One of the best-made Hollywood movies ever, Mildred Pierce transcends the genre of the high-powered soap opera (tinged with a definite Noir flavor) by miraculously encapsulating a number of vital American themes, some of them years before the nation knew they existed. The desperate search for identity and property as the key to happiness, and maternal love misplaced on a grand scale, are the twin engines of this lightning-fast entertainment machine. A holy monster of Hollywood who wouldn't stay dead, Joan Crawford made this show a shattering return to the top, in a role she'd more or less repeat throughout the rest of her career.
When a single movie turns out as good as Mildred Pierce, there's a tendency to just step back, list the unpredictable but hindsight-obvious factors that made it a classic, and then fold one's hands. Mildred Pierce started as a supposedly unfilmable novel by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), that was considered too oversexed for the page, let alone the screen. Written and set in late-depression Los Angeles, it is a hardboiled take on The Woman Alone, stranded not in a dark mystery, but in the middle of suburban reality. Cain's Mildred is destroyed when she throws her husband out of the house, for running off to Mrs. Biederhoff's; but she realizes that the break is an opportunity to advance herself in ways that are unavailable to housewives. As if embarking on an adventure, she beds & discards the callow Wally Fay, just to see what all the fuss is about. When her business acumen raises her stakes in society, she makes sure to enroll her daughters in the snooty Marlboro Girls' school, where all the 'right' girls go. 1
The movies favor heroes, and Mildred is a very special one, gaining our admiration for escaping poverty through determination, hard work, and honest fair play. That's still possible in America, and it's the nation's real religion. Mildred wins the unswerving loyalty of a solid pal like Ida, but, like a flawed Greek hero, she's cursed by other components in her personality: misplaced ambition and a blindness to those closest to her.
Mildred is the mostly good side of the Mom in Momism, that later theoretical woman who sociologists described as the maternal force run wild. Not unlike the insect queen of Aliens, Mildred has her brood to nurture and little else matters. But she has grave faults, favoring one daughter over the other. The accidental death of the 'forgotten' Kay, becomes the excuse to burn all bridges in the attempt to buy for the other daughter, Veda, all the high-toned advantages life can afford. 2 We see that Mildred has no personal need for the polo lifestyle or the Pasadena mansion with the servants. It's all for Veda. 4
Audiences had certainly never seen a female reptile like Veda on screen before, but they immediately recognized her from real life. James M. Cain didn't have to invent this contemptuous User, for whom any gift is too shabby. Veda greedily consumes luxuries, pretending to love their source, while constantly angling for a better deal. In the book we can assume that Veda may have started out human, but was warped by Mildred's adulation and attentions, like a Frankenstein's monster of Mother Love. As incarnated by the beautiful, sneering Ann Blyth, she's insincere and transparently patronizing from the start, yet Mildred is totally blind to it. Even the fatheaded Wally Fay soon sees the distortion in Veda's personality, but Mildred stays devoted to the bitter end.
In the (beautifully) compressed screenplay, Veda courts the edge of credibility, and probably would go over, if it were not for our societal willingness to 'put the blame on Mame' and make the female of the species culpable for all human ills. Film Noir and most American thrillers from 1940 to 1970 or so front the assumption that the dame in the story is the guilty party. Because she 'creates' desire, in puritanical terms she doesn't have to actually do anything to set evil in motion. Mildred's daughter is beautiful, deceitful and ruthless, a triple threat.
Veda takes the cake for sheer nerve. Her callous exploitation (abetted by Wally Fay) of the poor Forrester kid and his rich family is the work of a junior-league Borgia. When she's co-opted by Mildred's own second husband, even the haughty Monty Baragon bites off more than he can chew.
(spoilers aplenty follow)
Mildred Pierce has a crafty noir flashback structure that frames a lengthy backstory (ten years?) with a spicy murder mystery, in which we assume Mildred is guilty. The past is recounted from Mildred's POV, to the chief of detectives at 3AM down at City Hall, where we'd more expect to see Philip Marlowe. Although the bulk of Mildred's testimony plays in sunny Glendale and Burbank, dark shadows seem to be her natural habitat, and the presumption of her as a murderess, trying to clear her innocent first husband (Bruce Bennett) of the killing of her second, puts a fated pallor over the domestic content of the flashback. As Mildred's fortunes improve, there's the nagging feeling that her ambition itself is some kind of original sin, American style, and that she'll be brought low for the crime of wanting to rise. Structurally, Mildred Pierce is fashioned like a classic gangster movie, like The Roaring Twenties.
The murder plot and flashback gambit are the invention of screenwriter Ranald MacDougall. They are not to be found in James M. Cain's novel, which finds ways more naturalistic and less glamorous for Mildred to be brought low. On the page, she's fleeced by her daughter and Wally Fay, who, I believe marry to form a union of petty evil. After his drinking partnership with Mrs. Biederhoff fizzles, Mildred ends up back with first hubby Bert Pierce, in a shabby one-room apartment. Cain was a big opera fan, and in the book Veda becomes a famous opera singer, leaving her need for a mother in the dust, like a spent cocoon. Mildred and Bert console themselves with a bottle, and a bitter kiss-off line - "The Hell with 'em, anyway."
In the film, we're treated to the spectacle of Veda going up the river for Murder One, and Mildred walking out into the promising dawn with Bert. She's penniless, but free of her illusions. The super-mom has buried one daughter and seen another to prison. The ending is a bleak blend of anguish and uplift, that trumps film noir and women's soaps in one go.
Joan Crawford seems to have been a calculating Hollywood player who couldn't save her failing fortunes at the MGM factory. As a relative independent at Warners, she played her cards with consummate skill, stalling until this perfect vehicle came along. Apparently a horrendously egomaniacal diva in real life, she was especially skilled at playing a succession of determined working girls who culminate in Mildred, the patron saint of every small town climber who got scalded in the attempt to better herself. Mildred Pierce put Crawford at the top of the town, something she'd always been denied at MGM; yet it was also sort of her burnout film. For the rest of her career she'd play 'powerful but flawed' females coping with melodramatic situations. After a couple of honest vehicles, her career turned in on itself, always referrring back to the real-life Joan. She's tougher than mobster David Brian in a couple of good Vincent Sherman crime films, but then becomes a variation on the mad housewife in things like Queen Bee and Harriet Craig. There were always younger actresses to be brutally put in their place, both on screen and off, like Lucy Marlow (Harriet Craig) and Janice Rule (Goodbye My Fancy). Crawford found her Wagnerian arch-rival in Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar, a real classic that was actually improved by Joan's imperious script meddling. Critics point to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as the height of campy self-parody, but the real Crawford curse carries through her other appearances, almost every one of which centers on a betrayal by a daughter or younger woman. By the time of Strait-Jacket and Berserk! the theme is a pitiful joke, with a vain and jealous Crawford forcing Diane Baker and Judy Geeson to wear unflattering sexless wardrobes. In Strait-Jacket, Crawford's character looks and dresses like a ridiculous parody of Mildred Pierce. 5
Mildred Pierce is probably Michael Curtiz' best picture next to Casablanca. It's directed with bold efficiency, deftly nailing every visual and script point before quickly moving on. The story covers twice the material in half the time of most pictures then or now, and what might have read as too-rushed on the script page unfolds perfectly, with all the emotional touches in the right places. Mildred's ambition is sketched but not belabored. Through Curtiz' nervous camera, we get the impression of her world as one that's always on the move, never resting, a good filmic approximation of Cain's unsettled, vaguely desperate characters. Even those who are under-elaborated (Bert Pierce) or abandoned by the fast pace (Ida Corwin) make indelible impressions. Zachary Scott followed up his perfect performance here by playing a succession of even nastier creeps. Disposable jokester Jack Carson is the big surprise of the film. Tossed off in one stupid Warners comedy after another, he makes the everyday venality of Wally Fay Hollywood's first honest (if hardboiled) average American heel. He's the used car salesman who laughs up his sleeve at the suckers, or the backstabbing business partner who then expects his victim to be a good sport.
Warners' DVD of Mildred Pierce has a killer restoration of Ernest Haller's crisp & moody b&w cinematography. The Pierce family's little Glendale neighborhood looks exactly right (they're still like that out here) and the scenes at the beach house are the first modern use of the Santa Monica beachfront as a quasi-fantasy edge of the world, 20 minutes from downtown but in another social and spiritual dimension. The sound is nothing short of terrific, with Max Steiner's amazingly good score making a particularly good impression. 6
The disc is two-sided, with the second side holding a collection of Crawford trailers, and the 90-minute TCM docu Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a solid and comprehensive look at the diva's background and career. Producer Peter Fizgerald balances Crawford's movies with her personal life by interviewing practically every surviving associate of the imperious, mysterious Joan, and TCM allowed him to let the testimonials go way beyond the usual fluff and repeated stories. Joan's adopted daughter Christina recounts her tale of child abuse and opppression, which Fitzgerald puts into a useful context by investigating the real Crawford underneath the talk of wire hangers, etc. Crawford must have been a real Hollywood gorgon, but the docu provides the context which almost humanizes her. 7
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mildred Pierce rates:
1. Marlboro is still the 'right' school of choice for the well-to-do of Hancock
Park. It's no longer the exclusive place for exalted princesses of entitlement, but it comes close - it's where
the monied fly to escape the wretched LA School system while keeping Daughter among the Right people. It's about
5 blocks from Savant's house, and I think about Mildred Pierce every time I pass
by. I believe Cain's book helped solidify my personal 'reverse snobbery' reaction to LA's petty society
2. The death of Kay was a shock to 1945 audiences, who had never seen
such tough treatment of the death of a child before. Mildred is grieved but moves on; if a child's
life was threatened in earlier soapy pictures, it was almost always in the context of some desperate
emergency confected to bring a troubled couple back together - Can they fly the needed serum from Omaha
in time?. Killing off a kid - usually by car, truck, or other handy vehicle - was reserved as
'the last straw' in out-of-control morality plays, such as Boy's Town. In Mildred Pierce,
little Kay's death is accidental, but it has all the earmarks of negligence, Hollywood style: when kids meet trouble,
it's always presumed that 'Mom' should have prevented it. In this case, Mom is out at Malibu being
promiscuous with lothario Monty Baragon, instead of making sure Kay wears her raincoat.
3. Silly joke: not to be confused with
Godzilla's arch nemesis, Monster Barugon.
4. Mildred's servants include the 'light relief' presence of Butterfly McQueen, the ditzy female counterpart
of Stepin Fetchit from Gone With the Wind. Savant learned a lot about the irrelevance to
African-Americans of much of Hollywood filmmaking, when I eagerly showed Mildred Pierce to
a workmate at MGM. The McQueen character frosted her out of the rest of the film, and I learned
a big lesson - people see different things in movies depending on what they bring to them, and my
film-school perspective on the world was a very narrow one.
5. Cutting the docu for Mildred Pierce, we waited for weeks to
see her The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV episode. The 'daughter curse' that Crawford seemed to favor,
appeared there too! She gets murdered in the very first scene, but not
before we find out that that she's the victim of a vicious, unfeeling daughter!
6. one disappointment - no discreet music cues from the film appear as
an extra, as has happened on other Warner discs of late. George Feltenstein hadn't recovered them
all, but the ones he did find were really nice, and Peter Fitzgerald used them as underscore for
the Crawford docu.
7. Savant edited this documentary, so keep that in mind when I praise it. A fun thread unstated in
the docu, for those who pay attention: in the fifties, Crawford had this poodle dog, that she apparently brought with her
to all her sets, as it shows up with her in 'candid' set stills as well as dozens of formal photo sessions. As Fitzgerald and his
associate producer Philip Mershon went through the 800 stills for the show, this damn dog kept turning up again and again.
The creepy thing was that in every shot, even the candids, it's posed as perfectly as Joan. The feeling we got was
that Crawford, while ignoring her trophy children, doted on this mutt, which became as sharply camera-conscious as she
was, probably anticipating the shutter click and popping into its pose for every exposure. Every time it shows up, it sits staring at the
camera, as if saying, "I'm the real star here..." The consistency is unnerving -
it's as if Crawford were Dorian Gray, and the dog was in possession of her soul, or something. A bunch of the photos are in
the doc, so you can share the chills ...