Ajax and wire hangers aside, I do have a special love for Miss Joan Crawford. One of the actresses I came to know backwards, my first introduction to her was the “Rodan versus Godzilla” that was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Young enough to be beyond terrified of the film’s title star, I had a child’s sympathy for Miss Crawford that somehow remains with me today. Despite what kind of mother she was offscreen, and regardless of what her diabolically-eyebrowed character is doing on-screen, I can’t help but delight in watching Crawford play Crawford.
As members of the Hollywood royal family were before her, apparently Miss Crawford was labeled “box office poison” prior to Mildred Pierce. This exact label has been shawled over so many great stars, that sometimes I wonder how much salt I should sprinkle on film history. In any event, the tale of a newly divorced housewife and her transition into a successful businesswoman grandly suited Miss Crawford and her shoulder pads, said to have revitalized a career that was losing its steam. Mildred does anything in her power to earn enough money to satisfy her spoiled daughter, played by a stealthily vicious Ann Blyth. The two actresses develop mesmerizing chemistry as mother and daughter, and you wire hanger fans out there will get a kick out Miss Crawford playing the all-concerned mother. Fear not, my friends — there’s a slap or two in this one…
After the first shadowy shot of Miss Crawford, I was ready to buy the DVD the following day… luckily a birthday and a “tell-me-what-you-want” friend came in handy. As Mildred walks through the shadows of a Southern California pier wearing her fur coat and hat, I think of a glorious time when all forms of “correctness” weren’t crammed down my throat… and I was born 35 years later! Don’t get me wrong; I love our furry friends and absolutely do not wish them any harm — a fur coat is just one of many decorations in the world of old movies; a world that feels less angry than the politically correct one surrounding me.
Judging from the look and tears on her face in this early scene, Mildred’s black-and-white world is perhaps not as pleasant as I see it… we know something has gone down, and before we have too much time to wonder, Jack Carson pops into the scene with a free drink — once again there’s that lovely drink and its sidekick the cigarette, making their cameos in so many beloved old movies. The Crawford face combined with the shadows that probably moved when she told them to (and of course that little ol’ dead body in the film’s opening scene), made me fall — and fall hard — for Mildred Pierce.
Dead bodies lead to cops, and oh, how I love the policemen in old movies. Guns that produce enormous amounts of smoke always provoke a call to headquarters, typically on a car radio the size of a bullhorn. And when we finally get down to headquarters or the station, the “cop classics” just keep on coming — detectives with fedoras, overalls, and a “drink-cigarette” combo that has become more of a “newspaper-cigarette” pairing… these ARE policemen, after all.
The police bring in Mildred for questioning about the dead body, and she cooperates fully, insisting that her daughter stays at home. As Mildred walks into the station and sits down, mimicking our own confusion about where all of this is going, my eyebrows unfurrow immediately when I see Eve Arden sitting in one of the chairs behind her. As Ida (Arden) roughly shakes off the cop holding her arm and tells him “Look, I bruise easy,” that deliciously brusque voice sets off an alarm in my childhood memory bank.
During my first time through Mildred Pierce, it took me an agonizing 20 seconds to place Miss Arden — fans of the movie Grease (1978) will remember her as Principal McGee of Rydell High. “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.” Yup, that’s Eve Arden. Unwilling to limit myself to a witch’s hat and cape, I also dove wig-first into Grease as a kid, brilliantly transforming a small blanket into the wig that Stockard Channing sports during “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” And trust me, our harmony together (Miss Channing’s and mine) was nothing to sneeze at. In Mildred Pierce, Miss Arden’s sassiness provides the film with some needed humor, and although she has the potential to steal scenes from the star, it seems like she was smart enough not to do so. As Jack Carson’s character gives her a lusty eye in one scene, she shoots back with “Leave SOMETHING on me; I might catch cold!” It was just enough to earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, up against costar Ann Blyth… neither went home with Oscar that night.
I can leave my Oscar Time Machine in the garage, as you Mommie Dearest fans may recall Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Miss Crawford winning Best Actress in a Leading Role from her bedroom. Too ill to attend the ceremony, her symptoms subsided as soon as her name was announced over the radio, and she ran to address her beloved fans. And she deserved it; Mildred Pierce is a classic that gives us not only the Crawford eyes, eyebrows, and shoulders but also the Crawford who holds our hand while we ride her roller coaster of emotions. As the mother who will stop at nothing to please a daughter incapable of being satisfied, Miss Crawford elegantly blazes through Mildred Pierce and encouraged me to explore a number of her other films.
So where do we go from here? Unavoidably for me, there’s only one direction in which to head after paying my respects to Miss Joan Crawford — I thought about saving it for later, but it’s best not to keep the crazies waiting…
Academy Award (1946) for Mildred Pierce: Best Actress in a Leading Role