Thursday, August 15, 2013

TCM: SUMMER UNDER THE STARS—ANN BLYTH: MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Annually each August Turner Classic Movies (TCM) literally provides stellar programming through its Summer Under the Stars daily focus on an individual "star", thereby accessing classic films in the way that most cinephiles arguably approach films: through their favorite personalities and celebrities.

This Friday, August 16, 2013, TCM places the spotlight on actress Ann Blyth. As John Charles has written for the TCM website: "Alternating between dramas and musicals, pretty Ann Blyth was already acting in elementary school and emoting on Broadway before she had even reached her teens. Discovered by Universal, she made some unremarkable films with that company before being borrowed by Warner Brothers and cast in their Joan Crawford vehicle Mildred Pierce (1945). As Crawford's brazenly ungrateful and downright evil daughter, Blyth made quite an impression and earned an Academy Award nomination. Although a serious back injury sidelined her for over a year, Blyth bounced back and excelled at MGM, which showcased her considerable singing skills in such glossy productions as Rose Marie (1954), The Student Prince (1954), and Kismet (1955). As the 1960s rolled around, she opted to mostly stay out of the limelight, devoting the majority of her time to a growing family, but did return briefly to stage and television work. Blyth made a lasting impression in Mildred Pierce, but with her beauty, lovely singing voice and solid dramatic ability, she gave several performances that rightfully earned her a place among the most talented leading ladies of the 1940s and '50s.

"Ann Marie Blyth was born in Mount Kisco, NY on Aug. 16, 1928 and from early childhood, she was interested in performing in one capacity or another. Her singing talent earned Blyth spots in San Carlo Opera Company productions of Carmen and La Boheme and she gained acting experience via radio work. She attended the Professional Children's School and by the ripe old age of 12, Blyth was polished enough to be awarded a role on Broadway in the long running drama Watch on the Rhine (1941-42). It would be Blyth's only Great White Way credit, but she also went on tour with the show and thanks to the qualities displayed in a Los Angeles presentation of Rhine, the teenager soon embarked on a whole new chapter in life.

"After her stage work had come to the company's attention, Blyth was put under contract by Universal Pictures and her film career was launched with roles in small budget musicals with titles like Chip Off the Old Block (1944) and The Merry Monahans (1944). However, her prospects brightened considerably when the studio loaned her out to Warner Brothers to appear in the sudsy melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945), where Blyth gave a bravura performance as a scheming, thoroughly amoral young woman who competes with her own mother (Joan Crawford) for the same man. For their brave performances, Crawford won her only Oscar and newcomer Blyth received a nomination for her strong, thoroughly convincing acting, assuring a quick ascent to stardom.

"Alas, during the production of Danger Signal (1945), Blyth broke her back in a tobogganing accident while on a break from filming. While she ultimately defied a professional prediction that she would never walk again, Blyth remained unable to act for over a year. By the time she returned to the screen in Brute Force (1947), some momentum had been lost, but the young actress continued to do laudable work in quality productions like the murder mystery A Woman's Vengeance (1948) and the comic fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), where she was a charming siren of the sea accidentally reeled in by William Powell. Blyth's contract with Universal concluded in 1952, but she soon found opportunities at MGM, where her vocal abilities were put to use in Rose Marie (1954), The Student Prince (1954), and Kismet (1955). By that point in the decade, MGM's brand of musical was falling out of favor with the public, but they still made good use of Blyth in other genres, like the adventure The King's Thief (1955) and the film noir Slander (1957).

"However, she turned out to be the wrong choice for the titular role in The Helen Morgan Story (1957). The largely fictionalized look at the celebrated songstress was considered to be something of a disappointment and critics felt that Blyth failed to impart Morgan's larger-than-life qualities. The actress was also not helped by the studio's decision to replace her vocals during the various songs with new performances by Gogi Grant. Blyth received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, but by that point, she had opted to leave her movie career behind. Aside from a handful of TV guest appearances, including a memorable 1964 outing on The Twilight Zone, and a return to the stage in revivals of perennials like Wait Until Dark and The King and I, she spent most of the ensuing years out of the limelight with her husband and five children. Blyth briefly resumed acting in the mid-1970s and, like a number of Golden Age stars, gave her final bow in an episode of Murder, She Wrote (CBS, 1984-96)."

Along with many of the films touched upon in John Charles' profile, TCM will be screening Mildred Pierce at 8:00PM (ET); 6:00PM (MT); 5:00PM (PT). As Stephanie Thames has detailed for the TCM website, "Joan Crawford's Oscar® winning performance as Mildred Pierce (1945), determined mother of the ever-ungrateful Veda (Ann Blyth), marked Crawford's debut at Warner Brothers after a long career at MGM. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce is a dark tale of thwarted desires and the American dream gone wrong. Art Director Anton Grot's sets exploited this theme and presented a visual interpretation of how the up-and-coming American middle class should live.

"Ironically, the film was made around the time Jack Warner asked the studio's cinematographers and art directors to 'devise new means of cutting corners without losing any of the quality.' Apparently there was concern that too much detail was being used in sets, which in turn, took more time to light and thus slowed up production. Despite this proclamation, Mildred Pierce suffered no loss of set detail. Beneath its noir lighting lay strikingly complex settings like the Beragon beach house. So essential to the plot that it opens the film, Beragon's home is a twisting maze of rooms and staircases that perfectly represent Grot's desire to build 'menace into the sets.' Ann Blyth, in the role of Veda Pierce, had previously played a few juvenile roles in innocuous fare like Babes on Swing Street (1944) before she got to sink her teeth into the plum role in Mildred Pierce. She is so convincingly evil, mean-spirited, and obnoxious in the role that her peers nominated her for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. There was nothing typical about Crawford's performance in Mildred Pierce. Not only was Oscar kind to her, but it revived her slowed career and led to Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), and later, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In fact, Director Michael Curtiz had not even wanted Crawford for the role of Mildred, making her consent to a screen test. It seems he didn't like her trademark shoulder pads. After the success of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz and Crawford patched up their working relationship, and Joan gave her director a peace offering—a pair of custom made shoulder pads."

To honor the TCM Summer Under the Stars tribute to Ann Blyth and their screening of Mildred Pierce, I dipped back into The Evening Class vaults to recover my transcript of Blyth's June 2007 on-stage appearance at San Francisco's Castro Theatre where Blyth accompanied Mildred Pierce and engaged in an on-stage conversation with "czar of noir" and TCM guest host Eddie Muller.

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In his introduction to the evening's festivities, impresario Marc Huestis noted that—though the evening was an homage to Saint Joan—it was likewise an homage to Saint Ann. Appropriately enough, Blyth starred in a film entitled Sally and Saint Anne (1952). Prefacing his montage of film clips from Blyth's career, Huestis described the process of watching Blyth's movies as "lifting the petals of a very delicate flower." He praised Blyth's "beautiful versatility" and commended her "amazing amount of class", as well as singling out that Blyth's role as Veda Pierce Forrester was something of an anomaly for her. Blyth "mostly played the good girl", which Huestis qualified was harder to do than playing a bad girl.



In his own introduction to the movie, Eddie Muller commented that if James M. Cain were alive, he would not believe what was happening at the Castro Theatre that night. Muller characterized Cain as the architect of Noir City; the man responsible for what we consider to be film noir today. He started it by writing the books. He was a newspaper man from Maryland who moved to New York and decided to come West to California with great literary aspirations. Whether it was going to be writing screenplays or novels—he wasn't quite sure—but he knew that his destiny lay out in Southern California. He came up a crocker; nothing really transpired when he got to Hollywood. He wasn't very successful as a screenwriter and no great novels emerged from him. In near desperation Cain sent his publisher a nasty little novella called The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The Postman Always Rings Twice pretty much set the blueprint for what we now know as film noir. Cain followed that up with Double Indemnity. But thinking somehow that these terse, nasty, gritty little potboilers were somehow beneath the man of his extreme literary aspiration, in 1941 he wrote a novel called Mildred Pierce that he considered his great epic, his satire of capitalism and life in California. He had a great knack for writing fabulous women and Mildred Pierce was immediately snatched up by Warner Brothers to adapt into a movie. Joan Crawford was nowhere to be seen at this point and the project languished at Warner Brothers for a couple of years until Jerry Wald decided it was his time to make a mark as a producer. He had done a couple of things with Humphrey Bogart; Across the Pacific; Background to Danger with George Raft; but, Mildred Pierce was going to his big breakout movie.

Initially, they wanted Bette Davis to play the part of Mildred Pierce. Rosalind Russell was likewise considered, as were Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan. When Cain's Mildred Pierce came out, Joan Crawford was at MGM—her time had come and gone—or so it seemed. She ended up at Warner Brothers where she languished for two years waiting for a great part and—lightning in a bottle!—Jerry Wald finally decided, 'You know what? I'll go with Joan Crawford.' And there you have it. History was made. Muller gave Wald full credit for taking what was really not a noir novel and really not a crime story at all and pulping it up for the big screen. "That's what we love about Hollywood, right?" he quipped.

There was no murder committed in the novel Mildred Pierce. One of the first things Jerry Wald told Ranald MacDougall, the screenwriter, was: 'Let's do this kind of like Double Indemnity', which Muller assured would be easy to see. The flashbacks are all over the place and there's a great opening scene that is so totally noir that it almost defines what noir is. "A lot of you," Muller stated, "will still say, 'But it isn't really truly noir because there's no femme fatale.' To which I say, 'You must be crazy!' This movie has the most vicious, evil, mean-spirited femme fatale in the history of movies and it's so sick because her victim is her own mother. So without further ado, I give you what I think is the greatest melodrama ever made in Hollywood. Ladies and gentlemen, Mildred Pierce!"

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After the screening of Mildred Pierce, Ann Blyth joined Eddie Muller on stage. Her smile was radiant as she received adoring applause. Once it subsided, she started right in on Veda Pierce Forrester: "Who was that character?!!" Since transcribing their onstage conversation for The Evening Class (parts one and two), Marc Huestis posted his video recording of the event on his YouTube channel, which captures the excitement of her Castro appearance.



Shortly after the Castro Theatre event, TCM created an interstitial with Ann Blyth wherein she commented on Joan Crawford.

 

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