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Film Friday: "Mildred Pierce" (1945)

In honor of Joan Crawford's (probable) 112th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you what is perhaps the most iconic of her films, the one that gave her the only Academy Award of her career.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz, Mildred Pierce (1945) is the story of the eponymous housewife and mother (Joan Crawford), who devotes herself solely to her two daughters: snobbish Veda (Ann Blyth) and sweet-natured Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Mildred's principal goal is to provide for Veda, who craves for possessions her mother cannot afford and social status above that of her family. After her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) loses his job, they quarrel frequently and he eventually moves out to be with his mistress, Maggie Biederhoff (Lee Patrick). Faced with a stack of bills, Mildred takes a job as a waitress.When Veda ridicules her mother for what she does for a living, even though this work has paid for her expensive singing lessons, Mildred decides to open her own restaurant.

With the help of Bert's former real estate partner, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), Mildred purchases a house from idle playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and remodels it. When Kay dies of pneumonia, Mildred becomes even more determined to provide Veda with the best things in life. Aided by business manager Ida Corwin (Eve Arden), Mildred's new restaurant is a success and she soon expands into a chain of eateries throughout Southern California. In the meantime, after divorcing Bert, Mildred becomes involved with Monte, but quickly breaks off the relationship, believing that he is a bad influence on Veda. When she has a falling-out with Veda, however, Mildred marries Monte in order to give her daughter the lifestyle she wants. Monte soon drives Mildred towards bankruptcy and then has an affair with Veda, which ends when she shoots him after he tells her that he never loved her. To protect her daughter, Mildred confesses to the crime, just as Bert had already done. Veda, picked up by the police as she is leaving town, unwittingly admits that she is real killer. Veda blames her mother for making her the way she is, but Mildred finally washes her hands of her daughter and rejoins the loyal Bert outside the police station.

Mildred Pierce: Get out, Veda. Get your things out of this house before I throw them into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you!

By 1942, Joan Crawford was so dismayed with her assignments at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that she felt she would do better as a free agent or at another studio. Wary of becoming a completely independent player, in July 1943 she signed with Warner Bros. for a three-movie deal. Determined not to get caught in the same rut she had been at MGM, Crawford rejected numerous scripts that she considered "poor material." Jack Warner was furious that she could not settle on a picture, so he came up with a vehicle that he thought would be perfect for her, an Edmund Goulding project entitled Never Goodbye. Crawford, however, felt the script "had 'loser' written all over it" and turned it down. At that point, Warner told her that she could not expect to draw a salary from the studio when she refused to appear in any of the pictures they chose for her. To Warner's suprise, Crawford agreed with him and asked to be taken off salary while she waited for the right script. They were happy with that arrangement until Crawford came across Mildred Pierce.

A veteran of World War I, James M. Cain was a popular author in the mid-1930s and 1940s, known for "hard-boiled" crime fiction, which comprised "tough, lurid tales of murder and lust involving everyday people [...] narrated in direct, simple speech patterns." His first book, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), introduced the dramatic technique that shaped his writing a noir story of a murderous triangle involving two men and a sensual woman  and went on to be regarded as one of the most important crime novels of the 20th century. In 1941, Cain published one of his last hard-boiled novels, Mildred Pierce, the story of a  middle-class housewife who struggles to maintain her family social position during the Great Depression. Although not a best-seller, Mildred Pierce caught the attention of Warner Bros. producer Jerry Wald, who purchased the film rights to the novel for $15,000 in February 1944.

Joan Crawford in a publicity still
In adapting Mildred Pierce to the screen, several key changes were made to the story so as to get it passed through the Production Code censors. Originally a "sexual, even incestuous" woman, Mildred was turned into a nobler person, a mother who is willing to sacrifice everything for an ungrateful child. To accomplish this, Mildred's affair with the character of Wally Fay was eliminated and her adultery with playboy Monte Beragon was became a one-night stand. In addition to being cleaned up sexually, the film considerably altered Mildred's motherhood. Her oldest daughter Veda is a more fully developed teenager in the novel, whereas in the picture she was turned into "a spoiled brat who shoots her mother's second husband." Another major chance from the book was the introduction of the murder plot involving Mildred, Veda and Monte. Reportedly, this was Wald's idea, along with the flashback structure used in the film. In addition, the story's historical context was pushed forward to the uncertain post-war era of social and economic transition.

Various writers worked on the script for Mildred Pierce, each making their own unique contribution to it. Wald initially asked Cain to create a treatment incorporating the murder and the flashback, but the novelist was fruitless in his efforts. Over the following months, a number of people lent their pen to different versions. Warner Bros. contract writer Catherine Turney was supposed to bring in the "woman's perspective," but she and Wald disagreed on so many aspects of the story that she was dropped and only certain parts of her script were used. Renowned author William Faulkner also added distinct touches of his own, including a scene in which a distraught Mildred is cradled by her maid, though he was ultimately deemed unsuitable to continue on the project. After seven months of trying to find a satisfactory script, the studio finally greenlighted a screenplay credited to newcomer Ranald MacDougall, who had recently written his first film, the World War II drama Objective, Bruma! (1945), directed by Raoul Walsh for Warners.

Joan Crawford and Michael Curtiz on the set
By late September 1944, Wald had a script and a director, Michael Curtiz, but no leading lady to star as Mildred Pierce. Warner Bros. reigning queen Bette Davis had turned it down and front-runner for the role was Barbara Stanwyck, who had already triumphed in another screen adaptation of a Cain novel, Double Indemnity (1944), for which she received her third of four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Stanwyck was eager to play Mildred. "I knew what a role it was, and I knew I could handle every facet of Mildred," she later said. "I laid my cards on the table with Jerry Wald. After all, I'd done a dozen pictures at Warners by then [...] I'd paid my dues, and I felt Mildred was me."

Curtiz gave Stanwyck his backing, but Wald wanted Joan Crawford instead to take the role. The director adamantly opposed to the casting of Crawford as Mildred; he argued that she was a "has-been" and he would not work with "her high-hat airs and her goddamned shoulder pads." Realizing immediately that this was the part of a lifetime, Crawford offered to take a screen test and to let Curtiz decide on the basis of the test whether he wanted her to play Mildred Pierce or not. After seeing the footage, Curtiz seemed convinced that she was right for the role, though he was still wary, saying, as Crawford imitated his Hungarian accent, "Not only are he shoulders too beeg, but her head iss too beeg, too."

Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth
Wald's first choice to play Veda, Mildred's spoiled daughter, was none other than Shirley Temple, who had struggled to transition into more adult roles. Curtiz would have none of it: "And who do ve get to play Mildred's lover? Mickey Rooney?" he snickered. Crawford agreed to test with a number of young actress, including Bonita Greenville, Virginia Weidler and Martha Vickers, but none had the qualifications for the role. After doing a reading with 16-year-old Ann Blyth, however, Crawford felt she had finally found her Veda. She encouraged Blyth by inviting her into her dressing room, where they rehearsed together before the screen test was shot. Curtiz and Wald were reluctant to sign Blyth; she was under contract to Universal Pictures and they did not want to create a star for another studio, but Crawford insisted. Blyth always remembered Crawford as "the kindest, most helpful human being I've ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about."

For the first few weeks of filming, Curtiz and Crawford argued incessantly, disagreeing about everything from clothes (he hated her trademark shoulder pads) to screenplay revisions to other matters of interpretation. Curtiz starting referring to her as "Phony Joanie" and "rotten bitch," criticizing her angrily in front of cast and crew. For her part, Crawford wanted the director fired and replaced "with a human being." Wald refereed as often as he could until a mutual respect was finally established between Crawford and Curtiz. "We had several meetings filled with blood, sweat, and tears," the producer later recalled. "Then everything started to settle down. Mike restricted himself to swearing only in Hungarian, and Joan stopped streamlining the apron strings around her figure and let them hang." Although a warm friendship never developed between them, by the end of filming Crawford had created rapport with Curtiz. She even gave him a peace offering a pair of oversized shoulder pads. Four years later, they worked together again in the noir Flamingo Road (1949), which also featured Zachary Scott.

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Joan Crawford
Mildred Pierce opened at the Strand Theatre in New York on September 28, 1945 to generally mixed reviews from critics. The New York Times thought that the film "lacks the driving force of a stimulating drama" and that "it does not seem reasonable that a level-headed person like Mildred Pierce, who builds a fabulously successful chain of restaurants on practically nothing, could be so completely dominated by a selfish and grasping daughter, who spells trouble in capital letters." Variety, on the other hand, wrote: "At first reading James M. Cain's novel of the same title might not suggest screenable material, but the cleanup job has resulted in a class feature, showmanly produced by Jerry Wald and tellingly directed by Michael Curtiz."

Despite the mixed opinions about the film, Crawford was universally praised for her performance. The Times said that she gave "a sincere and generally effective characterization" of Mildred Pierce, while Variety considered that she "reaches a peak of her acting career in this pic." At the 18th Academy Awards held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles in March 1946, Crawford won her first and only Oscar for Best Actress for Mildred Pierce. In addition, the film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Ann Blyth and Eve Arden), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography (Black and White).

Curtiz presenting Crawford with her Oscar
Crawford was unable to attend the Oscar ceremony; she had a panic attack and came down with a cold and a sore throat that many considred psychosomatic. Her competition for the evening was Greer Garson for The Valley of Decision (1945), Jennifer Jones for Love Letters (1945), Gene Tierney for Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Ingrid Bergman for The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). Certain that Bergman would win, Crawford was surprised and overjoyed when she was announced as the winner. Surrounded by reporters and some close friends, including Van Johnson and Ann Blyth, a bedridden Crawford received her long-awaited Oscar statuette from the hands of Michael Curtiz. 

You can't imagine what receiving my Oscar meant to me. I had always wanted to win one, and I treasured mine. I have a good performance in a fine picture, but the truth of it is, as I see it, I won more of a lifetime Oscar which they gave for the sum of the best of my films, A Woman's Face [1941] and Grand Hotel [1932], and few others, with extra points for sticking around so long.
(Joan Crawford)

A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger (1993) | Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell (2007) | Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (2002) | Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (2008) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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