Long-awaited Curtiz book hits Hollywood; Egyptian Theatre hosts signing and screening

Alan K. Rode

Film noir expert Alan K. Rode has released “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” published by the University Press of Kentucky. To mark the book’s launch, the American Cinematheque is hosting a book signing and screening of two Curtiz gems on Thursday night in Hollywood at the Egyptian Theatre.

The Sea Wolf” (1941) stars Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Gene Lockhart and Barry Fitzgerald in a tense and moody adaption of Jack London’s anti-fascist adventure novel. Robert Rossen (“The Hustler”) wrote the screenplay.

The Breaking Point” (1950) takes Ernest Hemingway’s tragic novel “To Have and Have Not” as its source material. Though the setting is changed from Key West to Newport Beach, Calif., Curtiz delivers a more faithful version of the book than the famous Howard Hawks vehicle starring Bogart and Bacall.

Here, John Garfield expertly plays Skipper Harry Morgan. Gravel-voiced Patricia Neal is the alluring vamp; Phyllis Thaxter, Wallace Ford and Juano Hernandez round out the cast.

Rode set himself quite the task when he decided to write about this master director. Uncommonly prolific across many genres (including Westerns, swashbucklers and musicals), Hungarian-born Curtiz made more than 60 movies in Europe and more than 100 in Hollywood, arriving in 1926 at the behest of Warner Bros. Studio.

He won the Best Director Oscar for 1942’s noir-tinged “Casablanca” and for a short called “Sons of Liberty” from 1939. He was nominated for Oscars five times and directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations. James Cagney and Joan Crawford received their only Academy Awards under Curtiz’s direction.

Crawford won for her comeback role, “Mildred Pierce,” a domestic film noir from 1945. With a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, the movie improves and heightens the drama of James M. Cain’s novel.

Co-starring Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Jack Carson, Eve Arden and Bruce Bennett, “Mildred Pierce” ranks as one of our all-time favorite films.

For tonight, however, we’ll just have to swoon over John Garfield. Life’s rough.

Rode will sign his book in the lobby at 6:30 p.m. He will also introduce the films, slated to start at 7:30 p.m.

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Film noir and shoulder pads spur Crawford’s comeback

Wanted to share my talk on “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz) on Saturday, Sept. 20, at the West Hollywood Library. The library’s Corey Roskin introduced me. Hope you enjoy!

The movie was popular with critics and audiences, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations including best picture. Joan Crawford won for best actress. The superb cast members (Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott) balance Crawford beautifully. Arden and Blyth both got Oscar nods for supporting actress.

The screening was part of WeHo Reads, a noir-themed month-long literary program.

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The Film Noir File: Crawford at her finest, one of Lang’s best

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Mildred Pierce posterMildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz). Tuesday, Nov. 19; 10 p.m. (7 p.m.). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott and Ann Blyth.

Sunday, Nov. 17

10:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang). With Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Johnny Eager” (1941, Mervyn LeRoy). With Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Van Heflin. Reviewed in FNB on August 4, 2012.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Johnny Apollo” (1940, Henry Hathaway). Tyrone Power and Edward Arnold undergo father-and-son traumas and reversals as two wealthy Wall Street family members gone bad. Directed with Hathaway’s usual tough expertise. Co-starring Dorothy Lamour, Lloyd Nolan and Charley Grapewin.

Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir.

In “The Big Heat” from 1953, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir. It plays Sunday morning.

Tuesday, Nov. 19

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Man in the Attic” (1953, Hugo Fregonese). With Jack Palance and Constance Smith. Reviewed in FNB on March 5, 2013.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.). See “Pick of the Week.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed in FNB on November 10, 2012.

Thursday, Nov. 21

3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1943, John Sturges). With Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Ralph Meeker. Reviewed in FNB on July 21, 2012.

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Film Noir File: ‘Mildred Pierce’ shows Crawford at her peak

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and  pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). 

PICK OF THE WEEK

Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). Friday, Aug. 16, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson and Ann Blyth.

I saw “Mildred Pierce” for the first time nearly 20 years ago on a Sunday afternoon in my small, studenty London flat – pale gray walls, Venetian blinds, a Victor Skrebneski print opposite the TV. Just before the opening scene unfolded – a shooting in a shadow-drenched California beach house with a sinister vibe – I remember popping a batch of popcorn in oil on the stovetop and making fresh lemonade. Such wholesome snacking for the decadence on the little screen.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Mildred Pierce” is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, adapted by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited help from William Faulkner. Joan Crawford plays the title character, a wife and mother, who tries to buy the love of her spoiled and ungrateful teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is easy to love, but Mildred is determined to win Veda over as well.

You can read FNB’s full review here.

Friday, Aug. 16

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Brute Force” (1947, Jules Dassin). One of the prototypical prison pictures, with Burt Lancaster as the indomitable convict and Hume Cronyn as the sadistic captain – plus a cast that includes Yvonne De Carlo, Charles Bickford, Ann Blyth and Howard Duff, and a taut script by Richard Brooks.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (See Pick of the Week).

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “The Helen Morgan Story”  (1957, Michael Curtiz). “Mildred Pierce” co-star Ann Blyth and director Curtiz reunite for this tangy, noirish bio-drama of the tragic popular songstress, with Paul Newman as Helen’s brash gangster lover.

Sunday, Aug. 18

1:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m.): “Rebel Without a Cause”  (1955, Nicholas Ray). With James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

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The Noir File: Jaunty Joan Crawford is a goddess of domestic noir in the matchless ‘Mildred Pierce’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Ann Blyth is the venal daughter opposite Joan Crawford (and her shoulder pads) in “Mildred Pierce.” Blyth is slated to attend the TCM film fest later this month.

Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth and Jack Carson. Friday, April 5, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Read the full review here.

Sunday, April 7

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder). With Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Spellbound” (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel. (In French, with subtitles.)

12 a.m. (9 p.m.)” “Blackmail” (1929, Alfred Hitchcock). Hitchcock’s first talkie: a thriller about a young London woman (Anny Ondra) who kills her would-be rapist (Cyril Ritchard), and then is blackmailed. The film was originally planned (and partially shot) as a silent movie and the transition to sound is sometimes a little clumsy. But the chills and invention and the fascination with perverse psychology are all recognizably Hitchcock.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.) “The Murderer Lives at Number 21” (1942, Henri-Georges Clouzot). Clouzot, one of the kings of French noir, grips and thrills and teases us with this dark-hued, very cynical and very smart murder mystery about a suave inspector (Pierre Fresnay of “Grand Illusion”) pursuing a serial killer. It’s also a stinging portrait of life in wartime Paris. With Suzy Delair. (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, April 8

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Roxie Hart” (1942, William Wellman). If there’s such a thing as comedy noir, here’s one of the classics: the breezy, cynical tale of a loose-moralled Chicago showgirl (Ginger Rogers) who tries to parley a highly publicized murder trial into song-and-dance stardom. This is the movie, remade from a 1927 Cecil B. DeMille silent picture, that was later refashioned into the Tony-winning Bob Fosse show, which became the Oscar-winning 2002 Rob Marshall movie musical “Chicago.” (“He had it coming!”) With Adolphe Menjou, George Montgomery and Phil Silvers; written by Nunnally Johnson. [Read more…]

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‘Mildred Pierce’ by Haynes savors subtext of Cain’s novel

Crawford and Blyth

HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” mini-series, directed by Todd Haynes and based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, starts this Sunday.

In director Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie version of the book, Joan Crawford won the Oscar for her portrayal of the title role in the ultimate story of a self-sacrificing mother and her ungrateful child, Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred’s hard-earned success as a restaurateur allows her to support not only her family but also her aristocratic and cash-poor love interest Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott).

In Haynes’ mini-series, Kate Winslet stars as Mildred, Guy Pearce plays Monty and two actresses share the Veda role: Morgan Turner as the girl and Evan Rachel Wood as the young woman. Haynes and Jon Raymond wrote the teleplay.

In many ways, the series, which follows the book more faithfully than the 1945 movie and covers nearly 10 ten years in the characters’ lives, is a delight to watch. Depression-era Southern California is beautifully recreated and shot by Edward Lachman. Carter Burwell’s original music is spot-on as is Ann Roth’s costume design. And the acting is excellent, particularly the leads.

Whereas Crawford’s Mildred is stoic and dignified, Winslet’s is sensitive, wistful, often tentative and unsure of herself. Her expressive features suggest her mounting anger, guilt and desperation as her business grows but her relationships deteriorate.

Early on in the series, Winslet’s Mildred identifies in her daughter a “pride or nobility I thought I had” and we glimpse the complexity and closeness of her bond with Veda. The mother-daughter relationship in Haynes’ five-hour version is perhaps more nuanced than in Curtiz’s film.

Pearce easily inhabits the playboy scoundrel Monty and Wood sizzles as the junior miss femme fatale. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mildred and Veda also have very similar taste in men. This year’s supporting actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham are quite good as Mildred’s friends.

A disappointment, however, is James LeGros’ insipid performance as Pierce family “friend” Wally Burgan. In Curtiz’s version, the role as played by Jack Carson – conniving and sly, but charming – was one of the movie’s many strengths.

Another downside is the pacing, which is far too slow. It would have benefited from shaving about an hour, especially in the beginning. But then if Haynes’ aim was to be true to every page of the book, he has succeeded.

I prefer Curtiz’s original because it is canonical film noir, in tone, look and story. Granted, Cain’s book was altered because in 1940s Hollywood, immorality was never allowed to triumph. Instead of the evil-doers leaving California to begin a new life in New York, one is fatally shot and the other eventually is punished. The murder sets the story, told via flashback, in motion and lends an edgy suspense.

Still, Haynes did not set out to make a noir; apparently his aim is to explore the subtext and subtleties in Cain’s novel. Cain was, arguably, sympathetic toward his feisty protagonist (what choice does she have but to establish independence and security, given the weak and deceitful men she has to choose from?). But she pays a dreadful price for doing so and the book decries materialism, the class system and social climbing. As for Cain’s ultimate take on Mildred’s power, in Hayne’s work, there is fodder for both sides of the argument.

Warner Bros. image of 1945 “Mildred Pierce”

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Sly guys, coffee, pie: It’s all in ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce/ 1945/Warner Bros./ 111 min.

“Mildred Pierce” was Joan Crawford’s comeback role and she won an Oscar for her performance.

I saw “Mildred Pierce” for the first time nearly 20 years ago on a Sunday afternoon in my small, studenty London flat – pale gray walls, Venetian blinds, a Victor Skrebneski print opposite the TV.

Just before the opening scene unfolded – a shooting in a shadow-drenched California beach house with a sinister vibe – I remember popping a batch of popcorn in oil on the stovetop and making American lemonade (fresh lemons, sugar and water). Such wholesome snacking for the decadence on the little screen.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Mildred Pierce” is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, adapted by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited help from William Faulkner. Joan Crawford plays the title character, a wife and mother, who tries to buy the love of her spoiled and ungrateful teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is easy to love, but Mildred is determined to win Veda over as well.

Hubby Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) doesn’t think Veda is worth it and they break up over Mildred’s intense maternal devotion. Some subtexters theorize that Mildred’s love has romantic overtones; I don’t think there’s a strong case for that.

Mildred works as a pie-baker and a waitress, then opens a chain of restaurants to pay for Veda’s clothes, music lessons and extravagant taste. Problem is, nothing’s ever good enough for the Everest-level high-maintenance Veda. “I can’t wear that rag,” she snarls, upon seeing a dress Mildred bought for her.

Besides sniping at loved ones and spending their money, Veda enjoys hatching blackmail plans and singing in sleazy nightclubs. So it’s no shocker that she also has designs on Mildred’s new love interest Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Monte is an aristocratic playboy who’s always short of cash but really rather useful for Veda’s plan to become patrician.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as daughter and Mumsy

No matter what, Veda sinks her serpent’s teeth deeper and deeper into Mildred’s flesh, which, by the way, at 40, was still very shapely. Curtiz wisely gives Crawford plenty of opps to show off her gams. And her little hats, tailored suits and ankle straps are the picture of retro chic. [Read more…]

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