Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Beach House from Joan Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce”


With all the attention that the new HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” has been getting, I thought it would be fun to revisit the original classic from 1945. I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager and all I really remembered about it was Joan Crawford, her fur coat, and the murder in the beach house.

Watching it again, I was struck by how amazing all the sets and costumes were. But before we get to the famous beach house, let’s take a look at the Spanish bungalow the Pierce family lived in. (Warning for those of you who haven’t seen this whodunit–spoilers ahead!)

The Pierce Family Home in Glendale

Mildred Pierce is a classic example of 1940s film noir. It opens with a murder and then we see what happened in a series of flashbacks until the mystery of who fired the gun is revealed at the end. The famous tagline for the movie was “Please Don’t Tell Anyone What Mildred Pierce Did!”

Mildred’s house on Corvallis Street in Glendale is shown as a one-story Spanish-style bungalow, but the interior set has a staircase leading to a second story with the bedrooms.

Here’s a publicity shot from the movie of Pierce family–Bert, Mildred, and their daughters Veda and Kay. (In the remake, the youngest daughter is named Ray. Since the remake is based more closely on the novel by James M. Cain, I assume she was Ray in the book and it was changed for the first movie. Does anyone know for sure?)

Joan Crawford was 40 and considered a “has-been” after a string of flops at MGM. Michael Curtiz had to be convinced to cast her. He originally wanted Bette Davis, but she turned it down.

Shirley Temple was originally considered for the part of Mildred’s older daughterVeda, but it went to Ann Blyth instead. She was 17 at the time and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Bruce Bennett, who played Mildred’s well-meaning husband Bert, was an Olympic shot-putter in the 1928 games. He retired from acting in 1960 and became the sales manager of a vending machine company.

Mildred says she feels like she was born in the kitchen. When times get tough, she gets cookin’! After husband Bert loses his job as a real estate agent (“Suddenly no one was buying any more”), she makes ends meet by baking cakes.

As it says in the trailer for the miniseries, “She gave her daughter everything. But everything wasn’t enough.” Boy, that’s an understatement. The only time we see a truly good side of Veda is in her interactions with her little sister Kay, who she actually seems to care for. When Kay dies of pneumonia, Veda is heartbroken.

The sisters share a bedroom at the top of the stairs. In this scene, Mildred is peering through the open door and overhears Veda complaining about how cheap and ugly the dress is that her mother worked so hard to buy for her.

Tragically, Mildred refuses to listen to everyone who warns her about Veda and continues to spoil her rotten. When Kay dies, Mildred clutches Veda and says, “Please, God, don’t let anything ever happen to Veda!”

Evan Rachel Wood was cast as Veda for the new miniseries and definitely has the right look for the part. Even when she smiles, she looks like she’s up to no good:

While we’re on the topic of the remake, here’s a shot taken as they filmed in the Gables area of Merrick, New York, which passes for Glendale in 1935 (more info and photos at Awards Daily):

I’ve only seen the first two parts of the miniseries so far, so maybe things will pick up. But when I was watching it last week with my husband, his comment was, “Apparently time moved a lot more slowly back then.”

I’m afraid it probably does move a little too slowly for most viewers, which may be why theratings have been such a disappointment. I’m a sucker for period pieces like this, though, so I’m sticking with it.

They went for a more realistic Depression-era look with the sets than the original movie did (photos via HBO).

There was no murder in the novel, by the way. In fact, a lot of things were changed for the original movie to make it more palatable for 1940s audiences. Downplaying Mildred’s affairs, for instance. The new miniseries is sticking much more closely to the book than the movie did.

Here’s Kate Winslet as Mildred in her kitchen, baking one of her popular cakes to sell:

Mildred’s Restaurant:

One of the most memorable images from the original movie was the stylish restaurant that Mildred opened, with her name scrolled across the top in lights:

A test shot taken of the interior of Mildred’s restaurant:

Mildred’s office at the restaurant is so big that you know she’s hit the big-time!

The Beragon Beach House (aka “Scene of the Crime”)

Monte Beragon’s Beach House was actually owned by the film’s director, Michael Curtiz. It was built in 1929 and stood on Latigo Shore Drive in Malibu. Sadly, it collapsed into the ocean after a week of heavy storms in January 1983.

After Wally Fay (played by Jack Carson) finds the corpse in the beach house and runs outside, the cops yell, “Hey, you, stop right there!” and then shoot at him. They don’t know who he is or even that there’s a body inside the house, so it always makes me laugh that they immediately draw their guns.

The sunroom is a little odd in that it has walls and windows, but no roof or door.

Monte keeps a closet full of bathing suits for unexpected lady visitors. He explains, “They belong to my sisters.”

Mildred: “There’s nothing like having a large family! All of your sisters seem to be my size.”

Monte: “I like them your size. Here’s to brotherly love.”

If you’re watching the remake on HBO, you probably noticed the beach house isn’t nearly as glam in it as it was in the original. It’s more like a beach shack, which I found kind of disappointing.

The front entry has a big, gorgeous window overlooking the water:

A test shot of the beach house set taken before filming began (via the Joan Crawford Encyclopedia, where you can see more):

Zachary Scott played wealthy playboy Monte Beragon when he was 31. He never really topped the success of “Mildred Pierce” in his career and died of a brain tumor 20 years later.

Mildred’s first “date” with the suave Monte doesn’t end with the swim…

Filming that scene:

The house has its own bar in the lower level. Here Wally makes Mildred a drink, not knowing the real reason why she brought him there:

Jack Carson, who played Fay, would disappear from Hollywood for weeks at a time to secretly perform as a clown in the circus. Audiences never knew it was him, and he enjoyed the anonymity. “They loved me and my routines,” he said.

Here’s a shot of the bar from the other side of the room, the night Mildred walks in and catches her daughter in her husband Monte’s arms:

Veda confronts Monte after he tells her he has no intentions of marrying “a spoiled little brat like you.”

Veda responds by shooting him, repeatedly. With his dying breath, he gasps, “Mildred!”

Joan Crawford won her only Oscar for her role as Mildred Pierce. Check out the original trailer for it:

Are you watching the new miniseries on HBO? How do you think it compares to the original?

Click Here for the list of all of the movies I’ve featured, including more classics like Auntie Mame and Gone With the Wind.

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