Monday, July 9, 2012

Mildred Pierce - 1945

“Mildred Pierce” (1945) is film that should be shown to people who say they don’t like to watch black and white movies. The cinematography here is so good that it is a living thing quite apart from the story and the acting performances, and yet the black and white photography here enhances both story and performances.

I wonder who first came up with the idea to “noir-up” James M. Cain’s novel “Mildred Pierce”? It wasn’t written that way. To be sure, Mr. Cain’s other novels that were later made into the films “Double Indemnity” 1944 (see this former post), and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) -- are noir stories even on the page. But “Mildred Pierce” was not written as such. It’s more a character study of a woman who indomitably struggles against privation, and whose Achilles’ heel is her greatest passion, her daughter. In the hands of the Warner Bros. studio, this story, rather than a weepy so-called “woman’s picture” becomes first class Noir.

Largely, this is due to the cinematography.

I’m not going to do a play by play on the plot of this movie, but there are going to plenty of spoilers anyway, so turn back now if you want. Go outside and water my garden. But close the storm door good because the air conditioning’s on.

Now then.

As to those poor souls who won’t watch a black and white movie, I can only say that is something akin to not wanting to view Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” because it was painted in oils and not drawn with a Sharpie on a lined pad. Black and white, the uneducated need to learn, was merely a medium, like acrylic or clay. Some cinematographers were masters at the art, and “Mildred Pierce” (1945) is a great example of what style can do to add, or even substitute at times, for substance.

The novel begins with Mildred’s ineffectual husband tending the garden. It is a slow start to slow-paced book. Those of us who are familiar with the plot know their marriage fails, Mildred supports herself and two daughters by becoming a waitress, and then owning a chain of restaurants. Another marriage to a playboy, a lot about her business ventures, but overall the prevailing motive in Mildred’s life is to make her older daughter love her. Her daughter is a spoiled brat, and turns into a nasty young woman. Mildred’s brand of mother love is like a mental illness.

The novel was made into a TV miniseries last year, and done very well. The performances were great, and the story followed very closely Cain’s novel. Some might say the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford, which strays from the novel here and there, was re-shaped to make Joan Crawford a heroine, which in movies of that era, for a woman of a certain age, meant depicting her as long-suffering and self-sacrificing.

That may be a valid observation, but should not be used to dismiss this movie as merely a vehicle for Joan Crawford and her dramatically padded shoulders. The real star here is Ernest Haller, who was director of photography on this movie. Michael Curtiz directed. The writers were a team of eight, including William Faulkner and Margaret Buell Wilder. How they managed to craft something so sharp and cohesive with too many cooks amazes me. Who decided on noir?

The movie starts quite shockingly with a murder that did not happen in the book. We see Zachary Scott, one of the best charmers and villains of the day, facing us with a stunned expression as he is mowed down by gunshots seemingly coming from us.

He topples directly into the camera. As he flops on the floor of his beach house, a gun is tossed from our direction onto the body, and we hear a door slam. He groans, “Mildred.” What could have been a weeper has started off the blocks as a murder mystery.

So, this is what film noir looks like on a big budget. Purists may feel that noir is best in a low-budget environment just as revenge is best served cold, but in this movie it is sublime for its meticulous homage to the beauty of black and white photography.

The beach house, Art Deco-cum-Post Moderne, its interior half lit by flickering firelight in the dark night. Joan Crawford, who plays Mildred, wandering a damp pier with perhaps the intention of throwing herself off to commit suicide. She brings Jack Carson, who plays her business associate and would-be romantic pursuer back to the beach house. He displays that savvy, slimy, good-hearted charm as only Jack Carson can. She locks him in with the corpse and leaves him there.

Shots of his panic when he can’t get out, and discovers the body. His shadow on the wall as he runs from room to room. Like a fun-house nightmare.

 Look at the typical noir shots that are taken from either the floor or table-level and look up to the ceiling. I think it was film noir that gave us ceilings.
Eventually, of course, we get to the inevitable flashback, also a film noir staple, where we are taken back to the premise of the novel and see Mildred’s story from the beginning. Her husband, played by Bruce Bennett, is unable to support his family, and is seeing another woman on the sly. He seems like a weak character, except that he tells Mildred straight off she’s ruining older daughter Veda, played with venial relish by Ann Blyth, with all her spoiling. Bruce Bennett may be a failure in business, but he’s no dope. He’s clearheaded and has seen what Joan Crawford fails to see through this entire movie, that she’s creating a monster.

If the movie were just about that, I don’t think it would hold my interest. Both Mildred and her daughter seem stuck in their faults, do not change, and are almost one-dimensional for it. However, as tiresome as these qualities are, I cannot say that the two characters are not realistic. They are. Many of us have known parents who make their children feel as if they are the center of the universe and then the children become nasty young adults and peculiarly unable to cope with life without their parents financial or emotional support.

Many of us have known people like the Ann Blyth character who are solidly self-absorbed and quite histrionic about it. The characters of Mildred and Veda may be tiresome, but they are real enough.

What really makes this movie is not the story -- but the telling of it. It’s just a lot of fun to watch. Scenes are introduced through a close up on a small item, such as the shot of Jack Carson’s hand manipulating a soda dispenser as he makes drinks for the scene where he first comes on to Joan Crawford.

The shot of Miss Crawford as they converse as a restaurant table through wafting cigarette smoke. Unusual in that neither of them are smoking in this scene; it comes from another table.

The shot of Crawford rummaging through keepsakes in a desk drawer and finding the inevitable loaded handgun. Ever notice how many handguns are in desk drawers in the old movies? There’s nothing interesting like that in my desk drawer. Just some dried up Wite-Out and some highlighters, and erasures. There’s a letter opener, I suppose I could kill somebody with that.

We move to a variety of lush scenes, from Mildred’s ever-expanding restaurant empire, to the fabulous homes. Some enterprising old movie buff should open a chain of restaurants called Mildred’s. I’d eat there every night.

We catch a glimpse of a carhop taking an order over the tray mounted on the car door. Have a look here at our previous post about movie carhops.

The movie isn’t all shadows. Here’s a well-torsoed Zachary Scott peeling off his sweater to go swimming with Joan. Oh, those form-fitting, high-waisted men’s bathing suits of days gone by. They made every man with a halfway decent body look like Johnny Weissmuller. The baggy knee-length clown pants men wear today sagging too low off their hips are enough to make a woman weep with disappointment.

Eve Arden, a graduate of the Ruth Donnelly School of Wisecracking Sidekicks is on hand to be a sounding board for Joan, and to provide occasional comic relief, such as when she teases the fuddy-duddy accountant who barks at her for interrupting their meeting.

“It’s only because I want to be alone with you. Come here and let me bite you, you darling boy.” Then she woofs at him like Curly in The Three Stooges.

I also like the way she refers to Zachary Scott, whose oily charm doesn’t fool her a bit -- she knows a bad egg when she sees one -- as “laughing boy”. Bugs Bunny, famous for using the term, was also a stalwart member of the Warner Bros. stable, though I’m sure the studio did not have a copyright on the term.

But I think the funniest moment goes to young Jo Ann Marlowe, who plays Joan’s younger daughter. She does a Carmen Miranda imitation that’s a hoot, though all Miss Crawford can do is smirk and then grow irritable, telling her to wash the makeup off her face. Jo Ann had a brief career, but cut an impression as the young Josie in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) and as young Louise in “Roughly Speaking” (1945) discussed here.

Butterfly McQueen’s on hand as Joan’s maid. It’s a less flashy role than her famed “Prissy” in GWTW, but even her lack of guile here does not keep her from seeing what a tyrant Ann Blyth has become. Only Joan is blind.

Bess Flowers shows up as a restaurant patron, but really, that is to be expected.  She's a walk-on in everything.  I noticed her in one of my old vacation videos.  She played Loud Woman Who Sat Behind Me on Train.

One of the most luxurious shots is when Joan discovers Mr. Scott and her daughter kissing. Joan enters unobserved, and we see Scott holding Miss Blyth, her back arched over their home bar. Her long formal skirt is luminous in the foreground light, while their upper bodies are darkened in silhouette. Sometimes I feel like installing a bank of Fresnels on my living room ceiling just to make me look good when I enter the room.

When they see they are not alone, Ann Blyth steps out of the embrace and a pin spot reveals her smirking expression. In another moment, Zachary, who is Joan’s second husband, leans forward and his face becomes lit as well, prolonging of the suspense of discovering who she was with, in case we hadn’t already guessed. It’s a great bit of lighting choreography, like a dance.

I love his wary expressions as he lets Ann Blyth do the talking. You can see the wheels in his mind turn. He is looking for a way out. Scott, who had such depth, is excellent at this. Any other villain would just paste a sneer on his face.

By the way, look at the background. The drapes match the couch. See our previous post here on this movie phenomena.

The novel, as well as the 2011 TV miniseries, shows a different scene. Mildred catches them in bed together, and Mildred’s playboy husband shrieks defensive protests. The 1945 movie may be less titillating, but it is more visually stunning.

Joan Crawford, of course, won her Oscar for this role, but I don’t usually keep score on a movie by Oscars. Her performance is fine, but I think only really great when at the end when she must accept that her daughter is going to prison. The whimper, the sick groan of despair in her voice is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, Ernest Haller did not take home an Oscar for his cinematography (Ann Blyth and Eve Arden were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

The movie is really his.

And yes, every time I watch this movie I think of the Carol Burnett parody. It even mocks the ocean surf that luridly washes over the opening credits.  But it's not in black and white.


Anonymous said...

This is one of our favourite old movies. A very well written review. Our desk drawers aren't that interesting either. In fact, I don't any drawers in out whole house have anything very interesting in them.
Great Review of a Great Classic

Pearl and Liam

Caftan Woman said...

Bess Flowers in your vacation video - Ha! Of course she was.

It's not the story, it's in the telling is so true of "Mildred Pierce". How else to explain the almost hypnotic hold that film has on me? Haller brings you right into those rooms and the hearts of those characters. I loved this perspective on a truly classic film.

Side note: A couple of months ago I had a phone call from my daughter between classes wanting to know the name of the movie with the "awful daughter". It had been a matter of discussion with classmates. There is hope for the future generation!

LucieWickfield said...

Wonderful treatise on Mildred Pierce! I especially relished your description of B&W as a "medium." I'll have to put it in my arsenal for the next time someone yawns at Casablanca's lack of color--particularly the Sharpie bit.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Pearl and Liam, and thank you very much. I also found a Canadian two-dollar coin in my drawer. Things are looking up.

Speaking of things Candadian, CW I'm glad to see there is so much hope for the younger generation regarding the classics. Another scene I loved was when Carson, running about the beach house in a panic, knocks over the standing lamp, which falls to the floor. We follow it down to where it plunks next to Zachary Scott's body. That's how he discovers the body. Another perfect bit of choreography like a dance.

Thank you, Lucie. "Casablanca" was another Curtiz-directed film, so there's a lot of the same technique. I really admire his eye for composition.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's "Canadian" not "Candadian". I also found an extra "D" in my desk drawer.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea who first thought up the noir idea, but it doesn't seem so far-fetched once you realize that Mildred Pierce, as written, could never have been filmed in 1945--the fact that the adulterers never get their comeuppance would never have gotten past the Breen Office! I imagine the screenwriters got together and tried to envision a punishment for them that the Breen Office would approve of--surely death and conviction for murder would be hard to argue with, right? And from there it's just a hop, skip and a jump to noir . . .

This is one of my favorite old films. Thanks for your post on it (and the one on matching couches and drapes, which is one of those things that I've never noticed in a movie before, but now that it's been pointed out, I'll never be able to unsee it!).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Paperpopsong and thanks for commenting. You make a good point about the adulterers getting away with it. Still, I'm guessing even that wouldn't have bothered the censors as much as Mildred choking the stuffing out of her naked daughter. Once they dumped that scene, I imagine the idea to film the rest of the story as written began to unravel.

Joan Crawford choking a naked Ann Blyth certainly would have been, as Jane Austen might say, "Excessively diverting."

The matching couch and drapes is something I've noticed for years in my fascination for the mundane. The power of suggestion being what it is, you're right, you're probably always going to catch it from now on. Have fun.

panavia999 said...

I do have a .38 special in my desk drawer! However, it's not loaded and the bullets are kept elsewhere. (My mother gave me the revolver.)
Mildred Pierce is a movie that I watch over and over just because it is visually so good. After you know every line of dialogue, there is always something to see.
Besides, it has Zachary Scott and Jack Carson and I never tire of watching them.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Panavia, I'm with you on Zachary Scott and Jack Carson, two of my favorites.

And you actually have a gun in your desk drawer. That was a gift from Mother. All I can say is, please tell me you have a highball in your other hand and Eve Arden screening your phone calls. That would make the image complete for me.

Yvette said...

Oh Jacqueline, I don't remember the Carol Burnett parody - I'm going to see if I can find it on youtube. Why not, everything else is on there...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about a movie I haven't actually seen in many years. I was never a big Joan Crawford fan and Zachary Scott always gave me the creeps. He was such a slithering screen presence. A member of the 'oddball' hall of fame. One of these days I'll have to do a post about what I consider those 'oddball' actors who are neither fish nor fowl. Ha!

We spoiled our daughter rotten and yet she didn't grow up to kill anyone. I have a feeling little Miss Veda was a sociopath waiting to bloom.

I do love Jack Carson. Had forgotten he was in this. And who COULDN'T love Eve Arden. Hmmm, maybe I need to see this just one more time.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love this: " I have a feeling little Miss Veda was a sociopath waiting to bloom." Could be. Some are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them.

And yes, the Carol Burnett parody of "Mildred Fierce" is on YouTube. Have a good laugh.

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