Mildred Pierce (1945)

“I’d do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything!”

Synopsis:
Divorced housewife Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) works as a waitress to keep her two daughters — spoiled Ann Blyth and tomboyish Jo Ann Marlowe — living in style. With the help of an adoring male admirer (Jack Carson), she opens up a successful chain of restaurants, and soon marries a wealthy playboy (Zachary Scott) — but none of Mildred’s efforts are good enough for her social-climbing daughter Veda (Blyth), whose desire for money and status soon lead to fatal consequences.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Joan Crawford finally won an Oscar for her performance in what is now regarded as her most iconic film: a combination “women’s picture” / noir in which the femme fatale (Blyth) wreaks havoc on her hapless mother rather than a male lover. As Peary notes, we can’t help feeling that Mildred “is foolish for leading her life to please her daughter”, given that Blyth “isn’t worthy of anyone’s devotion” — yet part of the undeniable power of noir lies in recognizing the hero[ine]’s fatal flaw (in this case, undue motherly devotion), and feeling for him/her as he/she travels down a path towards Hell. While Peary remains less-than-impressed by Crawford’s performance — claiming that she plays “every scene in an understated manner” — I disagree; Crawford perfectly expresses the gritty determination underlying every choice Mildred makes, from kicking out her first unemployed husband, to hiding her “menial” job as a waitress, to working all hours of the day and night to make her business a thriving success.

While Crawford’s performance is clearly the dominant one, she’s surrounded by a host of excellent supporting actors. Jack Carson gives what may be the best performance of his career as an “innocent” bystander throughout Mildred’s rise and fall; equally enjoyable — though given far too little screen time — is Eve Arden as Mildred’s wisecracking (what else?) boss-cum-employee (she gets some of the best lines in the film). Ann Blyth is likely best remembered — for better or for worse! — for her performance here as evil Veda, a girlish woman who possesses not a sympathetic bone in her body; her angelic face is a perfect foil for her psychopathic actions, revealed most horrifically when she fakes a pregnancy in order to bilk $10,000 out of her clueless and adoring new husband. Blyth is an essential aspect of the film’s success, and remains inextricably linked in our minds with Mildred.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Mildred
    MP Crawford
  • Ann Blyth as evil Veda
    MP Blyth
  • Jack Carson as Wally Fay, Mildred’s would-be lover
    MP Carson
  • Eve Arden as Ida, who has some of the best lines in the film: [to an ogling man] “Leave something on me — I might catch cold.”
    MP Arden
  • Ranald MacDougall’s Oscar-nominated screenplay
    MP Screenplay
  • Effective use of Los Angeles locales
    MP Locales
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography
    MP Cinematography
  • Anton Grot’s set designs
    MP Sets
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic of American cinema.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Mildred Pierce (1945)”

  1. A no-brainer must.

    In agreement with what’s stated in the review – so, little to add. ~mainly because, though I think it’s a nearly perfectly realized film and I do enjoy it each time I see it, it’s not right up there with my favorite Crawford pictures (I prefer her in many films, actually, that are post-‘MP’). If I had to guess as to why that is, it’s probably because JC is a little too subdued for me here. I seem to prefer her when she’s a little more obviously unhinged. Is that a typical response from a gay man? I suppose, in a way. But I don’t mean it that way. Let’s say I like her with grittier scripts.

    However, ‘MP’ does have typically sharp direction by Curtiz, delicious noir photography (oh, those many shadows!) – and a marvelous array of performances from the supporting cast (with, agreed, Carson and Arden standing out beautifully).

    A few touches are disappointing. For example, I would personally rather see Veda’s eventual stage performance be something really riveting – instead of how she sings badly in a dive bar. I suppose it makes more sense that Veda is seen as having no real talent – still, I think it would be creepier if she actually had real showbiz potential. The other thing is…once Mildred has opened a chain of restaurants, all of them apparently wildly successful…it’s a little hard suspending disbelief when she seems to be close to broke (even with other people selling their shares of her ‘industry’). But that’s a small point, I guess.

    It seems Crawford took on this role after Bette Davis turned it down. Davis is perfectly capable of playing a convincing mom (in either a bizarre manner or otherwise) but Crawford is better at this kind of classic ‘Mother Love’, I think. Davis exudes much more of an independent spirit – which is at odds with this kind of story.

    Even though this version of the James M. Cain novel is a freer adaptation, it’s still much much better than the recent ‘faithful’ version HBO brought us with Kate Winslet – which is, essentially, a slog.

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