Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ida Corwin

Today is the centenary of the birth of Eve Arden, so I thought I'd look at the movie that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress: Mildred Pierce.

Joan Crawford stars in the title role of this women's noir. In the opening scene, we see her in a house where a man gets shot, eventually leading to Mildred Pierce's telling the police everything that led up to the shooting. It all started when she was making ends meet by baking cakes and pies to help supplement the income of her first husband, a failed real-estate agent (played by Bruce Bennett) who was cheating on her. Mildred has to earn a living not only for herself, but for her two children, notably the ingrateful Veda (Ann Blyth, who along with Arden was nominated for an Oscar), who has rather expensive tastes. Mildred eventually finds work as a waitress at a restaurant managed by Ida Corwin (that's Eve Arden), and works, and works, and works to learn everything she can about the restaurant industry: she's got her eye on a property where she'd like to open her own restaurant.

Mildred goes to Mr. Pierce's partner, Wally Fay, played by Jack Carson, who may be at his wonderfully unctuous best in Mildred Pierce; it's a shame he never became a bigger star than he was. Together, the two of them, along with the property's owner, one Monte Berrigan (Zachary Scott), become joint owners of the eventual restaurant. It's not the best arrangement, but it's the only one that will let Mildred get the restaurant off the ground. Thanks to her hard work, the restaurant becomes a success, leading to more locations being opened. Unfortunately, however, the success of her restaurant isn't matched by the success of her personal life: her younger daughter dies of pneumonia, while Veda is an even bigger ingrate than before, going so far as to lie about being pregnant in order to extort $10,000 from a wealthy family.

To try to put her personal life back together, Mildred married Monte Berrigan, but that only helps things look better on the surface. Monte is indulging Veda's lavish lifestyle, leading to financial problems for the restaurant, and worse, that doesn't seem to be the only interest Monte has....

The entire cast is excellent. I've already sung Jack Carson's praises above. Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her role, and is worthy of it (although if I had been around in 1945, I would have voted for Gene Tierney). Ann Blyth does a bang-up job of being unsympathetic as Veda, and probably deserved her Oscar nomination too, although her role is really one which is a bit too big for a normal Supporting Actress nomination, but not quite big enough for a Best Actress nomination.

This being Eve Arden's birthday, however, I'd like to focus on her role. It's much smaller than Blyth's, and closer to what would be typical for a Best Supporting Actress Nomination. But Arden plays it as though she had been born to play the part. She's saucy, wise to the world, but at the same time world-weary, too. It's an eminently believable performance, and one that Arden makes look effortless. She doesn't steal the show, because her role isn't big enough, but you're going to notice her in every scene she's in.

Mildred Pierce is of course available on DVD; otherwise, I wouldn't be recommending it when it's not showing up on TV for another week and a half.

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