MILDRED PIERCE. (1945) BASED ON THE BOOK BY JAMES M. CAIN. DIRECTED BY MICHAEL CURTIZ. STARRING JOAN CRAWFORD, ANN BLYTH, EVE ARDEN, BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN, JACK CARSON, BRUCE BENNETT AND ZACHARY SCOTT. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR- A FEATURE-LENGTH DOCUMENTARY. (2002) WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY PETER FITZGERALD. NARRATED BY ANJELICA HUSTON.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
What perfect viewing for a lockdown Saturday! I absolutely love Joan Crawford, she of the fur coats with the wide shoulders and the imposing eyebrows. She’s every bit as good an actress as Bette Davis, her one-time screen rival and her co-star in one of the best psychological horror films of all time, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962).
Maybe more people have a soft spot for Bette Davis than they do for Joan Crawford, though, and I suppose the book (1978) and the subsequent film (1981), MOMMIE DEAREST, about Joan’s alleged mistreatment of her children and especially her daughter Christina, didn’t do the lady any favours. I still love her work though. She really was an incredible actress, a true star in an era when that word truly meant something.
MILDRED PIERCE is the film for which Joan Crawford won the coveted Oscar. Along with another of Ms. Crawford’s wonderful old films, GRAND HOTEL, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library Of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.’ That’s a great honour, by the way, as if you didn’t know…!
MILDRED PIERCE is the story of a downtrodden, unhappily married housewife who makes a conscious decision to improve her lot for the sake of her daughter Veda, whom she thinks deserves only the best things in life.
Mildred leaves her deadbeat husband, Bert, who may or may not be seeing a certain blonde Mrs. Biederhof on the sly, and then works her fingers to the bone until she’s the proud owner of a chain of successful restaurants. Now that’s how you do it, ladies.
The heartbreaking thing about this film, of course, is this: the more riches, treats and goodies Mildred bestows on her spoilt, selfish ungrateful daughter, the more Veda throws the whole lot back in her face. Nothing is good enough for the snobby Veda.
Except, maybe, for her mother’s second husband, the caddish and weak Monte Beragon… That little bitch. She gets one good backhanded wallop from Joanie in the film for her despicable rudeness and ingratitude, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough by a long shot. That kid is poison, pure poison.
Joan Crawford gives a powerhouse of a performance as the mother whose efforts to improve and enrich her daughter’s life have not yielded the results for which she would have hoped. On the contrary, they’ve ended in disaster. It’s a lesson for the parents of today who lavish too much of everything on their kids. As a result, the kids don’t value or appreciate things the way they should.
Poor Mildred, busting her hump for a child who will never repay her with the love and gratitude she thinks she deserves. Veda is an extremely unlikeable character and it’s hard not to root for Joan to cut her off without a cent. She’s possibly one of the most easy-to-dislike characters in a film from that era. The actress who plays her is still alive, actually, an amazing feat of longevity.
I much prefer the character of Wally Fay, Joan’s dynamic business partner and would-be lover. He sure does dig a dame with a pair of gams that don’t quit…! Mildred’s first husband Bert is weak and doesn’t put his foot down about Veda to Mildred. A pity. A few good spankings from her father might have turned Veda into a nicer person. Monte Beragon is that most despicable of swines, the gadabout cad-about-town who sponges off women and cheats on them to boot.
Prissy from GONE WITH THE WIND (aka Butterfly McQueen) does a nice job of playing Mildred’s maid. Remember in GWTW when Prissy told Scarlett she was an expert at ‘birthin’ babies,‘ and then when Scarlett found out she was lying she gave poor old Prissy a backhander that you could probably hear all the way out to Tara? Happy days.
I also love Ida, Mildred’s manageress, beautifully played by Eve Arden. She’s a game broad who’s been there, done that and hand-stitched the bloody T-shirt. She’s wise to men and their tricks, in other words. She’s a good friend to Mildred, probably more of a friend than any of Mildred’s husbands, lovers or suitors have ever been.
Also, check out the scene with the typically American policeman from the ‘Forties who doesn’t feel like ‘taking a swim.’ That’s one way of putting it. American movie cops and health workers, eg, sanatarium olderlies, are always being portrayed as horribly unsympathetic, cold and short on understanding in the films of the period. Can you imagine having been a female rape victim in these times and bringing your story to the police? It doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? I suppose it was the same in all countries back then.
My own copy of MILDRED PIERCE comes complete with some rather spiffing extra features, the best of which is undoubtedly the feature-length documentary from 2002: JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR. My kids and I watched this over the Saturday night takeaway and we were so glued to it our chips went cold.
It literally tells the story of Joan Crawford, from her birth as Lucille Le Sueur in the early 1900’s to her death in 1977, by which time she’d cemented her position as one of the greatest stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Her oeuvres are mostly truly marvellous films.
Women will certainly love the films and guys will too, if they love classic movies from the days of the big studios when a film was called a ‘picture’ and a real star made some of the so-called ‘celebrities’ of today look like total nobodies. Miaow…! Sorry about that.
Joan started her career as a dancer and a chorus girl. She was apparently a brilliant dancer and she loved to dance. In the ‘Twenties, she was seen as the perfect embodiment of the flapper: the gay girl-about-town who danced till all hours and was never seen without a fancy martini in her hand.
‘Early Joan,’ as I call her, does indeed make the ideal ‘Twenties girl. She’s stunningly attractive and doesn’t even look like the Joan Crawford she eventually grows into, the Joan with the strongly-defined lips and eyebrows and the glamorous fur coats and massive shoulder-pads.
A whole host of people who knew Joan, including her former husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her adopted daughter Christina Crawford, talk on-screen about their memories of Joan. Some of these memories are very moving, while others are humorous or just plain fascinating.
We know that Christina wrote her infamous book, MOMMIE DEAREST, after the reading of her mother’s will at which it was revealed that Joan hadn’t left so much as a penny to Christina or her brother, ‘for reasons which are well known to them.’
I’ve read the book myself and it does make for uncomfortable reading. If it’s all true, then Christina deserves our sympathy. I still love Joan’s movies, though. Am I allowed to say that? Well, I’ve said it anyway.
One of the interviewees in the documentary comments that it’s a shame that the book kind of overshadows some of the accomplishments that Joan actually achieved, such as making her way all alone in a man’s world, first as a movie star and then as the ‘First Lady of Pepsi-Cola’ after she married Alfred Steele, its managing director.
We hear about Joan’s rivalry with fellow stars Norma Shearer and Bette Davis, and how she outlasted all the big female MGM stars of her day except for Davis herself. We hear about how Joan’s unhappy and maybe even abusive childhood caused her to constantly seek approval, admiration and adulation from the people around her. In fairness to her, she treated her fans really well and was never too tired to sign autographs or reply to fan letters.
We’re told of her obsession with cleanliness that probably has its roots in her childhood and the alcoholism that seems to have gone largely undetected by the public until Joan was quite old.
We hear about her many husbands and about the way in which she was a consummate professional in her work. Not only could she cry on demand but if she was asked to produce a tear, she’d even say: ‘Which eye…?’ I’m a woman too, but even I can’t cry on demand, never mind out of a specified flippin’ eyeball. I need to work up to it, lol.
As a big horror fan, I was thrilled to see Betsy Palmer, otherwise known as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees from the FRIDAY 13TH films, sharing her memories of Joan for the camera. Joan apparently treated actress Mercedes McCambridge as a rival. The name Mercedes McCambridge will of course also be familiar to horror fans, as this lady went on to do some rather famous voice work in the most iconic horror film ever made, THE EXORCIST.
‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras…!’
We hear about how Joan slept with her directors in order to bind them to her and how she was once upstaged at a grand event by Marilyn Monroe in a tight, low-cut dress with her legendary tits locked, loaded and ready to fire. Now that was kinda funny…!
Christina Crawford talks about the notorious ‘night raids’ which resulted in the infamous ‘NO WIRE HANGERS!’ scene in the movie MOMMIE DEAREST, in which Joan was wonderfully played by Faye Dunaway who looked uncannily like her subject.
We hear about the horror films that were the only films that Joan could find work in towards the end of her career. There is no shame in working in a horror film. Bette Davis, who incidentally turned down the leading role in MILDRED PIERCE when it was offered to her, starred in BURNT OFFERINGS, one of the best horror flicks ever made, when she was in her sixties. Starring in horror is nothing, I repeat, nothing to be ashamed of. Some of Joan’s horror films, like STRAIT-JACKET and SUDDEN FEAR, are films I’m now dying to get my mitts on.
The documentary is every bit as good as the film itself, MILDRED PIERCE. It’s a fascinating insight into a Hollywood that doesn’t exist any more, and an absolute must-have for fans of Joan Crawford’s.
She always felt like it was her fans who made her a star. Wherever she is right now, I’m sure she’s ticking off names on a list and writing her famous thank-you notes, about which she was most assiduous, to the folks who still watch her movies. If you want to be sure of getting yours, then watch the film. Happy Monday.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.