“Everybody has a mother.”
One of Hollywood’s legendary actresses, Joan Crawford campaigned to get the role that would ultimately yield her Best Actress Oscar, for “Mildred Pierce” (1945). She hadn’t worked in two years. Her 18-year career at Metro Goldwin Mayer, which made her one of the highest paid — and most well-known — actors, was in freefall. By the late 1930s, her movies weren’t as successful as they had been. On May 3 1938, the president of the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America released a list of star names that were “box office poison” and whose ticket sales did not justify their salaries. It included Crawford’s name (she was in good company for Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburm among others were also noted). She took matters into her own hands and signed a three-movie deal contract with Warner Brothers, taking a cut on her fee. She’d heard about the plans to make an adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” — and that Bette Davis was the studio’s first choice but eventually turned it down. Director Michael Curtiz did not want Crawford for the part and preferred Barbara Stanwyck. Most leading actresses didn’t want to take the part because it meant playing the mother of a teenager – thus implying they were older. Crawford agreed to doing a screen test to show that she was capable of doing it. Curtiz and she had a tumultuous time shooting. He’s known to have said, “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads… Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?” Speaking of shoulder pads, supposedly the two had a kerfuffle over them during costume fittings.
Although novelist Cain opposed being labeled, he is mostly known for his crime fiction. His hardboiled novels included “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Serenade” and “Double Indemnity,” which were all made into celebrated films. As a book, “Mildred Pierce” was more of a psychological work but in adapting to the screen, they introduced the murder that begins the story and turns it into a thriller. The crime was ultimately included because the censorship code of the time stipulated that evildoers should get their comeuppance at the end.
I love this film. It’s gripping and edge of your seat – and Crawford is at her finest. She shows steel determination combined with an emotional openness as she juggles motherhood and being a businesswoman – all while grappling with an ungrateful daughter. And hers was a face that was made for the movies – those big eyes – and cheekbones that are so expressive. They may have had troubles on the set but Curtiz showcases her features – shading and highlighting parts of her face using rich black and white photography. The shadows help us understand the psychological turmoil in which Mildred finds herself.
“Mildred Piece” starts at an oceanfront home, where we witness Monte Beragon being murdered by an unseen figure. As he lays dying, he utters the words of his wife, Mildred. Monte was her second husband. The police inform Mildred that her first husband, Bert Pierce has confessed to the murder. She protests that is not possible, and sits down to tell her story which plays out chronologically in flashback. The officer tells her, “being a detective is like, well, like making an automobile. You take all the pieces and put them together one by one.”
She’s in an unhappy marriage and decides to make it on her own after she finds out that Bert is carrying an affair. They have two daughters and she starts a baking business to support them and herself. She conceals from her older daughter Veda that she’s taken a second job as a waitress. But the daughter finds out and treats her mother with disdain. “You look down on me, because I work for a living. Don’t you?” Mildred asks her daughter. Eventually her youngest daughter will die, and Mildred will become more determined to succeed – opening a restaurant and eventually a franchise known as “Mildred’s.” In the meantime, Veda resents their middle-classness and wants status and money to transcend it even if she has to lie and cheat. The spine of the narrative is the flammable mother/daughter conflict and the price that women must pay for their careers. This muder mystery has quite a few surprising twists and turns, but it’s Crawford who has all the gravitational pull – and it’s quite potent.
Curtiz uses German impressionistic techniques to generate a film noir atmosphere. I adore the fact that it is all taking place in Southern California – but it’s all suffused in deep shadows and darkness. The opening scene is Malibu – and you’ve never seen it shot in low-key lighting. The ominous crashing of the waves foretells of the tragic developments that are coming. Curtiz creates a really strong sense of an environment that becomes a reflection of her interior world. Interesting angles and chiaroscuro on her face keep me totally enthralled.
Mildred: “I want you to have nice things. And you will have. Wait and see. I’ll get you everything. Anything you want. I promise.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall
Based on the novel by James M. Cain
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Bruce Bennett
Bringing “Mildred Pierce” to the Screen
James M. Cain was a popular novelist in the 1940s and a graduate of the “hardboiled” school of writing, one which was characterized by tough language, urban settings and crime-centered plots. “Mildred Pierce” was not a best-selling title for him, but… caught the attention of producer Jerry Wald, whose fortunes were on the rise at Warner Brothers at that time. The studio bought the film rights for $15,000 in February 1944…Warner Brothers was concerned about getting the story passed through the Production Code censors, but they also had to make it more palatable to a mass audience. Mildred’s vulgar expressions and lower middle-class behavior were dropped or softened, and she was made more noble, less a sinner than a victim of circumstance.
Catherine Turney, one of the early writers on the project, suggested Wald got the flashback idea from the screen adaptation of another Cain other novel, “Double Indemnity” (1944), but according to Warners’ assistant story editor Tom Chapman, Wald came up with the idea independently in the summer of 1943. Wald farmed out the script to a number of writers. According to Chapman, rather than pass a script version on to a new writer to add or subtract from it, Wald preferred to have each writer make his own fully unique contribution and then Wald would synthesize the final script from those. He originally set Cain himself on the task of writing a treatment incorporating the murder and flashback, but the author hit a dead end in his efforts. Over the months a number of people worked on different versions. Well-known contract writer Turney was supposed to bring in the “woman’s perspective,” but she and Wald disagreed on so many details that she was dropped and only bits of her script used. William Faulkner also added distinct touches of his own; he wrote a scene in which a distraught Mildred is cradled by her maid (Butterfly McQueen) singing a gospel song. The famed writer was deemed unsuitable to continue on the project. Finally after seven months and as many different scripts and treatments, Jack Warner gave an enthusiastic go-ahead to the screenplay credited to Ranald MacDougall in September 1944. (tcm.com)
The Making of “Mildred Pierce”
…“Mildred Pierce” was made around the time Jack Warner asked the studio’s cinematographers and art directors to “devise new means of cutting corners without losing any of the quality.” Apparently there was concern that too much detail was being used in sets (by Anton Grot), which in turn, took more time to light and thus slowed up production. Despite this proclamation, “Mildred Pierce” suffered no loss of set detail. Beneath its noir lighting lay strikingly complex settings like the Beragon beach house. So essential to the plot that it opens the film, Beragon’s home is a twisting maze of rooms and staircases that perfectly represent Grot’s desire to build “menace into the sets.” “Mildred Pierce” began filming December 7, 1944. Within the week, Curtiz wanted Crawford canned, claiming she was altering the look and interpretation of the character to make her more glamorous. There were the inevitable arguments over shoulders, with Crawford tearfully (and not altogether truthfully) claiming her dowdy off-the-rack Sears dresses were unpadded. Curtiz started referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew. Crawford wanted the director fired and replaced “with a human being.” “I had to be the referee,” Wald said later. “We had several meetings filled with blood, sweat, and tears. 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.” Crawford claimed Curtiz gained respect for her after she stood up to his “post-graduate course in humiliation,” and she admitted that once they reached detente, “he started training me.” (tcm.com)
About Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall
Screenwriter, director, and producer Ranald MacDougall collaborated with writers Alvah Bessie and Lester Cole on “Objective,” “Burma” (1945), received an Oscar nomination for “Mildred Pierce” (1945), adapted the Ernest Hemingway novel “Breaking Point” (1950), was one of several writers to work on “Cleopatra” (1963), and directed “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” (1959). MacDougall was born in Schenectady, New York, on March 10, 1915, and left high school at the age of 16 to write radio scripts. By age 27, his radio writing career was so dazzling that it prompted the New York Times to run an interview with MacDougall titled, “R. MacD., Life and Works.” By age 18, MacDougall wrote regularly for newspapers and occasionally for radio. After working for NBC as a mimeograph operator, he was hired as a scriptwriter at 21 and fired off more than 40 original half-hour plays. MacDougall attracted the attention of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and then, Norman Corwin. Corwin invited him to write for the Air Corps series “This is War.” Married to actress Nanette Fabray, MacDougall died in Pacific Palisades in 1973 at the age of 58. (wga.org)
About Author James M. Cain
James M. Cain, best known as the author of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Mildred Pierce,” was born in Maryland in 1892. After an army career and early aspirations of becoming a singer, as his mother had been, he was a reporter and journalist for many years in Baltimore and New York. His first story was published in H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury.” When “The Postman Always Rings Twice” appeared in print in 1934, it became an immediate best-seller. The next year Double Indemnity was equivalently successful, and Cain became known for something more than his early journalism or his Hollywood scripts. Today it is perhaps more through the films of his novels that we remember Cain: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” was filmed with Lana Turner and John Garfield in Hollywood, and later (without authorization) in Italy as the basis of Luschine Visconti’s first film Ossessione. Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” with a script by Raymond Chandler, is a classic thriller; Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for the lead role in “Mildred Pierce.” Cain died October 31, 1977, in University Park, Maryland, near where he grew up, went to college, and taught. This interview was conducted on January 7, 1977, at his home—a small two-story frame house on a quiet street. The sitting room was furnished simply; an upright piano stood against a wall. Then eighty-five, Cain was gaunt, his voice raspy, but mentally he gave nothing away to his years. He lived alone in Hyattsville. His stationery bore a notice suggesting the reclusive and quiet nature of his last years: to those trying to get in touch with him by phone he had printed on the bottom of each page, “Station to station does it—there’s nobody here but me.” (theparisreview.org)
About Director Michael Curtiz
Born on Dec. 24, 1888 in Budapest, Hungary, Curtiz was raised in a moderately middle class home by his architect father and his opera singer mother. After making his stage debut as a child in one of his mother’s operas, Curtiz ran away from home at 17 to join the circus, where he performed as a juggler, acrobat and mime. He later attended Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest. After completing his studies, he joined the Hungarian National Theatre, where he eventually worked as an actor and director. In 1913, he spent six months working on his craft in Denmark, where he was the assistant director on August Blom’s “Atlantis” (1913), before returning to Hungary to briefly serve in the army during World War I. He went back to filmmaking in 1915 and left Hungary four years later after the industry became nationalized, eventually settling in Vienna. There he directed a number of movies for Sascha Films, including the biblical “Sodom und Gomorrha” (1922) and “Moon of Israel” (1924). He also made “Red Heels” (1925) and “The Golden Butterfly” (1926) before catching the attention of Warner Bros. studio head, Jack Warner, who brought Curtiz over to the United States. Curtiz’s first U.S. film, “The Third Degree” (1926), was a romantic drama that revealed a mastery of the moving camera in its flashy expressionistic sequences, at one point presenting the action from the perspective of a lethal bullet. It also marked the first of eight collaborations with Dolores Costello, one of the studio’s few established female stars. Warner Bros. thrust Curtiz into its attempts at sound innovation, and two part-talkies “Tenderloin” (1927) and “Noah’s Ark” (1928), both starring Costello, achieved considerable popularity and garnered millions at the box office. “Noah’s Ark” was also notable for having John Wayne cast as an extra during the flood scene. In 1930, Curtiz directed no less than six Warner talkies, but the studio’s attempt to partially introduce color that year in the director’s commercially successful Al Jolson vehicle, “Mammy,” fell short of expectations. As Warner Bros. became the fastest-growing studio in Hollywood, so too did the director’s fortunes. With “The Cabin in the Cotton” (1932), Curtiz helped deliver the first of Bette Davis’ malicious Southern belles, while “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” (1933) presented her in a more sympathetic light as the girlfriend of noble Spencer Tracy, who sacrifices his life for the murder she committed. Curtiz went on to helm two of the studio’s rare excursions into horror, “Dr. X” (1932) and “The Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933), both all-color and exhibiting the influence of Lang and Murnau in their vividly atmospheric scenes. Despite his early penchant for Swedish naturalism, Curtiz followed in the footsteps of the great German studio directors, transporting his audiences to distant lands while all the time remaining on the back lots of Hollywood.
He began his 12-film collaboration with Errol Flynn, who was often paired with Olivia de Havilland, in “Captain Blood” (1935). Together, both director and actor became synonymous with the swashbuckler genre, which reached its zenith with “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) – a film so popular that Flynn was inextricably tied to the character Robin Hood for the rest of his career. The pair worked together again on “The Sea Hawk” (1940), though by this time their relationship had become gravely strained, mainly due to Curtiz’s autocratic and sometimes demeaning behavior. They collaborated again on “Dodge City” (1939), which marked the first of three big-budget Westerns, and continued with perhaps their best, “Virginia City” (1940). After rounding out the Old West trilogy with “Santa Fe Trail” (1940, Curtiz directed Flynn in the mediocre “Dive Bomber” (1941). By this time Flynn had had enough of working with Curtiz and effectively ended their prolific association. One actor who apparently did not mind the director’s imperious ways was Claude Rains, who appeared in 10 Curtiz films, including three sentimental small-town soapers, “Four Daughters” (1938), and its two sequels “Daughters Courageous” (1939) and “Four Wives” (1939). These films also introduced actor John Garfield to the public. He also elicited some of the finest work from both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the former giving a bravura performance as the tough and sardonic, ultimately soft-hearted boxing manager of “Kid Gallahad” (1937), and providing perhaps an even richer portrayal as the intellectual, rampaging captain of “The Sea Wolf” (1941), the quintessential adaptation of the Jack London novel. As for Cagney, Rocky Sullivan in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) represented a high point from the actor’s gangster oeuvre, and his Academy Award-winning turn as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) stands at the very pinnacle of his career. Certainly a high-point in Curtiz’s career as well, the overly patriotic musical earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Director and entered the annals of Hollywood as a cinematic classic. Though Curtiz’s prodigious output slowed some during the 1940s, his films often reflected the efficiency of the studio system at its best, and “Casablanca” (1942), the classic that earned him his only Oscar as Best Director, was a shining example of what could go right in that setting. Originally scheduled as a low-budget melodrama starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, “Casablanca” acquired some cachet when Warner Bros. upgraded it to major-budget status, and brought in Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the leads. The supporting actors were all first rate, led by Rains as Vichy police chief Louis Renault, Paul Henreid as resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson, playing that haunting melody again for Rick – the character in which Bogie, more than in any other, established his iconographic screen persona.
Longtime Curtiz screenwriting collaborators Julius and Philip Epstein, fresh from scripting the director’s “Mission to Moscow” (1943), worked alongside Howard Koch on a script that was reportedly only half done before shooting began, with the famous scene between Bogie and Bergman at the end allegedly being written the night before it was filmed. Though initially a mild box office success, “Casablanca” grew in stature to become a Hollywood classic widely considered to be one of the finest films ever made. “Casablanca” was a tough act to follow, and while the war film “Passage to Marseille” (1944) rounded up some familiar suspects like Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre, it fell far short of its precursor. There still remained the wonderful noir classic, “Mildred Pierce” (1945), which earned Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar, but after that film’s success, consensus had it that the master fell victim to the sheer volume of his output. People continued going to his movies, and in fact some of his biggest moneymakers were ahead. “Night and Day” (1946), a sanitized biopic of Cole Porter (Cary Grant) that paled in comparison with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the optimistic “Life with Father” (1947) were both upbeat fare that enjoyed healthy box office. The Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye vehicle “White Christmas” (1954) turned out to be the biggest commercial success of his career, which was made for Paramount soon after he ended his 28-year run with Warner Bros. Curtiz went on to direct more than 20 more pictures, including his excellent film noir, “The Breaking Point” (1950), his last collaboration with John Garfield, and the Elvis Presley vehicle, “King Creole” (1958), which The King cited as his personal favorite of his many films. He continued churning out picture after picture like “The Hangman” (1959), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1960) and “Francis of Assisi” (1961), though by this point it was clear that his best days were behind him. In the saddle nearly to the end, Curtiz died of cancer on April 10, 1962, just six months after the release of his final film, “The Commancheros” (1961), a well-paced actioner with John Wayne as a Texas Ranger out to bring in a gang illegally supplying liquor and guns. Though he may not have demonstrated an easily identifiable style, Curtiz left behind an impressive body of work possessing an incredibly consistent narrative energy. (tcm.com)