Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Do They Have in Common?

I recently saw the following six films at the Castro Theater. Before the series, I couldn't have identified the common denominator between the films. The answer is Max Steiner who composed the original score for those films as well as Gone With the Wind and The Big Sleep. The Steiner films were part of the Castro ongoing "Legendary Composer" series.

Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth & Eve Arden; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1945)
The Letter starring Bette Davis & James Stephenson; directed by William Wyler; (1940)
White Heat starring James Cagney, Edmond O'Brien & Virginia Mayo; directed by Raoul Walsh; (1949)
Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan & the Bowery Boys; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1938)
King Kong starring Fay Wray & Bruce Cabot; (1933)
The Searchers starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood; directed by John Ford; (1956)

I can't remember the last time a classic film series entertained me more. I had seen King Kong and The Searchers on television before. Parts of Angels with Dirty Faces also looked familiar. Any familiarity I had with the films did not dampen my enthusiastic response.


Mildred Pierce was one of the most celebrated films of its era. It garnered six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Crawford for Best Actress and Arden & Blythe for Best Supporting Actress. Crawford won the Best Actress award which was deeply satisfying to her. Unceremoniously dropped by MGM in 1943, Crawford signed on with Warner Brothers where she competed with Bette Davis for parts. Davis was the first choice for Mildred Pierce but turned down the role. With the supporting roles cast, director Michael Curtiz forced Crawford to shoot screen tests for the role which was certainly not the way Hollywood stars were treated back in the day. Of course, Crawford's career was thought to be washed up so she was treated like a has-been bitch, but Crawford proved they were only half right. Mildred Pierce relaunched Crawford's career and put her back on top at the box office.

I've seen Mildred Pierce characterized as film noir. That's a bit of a stretch for me; tearjerker and melodrama are two labels I'd attach to Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce is the story of a conniving woman who lies, sleeps and betrays her way into getting what she wants. Amazingly, Crawford doesn't play that woman; Ann Blythe does. Crawford plays Mildred, the mother of Veda (Blythe). Pierce's character flaws are more selfless. Mildred is desperate for her daughter's affection and approval. Mildred being a successful restaurateur is too declasse for Veda to tolerate so Mildred marries a playboy (Zachary Scott) from a prominent family which has lost their wealth. Scott proceeds to empty Mildred's bank account and bed her daughter.

Crawford loses some of her appeal by playing the sacrificing mother. That's more than made up for by Ann Blythe. She looks like she could appear in an Andy Hardy film but her performance out bitches the Queen Bee at the best. By the time Crawford got to her bitchy stage, she looked like a middle aged, drag queen desperately trying to hang on. As Veda, Blythe looks like a sweet and well-scrubbed teenager but she's rotten to the core and we all know it by the end. Mildred Pierce should have made Ann Blythe a star.

Eve Arden provides some laughs in a smaller role as Mildred's wise-cracking assistant at the restaurant. The three main supporting actors play characters which give men a bad name. Bruce Bennett as Pierce's ex-husband is the least contemptible. Morose and taciturn, Mr. Pierce did his wife a favor by divorcing her although his strengths shine through by the end of the film. Jack Carson plays the lecherous and opportunistic financier who has long longed for Mildred and whom Mildred attempts to frame for murder. Finally, Zachary Scott is delightfully slimy as the amoral, gold digging 2nd husband of Mildred who can't help or attempt to change his distasteful nature.

I can't imagine how the story of Mildred Pierce could be adapted for modern day circumstances. Even the recent HBO mini-series was set in the 1930s. Mildred Pierce is a product of its era; the same era of Joan Crawford. The ending of the film differs from the novel which is again a product of the Hays Code era. Despite the 65 year span between the release of film and today, I was able to put aside my modern sensibilities and enjoy Mildred Pierce unequivocally.


Let me start by saying that Jimmy Cagney looks too old for his part as a crime gang leader in White Heat. A few weeks shy of fifty years old when he filmed the part, Cagney looks ridiculous paired up with the delicious Virginia Mayo as his wife. That's about all the criticism I can level at White Heat.

In White Heat, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a cold blooded gang leader who rules his gang through fear. His gang pulls off a train robbery in LA and Jarrett has the ultimate alibi. He cops to a lesser crime committed in Chicago at the same time. One of Jarrett's underworld allies pulled the job so Jarrett could plea to a lesser charge to alibi him with the train robbery in which two or three people were killed.

The downside is Jarrett has to do a two year stretch prison for the crime he confessed to. Jarrett could do the time standing on his head and he has his trusted mother to keep an eye on the stolen loot. Still, Jarrett has problems he hasn't even considered yet. The Feds put an Treasury agent undercover in Jarrett's cell. Going by the alias Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien), T-man Hank Fallon is anxious to put away Jarrett for the murder of a fellow agent. Adding to Jarrett's troubles is his roundheeled wife (Mayo) who takes up with Jarrett ambitious lieutenant, Big Ed (Steve Cochran). The two of them conspire to bump off Jarrett and his mother but are only half successful. If that's not enough, Jarrett has debilitating headaches and insanity runs in his family.

When Jarrett hears about his mother's death, he goes berserk in the prison mess hall (all-time classic scene). This results in him being taken to the prison infirmary which is an easier location to escape from. Having developed a rapport with Pardo, Jarrett takes him along when he escapes. Jarrett also takes along the prisoner who tried to kill him by dropping an engine block on his head. In another memorable scene, Jarrett asks the man (who is locked in the trunk of their car) if he can breathe. He replies it's kind of stuffy in the trunk to which Jarrett replies by emptying his revolver into the trunk ("I'll give you a little air").

After bumping off Bid Ed (whom Mayo has betrayed), Jarrett plans a payroll heist at a oil refinery. By now, Pardo is Jarrett's most trusted associate. When he discovers that Pardo is an undercover cop, it drives Jarrett over the edge which leads to the explosive climax.

The plot is standard caper fare but the performances by Cagney and Mayo are outstanding. Cagney has some decidedly oedipal feelings which seem to impair his relationship with his wife. Of course, Mayo's crass and vulgar Verna is a woman that should be handled at arms length. The two combined form one of the more dysfunctional cinematic couples from the period.

White Heat has this big, oversized performance from Cagney which gives the film an epic feel even though it is ultimately about a two-bit, psychotic, Mama's boy gangster. Lather on a tanker truck disguised as a Trojan horse and some other heist elements and White Heat reminded me of French New Wave film or an inspiration for Martin Scorsese.


The Letter & The Searchers deserve some space so I'll postpone my thoughts on them until next time.

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