Mildred Pierce - 1945
Released October 20, 1945. Directed by Michael Curtiz
Mildred Pierce is an American nightmare movie that can never go out of style, even though it is embellished with hair, clothing and a black-and-white movie world (i.e., California circa 1945) that is long gone in terms of fashion.
A horror movie of resentful, spoiled children (which includes adult characters) combined with the American drama of striving for material success is structured by Director Curtiz as a murder mystery (which it is) but also as a psychological projection of the dilemma of the main character of the title, Mildred played by Joan Crawford.
Crawford hones her work in Mildred Pierce into a perverse 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 business 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 background of poverty that she's 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," which translated from 1945-to-21st century means her family line is larded with 'losers,' no matter how hard Mildred strives to be an American 'winner.'
If we accept that Mildred Pierce is a horror movie, it makes it easy to say that Veda is Mildred's Frankenstein, and when Veda ends up as a second-string singer in a trashy night spot with sailors hooting at her, it is just like Colin Clive's reversal of fortune when the superman he was assembling with the best intentions, thinking he's making his masterpiece, turns out instead to be a botched creation leaving wreckage in its wake.
Though she is driven to pursue it, we can't say Veda is happy in the spotlight, but the seedy attention and accolades serve as a continuation of the strange affection she was raised on. She 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, like a junkie enduring the pain of a hit before the pleasure rolls in. 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 prestigious 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 story it turns out to be a string of also extremely bad decisions. After all, when Mildred Pierce starts off we are greeted with Zachary Scott getting gunned down. The remainder of the movie provides flashbacks and so we learn how and why he got so many holes in him (after we get to know him better we realize he deserved far more than six bullets).
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 boisterous 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 Mildred 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 bit of a 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 Mildred 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 roll, and if he had been listened to a lot could have been avoided. 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 Mildred Pierce and to hate Veda and feel sorry for Mildred, as she labors endlessly while others live off of her sweat, but in the details it is a much more complicated family tale and the whole story seems familiar, returning to the image of Colin Clive, patiently and step-by-wrong-headed-step building a monster in a laboratory, and just as we learned in James Whale's version of Frankenstein (1931) we get the same thing from Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, which is to say, the horror is not entirely the monster's 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]↩
AMAZON: Mildred Pierce - The Criterion Collection - Blu-ray
Joan Crawford Films
Original Page October 2017 | Updated March 2022
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