Friday, January 13, 2017

MILDRED PIERCE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1945) Criterion Collection

It must have seemed foolhardy folly on Jack Warner’s part to hire Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce (1945).  Never mind James M. Caine’s hard-boiled noir thriller contained enough incendiary dialogue and situations to send the production code into a forbidden fruit coma, and Mildred herself was hinted as a closeted lesbian with weird fetishism; maiming her second husband’s unmentionables after discovering her own underage daughter, Veda in his bed. Mildred Pierce was a property long-desired for screen dramatization by the dream merchants of Hollywood, yet for which no suitable actress seemingly could be found. Indeed, many were sought for the part; all – including Bette Davis (usually immune to the squeamishness of playing any juicy part) rejecting it outright. The real mystery was not who shot Monte Beragon (played with oily finesse in the film by Zackery Scott), a plot entanglement concocted to suit the movie’s noir-styled murder mystery premise and equally appease the governing body of censorship, set to have a minor conniption if the due process of their own self-righteous morality police was not acknowledged and strictly observed; no – the biggest conundrum facing Jack Warner then was how to convince the public any movie based on Caine’s salacious page turner was worth seeing if it starred Joan Crawford.
By 1940, Crawford’s appeal had thoroughly slipped at the box office. Once considered the queen of all ‘shop girls make good’, Crawford had watched with powerless horror as her galvanized reputation and bankability evaporated at MGM, the studio that had fostered her career for more than two decades with great care and consideration. L.B. Mayer had taken a virtual unknown named Lucille LeSeur, and, with a little of the studio’s fairy pixie dust, sprinkled Hollywood glamor to transform her into Joan Crawford. Joan never forgot the favor. “When I leave this apartment I am Joan Crawford!” she fondly mused, “If you want the girl next door – go next door!” Crawford’s glamorous façade was a pure fabrication of the star system back in the day and she took every ounce of stardom derived from it with the utmost seriousness, especially where her fans were concerned; often staying up until the wee hours of the morning replying to handwritten mail in kind and making it her mission never to appear in public as anything less than the glamor queen and elegant clothes horse. Joan Crawford gets top marks for being the unimpeachable diva we think of today as real ‘reel’ old Hollywood; in vigorous competition with her brethren then, but a veritable unicorn by today’s Babylon standards.
Even so, L.B. Mayer had sincerely tired of Crawford’s need to dominate the parts she played. Rumored to have seduced and slept with every leading man and director she ever worked with, Crawford’s bewitchment with her own fame (and gardenias) was to get the better of her by 1939, the year she appeared opposite her arch nemesis, Norma Shearer in the all-star sizzler, The Women. “How can I compete with her?” Crawford had publicly decried of Shearer, “She sleeps with the boss!” Fair enough, although Shearer also happened to be married to MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg until his untimely death in 1936. Crawford had assumed that with Thalberg’s passing she would be up for more plum parts at the studio. She even submitted to a salary cut to remain at MGM for several more years, hoping against hope for an image boost with meatier roles on the horizon. Alas, Crawford had made herself an undesirable on the back lot; her expanded repertoire unable to salvage her sagging public persona as a fast fading movie queen. Besides, Mayer was moving his studio away from the more adult, female-based regality of the Thalberg era into a fresh-faced stable of younger, more malleable stars he could boss around with impunity.
So, when Variety branded Crawford – among others – with the deadly career-ending moniker of ‘box office poison’, Mayer took it upon himself to buy out Crawford’s contract and give his former number one female star, whose combined pictures had earned him enough revenue to build the writer’s building, the old heave hoe. Mercifully, at Warner Brothers Jack L. Warner was not at all entirely convinced Crawford was washed up. She had, for some years held the title ‘Hollywood royalty’. And more to the point, she was ripe for the picking at a bargain basement price; the perfect foil to keep his own grand diva – Bette Davis – in check. Warner hoped to put Crawford to work straight away in a series of modest programmers. But Crawford, doubtless aware another few duds at the box office could finish her off for good, chose instead to play it cagey; refusing script after script and doing virtually no work for her new studio from 1942 to 1945. When she reemerged in Mildred Pierce, no one – least of all Jack Warner – was prepared for the meteoric results. Mildred Pierce had been rejected by virtually every major leading lady under Warner’s creative umbrella. Even Bette Davis declined the part of a self-sacrificing mother who, in her aspirations to give her spoilt daughter the world, ultimately brings ruin upon her own marriage and family. Davis did not want to play a mother. But Crawford seemed unafraid to embrace the prospect. In 1939, after a series of commercial flops, she had campaigned with voracity to be cast as the unscrupulous man trap, Crystal Allen in The Women. When Mayer inquired why any star of her magnitude should wish to play such “an awful bitch”, Crawford hungrily replied, “I’d play Wally Beery’s mother if the part were right!” Miraculously, none of this nail-biting desperation comes through in Crawford’s peerless performance as Mildred. She assuages the part from middle-age housewife to hard-working business woman, to glamorous gal about town (a Crawford specialty) as though it were tailor-made for her, in the process wearing some of the most gorgeous furs and frocks to boggle the eye.
Warner put his top men on the project: Jerry Wald to produce with his usual soap opera-ish charm; caustic Hungarian director extraordinaire, Michael Curtiz and topflight screen scenarist, Ranald MacDougall to succinctly bring the more hellacious episodes into line with the production code’s wishes for a ‘clean’ picture.  In hindsight, everything clicks, and Crawford worked like an animal to ensure her reputation both in front of and behind the camera as the consummate professional remained intact. Viewing Mildred Pierce today, one can immediately see how little Mayer understood his ex-star. Crawford radiates high wattage desirability from every pore; also, a python-like venom, briefly displayed at pivotal moments in the movie; as Mildred’s daughter, Veda slaps her face for tearing up a check, obtained from a wealthy dowager, presumably as hush money for the abortion of an unwanted love child sired by the woman’s son. Crawford is magnificent as she runs the gamut from startled, to disappointed matriarch, the slap stirring bizarre rage from within, best exemplified in those darting Crawford eyes, suddenly bulging with brimstone and a mass of wounded, downturned lips as she declares, “Get out, Veda. Get out before I throw you and all of your things out into the street. Get out before I kill you!”
The rest of the cast are really in service to la Crawford; Warner padding out the story with a trio of ineffectual male suitors, brilliantly conceived by former Olympian, Bruce Bennett – as Mildred’s philandering first husband, Bert; the aforementioned Zackery Scott (as hubby #2, the elegant sponge, Monte Beragon) and Jack Carson, as Wally Fay; a disreputable cad with only one thing on his mind. As Mildred’s right hand, Warner assigned Eve Arden the plum part of sassy manager, Ida Corwin, a gal who has more scathing one-liners than Oscar Levant.  Leered at by Wally in her calf-exposing skirt, Ida astutely replies, “Leave me something, I might catch cold.” To Mildred’s bookish and easily flustered accountant, Mr. Jones, who inquires why she must always interrupt, Ida frankly teases, “It's only because I want to be alone with you. Come here and let me bite you, you darling man!” before barking at him like a St. Bernard. The forties at Warner Brothers were particularly rife with this sort of sidekick relief ascribed the hero or heroine as a delightfully obtuse diversion for which the shoot-from-the-hip Arden seems to have been born to play.
The part of Veda went to Ann Blyth; a kitten-faced ingénue being groomed by the studio, she could play angelic or pure acid as propriety and the part demanded. Veda Pierce is one of those iconic screen bitches you absolutely love to hate; a soulless, manipulative monster without a scruple to her name. And Blyth gives us this wicked tart in all her tawdry adolescent glory; the girl most likely to exploit any love affair for a quick buck and pump a discarded lover so full of holes he resembles Swiss cheese. Veda is pure poison to anyone – though, in the final analysis, chiefly detrimental to herself. Her sense of entitlement, secured by Mildred’s hard work and ambition, Veda runs through the latter half of the picture with a sinfulness rarely seen on the screen then, particularly in one so young. She also damn near runs away with the picture. But Crawford had nothing to fear. From start to finish, Mildred Pierce is her movie and she is clearly relishing the return to glamour; also Warner’s personal commitment to resurrecting her career from oblivion. She might have first considered why the old mogul had done it. Crawford’s arrival on the Warner back lot was given A-list pomp and circumstance, leaving the studio’s undisputed grand dame, Bette Davis, with her nose out of joint. Crawford tried everything to win Davis as an ally but it was no use. From the moment she set foot on those sound stages, Crawford was viewed by Davis as her adversary to be squashed and openly ridiculed, leaving Crawford to reinvigorate herself with the leftover war paint from her skirmishes with Norma Shearer.
Mildred Pierce opens with a superb main title by Max Steiner, the crashing tides set to his bombastic theme as the credits appear from beneath the foam. From here, we digress to some equally exquisite nighttime noir photography by Ernest Haller; a long shot of a fashionable beach house and the sound of echoing gunfire from within. Cue Monte Beragon, the unwitting victim of a cold-blooded assassination, stumbling about the darkened living room, the flicker of flames from a nearby hearth dancing across his sweaty visage as he cryptically mutters ‘Mildred’ before collapsing on a bearskin rug; a pistol tossed next to his body and the sound of someone fleeing the house. Cut to a moody and fog-laden pier; Mildred, tear-stained and emotionally overwrought, walks towards the edge, about to take a dive off its most perilous point; thwarted in her suicide attempt by a curmudgeonly cop walking the beat. These opening sequences are, as Bogart put it in The Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that (noir) dreams are made of”; the tone shifting ever so slightly as Wally Fay, observing Mildred through a damp window from his seedy bar, ushers her inside for a drink. She suggests a midnight rendezvous at her beach house instead. For Wally, who has been entertaining such notions for far too long, the offer is too good to pass. But once alone at the beach house, Mildred does everything to dissuade Wally from the very reason he followed her home. Spilling a drink on purpose, Mildred skulks off to the bedroom, presumably to change, instead sneaking out the back way and leaving Wally to quickly discover he is being framed for Monte’s murder.
We regress to an even more posh estate, home to Mildred, the late Monte Beragon and Mildred’s daughter from her first marriage, Veda. Presently, a visibly shaken Veda is entertaining two detectives from the county police come to inquire about Monte’s untimely end. Leaving Veda at home, Mildred is taken downtown and confronted by Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) with the facts of the case; the allegation Mildred’s first husband, Bert is the prime suspect, sparking a prolonged confession. Thus begins the elaborate flashback that is Mildred Pierce. We see Mildred as the middle-aged mother of two; toiling in the kitchen while her daughters, Veda and Kay (Jo Ann Marlow) are afforded every luxury, despite Bert’s meager salary. When Bert returns home to explain he has lost his job; Mildred’s suggestion she could take in some neighborhood laundry to tide them over, disgusts Bert. At the same time, Mildred is well aware of her husband’s philandering with the wealthy, Mrs. Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick).  Wally offers Mildred the stability of a guy who’s making good money as a realtor. But Mildred finds him physically repulsive.
Mildred has scrimped and saved for a new dress for Veda, mildly ashamed when Veda scorns the offering in private. Veda’s vanity is all-consuming. Bert, in fact, warns Mildred her spoiling of the girl will be her undoing. Besides, he prefers the more tomboyish, Kay to Veda. She’s bright, quick-witted and unassuming. A short while later, Mildred’s marriage to Bert falls completely apart. She orders him out of the house and sets about establishing a career for herself as a waitress at a local greasy spoon, run by Ida Corwin. To make even more money on the side, Mildred takes to baking pies for the diner, able aided by her new, if simple-minded maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen).  Veda is condescending of her mother’s work ethic, considering it degrading. However, she has absolutely no compunction spending her mother’s hard-earned money on frivolities of every shape and size. In the meantime, Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. Mildred and Bert are briefly brought together by this tragedy. But afterward, Mildred takes it into her heart to become the owner of her own restaurant; picking out a property on the old highway and asking Wally to help her buy it for a song. The building is worn but of the necessary size to accommodate her dreams. It also happens to be owned by Monte Beragon who takes an immediate interest in Mildred, offering her the property for nothing down. Mildred hires Ida to help her run things and Lottie to work in the kitchen. Within no time, she has established a chain of highly successful restaurants; the revenue from these endeavors affording Veda even more ways to get into trouble.
Monte, who had once pursued Mildred with an oily passion, now shifts his attentions to Veda on the sly. He marries Mildred to ensure his own lucrative cash flow; also, to be near Veda while Mildred is away running her restaurant empire. Only Ida is clear-eyed enough to see what is going on. She forewarns Mildred of a looming disaster without giving away the goods on Monte and Veda. Alas, a short while later, Veda has orchestrated a rather coy deception involving an impressionable suitor, Theodore 'Ted' Ellison Forrester (John Compton); Mrs. Forrester (Barbar Brown) confronting Mildred with the notion their two families would be entirely unsuitable for a marriage that, alas, has already occurred. Wally helps orchestrate a settlement from the Forresters to keep the elopement quiet; also some shush money to help Veda in ‘her condition’; the bombshell dropped in Mildred’s lap when Veda actually confesses she has faked the pregnancy merely to extort money from Ted’s family so she can get away from her. Outraged, Mildred destroys Veda’s settlement check; mother and daughter coming to blows before Mildred orders her out of the house.
A short while later Wally informs Mildred that Veda is performing as a lounge singer in his disreputable beachside bar. Mildred pleads with Veda to return to her new home with Monte and Veda sets about finagling her way back into Monte’s heart. On the eve of Veda’s lavish birthday party, Mildred learns Monte has been siphoning badly needed investment from her restaurants to settle his mounting gambling debts. Mildred is broke and her creditors are about to close in. Mildred learns Monte has gone to the beach house after the party and, taking a gun from the register, tails him there, whereupon she discovers husband and daughter locked in each other’s arms. Veda proudly declares Monte will divorce Mildred to marry her. Distraught and penniless, Mildred suffers a breakdown and tosses the gun to the floor, hurrying away in a tear-stained fit of shame. Monte turns on Veda. She was never his idea of a lasting love interest.
And now, without Mildred’s money, she has all but ruined his chances to continue to sponge off of the family until the well has completely run dry. Realizing Monte never loved her, Veda shoots him dead with unrepentant scorn. Hearing the shots, Mildred burst into the beach house, discovers the body and decides to telephone the police. At the last possible moment, Veda tearfully pleads for Mildred to help cover up the crime; blaming Mildred for the way she has turned out. Unable to send her daughter to prison, Mildred agrees to this misdirection and sends Veda home. We return to the police station where the flashback began; Inspector Peterson revealing Veda as the killer. Mildred is horrified to have let her daughter down. But Veda is as remorseless as ever; even slightly psychotic as she coolly tells her mother goodbye before being led away in handcuffs. Departing the precinct at the break of dawn, Mildred is surprised to discover Bert waiting for her on the steps. The two walk past a pair of drudges washing the marble steps on their hands and knees; shades of Mildred’s former self reflected back at her as she turns toward the sunset – hopefully with a new and more promising life cresting over the horizon.
Joan Crawford desperately wanted to win the Academy Award for Mildred Pierce. Hell, she deserved it. There are conflicting stories as to the much publicized photos taken of Crawford accepting the award from director, Michael Curtiz at her bedside. In her scathing tell-all, adopted daughter Christina cruelly suggests the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, Joan merely suffering from an acute attack of nerves, lest she lose to one of the other nominees and be forced to go home from the auditorium empty-handed. Whatever the case, Crawford did win her one and only statuette for Mildred Pierce; the press waiting with cameras poised to capture her moment of triumph from bed. Mildred Pierce is a perfectly packaged entertainment with Crawford as its most decorous centerpiece. She runs the gamut of emotions. Yet, her performance is remarkably restrained; the screen queen knowing exactly when to hold her punches and when to give the scene her all. In virtually all subsequent movies Crawford would make for Warner Bros. this artifice increasingly becomes unbalanced to the point where Crawford eventually becomes a parody of herself; wielding tears and tortured screams as though she were a mad woman unable to contain such raw emotions.
Interestingly, at the height of her Warner tenure, Crawford elected to make a hilarious cameo in the Doris Day musical, It’s A Great Feeling (1949), attacking a studio exec’ played by Jack Carson and slapping him in the face. Asked what prompted the outburst, Crawford reverts to her usual retiring self, sweetly smiling as she declares with shrugged shoulders, “I do that in all my pictures!” And, indeed, by then Crawford had devolved into such camp.  Mildred Pierce is effective precisely because it catches Crawford at a particularly vulnerable moment in her career. She is still as sophisticated as ever, but slightly chaste in the knowledge her last four or five pictures at Metro were not hits; also, that Jack Warner is taking an incredible gamble in hiring her when no other studio would, and finally, that any misfire at this particular juncture could spell utter disaster for her future feasibility as a star. Joan would have severed her right arm to maintain the status of ‘Hollywood royalty.’ As such, her performance in Mildred Pierce has been given the benefit of Crawford’s two decades of wisdom and experience at MGM; also, the reserved charm of a woman clever enough – if desperate – to defy the moniker of ‘box office poison’ in usual Crawford fashion; with sensational charisma.
Sadly, today the name Joan Crawford has become rather synonymous with Christina Crawford’s vulgar tell-all, Mommie Dearest; the ensconced image of a wild-eyed gargoyle played by Faye Dunaway in the movie version, beating her children wire coat hangers in the middle of the night, completely at odds with the self-sacrificing martyr Crawford plays in Mildred Pierce. There is, however, another image of Crawford the public ought to take with them; that of the regal movie diva who, for each and every Christmas, bought members of the crew working on her movies lavish gifts in thanks and gratitude; the woman who schooled and raised four adopted children, mostly on her own (none of Crawford’s husbands lasted long enough to aid in the cause) – three of whom have come to regard Christina’s novel as a largely fictitious hatchet job. Mildred Pierce gives us Crawford at the height of her glory. It also affords her the opportunity to rise like cream to the top of her profession as a bona fide Academy Award-winning actress; a status unattainable from all her workmanlike and money-making servitude while toiling inside MGM’s dream factory. Mayer was likely chagrined to see his castoff diva earning big bucks for a rival; enough for new management to invite Crawford back to Metro for the abysmal musical clunker, Torch Song (1953); easily one of the tackiest musicals ever made on their back lot. Only a few short years before, on her last day at MGM, Crawford had driven past the front gates without fanfare, escort or even so much as a polite nod of gratitude for all the years and millions her star power had helped funnel into the studio’s coffers. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford was back on top, proving she could well do without Mayer or his studio, so long as the material at her new digs was good enough and glamorous enough to perpetuate the mythology of her manufactured star status.
Fans have waited much too long for Mildred Pierce to debut in hi-def. I would have thought this one would have come down the pike via the Warner Archive. But no – Warner has licensed it to Criterion instead. Back in DVD’s infancy, Mildred Pierce enjoyed a fairly stellar restoration. It is these elements that have been refurbished for a new 4K scan, dumbed down to 1080p. Personally, I am not exactly comfortable with the results. Like The Asphalt Jungle before it (also via Criterion), the overall B&W image herein is brighter, leading to a more homogenized level of contrast. Blacks offer more tonal gray values but whites occasionally look ever so slightly washed out. Of course, in motion this image offers superior fine details, textures and a light smattering of film grain looking extremely indigenous to its source. So, no complaints here. But I keep going back to a scene depicting Crawford at her writing desk; the DVD image offering more detail in Crawford’s face because of the sharper contrast; the Blu-ray actually looking less detailed by comparison with Crawford’s eyes and eyebrows less potently realized.  There is also more information available at the bottom of the frame on the Blu-ray, offering a marginal difference in overall presentation.  Criterion loves its linear PCM audio, so we get 24-bit mono, sounding appropriately one dimensional; if very clean, with particularly crisp dialogue.
Mercifully, this release includes Peter Fitzgerald’s 2002 TCM documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, and – wait for it – in full HD. It’s one of the best documentaries on ANY star I have ever seen, comprehensive and chocked full of archival and (then) new interviews with the likes of Anjelica Huston, Judy Geeson, Virginia Grey, Margaret O’Brien, Diane Baker and Christina Crawford (who cannot help herself but to continue to poke holes in her mother’s reputation). We also get a brand new 23 minute, conversation piece with Molly Haskell and Robert Polito who go into great detail discussing the discrepancies between the book and the movie; a bit too academic for most, but still worth a listen. We get 15 min. of a Crawford interview on a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show and a 24-minute Q&A with Ann Blyth, recorded in 2006 and also featuring historian, Eddie Muller. Finally, there is a 10 minute interview with novelist James M. Cain on The Today Show in 1969, a trailer, and liner notes by Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: it is so nice to finally retire my old ‘flipper’ DVD for this hi-def incarnation of one of, not only my personal favorite movies, but truly one of the greatest noir and Crawford pictures of all time. Crawford was a renaissance gal with a nail-biting resolve virtually nonexistent today, and rivaled only by Bette Davis’ cat-clawing perfectionism. Mildred Pierce is Crawford at her best. This disc comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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