‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945): The studio system vs. James M. Cain

In another example of Turner Classic Movies’ alert programming, Saturday night, the channel showed the 1945 version of “Mildred Pierce” — one day before the Todd Haynes version debuts on HBO.

Very thoughtful of them to provide a compare-and-contrast moment, which makes even clearer that the 1945 “Mildred” isn’t as much an adaptation of James M. Cain’s vision, as it is an expression of the Hollywood studio system.

Where the adaptation by Haynes and Jon Raymond is immersed in the Depression — the costumes, set decoration, lighting and music grounds the story in the economic and cultural realities of Southern California in the 1930s — the 1945 “Mildred” is outfitted and designed as if it’s taking place in the mid-1940s. This happened sometimes in the studio era, especially when a story took place in the not-that-distant past, as opposed to costume dramas (which were often not all that accurate, either).

Joan Crawford strides through “Mildred Pierce” in shoulder pads that make her resemble a chic battleship. Her hair is tightly coiffed, her makeup the ’40s Crawford mask of thick brows and dramatic lipstick. She’s formidable — but her own movie-star narrative utterly upstages her character’s story.

Watching Crawford, we don’t see Mildred, the hard-working mother trying to lift her family up from its lower middle-class constraints, even as the Depression makes the challenge even harder. We see Crawford, who has already made more than 61 movies over her long career, setting her jaw and going at this ’40s comeback role with — it’s easy to imagine — all the scars, indignities, ruthless self-absorption and hard-won savvy that must have been requirements for a woman holding on to her star status in Hollywood.

The sexy minx that was Crawford in 1932’s “Grand Hotel” has grown into this ironclad survivor. She declares that she’ll do anything for her dreadfully manipulative daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth, who very effectively makes Veda a baby viper with a sweetheart face). But whatever maternal compulsion is meant to drive Mildred, Crawford seems more irritated than anything else with this pesky brat. You get the sense that Crawford’s Mildred would happily crush this kid like a grape, and move on. But the story dictates that Crawford suffer with martyr grace, as Veda’s selfish deceptions pile up.

Even through this Warner Bros. filter (and the script’s inventions — i.e., the murder and flashback plot hoke), a few moments still pack the kind of punch that transcends time. Notably, the chilling implications of the plot twist in which Mildred’s younger, loving daughter dies.

The scrupulous Mildred has, for once, allowed herself to act on impulse, and spontaneously takes off with Monte for a romantic rendezvous at his beach house. Everything at the beach house is open, warm, free — Mildred and Monte take off their heavily constructed clothes and run out into the surf in swimsuits. Later, back in the house, they sit in front of the fire, and flirt, and then give into the temptation of the moment. We don’t actually see what comes next, but director Michael Curtiz moves the camera away in the manner that then signaled the hot stuff that was soon to follow.

And what are the consequences for Mildred — a separated woman, after all — surrendering to her desires? As the story has it, Mildred pays for her brief, passionate escape from her unending duties, by losing her “good” daughter. As her husband, Bert, says, “Nobody knew where you were.” Mildred letting down her guard, having her own moment of thinking about herself instead of others, has killed her daughter.

It’s not stated so bluntly, of course, but the implication is obvious. All these years later, it’s still a powerful example of how female characters are expected to behave — as opposed to men — and the havoc that follows when a woman diverges from her gender’s conventions.

We see a similar note struck in another 1945 movie, the lovely “Brief Encounter.” Though David Lean’s version of Noel Coward’s script is set among middle-class English people, the morality is the same — after giving in to the temptation of spending time with another man (Trevor Howard), a wife and mother (Celia Johnson) returns home to find one of her children is sick. The boy, it turns out, only has a minor ailment. But Johnson’s shamed guilt over not having been there gets the point across — when a woman responsible for others makes the unaccustomed choice to think of herself, who knows what damage it may cause?

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Emmy Predictions: If Jane Lynch doesn’t win, the world will be a sadder place


The Emmy extravaganza is looming, barreling toward us in a matter of hours. While actual famous people are getting ready for the whole shebang (John Hodgman has been sending out Twitter posts as the Phantom of the Nokia Theater), I’m looking forward to another evening of live, showbiz self-congratulation.

I admit it — I love awards shows. Not as actual recognitions of quality. Awards are, by their nature, all about the show. Does anyone really think there is a single, objective standard of excellence that awards-voters are magically attuned to? Nah. Awards are subjective, accidental, popularity contests, and, occasionally, deserved — at least to my admittedly subjective eye. They exist so the winners can publicly stand out, stand up, and bask in applause, even as the not-winners try to look gracious in defeat, which is its own kind of public spectacle.

Awards show, even when they hit the inevitable dull patches, are collections of these spectacles, dressed up with gowns, jokes, speeches and production design that are trying desperately to put a best foot forward.  And when they’re telecast live on the West Coast, as the Emmys are this year, the whole shebang comes crashing into our living rooms with unfiltered excess.

Irresistible.

I wrote about my predictions of this year’s Emmy winners in Saturday’s edition of The Oregonian:

Maybe it’s the nature of TV itself, but the Emmy Awards show has always had a tendency to walk a wobbly line between “Please take us seriously” pomp and ceremony, and “Let’s have a goof” self-deprecating jokiness.

Despite rafts of articles proclaiming a creative golden age of television, our small-screen pals seem ever aware that they’re the ones who meekly come into our living rooms, asking us nicely to sit down and watch…

But Sunday night, host Jimmy Fallon will heartily welcome viewers, along with begowned and tux-ified celeb nominees, to the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards. His task: Keep things rolling, be funny and don’t insult the big shots — well, don’t insult them too much. Even if Fallon doesn’t rise to Neil Patrick Harris’ success as host last year, most of us will be happy if he’s just better than the nightmare from 2008, when reality-show hosts including Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Jeff Probst bombed with such enormity you could see the crater they left from space.

To read the rest of my deathless musings, and predictions — if Jane Lynch doesn’t win for “Glee,” I predict Gleeks will riot — follow the link to the article at Oregonlive.com in the Entertainment section.

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“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”: Al Jolson sings his way through the Depression

Years ago, I caught an odd-hours-of-the-day TV broadcast of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and it stayed in my memory as an utterly unique mix of elements that shouldn’t work, but do. Set and filmed in the bleak heart of the Depression (1933), it stars Broadway belter Al Jolson as a light-hearted hobo, accompanied by a loyal African-American sidekick (Edgar Connor, as “Acorn”), all of it set to Rodgers and Hart songs and “musical dialogue.”

Watching it again, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, I’m happy to find it’s just as strange as I remembered.  Lewis Milestone’s direction is like none of his other films. How often, after all, did you see ’30s movies featuring groups of merrily singing unemployed men with missing teeth? And silent comic Harry Langdon as a trashman wondering if Jolson has brought news “from the plutocrats down South?” Jolson, polishing it up with his 100-proof Broadway sauce, charmingly notes Langdon sounds like “a red.”

Then Jolson sings, “I find great enjoyment in unemployment,” and, of course,  “Hallelujah, I’m a bum.” A bunch of mounted police ride toward the assembled unemployed masses as Langdon calls them “Cossacks.” Jolson (aka “Bumper”) is blithely unconcerned, and nips off for his meeting with the Mayor of New York. Yes, he’s on friendly terms with the Mayor.

They not only don’t make ’em like this anymore. They really didn’t make ’em like this then.

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“Sweet Bird of Youth”: Overheated, but scandalously watchable

Another Turner Classic Movies moment. I’m watching “Sweet Bird of Youth,” part of the Monday night tribute to the Actors Studio series (a genius programming idea). Ever since I first saw the movie version of “Sweet Bird of Youth” on TV a million years ago, I’ve remembered the overdone, overheated, overblown details Richard Brooks brought to this adaptation of middle-period Tennessee Williams.

Even as a kid, I thought, this is some juicy, rosy-pink, fat-trimmed ham. Brooks amps up performers not known for their subtlety (Ed Begley as the uber-evil Boss Finley, underscoring his crass roots by hollering “Suey!!!”) and allows performers still finding their way onscreen to indulge their mannerisms (Shirley Knight, acting by fidgeting with her long, blonde hair).   But, at least, Brooks sets the table and allows two stars — recreating their stage roles — room to dig in with keen, voracious appetite.

Geraldine Page, managing to appear sexy thanks to a shrewdly glam wig (I assume it’s a wig) and her own thespian bravado, is marvelously broad as the desperate, aging star, Alexandra Del Lago. And Paul Newman, who had already excelled in Brooks’ version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” is at ease in the role of Chance Wayne, the opportunistic gigolo who has been blessed with drop-dead gorgeous looks.  Newman was always more comfortable playing characters uncomfortable with themselves — despite being himself born with the kind of male beauty that comes around rarely in movies. So Chance Wayne is, in some ways, a perfect character for him — ravishing on the surface, gravely flawed and unsure in terms of his inner life.

My Oregonian colleague, Shawn Levy, writes about the process the director of the stage production, the great Elia Kazan, employed in working with Newman. In his book, “Paul Newman: A Life,” Levy discusses how Kazan directed the cast to, initially, avoid socializing with Newman, to reinforce the actor’s feeling of being an outsider, a sense that Chance Wayne carried in his bones.

As Shawn vividly, and accurately, puts it, “Chance is an enormous heel — a social-climbing charmer who has won the heart of the daughter of the town’s big boss and given her a venereal disease, rendering her barren, then gone on to bed rich ladies at a Florida resort using an arsenal of seductive techniques including drugs: a noteworthy creep even amid the gallery of Williams’ malignant characters.”

What Newman, and Page, manage to bring from their stage roles is the full-on embrace of every aspect of their characters’ messes. Page is smart, sardonic, self-aware, and reveling in the utter self-absorption of her survival-minded onetime star, yearning for that comeback that she thought she lost. Newman’s Chance is all too conscious that the clock is ticking on his physical attributes, and the fleeting moments in which he can maneuver his desirability into something that goes beyond hot nights with messed-up partners above his station.

And both Page and Newman are good enough to help alleviate the awkwardness of the cuts and distortions Brooks makes in the original material.  Without them, it would be hard to make a case why this 1962 adaptation would still be worth watching all these years later. But they’re there — and so it is.

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“The Fountainhead”: What a moment!

King Vidor‘s 1949 version of Ayn Rand‘s “The Fountainhead” is insanely stylized, with dialogue so stilted and self-conscious you’d think Rand adapted her own novel. Oh, that’s right, she did! She wrote the script, and supposedly, refused to allow her ultra-hokey dialogue to be changed. Vidor apparently decided to give as good as he got, since this film version is floridly exaggerated, with camera angles that heighten the melodrama and performances by Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper that are, respectively, hysterically feminine and woodenly masculine.

Consider the movie’s most famous sequence: Cooper, as ruggedly individualistic architect Howard Roark, has taken on a humble laboring job rather than compromise his I’ll-do-it-my-way esthetic principles. Vidor and d.p. Robert Burks go all-out. In the scene, fiercely independent architecture critic Dominique Francon (Neal) disturbed by the explosions and racket of work happening in a quarry near the house where she’s sleeping, walks outdoors to investigate. The camera is at ground level, looking up at Neal as she stands atop a rock wall. The wind whips her white skirt and matching chiffon white scarf. She gazes down and her eyes lock with Cooper’s. He’s at ground level, close to the earth, operating a drill. She stares at him, sweaty in his shirt, with its sleeves rolled up, working that drill. He stops to wipe sweat from his brow and as his arm moves away from his head, he catches sight of Neal. He holds her glance, appraising her. She stares back, her nostrils almost, but not quite, flaring.

It’s ridiculous, and rather wonderful. Neal is tight, uncomfortable and overdoing the intensity throughout the movie, but her overblown diva-ishness is compelling here. But Cooper really makes it work. He was ever-stiff and awkward with dialogue, but he had rare glamour for a leading man star.  As he got older, the beauty toughened and it’s appealingly rough here. In this scene, we see what Neal sees — the sweat on his shirt, chest hair exposed beneath his unbuttoned-shirt, the veins and muscles standing out on his forearms as he operates a drill.  Yes, operates a drill.  The symbolism clangs like — well, cymbals.

Like Harrison Ford in the barn-raising scene in “Witness,” Cooper here is believable as a working man. Maybe it’s because they both shared some real-life working experience before they got into movies. This moment, with Neal and Cooper exchanging glances — the editor is working overtime — is divinely silly and memorable.

Then the clunky plot takes over and Cooper reverts to utter wrongness as a visionary architect. Neal, however, keeps acting up a storm, and Vidor pours on the overheated atmosphere. But for a moment, it’s kind of perfect.

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“The Heiress”: Chillingly good

Today’s Adventures in Turner Classic Movies: Watching “The Heiress,” William Wyler’s1949 adaptation of a stage play taken from Henry James’ “Washington Square.”

What a superb example of classic Hollywood filmmaking: Wyler skillfully blends actors as varied as Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

And the material is so rich. James’ tale of Catherine, a plain, timid heiress, her cold father and the handsome young charmer who sets his sights on the awkward, shy wealthy-woman-to-be is surgically perceptive about class; the status of a daughter who suffers the fate of not being as lovely as her late mother; the father who can’t disguise his lack of regard for this daughter; and the young man whose gifts as a suitor are matched only by his desire for a comfortable, prosperous life.

How good Wyler is at conveying an adult, layered understanding of this situation. Richardson’s father objects to the match between his ugly duckling offspring and her improbably handsome swain not because he’s worried about his daughter’s happiness. In fact, Richardson’s Dr. Sloper can barely hide his disdain for Catherine, who falls so short of what he considers a woman of her position ought to be. His cruelty makes your blood stop — Dr. Sloper flings his low opinion of her charms directly to her face.

And Clift’s Morris, the penniless lover working very hard to assure his own cushy landing, is fascinating.  At this stage in his career, Clift’s appearance was amazing — his black hair, full lips, dark eyes and elegant cheekbones are so perfect he almost looks like a sculpture. But behind those black eyes, his mind is always working, his character at war with himself, as calculation and softer feelings do battle.

I’ve always thought of Clift, for some reason, when watching Tom Cruise. Not that Cruise is anywhere in Clift’s league as an actor. But there’s something at war inside Cruise — and I’m not going to get into gossip magazine speculation as to just what may be going on there. As a movie star, he seems always aware of how hard he’s working to be liked, to be charismatic, to make an impression, to seem strong. And that churn undermines everything he’s trying to portray — instead of coming across as the immaculate movie star,  he instead seems like someone who wants to be that. That imperfection and anxiety — trying to fight its way out —  makes Cruise interesting to watch when he’s doing his better work.

I also think somebody should make a biographical movie about Clift — God knows his life was dramatic — with Cruise playing him. Not that there’s a chance in Hell that either of these scenarios will ever happen. But it’s an intriguing notion.

And how dark “The Heiress” turns at its conclusion, which I’m watching now. De Havilland’s Catherine  a flower that turns to stone. Her bitterness is so well-polished it gleams. And that voice! Amused, broken, and finally as cruel as her own father’s was to her.

The final sequence is perfection — black as velvet, sharp as crystal. Morris, the fortune hunter, returns, his confidence a little shaken, but he’s trying to pull off the old seductive charm.  Catherine, in steely control, leads him to believe she has fallen again for his wiles.

At the end, she has locked the door against him. Her face a mask of implacable revenge, she climbs the stairs toward her room, and a life lived alone. Outside the door, Morris knocks, then knocks, realizing in growing panic that the door is closed to him forever.

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“Mad Men”: Don Draper Unmasked

Carin Baer

Photo/Carin Baer/AMC.com

After falling into a familiar mid-season vamping-’til-ready mode over the last few weeks, the third season of “Mad Men” ramped up for the approaching season finale with one of the best episodes ever. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the man who has navigated the tumult of the mid-20th century with uncanny skill, has hit the rocks.

As Dick Whitman, he was the come-from-nothing, hard-luck orphan (cue the wistful end credits tune, “Where Is Love?” from “Oliver!,” the musical adaptation of “Oliver Twist” that was a Broadway smash in 1963).

Sheer survival dictated Dick either develop predator-like skills or perish. Dick Whitman is, in fact, a figure trailing echoes of the Depression, and the rural life of manual labor and low expectations that World War II helped transform.

And then Don remade himself into that other mid-century archetype — glossy as a magazine ad, well-suited, well-groomed, well-married, as confident of his power as post-WW II America. Gone was the America of hardscrabble farmers and dugout homes on the prairie — here was the world beater, all tall buildings, and college educations and upward mobility.

Don Draper is a transformative figure, leaving the black-and-white memories of struggle hidden away in a box in a locked desk drawer. With that behind him, he’s now free to swagger in the colorful sunlight of the American Century. But the brawny U.S. of the postwar boom years was also the nation shaken by nuclear visions, terror of Communist invaders from within and without, and the knowledge that power and evil were sometimes one and the same.

And then it all comes crashing down. Long-suffering Betty (January Jones) finds Don’s secret self. Jon Hamm has already established himself as a compelling leading man — but his performance in this episode is heartbreaking. One by one, the layers of protective coloring he so skillfully constructed fall away: the man in control, the dominant husband, the unflappable success story, the self-contained loner keeping his own counsel. Underneath it all — always — was Dick Whitman, as human, flawed, vulnerable and pained as Don Draper was immaculately, artificially untouchable.

There’s been much folderol lately about whether “Mad Men” is overpraised, overanalyzed, over-fetished, etc., etc. And yes, January Jones seems all but incapable of suggesting inner life under her porcelain exterior. But this episode is a reminder that, at its best, “Mad Men” isn’t just good — it’s breathtaking.

And poor Miss Farrell slinks away in the night…

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