Of “Past and Paste”: Rereading (Myself on) Mildred Pierce

The generally reliable and greatly appreciated Blogger has been given me quite a headache these past twenty-four hours. I was unable to upload any images; and although this journal is primarily concerned with the spoken word, I was irritated to the point of name-calling it a day. In the meantime, I dug up one of my undergraduate essays on Mildred Pierce, one of the movies (listed, right) I screened again recently. Say, how many motion pictures do you consume over a twelve-month period? That is the question I am posing in my current poll (a feature I resurrect herewith).

As if to account for time spent, whether well or otherwise, I try to keep track of what I experience, see or do. Sometimes, only the title of a movie remains; I remembered very little about Prick Up Your Ears, for instance, a copy of which I picked up a few weeks ago, some two decades after watching it during its initial release (in Germany, mind you). Back then, the fact that playwright Joe Orton, whose life is the subject of Frears’s biopic, began his short career by submitting a radio play to the BBC would not have meant much to me. About what the film did mean to me my diary is disappointingly mum, aside from the rather astonishing remark that I deemed it enjoyable. While I tend to summon up feelings far better than facts, my initial impressions were beyond recall.

Not so with Michael Curtiz’s crowd-pleasing gem, about which I once penned a trifle titled “The Loathsome Scent of Low Descent: Of Past and Paste in Mildred Pierce.” In it, I comment, without much originality, on the role of the “past, its influence and irrevocability,” in this shadow play of “a mother’s struggle to shed her past in order to secure the happiness of her daughter.” The opening credits, “washed ashore and wiped away by the surf,” suggest that the “past, though carefully concealed, may suddenly resurface, and that time itself, like the tides of the sea, is an element beyond our control.”

Since I require something more stimulating to enter into an argument with anyone, including myself, I pricked up my ears instead and took on the 24 June 1954 Lux Radio Theater adaptation starring Claire Trevor, in the title role originated by Joan Crawford, and Crawford’s co-star Zachary Scott as Monte. In an earlier Lux broadcast, Rosalind Russell had impersonated the fierce Mrs. Pierce, Academy Award-winning Ms. Crawford having been (as Louella Parsons reminded me) a less-than-confident radio performer (her notorious Christmas special notwithstanding).

The final screenplay for Mildred Pierce was written by one of radio’s better writers, Ranald MacDougall (previously mentioned here). Yet little of Curtiz’s noirish vision, James M. Cain’s rags-to-wretchedness design, or MacDougall’s smart revision remains in Sandy Barnett’s audio version, which not only cleans up Veda’s act (by refraining from mentioning her feigned pregnancy) but sidelines the central figure of her mother by opening with a dramatization of Wally’s arrest at the beach house rather than Monte’s call of “Mildred,” the dying word of a murder victim that implicates the named one from the get-go.

Since we are not encouraged to think of her as a suspect (her suicide attempt is not even mentioned), Mildred’s subsequent storytelling loses much of its ambiguity. From her reaction to the police inspector, the listener senses that she is uneasy about the fact that her first husband is the prime suspect; but it is unclear whether her narrative is designed to shelter him (or anyone else). Without those scenes at the beach house and the pier, there is little reason to distrust Mildred, who comes across here as a hard-working, suffering parent abandoned by her husband and stuck with an ungrateful child.

The radio adaptation seems determined to take literally the famous tagline of the movie—”don’t tell anyone what she did”—by keeping quiet about what Mildred might have done and suggesting that she didn’t do much at all aside from baking pies to do well by ne’er-do-well Veda. Lux sure got the stains out of Mildred’s past.

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