Sunday, September 27, 2015

Flashback, September 1945: Who Murdered ‘Mildred Pierce’?

Warner Brothers was delighted to see that Mildred Pierce, which premiered 70 years ago this month in the U.S., fulfilled all its hopes as a comeback vehicle for leading lady Joan Crawford (pictured). But readers of the 1941 novel by James M. Cain might have had a far different reaction. After reviewing the characters and the plot, they would have legitimate reason to ask who had killed this book they had taken so to heart.

The question becomes more relevant today for home viewers of the five-hour 2011 HBO adaptation starring Kate Winslet. Free of heavy-handed censors, with no need to shoehorn the plot into a two-hour film that could accommodate double bills and restless audiences (not to mention reaffirm traditional views of morality and the proper role of the sexes), its creators could remain unusually faithful to its source material, even including sexually explicit scenes not commonly seen in the interwar period.

Cain himself was pleased with how Crawford embodied the all-too-loving mother at the center of his book, and Oscar voters agreed with him, as they voted her an Oscar—the only one of her long career. But, by inserting a killing into the plot, Warner Brothers turned the film, paradoxically, into exactly what Cain—one of the progenitors of “hard-boiled” crime fiction—was trying to transcend this time: the film noir genre. 

This was not completely—or even mostly—the fault of Warner Brothers. For two decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, directors and screenwriters worked in a creative straitjacket: the “Hays Code,” the rules to which the film industry bowed to ward off outside boycotts and censorship. It wasn’t enough that a nearly finished movie would be brought before this unit for its approval; in a preemptive move, studios screened material even in early stages, to smooth out problems that could develop later.

It didn’t matter how prominent a property or its creator was: if the screenplay violated one of the dicta of the Hays Code (e.g., crime doesn’t pay, no extramarital sex allowed), that book or play would have to run a gauntlet to make it onto the screen. Such works as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Henry Bellman’s Kings Row ended up onscreen in heavily compromised form, and Mildred Pierce was no exception.

Specifically, the title character’s “immoral activities” in the novel made her “unscreenable,” the studio’s general counsel, Roy Obringer, recalled in a 1949 memo reproduced in Inside Warner Brothers (1935-1951), a compendium of memos, letters and production reports from the studio. 

Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, Hollywood's censorship enforcement office, pointed to the novel’s inclusion of extramarital sex as among the “many sordid and repellent elements” that would make adapting this highly problematic.

That meant, for instance, that Mildred’s one-night stand with neighbor Wally Burgan, the former business partner of soon-to-be-ex-husband Bert, would raise immediate red flags. So would her weekend fling with a Pasadena playboy, which in the end got shortened to a midnight swim.

Right away, the idea that had drawn Cain to this material in the first place—a screenwriter friend’s suggestion that he write about "one story that never fails, the woman who uses men to gain her ends"—had been watered down.

Nor was this the end of this reengineering, which began with decisions forced by censors but soon proceeded to elements of plot and characterization far more extensive and creatively problematic. 

The man behind this was Jerry Wald, a producer not as well-known to the general public as Samuel Goldwyn or Irving Thalberg, but just as colorful—and, in his heyday, almost equally significant—as they were.

A former screenwriter of ferocious energy, Wald has sometimes been regarded as a possible inspiration for Sammy Glick in the blistering Hollywood satire, What Makes Sammy Run? But he had a wider cultural range than Budd Schulberg’s opportunistic anti-hero. His mind, as screenwriter-director Philip Dunne wrote in his 1980 memoir, Take Two, "was a magpie's nest crammed with situations, characters, and plot devices he had gleaned from his omnivorous reading of every writer from Euripides to Proust."

Roughly halfway through his time at Warner’s, the 33-year-old Wald now latched onto Mildred Pierce as the first movie that Crawford would carry at Warners—the studio to which she had decamped after realizing that her prior employer, MGM, saw her, in her late thirties, as a fading star. He would need all his story moxie to guide to the screen this quintessential “woman’s picture.”

Wald “does not develop a story from script to script in chronological fashion,” explained an assistant story editor at Warner’s, Tom Chapman. “He employs the services of a number of writers, many of them working without previous acquaintance with the work of others on the same script, in order that a full scale original contribution may be made by each writer. Mr. Wald organizes the story in his own mind on the basis of his selection and synthesizing of the work of the different writers. He must, therefore, be considered the originator and organizer of the story, regardless of a chronological line of development.”

Film aficionados will recognize that same almost maddening individual balancing of multiple story contributors in another Hollywood legend: David O. Selznick, as he steered Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind to the screen. With this kind of modus operandi, Wald has to be regarded as the prime suspect in determining who killed Mildred Pierce.

But before we convict him—or even decide if he had any accomplices—we should consider first the nature of the property being “murdered.”

There is a crime—not murder—in the book, but it is almost incidental to the tale’s themes: desire and the realities of class in the U.S. A Glendale, Calif., housewife who becomes a “grass widow” when she leaves her adulterous, unemployed husband, Mildred Pierce is forced to make a living to keep herself and her two daughters afloat. Finding herself in the Great Depression to be temperamentally unsuited for nearly every job she applies for, she leverages her ability to bake delicious pies into a thriving restaurant chain in the growing roadside landscape of Southern California.

But Mildred is like a distaff version of Theodore Dreiser’s George Hurstwood in the 1900 novel Sister Carrie: an able manager who falls vertiginously from a high economic perch through a disastrous sexual relationship. 

In Hurstwood’s case, his desire for the much-younger Carrie Meeber leads him not only to escape from his marriage, but to facilitate his flight by embezzling from the upscale Chicago saloon that he manages. On the other hand, to maintain her lover and eventual second husband, Monty, in the luxurious style to which he’s been accustomed all his life—and, even more important, maintaining the esteem of her snobby daughter Veda— Mildred keeps two sets of books for her eateries, with attendant calamity, both financially (she loses her business) and personally (this woman, once known for her gorgeous legs, ends up “thirty-seven years old, fat, and getting a little shapeless”).

The size of his two prior successes, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity combined, Mildred Pierce was Cain’s most ambitious work to date. It was not only his first novel written from the consciousness of a woman, but also his first foray out of crime fiction into a more realistic mode. Indeed, in its grim determinism, the novel verged into Dreiserian naturalism—perhaps not surprising, as he and Dreiser were lapsed Catholics who, though rejecting the authority of the Church, believed that greed and lust were as ineradicable in the human condition as original sin.

Mildred works fiercely hard, only to lose all she had worked for, ending up not only back in the lower middle class she had sought to rise from but even remarried to Bert. In contrast, Monty, depicted from his earliest encounter with Mildred as parasitic, survives, having found someone new to feed off. The message—that the rich, even though they contribute nothing useful to society, are far more likely to survive economic upheavals than the lower classes—was not lost on an America barely out of the Depression.

Eight different screenwriters labored over Mildred Pierce, including William Faulkner. If that seems a ridiculous amount of talent to devote to a literary property with some intrinsic worth, you’ll be dismayed to learn that Hollywood still assigns that many scribes to a single screenplay, even those of far less distinguished origin. (A comparable number of screenwriters worked on one of Tom Hanks’ less memorable films, Turner and Hooch.)

Each screenwriter added his or her own spin to the source material. Sole credit was awarded to Ranald MacDougall, who ended up writing along the lines envisioned by Wald: telling the story about the events leading up to a murder in flashback, much like Billy Wilder’s acclaimed version of Double Indemnity. MacDougall’s opening, by showing Mildred contemplating suicide over Monty’s death, could demonstrate immediately to the Hays Office that the title character was suffering for the sins about to be revealed.

Another screenwriter, Catherine Turney, had been asked to write for the film largely because she was a specialist in “women’s pictures.” Wald, in fact, would later credit her with “breaking the back of” the episodic novel by finding a structural narrative line. But even she seconded Cain’s objection to Warner that Wald’s murder and flashback devices represented “a very thin springboard into the story.” She ended up sidelined from the project because of this philosophical difference.

That difference, Turney and Cain realized, was hardly small. Cain described his work as “one woman’s struggle against a great social injustice—which is the mother’s necessity to support her children even though husband and community offer her not the slightest assistance.” The onscreen murder was not an alternative method of relating this story, he felt, but an unnecessary distraction from it.

(Wald had approached Cain himself about doing the adaptation, but the novelist—by now a screenwriter himself, for MGM—passed on the project. It might have been just as well, as he was uncomfortable with this massive change in the plot.)

It was not enough that the army of scribes employed by Wald deleted anything from their treatments that could provoke the Breen Office. No, they also, at the producer’s instigation, set about making Mildred and other characters more sympathetic. 

Thus, Mildred’s friend and sounding board Lucy Gessler is eliminated, with her function assumed by a character left from the book, the waitress Ida (embodied memorably onscreen by Eve Arden, who practically invented a film archetype: the wisecracking Best Female Friend). Bert, who in the novel did not see through Veda until too late, is given in the film an early line where he warns Mildred about spoiling their daughter. Mildred herself is transformed from a lower-middle-class woman into an upper-middle-class one victimized by circumstance, and—more significantly—from a mother shockingly grateful that death has taken her younger daughter rather than favorite Veda into a parent simply and understandably shattered by her loss.

The effect of all of this was to sandpaper the sharp edges off any character even relatively close to winning the audience’s affection and to allow not a single grace note for the two villains, Monty and Veda. The change is particularly pronounced—and objectionable—in the case of Veda.

Only with the greatest reluctance did Turney go along with Wald’s insistence that Veda be turned from a world-class opera diva into a no-talent nightclub singer. She was right to drag her heels on this. 

It was not only because Cain wrote with considerable knowledge about classical music (both his mother and one of his wives were opera singers), nor even because Veda’s talent allows people to see her, however briefly, as recognizably human, but also because her gifts explain much about the character’s motivation.

Take, for instance, this scene from the book, a dialogue between Veda's imperious opera teacher and Mildred--a set of lines jettisoned in the 1945 film, but retained in the HBO mini-series. Ignore, as much as you can, the stereotypical broken-English Italian dialect, and focus on what is actually being said, which is anything but funny:

“You go to a zoo, hey? See little snake? Is come from India, is all red, yellow, ver’ pretty little snake. You take ‘home, hey? Make little pet, like puppy dog? No—you got more sense. I tell you, is same wit’ Veda. You buy ticket, you look at a little snake, but you no take home. No.”

“Are you insinuating that my daughter is a snake?”

“No—is a coloratura soprano, is much worse. A little snake, loves mamma, do what papa tells, maybe, but a coloratura soprano, love nobody but own goddamn self. Is son-bitch-bast’, worse than all a snake in the world. Madame, you leave dees girl alone.”

In other words, in all her unrelenting snobbery and desire for the finest things in life, Veda displays the sense of entitlement so often felt by the inordinately gifted and talented--in this case, to proportions dangerous even to those who care for her most.

But there is another aspect to coloratura sopranos that Cain could not make explicit at this point in his plot. NPR contributor Tom Huizenga explained in 2011 that they are blessed with “supreme agility and glass-shattering high notes.” For Veda, that “agility” is hardly confined to the opera stage. It characterizes a cunning that can capitalize on almost any unexpected event and turn it to her adventure, as we learn at several points in the plot.

On the big screen, the teenaged Ann Blyth was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Veda. But, because of the limits placed on her character by Wald, Blyth can’t do much more than portray her as simply petulant. 

Cain’s vision of her talent, in contrast, permitted infinitely greater complexity—and the chilling realization, as the novel ends, that an entertainer of great talents and sociopathic instincts was about to be let loose on the world. That is just one reason why Laura Lippman, in a 2006 essay for Slate, writes that Cain’s book “delivers much more of a wicked kick than expected, especially if you've been raised on the saccharine pieties of the film.”

In one sense, though, Lippman is being a little hard on the film. Its sleek storytelling and slick production values can be appreciated on their own terms. Critic James Agee noted that the most interesting part of the film was not its mystery format but its focus on class. Moreover, in a country that had just gotten used to Rosie the Riveter, it struck a chord with a public awakening to the thought of competent female performance in the workplace, and in more recent decades it has even been regarded as proto-feminist. 

But greater creative freedom and the more hospitable environment of cable TV have allowed modern viewers to appreciate Mildred Pierce on Cain’s own terms, at last.

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