Mildred Pierce - 1945

Mildred Pierce, Released October 20, 1945. Directed by Michael Curtiz

Midred Pierce is the kind of American nightmare movie that can probably never really go out of style, even though it is embellished with hairstyles, clothing and a black-and-white movie world (i.e., California circa 1945) that is long gone in terms of fashion. But, all the same, this horror movie of resentful, spoiled children (which includes adult characters) combined with material success brought about by other peoples overwork is structured by Director Curtiz as a murder mystery (which it is) but also as a psychological projection of the dilemma of main character of the title, Mildred played by Joan Crawford.

Crawford hones her work in Midred Pierce into a kind of distillation of so many other hard-working, knocked-around, indefatigable women she played in other movies, but this time she's never in control, which she usually was by the time the credits rolled in other movies like Sadie McKee (1934). This time the happy ending isn't on the menu and by the final of the movie you can say it never was even a possibility.

Ann Blyth (as Veda) plays one of two daughters1 and though the tale seems to be about pitting Joan's smart and tough woman up against the waywardness of her rotten offspring Veda, it strikes me that Veda might be the unfortunate projection of Mildred's drive to separate herself from her poor background that she's apparently deeply ashamed of. No matter how far Mildred's business success (which is considerable) takes everyone in the film (and almost all the main characters are carried along by her genius), daughter Veda is along for the ride, hissing about the dirty secret in Mildred's past, which is that Mildred is "...a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing."

Veda ends up as a second-string singer in a trashy night spot with sailors hooting at her. It's hard to say she's happy there, but the attention and accolades might be compensating for the strange affection she was raised on. Veda is much less self-aware than she is self-destructive and Blyth goes to the trouble to portray the character showing winces of pain before giving in and becoming a grinning assassin with cruel words for her mother. Crawford always reacts by showing Mildred utterly surprised (over and over again) by the venom in the heart of her oldest child.

Zachary Scott is in the story as a lazy playboy named Monte Beragon who is living off the dwindling fortune left to him by his prestigous but departed family. He's too prideful to work, too perverse to really make a go of his relationship of love with Mildred, and too twisted to not look lustfully upon the daughter Veda. All of these are immoral, of course, but within this plot also extremely bad decisions (Zachary Scott starts off the movie getting gunned down. The remainder of the movie has many flashbacks and we learn how he got so many holes in him. After we get to know him better we realize six bullets wasn't near enough).

Jack Carson appears as Wally Fay, one of Mildred's most reliable stepping stones to a better (economic) life. Carson played humorous con-artists and loud-mouthed publicity agents in other films, here his boistrous talent for directness is used in the script (by Ranald MacDougall from the James M. Cain novel) as a very clear and regular invitation made by Wally to Midred to trade sex for favors, none of which Mildred takes him up on, which only makes him cling harder to trying to please her: a sort of mirrored image of the crazy relationship between Mildred and Veda.

Bruce Bennett as the original (and discarded) husband Bert Pierce speaks with a drawled, cowpoke-like honesty. He starts off in Midred Pierce as an aimless out of work salesman with a mistress down the street (Lee Patrick as the kind-hearted Mrs. Maggie Biederhof) who easily lets himself get ejected from the Pierce family home so that Mildred can focus even harder on material success and showering Veda with "opportunities" for advancement. He pops in and out of the film as if on a timer and there's an irony in the movie's final image of Bert and Mildred together just before the credits start (Bert was frank throughout the movie in accessing his oldest daughter's virtues: she doesn't have any.)

Curtiz (and Blyth) make it easy to watch Midred Pierce and to hate Veda and feel sorry for Mildred, but in the details it's much more complicated and the whole story seems familiar, with Crawford as Colin Clive, patiently and step-by-wrong-headed-step building a monster in a laboratory, and if you go with the feeling created in James Whale's version of Frankenstein (1931) you could also go with a similar one from Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, which is to say, it's not entirely the monsters fault.

1. [The other daughter, played by Jo Ann Marlowe, dies suffocating in an oxygen tent from pneumonia, probably a visual metaphor for lack of love, but it's hard to say since she is so peripheral to Curtiz's movie]


Joan Crawford Films

Tramp Tramp Tramp - 1926

Sadie McKee - 1934

The Women - 1939

Strange Cargo - 1940

A Woman's Face - 1941

Flamingo Road - 1949

The Damned Don't Cry - 1950

Sudden Fear - 1952


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