Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Director: Michael Curtiz


This is perhaps the motion picture that typifies the legendary career of one of Hollywood’s most notable female personalities from the 1930s and 40s. Finally winning herself an Academy Award for Best Actress by way of Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford’s work on the feature encapsulates much of what she did so well, while less than flattering reputation from her time during production encapsulated the demonstrative actress of Hollywood’s so called “Golden Age.” In a gripping thriller that utilizes well the device of misdirection, this film would be one of 1945’s finest, lifting its already legendary star back to the heights of her earlier work, and remains a wonderful picture for years to come.

Mildred Pierce is a drama/thriller about a successful business woman and working mother who recounts her sacrifices for her children and the events that lead to the murder of her second husband. The story begins with gunshots and the death of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) as Mildred Piece (Joan Crawford) quickly departing the deadly scene, leaving the audience wondering what had made her do such a thing. Mildred recounts the time that led to this fatal day, beginning with her leaving her first husband to best provide for her two daughters. However, her eldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), is one more concerned about social status and material things than the things her mother can afford for her. Despite working her way up from humble waitress to successful restaurateur, Mildred’s relationship with her daughter remains unstable due to Veda’s drive for more luxurious things.

Hoping to gain social status for Veda, Mildred weds into a loveless marriage with the perceived wealthy Monte, but the union manifests unseen debts costing Mildred her business. Veda’s blind judgement for supposed wealth results in her affair with Monte, which Mildred discovers. WHen Monte proclaims he never intended to marry Veda, as the teenager desperately wished, Veda is so furious that she shoots him. Here we, the audience, circle to the beginning of the feature revealing the truth of the murderer, and the sad result of Mildred’s sacrifice for Veda ends fruitless for this lost, young soul.

The picture is wonderfully packaged in a way that delivers twists with emotional weight as the plot was reworked from its original novel form into the motion picture product we see. Joan Crawford’s performance is subtle compared to her earlier work, albeit for a character suffering to make it in a world she does appear to be a bit too glamourous. The story is sad with moments of joy followed by frustration and heartbreak. The cinematography is darker than usual major Hollywood studio picture, giving many a sense of film noir, but this was perhaps due to a possible new standard at Warner Bros. at the time attempting to use less lighting equipment and electricity, but that could be just a tall tale.

As mentioned before, the film has its roots in the 1941 novel by author James M. Cain when Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., picked up the film rights with plans to have the story adapted for the screen by director Michael Curtiz. The 1930s depression era story was moved up to modern 1940s and the length of the tale shortened from around a decade to a few short years to make the film easier and more economical to make while Warner Bros. looked for a star for their picture.

Many leading ladies were considered for the title role of Mildred including Bette Davies, Olivia de Havilland, and Barbara Stanwyck, but middle-aged Hollywood actresses were very reluctant to be cast in a role that aged them as this did with Mildred being a mother of a teenage daughter. Joan Crawford, let go by MGM in 1942, was looking to bring he career back up to star status and lobbied herself for the title role. Michael Curtiz, known for being a wonderful director with women, held back on listening to Crawford, knowing her reputation of being a very difficult and demanding actress to work with. To prove herself Crawford yielded to something any established star would refuse to do, a screen test. Impressed by her diligence, confidence, and her screen test Curtiz cast Joan Crawford as his Mildred Piece.

Crawford and Blyth
This would be just the beginning of a dumpy production as director and star feuded numerous times on and off set about the filming. Disputes between Curtiz and Crawford ranged from the film’s direction in production, the styles utilizes in acting and costuming, as well as countless other aspects of the movie. Curtiz accused Crawford of glamourizing Mildred too much for a woman that was essentially and single working mother. Crawford claimed the dresses she wore for Mildred were off the shelf dresses from department stores, but the secret was she was having them altered by her personal tailor, forming them more to her figure and adding Crawford’s signature shoulder padding to them. In any case the two were said to not get along, but somehow by production’s end their stories would change and respect between the two was found. In the end, Crawford would earn an Academy Award.

Portraying the troubling daughter Veda was a Hollywood newcomer, then sixteen-year-old Ann Blyth. Her performance, albeit a bit forced, was dramatic enough to earn herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination, an honor also shared by fellow cast mate Eve Arden. Arden’s short time on screen as Mildred’s wise cracking friend, Ida, who helped her manage her first restaurant, provided enough positive relief for the plot to garner herself positive critical attention.

Crawford and Scott
As for the men of the picture, the cast was filled with wonderful character actors. Zachary Scott is the perfect actor for any scoundrel, portraying Monte, the man that proves to be the straw that breaks the back of Mildred and her daughter’s relationship. Jack Carson plays the character the audiences relates to the most, in Wally. A friend of Mildred who loves her very much, Wally will do anything for her, making numerous playfully innocent passes along the way, that are all politely turned down by Mildred. It is he who discovers the dead body of Monte and gives the suspicion of how things look at their worst for Mildred, but is always by her side during her difficult times. A champion of smaller roles, this too may have been Carson’s greatest and most noteworthy performance in his career.

The picture would be both a commercial and critical success, including six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, while gaining a lone win for Joan Crawford. The plot set up with plight from the very beginning, allowing many audiences to fall right to the edge of the seats and it has continued to do so decades after its release. The film, of more correctly the novel, would be adapted once again in 2011 with an HBO miniseries, manifesting just how well this story has been able to hold through the changes in time and culture.

The career of Joan Crawford, who by this time had been deem box office poison, was revitalized with her Oscar win. The award was surprise for Crawford, to the point where she did not even attend the ceremony in the anticipation of not walking away with the golden Oscar statue. She would however claim she was too ill to attend, despite being well enough to talk to the press immediately after discovering the good news. She would see a short period of critical success before falling off in mainstream pictures with a short comeback in 1962, as Mildred Pierce would remain to be her prominent moment in the Hollywood light, as she won the accolades of her peers. Aside from Crawford’s self-made drama the film remains one of the finer films of the mid-1940s, continuing to be enjoyed.

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