Category Archives: Studio Era
When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.
The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.
The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.
The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.
Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.
Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.
But in spite of the possibilities, there are very few people who have taken advantage of animation’s full potential. One of those people is Tex Avery. Having arrived in Hollywood in the early 30s, by the middle of the decade he had his own unit at Warner Bros. where he helped to create and refine characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. By 1942 he was working at MGM, which is where he made the cartoons most closely associated with him.
By the early forties Avery had refined his approach to the point where his best films had a distinct style. Most of his cartoons revolve around a conflict between two characters, and the surreal mayhem that ensues. The artists and animators at MGM were skillful enough to deliver pretty much anything he wanted, making the action flow swiftly and smoothly no matter how bizarre the situations.
I used the word “characters” in the last paragraph. Actually, Avery wasn’t really interested in characters. The dogs, cats, canaries and wolves that populate his cartoons are strictly two-dimensional. Northwest Hounded Police features a stoic little dog and a wolf on the run from the law. That’s all he needs to set up the ridiculously simple premise. Everywhere the wolf runs, the dog is there waiting.
It’s a one gag movie, and the gag was actually used by Avery in more than one cartoon. How does he get laughs when he’s repeating the same joke over and over? Part of the answer is that this basic joke becomes progressively more absurd. Another thing that makes it work is the tension between the little dog’s deadpan face and the wolf’s increasingly outrageous reactions.
But for me the most important factor is the sadistic glee that Avery shows in tormenting the desperate wolf. This is a dynamic that runs through a lot of the director’s work. Often one character tortures another for the full length of the cartoon. Sometimes the victim is finally caught, as in Northwest Hounded Police. Sometimes he loses his mind (Slap Happy Lion). And in one case he’s so maddened by the relentless trauma he just explodes (SH-H-H-H-H). People who knew Avery described him as a smart, funny, talented guy, but they also agree that he had his demons. There’s something insane about these frenzied exercises in non-stop mayhem, and that insanity is ultimately the reason I love these cartoons.
The movie begins with the wolf’s escape from prison. We watch him careening around a map of North America, swimming across the Great Lakes, and finally ending up in Canada. When the wolf first realizes that the dog is on his trail, he takes off at top speed. We get a series of lightning fast shots where he moves from extreme foreground to extreme background in the blink of an eye. With the help of the artists at MGM, Avery imagines an amazingly flexible landscape that expands and contracts as we follow the manic chase. We fall from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a lake, parachute from a plane’s cockpit, swim across the Atlantic. At one point the wolf is moving at such terrific speed that he ends up skidding off the film frame, past the sprockets and into an empty white space.
And this is another of the director’s favorite devices. Reminding you that you’re watching a movie. Avery lets his characters tell you what’s going to happen next. Sometimes they even tell you the end of the story. They suddenly run out of Technicolor and the landscape turns black and white. There are cartoons within cartoons. Avery didn’t just work in the medium. He played with it, commented on it, twisted it this way and that to suit his own needs.
His limitless imagination finally did hit some hard boundaries. By 1953 he was exhausted and left MGM for the Walter Lantz studio. He only did four cartoons for Lantz, and when he quit in 1955, that was the end of his career in theatrical animation. While Avery continued to work in the field, the market had changed. He never again had access to the same resources or the same kind of outlet for his unbridled creativity.
But you can still watch Northwest Hounded Police. Just click here.