Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

Poster - Mildred Pierce

What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder.

Book cover for MILDRED PIERCE

The screenplay by Ranald MacDougal (which also had seven uncredited contract writers unsuccessfully trying their hand at working the material past the censors, including William Faulkner) changes things further by telling its story via a series of flashbacks, probably influenced in some part by Citizen Kane (1941). The HBO miniseries, unhampered by the Hays Code, was free to depict Cain’s original story with a meticulous faithfulness that helped garner much praise. But it’s hard to eclipse the success of the original, in part because when Mildred Pierce was released in 1945 it didn’t just do well at the box office (it was a smash hit), it didn’t just garner prestigious awards (it was nominated for six Academy Awards, and netted Joan Crawford her only Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role), it did something truly phenomenal: it rescued from obscurity the career of a ’30s era MGM star that had been tarnished with the words “box office poison” and once again put Joan Crawford in the spotlight. Mildred Pierce was to Joan Crawford what Pulp Fiction was to John Travolta; one of the most celebrated re-births in Hollywood history.

Crawford Receives Oscar In Bed

Why did the director of Casablanca (1942) and the studio backing Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros., take a chance on box office poison? Other stars were also considered for the leading role, including Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell. But there was something about the script that really spoke to Crawford, and she fought hard for the chance and really nailed the auditions. Born Lucille Fay LeSueur, she was abandoned by her father, grew up in poverty, and suffered many hardships and abuses before striking out as a dancer for traveling revues. When she eventually did land a contract with MGM she specialized in playing roles involving scrappy, poor girls from the wrong side of the tracks who achieve great wealth thanks to their tenacious determination. You can see some of that determination in the change of name suggested by MGM publicity head Pete Smith, who thought “LeSueur” sounded too much like “Le Sewer,” prompting a contest in Movie Weekly to select a new name. She wasn’t too crazy about it, thinking it evoked crawfish, but when you want to grow your fanbase and when you’re eager to avoid going back to wearing rags, why not? Like the many characters she played, she was nothing if not tenacious, and she knew very well how the industry worked, going so far as to be on a first-name basis with all her colleagues on the set and who worked behind the camera, be they lighting technicians or gaffers. She knew they were the ones responsible for making her look good, and for making the entire film look good. Mildred Pearce is an example of a film that fires on all cylinders, from the cinematography, music, costume and wardrobe, and onward. One can admire the impeccable and distinct hairstyles alone – there seems to be a different haircut in every scene, each straight out of a glamor magazine.

As the title character in Mildred Pearce, Crawford depicts a mother who will take extreme measures to give her oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), the finest of anything and everything that money can buy. When her husband loses his job, she separates from him, takes up a job as a waitress, and slowly works her way up to a position of money and power, mainly so that she can continue to lavish upon Veda all the things she might desire. It’s to no avail, as Veda’s pernicious snobbery, greed, and selfishness evoke the spirit of the femme fatale, putting Mildred in the place of the ensnared tragic hero of film noirs . You know the type: they’re chumps who keep compromising their safety because they can’t see past the lies and coercion until it’s too late. Still, there is a nobility with which they take their lumps and continue on, trying to survive as best they can.

What’s different here, of course, is that our title character is not a man. She’s a woman, and at the time of its release there weren’t a lot of films showing a woman leaving her man and then striking up a successful business, surrounded by a bunch of emasculated guys who are either unemployed or useless playboys. Her best friend, Ida (played by Eve Arden), happily eschews marriage and children and jokes about how men treat her like a brother. Published in 1941, one can see how maybe the shadow of Rosie the Riveter allowed Mildred Pearce to exist, but this is then tempered by the end of WWII, which coincides roughly with the time of the films release and with when woman were then being encouraged to return to domestic roles. Could that explain the last shot which, without giving spoilers, can be said to show several cleaning ladies on their knees scrubbing away at the floors of the justice center? That’s how Lucille got her start, in utter servitude, cleaning instead of reading. To grow old like that must have been her biggest nightmare.

 Mildred Pierce

There’s so much more to say about Joan because, like Mildred Pierce, she is a scrappy survivor, she makes it big, she makes a lot of bad choices, and she stumbles along the way. Her travails are well documented, by herself, by her children, by others. Ultimately, her star would have been so much brighter had she never adopted children and hung around so many clowns (both literal and figurative). Is it wrong that she first came to my youthful attention while listening to Blue Oyster Cult‘s song named after her on the Fire of Unknown Origin album? The main chorus repeats the same refrain: “Joan Crawford has risen from the grave.” It’s followed by a singularly creepy line worthy of Stephen King: “Christina, Mother’s home.” Joan didn’t live to hear the song, which was released in 1981. She passed away in 1977 and her last words, uttered to the person praying over her, were “Damn it, don’t you dare ask God to help me.”

Joan with clown book

Rise from the grave? With that kind of spunk I doubt she’d even bother turning. Ultimately, I think Joan would have liked the attention. She would rather be talked about than ignored, and she worked longer and harder than most, owing some of that longer career trajectory to the horror genre. Still… to have it end with Trog (1970) makes me think, once again, of that final image in Mildred Pearce.

Mildred Pearce screens on TCM this Tuesday, November 19th.

21 Responses Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin
Posted By LD : November 17, 2013 8:43 pm

Having seen both the film and the miniseries of MILDRED PIERCE I know which I prefer. I did not read Cain’s story in advance of seeing either, but was so put off by the miniseries I have yet to pursue it. Both Crawford and Winslet are terrific actors but in this role I felt the miniseries fell short of the film on every level. The miniseries was supposedly literal to Cain’s story but hours were spent telling what the film did in less than two. Yes, there was more sex in the miniseries but I could almost hear the director say “Okay we need more moaning. This guy is suppose to be driving you crazy.” Perhaps I am prejudiced for the noir interpretation and Crawford’s performance but I honestly looked forward to seeing the miniseries.

Supposedly, Cain was pleased with the film’s adaptation of his work. Perhaps the code was an asset here. I have the film as part of my film library. I will not be purchasing the miniseries.

Posted By jojo : November 17, 2013 10:29 pm

Haynes’ “Pierce” would have made a hell of a three-hour film. Better than the original? I’m not sure. But it certainly would have stood on it’s own.

Unfortunately, as a near-six-hour miniseries, it was more than a little padded. “Another Mildred/Monte sex scene? Sure, it’s HBO after all. We need to take advantage of that. What’s that? We’re still twenty minutes shy? Hell, just throw in two more ten-minute sequences of Veda lip-syncing opera. That’ll fill the five-episodes”

Posted By Jbenn : November 18, 2013 1:30 am

I agree that the problem with the Haynes mini-series was that it was too long. Even three hours (let alone six!) would have been a bit much. The actual text of Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” is not that long. And even though our modern day values would eschew something like the Production Code, I believe that they had it right in the case of Mildred Pierce. Vida is as nasty a piece of work as ever appeared in fiction and in the end she’s destroyed her mother’s life, taken her husband and ends up a big success. I can see how that wouldn’t work in 1945 and it still rankles today.

Also I’m not sure when that book cover copy of Mildred Pierce in the post was published but that sure as heck looks like the artist just drew Richard Conte, Jean Wallace and Cornel Wilde as they appeared in The Big Combo.

Posted By Arthur : November 18, 2013 3:57 am

Thanks. This is a solid, informative piece. I had not realized that Cain was the author of those three classics.Even as Crawford exuded strength and determination, there was something very soft, vulnerable and endearing about her voice. I thought she was also outstanding in Rain and Humoresque. Thanks again. I will be looking out for more of your posts.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 18, 2013 4:16 pm

I am not a big fan of Todd Haynes’s remake either. I echo others in that it was too long — so drawn out that it was tedious. Crawford gave the character backbone (in spite of her too-soft spot for Veda) and glamour, which is far more empowering to watch than the degraded character in the mini-series.

Posted By keelsetter : November 18, 2013 5:13 pm

As someone who has not seen the mini-series, I must say that the comments above have dampened my original enthusiasm. Still, I remain mildly curious. Maybe come summer if I ever finish watching THE WIRE (which goes to show you how far behind I am on my “to-watch” list). One added note about the original MILDRED PIERCE: I seem to recall reading somewhere that Shirley Temple was considered for the part of Veda. If true, that would have been as inspired as it would have been perverse.

Posted By robbushblog : November 18, 2013 7:38 pm

I can’t imagine that the miniseries would be anywhere near as good as the Joan Crawford version. As tempting as seeing Kate Winslet naked in simulated sexual intercourse is, it cannot compare to all of the elements that make the original so great: the adapted screenplay, the black and white photography, Joan, Jack Carson(Love him!), and the so innocent looking, yet awful daughter as played by the lovely Ann Blyth.

Posted By swac44 : November 19, 2013 11:31 am

Just watched Rain recently, after a handful of early ’30s Crawford titles, and noted how quickly it seemed that the harder-edged Joan of her later films like this one seemed to appear out of thin air in that pre-code film, in a character quite a bit different than the scrappy flapper she had been playing up to that point.

Overall, I was a bit late in coming to the films of Joan Crawford, but I started years ago with Mildred Pierce (perhaps somewhat inspired to do so by the Carol Burnett parody, Mildred Fierce) and have been working my way through what’s turning out to be a most entertaining filmography.

Posted By Jenni : November 19, 2013 1:23 pm

Love the original MP. It blew me away when I first saw it; a woman separating from her husband, a snotty teen daughter that all but the mom can see is a snot, daughter stealing away mom’s second husband-just blew me away plot-wise and acting-wise. If I watch the HBO version, it would be to see my cousin and her husband as they were hired as extras in the miniseries, in scenes where there is dancing happening. They live in NYC, love vintage 1920s-1940s stuff,clothing, and also perform the dances of those eras.

Posted By Gayle : November 21, 2013 6:40 pm

OK, gang, I’m going to come to the defense of the HBO Mildred Pierce. First, let me say I’m a big fan of the Warner Bros. film but once I read the novel (SPOILERS ahead), I understood that the Hollywood production code kicked out the sexuality inherent in the novel and eschewed its rather bleak ending but Warner Brothers still managed to produce this stylish film noir murder mystery. I’m rather fond of the ending; I like to imagine that Mildred will get back with Bert mainly because I’m a huge fan of Bruce Bennett (going back to when he was Herman Brix and doing Tarzan) and they look good together.

I’ll agree that the HBO series is too long. Yes, it follows modern convention with sex scenes because that’s what people expect today. What also appeals to me about the HBO series is it strongly embodies the elements in the novel dealing with social mobility and its downward spiral. This is somewhat present in the 1945 film but the HBO version amps its up. Mildred betters herself for the sake of her daughter but Kate Winslett shows her as being uncertain in some ways as she moves up in the world. Her blind eye to Veda’s selfishness is also generational. She wants Veda to have what she didn’t but she can’t always understand what Veda wants.

Would I watch the HBO version again? Yes, since I now have DVR and could fast forward to the repetitive bits! I will also continue to watch the 1945 version. They both have a lot to say.

I’m a huge James Cain fan and would like to see a remake of his novel Serenade. The Mario Lanza version of the 1950s just doesn’t cut it.

Posted By kjolseth : November 21, 2013 8:33 pm

A nice defense, Gayle! You also get points for having read the book… a claim I can’t make. Ultimately, if I do watch the HBO miniseries it’ll be because I think Todd Haynes is an interesting director who’s done good work with actresses in the past (ie: Julianne Moore in both SAFE and FAR FROM HEAVEN). From previous comments, I do realize that I might have to steel my reserve as I subject myself to grueling scene after scene of heaving moans and endless nudity. I am, however, no stranger to the pitfalls of my profession, which often require all manner of selfless sacrifice in the name of research.

Posted By Lamar : November 23, 2013 5:59 pm

Cain’s stories were improved by the changes the screenwriters made. I read all of Cain’s stories years ago (also Chandler & Hammett). Cain complemented Billy Wilder on the improvements the movie script made over the source material for Double Indemnity. The Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange remake of Postman (rarely mentioned by anyone since it was first released) was much more faithful to the book but as a movie it can’t hold a candle to the original. Ditto the HBO Mildred. Faithfulness to the original material doesn’t guarantee quality. These were pulpy stories after all.

Posted By Arthur : November 23, 2013 10:51 pm

Once saw an Italian film on TCM called Ossessione (Obsession) which was said to be based on the Postman Always Rings Twice. It came out before the American version. I actually thought it far better than the American version.

Posted By Lamar : November 24, 2013 2:54 pm

I’m in complete agreement regarding Ossessione. Turner & Garfield give the MGM version what sizzle it has, without them…

Posted By Arthur : November 24, 2013 5:21 pm

After watching Ossessione, I was surprised that it seemed so much better than the American version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of my favorites. So I went back and looked at Postman. Then and only then did I realize what the New Wave meant when they complained about artifice in traditional filmmaking. Classic Hollywood abounds in it. Stellar performances enable us to look beyond it.

Posted By Film Crit JOURNAL #7: Another adaptation? Oh, MIldred! | filmjournal1141 : December 18, 2013 2:08 pm

[…] Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin ( […]

Posted By MedusaMorlock : December 20, 2013 2:35 pm

I know “Trog” is low-budget horror, but by gosh if Joan isn’t really good in it. She is sympathetic, smart, and really kicks that goofy movie up several notches. She had nothing to apologize for with her performance in it. She was a working actress and it was good work. I have never been a big Crawford fan but every time I watch her onscreen I’m captivated, so maybe I’m a fan after all!

Great post, Pablo!

Posted By Blakeney : December 22, 2013 12:38 am

The much ridiculed (sometimes deservedly) Hays code (1930-1968) was not always a bad thing. Ultimately, it was as flawed as those responsible for implementing and enforcing it. And yet, many years of exceptional and award-winning films were produced while it was in existence. The current trend of excess was not always necessary to create out a good movie. I prefer the original Mildred Pierce, and I don’t need to hear every last gasp to know what was going on.

Posted By Arthur : December 22, 2013 2:10 am

I agree. However, I think that much of the explicit sex in film can be traced back to the late sixties, early seventies right after the repeal of the Hays Code. Filmmakers felt liberated and thus felt compelled to express their new found freedom with obligatory, callisthenic-like sex scenes. A new “standard” was set, but it was, and still is, just a different kind of stricture. The sexuality of the immediate pre-code years was actually more mature and “adult” in the real sense of that word, not adolescent as is today’s.

Posted By george : December 22, 2013 4:27 am

Remember that Hollywood was losing customers in the ’60s to foreign films that were more “frank” in their depiction of sex. The ditching of the Code was a business decision as much as anything else.

But filmmakers had been chipping away at the Code for years. Two key films of 1960 — PSYCHO and THE APARTMENT — would not have been made in the U.S. a decade earlier, when the Code was stronger. Recall the cuts that Kazan had to make to STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

Posted By Arthur : December 22, 2013 4:57 am

Hitchcock seemed to have long been chipping away at the code. Recall Cary Grant’s love scene with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest and earlier with Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief and much, much earlier his clinches with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

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