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 √† 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 recherch√©, 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!


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2022

20 comments:

  1. What a lovely and thorough review, Ken! From now on, "Mildred Pierce" will also be one of my favorite movies.

    Greetings from Barcelona,
    Juan

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    1. Hello, Juan - Thank you very much. I'm happy if the pleasure I find in this movie is a little bit contagious. Oh, and while I have the opportunity, I want to say how much I've enjoyed your series of film reviews/essays on the films of Roman Polanski. He is one of my all time favorite directors, and to read so many marvelous pieces about his films in one place was a rare treat. Good to hear from you again!

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  2. I wouldn't call myself a Joan Crawford fan but I do like her in this movie. And thanks for including the screenshots from Carol Burnett's version of this movie (Those eyebrows! On Crawford, dramatic. On Burnett, hilarious.) Like you, I saw this sketch before seeing the movie itself and was surprised at how it basically hits all the high points of that film with a comic twist. (I still remember Monte's proposal scene when Burnett's Mildred declares "No hanky, no panky. No ring, no ring-a-ding-ding!") Of course, the original is stark melodrama softened by the comic interactions of Eve Arden and Jack Carson. Thank heavens! If it was only Mildred and Veda (both of whom you feel like slapping at times, one for her obtuseness and the other for her brattiness) it would be a less enjoyable film. I appreciate you explaining that the movie's end is different from the book's. I always felt the "happily ever after" scene with Mildren's ex-husband was tacked on. When he showed up at the end, I had forgotten all about the character. The film would be more effective (though more tragic) if Mildred were left alone, the victim of her own good intentions.

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    1. Hi Ron – I wonder how many other people’s first exposure to Mildred Pierce was Burnett’s Mildred Fierce? Like so many of the movie parodies on that show (Double Indemnity), Carol Burnett’s takeoff on Mildred Pierce is remarkably accurate in capturing the tone and look of the films being spoofed, in addition to having that knack you speak of, of finding all the high notes to hit. The joke line you mentioned has always been my favorite, along with:
      Monte: “One of those decent dames, hmm?”
      Mildred: “You make decent sound indecent!”
      Monte: “And I can make indecent…pretty decent.”

      Reading your comments about not being a Crawford fan, yet still enjoying Mildred Pierce makes me wonder if it’s not perhaps the perfect Crawford movie for non-Crawford fans. Certainly, Crawford’s tendency towards solemn suffering is made more bearable through the efforts of Arden and Carson.
      I’m not sure if the Kate Winslet version is available for streaming, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look and retains the novel’s ending.
      Thank you for commenting and visiting this blog again, Ron!

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  3. Hi, Ken.

    I've been waiting for this review for a long time. It did not disappoint. I think this movie, perhaps unintentionally, gets into something that's deep in the American psyche: how so many children become estranged from their parents, even grow to hate them, because they aren't rich and successful. Everybody wants something for nothing, and that includes wanting rich parents. I think Ann Blyth, in the ripping-up-the-check scene, comes close to stealing the movie. The way she builds her big speech deserved the Oscar. And that scene also includes my favorite line, which I'm sorry you didn't highlight: "Veda, I think I'm really seeing you for the first time in my life and you're cheap and horrible."

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    1. Hi Kip –
      I think you’re right in noting that this film touches upon something about the American Family myth. It’s almost shockingly rare for a movie from this era to touch upon so many areas of family dysfunction. From divorce to adultery to children who hate their mothers.
      I’d never thought about the phenomenon of children hating their parents (r at least resenting them) because they’re not rich. But as a country, we have always so villanized the poor, the fallout for the faultless children of the impoverished (consider the way that certain political factions today seek to eradicate free lunches for school kids) would certainly feed a resentment. As a nation, we tend to punish the children of the poor, as if they had a say in their birth circumstances, and in that, I can see your point.

      Veda, like a lot of “bad” characters in noir, gives voice to the dark underside of the many myths America likes to tell itself about home and family. Her class snobbery,social climbling, and greed is ugly, but they’re all things we as a society seem to admire, if not reward, in others.
      Nice to read your thoughts on what is your favorite scene and line of dialogue. I’m with you in thinking Blyth is terrific and the whole scene is electric and very well-played.
      I’m happy you enjoyed the post, Kip, and I thank you for contributing to it with your comments.

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  4. "Joan Crawford at her happiest, cleaning something."

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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  5. Yay! Like many people of a certain age, "Mildred Fierce" was my own first exposure to this property as well (we NEVER missed an episode of TCBS!) Then it was the moment of line reading from "Pierce" in "Mommie Dearest" as well before I ever became a fan of Crawford and saw the movie proper. I liked it the first time I saw it, but having recently watched it on BluRay with a friend who knew nothing at all about the acting of the real JC (only the legend from "Mommie"), I thought it was just wonderful. All the elements work together beautifully. And, like you, I really appreciated Jack Carson this time, too. He was so snappy with dialogue, yet low-key with it at the same time (well, maybe not in all his roles... but here anyway.) Arden is a great relief because she often says what the audience is thinking. Scott is so perfectly slimy and Blyth so pretentious and selfish. But Joan... My God, it's like it was tailor-made for her, even after all the other, prior, fingerprints to be found on the script! The check-tearing sequence is my favorite. I love the guttural, raging way JC says, "VEDA!" And when the slap comes and the check pieces flutter down like celebration confetti. Ha ha! I found the film moving, but I think I found it moving because of the fact that JC had waited for just the right vehicle with which to reemerge on the screen and it paid off in spades, so there's an underlying victory to it apart from the plot. And I enjoyed sharing this with someone as a way to try to wipe away some of the stigma of "MD," a movie I once adored, but now don't like to watch anymore as my opinion on the daughter and her recollections has drastically altered over the years. Oh, and VERY neat info about Eve's top being handed over and used again by Ms. Blackwell. I wonder what color it was? Thanks!

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    1. Hi Jon –
      Fascinating how two extreme representations of Crawford: parody (Burnett) and excess (Mommie Dearest) – led to your eventual appreciation of the actress and ultimately seeing MILDRED PIERCE. For sharp storytelling, slick moviemaking, and an opportunity to see Crawford before she exhibits the more severe persona that characterized so much of her later work, MILDRED PIERCE is a great film for Crawford newbies. And, perhaps Crawford cynics…as a reminder that she can sometimes be very effective and more than just a camp/drag punchline.

      As you say, it’s one of those rare films where all the elements seem to work together.
      As per that Eve Arden costume, for some reason, I always imagined it as gold and black. But Perry Blackwell’s granddaughter informed me it was silver and black.
      Thanks for sharing your MILDRED PIERCE history and observations with us, Jon. I enjoyed reading your comments a great deal!

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  6. Crushed it, Ken! Thanks!

    And I am also another one who saw The Carol Burnett Show's Mildred Fierce years before I ever watched the original. But apparently, while Joan Crawford herself loved it so much she even sent Burnett a gushing fan-letter ("I LOVED LOVED LOVED IT!") she wasn't crazy about Burnett's take-off of Torch Song, entitled Torchy Song, which, truth be told, is pretty weak in comparison to the great Mildred Fierce. And I love the quotes above, Ken, but mention should be made of how hilarious Vicki Lawrence is as an ultra-bratty Vida: "Thanks a lot, big mouth! All I've ever asked of you in my whole entire life is to cover up one lousy little murder!"

    And it's great you bring up the connection with Stella Dallas, Ken. I think Danny Peary put it best when he wrote, in regard to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life: "A staple of the women's picture is women who will sacrifice everything for their children, but who aren't particularly good mothers"(!) Or as Shirley MacLaine once said to Meryl Streep in Postcards From the Edge, 1990: "How'd you like to have had Joan Crawford for a mother? Or Lana Turner? prompting Meryl to snap back, "These are the options? Joan or Lana or you?"

    With the great Warner Brother's workhorse Michael Curtiz directing, who did this, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Angels With Dirty Faces and directed Crawford again in Flamingo Road, 181 films in total to his credit. What an incredible career!

    And Pauline Kael once bitchily remarked on the scene in Mommie Dearest where Faye Dunaway is rehearsing lines from this film: "She looks and sounds like Crawford, but you are aware of one enormous difference: this is Mildred Pierce with a REAL actress in the part! "

    Ouch!

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    1. Hi Rick - I love learning that Crawford was aware of the Burnett parody and thought so well of it. The writing on that skit is first rate on all fronts: Vicki Lawrence's Veda: "Forthright does not buy Ferraris."
      With your admission, it appears the "Club" of Mildred Pierce fans who first saw the Carol Burnett parody is turning into a sizable one.
      And thanks for bringing up the long standing tradition of bad-but-devoted mothers that was so much the staple of the tear-jerker wing of the woman's film (Great quote from "Postcards from the Edge"). I'd forgotten how often mother/daughter relations have been mined for their dramatic potential.
      And I remember that Pauline Kael snipe at Crawford. I don't particularly agree with it, but I was so happy SOMEBODY had something nice to say about Dunaway's performance in Mommie Dearest, I never minded! Thank you again, Rick. I'm happy you liked the post and I appreciate your informative and enthusiastic contribution to the comments.

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  7. Dear Ken: Hello! Another wonderful piece of writing, and so enjoyable to read!

    I have a very different reaction to Joan Crawford than many people. Although I wouldn't count Crawford as among my favorite stars, I have watched the vast majority of her movies over the years. Something about Joan Crawford evokes in me feelings of compassion. I definitely see the anger that became more and more a part of her persona and performances over the decades (and that many people, including those who have never actually watched a Joan Crawford movie, find so scary). Yet, I sense that anger was a huge protective device for Crawford, something to cover up a very vulnerable core and to keep other people at a safe distance.

    As a mental health therapist, I have fantasized over the years about sitting down in a session with various classic stars. And I think it would be fascinating to do therapy work with Crawford (leaving aside the question of whether she herself would be willing to sit still for therapy—I feel certain the answer would have been no). Crawford's well-documented early trauma—the molestation, the maternal neglect, the physical abuse when Crawford was a work-study student in boarding school—all would have had a tremendous impact on her personality, and all I think played a significant part in her tremendous drive to be “somebody.”

    You made a very insightful comment in your essay, Ken, about Crawford always seeming at a slight remove from the emotions of her characters. I see that in her, too. Leaving aside the fact that Crawford had no training to be an actress (and I mean, NONE), there is a common phenomenon among some trauma survivors to be disconnected from their emotional core, to in a sense “perform” their feelings rather than “live” them. I find that photo you chose of Crawford smiling to be quite touching—it is so seldom, especially in her later films, that we get a sense of uncomplicated joy from Crawford.

    Moving on to discuss “Mildred Pierce” specifically, I find it as you say an extremely well-done film (today's filmmakers could learn a lot from “Pierce” about how to tell a good story in a clear and absorbing fashion). Of Crawford's mid-1940s films, though, I think I prefer “Humoresque” (another endlessly quotable screenplay, plus a terrific acting job from John Garfield) and also “Possessed,” which to me is Crawford's most impressive performance.

    Part of me, though, prefers the earlier, MGM “classy” Joan Crawford to her later Warners work. Her silent “Our Dancing Daughters” is tremendous fun, and she is sexy as all get-out in movies like “Grand Hotel.” I especially enjoy two of her movies that are quite obscure: the 1940 comedy “Susan and God,” in which she gives a comedy performance that is something to see (it's so different from her usual roles) and the 1937 romantic drama “The Bride Wore Red.” In the latter she looks especially glamorous, wearing what looks like a 1960s page boy hairdo about 25 years before the fashion. And the plot is about a woman of the working class who is given a chance to wear high fashion clothes, mingle with wealthy society, and play the elegant lady. It's like The Joan Crawford Story!

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    1. Hi Dave –
      As always, so great to hear from you. And with such a refreshing and personal perspective on La Crawford! Her persona as a star and Hollywood personality is so strong that most of the time when I see her movies, my biggest struggle is in trying to get past the “Joan smokescreen” to find the truth or reality of the character she’s portraying.

      It’s nice to hear that you can access the humanity behind the mask, and that the layers of protectiveness/defensiveness only make her more of an empathetic figure for you. Clearly, there’s a quality to her acting that is compelling. Something that suits the old-fashioned, stylized type of acting of her era. I know those of us who respond to her films react to something (often for me, it’s simply the histrionics), but you articulate well how your own psychological instincts and awareness afford you a slightly different avenue of access to her work.

      The closest thing I can compare it to are my feelings about actress Faye Dunaway and recording artist Diana Ross. Bruce finds it unfathomable and teases me a bit because I often speak of how it's so strange to me that these two women have such enduring reputations of being unpleasant people, yet to me, they both possess such sensitive, even kind, eyes. Eyes that belie the many horror stories I’ve heard over the years.
      The cornerstone of so many of the classic horror films of the early days of Universal is that the monsters are the figures of empathy and sympathy in the stories. Our awareness of how they are more victim than predator makes them sympathetic. Perhaps Joan Crawford is one of those beautiful monsters for you.

      One of my favorite parts of your comment was what you said about the smiling screencap of Joan cleaning that chandelier in his post. Indeed, joy was seldom served up in Crawford’s films, but for an actress I find to be rarely “exposed” on the screen, you cited a rare moment of openness in her persona that had gotten past me. A reminder that an actor’s accessibility isn’t always a parade of their pain, but it can be their capacity for conveying happiness (Shirley Booth does this very well for me).

      It sounds as though you’ve seen a lot of Crawford’s earlier works. I really love her in POSSESSED, and while I have HUMORESQUE in my collection, I haven’t watched in it quite some time. I may have to revisit it.
      However, you’ve provided me with a roster of unseen MGM films that’s intriguing. THE BRIDE WORE READ sounds particularly interesting.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, and were inspired to offer such a lovely alternative take on the Crawford mystique.
      By the way, your fantasy of sitting down with various Classic Era movie stars in a therapy session sounds like a fabulous idea for an Off-Broadway Play (or a “Whose Line is it Anyway?” series of improv skits). The mere idea of Joan Crawford visiting a contemporary therapist sets my imagination soaring!
      Thank you, David! I enjoyed reading your contributing comments so much. Take care!

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  8. Hi Ken - absolutely perfect essay on what I consider to be a perfect movie in every way. Crawford's very best, and the same could be said for all her costars--Carson ( I love him!). Scott, Blythe and company. The two women who stick by Mildred through thick and thin, both iconic character actors with great humor and equal compassion and understanding, elevate this film to much more than noir or soap opera: the sardonic but loyal Eve Arden and the querulous, kind and always upbeat Butterfly McQueen. This is above all a film about women. (I just watched The Women again a couple weeks ago and Ms. McQueen is hilarious in her small role in the department store scene with Crawford and Virginia Grey--I would not be surprised if Crawford insisted on Butterfly to play Lottie years later.) It's truly a sin that this fine actor from Gone With the Wind was still not getting screen credit, even after her costar Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar!

    Ken, what do you think of the Todd Haynes remake with Kate Winslet? I love that too, but of course not as much as the 1945 original. You didn't elaborate...maybe you are doing a post on that one too in the future?

    Cheers to you, Ken; I love keeping up with you on Instagram.
    -Chris

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    1. Hello Chris –
      Hearing from you is always like a welcome visit from an old friend. Not because you’re always so kind in your comments (which you are) but because we go back to the days when the only people reading this blog were members of my immediate family!

      It’s nice to know your thoughts on MILDRED PIERCE and your regard for it as a perfect movie. I’d never thought of it as such (my fondness for Crawford tends to cloud my objectivity) but I agree with you…MILDRED PIERCE is one f those perfect movies like ALL ABOUT EVE and SUNSET BLVD. Everything about it works, and the casting and chemistry is flawless.

      I really enjoyed the Kate Winslet MILDRED PIERCE a great deal. I was so impressed by how the limited series (or do they call it a movie?) assiduously avoided ANY possible comparison with Crawford’s film by being an almost religiously faithful adaptation of the book.
      It’s for that reason I purposely chose not to go too much into my thoughts on Todd Haynes film. It’s not fair to compare them, and to try to deal with both in one post (unless that’s the objective) is to do each a disservice.

      The one thing I will say, and it’s a problem I found with the book that got carried over to the Winslet film: If Veda is presented as vilely as she’s written, the viewer hates her from the start, and 5 hours of Mildred trying to win her love makes Mildred look like an idiot. Not only do you lose sympathy for her, but empathy evaporates.

      The heretofore sweet Ann Blyth was cast against type and that innate sweetness appears to be the thing Mildred sees and is drawn to behind Veda’s airs and pretensions. In the 2011 film, little Veda and grown-up Veda are depicted as being so irredeemably loathsome (even though Evan Rachel Wood is very good) that Kate Winslet’s Mildred didn’t come across as a loving mother so much as a profoundly stupid woman who needs a brick wall to fall on her before she gets a point.

      Gee, writing that was so much fun, maybe I WILL wind up writing about Winslet’s MILDRED PIERCE. Ha!

      Thanks again for reading his post and contributing your welcome comments. It’s nice too that you say hi every now and then on Instagram. I need to visit your blog soon! Take care, Chris!

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  9. You are dead right about Jack Carson! He utters one of my all time favorite lines in all of filmdom in this movie: "You know, Mildred, if you want to get Veda to do something for you, you gotta hit her in the head first." He is always a welcome presence in any role - Gooper in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Matt Libby in A STAR IS BORN...he was only 52 when he died. Thankfully he did a TON of TV work, so you never know when he might turn up!!

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    1. Hi Kristy - I wasn't aware that Jack Carson died so young! But as you say, he certainly was a prolific character actor who left behind an impressive and sizable body of work.
      It's nice to hear that he is one of your favorites as well (I love that line of his you quoted from "Mildred Pierce" !)

      Thanks for bringing up his rarely-discussed but extensive TV work. I haven't seen much of it outside of an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode (in which he plays a character named Frankie Fane...the same name of Stephen Boyd's character in my fave good/bad film "The Oscar").
      On TCM, it's a rare week that goes by that doesn't feature at least one Jack Carson appearance in something. One of my favorite films of his is "The Hard Way" with Ida Lupino. Terrific movie.
      Thank you for reading this post, Kristy, and for sharing your Jack Carson appreciation with us!

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  10. The slap heard round the world

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    1. Most definitely. And no doubt, well-rehearsed well-rehearsed.

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