Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

The Women (1939): Jungle Red Claws

#30 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Women turns on a gimmick—no men appear in the film.  It boasts the trio of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles.

The screenplay is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on the popular play written by Clare Boothe.  It is directed by a man, the delightful George Cukor who was known as the “women’s director,” and one we’ll meet again in future films.

And yet the joke on the poster is that the movie filled with 135 women is “all about men.”

This isn’t true.  Though the main plot line is a fight over a man (the entirely offscreen Mr. Stephen Haines), the film is an exploration of women’s relationships.

The lead actresses in this comedy were in very different phases of their careers.

The wonderful Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, the happily married wife and mother who discovers her husband is carrying on an affair with a shopgirl.  Shearer was nearing the end of her career and The Women is her last significant film.

Joan Crawford is deliciously devious as Crystal Allen, the ruthless shopgirl in the husband stealing business.  Crawford was in the middle of her long career, still one of MGM’s top stars and six years away from her comeback in Mildred Pierce.

And Rosalind Russell stole the show as Mary Haines’ friend and an insufferable gossip.  Russell was a relative newcomer and a year away from her star making turn in His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.

(You can also get your first glimpse at a very young Joan Fontaine, whose performance here shows why she was cast as the naive and unsophisticated Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)

Mary Haines is the last one to know of her husband’s infidelity, and learns of it from the woman who does her nails, rather than any of her wide circle of friends who have been gossiping about it for days.  The film tracks how Mary loses Stephen to Crystal and ultimately gains him back again with the help of her friends.

But make no mistake—this is no feminist manifesto.

“I’ve had two years to grow claws, Mother. Jungle red!”

When Mary first discovers her husband’s infidelity, she is ready to confront him and perhaps divorce him.  Yet her mother’s advice is to pretend she knows nothing about it, continue being the perfect wife, and wait until Stephen gets it out of his system.

(You don’t forget you’re in 1939 when you’re watching this film.)

She does confront Crystal, and the movie is a delightful romp of gossipy harpies, wild divorceés, and vicious catfights.

It’s a funny yet quite unflattering view of women.  

I recommend it heartily.

And despite all the real progress women have made in the world since 1939, there are some uncomfortable truths about women—and men—that are as true today as they were in Clare Booth’s day.  It blunts it with humor, of course, but The Women points out that sometimes your friends are thrilled by your misfortune.  That though we all disavow spreading ugly rumors, most relish delivering a juicy morsel of gossip to someone not yet in the know.  And that when men reach a certain age, their eyes—if not their hands—often stray to novel (and younger) flesh.

It’ll make you laugh.  If you put aside 2020 values, it’ll make you laugh even more.

For people who don’t see the point in watching movies that were new when their grandmother was a child, it can be difficult to explain their appeal.  As Dr. Phil says, “you either get it or you don’t.”  There’s the fashion—the hats, the cigarettes, the dressing gowns.  The glamour of the old Hollywood stars that have that something that still draws you in.  The mystique of black and white.

All this is true.  But old movies are also a treasure hunt, and sometimes they throw up a nugget that is so spectacular it reminds you these films are time capsules and history as much as entertainment.  Something that hits a 2020 audience much different than a 1939 audience.

There’s such a moment in The Women—it comes near the end of the film, when Mary and her mother are discussing the benefits of living alone.  

Mary’s mother says, “Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”

The throwaway line is played for a minor laugh.  It goes without saying that in 1939, the swastika was not yet a universally denounced symbol of hate and genocide.  Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, of course, and World War II would begin that same year.  (Though U.S. involvement would not begin for several years.)  It shows how quickly the world can change—and perhaps how the United States had buried its head in the sand at what it initially saw as Europe’s private affair.

It’s a moment that made me sit up straight and bark out a stunned laugh of surprise.  It’s not funny, of course.

But then again, in 1939 it was.  These films are a product of their time, the same as the films we see today.

It makes me wonder what we’re laughing at today that will make audiences cringe in eighty years.  Not the stuff that is deliberately provocative—as I don’t believe the swastika line was in The Women.  The stuff we’re not even blinking an eye at that will make the folks of 2101 happy they don’t live in the unenlightened, backward world of 2020 that we believe is so modern.  They’ll marvel at how slow paced and simple our fast and crazy modern world is.

Yes, even with our contentious election and pandemic and racial unrest.  Knowing how the story ends, they’ll smear over 2020 with the grease of nostalgia, just as we do with the movies of 1939.  For even with their glamorous hats and dressing gowns, that generation lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

Perhaps this is too serious a blog for a film that is really just a rollicking good time and should be enjoyed as such.  It’s a movie that highlights the talents of three major stars and a director, and is a worthy jewel in the crown of 1939.

(And please, don’t bother with the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan.  Trust me on this.)

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

You Don’t Know Joan

#14 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Here’s an infuriating fact—in 2020, most people know Joan Crawford only as Mommie Dearest—a badly aging insane woman with thick eyebrows who beats her adopted daughter.

No line Crawford ever uttered in her movies will be as famous as Faye Dunaway as Joan screaming, “No wire hangers ever!”

The film Mommie Dearest was based on a memoir written by Joan’s daughter, and though the accuracy of both has been widely questioned, it is indisputable that Joan and Christina did not get along, and that Joan was not a particularly good mother.

It’s also indisputable that Joan was a driven and increasingly haunted woman.  She had pulled herself out of a childhood of grinding poverty and never felt worthy of her success.  She forbade wire hangers because her mother worked in a dry cleaner’s, and Joan did not like to be reminded of her past.

Joan gave her life to her career—like many big stars, she had a string of failed marriages and strained relationships with her children.  Her work was all she had, and when age took its toll on her career, she never recovered.

But all that comes later.  

Today let’s talk about Joan in 1931.  She was young and beautiful, and right on the heels of Garbo and Norma Shearer as one of the MGM Queens. She was all glamour and potential.

(Strangely enough, Crawford actually starred in two unrelated films both called Possessed, one in 1931 for MGM and one much later in 1947 when she’d moved over to Warner Brothers.)

Joan had top billing in 1931’s Possessed, over Clark Gable, her up and coming co-star.

She plays Marian Martin, a poor but ambitious girl who ditches her job at the paper mill to find adventure and a rich man in New York.  She finds all that and love too with Gable’s Mark Whitney.  She transforms herself into a sophisticated kept woman.  But Mark does not want to marry, and thus Marian has to suffer the myriad indignities that come with being a mistress and not a wife in 1931.  

It is no exaggeration to say that I adore this movie.  It’s the first movie we’ve covered that you absolutely must watch if you want to appreciate Old Hollywood.  Young Joan is the ultimate Hollywood Glamour Girl and Young Clark doesn’t yet have his trademark mustache.  It’s got an ending that’ll make you melt, and plenty of hot backstage gossip.  

For when the director said cut, Crawford and Gable weren’t turning down the heat.  They’d made two previous pictures together, and the sparks were obvious to all.  In Possessed, those sparks burst into flame.

Though both married at the time, Crawford and Gable began a lusty affair.  

Crawford and Gable would maintain their on-again, off-again affair for years, and though it eventually ended, they made eight movies together and remained lifelong friends.

Some thought they would eventually marry, but from all accounts they never considered it.  Joan was too headstrong and ambitious and felt it would never work. Gable was a tightwad and didn’t want the expense of a divorce.

Some say that Joan wasn’t a great actress, that she got by first on beauty and later on a willingness to take any role, no matter how pathetic.

This is a disservice to Joan Craword.  You can count on one hand the number of actors and actresses who have had more successful careers than Joan Crawford.

You don’t survive in Hollywood for forty-five years without talent.  You don’t make ninety-two films, with thirty of those films coming after age forty in a time and business when women were washed up when they could no longer play the young love interest.

Garbo hung it up at thirty-six.  Shearer at forty.

But Joan Crawford was just getting started.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.