Sunday, December 18, 2022

WEST SIDE STORY 2021


At age 76, multi-Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg is a full 11 years my senior. But when it comes to our mutual, lifelong love affair/obsession with West Side Story, he's practically my twin.

Both of us were introduced to West Side Story at roughly the same impressionable age: Spielberg, when he was 10, via the original 1957 Broadway cast album his father brought home one day (Spielberg dedicates this film to his late father); me, at age 11, by way of the 1967 theatrical re-release of the 1961 Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins movie (detailed in an earlier post). The indelible impression this ingeniously urbanized, musicalized retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet made on our young imaginations—book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, original stage production conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins—easily branded West Side Story as the first musical crush for us both. 

And while I never got in trouble for singing "Gee, Officer Krupke" at the dinner table like Spielberg, I can certainly attest to having immersed myself in West Side Story's OST Lp with equally matched zeal and fervor. At 11-years-old, I may not have been able to memorize Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," but should anyone have asked, I could have recited the lyrics to every song from West Side Story with ease.   
1957                                                 1961
Surprisingly, this awareness of a shared reverence for West Side Story did absolutely nothing to mollify the host of misgivings flooding my brain when word came out that Spielberg would be cutting his musical teeth by directing a new screen adaptation of West Side Story. With each new press release cagily sidestepping the dreaded R-word: "remake” in favor of the PR-friendly: “reimaging”; I could feel the muscles in my neck coiling tighter and tighter. The thought of anyone tinkering with my beloved West Side Story immediately sent me spiraling off into something akin to a film geek's version of bling Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief”:

1. Denial – I reminded myself that there’d been fruitless talk of remaking West Side Story for decades. Nothing ever came of any of them, and this time would be no different.
2. Anger – I railed at the Hollywood machine and its remake/franchise addiction. Who the hell asked for a remake of West Side Story? With all the absolutely dreadful musicals in need of remaking, they choose one of the few that got it right? And what about all those great shows that have yet to make it to the screen? Better they should make a film version of Sondheim's Follies or help get Glenn Close that long-deserved Oscar by making of movie of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.
3. Bargaining – Well, I reasoned…if West Side Story HAS to be remade, at least it’ll be by a talented, seasoned old pro like Steven Spielberg. A man who truly loves the material and knows how to tell a story. I kept reminding myself that it could just as easily have been Rob Marshall (Nine), Susan Strohman (The Producers), Tom Hooper (Cats), or Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) at the helm. Yikes!
4. Depression – The first leaked photo of the new cast of WSS was underwhelming, to say the least. 
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But this one left me with just one: "Uh-oh!"
Though I've since had to eat my words, my first thought when I saw this cast photo (with its weird cut-and-paste look that turns everyone into floating Colorforms® figures) was that it reminded me of something I'm always happy to forget: an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. The new Maria looked ideal, but the rest of the cast called forth nightmare visions of Newsies (1992) or worse...Richard Attenborough's A Chorus Line (1985).
5. Acceptance – Every single argument of resistance I'd held regarding the wrong-headed inadvisability of what I'd come to regard as "Spielberg's Folly" crumbled into an irrelevant heap at my feet when I got my first glimpse of West Side Story via the premiere of its teaser trailer during the 93rd Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, April 25, 2021. I wasn't ready. 
Apparently, all the seized-up muscles in my neck needed to get them to relax was for me to hear that tritone "Jets whistle" again. And all that was necessary to uproot my firmly dug-down heels was to see a mere 90 seconds of montage heralding Spielberg's vision. The trailer gave me instant goosebumps AND waterworks, and suddenly the movie I'd scoffed at for well over a year had become the movie I absolutely had to see. 
The Sharks (click image to enlarge)
Once I stopped resisting the idea of a new West Side Story (i.e., focusing on the innumerable, highly probable ways it could be a disaster) my mind began entertaining the tantalizing possibilities a new adaptation posed. For example, I had yet to consider how thrilling it might be to hear new, full-scale arrangements of all my favorite West Side Story songs. Auguring particularly well for Spielberg's adaptation was the fact that there was to be none of that desperate "Oscar Bait" business of adding a new song to the score...one composed "Especially for the movie!"
The Jets (click image to enlarge)
West Side Story’s groundbreaking use of dance is such a significant part of its legacy and appeal, I couldn’t wait to see what this version had up its sleeve in terms of tackling the one aspect of the show many fans consider to be sacrosanct; Jerome Robbins’ iconic original choreography. Here again, I was encouraged by Spielberg's instincts. Fearful that he was going to select a flavor-of-the-month choreographer from music videos or pop concerts, my heart leapt when I learned that the film's dances would be created by Justin Peck, Tony Award winner and resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. Now, you're talking!  — ¡Ponle fuego, vamos!     
But standing head and shoulders above everything else (eclipsing even my elation at finding out that James Corden hadn't been cast in any role) was my hope for this new West Side Story to offer, at last, a “cringe-free” viewing experience. My love for the classic 1961 version (and its stars, Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn) has never waned in all this time. But with each passing year—what with contemporary America rolling out the welcome mat to old-school racism, and the advent of HD Blu-ray rendering all those actors in brownface makeup with a clarity as jarring as it is embarrassing—it has grown more difficult for me to minimize and look beyond the wince-inducing whitewash casting and the stereotyped depiction of its Puerto Rican characters. The chance for a more ethnically-authentic West Side Story was exhilarating in its potential.    
Rachel Zegler as Maria Vasquez
Anson Elgor as Anton (Tony) Wyzek
Ariana DeBose as Anita Palacio
David Alvarez as Bernardo Vasquez
Mike Faist as Riff Lorton
Rita Moreno as Valentina

Although I desperately wanted to see West Side Story when it opened at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood on Friday, December 10, 2021, a post-Thanksgiving surge in local COVID cases gave pause to my enthusiasm. Therefore, diligently avoiding reviews and spoilers in the interim (easier than you'd think), I finally got to see West Side Story a rather swift-passing four months later when my partner alerted me of it being streamed online in HD for free to AARP members (ka-ching!) as part of its “Movies for Grown-Ups” series. (I think AARP understood the target demographic for this West Side Story better than Spielberg or 20th Century Fox.) 
Josh Andres Rivera as Chino Martin
character change: now a thicc snack
iris menas as Anybodys
character change: now a transmasculine teen and first-rate ass-kicker  
Jump ahead in time: Me in front of the TV screen, surrounded by junk food, watching the stunning time-lapse end credits (by Drew Geraci) play out over a stirringly lush medley of Leonard Bernstein's beautiful music. The red-eyed, runny-nosed, blubbering mess I’d been reduced to at the end of 2 ½ hours only confirming what I’d already known after five minutes...as far as this lifelong fan of West Side Story was concerned, Steven Spielberg’s masterwork adaptation had caught the moon. One-handed catch. I loved it.
Brian d'Arcy James as Sergeant Krupke / Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank
Hats off to any film that can--at my age--reignite that childlike awe I've always held for the way movies can create entire worlds of the believably impossible within a tiny, rectangular frame. Watching West Side Story turned out to be one of the most enlivening movie-watching experiences I’ve had in too long a while. Not to put too much on the shoulders of Spielberg & Co., but who knew that a good, old-fashioned movie musical…magnificently realized…was just the joyous, hopeful glimpse of light I needed to reaffirm my sense of life beginning to emerge from under the dark cloak of Hellscape: America post-2016?
I like Spielberg's decision not to subtitle the Spanish dialogue.
The screenplay is available online, and one of the many sharp conversations I translated is
Anita's challenge to Bernardo that he hasn't married her because she's Black
I’ve read pieces characterizing the changes to West Side Story by Tony Kushner (who wrote the screenplays for Spielberg’s Munich-2005, Lincoln-2012, and The Fabelmans-2022) as additions. To me, the work of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer feel more like extractions. He extracts the era-defined racial myopia of both the stage and movie adaptations to make the material resonate as truer, not newer.


The pleasure of Spielberg's West Side Story is that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to see a movie musical that actually feels like a genuine movie. By that, I mean a movie musical that isn't ironic, apologetic, a pastiche, a cartoon, a music video on steroids, or one of those depressingly sterile Glee/High School Musical things that mistake garish hyperactivity for the stuff of dreams. West Side Story, with its unabashed romanticism and playful surrender to the conventions of the genre, feels like an old-fashioned movie musical in the very best sense of the word. Evidence, perhaps, that a…ahem, mature, traditionalist director like Spielberg was just the person for the job.
My favorite thing about the glorious cinematography by Oscar-winner and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List-1993, Saving Private Ryan- 1998, A.I.-2001, Lincoln-2012) is the use of backlight flare and reflective bursts of light and color to create the glamour of dreamy romance or the flashpoint tension of violence. 
 
As much as I respect his talent and have enjoyed several of his movies (Jaws, The Color Purple), Steven Spielberg has never been one of my favorite directors (I compiled a list once, and he doesn’t even make the top 30). Part of this is due to how often he works in genres that never much interested me (action, adventure, war movies, historical dramas). But I also find in his films and directing style a tendency to lapse into mawkish sentimentality or boyish whimsy that in many instances feels misplaced, or contributes to undermining moments of genuine emotion.

But personal tastes aside, I don’t think anyone who knows anything about filmmaking would argue that Spielberg is not a gifted visual storyteller, skilled craftsman, and well-versed in the vocabulary of cinema. The marvelous thing revealed in seeing Spielberg apply his particular brand of “Great Entertainer” genius to a musical, is that the dominant traits of the genre: exuberance, nostalgia, romanticism, dreamy fantasy, broad strokes characterizations, oversized emotions, amplified sentiment…play specifically to Spielberg’s strengths, flatter his flaws, and turn even his most irksome vices into virtues.
Ilda Mason as Luz  / Ana Isabelle as Rosalia

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
What ultimately cooled my “How dare they tamper with a classic!” indignation over West Side Story was the degree to which every square inch of every frame stood testament to Spielberg's evident care and affection for the material. His palpable desire to do right by the story, music, and dances gives the film an irresistible exuberance that imbues the now 65-year-old musical with an urgency and freshness I honestly hadn't thought possible. Even as I think about it now, I'm so impressed by the way Spielberg’s West Side Story manages to be respectfully faithful to the theatrical production, honor the film version, yet still leave its mark as a boldly distinctive and personal adaptation.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY 
For a movie musical to really get to me, there's usually a sequence or image that captures my imagination and etches itself in my mind as emblematic of the moment my heart was lost. Like a dream portal…it’s not anything I consciously select, but rather, some kind of internal Polaroid snapshot taken during that elusive and spontaneous “goosebump moment.”  In Ken Russell's The Boy Friend, it was when two dancers became Art Deco figurines on a giant gramophone. In Cabaret it was Liza Minnelli draped like a Dali painting over the back of a chair singing "Mein Herr." And in Jesus Christ Superstar it was when Judas emerges from the catacombs of an ancient arena in a Vegas-fringed bodysuit, flanked by a trio of angels with glowing white afros. 
My West Side Story goosebump moment, which has already taken root in my mind as the apex instant of the entire film, is that phenomenal low-angle tracking shot of Anita and a squad of women racing down the middle of the street...full throttle in heels, capris, and twirly skirts a-flipping…in the “America” number. John Ford would understand why this shot is so effective ("When the horizon is at the top, it's interesting. When it's at the bottom, it's interesting. When it's in the middle it's boring as shit!"), but add the combination of music, movement, and jubilant playfulness of the dancers, and you've got a scene that made me gasp as my heart hit the ceiling. 

I love that Rita Moreno, 1961 West Side Story's Oscar-winning Anita, is a co-producer on this film and appears in a substantial supporting role created for the film. She's wonderful as you'd expect, and if she didn't get nominated for an Oscar again (she didn't) it wasn't for lack of trying. Her rendition of "Somewhere" is a heartbreaker, and Spielberg practically crafts her role as a series of ready-made Oscar preview clips. All the odds seemed in her favor, but perhaps Natalie Wood was looking down and exacted a little Awards Season karma.


PERFORMANCES
The Golden Age movie musicals I watched on TV as a kid (original vehicles designed to showcase the talents of a particular star) conditioned me not to expect too much in the way of acting from musicals. In my teens, when the economic demands of adapting Broadway hits for the screen necessitated the casting of bankable names, films like Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, and Man of La Mancha all seemed to come with mutually-exclusive ultimatums: “Do you want movie stars who can actually act, or do you want song & dance talent with the screen charisma of Spam? Take your pick, ‘cause you can't have both.” 
Everyone shines in West Side Story (hands down the best-acted WSS I've ever seen), but Ariana DeBose (Oscar winner), Mike Faist, & David Alvarez are particularly effective in their roles.   
So, I’ve nothing but admiration for Spielberg using his industry clout (the most financially successful director of all time) and fame (he, in essence, is the film’s bankable star)’s the film’s sole bankable name) to make West Side Story the right way: with an extraordinary ensemble cast of young Broadway-trained. (And hallelujah! No one from the world of pop music!)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Understandably, many will still find West Side Story inherently problematic no matter how many issues are addressed, but personally, I'm overjoyed that Steven Spielberg made a West Side Story I can embrace fully, rather than love at arm's-length. And now, a few parting shots in appreciative recognition of Steven Spielberg, the visual storyteller.
Prologue / Jet Song
Something's Coming
The Dance at the Gym
Maria
Balcony Scene (Tonight)
America
Gee, Officer Krupke
One Hand, One Heart
Cool
Tonight Quintet
I Feel Pretty

As best I could, I’ve tried to keep comparisons between the two West Side Story films to a minimum. The reason why can be found in Stephen Sondheim’s 2010 memoir Finishing the Hat. In it, he relates an anecdote about nervously inviting Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman to see his 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music, which Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler had adapted from Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night
At the end of the show, Sondheim was quick to apologize to the filmmaker for the liberties taken, whereupon Bergman calmed his fears with a perceptive observation: “No, no, Mr. Sondheim, I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story.” 

That's how I feel about West Side Story 1961 and 2021. The world can accommodate both magnificent musicals. One doesn't have to replace or cancel out the other. And as I have fallen in love with each, there's no need for me to have to choose between them. They're both superb, entirely different movies. They merely share the same story.


BONUS MATERIAL
Not His First Time at the Rodeo
West Side Story may be Steven Spielberg's first full-scale musical, but clearly, the genre has always fascinated him. Musical sequences appear in several of his films (1941, The Color Purple). 1991's Hook was actually conceived and partially shot as a musical (songs by John Williams & Leslie Bricusse). And sometime in the early '80s a musical titled Reel to Reel was planned but scrapped.
Controversially, Spielberg's Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (1984) credits sequence is an elaborate production number of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" choreographed by Danny Daniels (Pennies from Heaven - 1981).
Kate Capshaw sings to her future husband while modeling what appear
to be sequined gardening gloves in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom  


Steven with his father Arnold Spielberg - June 1999

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 -  2022

Saturday, October 8, 2022

MILDRED PIERCE 1945

Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

For me, Mildred Pierce has always been the most watchable and quotable of Joan Crawford’s movies. Which is really saying something with gold-plated doozies like Strait-Jacket, Torch Song, Berserk!, Queen Bee, and Flamingo Road staring me in the face. 
This film that won Crawford her first Oscar nomination and only win (she would be nominated two more times) ranks so high on my list of favorite movies that, by rights, I should have written about it long before now. But like many classic-era films that also enjoy broad popularity, Mildred Pierce is a movie that's been talked about, written about, analyzed, remade, lampooned, and borrowed from for so long, it simply felt as though I had nothing new to add to the conversation.

That's probably still the case. But the occasion of having recently read, back-to-back, the 1941 James M. Cain novel (upon which the film is based) and a terrific 1980 scholarly volume by film historian Albert J. LaValley devoted to the academic discussion of Mildred Pierce (!) complete with the published screenplay – left me with so much Mildred on my mind, the time felt right to commit my personal thoughts on this long-beloved film, to this, my internet film diary. 
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce
Jack Carson as Wally Fay
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce
Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
Eve Arden as Ida Corwin

The romanticized Stella Dallas myth—embracing the nobility of maternal love that sacrifices everything to secure the financial and social success of one’s child—gets a severe upending in Mildred Pierce. This surprisingly still-potent melodrama casts Crawford as a working-class divorcee and mother of two (the titular Mildred) whose obsessive/neurotic love for her serpent-toothed eldest, Veda (Blyth), provides the grist that fuels a determined ambition to build a sweeping financial empire on fluffy pie crusts. The drama of this tale is that the same mother-daughter bond…whose dynamics are entrenched in emotional and psychological dysfunction (with a scoop of the Electra complex on top)… figures just as significantly in bringing about Mildred’s personal and professional ruin.
Butterfly McQueen as Lottie
Ms. McQueen made her uncredited film debut in 1939 appearing alongside Joan Crawford in George Cukor's The Women. By 1945 she'd appeared in such high-profile films as Gone with the Wind, Cabin in the Sky, and Since You Went Away. Yet despite the size and memorability of her role in Mildred Pierce,  her name doesn't appear in the credits. 

For all the talk of this being the film to reverse Crawford’s fortunes, helping to erase the stigma of boxoffice poison that dogged her following her so-called amicable ouster from MGM; Mildred Pierce, oddly, represents less a departure from type than some of her other roles. Indeed, in many ways, Mildred Pierce serves up an à la carte menu of everything that first comes to mind when I think about Joan Crawford’s screen persona.  
If I’m guilty of harboring a mental image of The Crawford Mystique as: the inevitable ankle strap shoes, always brandishing a gun, invariably slapping somebody, suffering nobly in shoulder-padded mink, photographed through impossible shadow formations highlighting her eyes, and playing characters disposed of a steely self-determinism…then, Mildred Pierce does not disappoint. It's all here. 
Me and My Shadows
Few stars got as much use out of the "floating shadow" as Joan Crawford

As movie characters go, the been-around-the-block maturity of “common frump” Mildred Pierce-Beragon is ideally-suited to both the gifts and limitations of then-38-year-old Crawford. Playing what is essentially just a more lived-in variation of her usual stock-in-trade: “…the shop girl who fought her way to the top, made a great success” (God help me, I’m quoting Mommie Dearest). An image established as early as 1930's Our Blushing Brides--one of Crawford's earliest post-silent era features--Mildred Pierce is a challenging role that nevertheless remains comfortably within Crawford’s tried-and-true wheelhouse. And to give credit where credit is due, Crawford, clearly recognizing the sharp script, showcase role, and atypically noirish milieu of Mildred Pierce for the rare opportunity it is, gives her performance everything she’s got.
Mildred Pierce didn't introduce the classic Joan Crawford persona, but it certainly solidified it. When Crawford good-naturedly spoofs her image and herself in the Warner Bros musical comedy It's a Great Feeling (1949), the dialogue and gestures she uses (capped with "I do that in all my pictures!") are from Mildred Pierce

It’s safe to say that virtually the entire Joan Crawford arsenal is trotted out in Mildred Pierce. But somehow, in this instance, thanks to the overall classy production values, tight script, and unusually strong supporting cast (and maybe because Crawford worked extra hard to impress a director who made no secret of Barbara Stanwyck being his first choice), many of those familiar Crawford-ism notes are struck with a considerably lighter touch.
I think Joan Crawford is a wonderful...if not exactly accessible...actress. No matter how intensely a scene is played, Crawford always comes across to me as being at a slight remove from the real emotions involved. Never allowing herself to be exposed in the ways Stanwyck, Davis, and even Jennifer Jones can. When it comes to character engagement, Crawford doesn't let you in so much as invite you to have a seat and watch her suffer photogenically from a distance


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
The end-product of at least 8 screenplay drafts by nearly as many writers, Mildred Pierce is a film-noir - crossed with a domestic drama - crossed with a postwar woman’s film. The postwar designation denoting the newly-determined genre trend in having the female-driven narratives end on a note of “normalcy” restored…i.e., a return to traditional gender roles. Thus, in the screen ending that’s a tad kinder to Mildred than Cain’s novel (which ends flatly with Mildred standing by helplessly as she’s made a fool of, two times over), Mildred is financially ruined and loses her business empire, but walks off into the L.A. sunrise, arms linked with her recently redeemed, now-steadily employed, likely ex-ex-husband.
Bruce Bennett as Albert "Bert" Pierce

The seamless manner in which Mildred Pierce blends these different genres (doing credit to each and with a considerable amount of humor nowhere to be found in Cain’s novel) is precisely why it endures as one of those movies that, despite owning the DVD, I can’t help watching…no matter how far along into the story…whenever it pops up on TV. It’s old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its captivating best.
Released October 12, 1945
Early marketing misleadingly depicted Mildred as a noir femme fatale.
The whole "Don't Tell Anyone What She Did!" promotional tease extended
 to exhibitors being encouraged not to seat anyone during the film's last 7 minutes

It's said that Paramount's success with Cain's Double Indemnity (1944) is what inspired Warners to update (from the '30s to 'mid-'40s) and insert a murder into Cain's Mildred Pierce, which is essentially a character study and Depression-era commentary on class struggle. Cain was less than happy about his book being turned into a film noir, but I think the changes give Mildred Pierce a focus and economy lacking in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed and was very impressed by the faithful-to-the-letter 2011 Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries. But the narrative fidelity and Winslet's more human-scaled performance amplified what the Crawford film moves too quickly for me to have noticed: Mildred's blind-spot where the unremittingly awful Veda is concerned paints her more of a dope than devoted.  
"That would have been dreadfully recherché, n’est-ce pas?"
Mildred and Monte share a look in response to Veda being Veda
The character of Mildred Pierce isn’t granted much in the way of self-awareness, but it's a nice touch (one preventing her from appearing to be stupid) for the script to allow for a couple of scenes that show Mildred to both aware and condescendingly tolerant of Veda's airs and pretensions. 

The idea of Mildred as a resourceful but not very insightful woman (the novel cites her flaw as a tendency towards literal-mindedness) might have occurred to me before had 1945's Mildred Pierce been cast with any other actress. In anyone else's hands, the scene where Mildred sells Monte a third of her hard-earned business to get him to marry her just so she can re-welcome Veda-the-Viper back into the fold, would have audiences wanting to haul off and slap Mildred themselves.
But in the hands of Joan Crawford—self-mastery personified—those actions seem more determinedly willful than pathetic. An act of noble self-sacrifice of the sort that has been Crawford’s stock-in-trade for years.

And therein lies the key to one of the major reasons why Mildred Pierce is such an enjoyable film for me: It’s a movie that “gets” that the only way to soften Crawford’s image, making her brittle countenance even remotely sympathetic, is to have nearly every character in the film heap abuse on her head. From the first frames of the film to the last, Mildred places the needs of others above her own (and the one time she goes off to have some fun for herself, fate rewards her with the almost Biblically retributional sacrifice of a child) and is rarely thanked or praised for it. Even after defying the odds and achieving the near-impossible feat of becoming a wealthy businesswoman, building a mini-empire from the ground up (and developing a drinking problem for her trouble), any faint praise offered by others is usually followed by a crack about her smelling of chicken grease.
Joan Crawford at her happiest. Cleaning something.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I think I devote so much space here reiterating how much I’m entertained by Mildred Pierce because, for all its glossy appeal and the perversity of its plot (Veda is a pretty active girl considering she only celebrates her 18th birthday at the END of the movie), it's a movie that's never really engaged me on any kind of emotional level. Which is perhaps not anything I’d otherwise be looking for in a genre film (film noir in particular tends to traffic in the cynical and jaded) except that when I read the novel I was surprised by how moving and sad I found Mildred Pierce to be. Two things I've never felt in all the times I've watched the movie. 
Jo Ann Marlowe as Kay Pierce
One of the more eye-opening disclosures in the novel is Mildred's guilty self-admission 
that if one of her children had to die, she's grateful it wasn't Veda.
 

As an example of Hollywood studio system “product” from the days when the main objective of movies was to provide escapism and sell popcorn, Mildred Pierce is every bit as efficient as its titular character. It’s classically structured: character/goals/conflict/ resolution; market-friendly: it’s got drama, romance, glamour, & comedy; and streamlined to a noirish-T: gunplay, double-dealing, and the question of “Who shot Monte?” keep audiences in their seats. If the slick restructuring of Cain's character-study novel into a crime film perhaps excised some of its relatable humanity, at least the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Ranald MacDougall retains enough of the book's subtextual themes (gender disparity, class struggle, sexual competition, single motherhood, etc.) to make repeat visits to Mildred Pierce worthwhile.
Emancipated Woman
A somewhat underdeveloped theme, shunted aside by the dictates of the noir narrative, relates to all that lies within Mildred that never would have had the opportunity to develop had Bert not left her. The woman who introduced herself with the words "I felt as though I was born in a kitchen and lived there all my life," positively thrives when not exclusively assuming the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker; domestic roles '40s America held up as the pinnacles of feminine achievement. Mildred reveals herself to be quite the businesswoman: smart, ambitious, hard-working, and resourceful, she's infinitely more capable and successful than any of the men in her life. And there's even the suggestion (coded by the degree of guilt she must shoulder for not being there for her ailing daughter) that in Monte, Mildred's sexual side is awakened as well.

Eve Arden and Jack Carson lighten and enliven Mildred Pierce

PERFORMANCES
The talent and chemistry of the cast of Mildred Pierce is yet another factor contributing to its irresistible watchability. Everyone but 16-year-old Ann Blyth is cast to type (she, heretofore only appearing in light comedies) and each is at the top of their game. Crawford is held in restraint (for Crawford), Eve Arden is on-the-money with her trademark mordant wisecracks, and Blyth’s strong performance (better every time I see it) is deserving of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination it garnered.
But for me, Mildred Pierce's Most Valuable Player--after Joan--is Jack Carson. Has there ever been a movie that isn’t made better by his casting? The earthy naturalness of his fast-talking Wally Fay not only takes the starch out of the humorless Mildred, but lends each of his scenes a bull-in-a-china-shop air of unpredictability. He shifts effortlessly from comic figure to force-to-be-reckoned-with, and I don’t think the film would be nearly as lively without him.
Veda's brief and ignominious stint as an entertainer is a personal high point of Mildred Pierce. Especially for my partner, who unfailingly breaks into peals of laughter at Veda's a-moving-target's-hard-to-hit choreography and scarf-flailing, bow-out exit. 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
From writing this blog I've learned that many families and couples have favorite movies that become in-house quotable staples over time. A phenomenon wherein repeated lines of dialogue or references to certain scenes have morphed into shared running gags.
In the 27 years my partner and I have been together, there are still only a handful of movies that have risen to those hallowed ranks. Andy Warhol's BAD is one of them ("O'Reilly O'Crapface."), All About Eve is another (Birdie - describing the wardrobe mistress: "She's got two things to do: carry clothes and press 'em wrong. And don't let anybody try to muscle in."). But Mildred Pierce is one of our most frequent go-to's for quotes and phrases repeated out of context that have become inside jokes. Quotes attributed to Veda proving to be a tad overrepresented. 

Bert Pierce: "She plays piano like I shoot pool."


Mildred Pierce: "I took tips and was glad to get them."


Ida Corwin: "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."


Mildred Pierce: "I know you romantic guys. One crack about the beautiful moon and you're off to the races."

Mildred Pierce may not be as dark or thought-provoking as many of the films that captured my adolescent imagination in the late-'60s, and '70s. 
But when I'm in the mood for a good "comfort food movie," Mildred Piece delivers.


BONUS MATERIAL

Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Kate Winslet as Mildred
In 2011, HBO premiered a five-part, five Emmy Award-winning miniseries
adaptation of Mildred Pierce that's so faithful to James M. Cain's novel
 and so different from the 1945 film, there's no need to draw comparisons.


Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are forever linked in the pop-cultural consciousness, and moments like this don't help. A movie theater across the street from Mildred's Glendale eatery is showing the Bette Davis film Mrs. Skeffington (1944). Prior to this scene, when Mildred is seduced by Monte at his beach house, the music theme playing in the background is "It Can't Be Wrong" the Max Steiner/Kim Gannon melody composed for Bette Davis' Now Voyager (1942)

The Davis/Crawford connection continues with that slinky striped number Eve Arden's Ida wears to Veda's 18th birthday party, showing up 19 years later in the Bette-Davis-as-twins-again (A Stolen Life -1946) melodrama Dead Ringer (1964)...that's Bette in the phone booth. It's worn...sans shoulder pads...by jazz legend, pianist-vocalist, Perry Blackwell, who, as of this writing, recently celebrated her 97th birthday. Her granddaughter informed me that Ms. Blackwell was gifted the top by Eve Arden herself and that she recalls seeing it among her grandmother's performance costumes until she was about ten years old. Thanks to reader Richard Lloreda for bringing this costume rerun to my attention.

Mildred Pierce          -         Mildred Fierce
I saw "Mildred Fierce" - the hilariously spot-in Carol Burnett spoof of Mildred Pierce (The Carol Burnett Show - broadcast November 19, 1976) - many years before I saw the genuine article.  When I did finally get around to watching Crawford's film, the Burnett skit had grown so familiar, and its similarities so acute, it took a while for it to sink in that the movie was NOT, in fact, a parody of the Carol Burnett skit!


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