Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 17, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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