Mildred Pierce
Reviewed in May 1999
Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Moroni Olsen, Eve Arden, Jo Ann Marlowe, Butterfly McQueen, Lee Patrick. Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall (based on the novel by James M. Cain).
February 2010: Not unusually for a review I wrote eleven years ago, while I was still a student, I would rephrase and even rescind a lot of the comments in this review, but until I have time to post a new review, I'll have to fess up to this older one. I'd currently grade the movie at a B–, ceding more credit to Curtiz's elegant direction, even if that elegance certainly confouns the script's natural propensity toward moldy emotion and reciprocal depressions and exploitations.

Photo © 1945 Warner Bros. Pictures
We mostly remember Mildred Pierce today as the film that finally snagged Joan Crawford the Best Actress Oscar she had always wanted. Ostensibly, the film bears other distinctions. James M. Cain, the genre-defining noir scribe who first dreamed up Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, also wrote the original novel of Mildred Pierce, and though Ranald MacDougall received sole screen credit for the adaptation, none other than William Faulkner had a hand in refining the script. Yet another distinguished member of the Mildred crew was director Michael Curtiz, who only three years previously had produced Hollywood's greatest act of alchemy with Casablanca.

For all of these credentials, however, Mildred Pierce remains just about the most glittering piece of trash ever made. Saint Joan plays the title character, a woman whose husband leaves her in a very early scene—well, technically she kicks him out, but it's one of those "I'm firing you before you quit" kinds of things. In any event, Mildred finds that her neighborhood pie-baking and dress-sewing enterprises will not be enough to support herself and her two daughters, the young, tomboyish Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and the teenage, pretentious Veda (Ann Blyth, in her first major role). Veda's tastes for the finest in clothes, cosmetics, and all things material do not, however, exasperate her mother, as would probably be the case in any real-life relationship. In this movie, Veda's incessant covetousness actually makes Joan want to work harder, just to help her daughter acquire everything she could ever want.

To that end, she gets a job as a waitress, but she proves diligent and proficient enough that she soon enough opens her own successful restaurant, and then an entire prosperous chain of them. Mildred's newfound munificence, plus those lips, eyes, and brows, entice a lot of men toward her, but she continues only to have eyes for Veda. That the young girl proves increasingly unworthy of her mother's devotion does nothing to diminish that devotion, and the bounds of what Veda will get away with are stretched and stretched until...

...well, until a "climactic" act that actually opens this flashback picture. The allegedly cryptic action in question is so transparently decipherable as the film progresses that one wonders who thought Mildred Pierce could be fashioned as a mystery. Then again, the film sets forth several even more profound enigmas. Why, for example, does Curtiz cut straight from the death scene of the younger, immensely likeable daughter to a scene at Mildred's burgeoningly successful restaurant, over which Joan narrates that "all she could think about after that"—i.e., the death of her child—was making the restaurant a hit and bringing in enough money to please Veda. That, my buddy, is a mystery.

So is the there-and-then-he's-not position of Mr. Pierce (Bruce Bennett) during all of this; we are never within a sling's shot of knowing whether this guy still loves Mildred or not, but it's not too huge of a problem, since the film cares even less than we do. Not a single act in the film depends on anyone understanding the degree or type of emotion that exists between the Pierces. The title notwithstanding, being "Mrs. Pierce" is the last thing that defines Mildred in this picture. Her fur coat furnishes her with infinitely more sense of her identity—and it sure gets a lot more screen time—than a mere accoutrement like her husband.

But here's the real quandary. What do the filmmakers think of Mildred? What are they saying with this movie? Ann Blyth plays Veda with such porcelain, frosty bitchiness that we cannot help rooting against her. Crawford makes Mildred human enough, and pitiful enough, in her slavish pandering to Veda that we alternately feel sorry for her and view her with contempt. But has the daughter made the mother a simp, or has the smothering mother produced this wasp of a girl? Not a single one of the cooks who stirred this pot—Faulkner's was not the only hand who doctored up this script—seem conclusively settled on who's to blame, or even on what's going on. The famously unsubtle composer Max Steiner surely has no clue, so he just blasts the heck out of each scene with his brass-and-string armada. Every moment in Mildred Pierce comes to sound like either an archangel alighting (so maybe Mildred is supposed to be a saint!) or a gavel hammering down (nope, sorry Joan, you've been judged responsible after all).

Mildred Pierce does not thematize these sorts of ambiguities, it simply wallows in them. The filmmakers are as blind to reality, even the half-reality of a prime-cut Hollywood melodrama, as Mildred is to her younger daughter, to her husband, or to her own needs. (Does she have any?) If just one character behaved in a way that made sense, if marriage was ever more than a requisite plot device, if death achieved any sustained emotional impact on these characters, or if the structure of the film were not so artificially jerry-rigged for a false sense of "suspense," Curtiz might have made some interesting statements, or at least made one at all. Mildred Pierce is the sort of movie where a character pulls a revolver out of a desk not because they have reason to feel fury, but because some exigency in the frame story requires that someone in flashback bring a gun to the specified location. Characters work as night-club chanteuses not because they would ever, ever be caught dead in that job, but because the suits at Warner Bros. want us to take note that their new ingenue, Ann Blyth, can sing as well as act!

All the same, Mildred Pierce is one of those bad, implausible, fundamentally confused movies that is nevertheless a kick in the pants. You get to see Joan Crawford dress in mink for her interrogation at the police station, and have a chuckle at Michael Curtiz doing what he can to pull this material over on his audience, which he did: Mildred Pierce was a colossal hit in its heyday. Curtiz was never a great director, but he proves a wily enough one, and even if this picture's plot never coheres, its pace never sags, either. Watch Mildred Pierce within the same week as Laura, The Letter, or Double Indemnity, and inevitably the whole thing collapses to bits. But watch it at midnight, with a soft spot for sequences where characters moan out a name with their dying breaths, and you could do a lot worse for glitzy, vulgar entertainment. You know you're in giddy, gimme-a-break Hollywood when a daughter is ashamed to have such a lowly, déclassée mother as Joan Crawford, but maybe you've noticed that Hollywood can be a pretty fun place to spend two hours. C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Joan Crawford
Best Supporting Actress: Eve Arden
Best Supporting Actress: Ann Blyth
Best Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Ernest Haller

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Crawford)

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