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Monday, May 22, 2017

Don't Tell What Mildred Did!

Showmen Sell Fierce Their Mildred Pierce

Ad campaigns sometimes took on lives of their own, like when a picture had energy that wouldn't be contained by standard publicity. Such a nova was Mildred Pierce, keyed as it was to closure of the war and servicemen coming home. Among recreation for vets was relax in theatres not visited over a last three-four years. Tie that to courtship in renewed force and there was whopper success for even weak product from late 1945 into '46. Some of soldiers presumably saw Mildred Pierce at camp, or jungles lately seized, them being first in line for new releases and then writing home to recommend what they liked. This was strategy beyond mere generosity to troops for an industry realizing value in letters that spoke highly of new films. Had poll been taken in 1945 (was there?), I'd propose the year as peak, or near-that, of good will for Hollywood and its works. We laugh now at sailors dashing onto dry land crying "Oh Boy! Home and Mildred Pierce!," but there was basis for trade ad boast, for here was Moment for Mildred, with September 28 pre-release at New York's Strand to precede general spread of the show in October. Balance of 1945 would stamp and re-stamp Mildred Pierce onto consciousness of everyone reading magazines, listening to radio, or talking movies among friends.

WB knew they had a special one. This "Ears Burning" trade ad was probably as truthful a dispatch as came out of studios in 1945. Crawford comeback was reported as done deal before Mildred opened, being start for fresh run at tough melodramas. Plus there was sizzle to the steak spelled s-e-x, which ads from start would emphasize. Note packets of good will as expressed above. There aren't many pix of Jack Warner being kissed by contract talent, so let's savor this one. Must have been a jubilant day, possibly one when all realized Mildred Pierce was gold in the bank. Sometimes you could smell a smash on its way out the door. Note Harry Warner apart from the smooch-fest. Wonder if Joan kissed him too. Bet not. Harry comes across like a cold fish. Rather looks like one as well. Louse as he was, at least Jack took fun where he found it, as did onlooking Michael Curtiz, whose directorial triumph Mildred Pierce was. We still underestimate Curtiz, maybe for being a team player rather than rebel or iconoclast. Or was he just too versatile for his own good? There was nothing so convivial as studio-staff relations when everyone was in the chips. It was only when someone began to slip that ice formed.

Going-in misread by some showmen was Mildred Pierce as "Ladies Only" attraction (like above in New London, Ct.). Time, and gender mix among crowds, would dispel notion of that. Mildred Pierce took grosses bigger than any woman-centric or Bette Davis vehicle Warners had, or would. It was clearly reaching men in vast number, outdrawing the Bogarts (except Casablanca) and all the Errol Flynns save San Antonio. Mildred Pierce showed that both sexes could be lured by melodrama revolved around a woman. 20th Fox got a same lesson, to even greater reward, within following months with Leave Her To Heaven. From now on, female passion would have deadly consequence, this demanded by those back from a shooting war, as well as ones who had charted progress of same back home. Joan Crawford would harden sufficiently to kill a lover onscreen and make it seem an only recourse, if not a good idea all round. Here was rougher play that four years of headlines and newsreels had prepared us for. Crawford also had enough sex left by 1945 to be attractive where dealing death, or negotiating with those who do ("The Kind Of Woman Most Men Want" --- how much longer could they say that of JC?) . Ads gave impression that she'd commit murder as Mildred Pierce, not so in the film, but who'd care or remember on exiting such a satisfactory show?

The goal was for people to talk about Mildred Pierce. Who was she? --- or more to point, What Did Mildred Pierce Do? That was what we had to find out, as in pay admission to find out, then keep to ourselves. As with Psycho's ending fifteen years later, Please Don't Tell were key three words to marketing. Here was buzz ahead of the Strand's 9/28 pre-open, advance of which saw Joan Crawford canvass New York to stir press interest in her newest. People talk of Crawford as actress, personality, or offscreen control nut. What they miss is recognition of her as merchandising whirlwind for films she made. What you got for hiring Crawford was both performer and retailer. She had instinct for selling as keen as anyone on Warners' East Coast staff, these overseeing drumbeat for all company product. Crawford touching down in Gotham raised awareness of Mildred Pierce for all of press, broadcast, and ultimately, show-going public. Her clutch with WB staff as pictured above was no idle publicity. She was there to do a job and operate at their level of expertise. I think Crawford's grasp of salesmanship was as much reason as any for her forty plus years of major stardom.

Some secrets were to be kept --- others not. WB asked viewers to stay mum about what Mildred did, but they'd not mind tipping Zachary Scott's fate in the film. One thing the war had done was make us less serious about movies. Melodramas would not be taken so straight as before. Ad copy with Scott's image as "Monte Beragon" ("He'd rather die than double-cross her --- so he did both!") revealed at least some exhibitors had tongues in cheek. As with any film that morphed with mass embrace, there was improvisation in the field. Suggested ads as provided in the Mildred Pierce pressbook were discarded for ones that spoke to snowball effect the film had. Creative enough circuits or lone showmen could zero in on crowd response as expressed from region to region. Changing ads over month or more holdovers was like ticker tape fed to potential viewers. Some might take longer to show up and buy a ticket, but they'd all get there eventually. As to what Mildred did, and keeping it a secret, there would come good natured mockery. Radio and nightclub comedians took up "Please Don't Tell" and made it a country-wide punchline, all this to Warner advantage. Ads warned that loving Mildred was "Like Shaking Hands With The Devil!," a line some might take serious in silent days, but not now. An audience that flattered themselves as more sophisticated, let alone those lately home from the Pacific, sought rise above silliness of movies done old-fashioned way. Advertising for Mildred Pierce let it be known that a new era had dawned.

Theatres from outset tendered Mildred Pierce as fun for all.  
From cartoony ads, you'd think it was the "Road" picture of melodramas. Crawford and her studio would sense direction and go with flow to her later cameo for 1949's It's A Great Feeling, with its spoof of Mildred Pierce and hothouses she occupied during four years since she made it. The gag of not seating anyone for a last seven minutes of Mildred Pierce was figured to preserve surprise of the ending, and get folks talking, especially those accustomed to showing up anytime, and not care where narrative was at. They'd seen these tropes play out a thousand times before, or so they thought. Policy on Mildred Pierce alerted them that, no, you have not. The above State's 2nd "Must-See" week was for "thousands who were turned away" in the first, so word was out, even if reveal of what Mildred did wasn't. Victory was ours, but urgency of war didn't end with that. There were still Bonds to be bought toward postwar clean-up, and Paramount short Hollywood Victory Caravan was reminder that the job wasn't finished.

Mildred Pierce also played off headlines. The above is Chicago's ad for a "4th Explosive Week." By now, what Mildred did was "Another Atomic Secret!" We were just learning background on the Bomb now that it was dropped. There had been no secret closer guarded than this. The United Nations was meanwhile established (10-24-45) and made daily copy. What were these current events but grist for selling Mildred Pierce? Everyone was presumed to know about Mildred by now. Even Joe Stalin with signature mustache and pipe agrees not to tell anyone what Mildred did. Trade ads through the autumn could pull back and let the title alone serve, as here with Mildred Pierce mere name above a doorbell. The film would be remembered thanks to TV and parody as late as Carol Burnett's "Mildred Fierce" in 1976, a year when much of viewership could still recall the initial Explosion. We still have first-hand witnessing thanks to Ann Blyth appearing from time to time with Mildred Pierce. Otherwise, it is viewership seventy years removed trying to imagine what impact was like. Criterion has a splendid Blu-ray of Mildred Pierce in recent release. Their clean-up has made it look better than even HD streaming off VUDU and Amazon.


Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Did Jack Carson ever have a better role?

9:52 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Okay, always a favorite. My wife would never let me switch channels when this one popped up. I wonder if the subtext of an America with so many of their eligible males recently out of circulation played into the initial impact of MP. Mildred's choice of menfolk is pretty dismal... weak sister Bennett, creepy Carson and creepier Scott.

6:37 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

After Carol Burnett did the Mildred parody on her show, she received a letter from Joan Crawford, which was to the effect of "CBS spent more money on your sketch than Jack Warner spent on my movie." Perhaps after being at MGM so long, Joan was not used to Warner frugality.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

The first movie my demob'd father-in-law saw coming back from France was... The Lost Weekend.

That seems an odd choice but in a way it was a defiant turn to civilian concerns— The Lost Weekend was about a guy of draft age who nevertheless had nothing better to do than be a writer and a drinker. The war did not exist in his universe.

Same for Mildred Pierce— she kind of goes through the Depression, but her concerns are all family-sized, not global. And I think in a weird way, as much as it's fairly intense melodrama, it was kind of a relief to have regular people concerns, even of a high soap opera type, to think about, instead of the concerns of battle. Your new husband's a rat and your daughter's a monster? Good to be home...

10:36 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

I suspect MP might have become the runaway train of a hit that it did even without the timing of the boys returning, though that certainly helped.

It's not only my favorite Crawford film, but it's an overall favorite film because it works on SO many levels; glossy Warner's soap with all the trimmings: a perfect "Crawford vehicle"( though this time it's pie-making-housewife-to-big-success instead of shopgirl, but as long as we get to watch Joan suffer in mink -- what's not to like?); a mother-love melodrama; a murder mystery; and above all, a great Michael Curtiz drama with a brilliant supporting cast (can we go so far as to label it noir?).

It's something for everybody, as I've found when I've shown it to groups of friends. Absolutely everybody enjoys it, and all for different reasons.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

I was surprised to discover that MILDRED did not premiere on New York City TV until Nov. 11, 1960. It showed with limited commercial interruptions on WCBS' "Schaefer Awards Theater,'' which aired several times a year around holidays. This may or may not have something to do with a "Lux Video Theater'' presentation of a one-hour version of MILDRED starring Virginia Bruce, Zachary Scott and Patrick Knowles. It was presented in color on NBC on Sept. 20, 1956.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thanks to FEUD I've been looking at a lot of Joan Crawford films. A friend asked if I could show him this one today. Neat to get so much info to pass on.

6:52 AM  
Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

Jack Carson is great here, but I would say his best role was in A STAR IS BORN.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

Holy cow, the 'For Women Only' showing of Mildred Pierce mentioned in this blog post reminds me of a recent 'scandal' in which Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas (not Warner Bros.) had a 'ladies only' showing of the new Wonder Woman movie at one of their theaters in Texas, which a certain group of men objected to (or it seems that they did; most likely, somebody overreacted to what somebody else said someplace else on the Internet, and decided to make a big thing of it.) I've got to mention this as soon as possible, just to show that this kind of thing wasn't a recent occorance.

11:32 AM  

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