REVIEW: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

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After a relatively slow start to his career, playwright Tennessee Williams struck gold with a series of hits that captivated audiences on both stage and big screen. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of those hits. The film adaptation is loaded with Williams’ signature sizzling dialogue and rich, complex characters. A brilliant cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Jack Carson spark this story of fractured relationships, family dysfunction, and the word of the day mendacity. It’s sharp, edgy, and chock full of fiery energy.

Williams’ play first hit Broadway in 1955 and it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The film opened in 1958 and was a big success. Richard Brooks co-wrote and directed the adaptation which (as was usually the case) slightly dulled the edges of the play in order to adhere to the Motion Picture Code. Williams didn’t like the changes, so much so that he often pointed people away from the film version. Many of his plays took from his own tumultuous and contentious life making them deeply personal but sometimes turgid and overblown. Judging the movie on its own merits, I find Brooks’ version to be overflowing with great scenes, a perfectly captured setting, and dialogue that pierces with shards of realism.

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With the exception of two brief scenes the entire story takes place on a huge family estate in the Mississippi Delta. It places us with the Pollitt family, an assortment of deeply flawed and sometimes contemptible people each with more emotional baggage than any world traveler. The family patriarch is Big Daddy (Ives) who may be struggling with some life-threatening health issues. His two sons and potential heirs each have their own problems. Brick (Newman) is a raging alcoholic who hobbles around on a crutch after breaking his ankle pulling a drunken stunt. His relationship with his wife Maggie (Taylor) is as stormy as the Deep South weather. The other son Cooper (Carson in what turned out to be his final role) is more interested in his inheritance. Spurred on by his manipulative wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), Cooper is the quintessential brown-noser who hopes to be first in line for his daddy’s fortune.

There are so many complicated family dynamics at work. Brick and Maggie have a cold and bitter relationship that stems from harbored anger and pain. There is clear animosity between the brothers which is often fueled by their boisterous wives. There is also a disconnect between a wealthy and success-driven father and the two sons that simply wanted his love. All of these conflicts and others are woven together to create the stinging, vitriolic fabric that makes up the story. Amazingly the various family angles never conflict and there is almost a twisted poetic quality to the various contentions and quarrels.

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The story is fantastic but it’s the cast who makes it simmer. Elizabeth Taylor was never more beautiful and her sultry natural beauty and Southern charm is ever-present. Paul Newman is perfect as the angry and closed-off Brick. Surprisingly he was not the first choice. Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, and even Elvis Presley all turned down the role. Carson plays a character type that he was well known for and Sherwood is convincing as the hateful and conniving Mae. But I haven’t even mentioned Judith Anderson who plays Big Daddy’s wife Big Mamma (of course). She lives in a delusional bubble where she pretends everything with her family is okay. Anderson is wonderful and many times she is the glue that binds the various fits of dysfunction we see.

Brimming with Southern personality, big but fitting performances, and a script with a bite, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is as mesmerizing today as it was over 50 years ago. Perhaps some of the edge is missing from the Broadway production, but I found it to be a delight. It’s a beautiful cinematic creation that still proudly shows its stage show roots. And it only gets better when you consider the phenomenal cast lead by Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. For some it falls short of a more popular Tennessee Williams adaption “A Streetcar Named Desire”. For me this film stands right there with it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Mildred Pierce” (1945)

Classic Movie SpotlightMildred PierceJoan Crawford had an interesting career to say the least. In 1937 she was called “The Queen of the Movies” by Life magazine but she would be called “Box Office Poison” only one year later. A few moderate successes would follow before her 18 year run with MGM studios was ended. Hungry for a new start, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers. One of her first pictures with her new studio was “Mildred Pierce”. The film was a huge success and Crawford would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar. Her performance was rightly recognized and her career was revived.

“Mildred Pierce” was directed by Michael Curtiz. The acclaimed director didn’t want Crawford as his lead but after his first choices bowed out (Bette Davis, Barabara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland), she got the job. The film was adapted from James Cain’s edgy 1941 hardboiled novel. Several plot lines from the book couldn’t be included in the picture due to the movie content code restrictions of the time. This allowed for the film’s introduction of the murder angle and several other creative differences.

Speaking of that, the movie opens with a murder. In a wonderful opening scene dripping with noir flavor, a man is shot several times by an unseen assailant who then flees the scene. The police bring in a successful restauranteur named Mildred Pierce (Crawford) for questioning. The murder victim turns out to be Mildred’s second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and the cops believe they know who did it. The main plot structure is built around her interrogation. Through flashbacks we are introduced to the main players and we follow Mildred’s rise from a hard working single mother to an owner of multiple restaurants in the Southern California area.

But we are also introduced to a darker side of Mildred’s life. It’s a side featuring two failed marriages, an unthinkable tragedy, and a bitter, contentious relationship with her oldest daughter Veda. It’s Veda who may be Mildred’s biggest failing. We watch her become a selfish and materialistic young girl who is actually a product of Mildred’s own making. Her desire to shower upon her daughter the most lavish things creates a scheming young girl who looks down with great haughtiness on the ‘have-nots’. Ann Blyth plays Veda and she is sublime. Blyth was actually on loan from Universal Studios at the time. Her performance garnered well-deserved praise which culminated in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Blyth would make several more films but none as memorable as “Mildred Pierce”. She was only 17 at the time but this performance showed an astuteness and attention usually associated with the greats.

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There is an assortment of other great side characters that help tell Mildred’s story. Bruce Bennett plays her first husband Bert who subverts any good intentions he may have with his carousing and disrespect. Yet you end up wondering if he knows more about Mildred than we first do. Then there is Bert’s real estate partner Wally (Jack Carson) who is never beyond an occasional flirt or a shady business deal. He’s a rather slimy fellow who also has self-centered intentions. Eve Arden gets some wonderful lines as Mildred’s friend and restaurant manager. And Butterfly McQueen has some good moments as Mildred’s maid.

While the film revolves around the murder of Beragon, the life of Mildred Pierce is the centerpiece. Much of the movie’s brilliance is shown in its storytelling style and in the clever ways it depicts Mildred’s changes. She’s an entirely different person by the film’s end. She becomes a woman enslaved by the poisonous relationship she has with her daughter. Things become darker and more twisted as the film moves along which gives “Mildred Pierce” a unique sense. It slices up and mixes portions of film noir, mystery, and romance to form a sordid yet thoroughly compelling whole.

I’m a big fan of “Mildred Pierce” and it’s easily one of my favorite Joan Crawford pictures. She is exceptional here as is her supporting cast, particularly young Ann Blyth. Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation is smart and crafty and it works seamlessly with Michael Curtiz’s style of direction. The film takes a few unavoidable diversions from the novel but they nicely translate cinematically. It all resulted in a spirited film that showcased a still relevant Crawford. It’s also true classic that still packs a hefty punch today.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS