Friday, March 20, 2020

How Joan Crawford Became ‘Mildred Pierce’ 1945

'Mildred Pierce' was the perfect pairing of character and actress. 

Mildred Pierce is still Joan Crawford's signature film. Like all long-time stars, Crawford is revered for several key roles, but this is the one most associated with Joan, personally and professionally. Mildred Pierce was Joan Crawford's great comeback, though Joan thought of it as a career Oscar. That didn't hurt Crawford’s chances either, with a then-20 year stint in show biz. 
Crawford's back story was one of the most famous in Hollywood, much like the later Marilyn Monroe. Everyone knew that Joan had a tough upbringing, pulled herself up by her trademark ankle straps, and by the dint of hard work and self-belief, became a star. Even more impressively, Crawford STAYED a star!
In rags-to-riches stories like Mildred Pierce, I'm always a sucker for the climb to the top.

Mildred Pierce is a mother and wife whose working class marriage is over. Determined to give her two daughters, Veda and May, a better life, driven Mildred goes from baking pies at home to a hardworking waitress. Pierce’s dream of opening her own restaurant comes true and she is on a winning streak. Unfortunately, her luck with men hasn’t changed. Mildred goes from boring Bert Pierce to cads with designs on her and/or her money. Then there’s oldest daughter Veda, for whom no amount of money seems enough. Mildred gets in over her head financially and emotionally.
***Spoilers ahead for the few who haven't seen what Mildred Pierce did!***

Though the movie differs from the book in how it handles scoundrel Monty in the mother-daughter triangle, it doesn't take away from the story. It’s rather ingenious how the film deals with a stepfather dallying with his stepdaughter, back in the crushing censorship era. Otherwise, it's a streamlined version of the James M. Cain novel. To compare the '45 WB film with the 2011 HBO mini-series is apples and oranges.
James M. Cain’s three best novels were made into acclaimed films in the mid-1940’s: Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Author James M. Cain was pleased enough with Crawford’s performance that he sent a first edition Mildred Pierce to Joan, just prior to her Oscar win: “To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred to life just as I had always hoped she would be and who has my lifelong gratitude."
Ah, the healing powers of winning an Oscar!

Jerry Wald was prolific, whether as a WB screenwriter, or later as producer. Wald was one of those golden era movie men who genuinely loved movies and their stars. Crawford had a huge cheerleader in Wald, who held out for Joan as Mildred Pierce. Wald and Crawford went on to make a total of five films together.
“Please don’t tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did!” This was a memorable but misleading slogan. Studio publicity departments tried to play up the sex angle for any movie this side of Mary Poppins. WB tried to paint Mildred Pierce as a femme fatale. In the trailer, the narrator pronounces: “Mildred, who left her mark on every man!” Husbands Bert and Monty attest to her wiles, with would-be suitor Wally wryly commenting, “Loving her was like shaking hands with the devil.” Given Wally’s treatment of Mildred, I’d say it was the other way around!
Who's the devil? Wally Fay thinks he hears opportunity knocking with newly single Mildred.

 The infamous box office poison list of 1938, created by independent theater owners, included the name Joan Crawford. While Joan’s later ‘30s movies may not have been blockbusters, most of them made near or over the $100 million mark in today’s dollars. Most of Crawford’s films weren’t outright clinkers, like Dietrich and Hepburn, also divas on the d-list. After Joan’s comeback in ‘39’s The Women, Crawford’s films were a mixed bag, but most of them still modestly successful.
Joan was down, but she wasn't washed up!

The real problem, IMO: Joan Crawford was viewed as past her shelf life. MGM’s other two divas, Garbo and Shearer, had both retired and all eyes were now on Crawford. Joan became famous at the height of the silent era, as the epitome of flaming youth, but it was now 1943. As Sharon Stone once quipped, every year in the life of a movie actress is like dog years. Ultimately, Joan had the same longevity as MGM’s Lassie, but she had to leave Metro to prove herself.

I never thought Joan’s Oscar competition for Mildred Pierce was that tough. Of the actresses, 3 of the 5—Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, and Jennifer Jones—had just won Oscars, so winning a second so soon was unlikely. Luise Rainer’s back to back Oscar wins—then straight to oblivion—cured the Academy of that impulse. Also, their current nominations were for popular, but not great movies—The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Valley of Decision, and Love Letters. That left Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. While this movie has been critically elevated over the years, at the time it was wildly popular, but viewed as pulp entertainment. As lovely as Tierney is, her performance ranges from trance-like to childishly petulant. One real contender wasn't even nominated: Dorothy McGuire, for her tough and tender Katie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even Dorothy’s homely cleaning girl in The Enchanted Cottage was more worthy. But Fox threw its votes to home girl Gene. Despite the competition, Joan's performance was a worthy winner on all fronts: a comeback, a career award, and a restrained performance in a fine film noir, smothered with mother love soap opera.
Less was more: toned down, but not de-glamorized. Joan in an early scene of Mildred Pierce.

Joan as Mildred is typically described as de-glamorized. Even by '45 standards, that's a stretch. Crawford was toned down from her typical over the top MGM glamour. Still, even as the pie-making housewife, Joan’s Mildred is wearing red lipstick, mascara, and high heels in the kitchen. For the first half of the film, when the waitress/cook is making her way to the top of the food chain, Joan's clothes, hair, and makeup are simple, and she looks most appealing. Once Mildred makes it big, Joan is suffering nobly in fur and shoulder pads.
This "gardening" outfit was typical over the top MGM gloss,
once Crawford's calling card, but was now considered old hat.

One amusing moment is the scene where devilish daughter Veda makes their maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), wear Mildred's waitress uniform. This is a signal to her mother that Veda knows how Mommie makes the moolah. Just prior, Hattie exclaims how Mildred cooks all night and waits tables all day, and Crawford comments that it keeps her slim. McQueen looks in askance at her own generous waist line, plus, she's half a head shorter than Joan. Yet, there she is, fitting perfectly into Mildred's uniform!
Mildred's uniform on loan to Lottie!

As far as other actresses playing Mildred, it's been widely written that almost all the top WB actresses were considered. How true or how seriously each star was considered is hard to say. It’s also important to note that the script of Mildred Pierce was cycled through numerous screenwriters before Ranald McDougall’s was accepted.
Who wore it best? The same uniform as Lottie's? Ha!

WB’s queen Bette Davis probably had first pick, but her "big" personality was starting to overshadow her performances. Critic James Agee famously pointed this out in his review for Bette's ‘45 vehicle, The Corn is Green. Plus, she and Michael Curtiz didn’t get along.
I think Barbara Stanwyck would have made a more realistic Mildred than Joan and could have had a hit with the role. It’s been said that she wanted Mildred and Curtiz wanted her. But this was producer Jerry Wald’s baby and he wanted Crawford. Would “Missy” have been as iconic as Joan? Hard to say, but remember that Stanwyck is still raved about for her turn in Cain’s Double Indemnity.
Ann Sheridan was mentioned and she’s quoted as saying the early script depicted mother and daughter as too tough and the daughter “a horror.” Ann could have brought warmth and humor, and maybe Mildred Pierce could have been that star vehicle she never really got. Again, would Ann be iconic as Mildred?
Ida Lupino could have made a tougher Mildred, but she had just played a role similar in The Hard Way. Catch The Hard Way sometime and you will be surprised at how similar the opening scene is to Mildred Pierce.
My belief is that Joan Crawford offered to appear in Ann Blyth's screen test to show 
she was a team player AND to dispel any doubts about Crawford herself as Mildred. 

One thing that has stuck in my craw about Joan Crawford’s mythology is that she had to screen test for Mildred. It’s been written by reputable people and could very well be true. The anecdote that a great star like Joan had to screen test to get a part, then to win an Oscar for it!—sets my bullshit barometer off. Later stories say WB and/or director Michael Curtiz demanded the test. That, I flatly doubt. I can see where Joan felt confident enough to play Mildred that she offered to screen test for the role to remove any doubt. In recent years, at a Mildred Pierce screening, Ann Blyth said that Crawford was kind enough be in her screen test. Also, in a Hollywood Reporter interview, Blyth commented that it was unheard of for a star of Joan’s stature to screen test. There seems to be no physical evidence, which makes me suspicious. So, who knows?
Director Curtiz accused Crawford of trying to sneak in shoulder pads 
throughout Mildred Pierce. Thankfully, I don't think this pair made it in!

Mildred Pierce was altered to fit Crawford’s talents and image as a star; Pierce is more movie “moral” and less of a hausfrau. Joan’s stoicism and restraint are her hallmark here. Like all great stars, Crawford benefited from a strong director. Crawford excelled when George Cukor kept her “playing the star” in check, with The Women, and especially, A Woman’s Face. The movie Mildred Pierce fits Joan like a glove, and that’s how Joan played her, the steel beneath the velvet glove. 
After Veda gives her mother a wish list for future wealth (a maid, limo, and new house),
Mildred goes for a goodnight kiss, and Veda gives her the kiss-off! "Let's not get sticky about it."

Some have said that Crawford didn’t convey motherly warmth as Mildred, but I disagree. Pierce is so driven to succeed, for her children, that she has a hard time letting her guard down. Crawford conveys Mildred’s feelings toward her children and the men in her life very subtly. Especially when you consider Crawford’s performances in the next decade, Joan is at her most restrained here. Noteworthy, too, is Joan’s narration of the flashbacks. They are well-performed, with little of the grand “MGM English” that she acquired at Metro. Ultimately, all the elements about Joan Crawford, her life and career at this time, are what she put into the role, and helped make Mildred Pierce become so iconic.
Kid sister Kay's moving death scene.  From left: Bruce Bennett as Bruce Pierce,
Lee Patrick as Mrs. Biederhof, Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as Veda and Mildred Pierce.

Ann Blyth got an Oscar nomination as Veda, yet she mostly stuck to ingénue roles. However, she was equally as nasty in ‘48’s Another Part of the Forest, as little fox Regina Giddens. As the grown up Veda, Ann Blyth reminded me very much of the young adult Gloria Vanderbilt, with her tilted eyes, downturned, toothy smile, and jutting chin. Blyth herself was just 17, the same age as when Veda gets her birthday car and starts growing up too fast. In the early scenes, Blyth looks very much like herself, a teenage girl. It's a tribute to the WB hair, makeup, and costume department that helps Blyth make a convincing young femme fatale. 
Ann Blyth at 17.
Young Gloria Vanderbilt resembles Ann Blyth.

Blyth is amusing when playing up Veda's pretensions. There’s the scene where Mildred tucks Veda into bed, with a promise of a better life, and the venal daughter asks if someday they could have a maid, new house, and maybe a limousine! What every war time teen wants, right? Blyth truly comes alive when she laces into Crawford’s Mildred. The showdown scenes between daughter and mother are electric. When her unusual features twist into a sneer and Veda lets Mommie have it, Ann Blyth is eerily convincing.

Zachary Scott was so effective as the charming cad that he was typecast forever. Off-screen, Scott was true southern gentleman, and well-liked. Blyth mentions his beautiful dark eyes in one interview and he was probably never more the debonair playboy than here, as Monte Beragon. In The Carol Burnett Show parody, Harvey Korman brilliantly skewers Scott’s snide demeanor. Yet Scott makes you believe there’s a side to Monte who still loved Mildred.
Zachary Scott is superb as scoundrel Monte Beragon,  who is about to take his first tip.

Jack Carson, as Wally Fay, is skilled at walking the fine line of funny and tough. His Wally is a con man, for sure, yet a likeable one. Carson’s Wally is a comic wolf, but has a soft spot for Mildred. Yet, the operator in Wally doesn’t let him forgo any opportunities. Carson has some of the most rat-a-tat-tat dialogue in the movie, with some real zingers, and he bats them out of the park every time. His line of delivery always reminded me of WB’s Looney Tunes Foghorn Leghorn!
Jack Carson as Wally Fay. Carson was wonderful in comedy, but equally adept in drama.

Eve Arden, as Mildred’s sidekick Ida, plays the definitive "Eve Arden" role. Arden is the no-nonsense observer, brittle but with a heart. Plus, she has most of the movie's best lines. Ida’s “femininity” is brought up so often, was this code for being “one of the girls?” Jo Ann Marlowe, as tomboy Kay, is not only believable, but a loveable scene stealer. You're actually crushed when Kay dies of pneumonia. Bruce Bennett has the thankless role of Bert, Mildred's dour hypocrite of a first husband. Yet, other Bennett performances that I've seen are much the same. He reminds me of a cranky Gary Cooper.
Eve Arden as Ida, Mildred's gal Friday. Arden basically created "the Eve Arden role."

Some minor quibbles:  Lee Patrick got short-changed a lot in her movies. It’s a tribute to her talent that she made the most of her screen time. Her Mrs. Biederhof is talked about more than seen... and that’s only at Kay's death scene! Speaking of which, Mildred Pierce has a zingy script by Ranald MacDougall, but Kay’s post-death scene, seems weakly written. Mrs. Biederhof scurries off to make tea and Mildred’s eulogy underwhelms, capped with, “Dear God, please don't anything happen to Veda.”
The most memorable moment of Mildred Pierce? Mother and daughter's big showdown.
Joan Crawford saves her trademark stare for the big scenes!

When Mildred finds Veda performing at a seedy night club, complete with drunken sailors’ catcalls, I’m always reminded of another long-suffering mother. That’s Annie in Imitation of Life, when she tracks down her daughter performing in a nightclub, with raucous old men leering at Sarah Jane. Both scenes follow the mamas’ visits to their daughters’ dressing rooms, shared with crass but good hearted older showgirls, natch. A real hoot for those who hate vain Veda—who once sneered at a dress Mildred scrounged for—is when she goes from a bare midriff costume to excusing herself to change, into a hula skirt! Sadly, the coconut shell bra was not shown.
Veda shakin' what her mother gave her. Mildred is so glad the music lessons paid off!

Like Michael Curtiz' Casablanca, all the elements in his take on Mildred Pierce are aces: the script is razor sharp, the cinematography and setups and sets are a storytelling marvel. The precision here, with all of WB’s top craftsmen on hand, there’s nary a wasted moment, with many subtle touches amongst the melodrama.
There's film noir, soap opera, and rat-a-tat-tat dark humor, all expertly woven. Naturally, WB tried to duplicate the huge success, so they churned a lot of noir soaps out, some named after the female characters, like Nora Prentiss and Flaxy Martin. Joan did several self-titled soaps, like Daisy Kenyon and Harriet Craig. Crawford also played a clutch of mature women from the wrong side of the tracks, clawing their way to the lonely top. Some were successes, some were not. Mildred Pierce is endlessly fascinating, and trying to replicate it was trying to catch lighting in a bottle.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 
Another great scene between Blyth's vicious Veda & Crawford's long-suffering Mildred.


  1. Bravo!! Beautifully done, and chock full of great detail! I had no idea Stanwyck was considered for Mildred - I think she would have done a great job, but it is one of those "what ifs" that will be consigned to movie history. I do think this as Joan's absolute peak - she's hanging onto that Oscar for dear life! She EARNED it!!

    1. Hi Kristy, thanks! I put a lot into this one, and try to cover aspects that haven't been discussed...Which is why I didn't write about Mildred for so long. It's been covered so much! I think most of the major WB actresses were considered. And Mildred is sort of an everywoman sort of character that several actresses might have been effective, too. But Joan was the right actress at the right time, and she did a great job! Cheers, Rick

  2. Ann Sheridan got her turn in Nora Prentiss. Great job as usual, Rick!

    1. Thank you!
      I'm taking advantage of the unexpected time off and writing ahead on my blog!
      Cheers, Rick

  3. I loved reading this! It's such a GREAT movie with so much to offer. As you say, the humor, the drama, the compelling storyline... All with JC in firm command of her faculties and driving it forward beautifully. I live for the moment when she barks out, "VEDA!" And Blyth was quite accomplished for her age. Great at being a real bitch, even though she was by all accounts very nice in real life. I cannot tell you how much I want Hallmark to do a leading ladies series of holiday ornaments, one of them being JC in her fur hat and coat (fur?!@?!) and gun (gun!?!?) - LOL But, no, we need more National Lampoon, NFL players and Star Wars instead.... It's a crime that Dorothy McGuire wasn't recognized for ATGIB. She (and the whole thing) was just wonderful. Thanks for all the great insights, tidbits, etc...

    1. Hi Poseidon! I give Ann Blyth credit, when asked about being able to play such a bitch at 17, she's been quite honest that everyone has a dark place in themselves and she tapped into it! The thought of a JC Christmas ornament sporting a fur and gun gave me a morning giggle! And McGuire getting over looked that year is a pet peeve of mine, as aside from Crawford, the other noms were not esp. worthy that year. I put a lot into this one, so thank you. And thanks for keeping your blog up when you're so busy. Cheers, Rick

  4. Absolutely speechless to say. Love very much.

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. I could watch Mildred weekly!
      Cheers, Rick