainly Billy Wilder's adaptation of Cain's "Double Indemnity" proved its value at the box office and an Oscar magnet in 1944. But when most people think of film noir, they think of the jaded detective, or a jaded hero, or a sexually charged situation between the leading man and woman. It's rare to find a female-centric story falling into the film noir category. Which is why some people may consider this a darker version of a woman's picture.

But it's squarely film noir. And it's great to see a story within this genre that favors its female characters. Without a doubt, Mildred and Veda are locking horns at every step, and watching their personal drama unfold powers the plot. Ida could just be the wisecracking supporting player, but she's also wise, the one character who can step back and see exactly what's going on. And beneath her verbal lobs is a loyal friendship with Mildred. She's got Mildred's back, even if Mildred thinks she can handle everything on her own. These three female characters own the film.

The story is dark, which keeps this from becoming camp. In addition to the motherly devotion, you have a murder mystery that uncovers fiscal and sexual wrongdoings. The sexual politics alone are intriguing. When we first meet Carson's Wally, for example, Mildred is still married, and he makes a play for her. This taints him in our minds right away, yet he keeps coming back, likable yet slimy, although he's fully aware of who he is. Monte's devotion to Mildred and Veda pits the mother against the daughter as they begin vying for the attention of the same man. This is pretty sensational stuff to be seeing during a time when the Production Code was being enforced.

I also want to point out that Jerry Wald was the producer. Strong producers during the studio era had a big hand in shaping their productions, and Wald is no exception. He conceived this in his head, and the project went from one writer to another before he was satisfied.

But in the end, "Mildred Pierce" became Joan Crawford's comeback. The ingenious marketing campaign simply stated "Don't tell what Mildred Pierce did!" And the movie was a hit, earning six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Actress and two for Supporting Actress (Blyth and Arden). This was Crawford's first nomination, and while people were hoping she would win, she was less sure of the outcome. On Oscar night, she couldn't bear to attend the ceremonies and claimed to be sick. While 1944 winner Ingrid Bergman was her closest competition, with some believing she would take back-to-back Oscars for her performance in "The Bells of St. Mary's," it was Joan's name that was called out. Crawford, listening at home on the radio, immediately got out of bed and prepared for the arrival of the press. Curtiz had accepted the Oscar upon her behalf and rushed to Crawford's house to present it to her. The result? Photos of Crawford, at home in bed, cradling her Oscar, became the lasting moment and image of that year's awards. In the end, she had the headlines all to herself, the comeback complete. She would earn two more Oscar nominations -- for "Possessed" in 1947 and "Sudden Fear" in 1952.

How will Kate fare in the remake? I'm not sure. But I hope people never forget the original. It's a classic, has a great back story, and contains one of the greatest comebacks of all time by one of Hollywood's biggest legends.


  1. This was a terrific write-up of a most wonderful film. Michael Curtiz sure delivered winners in almost every genre, didn't he? This deserves to be placed at the top of his great films, which is saying something.

    I've always liked Eve Arden's line in regard to Veda: "Now I know why lions eat their young."

    I too am anxious to read the original Cain novel.

  2. Thank you! Curtiz made many fine films, and this one shouldn't be overlooked. I do love Eve's classic line. She has several in this film. I need to read all of Cain's works; he reportedly complimented Billy Wilder on making the screenplay of "Double Indemnity" better than his book!

  3. Classic, I just read about your blog at LAMB, and it is a delightful site. The post about "Mildred Pierce" was great. I fully agree that the film's an original hybrid of film noir and women's picture. I also went back and read some of your earlier posts. I especially liked the ones on "The Heiress," "The Merry Widow," and "The Barretts of Wimpole St."--all movies I admire--and I thought you really nailed the important (and most interesting) points about these. Did you know that "Barrets" came in 2nd at the Oscars, behind "It Happened One Night" and that Shearer also came in 2nd, behind Claudette Colbert? Also, as a big fan of Audrey Hepburn, I especially like your Audrey of the Month feature. I'll be returning soon to check on what you write about next.

  4. Hi R.D., thank you for the compliments. Glad you are enjoying the posts so far. I knew that back in the '30s for a short period, the Academy released the order in which nominees placed. (Thank you Inside Oscar -- gotta love that book.) Look forward to your return.