Thursday, May 23, 2019

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ok, guys and dolls, I'm back. Sorry for maintaining radio silence so long, it got busy. With apologies to Erica from Poppity Talks Classic Film and Gabriela from Pale Writer this is my very belated entry into Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon from May 10 - 12, 2019.

“It’s a great tragedy that when people hear the name Joan Crawford, first thing they think of is ‘no more wire hangers’. But there is another Joan Crawford people should remember…She really was the ultimate movie star.” Joan Craw­ford: The Ultimate Movie Star Documentary 2002
Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Joan Crawford was not only the ultimate movie star but a consummate actress and a genuine artist as well.
The cult of her personality has so often overshadowed her work and her talent. Somewhere along the line Crawford ceased to be an actress and not only became a Star but an Institution. Then in the end - with her star status faded - a sad caricature. 

Crawford playing a self-sacrificing mother in Mildred Pierce is an irony not lost on contemporary audiences and a big chunk of the blame for that can be laid at Christina's infamous book and the subsequent film in which Faye Dunaway played Crawford as camp all down the line, interpreting her as a crazed drag queen and an undiluted mental case. It was in essence character assassination. Neither book nor film did anybody any favors. Whatever the truth may be, Mommie Dearest tainted Joan’s legacy forever and reduced a career that had spanned almost five decades to one dire little unfortunate line. 

Crawford’s larger-than-life persona can cloud our judgment of her films because The Crawford Factor often had the tendency to eclipse everything else. How do we define The Crawford Factor? With the elephant test. It’s hard to describe but we know it when we see it. The FABulousness, the gloss, the glamour, the Joan. She may not have been generous to her children, but she was to her audience. A Crawford picture was first and foremost aware of itself as a Crawford picture. 

Joan possessed that elusive but essential quality called star power, in spades. Crawford constantly reinvented herself during her long career. The radiant flapper of the 1920s gave way to the determined shop girl on the make of the 30s. By the mid-40s the shop girls were all grown up with children of their own and Crawford morphed into the woman from the wrong side of the tracks who makes good against all odds. After Mildred Pierce she continued to play a variation of that character, a self-sufficient and hard-working woman who neither accepted deprivations nor limitations. Mildred Pierce is the essence of all (later) Crawford roles. If she’s never quite convincing as a down-trodden ordinary housewife, a “common frump”, that’s because she was never completely able to shed that veneer of glamour that she seemed to have been borne with (but wasn’t). But by sheer force of will she could pull it off.

Crawford’s life was the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Born into poverty and relatively uneducated, she knew from an early age that she wanted to BE someone. Her sole desire was to be a Star. She had limitless drive and ambition and tirelessly worked to better herself, until she had eradicated every trace of that unsophisticated poor girl Lucille LeSueur she had once been. Lucille was reborn as Joan, rising like Phoenix from the ashes. Joan created herself, or better the image and persona she presented to the public, carefully cultivated and guarded throughout her entire life. “If you're going to be a star you have to look like a star. I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star.” This was not a woman who was casual about her stardom. The public never got to see anything other than an exquisitely manufactured product. 

If this sounds all suspiciously like a plot of one of her movies, that’s because it is. Her films fit her like a glove because they used elements of its star’s life story, blending together her personal and her screen persona. Joan was so good at playing these gritty characters because they came close to who she really was. Crawford took a character and molded it around her own personality.

Apart from success there was one more thing Joan craved. Approval. She wanted not only Hollywood but the public to love her. This overpowering need for validation we meet again in the movie. Mildred craves nothing more than the love of her daughter, desperately so.

There’s no denying that late in her career Joan’s movies steadfastly veered into the campy. By the time Queen Bee rolled around, Crawford was less and less able to reign in her tendency towards ham. She became the Joan so many people now remember her as, the bad punchline on the edge of hysteria with a face like a grotesque kabuki mask, an image that has sadly persisted in the cultural memory. By the 60s she was long past her expiry date but still valiantly plugged away. But now there was a touch of Norma Desmond about her. She couldn’t let go of her glory days. Our girl Joanie put up a good fight to the end but never realized that there comes a time when you have to pack it in.

With Mildred Pierce Crawford struck gold. Her career had been in freefall after a string of flops in the early 40s and many had written her off as a has-been. She asked MGM to be released from her contract and to her dismay they took her up on the offer and kicked her to the curb in 1943. But Jack Warner saw that there was still life in the old girl. Warner Bros. rescued her and Pierce was Crawford’s celebrated comeback role. It was a resounding box office success and Joan won an Oscar for it. What had promised to be a low point in her career turned out to be a career highlight and prolonged her shelf life by another 15-20 years. 
From then on she stayed in the shadowy back alleys of (quasi)Noir. She followed this success up with Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Flamingo Road (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Sudden Fear (1952).

Directed by the great and extremely versatile Michael Curtiz for Warner, Mildred Pierce is based on James M. Cain’s eponymous novel which was deemed unfilmable for a long time. Cain had that in common with other pulp writers. Cain’s novels were the kind of stuff that made the PCA and studio executives equally nervous. They were mean and downright dirty. So Joe Breen and his cronies wouldn’t get a conniption, as a concession to the Production Code the novel was overhauled, cleaned up and a murder was added. Though the screenplay took great liberties with the plot, straying from the source material was actually a smart move. The Code doesn’t really work against the movie, and the murder trajects the film straight into Noir territory. Cain’s novel is driven by sexual desire, the film focuses on insatiable ambition due to (non-sexual) obsession. 

In a strangely deserted police station housewife and restaurant entrepreneur Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is questioned about the shooting of her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Several flashbacks tell us Mildred’s life story. After divorcing her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) Mildred is in money trouble. To give her snotty daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) all that her heart desires Mildred finds work as a waitress and soon becomes a dizzying business success with the help of good friend Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) and business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson). To have access to a high society lifestyle Mildred marries Monte…with tragic consequences.

Mildred Pierce has so often been slapped with that dreaded woman’s picture label. There’s no doubt that the movie is occasionally feverish, but then these kind of melodramas always are. Absurdities must not only be accepted but embraced, especially when we have top-notch actors who can easily make the story work and smooth over any contrivance on the filmmaker’s part. Mildred Pierce is simply a great piece of cinema. 
Incidentally the most emotionally draining scenes of the movie are not played for loud effect. Younger daughter Kay dying of pneumonia is a scene beautifully restrained and Crawford leaves the scenery unscathed. In Mildred’s and Veda’s fights we can see the fur fly but it’s kept just this side of histrionic.

Clearly Mildred Pierce occupies a cinematic grey space. Noir takes on the woman’s picture, or vice versa. A flashback structure casts a pallor of doom over the picture. The beach house is a modernist dream of split levels, spiral stairs and looming shadows on the wall. The opening sequence is a knockout. The credits - written in the sand - are washed away by the incoming tide to Max Steiner’s fantastic score. Then we hear shots being fired, a man is pumped full of lead, keeling over and gasping with his last breath “Mildred”. 

The stylistic means of Noir are used to great atmospheric effect here but we have to look into the soul of the film to see if the psychological underpinnings hold up to genre expectations. And indeed they do.
Not only do we find the Noir themes of ruthlessness, selfishness, moral ambiguity, greed, lust, jealousy and dissatisfaction. We also have the most obvious, the elephant in the room: Obsession.
“The trappings of motherhood and pie baking may not seem like the stuff of film noir, but Mildred’s obsession with her older daughter is as perverse and destructive as any man’s enslavement to a femme fatale.” Imogen Sara Smith, Criterion Collection article Mildred Pierce: A Woman’s Work
Spot on. Obsession does not necessarily have to be sexual to be an unstoppable driving force. Incidentally in the novel the mother-daughter relationship takes on slightly incestuous shadings, something that is definitively not found in the movie though Mildred’s obsession with her daughter is decidedly pathological verging on the sadomasochistic.

The driving force of Noir stories is often the urge to escape. From the ordinary, from poverty, from bad relationships, from oneself. In Mildred’s case her aspirations are not for herself but for her daughter. Veda’s greed is Mildred’s motivation and she subordinates all her own wants and needs to Veda’s wishes. 
Mildred puts her children above everything, including her marriage. She is one of those women whose nurturing love for her brood drowns out any other feeling. She explains to her husband that the children “come first in this house, before either one of us. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but that’s the way it is.” Bert no doubt is something of a dud and a defeatist, he’s lacking Mildred’s drive and will to succeed but to me it’s no wonder he left. He doesn’t seem to exist for Mildred. He's the one though who is clear-sighted enough to see what Mildred clearly can’t and won’t. That she’s spoiling Veda rotten and thus ruining her character.

Mildred is a protagonist straight from a Greek tragedy. She has a tragic flaw, the character trait that invariably leads to the protagonist’s downfall. Complete blindness to her daughter’s character.

Mildred is the quintessential 40s working girl. She epitomizes the American Dream. A self-made woman who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, she rises above near poverty to great success by sheer indomitable spirit, hard work and determination without resorting to unethical business practices or compromising herself. She’s the gritty stuff America was built on and is rightly proud of.
Even when she was married to Bert she was always busy, selling cakes and pies to her neighbors out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons. 

Contrary to popular belief, it must be stressed that Hollywood in general portrayed working women in quite a positive light. Taking a closer look at many 40s movies it’s time to overhaul the preconceived notion that working women played havoc with the ideal of American womanhood.
"It is often said that men’s discomfort with women’s entry into the workforce during World War II conjured the figure of the femme fatale, which demonized strong, ambitious women. This theory makes no sense, since the femme fatale is never a woman who works or is independent; she is always a woman who uses men to get what she wants, relying on the most traditional feminine wiles. Women who do work, like Mildred and Ida (or like the secretaries played by Ella Raines in Phantom Lady and Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, or the nightclub performers portrayed by Ida Lupino in The Man I Love and Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss) are invariably good eggs, while femmes fatales are like Veda, avaricious gals who would rather cheat and exploit their desirability than work for what they want.” (Smith, ibid.)
I can add a few more movies that subvert the accepted wisdom. Joan Leslie in Born to be Bad, Roz Russel in His Girl Friday, Jane Randolph in Cat People, Ella again in The Web and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and Anne Crawford in Bedelia.

I’ve seen so many reviews stating Mildred is punished for being an independent working woman at the end of the movie. Horsefeathers. This is not a movie about the evils of women in the workplace. Mildred works because she has to, not because she wants to. This is a movie about social ambition and misplaced (mother) love. Her downfall comes about NOT through the disapproval of society but through her own character, her fatal flaw. She, and only she, set herself up for her own failure.

Looking like a luminously beautiful porcelain doll, Veda has the face of an angel and the soul of a cash register. If you look up the word entitlement princess in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of her. Ann Blyth was only 16 verging on 17 when she made the movie and for someone that young she turns in a fantastic and chilling performance. Hell, she turns in a fantastic performance no matter the age. 

She must be the youngest femme fatale in film ever, “a femme fatale in bobby socks” (Smith, ibid.). Outwardly so sweet you can literally feel the cavities eating into your teeth, she is really a spider woman whose gossamer light web is woven so delicately that by the time you notice you’re in it it is already too late.
Veda perfectly understands the finer points of psychological warfare. She uses her mother’s love for her against her. Veda’s cruelty is always deliberate, each and every one of her poisonous darts is designed to cause the most pain. A contemptuous user for whom any gift is too shabby, Veda is a bottomless pit of greed and is always working one angle or another because happiness can’t buy her money. 
Veda has complete control over her emotions…that’s because she hasn’t any. She can switch on a particular human emotion at will - or at least a good imitation of it. When she notices that a tantrum won’t do the trick, she changes her tactics to declarations of love and tears. “I’ll change, Mother, I promise. I’ll never say mean things to you again.” Would she like a little bit of cheese with her whine?

Considering the fact she’s still a teenager, that little dame is frighteningly knowledgable, about everything. Aided and abetted by her mother’s business partner Wally, Veda marries rich kid Ted Forrester just to take him to the cleaners. Having the marriage annulled shortly after, she extorts a $10,000 check from his mother claiming a fake pregnancy. This isn't cheating, mind you, it’s just skewing the results in her favor. Mildred might smell of grease but Veda knows a thing or two about high-class prostitution. She then proceeds to seduce her mother’s second husband. “There’s something to be said for alligators eating their young.”

Class and social status play a big role in the movie and it is Veda who is obsessed with it. She acts like a spoiled heiress despite being an heiress to nothing. Veda is ashamed of her mother’s working class background, her shabby home and her - gasp!- work as a waitress. So bourgeois. Mildred and family may have crossed the railroad tracks, but Veda can still hear the train roar. 

The scene where Veda accuses Mildred of “degrading” the family by waitressing is painful to watch for its sheer maliciousness. Veda detests the “smell of grease” on the money from her mother’s restaurants though that doesn’t prevent her from taking the developmental aid anyway while holding the source in contempt.
“You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t, because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you.”
She spits out those lines like they’re poison. If Veda is not the most venomous femme fatale in Noir history, she’s definitively a contender.
Veda openly aspires to an aristocratic life in which she lives on wealth she never earned and looks down upon those who do as akin to something the cat dragged in. Oddly enough singing at a grubby waterfront dive for hooting sailors doesn’t seem to bother her. Full speed ahead, Fleet Week. We always knew those singing lessons she took were good for something. 
Unfortunately we never get to know the root of Veda’s social ambitions. There is nothing in the film to explain the origins of her attitude. Maybe it was Curtiz’s little stab at California’s post-War burgeoning consumer culture.

In the end Veda blames her mother for all her crimes. “It’s your fault I am the way I am”. In a way she’s right, there’s no doubt Mildred is enabling a sociopath. After all, Gods and Goddesses don’t exist until someone builds a temple to them. 
If ever a dame was itching for a good walloping it’s Veda but I don’t believe Mildred created Frankenstein’s monster. It’s another nature vs nurture debate. I don’t think anything that Mildred could have done would have changed Veda. Neither love, nor understanding, nor setting boundaries, nor discipline would have made any kind of impact on Veda. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, Veda was born that way. There’s a bad seed in her, her venality is all her own. 
In the book we can assume that Veda may have started out human - maybe - but was warped by Mildred's adulation and attentions. As incarnated in the movie she was simply born without a moral compass.

This is one of the few movies where the audience has pity with Crawford, usually not an actress to evoke this emotion. Both trailer and promotional material are misleading to the highest degree and expressively designed to make as little sense as possible. The audience is made to believe Mildred wrecks every life she touches. 
“The kind of woman most men want... but shouldn't have!”
“Loving her was like shaking hands with the devil.”
“She wasn’t too particular how she got what she wanted.
What? Turns out Saint Mildred is not the perpetrator but the victim forever tilting at the windmills of hopeless causes. 

Zachary Scott was always best when playing slimy heels and human specimens that are practically slithering, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The moment we see him we know he’s Snidely Whiplash. That’s because he has a pencil-thin mustache. The flat broke offshoot of a once-wealthy Pasadena family, Monte Beragon is a leech, a lounge lizard and a self-confessed sponger with a perpetual cash flow problem. What does he actually do for a living? “I loaf, in a decorative and highly charming manner.” Work, the bane of the freeloading class. He sure sounds like a winner.
The family’s fortunes may be gone but he hasn't lost his sense of entitlement and class conceit. He continues to live in that never never land of ritzy manor houses, polo fields and posh country clubs. The only thing he has left is his spurious charm. And precious little of that. 

In the beginning Monte lets us think that he may be really in love with Mildred. It’s no wonder she falls for him, he makes her feel desirable again. Soon however Mildred is bankrolling Monte’s high-flying life style. Mildred finally catches on to what he is but marries him anyway, not because she’s still in love with him but because through him she has access to the aristocratic lifestyle Veda craves. 
Scott breathes life into a portrayal that could easily have come off as one-dimensional, because Monte is a type who embodies a single defining trait: greed. It is to Scott’s credit that he’s walking the tightrope between that combustible mix of charm and contemptible cad so perfectly.

Wally Fay, Mildred’s business partner and frenemy, looks like a well-fed chipper cherub but it would be unwise to underestimate him. He has a knack for one thing: making money. He’s always on the lookout for a quick buck…or a hundred. He’s the one who cooked up the plan to swindle Ted out of $10,000 because he gets a cut of the proceeds. It’s not that Wally is a bad guy, it’s just that he never occupied any moral high ground. On the credit side, he shows genuine concern for Mildred’s well-being - he warns her against Monte - but he’s also a wolf on the prowl and makes at least two passes a week at Mildred which she easily pitches back. He’ll just bide his time with another martini. 
In fact he’s a guy who’d naturally sniff around any halfway attractive woman who crosses his path. It’s an automatic reflex with him. He draws the line at damaged goods though. He never falls for Veda. Smart man. He knows a rotten thing when he sees it. 
Wally lays on that sleazy charm a bit thick but in a likable sort of way. He’s never shy of a wisecrack and never met a bad joke he didn’t like.

After misappropriating funds to support his lifestyle Monte ruins Mildred's business and Wally is caught with his hand in the cookie jar too, leaving Mildred high and dry. Wally does feel bad about it though. Really. 
“I didn’t mean to cut up your business the way I did. Just got started and couldn’t stop. I see an angle, right away I start cutting myself a piece of throat. It’s an instinct. With me being smart is a disease.”
No hard feelings then. 

After Monte’s murder Mildred tries to make Wally the fall guy but somehow I get the feeling he wouldn't hold it against her, what with not being hampered by an over-abundance of conscience himself and all. Wally understands why Mildred had to do it.
This must be one of Carson’s best roles and he runs with it. Somehow he makes this guy absolutely likable. Sure, Wally’s a crook and a louse who’d sell his own granny for a quick buck but that’s no reason to hate him. I like him against my better judgment. What better judgement?

The ending is an interesting mix of the sadness, anguish and hope. Veda is charged with murder and Mildred - now financially broke - finally has all her illusions about her daughter shattered. 
But both Mildred and Bert are cleared of the murder. Outside the sun begins to rise, peeking though the clouds and maybe - just maybe - there is a better future ahead.

The reason why Mildred gets sort of a happy ending and does not have to pay for her “sins” as per Joe Breen’s dictates is because her maternal love, though misguided, was untainted by sin. Mildred’s sacrifices are never portrayed as anything but noble and selfless. The worst the movie - rightfully - can accuse her off is blindness, but it is made very clear that there is no evil in Mildred’s ambition to better herself. 

So if your mental image of Crawford conjures up visions of a campy old broad with a bias against wire hangers I say get over it. For all her artificiality Crawford had the capacity to show her audience the damaged soul beneath the mannered surface. And she could bulldoze over any script absurdity like nobody's business.