Blyth spirit

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MOVIE STAR "You can tell that it's cheap by the smell of the fabric!" Veda Pierce says, wrinkling her nose when her mother, Mildred, gives her a dress.
You can tell 1945's Mildred Pierce is a classic film by the depth of its shadows. And you can tell that Ann Blyth — however Veda-rific and villainous — is the kind of class act Hollywood doesn't make anymore, the no-nonsense type who doesn't have an unkind word to say about anyone. Particularly when you ask about Joan Crawford.
"I can only speak from my own experience," Blyth says. "She was terrific to work with and very kind to me. I was seriously injured shortly after finishing Mildred Pierce — I fractured my back. After eight or nine months, one of the first things I could do was swim, and she invited me to her pool." Uh-oh — her pool? According to Blyth, it's best to erase that I-will-always-beat-you Mommie Dearest swim scene from your head: "I think many people realize there were exaggerations [in the movie]."
So on to brighter subjects — such as the fact that Blyth, a grandmother and expert knitter who is still happily married after 53 years, never let the movies mess up her life. That's an achievement, considering her formidable career, one built from a keep-it-simple approach to acting. "You listen to the person you're playing opposite," she says. "Then your own intuitive sense comes into play."
In addition to Mildred Pierce’s Michael Curtiz, Blyth also worked with directors Raoul Walsh ("pretty freewheeling") and Douglas Sirk ("a very introspective person"). Her talent as a songbird is on display in movies shared with "very special friend" and "delight" Donald O'Connor, and she held her own opposite leading men as varied as "dear" Farley Granger and Robert Mitchum, who had "shoulders that went on forever" but also "was very playful."
Blyth's own bright presence made a definite impression on Howard Hughes, who gave her a swimming pool and a Cadillac after a single conversation. Still, this week at least, all roads lead back to Veda. According to Blyth, her romantic scenes with fellow Mildred Pierce villain Zachary Scott were a pleasure because he exemplified the Norma Desmond line "We had faces!" Eve Arden? "She could say something wicked and not hurt anyone's feelings."
So how exactly did Blyth get that special twinkle in her eye? "You mean that devil look?" she asks with a laugh. "Working with Mike Curtiz helped.... Every scene to me was special, from the very beginning when [Veda] seems to be a spoiled brat, until the end, when she's developed into a truly evil person. Thank goodness I don't know anyone like that!"
Yes, Mildred Pierce contains noir corners that Todd Haynes and Sonic Youth would die for — and it has Joan. But even Joan would have one less classic in her filmography if it wasn't for Blyth. As the woman herself says, without her performance "[Mildred Pierce] would just be about opening up a very successful drive-in." (Johnny Ray Huston)
MILDRED PIERCE
With Ann Blyth
Fri/21, gala and screening 7 p.m., reception 10:30 p.m.
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
$27.50–$55
(415) 863-0611
www.ticketweb.com