By Rick Nelson
When we first approached Heights Theater owner Tom Letness with the idea of a screening a food- or restaurant-related film as a part of the Taste 40th birthday celebration, he immediately offered some sound advice: Forget about the most obvious choices.
That meant no “Ratatouille,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Big Night,” “Chocolat,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Waitress” or “Eat Drink Man Woman,” he explained, because they’re widely available on DVD, meaning that few people will want to experience them in a movie theater.
“Go back further,” Letness said. “Think about something more classic, maybe a little bit campy.”
That’s when “Mildred Pierce” came to mind.
The 1945 black-and-white whodunit is as rich as a 10-course tasting menu. Director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”) is operating in full film-noir mode, and each scene looks amazing, thanks to cinematographer Ernest Haller “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” “Dark Victory”). Max Steiner’s ("Gone With the Wind") dramatic score is one for the ages.
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (left), Ann Blyth as the obnoxious Veda (center) and the delicious Eve Arden (right) as Mildred's loyal-to-the-end friend, in the always-busy Mildred's restaurant.
The cast is a gas. There’s the glorious Eve Arden, typecast as Mildred’s wisecracking best friend. Helium-voiced Butterfly McQueen makes a few memorable appearances as the title character’s maid and Ann Blyth is Veda, Mildred's social-climbing ("She's distinctly middle class," she sniffs, referencing her father's mistress) spoiled brat of a daughter.
Mildred learns the hard way that money can't buy everything, except, perhaps, shoulder pads.
Naturally, the whole movie swirls and churns around Miss Joan Crawford as the title character, a workaholic who favors linebacker-like shoulder pads as she claws her way to the top of the restaurant business -- suffering magnificently in the process -- despite a mountain range of obstacles not limited to a. shady investors b. the police c. a conniving brat of a daughter d. a sponge of a husband e. the breathiest, most earnest voice-overs in Hollywood history.
The movie also has a fabulous food angle. Because she’s stuck with a no-account husband, Mildred picks up pin money by baking cakes and pies for the neighborhood. Hubby eventually leaves, and Joan (sorry, Mildred) takes a job as a waitress, eventually finagling her way into owning a chain of eateries (called Mildred’s, naturally) specializing in fried chicken and making money. The restaurant scenes are brilliantly preposterousness.
Oh, and did I mention that "Mildred Pierce" features some of the campiest, born-to-be-uttered-by-drag-queens dialogue (by Ranald MacDougall, he of “The Naked Jungle” and “Cleopatra”) this side of “Mommy Dearest,” including:
* “I was always in the kitchen. I felt that I had been born in a kitchen and had lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” -- Mildred
* “With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.” -- Veda
* “My mother, a common waitress.” -- Veda
* “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” -- Ida
* “I’m sorry I did that . . I’d’ve rather cut off my hand!” -- Mildred, after slapping Veda so hard that poor Ann Blyth probably lost a few teeth
The film received six Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Joan Crawford), Best Supporting Actress (Ann Blyth, Eve Arden), Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Screenplay. Crawford was the sole winner, in what turned out to be the only Oscar in her long career and the foundation for a much-needed comeback.
Turns out “Mildred Pierce” is making a comeback of its own: Director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”) is recreating the story -- based on the novel by James M. Cain, not the screenplay -- as a TV miniseries, with Kate Winslet playing Ms. Pierce.
But see the original, and see it at the Heights. Don’t know this gem? You should. It's perched just above the Minneapolis-Columbia Heights border on Central Avenue, and it's the Twin Cities' longest continually-running show palace. Among its many attributes is its mighty Wurlitzer theater organ and close proximity to a Dairy Queen, where theatergoers can pick up a Buster Bar and enjoy them during the show. (As a colleague pointed out, the theater is also not too far from the St. Anthony branch of Smashburger).
We’ll also be featuring vintage food-related television commercials (courtesy of the Mill City Museum) and a ton of door prizes. Don’t miss it! Thursday, Oct. 1st at 7:30. Tickets are $8, and you can purchase them in advance here. See you there!