Monday, January 13, 2020

Joan Bakes

There's been a murder. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the second husband of Mildred Pierce (1945) is dead, and the prime suspect is Mildred's (Joan Crawford) ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett). As Mildred relates the story of her life with Bert, Monte, and her children, we realize there are several suspects to the crime, including Bert's former partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and the Pierce's oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).

Our group discussed Mildred Pierce back in 2011;  we decided it was time for a re-watch.  The first reaction to the film this time was remembering how much we all despised Veda Pierce.  Ann Blyth plays her part with such supreme self-obsession that it's hard to find anything good about Veda. Even when she is telling her doting mother how much she loves her, Ms. Blyth has a look in her eyes that displays her manipulative behavior.  It's a remarkable performance, and one which Ms. Blyth does not couch by trying to make the audience like her (Shirley Temple was considered for the part - Director Michael Curtiz was not sympathetic).   Ms. Blyth did an interview at the TCM Film Festival (you can see her discussion of this film begins beginning at 5:14).
Jack Carson  was, at one point, considered for the role of Monte Beragon (AFI catalog). It's hard to imagine him as a loafer - Wally Fay is constantly in motion, always looking for a deal, always on the make for one woman or another. Zachary Scott, on the other hand seems tailor-made for the passive Monte, a man who's never lifted a finger to do anything besides play polo and take other people's money.  The casting of Mr. Scott is an easy choice - it's helpful that he looks rather caddish, and since we know from the start that Monte is the victim, the audience can just wait to find out what he did that resulted in his murder (Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad by Ronald L. Davis).
Zachary Scott was born in Austin, TX; he left his home town at age 19 - he dropped out of college and worked on a freighter bound for London, where he worked in repertory theatre for nearly two years. Once back in Texas, he continued to appear on the stage; there, he was noticed by Alfred Lunt. Small parts on Broadway followed (he appeared in 6 Broadway productions throughout his career), which led to a contract from Warner Brothers. He never really evolved much beyond supporting roles in films like Shadow on the Wall (1950) and Flamingo Road (1949); his major starring role was in The Southerner (1945). By the 1950s, he was moving to television like many of his colleagues. Married twice (he had a child with each wife), he died in 1965 at the age of 51 of a brain tumor. 
If there is one person who comes close to stealing the film from Joan Crawford, it's Eve Arden (Ida Corwin). Besides bringing some humor to this melodramatic story, she the voice of truth She has what is perhaps the best line in the film (certainly the best comment on Veda): "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."  Ms. Arden received her only Oscar nomination (with Ann Blyth) in the Supporting Actress category (they both lost to Anne Revere in National Velvet).  She would later say that she never expected the part to bring her a nomination (TCM articles). 

Though it was nominated for 6 Oscars, the only winner that night was Joan Crawford, who wasn't even the first choice for the role - Michael Curtiz wanted Barbara Stanwyck. Ms Crawford wasn't at the ceremony, however. Fearing she would not win (see Ann Blyth's TCM tribute to Joan Crawford), Ms. Crawford took to her bed and called in sick. However, when she was notified that she had indeed won the award, she invited the press into her bedroom, where she prettily sat in her sickbed with the Oscar in her hand. 

The story was remade as a television miniseries in 2011 starring Kate Winslet.  With more time (five one-hour episodes), and no production code to deal with, the miniseries is closer in plot to James M. Cain's original book.  Carol Burnett did one of her memorable spoofs, "Mildred Fierce" (shoulder pads and all!). The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.

If you've never seen this production, treat yourself and find a copy - it's one of Ms. Crawford's finest performances (allegedly, her favorite role), and a film noir par excellence. Here's a trailer to whet your appetite.

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