Mildred Pierce (1945)

After the William Castle psychobiddy Strait-Jacket, Mildred Piece is the second five-star, all-timer Joan Crawford film I fell in love with last year that starts with a violent murder. Unlike the late-career hagsploitation camp fest where Crawford maniacally wields an axe, however, Mildred Pierce is a much classier affair. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1946—including Best Picture—and won Ms. Crawford her own first Oscar statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even its opening murder is much classier: an elegantly staged shooting with a revolver at an upscale beach house, adorned with impossibly tall ceilings & drastic noir lighting. Still, even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, Mildred Pierce manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of her post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.

Crawford stars as the titular Mildred Piece (duh), a wealthy woman being interrogated by the police for the murder of her husband – a crime to which her ex-husband has already confessed. We cut from this noir frame story to Mildred’s past as a proto-June Cleaver housewife, dutifully keeping house & selling home-baked pies on the side to keep her family’s finances afloat. As to be expected, all the men in Mildred’s life are scoundrels & jerks: the adulterous first husband who leaves her for another woman, the family “friend” who constantly tries to talk her into bed, the new husband who exploits her go-getter work ethic for frivolities & play money, etc. What really distinguishes this melodrama, however, is that none of these selfish brutes emerge as the movie’s central villain. That dishonor belongs to a young girl, Mildred’s own brat of a daughter. The movie (and its source material novel) could have totally still been worthwhile if it had chosen any one of Mildred’s beaus to stand out as her ultimate nemesis; it can never be reinforced enough that men are awful. Opting to pit Mildred against her own daughter instead makes for a much more distinct, idiosyncratic experience, however, a memorably outrageous source of conflict.

Veda Pierce (played with expert icy cruelty by a young Anne Blythe) rivals The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark as cinema’s greatest brat. Imagine a child so spoiled that their self-serving greed has its own body count. While Mildred claws her way up from neighborhood pie saleswoman to diner waitress to Lady Boss restauranteur, her efforts are entirely focused on raising her kids above her financial means. Still, Veda’s wealth envy knows no bounds. Like the murderous fop of Kind Hearts & Coronets, she’s bitter that she wasn’t born into the immense inherited wealth of royalty, and she’s ruthless in manipulating her way to achieving as close to that ideal as possible – often at the expense of her mother’s labor & health. The resulting clashes between Mildred & Veda are some of the most outrageously violent battles to ever reach the screen, even though instead of bullets & punches they trade cruel insults like “common frump,” “It’s your fault I’m the way I am,” and complaints about the stench of fried chicken grease. It’s just as much an Oscars-caliber showcase as it is soaringly over-the-top melodrama – a pure pleasure to behold.

There are plenty of other, smaller pleasures to soak in throughout Mildred Pierce: the comic relief of Mildred’s coded-lesbian business partner; the German Expressionist maximalism of the noir set pieces’ lighting & production design; Mildred’s costuming’s transformation from housewife drag to a pile of jewels & furs, etc. Yet, the main draw of the film is clearly the outrageous conflict of its central mother-daughter rivalry. The movie touches on themes of class envy & financial desperation, but at its core it’s just as much a horror film about mothering a seemingly evil child you don’t even like as recent titles like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Mildred were entirely focused on the bullying & exploitation of the various shithead men in her life or if the murder mystery investigation were the sole source of intrigue, this would still be a solid Old Hollywood relic (even if a pedestrian one). By focusing on a viciously cruel mother-daughter rivalry instead, it stands out as one of the all-time greats, yet another masterwork from Ms. Crawford’s immense catalog of troubled, fierce women butting heads with their equally ambitious nemeses.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ma (2019) & Classic Psychobiddies

Welcome to Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-fourth episode, Brandon & Britnee compare the latest entry into the psychobiddy canon, Ma (2019), to a couple towering classics in the genre: Strait-Jacket (1964) & The Nanny (1965). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The Women (1939)

The tagline for the 1939 comedy The Women is “It’s all about men!” This is a blatant lie. The Women was initially written as a stage play based on gossip overheard in a nightclub powder room. Including the playwright and the film’s two credited screenwriters (Clare Boothe Luce, Anita Loos, and Jane Murfin), that makes three women behind its script, which is a remarkable feat for a Studio Era feature. What makes The Women even more remarkable is its enormous all-female cast. Men are never seen nor heard in the picture, a casting choice that even applies to the women’s yipping lapdogs. The joke in that “It’s all about men!” tagline, then, is that when these (uniformly white, wealthy) women are alone together, all they discuss is the men in their lives. I suppose that’s technically true in a broad sense. It is odd that it could be questioned if this all woman-starring feature would pass the Bechdel Test. That doesn’t meant the film is about men at all, though. The off-screen men referenced constantly in The Women‘s dialogue as husbands, ex-husbands, and secret lovers aren’t functioning in their corresponding women’s lives as conquests of romance, but rather as bargaining chips. They’re pawns, foot soldiers, personality-free tokens that represent wealth & power, but not much more. The Women is better understood not as a romantic comedy, but as a social circle war film where its female cast of characters gun each other down with rapid-fire barbs & insults. Divorces & marriages are like battles temporarily won; the men are territories claimed. Nothing matters as much as the women calling the shots in the war room, though, which in this case happens to be an upscale health salon.

Norma Shearer stars as a wealthy mother whose husband is becoming increasingly absent as he spirals further into an extramarital affair. She had previously held illusions that their marriage was a modernist arrangement of equal partnership. Her mother suggests, coldly, that she remain married and keep her feelings about the affair to herself, suggesting an age old tradition in their social sect. It turns out many wives treat their husbands this way, allowing for secretive betrayal as long as they can publicly keep the wealth & social status. Others march through a long line of divorces & affairs to match their needs as they shift through time. Our protagonist has two enemies in her fight to retain her dignity in her decision to remain in a loveless, compromised marriage. The obvious enemy is the husband’s mistress, played by a devilishly callous Joan Crawford, who is nakedly exploiting the man’s lust to improve her drab life as a futureless counter girl at the social circle’s central meeting place: the salon. The less obvious enemy is one of her closest friends, played by the deliciously wicked Rosalind Russel, who deliberately stirs shit among her peers out of pure, idle boredom. She specifically sends Shearer’s character to the salon to hear the gossip of the affair from a chatty manicurist instead of telling her directly or letting her be. She herself also gossips behind her friend’s back for sport and, worse yet, joins forces with the mistress against her as soon as it’s personally beneficial. This picture is soaked to the bone in gossip, so it likely won’t win over anyone disinterested in overtly catty power plays, but watching Shearer’s dignified defiance openly clash with Crawford & Russell’s gleeful cruelty is intoxicating fun for those onboard. The film is frank & darkly humorous in its discussions of adultery & marriage, an impressive honesty for its 1930s cultural climate.

The pacing & dialogue saturation in this film is immediately overwhelming, opening with some of the most rapid-fire wordplay this side of a cattle auction. What’s truly impressive amidst that dialogue, though, is how much Rosalind Russel is able to outshine Joan Crawford as the film’s central heel, despite not playing the romantic rival. Drag queens looking for tips on how to construct #iconiclooks & #classicreads are advised to bring a notebook and keep their eyes locked on Russell, who eats up the screen no matter how many hundreds of women she’s asked to share it with. Crawford’s part is relatively small by comparison, especially given its impact on the plot. You could easily cut yourself on her eyebrows or put out an eye on her shoulder pads, but most of the damage laid in her warpath is dwarfed by Russell’s larger than life Gossip Queen persona. I will say, however, that Crawford is afforded the single best line in the film, when she complains to her coworkers at the salon, “Can you believe him? He almost stood me up for his wife!” Her coldly calculating efforts to gain power as a rich man’s mistress is an early sign of the shockingly modern-feeling territory the film eventually explores for laughs. There’s a 1950s musical remake of The Women titled The Opposite Sex that I gather isn’t nearly as daring or as subversive as the version that came before it. in the remake, men share the screen and generate in-the-moment romantic conflict with the women at the helm. In The Women, any argument held between a married couple isn’t heard directly by the audience, but rather filtered through gossip in later retellings & traded like currency. There’s a real subversion to that kind of one-sided perspective, especially for its time. As a great as Norma Shearer is as the film’s lead, it’s Russell & Crawford’s gleeful indulgence in that subversion as a deliberate tactic of social war that really makes it feel special. I imagine that’s all lost in the neutered-looking musical.

It’s worth noting that not all of The Women‘s strengths begin & end with its deviously witty dialogue. The film also impresses as a grand visual spectacle, an expensive-looking feat of Studio Era craft. The salon setting that stages most of the film’s social battles is a cavernous compound complete with mud baths, gyms, ballet studios, perfume counters, and a central foyer decked out with massive landscape murals & a modern art fountain in the shape of a woman’s hand. It’s staggering. The camerawork often matches the majesty of the production design. In one pivotal scene, Norma Shearer is confronted with a shocking detail of the gossip surrounding the affair in front of a mirror that reflects three images of Rosalind Russll (a dream, that); stunned, she walks away in a daze directly towards the audience in a momentum-heavy tracking shot while the world around her slips away. I’d also be foolish not to highlight the film’s The Red Shoes style centerpiece that breaks up its black & white cinematography for a single sequence filmed in Technicolor. Described in-film as “an adventurous voyage into Fashionland,” the Technicolor sequence is a narrative-free fashion show that pushes the film just over the edge from sharply-written comedy to aggressively feminine high art. There are plenty of other visual achievements to drool over. I’m especially in love with the set design of a scene where Joan Crawford smokes & chats on the phone in a see-through bathtub, complete with its own set of drapes. There’s just something about the Technicolor fashion show fantasy that elevates every scene around it by proxy. My only complaint about the entire movie, really, is that I had to leave the fantasy of that sequence. My reality felt comparatively drab after that.

The opening credits of The Women pairs each of its main players with their animal kingdom equivalent, suggesting a world of predators & prey: a deer, a lamb, a leopard, a fox, etc. I didn’t see the film’s conflicts as an extension of animalistic nature, however. Rather, the carefully planned, deceptively complex attacks of gossip & romantic maneuvering in The Women feel more like strategic war games & game theory to me. To say this film is “all about men!” was drastic misunderstanding of its basic rhythms by the film’s marketing. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen many films less about men in my entire life (although Sofia Coppola’s recent The Beguiled remake does come to mind). I’d love to see any other film on that same intensely feminine wavelength, whether from the 1930s or just last month. There’s certainly enough immersive dives into masculinity out there to require a counterbalance.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ramen Girl (2008) & What Ever Happened to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Welcome to Episode #28 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-eighth episode, Brandon makes new co-host Britnee watch the Tampopo-riffing Brittany Murphy romcom Ramen Girl (2008) for the first time. Also, Britnee & Brandon discuss the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and its much less prestigious made-for-TV remake from 1991. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet