After hosting the eighth annual Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, from May 29 – June 1, I made it back home in time for screenings of Mildred Pierce at the Million Dollar Theatre and The Damned Don’t Cry – the latest entry of my continuing Femme Fatale Hall of Fame series at the Silent Movie Theatre. I’ll be posting a detailed low down about the wildly successful Palm Springs noir fete – complete with photos – this coming week. For the present, I wanted to share some details about the Mildred Pierce event.
It was a distinct privilege to host a sold-out screening of Mildred Pierce (1945) at the restored Million Dollar Theatre at 307 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday June 4th. The screening was part of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats series that is now in its 22nd year. For more about the LRS, the Million Dollar Theatre and the L.A. Conservancy, please check out this link:
Here is the text of my introductory remarks. With a sold out house in a classic venue, I felt obliged to discuss some of the behind-the-scene details and key players involved in Mildred Pierce.
Good evening, and what an evening!My thanks to Trudi and to the Conservancy for their gracious invitation to host for this truly special event; the reopening of the Million Dollar Theatre, Sid Grauman’s first show palace, as part of the Last Remaining Seats series.
Mildred Pierce is a timeless film; a movie that is thematically emblematic on multiple levels. A compelling saga about an American family wracked by dysfunction and tragedy that typically weren’t addressed in 1940’s Hollywood due to censorship problems, the story of an indomitably strong, ambitious woman- here was the template for what would be known as “the woman’s picture”- saddled with a fearful progeny of a daughter who had all of the qualities of a dog, save loyalty, and a seminal film noir wrapped into a flashback of deceit, betrayal and murder.
Mildred Pierce is also an honored film:Nominated for Best Picture in 1945 by the Motion Picture Academy with Joan Crawford winning the Best Actress Oscar, Ann Blyth and Eve Arden, both nominated for Best Supporting Actress with Ernest Haller and Randall MacDougall earning best cinematography and best screenplay nods as well.
In 2008, Mildred Pierce represents a visual time capsule of a Los Angeles that, in many ways, would exist only in memory or on film, but for the good work of the Conservancy. The Pierce home is still on Jackson Street on Glendale; however Jack Carson’s real estate office on the corner of Bel Air and Allen Ave also in Glendale is gone along Mildred’s restaurant that was shot at Kay’s Drive-In on the corner of Magnolia and Laurel Canyon in the Valley. The Monty Beragon mansion in the movie was on Arden Road in Pasadena, and that wonderful beach house that opens the film was the Rindge house in Malibu on what was then 26600 Roosevelt Highway, a mere 3.5 miles up the road from the Malibu colony.
Mildred Pierce was made at the apex of the studio system period as exemplified at Warner Bros. And no director was more firmly identified with Warners than the estimable Michael Curtiz who helmed tonight’s film. Curtiz was one of the finest directors of any era; counting his European work; he helmed an incredible 172 feature films. Curtiz made his Warner’s debut in 1926 and worked at the studio until 1954. His films include some of the legendary titles of all time: Captain Blood, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Sea Hawk, Casablanca,Yankee Doodle Dandy, Life with Father and one of my all time favorites that needs to come out on DVD… are you listening, Warners? The Breaking Point.
As a director, Curtiz was singleminded, often ruthlessly so. Supremo producer Hal Wallis, no slouch when it came to workaholism, tabbed Curtiz as “tireless”. (At this point, I ad-libbed a Curtiz story that was reportedly related years ago by James Cagney to Peter Bogadanovich that involved a bit actor who was playing a minister during the filming of The Sea Hawk (1940) that was directed by Curtiz. The actors were topside on a crowded ship set in a huge Warners soundstage with a 20 foot drop to the floor below. The poor guy who was the minister , trying to avoid a gesticulating Curtiz striding around the set and blocking out the scene, stepped backwards off of the ship and fell to the floor of the soundstage. Curtiz glanced down at the man laying unconscious and then whirls to his AD, roaring: “Get me another Minister!”)
But Warner Bros. was not a Garden of Eden for a directorial auteur. Curtiz directed the film, but the moving force behind Mildred Pierce was producer Jerry Wald. Hal Wallis had moved on after his famous falling out with Jack L. Warner over acceptance of the Best Picture Oscar for Casablanca. With credits like ACROSS THE PACIFIC, THE HARD WAY, DESTINATION TOKYO, Wald was in ascendance at WB, but Jack L. Warner desperately wanted a legitimate hit picture that was not a war film.
Wald thought he had it when he bought the rights to James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce pub in 1941 for $15K on 3/15/44, and then the parade of writers started.
The producer tried to have Cain write a treatment- he couldn’t do it, Cain was a novelist, not a screenwriter. Jerry Wald’s method for story development included employment of a number of writers working on the same script without having exposure with the work of others on the script with the producer attempting to synthesize the different contributions into a coherent script. Wald also conceived the notion of telling the story in flashback after screening Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window with Curtiz.
Writers who contributed to Mildred Pierce included: Thames Williamson, Catherine Turney, Albert Maltz – a thought provoking critique – Margaret Gruen, Randall MacDougall with Margaret Buell Wilder, Louise Randall Pierson, and none other than William Faulkner.
Despite the myriad contributions, the final screenplay was MacDougall’s and his name is the only one listed on the film’s titles. Justice for screenwriters in Hollywood remains a pending issue.
From the beginning, there was only one female lead seriously considered: Joan Crawford. Her two decade career at MGM had ended in 1943 and she was being extremely choosy about the script for her WB debut vehicle- a one picture deal. Crawford managed her career and stardom better than anyone. She knew this selection could either renew or finish her off. For Joan, this was the part. Yet despite the faded stardom; Joan was a personage that was treated in every way as a star. All of the correspondence that I reviewed-with the notable exception of Jack L. Warner- always referred to her as “Miss. Crawford”. Her contract with Warner’s gave her authority about the position of other actors on the titles. One production memo was appended thusly: “Miss Crawford has approved Carson/Scott co-star credit with Miss Crawford’s name on the screen”
In Mildred Pierce, Joan becomes larger than life with a truly seminal performance. Let’s face it; Joan Crawford remains larger than life and is meant to be seen in this theatre on the big screen.
The supporting cast was a different matter. Wald seriously tried to get Ralph Bellamy cast as Mildred’s husband, but bowed to fiscal realities and tapped Bruce Bennett, a relatively new contract player. In one of those strokes of good luck essential to a successful Hollywood career, Bennett went from appearing in a PRC Western directed by Lew Landers to playing opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.
Ray Collins – remember Lieutenant Tragg from Perry Mason? – was busy, so dulcet-toned Moroni Olsen was hired as the avuncular homicide inspector. In a brilliant stroke of excellence, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden ably filled out the rest of the principal cast, but who was to play Veda, the daughter from Hell?Lest you think I am being too tough, Thames Williamson in his script treatment defined Veda: “A snobbish, go-getting, heartless little bitch.”
A plethora of ingénues including Martha Vickers, Mala Powers, Bonita Granville, Patricia Kirkland, Dierdre Gale, Mary Vallee, Virginia Vallee, Lynne Baggett were scrutinized until a young-17 years old- contract actress/singer at Universal named Ann Blyth was tested. Wald and Curtiz instantly knew they had their Veda. Miss Blyth’s performance remains an absolute stunner and although we are disappointed she could not join here tonight, she is ably represented by her daughter, Eileen McNulty and family who are here with us. Eileen, please take a bow.
That Mildred Pierce was made at all is a tribute to the tenacity of Jerry Wald who refused to acquiesce when Joseph Breen wrote him in early 1944, just to forget about making Mildred Pierce. The property was too controversial, with way too much forbidden subject matter. A script was finally approved months later, but that was after such shocking words as “God Awful”, WOP, “To Hell and Gone” and “Tart” were excised. One great line by Eve Arden to Jack Carson was also cut: “I hate to wrestle in the morning!”
The exquisite direction by Curtiz was accentuated by the memorable score composed by one of the greatest film composers of all time: Max Steiner.
For Jack L. Warner, aside from sending Wald a memo complaining that he couldn’t understand what the hell Butterfly McQueen was talking about in the dailies, it was always a matter of money. He sweated bullets over the $1,342,000 budget, at one point writing a memo to a legal functionary:
“I am not paying Crawford anything beyond her $100,000 guarantee because she was unable to work for a number of days”
For the record, Joan missed 1 and ½ days during the nearly three month production. Jack L. frequently viewed matters via a Byzantine perspective. Later on, when a writer complained to him about being blacklisted, Warner memorably responded: “There is no such thing as a Blacklist . . . and you’re not on it!” Joan Crawford would end up making much more money from Warners as Mildred Pierce was a smash hit at the box office as well as a huge critical success.
As Jerry Wald would write Sonny Werblin at MCA in response to a congratulatory letter:
“My biggest problem is what do I do for an encore.”
Simply put, there is no encore for this film; it is a screen classic and I am delighted that we are here tonight in this beautifully restored, historical venue to watch it. Please join me in savoring the one and only Mildred Pierce!