Actress Joan Crawford publicity photo
MILDRED PIERCE B
USA (111 mi) 1945 d: Michael Curtiz
If you’re going to be a star you have to look like a star, and I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.
—Joan Crawford quote from A Star is Born: The Moment an Actress becomes an Icon, by George Tiffin (400 pages), 2015
Falling somewhere between a trashy melodramatic soap tearjerker and an independent women’s picture, the film copies the success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) in bringing a second work of crime writer James M. Cain to light while also infusing the film with a similar film noir dramatic structure, largely insisted upon by producer Jerry Wald, telling the story almost entirely in flashback, using an intriguing retrospective voiceover and narration, all swirling around a shocking murder that occurs right at the outset, none of which happens in the book which is told in chronological order and contains no murder. The version that meticulously follows the book is the Todd Haynes HBO television mini-series of 2011 starring Kate Winslet in the title role. What’s also different from the novel is the postwar setting, where women got a taste of entering the workforce out of necessity during wartime, with the lead character driven to make a success of herself, while the book takes place during the Depression when work was scarce. In fact, part of the financial success of the film was due to the studio holding back the release until a month after V-J Day ending WWII, unleashing waves of unbridled euphoria to experience plenty of free time suddenly opening up along with newfound freedoms where families were able to return to having activities together which they were prevented from experiencing during wartime, like going to the movies, where this was a Hollywood blockbuster, seen almost entirely as pure popcorn movie entertainment, with Southern California locations by the sea, viewed as sunny and optimistic, a land of promise, and a place where one could actualize their dreams. Yet the film takes a dark turn, touching upon subjects of greed, lust, betrayal, and personal ambition, deviating substantially from the novel, which was viewed as overly sordid and repellent to meet motion picture censor requirements, instead transformed and filtered through a Hollywood sensibility, directed by Warner Brothers studio favorite, Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, getting his start in Silent pictures, notable for such diverse works as CASABLANCA (1943) and the underrated Elvis movie KING CREOLE (1958), where there are signs of a fading aristocracy, like the Old South of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which this resembles tonally with its exaggerated tragic overtones (also sharing the same cinematographer), where selfishness, depraved moral values, and warped business practices contaminate the world they live in.
Murder sets the gears in motion, alerting viewers that something is dangerously wrong, but just what that is remains an open question that lingers until the end, and while most of the film is bathed in the darkened themes of film noir territory, studios didn’t want audiences walking out of the theater sad, so a surprisingly happy ending is thrown in at the end. Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the casting of Joan Crawford as thankless mother and business entrepreneur Mildred Pierce, having been let go by MGM after eighteen years, describing her as “box office poison,” unable to generate revenue anymore as a box office star, yet she mysteriously resurrects a second phase of her career after 40, much of it generated by the dramatic implosion of the lurid subject matter that borders on camp. Yet the film, and in particular actress Joan Crawford, gained a particular place in the lexicon of gay culture where in every shot she provides “a performance,” always sensing the position of the camera, elegantly framed by cinematographer Ernest Haller, yet she was duly praised afterwards, probably for all the wrong reasons, even overpraised in a year lacking a plethora of stellar movies. Considered the first film noir told from a female perspective, it’s a stretch to even be called film noir, though there are certainly underlying noirish elements of deep-seeded frustration and unfulfilled desires, veering into murder and suicide, yet it’s a puzzle piece of a movie, told in a labrynthian manner, where part of the fun is figuring out the mixed-up plot. Though perfectly enjoyable (not so sure it’s a date movie), it’s a weepie wrapped up in a stylish murder mystery, but there are many wooden performances, particularly among the male characters (with the exception of Jack Carson), where the real stars of the show are two secondary characters who actually outshine the star, namely teenager Ann Blyth (only 16 at the time of filming) as the overly pampered and spoiled rotten daughter Veda who simply tears up the screen, as does Eve Arden in a smaller role as Mildred’s friend and irreverently sarcastic business partner Ida, both nominated for Best Supporting roles, while Joan Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress for the only time in her career. Yet her performance on Oscar night was equally notable, staying at home supposedly due to pneumonia, yet according to her daughter Christina, she faked her illness, not wanting to be embarrassed in public, so after she won she jumped out of bed, applied her make up, and wore her best negligee to face the press, a manufactured moment that might have inspired Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond character in SUNSET BLVD. (1950), “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Mildred is initially seen as a hardworking housewife, “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married,” making her own earnings by selling cakes and pies, yet she ends up in a squabble with her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) over her obsessive doting on her two daughters, insisting she is trying to buy their love, while she counters she’s willing to sacrifice anything, making sure they are never deprived of dance, piano, or ballet lessons, but have all the opportunities she never had, literally showering them with privileges as if they are wealthy, even after Bert loses his job, leaving him irate over unnecessary spending and misplaced priorities, eventually walking out on her. Learning to be a waitress, yet ashamed to tell her snobbish daughter Veda who wants and has only the finest things in life, looking down on common people, so Mildred conceals how hard she works, saving enough money to open a restaurant, with the help of a real estate investor Wally Fay (the wonderfully oily Jack Carson displaying the lowlife charm of a carnival barker or snake oil salesman, actually sleeping with Mildred in the book, mixing business with pleasure), who has brazenly shown his lecherous affections for Mildred all along, willingly becoming her business partner, but just before the restaurant opening tragedy strikes when her youngest daughter dies of pneumonia. Buying the property turns out to be a breeze, an old mansion in a state of disrepair, as the former owner is a monetarily down-on-his luck socially prominent aristocrat Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) who is something of a cad, liking what he sees in Mildred, eventually marrying her years later, yet it comes years after luring her to his Malibu beach house (actual home of director Michael Curtiz) and openly declaring his love while she’s still married to Bert. While he’s something of a scumbag playboy who comes from a family of money, never doing a day’s work in his life, little more than a parasite (which is why Veda is drawn to him), yet Mildred doesn’t see through him, as he has designs on the business and her daughter Veda, introducing her to the socialite world of money and millionaires, flamboyantly showing her off like a decorative showpiece, featuring Almodóvar-style swelling music from Max Steiner.
Mildred’s business takes off, becoming a stunning success story, even opening new locations, but it’s not enough for Veda, who has an insatiable appetite for devouring wealth, still fuming over class distinctions, showing open contempt for any worker wearing a uniform, taking advantage of her mother’s newfound wealth, now with a black servant (Butterfly McQueen, personifying every racist stereotype) waiting on her hand and foot, where she shows what she’s made of by manipulating a young clueless empire heir into a secret marriage, then claiming she’s pregnant during the quickie divorce hearing, earning herself a handsome settlement of $10,000, deftly negotiated by Wally, who’s on the same wavelength as Veda, unscrupulous to the core. When Mildred realizes it was all a scam, she’s had enough of her daughter’s unprincipled amorality, the ultimate ungrateful child, taking her place among the most loathsome of all film noir femme fatales (even as a teenager!), showing a haughty arrogance that defies belief, a bad seed laying the groundwork for Patty McCormack in THE BAD SEED (1956) a decade later. As horrible as she is, seething with superiority over her own mother, embarrassed at how hard she works, showing nothing but contempt, “With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.” After taking a hard slap in the face and knocking her down on the stairs (for ripping up the check), Mildred stares in disbelief before ordering her daughter out of the house “before I kill you.” Before long, however, Mildred discovers Veda is working as a tawdry lounge singer at Wally’s nightclub, receiving whistles and catcalls from sailors for showing plenty of skin in her scantily clad costume, leaving Mildred aghast at what she sees, attempting to bring her daughter home, only to be sneered at with hatred and scorn, where the more Mildred tries to do for her the more she is hated in return, with Veda despising her mother’s life and home, calling it cheap, preferring to have no one telling her what to do. The fact that Wally, a friend of the family, is willing to demonstrably promote Veda in such luridly exploitive fashion, having no second thoughts about it, reveals the colossal error Mildred makes in her choices of men.
Stung by her daughter’s resentments, Mildred devises a new plan after a brief vacation to Mexico, coming back revitalized, purchasing a giant mansion belonging to Monte while proposing marriage, reviving their old affair, where he’s more than willing to set the terms, demanding one-third of her business, which is the price she pays. Mildred perseveres in a loveless marriage of convenience, fixing up the dilapidated estate and paying off Monte’s debts in an attempt to win favor with Veda, and it works, though she immediately makes tracks to Monte, hoping to improve her social status, eager to pursue her dream as a debutante. The cost of supporting them both comes with a heavy price, enabling their lavish lifestyle while she works her tail off to pay for it, but she’s dumbfounded at just what an underhanded sleazeball Monte turns out to be, selling his share of the business, driving his wife into forfeiture where she’s forced to sell the business, with Wally having no qualms about selling his shares as well, leaving her out in the cold, undermined by the coldhearted and ruthless men in her life. This devious financial maneuver leads her to Monte’s beach house looking for an explanation, finding Veda wrapped all around him in an embrace, yet another double cross. Caught in the act, Veda only scowls at her mother for daring to think anything’s wrong, glowering with open disdain, claiming she and Monte are going to get married after he dumps her, enjoying the perversity of power this brings her, with Mildred reaching into her coat for a revolver. A murder results, with Mildred trying to pin the rap on Wally, luring him out to the beach house and locking him in, with the police discovering his escape attempt and finding the dead body. Later Mildred is hauled down to the police station where she waits much of the night for questioning, with police eventually charging Bert with the crime. Knowing this is a false accusation, we go back to the beginning, with Mildred describing her relationship to Bert, claiming he would never do such a thing. The story unravels as she offers a lengthy confession through the night, blaming herself for what happened, with the entire film unfolding through a flashback. Despite extensive detail into her working class background, which mirrors the hardscrabble early life of Joan Crawford, the defining image of Mildred is wearing a full-length mink coat, which in sunny Southern California is like wearing a winter parka, yet she rarely takes it off, clinging to it as a symbol of what her daughter desires, a sign of success.
The rags to riches storyline mirrors the resuscitated career of Joan Crawford, who’d been around the block a few times by then, written off by the studio as a has-been, but reshaping her career through hard work and determination, assets that define her long-suffering character in the film. Hollywood loves a success story, especially one about itself, arguably the greatest comeback in Hollywood history, so Crawford received plenty of accolades and adulation, despite her imperious attitude and lack of human warmth, where nurturing maternal skills are just not something we associate with Mommie Dearest. As many as eight different screenwriters worked on the script, which was in constant revision up until the day of shooting, all having to please the producer’s structure of what he envisioned. Audiences, especially women, embraced the film, as it typifies the Rosie the Riveter can-do spirit of working women both during and after the war, with Mildred sacrificing everything to keep her family intact, believing she is every bit a man’s equal, exhibiting hard work and a dogged spirit, qualities of strength normally associated with men in movies, only to be undermined by weak and cowardly men who are threatened by strong women, afraid of losing their prestigious social status. The film alters the stereotype with such a strong-willed protagonist, defying the mythic image of submissive women that dominated movies in prior generations, yet when she asserts herself, she is quickly put in her place by the patriarchal society. The film also offers a bleak portrait of the American Dream, particularly as it pertains to family life, corrupted by an overwhelming influence of materialism, creating self-centered children with enormous consumer appetites to fill, denouncing self-sacrifice as a role model, as it leaves a barren emptiness inside from unfulfilled ambitions. Imagine what this could have been in the hands of someone like German wonder boy Rainer Werner Fassbinder who loved epic challenges and lurid melodramas? The film industry took a strange turn after the success of this film, creating destructive women who were unhappy about their domestic situations, often expressed through B-movie violence, leading to the glamor era of the 50’s, when women like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, and Doris Day became stereotyped by their beauty, making it impossible in real life to live up to the Hollywood image that only existed as a fantasy onscreen. MILDRED PIERCE is an intriguing mix of fantasy and reality, and at least for a brief moment, offered a frightening prospect of social change, the idea of a woman’s independence.