Sunday, May 27, 2012

Short Take: Mildred Pierce (1945 film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1930s and ‘40s, but she’s hardly a screen icon. After watching her signature, Oscar-winning performance as the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), one can certainly understand why. She was a bland, limited actress, and her idiosyncrasies--the ramrod posture, the highfalutin diction, and the wide-open, unblinking eyes--make her so arch it’s almost comical. The film is an entertaining adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel about the personal travails of an up-from-the-bootstraps businesswoman during the Great Depression. It lacks the social detail that was the most impressive aspect of the book, but it does well by the melodramatic scenarios that have proven such a model for soap operas and other pop storytelling. The screenplay, by Ranald MacDougall (with the uncredited help of, among others, William Faulkner) takes the liberty of building a murder-mystery framework around the story. This modification works, and with director Michael Curtiz’s terrific staging, the pace never falters. The cast, unfortunately, is less than ideal. Zachary Scott, who has the role of Mildred’s playboy second husband, is an even duller presence than Crawford. The biggest letdown is Ann Blyth, who plays Mildred’s daughter. She makes the book’s monstrously conniving narcissist come off like a smug brat. But Jack Carson does a terrific job as the lawyer Wally Fay, and Eve Arden always gives an entertaining spin to her lines as Mildred’s best friend. The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Ernest Haller.

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