Queens of Noir Series: Miss Claire Trevor

Warner Brothers Starlet Claire Trevor

She has been called the “granddam of noir” by none other than premier film noir historian Eddie Muller. The reason behind this designation is probably because Claire Trevor starred as the femme fatale in some of the best examples of the dark genre ever to come out of Hollywood.

Long before she earned this title, Claire Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger) grew up in New York City, the only child of a Fifth Avenue tailor and his wife. Always drawn to the arts, the young woman attended classes at Columbia and then spent half a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Claire landed a contract with Warner Bros. at the age of twenty, after working in repertory and stock theater for a couple of years. Throughout the 1930s, the young actress starred in shorts and played hard-luck ladies in a string of B pictures at the studio best known for yanking its subject matter straight from the day’s headlines.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Claire became the depraved female centerpiece in a succession of some of the finest film noir offerings to be put on a strip of celluloid, and with each new picture, lucky fans got to watch the actress stretch her acting muscles with ever-increasing skill until she inhabited each heart-stopping role completely.

Street of Chance (1942)

“I’m not bad. I’m not a killer.”

—Ruth Dillon

Claire’s first foray into film noir was the rather run-of-the-mill crime drama Street of Chance. Burgess Meredith co-stars as amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wakes up in the middle of a construction site on a street he doesn’t know, eventually locating a wife he hasn’t lived with for over a year. Determined to find out why he is being followed, Frank goes back to the street named Chance and is recognized by a beautiful blonde (Trevor) who tells him to get the hell inside—doesn’t he realize that he is wanted by the cops? After discovering that he is wanted for the murder of the very social Harry Diedrich, Frank decides to go to the Diedrich estate to try and clear his name.

Turns out that Ruth Dillon, the beautiful blonde, works as a maid for the Diedrich family and doesn’t want to return to the scene of the crime, pleading with Frank to run away with her instead. While trading barbs with the murder victim’s brother and his wife, Frank discovers that Grandma Diedrich, mute and unable to move, is trapped in a claustrophobic room upstairs but knows “who done it.” After hiding in the family’s greenhouse for a couple of days, Frank develops a way of communicating with old Mrs. Diedrich and learns that Ruth is the killer! Pulling a gun on her boyfriend, the maid coolly lets him know that she knifed Harry to death because he caught her stealing money for the couple’s marriage nest egg. Like a host of other femme fatales before her, Ruth dies in her lover’s arms after a struggle for the gun.

As if finding her way around the role of Ruth Dillon, Trevor completely underplays the laconic murderess. With little of the fire that she brings to her later noir roles, Trevor seems to sleepwalk through this picture, displaying only a glimmer of the diamond hardness she would soon become famous for.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“I haven’t been good. Not halfway good, but I need your help.”

—Velma Valento/Helen Grayle

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, this noir begins with detective Philip Marlowe’s search for a singing tootsie named Velma Valento. Signaling a successful career makeover for her co-star Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet casts Claire as the thoroughly blonde Helen Grayle—a lady with a truly remarkable set of pins that go from “here” all the way into next week. Married to a wealthy and much older man, the icy Mrs. Grayle just happens to be the unlucky dame who claims that her priceless jade necklace was pinched, and Marlowe is hired to find it.

The always laconic Marlowe finds himself wading through dead bodies, hit over the head, drugged, and falling for Helen’s stepdaughter, Anne (earnestly portrayed by the pretty Anne Shirley). He soon uncovers a racket in which a likable but slithering psychic teams with thugs to separate well-heeled women from their jewels. To nobody’s surprise, Marlowe discovers that it’s the cool Mrs. Grayle who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Amthor, the psychic, has been blackmailing Helen Grayle, and she initially agrees to part with her necklace but ends up keeping it for herself, offing the guy who is supposed to retrieve it for her. After the man who has been searching for Helen accidentally kills her blackmailer, the resourceful lady pulls a gun on Marlowe because he knows too much, but ends up getting pumped full of led by her long-suffering husband instead. The ever-obliging Mr. Grayle knocks off his wife’s blackmailer only to get himself killed in a struggle for the gun. As sometimes happens in film noir, Anne and Marlowe ride off into the murky darkness.

To say that Trevor plays it cool in this one would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. One can almost hear the inner click of her steel-trap mind as she manipulates every man who is unfortunate enough to cross her path, but it is as the grasping Helen that Trevor comes into her own as a femme fatale. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come.

Born to Kill (1947)

“Most men are turnips.”

—Helen Brent

The cold-blooded Born to Kill is arguably one of the finest examples of film noir ever to hit the silver screen. In it, Trevor plays the always-knowing and rabidly selfish Helen Brent, a smart-as-a-whip dame who considers most men “turnips.” Her leading man for this outing is the high-strung bad boy Lawrence Tierney, who handles the role of the aptly named Sam Wilde as if he’s playing a schizophrenic game of Russian roulette.

After getting divorced in Reno, Helen discovers the mangled bodies of Sam’s girlfriend Laury (played ably in a marvelous star turn by character actress Isabel Jewell) and the boyfriend she’s been running around with just to make him jealous. Because reporting a double murder is always so messy, Helen wisely decides to leave town rather than inform the police. After meeting Sam on the train, Helen sees him as an “assured” man who knows what he wants—definitely not of the turnip variety, she reasons.

Unfortunately for Helen, her new love interest has a screw loose. Sam thinks it’s “feasible” to kill anyone who does him wrong for any reason. As a matter of fact, he’ll kill anyone who “makes a monkey” out of him. But the ever-resourceful Helen has a trick or two up her designer sleeve. She’s going to marry the owner of the Grover Steel Company. To this end, she returns to San Francisco and the comfort of her fiancé’s dependable arms.

Throwing a monkey wrench into her well-calculated existence, Wilde shows up on Helen’s doorstep, and she can only seethe while she watches Sam woo and then marry her wealthy stepsister, Georgia. Just to badger him, Helen accuses Sam of “having a secret.” Too late, the former Mrs. Brent realizes that Sam is the murderer of the couple in Reno and that she and Sam are kindred spirits.

Trevor attacks this role with all the steely aplomb of a Beverly Hills society matron planning a dinner party for a hundred. She is the ultimate cool customer when she meets with the dead Laury’s friend Mrs. Kraft in order to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions about Sam. “Perhaps you don’t realize,” Helen threatens icily, “it’s painful getting killed. A piece of metal sliding through your body…”

In order to save her bankbook and her soul, Helen runs back to her fiancé, Fred, but he’s had enough of her shenanigans and gives her the gate. Realizing that Sam doesn’t want her either, Helen coolly tries to get him to kill her stepsister, Georgia. But Sam turns on Helen when he figures out that she has squealed on him, and just to pay her back, he riddles her with bullets.

Raw Deal (1948)

“A girl can’t trust a guy—even when he’s locked up in the pen.”

—Pat Regan

Claire Trevor plays Pat Regan, a hard-luck dame who will do anything to keep her jailbird boyfriend in her arms, in RKO’s noir thriller Raw Deal, co-starring the incredibly likable Dennis O’Keefe, with pretty and sincere Marsha Hunt as the third point of their shaky love triangle.

While Pat assiduously works her underworld connections to get her man sprung from the big house, social worker Ann Martin (Hunt) is doing her best to get Joe Sullivan to cop to the error of his crooked ways and fly right. You see, Joe is in the slammer under false pretenses. He’s taking the rap for rotund mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), who is doing everything he can to see to it that Joe goes six feet under.

Unable to listen to Ann’s oh-so-eloquent pleas, but attracted to her sweet prettiness just the same, Joe follows Pat’s lead and escapes stir only to find that he’s on the run from not just the cops but his former boss as well. The usual “on the lam” scenario unfolds as Pat and Joe find themselves escaping with the hapless Ann in tow because they need her set of wheels. Pat finds Ann’s insipid begging for Joe to go straight nauseating, to say the least, and one gets the idea that Trevor’s version of the character would happily push her competition down a bottomless ravine in a heartbeat. Indeed, Trevor gives the impression that Pat is completely without sympathy for anybody but Joe. After all, hasn’t life given her a swift kick or two on her shapely backside more than once?

The hapless Ann gets herself kidnapped by Rick, but when Pat finds out, she doesn’t tell Joe. Instead, she boards a ship bound for the honeymoon she’s always dreamed of—a honeymoon with Joe. As doesn’t often happen in film noir, Pat is reformed by her love for Joe and cops to the truth about Ann. Joe moves in to rescue Ann of course, and the social worker ends up proving her love for him by shooting his attacker dead. After tangling with Rick and a fire, Joe dies in Ann’s arms while Pat looks on, her arm cuffed to a waiting policeman. All of the pain that her character is feeling in that moment is present in Claire Trevor’s eyes.

Key Largo (1948)

“Honey, have you been cryin’? Why? Has somebody been mean to you?”

—Gaye Dawn

A topflight production from the get-go, Key Largo stars none other than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their final pairing, the two are more than deftly supported by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and in a tour de force performance, Miss Claire Trevor as the hopelessly alcoholic gangster’s moll Gaye Dawn.

Directed by powerhouse John Huston, Largo is the tale of a hotel owner (Barrymore) and his widowed daughter (Bacall) who are trapped not only by a hurricane but also at gunpoint by Robinson and his gang of thugs. Johnny Rocco (Robinson) has just escaped from prison and plans on holding everyone prisoner in the hotel until the storm passes and he can sail away. Bogart is a guest who stumbles into the middle of this mess and finds that he is forced to be a reluctant hero in the face of the gangster’s unrelenting verbal abuse and violence—much of it directed at the hapless Miss Dawn. Indeed, one gets the idea that Rocco brought his former girlfriend along just so that he could have someone to kick around. Indeed, Rocco’s disgust with her alcoholism is palpable every second Claire is on the screen.

In a scene that likely led Miss Trevor to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the actress pleads for a drink with such pathetic vulnerability that it breaks your heart. Every emotion wandering around in Gaye Dawn’s head registers perfectly in Trevor’s eyes, and at one point, she looks at the alcohol swimming in her shot glass as if it will save her very life.

When Rocco offers to give his lover a drink only if she’ll warble “Moanin’ Low” for the assembled company, each note that escapes her scratched throat is an open wound, and we are invited to watch her self-destruct right before our eyes. Since Rocco snatches every shred of dignity from her without the slightest hint of remorse, it is completely fitting that it is Gaye—begging to escape with Rocco on the boat out of Key Largo in a gesture of utter self-immolation—who steals the gun that will kill him.

With a film noir lineup of parts like these, it is easy to see why Claire Trevor has been described as the queen of noir. She embodied the spirit of the femme fatale in all of its twisted glory in role after role on the big screen. It is for this reason alone that the actress deserves the title above few others.

The Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Bennett

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Joan Bennett and Walter Pidgeon defy the Nazis in Man Hunt

The daughter of an acting dynasty, Joan Bennett was the middle child of theatrical matinee idol Richard Bennett and the sister of 1930s movie diva and fashion icon Constance Bennett. Never believing she was much of an actress, Joan simply fell into the family business, like the daughter of a grocer landing behind the counter of the family store.

Her first roles were on stage with her temperamental father, but by the early 1920s the beautiful blond was appearing on screen in small parts and the 1930s ushered in stardom with several showcase vehicles including the part of Amy in Little Women (1933) and Kay Karigan in the mammoth Trade Winds (1938).

The star of over forty films before entering the next decade of her life, Joan was always incandescent on screen, but seemed to hold a part of herself back, never able to get past her finishing school manners and cut velvet voice.

Despite the success that came with being a “movie star,” Miss Bennett (now a gorgeous brunette) wanted to be seen as a real actress. The opportunity to stretch her acting muscles finally came with her third husband, independent producer Walter Wanger and their partnership with the German directing genius Fritz Lang. The trio was part of Joan’s independent production apparatus, Diana Productions, and their focus became film noir. The genre would change the trajectory of the actress’ career.

While many of Bennett’s past directors had allowed the beautiful actress to glide effortlessly through performances on her looks, Lang demanded that Joan bring the characters she was playing to life on screen. A detail-oriented, methodical film-maker, Lang put the actress through her paces by making her undergo take after take until she finally got it right. Sensing that the German director was getting a more honest and genuine performance out of her, Joan never complained about all the hard work, and the results are mesmerizing.

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Man Hunt:

The team’s first outing was Man Hunt (1941) in which Bennett starred as Jerry Stokes, a beautiful cockney prostitute/seamstress who rescues a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler from the clutches of the Germans. Effortlessly essaying the hooker with the heart of fourteen carat gold, Bennett is luminous as the self-sacrificing Jerry who gives her own life to save the man she loves.

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Joan Bennett shines as Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt

Joan attacks her role with obvious relish. The pain fairly oozes from her every pore as she begs the rather cavalier Walter Pidgeon (as stalwart sharp-shooter Captain Allen Thorndike) to allow her to join him on the run from the Nazis who want to make him admit he tried to gun down Hitler. Her enormous eyes fill the screen, her each and every look begging Thorndike to love her. This was a Joan Bennett movie-goers had never seen before.

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Joan Bennett ensnares Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window:

In 1944, Wanger’s independent International Pictures featured Woman in the Window, a film noir thriller in which Bennett’s character Alice Reed pulls sedentary middle-aged college professor Richard Wanley (beautifully underplayed by frequent Bennett co-star Edward G. Robinson) into a dark whirlpool of deception and murder. When Robinson spies the real life model for the painting of the ravishing woman he’s been drooling over for weeks standing in front of a gallery window, he readily agrees to accompany her to her apartment to “see her sketches.” Once inside, Wanley finds himself mistaken for Miss Reed’s latest conquest by her current flame. Violence ensues as the professor stabs the intruder to death with a pair of scissors.

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Miss Bennett as the cool and calculating Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window

Window gave Joan what she really craved—the opportunity to submerge her off-screen personality almost completely in the character of the relentlessly cool Alice. Through dulcet tones, the actress delivers a gentle caress to her victim with every word. During the murder and its aftermath Bennett gets past herself enough to utter the breathless cries of a woman who is desperate to extricate herself from the situation, sliding quickly into brittle hardness when she convinces Wanley to get rid of the body of her lover.

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Scarlet Street:

1945 brought the riveting noir Scarlet Street. This Diana Productions offering gave Joan the opportunity to do some of the finest acting of her career. As the carelessly grasping Kitty March, Bennett owns the screen. We see none of Joan’s usual finishing school airs and graces here. Kitty is nothing more than a grifter and a tart and the actress pulls out all the stops to let us know. A silky whine slips from her red lips with all the self indulgence of a wronged street walker.

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Joan Bennett gives the performance of her career in the noir classic Scarlet Street

 

Robinson again plays Bennett’s victim in Street. A henpecked low-level clerk who’s a weekend painter, Christopher Cross falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Kitty while she calmly extracts every bit of dough she can from him, ultimately convincing him to bankroll a swank apartment for her and her rancid boyfriend (Dan Duryea) complete with a studio in which Cross can paint. After showing Christopher’s work to an art dealer, Kitty claims to be the artist when she finds out his paintings will bring her a pretty penny. The professor is pathetically happy to allow Kitty to take credit for his work, but when Chris finds Kitty in the arms of Duryea, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

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Miss Bennett seduces Edward G. Robinson as the grasping Kitty March in Scarlet Street

The Secret Beyond the Door:

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The final Bennett/Wanger/Lang production was the silly The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is a melodramatic tale of a clueless bride (Bennett) married to a murderous husband who hides the truth about his serial killer tendencies behind (you guessed it) a secret locked door in his dark and moody family castle. Diana Productions needn’t have bothered. This gothic vehicle was a complete wast of celluloid.

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Joan Bennett is up to her old acting tricks in the inane Secret Beyond the Door

Apparently aware that she was starring in a turkey, Joan falls back on her usual lady of the manor persona in portraying the breathlessly naïve Celia Lamphere. The actress is far better in the later Hollow Triumph (1948) and the Hitchcock-like Reckless Moment (1949).

The noir era of Miss Bennett’s career ended (most appropriately) with a gunshot. Her husband Walter Wanger shot the private parts of the actress’ agent Jennings Lang in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Apparently, the independent producer was sure his beautiful wife was having an affair with Lang. She claimed she wasn’t. Amazingly, Bennett came to her husband’s defense and refused to divorce him—that is until fourteen years later.

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Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger on the set of the disastrous Secret Beyond the Door

Scandalous or not, Joan Bennett became an actress when she began to appear in film noir vehicles under the tutelage of Fritz Lang. The breathtaking star cemented her place in cinema history by being part of them.

A Joan Crawford Picture: MGM vs. Warners

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Crawford plays the villainous Crystal Allen in The Women (1939).

Crawford at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924 – 1943)

Few could question the fact that movie legend Joan Crawford had a fabulous career, one that far outstripped many of her contemporaries. While Garbo and Shearer faded from view, Crawford moved, with sure foot, onward (and usually upward) gallantly trying on, and often dazzling in, new roles and genres of film.

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Joan impresses in her finest performance at Metro in A Woman’s Face.

Any perusal of Miss Crawford’s work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer uncovers quite a few excellent films and performances, including Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939) Susan and God (1940), Strange Cargo (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941). In these, Joan expertly navigates from “little stenographer” to shopgirl to flippantly religious society matron, hooker and finally (and deliciously) the conniving home wrecker. But the standout among such star turns is the actresses’ worn-down yet bitter portrayal of thief and con artist Anna Holm whose face has been nearly destroyed by fire. Indeed, Face was Joan’s last “good” film at the “Tiffany of Studios.”

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The Bride Wore Red was one of Crawford’s less than impressive outings at MGM.

Despite these entries, many Crawford offerings churned out by Metro were shallow, repetitive and often silly. Examples of this fare include: Love on the Run (1936), The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1937), The Bride Wore Red (1937), and Ice Follies of 1939 to say nothing of the real clinkers Crawford was saddled with because the studio was trying to force her out such as Reunion in France (1942), and the all but incomprehensible Above Suspicion (1943). Despite the flimsiness of many Crawford vehicles manufactured in the the early through mid-1930’s, the actress never “phoned in” a performance but often seemed more like an actress “playing” a part than “becoming” a character.

At the risk of being roundly chastised by all of Joan’s religiously faithful fans for such blasphemy, this is not to say that these vehicles aren’t often thoroughly entertaining and that they sometimes gave the star a chance to exercise her acting chops, but Joan’s work at Warners was often more entertaining and dynamic, while allowing the mature leading lady to prove she could be a real actress (as apposed to movie star with a capital “S”) given the right material.

Crawford at Warners (1943 – 1952)

After being unceremoniously dropped by Metro, it took Crawford all of two days (or weeks depending on the source) to ink a new contract at Warner Brothers. While her price dropped at the less prestigious studio, the actress knew that if she made the right script choices she could not only get her career back on track but allow it to thrive. In fact, Joan was so determined that her first starring vehicle at Warners be the right one, she didn’t appear in front of a camera for the next two years, barring a couple of cameos. She even told Jack Warner to take her off salary rather than make a bad picture.

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Crawford gets her first chance to shine in her Oscar-winning performance in Warner’s classic film noir, Mildred Pierce.

Finally, Joan got her hands on the script for Mildred Pierce (1945). Even Bette Davis turned this one down because she didn’t want to the mother of a teenaged daughter. The noir offering gave Joan a chance to demonstrate abject maternal self-sacrifice complete with tears pooling in those enormous orbs she was so famous for. A sterling performance and some creative self-promotion insured a best actress Oscar for Joan. The win was also a direct result of Joan’s now being a valued (and supported) part of the Warner Brother’s stable of stars.

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Joan gives a stellar performance as the unstable Louise Howell in Warner’s Possessed.

Crawford went directly from Mildred to Humoresque (1946) in which she played the unstable alcoholic Helen Wright who ends her troubles by walking into the sea. Her riveting performance had all of Hollywood saying Academy Award and Crawford in the same breath for the second time in a year. Joan followed this on-screen triumph with another when she played Louise Howell, a nurse who becomes obsessed by the man she loves, and unhinged when she shoots him dead in a fit of jealousy. Joan gave what is arguably her finest performance in Possessed (1947). She walks the tightrope between madness and sanity, giving a beautifully layered portrayal that garnered the actress another Oscar nomination.

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Crawford sizzles in Warner’s Flamingo Road.

Although Joan wasn’t thrilled about playing carny girl Lane Belamy in Flamingo Road (1949), the role fit her like a glove and while not a masterpiece, Flamingo is an excellent noir that ends with Crawford gunning down the rotund Sydney Greenstreet (and there’s nothing better than that)! The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) rounds out Crawford’s winning streak at Warner Brothers. This vehicle isn’t great cinema either, but it is a really good story that moves at breakneck speed and Crawford is great in it. Damned opens with Joan as a household drudge who leaves her blue-collar husband for life in the big city. Within minutes, Crawford becomes a “dress model,” then a gangsters moll and finally, a society matron funded by the mob. To no one’s surprise, in the final reel, Joan gets shot for her pains. Clawing her way through this blistering melodrama from the first foot of film to the last, Damned is the ultimate Crawford vehicle.

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Joan dazzles in the ultimate Crawford vehicle in the Warner’s crime drama, The Damned Don’t Cry.

Joan was so good at playing these gritty, down-on-their-luck and troubled characters because they came close to who she really was under the skin. The young Lucille LeSueur was no stranger to hard times and taking desperate measures to survive in the world. Joan Crawford learned to use these experiences to influence her finest performances on screen. And some of the best of these came from the gritty and fast-paced world of Warner Brothers, not the hothouse environment at MGM.

Mildred Pierce: Noir or Not?

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When I read fellow blogger and New York Times Bestselling author Debbi Mack’s excellent review of Mildred Pierce, I got an idea. Ms. Mack’s “I Found It at the Movies Blog” asked (and answered) a series of questions about the film in order to figure out why the classic melodrama might be a noir or “black” film:

 Q:Was the picture a film noir because Mildred is a strong-minded, independent business woman whose success threatened the masculinity of the men in her life?

A: It could be, but probably not.

 Q:Was it because Mildred’s sweet younger daughter Kay  croaks while the conniving Veda not only lives but manages to thrive?

A: Nope.

 Q:Was Mildred a film noir because Veda is a bitch on wheels?

A:Perhaps.

Q:Because Mildred tries to take the fall when Veda snuffs out the life of her lover?

A:Questions, questions.

 Q:Then again, Mildred Pierce has a relatively happy ending (unusual in a film noir) in that Mildred and Bert get back together. Was this a factor in the film noir equation?

The results were inconclusive, but Mack highly recommended Mildred to her readers.

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While no expert on film noir, Mildred and its status in the category gelled for me after reading Debbi’s blog.

A little background:

Film noir began to surface after World War II because the candy-coated world presented by many pre-war films suddenly didn’t fit the perception that post-war Americans had of life. Americans had been through the horrors of world war. They now wanted to see films of a darker nature on their movie screens, films they felt were more apt to reflect their current reality.

The case for Mildred Pierce as a Film Noir:

Besides its murky lighting and often rain-slick streets, Mildred Pierce is a film noir because it reflects the general dissatisfaction and human restlessness which fuels all film noir. From the moment the picture opens Mildred expresses her resignation with her lot as a mother trapped in a bad marriage to a feckless husband. Mildred’s husband Bert is unhappy in his marriage and his life in general. While Mildred’s daughter Veda is pleased with herself, she is certainly miserable living a lower-middle-class existence.

Other dark themes threaded throughout the picture include over-weening selfishness, rampant greed and opportunism (Monte Beragon marries Mildred for her money and then betrays her by selling off his part ownership of her business. Wally Fay forces Mildred out of her own company. Veda is willing to murder Monte just because he throws her over and will do anything to live the high life).

While I believe that Mildred Pierce falls into the film noir category, it is a truly unusual example of the genre. It’s unique because a woman is at its center. In most film noir, this spot is occupied by a man. This man, while essentially decent, is flawed and in the thrall of a femme fatale. The same can be said of Mildred.

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At the eye of the storm that is a film noir is the femme fatale. Veda Pierce fits the bill perfectly. Like a well-oiled machine, she reaches out for everything she can get with both grasping hands, all the while heaping equal parts ridicule and tooth-decaying sweetness on her hapless mother, depending on what she needs from her at the moment.

The final piece of the noir puzzle falls into place when we examine the poison relationship between Mildred and Veda. Like most noir heroes (in this case heroine), Mildred is hopelessly caught in the intricate web of lies spun by her daughter.

Desperate to please her oldest child, Mildred places Veda’s needs above her own in situation after situation. While Mildred makes a dizzying success of her roast chicken restaurant chain, she probably would’ve remained a successful (and perhaps, contented) waitress if Veda hadn’t openly jeered at her mother’s profession and constantly pressed Mildred to give her everything money can buy. Mildred marries the “veddy” social leech Monte Beragon not only to lure Veda back into her life but to place her at the center of California society as well. Mildred even neglects her younger daughter in favor of the older.

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Mildred Pierce is a film noir, if an unusual example of the genre. Whatever its genre, it’s an excellent film for about a hundred other reasons, including a stellar cast. Joan Crawford nabbed herself an Academy Award for her work as Mildred, and the sixteen-year-old Ann Blyth gives a deliciously evil performance as Veda, not to mention the excellent work of Zachary Scott as the slimy Monte Beragon. It’s a cinematic experience I thoroughly enjoy over and over again and recommend that you do too.

I’d like to give special thanks to Debbi Mack for giving me permission to use our discussion of her blog as the inspiration for this one. You can visit Debbi’s blog at: debbimacktoo.wordpress.com.

Hollywood Mothers: Bette vs. Joan

 

Gallons of ink, acres of newsprint, miles of typewriter ribbon and now, thousands of printer cartridges have been used to discuss Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and their parenting practices. Indeed, entire books dedicated to the negative aspects of the two women as mothers were written by their daughters. While agreeing that the truth about the accusations outlined in these books is probably somewhere in the middle of the “good/bad parenting” spectrum, the positive aspects of both star’s approaches to motherhood often go unexamined.

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Joan Crawford and Motherhood:

Joan Crawford grew up unwanted by her mother and without knowing who her father was.

By the time Joan Crawford decided that the demands of her movie career could be balanced with motherhood, she was a mature woman and unable to have children of her own. Working with her attorney and sometimes lover, Greg Bautzer, the movie star adopted her daughter Christina and soon after, her son Christopher. The first order of business for the movie star was to find her babies a suitable father. Joan “tested” a host of candidates for the role, settling on the kind, but rather ineffectual actor Philip Terry. Years passed before Joan decided to adopt two infant girls she called “the twins.” (Whether the two babies were actually twins is up for debate). The adoption of these cherubs just happened to coincide with Bette Davis giving birth to a beautiful baby girl.

While Joan was often preoccupied with making sure her children didn’t turn out to be spoiled Hollywood brats, she also worked hard to make sure that they had the happy childhood she never experienced. She often had her children on the set and would take them with her on location, especially if she thought they would enjoy the trip. When she was in Arizona filming the western Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan made sure her son Christopher came along because she knew he was obsessed with cowboys and horses. She even sent him to a nearby dude ranch for a week near the end of the shoot.

When Joan wasn’t making a picture, she enjoyed piling her four children and their dog into the family station wagon for cross-country road trips or a picnic complete with soda pop and a triple-layer chocolate cake. After Joan wed fourth husband, Pepsi president Alfred Steele, the Crawford family traveled around the world (often for the company), but always in first class. During the hot California summer nights, Joan and her four kids also had impromptu camp-outs in sleeping bags by the pool.

Years later, when Christina Crawford wanted to become an actress, Joan called in every favor she could to get her oldest daughter jobs on television and in movies. The star also allowed Christina to live in her California apartment rent free shortly before her daughter began working on the book that would destroy Joan’s reputation as a mother permanently.

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Bette Davis and Motherhood:

Bette Davis grew up her mother’s favorite, but abandoned by her father.

A beautifully blond baby girl was born to film star Bette Davis on May 1, 1947, and one of the most important relationships of Bette’s life began. Both the fact that little Barbara Davis (nicknamed B.D. by her famous mother) was an only child for the first three years of her life, and the fact that B.D. was the only child her mother would give birth to, served to tie the two together with unbreakable bonds—at least in Bette’s mind.

Miss Davis took her daughter with her wherever she went throughout B.D.’s childhood. Always a bright little girl, Bette celebrated the fact that her daughter was equipped with a mind of her own. In fact, when B.D. was eleven years old, Miss Davis threw a huge birthday party for her and declared to one and all that little Barbara was “now an adult.”

In fact, by the time she was twelve, B.D. had become a not only a smart and beautiful young girl but a sometimes model as well. With such a “fast-tracked” existence, it is not surprising that the young woman fell madly in love with twenty-nine year old studio executive and Englishman, Jeremy Hyman. In keeping with her feeling that B.D. always knew her own mind, Bette reluctantly consented to her daughter’s early marriage even though she originally envisioned B.D. sharing her entire life with her doting mother. B.D. and Jeremy were wed in a ceremony fit for a Hollywood princess (courtesy of Bette) when B.D. was but sixteen.

When Bette Davis wed her handsome All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill in 1950, one of his conditions was that the couple adopt. Since Merrill wanted a son, a blond, blue-eyed baby boy they named Michael was adopted shortly after their marriage. While Gary was away on location, Bette took it upon herself to adopt baby Margot, who rounded out the Merrill family. While the Davis/Merrill marriage ended in divorce after ten years, Bette did her best to give her children a loving and normal family life, making family meals and doing her own housekeeping when she wasn’t making a film.

Little Margot would undergo a tragic accident resulting in a head-injury that left her intellectually disabled for the rest of her life. Bette and Gary eventually decided to put their daughter in a special school, but while she sometimes lost patience with her youngest daughter’s behavior, Bette did her best to keep Margo with her whenever she could. While Michael Merrill was closer to his father than his mother, Bette was exceedingly proud of her handsome son who eventually became an attorney.

In later years, Bette loved to invite her children, their spouses and her grandchildren to her home for family weekends, planning activities and preparing lavish meals for their enjoyment. While these gatherings were not without their conflicts, the film star tended to forget any problems between visits and couldn’t wait to host her family again when the opportunity arose.

Always feeling that her children (particularly B.D.) deserved the best that life had to offer, Miss Davis worked long past retirement age in order to underwrite her children’s lives, even after B.D. wrote My Mother’s Keeper, the tell-all that would emotionally crush her mother.

The Maker of the Most Glamorous Films of the Fifties and Sixties: A Ross Hunter Production

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“The way life looks in my pictures is the way I want life to be. I don’t hold up a mirror to life as it is. I just want to show the part that is attractive.”

–Ross Hunter on his approach to film production.

When audiences saw “A Ross Hunter Production” flash across their movie screens during the technicolor-saturated and CinemaScoped decades of the 1950s and 60s, they knew that they were going to see one of the most lavishly costumed and luxuriously produced vehicles ever to come out of Hollywood.

The man behind these fabulous cinema confections began his life on May 6, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio with the much less polished name of Martin Fuss. Fuss began his professional life as a drama teacher at Glenville and then Rawlings High Schools. Martin must have telegraphed his need to be in the limelight to his students because they sent their teacher’s picture to Paramount studios. Unfortunately, the studio took a pass on the young teacher’s acting talents, but the handsome Fuss soon found himself under contract to Columbia where his name was promptly changed to the more euphonious Ross Hunter. A meteoric rise to stardom didn’t happen after Hunter appeared in nine mostly forgettable “B” pictures at the studio. A viewing of some of Hunter’s films reveals an earnest, but rather lackluster screen presence.

Realizing that his future was probably behind the camera instead of in front of it, Ross enrolled in film production classes. With his experience in stage production, Hunter was hired as a producer at Universal Studios to helm The Flame of Araby (1951) starring Maureen O’Hara and studio heart throb Jeff Chandler. While he may have been new to film production, Ross understood every movie mogul’s need to make a fine film while bringing it in under budget. Hunter cut over $170,000 from the Flame of Araby budget. This would prove an unbeatable formula for the producer over the next twenty-years.

Unlike other major studios in town, Universal never developed a large “stable” of stars for its productions. This meant they had to “borrow” stars on “loan out”from other studios or hire actors who were free agents. This is where the “Universal Type” came into play. These actresses were just past their “sell by date,” but still lovely and could be a box office draw in the right vehicle. Hunter had a genius for matching these aging goddesses with the right part.

The first of these pictures was Magnificent Obsession (1954), starring the studio’s resident hunk Rock Hudson, and the perfect “Universal Type” Jane Wyman. This sudsy melodrama of hidden identities, blindness, medical miracles and incredible sacrifice was a huge hit. Obsession was the first of a long string of tear-jerking pot boilers (many directed by Douglas Sirk) and light comedies for the producer and his life/production partner Jaques Mapes.

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Obsession was followed by such box office giants as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), Imitation of Life (1959), Pillow Talk (1959), Midnight Lace (1960), Backstreet (1961), Madam X (1966) and Airport (1970).

Many of these films not only helped revive the careers of some of the silver screen’s most important leading ladies (including Lana Turner, Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck and Susan Hayward), but made money for Universal hand-over-fist. The primary reason for this was that Hunter was able to make his films look expensive without breaking the studio bank. Another reason was Mapes’ clever set decoration. As might be imagined, most Ross Hunter productions were audience favorites but didn’t receive many critical plaudits. All of this changed when his 1970 production of Alex Hailey’s Airport received a Best Picture nomination.

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After Hunter’s Lost Horizon (1973) tanked at the box office, the producer turned to television and received an Emmy nomination for his production of another Arthur Hailey novel, The Money Changers (1977). Shortly after this, Hunter produced his final project, the television movie titled The Best Place to Be (1979).

Ross Hunter succumbed to cancer in 1996. He lived with Jaques Mapes for forty years, and the two reportedly had one of the happiest marriages in Hollywood.

The Worst Actress in Hollywood: Queen of Republic, Vera Hruba Ralston

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In the classic film Citizen Kane (1941), Susan Foster Kane is handed a career as an “opera singer” on the proverbial silver platter. This tale was loosely based on the real-life relationship between newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The divergence of reality and fantasy is marked, of course, in that while Miss Davies reached legitimate stardom based on genuine talent, particularly in comedies on screen, the character of Susan Foster Kane never became an opera star.

However, the real-life story of another mistress launched to stardom by the wealth and power of her lover follows the plot line of Kane to the letter, including the full-throttled attempt to promote a completely talentless “actress” to the heights of the Hollywood firmament. This is the tale of Czechoslovakian Olympic figure skater turned Queen of the Republic Lot, Miss Vera Hruba Ralston.

Miss Hruba (the Ralston came later in an attempt to Americanize her name) and her mother sailed to the United States to escape Hitler and his henchmen after gaining some notoriety as an Olympic figure skater in the late 1930s. In fact, it was on skates that Vera first came to the attention of Republic Studio mogul Herbert J. Yates. After being featured in two lackluster skating reviews, Mr. Yates determined that while Miss Hruba was no Sonja Henie, she had, in his misguided estimation, the makings of an exotic screen goddess. After all, didn’t the likes of Garbo and Lamar have thick foreign accents?

Despite having shoulders broad enough to be a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, eyes perilously close together and incredibly heavy facial features, Miss Ralston was given every advantage that hair dye, makeup, flattering lighting and camera angles which the “poverty row” studio could provide. The result was less than inspiring.

Even in her first major vehicle, it is patently obvious that Vera was being given the “star treatment” at Republic, whose standard fare was Gimcrack westerns and serials. This special treatment began with the opening credits of the comparatively “big budget” horror epic, The Lady and the Monster (1944), when Vera’s name appears above the title. We see Republic’s new star for the first time a good two minutes into the action, beautifully costumed in a long white evening gown at the top of the grand staircase on the vast, dark castle set. Unfortunately, the second Miss Ralston opens her heavy lips, it is obvious that she cannot act her way out of a paper bag. Things did not improve with time.

Despite being cast in one overblown Republic production after another and appearing with several excellent leading men including Fred MacMurray and John Wayne, the personable and intelligent Miss Ralston still came across as forcefully chipper but leaden on screen. Out of twenty-seven top-flight (for Republic) productions, only two of Vera’s pictures turned a profit and these co-starred the studio’s biggest box office draw, John Wayne. Fearing for his own career, Mr. Wayne refused to be in any more Ralston pictures, and many at Republic cited Vera as the reason the western star ultimately left the studio for greener pastures.

Herbert J. Yates’ faith that his mistress was not only a more than competent actress but also a star never wavered despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, his personal obsession with the much younger woman increased over time. Unfortunately, Mr. Yates’s stockholders didn’t agree because they threatened to force him out if he didn’t stop sinking large amounts of studio profits into his girlfriend’s dismal career. Miss Ralston retired from the screen in 1958 on the heels of the studio’s impending bankruptcy.

After he left his wife and children for his mistress, Vera agreed to move in with the mogul only if her mother could come along, and Ralston and Yates eventually married in 1952. Apparently, Vera’s devotion to Herbert was not just career-based, as she remained with the former mogul until his death in 1966. But even when viewed through the often-forgiving lens of nostalgia and the passage of time, Miss Ralston maintains the well-deserved reputation for being one of the worst actresses ever to appear on screen.

Clash of the Titans: The Hollywood Rivalry Between Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer

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When the subject of rivalry between screen goddesses comes up, the lifelong competition of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis usually springs to mind. But even before the first shot was fired between the Queen of Warners and the MGM star, Miss Crawford had a rivalry with the Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer.

By the time Lucille LeSueur landed at MGM in January of 1924, Norma Shearer was already the leading lady at the “Tiffany” of studios. Being young, alone and insecure, Lucille needed friends, and when the actress nabbed a tiny part in A Slave of Fashion (1925), she thought that its leading lady, Norma Shearer, might become a mentor, but this was not to be. Norma pulled her best “lady-of-manor” shtick and ignored Lucille all together.

The second nail in the Shearer/Crawford coffin occurred when Joan landed another part in the Shearer vehicle, Lady of the Night (1925). Norma played a dual role, and director Monta Bell needed someone to play Norma’s double in two and long shots. Young Joan agreed to play the relatively thankless part, but while she was on camera, she often ended up “playing” the back of the leading lady’s head.

As Crawford became more successful at MGM, she began to compete with her nemesis for parts. She often complained that she “got Norma’s cast-offs.” Later, the actress compounded this charge by saying, “If they are looking for a lady, they cast Norma. If they want a shopgirl, they cast me.”

Norma (who never admitted to competing with Crawford) made Joan livid when she ran after and eventually married the second most powerful man at the studio, Head of Production, Irving Thalberg. “How the hell can I compete with that?” Crawford was heard to wail. “Norma is sleeping with the boss!” When the frustrated star complained to Irving Thalberg that he was handing his wife all the good roles at the mammoth studio, Joan was plunked into the “B” western Montana Moon (1930) for her pains.

Things came to a head between the two stars on the set of The Women (1939), MGM’s all-star, all-female bitch fest. Apparently, there were fights over costumes (Crawford claimed that Shearer tried to confiscate one of Crawford’s favorite costumes to wear for herself) and photo-shoot placement. Finally, Joan had had her fill. When she was to “feed” lines to Norma while off camera in the famous dressing room scene, Crawford decided to click her knitting needles together as loudly as she could just as Shearer tried to say her lines. Not only did Norma walk off the set until Joan could “behave like a professional,” but director George Cukor ordered Crawford to apologize to her co-star before she could set foot on the set the next morning. Joan responded by telling Norma exactly what she thought of her via telegram.

The two divas never spoke to each other again.