An Introduction to Deanna Durbin AKA Judy Garland’s preteen singing nemesis

Maybe about a year ago, I was introduced to Deanna Durbin. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s understandable. She’s pretty well forgotten. However, in her day, she was one of the highest paid actresses and her popularity actually saved Universal from bankruptcy.

When she was discovered at thirteen, her name was Edna and she was in competition with a young Judy Garland at MGM. They were both great singers and were thought to be answers to the Shirley Temple problem. They made a short subject film together called Every Sunday where they were put side by side and tested. I think they’re both great, but that’s just me!

According to legend, MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer watched the film and nixed “the fat one.” He apparently meant Garland, but Durbin was the one who lost her contract. Shortly after, she was picked up by Universal and made a string of light musical comedies. The major difference between Durbin and Garland’s career was that Garland was allowed to transition to adult roles while Durbin was kept in juvenile territory.

Still, I was amazed by Durbin’s quiet beauty, her comedic chops and her astoundingly beautiful operatic voice. Though she retired from film at the age of 27, she left a mark on moviegoers and deserves to be remembered.

With that in mind, here are her best performances and films IMHO:

Three Smart Girls (1936)

This film was Durbin’s feature film debut. She was just 15 years old. Directed by Henry Koster and written by Adele Comandini, the film follows three sisters, one of which is played by Durbin who scheme to reunite their divorced parents so their father won’t marry a gold-digger. Sound familiar? Three Smart Girls was remade in the 60’s…a little film called The Parent Trap.

With co-stars Ray Milland, Charles Winniger, and Barbara Read, Three Smart Girls is a fun lighthearted musical and it gave Durbin her first chance to shine.

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Girls will be girls…haha

First Love (1939)

Any Cinderella fans out there will get a kick out of First Love. In this modern re-telling, Durbin plays Constance Harding, an orphan who finishes up school and goes to live with her wealthy uncle (Eugene Pallette) and his family. She even has an evil step-sister to boot, played by Helen Parrish.

The film is often noted for having Deanna’s first on-screen kiss, her beau being played by a twenty year old Robert Stack. Though certainly flawed, this film is one of her best. It’s fun and sweet and has some wonderful songs!

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What a FIRST KISS! #HerDressThough

It’s A Date (1940)

In this one, made just after First Love, Durbin plays Pamela Drake, a young, aspiring actress with a famous actress mother, played by Kay Francis. She gets offered the lead role in a new play only to realize that her mother is competing for the same role. On a boat, she meets John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon), a much older man who she believes is vying for her affection. Pamela soon realizes she may be competing with her mother romantically as well as professionally.

Story-wise, parts of this just don’t work for me, but despite its flaws, it has some wonderful scenes of screwball comedy antics and a great finish where Durbin sings Ave Maria.

It Started With Eve (1941)

This film has a great premise. It follows Anne Terry (Durbin), a hat check girl who is asked to pose as a man’s (Robert Cumming) fiancee because his father (Charles Laughton) is dying. Only problem is after Durbin meets Cumming’s father. He doesn’t die. No great moment to tell your loved one, “Uh, sorry. Just kidding, not my real fiancee. Just thought you were dying, so, uh…” There’s no way for that not to be awkward.

This was the first of Durbin’s films that I saw and it is thought by many to be her best. It is my personal favorite. I feel like it accomplishes telling a coherent story while including the screwball comedy antics and Durbin’s lovely voice! Her chemistry with Robert Cummings doesn’t hurt either!

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I kinda wish hats were still a thing. Just me?

Christmas Holiday (1944)

It’s hard to encapsulate this one. It’s unlike any of her other films. Though her co-star is the lovely musical Gene Kelly and the title sounds like a Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas special, Christmas Holiday is a fairly bleak film noir. Durbin was 23 when she made this film and finally gained script approval, a right she used to graduate to more adult roles.

Christmas Holiday follows Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a singing prostitute (they never say it outright, but that’s what she is) who meets a young lieutenant (Dean Harens). They find solace in one another, telling their tales of how they got to be where they are. Jackie recounts finding out her husband, Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) murdered a girl and explains that even so, she still loves him. It is truly Gene Kelly as you’ve never seen him before. He’s a far cry from Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain.

Though it’s a truly strange film, Durbin proves that she has more than just an amazing voice. And the cinematography is on point!

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The black and white is GORGEOUS!

She was gorgeous, a singing prodigy, and a fantastic actress!

It’s so easy to play the “if/then” game, but I truly believe if Durbin’s talents had really been recognized and utilized, she could’ve become a star on the same level as Judy Garland. But she was different than Garland in many ways – she seemed to have a good head on her shoulders and chose a happy, quiet life over the chaos and absurdity that is Hollywood.

The magic of movies is that we can still appreciate her despite the fact that she stopped acting at 27 and passed away in 2013. I discovered her only recently and for those who, like me, enjoy films of the musical and screwball comedy persuasion, get ready for your new obsession!

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A New Year Ensemble to be proud of. Anyone know where I can get those hair star pins? P&T!

Happy watching!

Gifs and photos property of Universal Pictures.

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‘The Edge of Seventeen’ captures the teenage female psyche perfectly

It’s been a shitty year for movies. It’s become kind of a slog to go to the movies. Most times I come out and think, That wasn’t really worth it. I almost exclusively write about classic films on this blog, but I needed to make an exception after seeing Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen.

The Edge of Seventeen reminded me of so many things I love, but what astounded me most about it was how completely it got into a teen girl’s mind. The only other project that came even close was the seminal 90’s teen show, My So-Called Life.

In case you’re not familiar, The Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by first time director Kelly Fremon Craig, follows Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), an awkward, sarcastic, insecure, compulsive over-talking teen. She has a best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) who inconveniently starts dating her older, extremely popular brother (Blake Jenner). As a result, Nadine goes off the deep end, forced to face herself and her insecurities. MAJOR DRAMA ENSUES…

Here are just a few reasons you need to get your butt off the couch this weekend and see The Edge of Seventeen:

The Cast

I’m gonna be real with y’all. The most important role in this film is Nadine and Hailee Steinfeld knocks it out of the park. She’s so real and awkward and honest and just, agh, this was me in high school. No doubt she’ll be going on to great things…

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I wanna tear up just thinking about this scene. 

The supporting cast is also strong, especially when led by Woody Harrelson who plays her smart-ass teacher, Mr. Bruner. He’s his usual smarmy self. He brings out the major laughs of the film.

Additionally, Hayden Szeto is also wonderful as Erwin Kim, Nadine’s awkward, nerdy love interest. There are a few moments where he’s so sincere you’re like, Um, if she doesn’t want you, I’ll date you!

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A classic case of misreading signals…lol

Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, and Kyra Sedgewick are good too. Unfortunately, they’re just not given much screen time.

Oh, and yes, that is Andi, aka Meredith Monroe, from Dawson’s Creek as Harrelson’s wife.

The Screenplay

Where do I start? I was lucky enough to read the script a few months back and even as a script, it was fantastic. The dialogue is witty and awkward and real.

The plot feels down-to-earth. This is, to me, what really separates it from films of the John Hughes ilk. I love those movies as much as the next girl, but I know I’m not watching reality. In this, every beat feels like it could really happen. And it doesn’t end with fireworks or a magical kiss, just our main character moving one step forward in her life.

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Just one of Nadine’s witty, totally adult retorts.

What the script also does well is comment on the loneliness of being a teenager. I know, I know. It’s been done before. But, for some reason this one really felt real to me. I think it’s partially because I’m similar to Nadine. I hide my awkwardness and insecurity with sarcasm and witty retorts. It all comes down to loneliness, not feeling like you fit in, thinking that you’ll never quite be normal.

Oh, and Nadine’s whole way of explaining her whole not driving thing…TOO CLOSE TO HOME.

The Direction

Kelly Fremon Craig also wrote the script for another coming of age film a few years back, Post Grad which starred Alexis Bledel. I remember liking the film, but feeling that it was just a bit forced which is the exact opposite of the feeling in this film.

Though the script was fantastic, it was Fremon Craig’s direction which brought this movie to life. Certain stylistic choices made all the difference. For instance, in a major showdown with her brother, Nadine reveals her true feelings quietly, no overly sappy music. She just quietly states how she feels and it breaks you.

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Don’t worry, my weekends were below average in high school too, Nadine.

There’s a sensitivity and an understanding of that age that Fremon Craig clearly has. Every problem feels like it’s the end of the world and Craig understands that and validates it.

The Music

This may be a bit dumb, but I really enjoyed the music. It’s an eclectic soundtrack, featuring Santigold, Angus and Julia Stone, and Aimee Mann.

It’s awkward, genuine, and poignant. 

The teen, or coming of age genre has been overrun by cliches in past years. And don’t get me wrong, this film has some of those cliches too. But, it stands out because it’s rooted in reality. I felt like it captured something special in its writing and direction as well as its performances, something human and completely relatable.

If you were an awkward teenager, this film is sure to resonate. I’m excited to see what films Kelly Fremon Craig goes on to make. So, if you’re looking for Thanksgiving weekend movies to see, please consider this one. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe. It’s got it all!

Images and gifs property of STX Entertainment.

‘A Little Romance’ aka ‘Before Sunrise’ for the Junior Set

I didn’t see Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy until I was well into college, so when I originally saw A Little Romance I didn’t see just how similar the films were. I was maybe around twelve or thirteen when I was introduced to this film. There is definitely a fantasy element, that preteen, wouldn’t-it-be-wonderful-if-this-happened-to-me kind of thing. But, there is also a realism, a maturity, a sensitivity to the way the film treats its young protagonists.

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Aren’t they adorable? 

If you’re not familiar, A Little Romance follows Lauren (Diane Lane), an young American girl living with her mother (Sally Kellerman) and stepfather (Richard Hill) in France. She meets young Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) on the film set of her mother’s current paramour and they establish an instant connection. When Lauren finds out her stepfather is going to be transferred back to the states, she decides to go on one last jaunt with Daniel to Venice with the help of an old, charming pickpocket, Julius (Laurence Olivier). As always with my reviews, drama ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you should put A Little Romance on your watchlist:

The Cast

Diane Lane made her feature film debut with this film. She was just fourteen years old. It’s amazing to see her as a young actress. Even then, she had a maturity and intelligence that made you want to listen to what she was saying. Her co-star, Laurence Olivier envisioned Lane as the next Grace Kelly.

Thelonious Bernard also made his debut with this film, but unlike Lane, he only went on to make one more film after. He retired from acting and became a dentist in France. It’s always fascinating to see a child actor who only gave one or two performances. Bernard certainly had something in this film. He was goofy and sweet and charming. You could see why Lauren falls for him.

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#HAIRGOALS, amiright?

Laurence Olivier was at the tail end of his career and during the making of this film, was recovering from pneumonia and thrombosis, but he insisted on doing his own stunts. It’s especially fun to see him as a bumbling, kind, criminal.

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The DRAMA starts here!

The Screenplay

The film was adapted from Claude Klotz’s novel, E=MC2 Mon Amour. Allan Burns, who adapted the novel, spent most of his writing career as a television writer, working on acclaimed shows like The Munsters and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

At the time this film was released, many criticized the film’s dialogue for being too sophisticated and cute, the underlying meaning being, thirteen year-olds don’t say this stuff. It doesn’t bother me. I think that their intelligence is the main reason they’re drawn to one another. Their friends don’t understand life on the same level as them.

Also, I think there’s a little bit of a 400 Blows-type feel to this film, especially Daniel’s home life. Before Sunrise was made nearly two decades after this film but it owes it a great debt. Like Sunrise, A Little Romance is almost entirely based around Lauren and Daniel’s relationship and their conversations.

It’s also similar in that both films end realistically. Daniel and Lauren’s love affair is pure. I believe they only kiss twice. Their connection is based on more than physical attraction and the film is instead commenting on what it’s like to fall in love at that age, while not demeaning it.

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Okay? Okay. 

The Direction

Director George Roy Hill is most famous for his films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, both of which get a little cameo in A Little Romance. Daniel is obsessed with American film and regularly goes to the see movies, parroting what he hears.

The biggest thing I can say of the direction in this film is that there’s a sweetness to it. The film doesn’t claim to be treading new territory, but it tells its story in a quiet, charming way that delivers laughs and tears.

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GO DANIEL!!

The Score

Georges Delerue is most famous for scoring Platoon, Silkwood and The Conformist. However, the only Oscar he won was for his original score of A Little Romance. It’s very seventies, but also very classical and sweet just like the film itself.

It’s a sweet and pure tale of first love.

Is it a perfect film? No. But, it certainly deserves to be remembered if for no other reason than to see a young Diane Lane. The film takes its young protagonists and their problems seriously and because of that, it can’t help but tug on your heartstrings…unless you’re heartless or something. I can’t help you there!

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Just like Bogie and Bacall, huh?

Vintage trailer below:

Photos and Gifs property of Orion Pictures.

 

Before Robby Benson was the Beast, he was a nerdy Jewish boy in “Jeremy”

Okay, show of hands – who knows who Robby Benson is? Though his name is far from being outrageously famous, I’m sure some cinephiles automatically go, “Oh, yeah. Wasn’t he the voice of the Beast?” And, yes, he was…but he also had a career long before that.

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ICYMI…that’s Robby Benson.

At the start of his career, he was actually most known for playing the romantic lead in Ice Castles, a cliched but fun love story with figure skating. And it had that overplayed, but still great Melissa Manchester song.

If you’re not familiar (which is most likely), Jeremy, made in 1973, follows Jeremy Jones (Robby Benson), a teenage Cellist with a crush on the new girl, Susan Rollins (Glynnis O’Connor). They have an awkward and sweet chemistry and fall quickly for each other only to have the fates intervene and tear them apart.

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BEST MOMENT EVER.

Here are just a few reasons you should watch Jeremy:

The Cast

For me, the cast is the major reason to watch this film. Every other element wouldn’t work without Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor. At the time, they were just fifteen years old, creating controversy over a very tasteful love scene.

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His voice breaks at the end of the sentence. 
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No, he doesn’t understand, Glynnis!

Both were fairly new to the business – this was Glynnis’s debut – and that showed in the best way possible. They weren’t trying to act. They were natural. They were believable. Their on-screen chemistry sparked an off-screen romance that lasted a couple of years. They even made another romantic drama together, Ode to Billy Joe.

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So quiet and sweet.

The Direction/Writing

Writer/director Arthur Barron was a screenwriting professor at the time. He adapted his friend, John Minahan’s novel and got Elliot Kastner (who produced The Long Goodbye) and George Pappas on board as producers.

These coming of age romance films have become a dime, a dozen. I, of course, am still watching them, but most are cliched and tired, having covered the same ground a million times over. This film came a few years after the success of Love Story. But while that film went glossy, Jeremy felt real. There’s real awkwardness in the way these teenagers talk to each other and they don’t sound like adults (Hello Dawson’s Creek!).

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This scene always gets me. It’s so honest.

Beyond the style, I loved the ending. I don’t want to give too much away but I will say it doesn’t end happily. I think I have a tendency to love impossible love stories (see: Brief Encounter).

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His surprise is great…

The Music

This was a major element of the film which I made fun of as a kid. “The Blue Balloon Song” which is sung by Robby Benson, is very seventies (my dad rolls his eyes). But, it’s sweet and awkward just like the film’s couple. It’s fun to listen to next to Robby singing as the beast and be like, “Wow, that’s the same guy.”

It’s genuine, unpolished, and awkward. 

Jeremy is far from being a perfect film. As a young person, my brothers and I used to make fun of it and my dad’s affection for it. But, looking at it as an older person, it has something that too many films lack today: sincerity.

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Oh, the awkwardness…

I know it meant a lot to my dad. He was a nerdy Jewish teenager at the time this came out.

In lieu of the trailer, here’s the whole film:

Beauty and the Beast Gif property of Disney.

Jeremy photos and gifs property of United Artists.

The major momma drama of ‘Mildred Pierce’

One of my biggest pet peeves in talking to my peers about classic film is when they tell me, “How can you like movies without complex female characters?” I’m not sure where this assumption started, but a lot of people believe that there is a lack of strong female characters in classic cinema.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially in the pre-code era, complex women were everywhere! If you don’t believe me, just look up Baby Face or The Divorcee. The movie I want to discuss today, Mildred Pierce, is ALL about complicated women.

I first saw this movie back in high school. I didn’t know anything about it and so, each melodramatic twist hit me hard! What surprised me the most was that the film didn’t shy away from making the characters unlikable. Even the titular Mildred is far from being a perfect person!

If you’re not familiar, Mildred Pierce, made in 1945, follows Mildred (Joan Crawford), a mother blinded by the love for her two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). When she splits with her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred works to give her daughters the life she believes they deserve. She becomes a successful businesswoman and even finds a new man, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), but is it enough to win her daughters’ respect and love? Let’s just say, lots of momma drama ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you need to watch Mildred Pierce NOW:

The Cast

Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her career-defining performance as Mildred, but she was not the original choice for the role. In fact, they offered the role to three other actresses including Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck before finally offering it to Joan. Michael Curtiz, the film’s director thought Stanwyck a has-been and apparently really didn’t like her shoulder pads. She surprised them all by giving a truly Oscar-worthy, nuanced performance as Mildred.

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And her fashion is on point too, no?

I had the pleasure of seeing this film at the TCM Film Festival a few years back with Ann Blyth in attendance for a Q&A afterwards. Blyth was just seventeen years old when she played Veda, Mildred’s vapid, beautiful daughter. She’s deliciously evil and obnoxious. Apparently, the Academy thought so as well since they gave her an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.

Of working with Crawford, Blyth “…remembered her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about (Blyth, TCM Article).”

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THAT FAMOUS SLAP.

Also, this is a fascinating piece TCM put together a few years ago. Lots of interesting tidbits! Ann talks about THE SLAP. It’s great.

Eve Arden is also wonderful as Ida, Mildred’s business party and best friend. She takes snark to a whole new level.

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Mildred doesn’t look too happy about this toast.

Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Jo Ann Marlowe also give great performances.

The Script

The script was based on a James M. Cain novel. He also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mildred Pierce wasn’t one of his bestselling novels, but nevertheless, it caught the attention of producer Jerry Wald, who took charge of the project.

There’s much debate about whether the film is really a film noir or a women’s melodrama. Certainly, the subject matter seems more female oriented than most film noirs. But, still, the main plot surrounds a murder (very film noir). Certainly, this film is more a character drama than anything else. Mildred is fascinating. She’s not a bad person. But, she does do bad things for her daughter. She has blinders on, only seeing the goal of trying to provide for her daughter.

Blyth’s Veda is similarly complex. We wonder how she became this way, this self centered, money hungry young girl. She will, like Mildred, go to any lengths to achieve her goal, even if that means spurning her mother. But, there are moments when she seems human and child-like, and that makes her difficult to hate completely.

To me, the film feels like it’s partially about not seeing what’s really there. To an extent, we see what we want to see, in our family members especially. When Mildred really does see Veda, it’s devastating.

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Just a mother trying to provide for her daughter…

The Direction

Michael Curtiz’s name is not as well known as it should be. After all, he directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. He apparently did not see eye to eye with Crawford, “…referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew (Rob Nixon and Stephanie Thames, TCM Article).” They apparently did build a respect as the film went on, but Jerry Wald often acted as referee between them. Despite the feeling behind the scenes, the film Curtiz made is nuanced and masterfully directed. Given the fact that it was so female-oriented, I thought he did a great job portraying their struggles without belittling them.

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Bills, bills, bills. I feel you, Mildred.

The Score

Max Steiner is most well known for scoring Gone with the Wind, which makes complete sense when you listen to Mildred Pierce‘s score. It has an epic quality to it. There are moments of the film which may have benefited from a lack of score, but still, Steiner’s score is pretty hard to hate. It lends a dramatic quality to literally every line.

The Cinematography

Like the score, Mildred Pierce also borrowed Gone with the Wind DP Ernest Haller. Haller also shot Rebel Without a Cause and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in his long career. Film noir, despite the way it’s discussed now, is really a style. Haller helps create that style, the shadowy darkness. The black and white is gorgeous and haunting.

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Just look at the water…HAUNTING, amiright?

It’s a bombastic, affecting, female-driven film noir.

You watch this movie now and you can’t not be amazed – that they got the story and dialogue past the censors, that Crawford and Blyth are SO good, and that it is completely female driven. It was a true game-changer. It revitalized Crawford’s career and started Blyth’s. Is it melodramatic? Yes, of course. But, that’s the fun of it.

The book was remade into a miniseries by HBO in 2011 and although I love Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, the movie still reigns supreme. If you’ve never seen Mildred Pierce, you’re in for a treat and some really fun momma drama!

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Is it wrong that I’m distracted by how cute her dress is?

Vintage trailer below:

BONUS: I came across this wonderful parody of Mildred Pierce, which was done on the Carol Burnett show in the 1970’s. Carol as Joan is ON POINT. 

Images and gifs property of Warner Bros. Pictures.