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With all this talk about typography and movies, it might not be out of line to talk about the trailer (above) for "Mildred Pierce," my favorite 40s melodrama. The trailer is a self-contained work of art, but it's also typical of the high-end trailers of the period, and I thought it might be fun to pick it apart and see what makes the previews of that era so appealing.
As we get into it you'll see that rules of film logic that you clung to til now are repeatedly violated, and with good effect. The violations work! No doubt about it, this trailer will have you re-thinking what you thought you knew about film.
BTW, If this analysis looks familiar, that's because it is...I did this before in July, 2007, but I've had a lot of time to think about it since then, and I think I can do a much, much better job now. If I miss something please let me know.
Well, it starts with a tumultuous fanfare and a title that reads, "WARNER BROS. invite you to witness the first scene of a motion picture the whole world will TALK ABOUT...." [You expect to see the main title 'Mildred Pierce' here but nope, this is just a teaser. The filmmaker is deliberately stimulating a curiosity that he has no intention of satisfying yet.]
DISSOLVE to gunshots heard in an underlit room at night. BAM! BAM! Cut to a figure falling to the floor as the unseen shooter pumps more bullets into him. With his last, dying breath he says the word..."Mildred."
More quick shots and an announcer says: " 'Mildred'...a name gasped in the night...the one last word of a dying man...but one word that tells a thousand stories of a WOMAN...who left her mark on every man she met." This is the last time we hear the announcer. They only used him for one, long sentense at the start!
[I'll interrupt here to say that I read the novel the film is taken from, and the way Mildred is treated in the trailer is much more sensational and lurid than the way she's treated in the book. In the book she's not a femme fatale, but a hard-working, obsessed mother. But let's not quibble. The trailer sucks you in, that's the important thing.]
PLAYBOY: "Mildred had more to offer in a glance than most women give in a lifetime."
HUSBAND: "Mildred knew what she wanted and wasn't too particular about how she got it."
SLEAZY BOYFRIEND: "Loving her was like shaking hands with the Devil!"
Notice that we haven't heard any Mildred dialogue yet. Come to think of it, we haven't heard any dialogue by any character yet. The three men I just quoted were addressing the camera, just selling the film.
[None of this (above) fits with the tone of the book. I guess the Hollywood wisdom was that a film has to be about somebody interesting, and you relentlessly and single-mindedly sell that person before you do anything else. The plot is totally secondary.]
A TITLE sweeps up from the floor: "It's JOAN Crawford....(new title, building music)...in her most DARINGLY DIFFERENT portrayal...(big, new title and furiously building music)...'MILDRED PIERCE'."
[The music reaches a crescendo, and the trailer seems to want to end here, and it almost does...but wait... the filmmaker hasn't told us about the plot yet. Amazingly, after almost drawing to a close, the film music winds up again and we segway from an exit theme to a sentimental fresh start. This isn't a fluke. I see this technique in trailer after trailer. It violates all the rules, but it works beautifully!!!!!! Go figure!]
Do we get to hear dialogue from the film yet? NO! Instead we see clips of Mildred with different men and a new title sweeps in..."THE INTIMATE AFFAIRS of a WOMAN...(new title)...who refused to live BY THE RULES--
Wow! Can you believe that! Even after the new start, they still wouldn't let us hear Mildred!!!!!! Man, they're witholding her until we're drooling with frustration! Finally, we get some dialogue (it's about time), but the dialogue is interrupted by another title: "She tried TO KISS OFF a crime!"
Huh? Crime? What crime? The shooting was a long time ago, back at the start of the trailer. This kiss-off-a-crime title appears between clips of romantic dialogue. The filmmaker deliberately doesn't sync the titles with what's happening on the screen. Once again, the rules are broken! But it works! Watch the film again and see if you don't agree!
Well, the trailer goes on, and there's lots more I could comment on, but I better end here. So, what have we learned? I learned that selling personality is everything, that an audience will tolerate more postponed satisfaction than I ever dreamed possible, that an audience actually wants to be tortured with denial of climaxes, that it's okay if a story stops and starts up again, that visuals don't have to sync with the dialogue, and that film making is a mischievous game that you play with an audience.