(On Cable TV, May 2018) As a family drama that drives steadily toward becoming a crime thriller, Mildred Pierce has something for everyone: family conflict, rags-to-riches development and a plunge into noir as a final act, bringing us back to the opening framing device. Joan Crawford holds the film together as the titular Mildred, a woman who gets over her first marriage by working hard and establishing a chain of restaurants, only to be held back by a spoiled daughter, a loafing second husband and a terrible family tragedy. That Mildred Pierce ends in murder is no spoiler (that’s how it begins), although the killer may surprise you. The black-and-white cinematography is top-notch, and Michael Curtiz’s direction impressively brings together the sunny domesticity of toxic family life with the harder shadows of criminal noir. The intersection between independent-woman drama and murder mystery is unusual, and makes Mildred Pierce stand out even when slotted in the noir tradition.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) The thirties were a decade when Hollywood perfected the grammar and sales pitch of cinema, with Grand Hotel earning a minor place in history for two innovations: on an artistic level, pioneering the use of a 360-degree lobby set that allowed the camera to be pointed in any direction, and commercially for bringing together as many movie stars as the (comparatively large) budget would allow. It netted Grand Hotel a Best Picture Oscar back in 1933, but today the result has visibly aged. While the script still holds some interest by bringing together a bunch of vignettes that sometimes interact, much of the film is shot as a theatre piece, the lobby sequences being an exception that highlight the more traditional nature of the rest of the film. As far as star power is concerned, modern viewers can still enjoy the presences of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford as well as Lionel and John Barrymore—even as reminders of why they were or became superstars. While the Berlin setting of the film may strike some as odd considering Hollywood’s insularity and the whole World War II unpleasantness a few years later, it’s worth noting that at the time, Hollywood was filled with German expats, that Berlin was a world-class city and the best-selling source novel spoke for itself. Also: this was the depression, and a bit of gentle European exoticism couldn’t hurt the movie-watching masses. Grand Hotel will forever live on as a Best Picture winner, and as a representative of the Hollywood machine as it was revving up in the early thirties, it’s a master class in itself.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I enjoy reading Wikipedia pages of films I’ve just seen, and from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I learn about the delightful expression “psycho-biddy,” a forgotten subgenre of horror thrillers featuring older women spawned by the success of this film. I also learned about the ongoing feud between co-stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which does add quite a dimension to the end result as two sisters come to possibly fatal conflict in a film presented as hard-edged thriller. Saddled with two useless prologues, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? really gets going fifteen minutes in, as the situation becomes clear: A disabled former actress, practically held hostage by her sister, a bitter and resentful former child star who escalates the horrible actions required to keep control over the situation. Joan Crawford has the likable role, but it’s Bette Davis who sticks in mind as the psychotic Baby Jane, layers of caked makeup not concealing a complete breakdown. The black-and-white cinematography is pretty good, although the ending is one or two whiskers away from satisfaction. The film feels a bit too long and scattered with half-hearted subplots, but it still has an impact—Fifty-five years later, aged actresses seldom get roles as interesting as those in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the plot is still nasty enough to resonate even today.