Ann Blyth enters as the youngest in our series, Ladies of the Nightclubs. As Veda in the 1945 production of Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, Ann was assigned a familiar rag from 1911, “Oceana Roll” – lyrics by Roger Lewis, music by Lucien Denni. By the time filming began at Warner Brothers Studios, the song had become a quintessential sea shanty. Beginning in 1929, film composers were borrowing its main theme for nautical scenes on the comic or saltier side. By contrast, with a few measures from the equally familiar “Anchors Aweigh” – the action was probably something about full speed ahead.
Mildred Pierce was scored by Max Steiner whose extra-long list of successes included King Kong, Jezebel, and Casablanca. Steiner was known for packing his film scores with familiar songs and snatches. His score for Gone with the Wind includes motifs and verses from thirty-two period songs – ten of them composed by Stephen Foster. Max understood the potency of a familiar strain when inserted at exactly the right moment.
For the screenplay of Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros’ executive producer Jack Warner decided on a major re-write of the 1941 novel by James M. Cain. While his central characters remain recognizable, crucial plot lines were totally dropped – including Veda’s zooming career as an opera singer. Cain was obsessed with opera and channeled that aspect of his life into other of his writings. With Veda as a world class coloratura soprano, the impulses for destroying her mother take on a whole other frame of reference. But in this first cinematic adaptation, Veda’s voracious classical appetite is traded-in for sexual puttering and her New York concert debut is reduced to a ditty at a low-lit beer joint. But – it worked. This same location is used at the beginning of the film when Mildred is about to leap over the rail into the murky waters below – designer fur and all. And right about now, you can hear James M. Cain screaming at Mr. Warner, “What does any of this have to do with my book?!”
Veda Pierce became an archetype of the Evil Daughter the day Cain’s novel hit the bookstalls. When the film premiered in September 1945, it seemed a minor point to audiences everywhere that the plot had been completely overhauled. Rather than doing a direct adaptation of the novel – which happened in 2011, screenplay writer Ranald MacDougall (along with a team of uncredited contributors) fashioned a brilliant product with a fascinating twist and pushed it through the lens of Film Noir. Veda becomes the classic Femme Fatale – the woman you never want to meet. How does she wind up crooning the “Oceana Roll” in a third-rate taphouse in front of a bunch of randy sailors on shore leave?
The bar owner, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), is her mother’s self-serving business partner. He hired Veda about a month ago. He’s on to her, having just guided her through a false pregnancy scam in order to blackmail the boy’s wealthy parents out of $10,000. “Uncle Wally” knows Veda can handle herself just fine – even during Fleet Week. The sailor boys go totally native over her next get-up – a grass skirt and scrawny plastic lei.
Veda’s father (Bruce Bennett), always knew the singing and piano lessons were a complete waste. And it hasn’t been that long since Mildred tore up the settlement check for ten thousand. “Get out!” she said, after Veda slapped her to the floor. “Get your things out of this house right now before I throw them into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you!”
In the 2011 HBO miniseries of Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet – she almost does. The scene is most gratifying.
“Why do you want this girl back?” exclaims renowned conductor, Signor Carlo Treviso (Ronald Guttman), now private vocal coach to Veda Pierce. He knows beyond doubt – and tells Mildred so – that her daughter is as deadly as a coral snake, even worse. Turns out, the manipulative self-centered failed wannabe girl pianist from Glendale is an absolute once in a lifetime variety of operatic soprano – a Coloratura.
Mildred does not have a clue. “What is a coloratura soprano?”
James M. Cain battled with his frustrations as a wannabe opera singer. But he took his knowledge and fascination for the art and played it to the back row as he molded Veda Pierce into the epitome of a vain glorious goddess, the most ferocious incarnation of Prima Donna (so they say) in all the performing arts – a coloratura soprano. As an almost separate species, the coloratura soprano born to the purple occupies a place in the world of classical music that is like none other. Her repertoire – and survival in it – demands the combustion and fine tuning of a rocket ship. There are legends galore about these brilliant and sometimes tempestuous vocal artists – and the composers who adored them. Signor Treviso knows he can guide Veda into musical greatness. He also knows she’s pure poison.
In the miniseries, Chapter 4, Mildred finally hears Veda sing. The scene is her restaurant at Laguna Beach – the only one in the chain that does not serve chicken and waffles, but has a busy bar and will hire a band. Mildred and Bert are “making a night of it.” This evening’s performance comes courtesy of a live radio broadcast – the Hank Somerville (Pleasant Cigarettes) program. It will be conducted by Carlo Treviso. A server plugs-in the restaurant’s 12-tube Zenith table top radio. The introductions are over, the orchestra sounds the opening chord of “Air des clochettes” (The Bell Song) from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé. The lyrics begin after a few measures of vocal frills. Everyone has gone silent. The melody is slow, haunting and seductive. Veda’s crystalline voice soars above the instruments. Her character, Lakmé, daughter of a Brahmin priest and herself a priestess, must seduce and entrap a British army officer with her tale of love and union with the divine. The aria (dubbed by coloratura soprano Sumi Jo) telegraphs the future.
It is Mildred who is seduced and blindsided. By the middle of Chapter Five, Veda has sucked her mother’s finances dry and entrapped her second husband, diminished gigolo Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). Mildred finds Veda in Monty’s room.
“Does it make a difference what she thinks or what she pays for?” asks Veda, still between the sheets, in the afterglow, smoking a cigarette. She tells Monty to get dressed, then they’ll clear out. Mildred grabs Veda by her versatile throat, pins her to the floor, and for nineteen glorious seconds tries to wring the life out of her. Monty pulls Mildred off, Veda runs to the piano downstairs and tries to hit an F-sharp. All that’s left is a wheezing whistle. The career goes on hiatus.
Ann Blyth’s Veda is off to prison. She has killed Monty with her mother’s pistol, all six bullets. In California, that meant the chair.
“Darling, I’m sorry,” says Mildred as Veda is being taken away. “I did the best I could.”
“Don’t worry about me, Mother,” she responds. “I’ll get by.”