“Mildred Pierce” won an Academy Award for Best Actress Joan Crawford; 1945 National Board Of Review Best Actress Award, Joan Crawford
Labeled "sordid and repellent" in the early forties by Joseph Breen, then head of the censorship body that kept film producers and studios in line with the moral majority via the Motion Picture Production Code, James M. Cain's best-selling 1941 novel was granted a green light for production after similarly lascivious tales of sex, murder and double-crossing had already hit the screens.
"The Big Sleep" (1941) and "Double Indemnity" (1944) loosened the censor's starchy bow-tie somewhat, and after WWII, risqué material became somewhat more permissible. Cleverly veiled with punchy dialogue and stylized performances, 1946 brought forth "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (turbaned babe gets sex-starved drifter to bump off aging rotund hubby), "Duel in the Sun" (doomed romance between a half-breed strumpet and brutal womanizer), and of course "Mildred Pierce."
"Mildred" marked Joan Crawford's second career boom after a gradual slump during the late thirties and early forties. Call it the Aging Actress Affliction; Crawford - much like her colleague and foe Bette Davis - had noticed a loss of prime roles, and eventually moved from MGM to Warner Bros, where her career received an adrenaline injection via the studio's latest entry in film noire.
Adapted by Ranald MacDougall (who would script Crawford's next picture, "Possessed," and 1955's "Queen Bee") and directed with typical breakneck style by Michael Curtiz, "Mildred Pierce" is also blessed with a remarkable visual design, courtesy of veteran cinematographer Ernest Haller. Exploiting the extreme emotions and warped psyches of the film's three main characters - blinded-by-love Crawford; old money heir Zachary Scott, who barters the sale of his dignity without remorse; and spoiled daughter Ann Blyth, who loves only herself and Crawford's toys - Haller decorates scenes with high contrast writing, rippling reflections, and angular perspectives which the DVD faithfully preserves in a rich transfer. Gray levels are diverse and stable, and the all-important deep blacks are solid without signs of artifacting.
The film's mono mix is typically punchy, alternating between MacDougall's no-nonsense dialogue - marinated with just the right amount of melodrama and leather toughness - and Max Steiner's lush score (with occasional thematic quotes from "Now, Voyager" - ironically a theme from rival Bette Davis' classic melodrama).
Like Warner Bros' DVD for "The Bad And The Beautiful," the studio has included an excellent documentary on the film's lead heroine, and "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star," originally made for Turner Movie Classics, offers a career overview, combining stills, diverse interviews, and film clips from many films (including restored silent classics that hopefully will make their way to DVD).
"Ultimate Movie Star" follows Crawford from her early MGM starlet days as Lucille Le Sueur (changed to Joan Crawford in a studio-designed contest because MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer felt Sueur was a wee bit close to 'sewer'), through her recognition as a respected actress in "Grand Hotel," along with her lengthy film association with Clark Gable. Moving to Warner Bros, Crawford journeyed through noirish tales and eventually left the studio as a freelancer, appearing in various genres with an increasingly campy edge, before once again benefiting from another career boost through horror films - namely "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" (this time sharing the wide screen with arch foe Bette Davis), and "Strait-Jacket."
Crawford, like many of her contemporaries, was partly a product of the studio publicity machine and fan magazines, which symbiotically created a façade of celebrity perfection while offering contrived familial and social 'glimpses' through contests and media exclusives. The doc points out this idyllic cult which eventually mutated into lurid gossip magazines studios could no longer fully control, and Crawford's romances, marriages and divorces were prime meat for the editors. ("The Best of Modern Screen," a 1985 graphic anthology assembled by Mark Bego, reproduced numerous star obsessions from the 30s and 40s, and it's astonishing how frequently Crawford - in her own words, via gossip reports, and 'rival stars speaking out' articles - appears, attesting to her immense fame during those decades.)
Most of the clips are from Warner-controlled properties, but the doc achieves a good balance by including co-workers who experienced her professionalism and knowledge of film acting (Diane Baker and Betsy Palmer), disturbing anecdotes from daughter Christina Crawford (who penned the autobiographical book "Mommie Dearest"), and sobering conclusions by critics and friends who implore audiences to see past the camp and sordid "Dearest" episodes and respect Crawford as a tough actress in a male-dominated industry, who broke new ground and delivered many memorable performances.
Also included are trailers from several Crawford films, with most in excellent shape, a few rather soft and worn, and "Flamingo Road" coming from an older video master. Under the studio system, stars were packaged in familiar vehicles that suited their assumed attributes, and just like MGM kept Crawford paired with Gable, Warners rotated former leading men in an amusing casting shuffle - graphically evidenced by the trailers that remind audiences of her pivotal "Mildred" fame (well-deserved), and her gradual slide into stiff melodramas. The ridiculously titled "Goodbye, My Fancy" is a "heart-happy class reunion," with Crawford as "a right honorable honey," and viewers will get more than average belly laughs from the incredible editorial choices, narration and textual hype that publicity departments used in that era. What the trailers reveal however, is how little has changed in sixty-plus years: no longer under strict seven year contracts, actors are still pursued by agents, producers and studios to rekindle chemistry from hit films, and sometimes the artists themselves dip into familiar territory when career risks thud at the box office.
Hopefully "Mildred Pierce" will be the first of many DVD releases of Crawford's Warner Bros output, given the acknowledged classic status of several films sampled in the trailer gallery.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan