A hard-working mother inches towards disaster as she divorces her husband and starts a successful restaurant business to support her spoiled daughter.
James M Cain’s novel ‘Mildred Pierce’ was much tougher, dirtier, violent and cynical than the gorgeously mounted movie it became, but the film still manages to maintain enough of the flavor of the book to be interesting. The portrait of working class life in Southern California works well, as does the depiction of a marriage that breaks down because of disappointment and resentment rather than anything melodramatic. Within its first hour MILDRED PIERCE captures something anxious about American life and marriages and families that is more true than most of what movies had shown up to that time, and it would prove to be even more so in the postwar world to come. The movie actually becomes more false and synthetic as it moves into Mildred’s rise in life, but by then the plot and characters have taken hold.
And so has the film’s increasingly bleak look at what women can expect when they live and work alone in a man’s world, beset by men who want to exploit them, sexually and otherwise. This too, though softened from the book, would have seemed refreshingly frank to many of viewers at that time.
What raises the film to the level of classic is the first class work from every professional in every department. Joan Crawford is not much more expressive here than she was in her later MGM pictures, but this character suits her limited talents so well that she seems better than in almost anything else she did. All her Warners pictures used her more effectively than MGM usually managed to do, perhaps because in them she is invariably exploited, abused, maligned, even tortured. The bad behavior her Warners characters inspire in others is so extreme that she doesn’t need to be. These plots do what Adrian’s sometimes garish clothes did for her at MGM: they give her a personality, make her seem more interesting than she really was, and they make her sympathetic despite her essential coldness.
Crawford gets able support from Ann Blyth, Eve Arden (as comedy relief; she is almost appearing in another movie entirely), Zachary Scott and especially Jack Carson, dead-on as a sweaty hustler and low rent lothario, bringing nuance to what could have been a one-note portrayal. Bruce Bennett isn’t really a good actor in the role of Mildred’s first husband, but he’s perfectly cast — he looks like an Okie from one of Dorothea Lange’s photographs who went west to ‘make it’ and never did.
And as has been frequently mentioned here, Ernest Haller’s cinematography (especially in the brilliant prints now being shown on cable) is consistently evocative and beautiful. So many of his shots live in the memory: in the scene where a mink wearing, gun wielding Mildred comes upon Monte and Vida kissing, the image is an almost primal one of betrayal and glamor — the way their profiles are in darkness, the way Ann Blyth arches back against the bar, the hard, dim glitter of lame and the billows of tulle from her gown. The way Vida tumbles forward into almost blinding lamplight while Monte’s face hardens behind her — these are the kinds of wonderful images the best old films regularly delivered. Also excellent is Anton Grot’s art direction, opulent but still managing to help create the particular SoCal atmosphere of this picture. And as usual, Max Steiner’s score is effective, but as an earlier poster noted, he recycled a couple of motifs from his Oscar-winning score to NOW, VOYAGER. And director Michael Curtiz must be praised for keeping everything in perfect balance. This is one of the most admired ’40s pictures and well worth a look.
With those broad shoulders, those wall-to-wall eyebrows, that steely look on her face, and wrapped in those expensive clothes, the inimitable Joan Crawford exudes glamour and resolve as famed Mildred Pierce, housewife turned businesswoman, in this Michael Curtiz-directed film, part mystery, part melodrama.
The film’s story, told in flashbacks, begins with mystery, and it is helped along by terrific B&W lighting. Most of the rest of the story is sheer melodrama, with talky dialogue that erupts from confrontations between various characters. The most important confrontations occur between Mildred and her ungrateful, scheming daughter Veda, who requires tons of money to be happy.
As the story moves along, Mildred buys and successfully operates a restaurant, but it’s not enough to win approval from her odious daughter. Mildred’s love for Veda is deep. But Mildred, we learn, is also a take-charge woman who won’t take any guff from anyone, at least from caddy suitors or prospective in-laws.
It’s a great story. And in addition to the topnotch cinematography, the film has great production design, costumes, and editing. We’re also treated to some pleasantly nostalgic music from the 1940s. Crawford gets good support performances from Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, and Jack Carson. I also liked Butterfly McQueen, the little lady with the high-pitched voice who plays Mildred’s maid.
I suspect this film would have been worthy of praise, even with someone else playing the title character; the film is that good. But no other actress would have had the stage presence of the impressive Joan Crawford. It’s mostly because of her that “Mildred Pierce” will be remembered and loved, for generations to come. It’s also partly because of “Mildred Pierce” that Joan Crawford will be admired as a Hollywood legend, for generations to come.
While the novel is told by a third-person narrator in strict chronological order, the film uses voice-over narration (the voice of Mildred). The story is framed by Mildred’s interrogation by police after they discover the body of her second husband, Monte Beragon. The film, in noir fashion, opens with Beragon (Zachary Scott) having been shot. He murmurs the name “Mildred” before he dies. The police tell Mildred (Joan Crawford) that they believe the murderer is her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). Bert has already been interrogated, and confessed to the crime. Mildred protests that he is too kind and gentle to commit murder, and goes on to relate her life story in flashback.
Mildred was married to Pierce, who is presently unemployed. Bert had been a real estate partner of Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred has been supporting her family by baking and selling pies and cakes. Bert accuses Mildred of caring more about their daughters, and making them her priority instead of her husband. Mildred admits this, and the two decide to separate.
Wally propositions Mildred the moment he learns that she and Bert separated. Mildred retained custody of her two daughters, the 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth), a bratty social climber and aspiring pianist, and 10-year-old Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), a tomboy. Mildred’s principal goal is to provide for Veda, who longs for possessions that her mother can’t afford, and social status above that of her family. She is ashamed of her mother’s work as a baker.
Mildred searches for a job, but is hampered by her lack of employable skills. She has never worked outside her home except for her small baking business. The best she can find is as a waitress – a fact she hides from Veda. One day, Veda gives their maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), Mildred’s waitress uniform, with full knowledge that it’s Mildred’s. Mildred confronts Veda and is forced to admit she is a waitress. Veda treats her with derision and makes it clear that she is ashamed of her mother.
Bert arrives to take his daughters for his weekend visit. Kay contracts pneumonia on the trip and dies. Mildred channels her grief into work and throws herself into opening a new restaurant. With the help of her new friend and former supervisor, Ida (Eve Arden), Mildred’s new restaurant is a success. Wally helps Mildred buy the property, and she expands into a chain of “Mildred’s” throughout Southern California.