Mildred Pierce was a brave woman doing all her best for her family. In the early 1940s, Mildred’s account came to the audience through a book and a film adaptation. The book was written by James M. Cain and published in 1941. The story is set in California during the Depression. In 1945, the film adaptation of the novel was released. In this wonderfully incisive YouTube channel called Be Kind Rewind (BKR, www.youtube.com/@bkrewind), the narrator says a murder was introduced in the film version, an element that was not present in the original, the novel. The voice said it should not have been done.
In other sources, when film studio Warners Bros. enlisted Jerry Wald to produce Mildred Pierce, Cain was said to have implored Warners especially the director chosen for the film, Michael Curtiz, not to introduce heavy themes that will change substantially the purpose of the novel, which was to illustrate how women are victims of social injustice.
In the 1940s, Warner Bros. had developed a compelling repertoire of low-class women making social mobility an elegant if not dangerous game. Joan Crawford, who played Mildred, led this bevy of fierce actresses which included Bette Davis.
In 2011, the same novel by Cain was adapted as a miniseries by HBO, starring Kate Winslet. The HBO hit does not include the murder scene, which is shot in such a framing that tells us the 1940s filmmaking was one of the major contributions of geniuses. Go to the film and watch this splendid scene.
The Production Code Administration, the organization at the time which monitored the morality [or immorality] of cinema being produced, then called Mildred Pierce “unfilmable,” with the body describing the stories in the book “sordid and repellent.”
In the reading done by BKR of the 2011 adaptation, Mildred is pictured as obsessed with her own daughter, implicating even the nearly “bizarrely sexual” feelings of a mother to a daughter. BKR goes through this analysis by navigating the text of the novel and the visualization of the two versions, one in the 1940s and another in the 2000s.
How did the material evolve during those years? Well, in that earlier period the characters who did not heed the moral conventions of the society were punished. The lead evil had to be killed. Wald and Cain, it was written, did not enjoy the resolution, which was a murder at the beginning. But BKR says, it was a good way to respond to the moral codes at the time which breathed heavily on the shivering nape of actors and writers.
Who says vlogs and online channels lack erudition? Be Kind Rewind is an amazing collection of video essays that deal with “Hollywood history, women in film, and general film studies.” It is addicting.
One title stood out as I was viewing the BKR channel. This was “How a ‘Sacrilegious’ Film Changed Hollywood Forever.” It begins with the heading “How some horny Italians gave us constitutional rights.” The cast includes Roberto Rosselinni and the tempestuous Anna Magnani. At the core of the controversy is a short film directed by Rossellini called Il Miracolo (The Miracle, 1948). The story is about a woman (later in the synopsis she is described as “an idiot woman”) who goes to the mountains where she meets an old man she presumes to be St. Joseph. Played by Federico Fellini, this “St. Joseph” does not talk; instead he offers the woman wine to drink. The woman gets drunk and falls asleep. When she wakes, the old man is gone. She is confused. A few months later, she discovers she is pregnant.
The woman assumes St. Joseph is the father of the baby in her womb. She goes around proud of this miracle. She is mocked by the people. The village is disturbed. More disturbed about the film were the Catholics who thought the film was a mockery of their faith.
This was the 1940s and 1950s. Censorship was not only de rigueur; it was also unquestioned basically. In each state, there was a department of education with its own motion picture division, a committee that looked into films and had the power to excise scenes they found offensive. This division could even stop screening of films and withdrawing them from theaters.
Il Miracolo came to the US through festivals of short films curated for so-called art films. Magnani’s Il Miracolo was always double-billed with another short film, Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humane or The Human Voice. In Italy, the film was not a favorite not because of its content but simply because it did not appeal to the audience. The critics across the Atlantic did not appreciate the film much, although Bowsley Crowther of the New York Times called Anna Magnani’s performance as “shatteringly tour de force.” No matter, the booming voice of one critic did not contribute to the box-office earnings of the film. No matter, the Catholic hierarchy remained unconvinced and began a campaign to discredit the film and cause its ban from public screening. It did not take long before the ultra-conservative Cardinal Joseph Spellman, noted for using his influence and that of his church in many secular matters, rallied Catholics against The Miracle.
In many court hearings, one very old legal principle surfaced: film is not part of protected free speech. No part of the constitution protected it from control. One point raised was that film was for spectacle and entertainment and therefore could not be deemed comprising free speech. Courts declared the banning of The Miracle as proper, and the earlier approval of the motion picture division in the State Department of Education got rescinded. But Joseph Burstyn, a distributor of independent European cinema, took the case to the Supreme Court which declared the banning of Il Miracolo unconstitutional.
As BKR puts it, it indeed took two Italians to teach us about free speech. There are numerous more presentations from BKR, each one incendiary and compelling.