Mildred Pierce (1945)

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Director: Michael Curtiz

Producers: Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner (Warner Bros.)

Writers: James M. Cain (novel), Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney and William Faulkner (screenplay)

Photography: Ernest Haller

Music: Max Steiner

Cast:Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, ?Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Mornoi Olsen, Veda Ann Borg, Jo Ann Marlowe

Introduction

“Everybody has a mother.”

Unfortunately for Joan Crawford, her most memorable image is now one that surfaced after her death, one played by Faye Dunaway in the biopic Mommie Dearest (1981). Based on the best-selling memoirs of Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina, the film painted her mother as an abusive monster and soiled the reputation of one the legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Film buffs know Dunaway’s chilling role all too well, screaming “No wire hangers!” as one of the AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains.

These revelations, however accurate or exaggerated, only underscore the motherly obsession that Crawford brought to her career role in Mildred Pierce, playing a woman who will do anything for her children, perhaps even murder, in Michael Curtiz’s noir classic.

Plot Summary

Adapted from a novel by James M. Cain — the second in a sort of trilogy of Cain novels converted into ’40s film noirs, arriving between Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) — Mildred Pierce opens in true Citizen Kane fashion: with death. Rather than “Rosebud” and natural causes, we get six shots and a man, Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott), gasping his final breath with the word “Mildred” before biting the floor of his beach house living room.

In the aftermath of the murder, Monte’s mink-clad wife, Mildred Pierce (Crawford), contemplates suicide as she’s hauled in for questioning by police, as is Mildred’s first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), who carries a jealous motive, and Mildred’s shamelessly-loving friend, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), who’s found lurking at the scene of the crime.

From here, we enter noir flashback mode, like Sunset Blvd. five years later. This time it’s narrated by Crawford, inviting audiences to piece together the murder by examining Mildred’s volatile past, including her divorce from Bert (as Crawford did to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone and Phillip Terry in real lime), her waitress job to make ends meet (as Crawford had in real life) and her creation of her own restaurant business, an opportunity afforded to her by wealthy playboy Monte, her future second husband.

Noir Feminism

The Oscar-nominated script, written by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited contributions from Catherine Turney and the great William Faulkner, is most noteworthy for its successful meshing of two genre types: the gritty film noir and the soapy “women’s picture,” even if the melodrama at times traps the film in 1945. This combo made Mildred Pierce a landmark work as the first film noir told from a female perspective. Rather than a a male hero encountering a femme fatale — as Fred MacMurray had with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) — here we had a female lead making her own tragic, fatalistic discoveries.

Of course, her role can also be read in a negative social light, seeing as the feminist Mildred ultimately ends up reaping disaster, tragically in her undying love for her children, Veda (Ann Blyth), and Kay (Jo Ann Marlow). “I’d do anything for those kids,” she says. “They’ll never do any crying if I can help it.” As it turns out, Mildred is the one doing the crying over them, especially Veda, played to Oscar-nominated nastiness in defining the ungrateful screen child.

Crawford: Screen Legend

It’s this motherly stress of trying to love an unloving daughter that ultimately reveals a sort of unhinged, semi-psychotic person within Mildred as the film nears its climax. And what a screen presence she is, those broad shoulders and powerful eyes a sight to behold, earning a spot on Premiere Magazine‘s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.

Crawford’s performance won the first and only Academy Award of her career, which she accepted in a quasi-staged sickbed from home. (A) As Crawford once said, “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.” (C)

Still, Mildred Pierce had more significance to her career than a gold statue; it revitalized a fledgling career. Prior to the film, Crawford had been a star at MGM for 18 years, transitioning from silents to talkies for hits like George Cukor’s The Women (1939). But by age 41, she had left MGM, had again earned a reputation as “box office poison” and found herself out of work for three years during the war.

Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s debut at Warner Bros., broke the slump, launching a career revival under daring new directors like Nicholas Ray for Johnny Guitar (1954) and Robert Aldrich for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The latter of which made screentime for one of Hollywood’s fiercest rivalries, between Crawford and Bette Davis, whom Crawford called a “phony,” to which Davis claimed Crawford “slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” (B) Seeing as Davis had passed on the role of Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s Oscar win for the part must have been doubly sweet.

Curtiz: The Hitmaker

Crawford was not the only star to win an Oscar under the direction of Michael Curtiz. James Cagney had done it three years earlier in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Indeed, Curtiz was a director that actors wanted to work with, a reliable Hollywood hitmaker that could boost careers with the best of ’em.

Curtiz turned out an astonishing set of classics in just a seven-year span — Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Four Daughters (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945) and White Christmas (1954). And yet, his name isn’t grouped with other masters of his day (i.e. Hitchcock, Welles, Ford). His touches were always more aesthetic than meaningful, but that makes them no less effective.

In Mildred Pierce, we get waves washing away the opening credits; a dissolve with a restaurant ticket wheel; skewed-perceptions with mirror shots; rapid pans transitioning from flashbacks to present day; and a shadowy noir atmosphere, in part due to cinematographer Ernest Heller, a previous winner for Gone With the Wind (1939). Together, Curtiz and Heller sculpt a dark atmosphere vital to Mildred’s own emotional plunge into darkness, a sort of extension of Curtiz’s own previous affinity for shadowy figures on the wall (i.e. Bogart opening the safe in Casablanca).

Legacy

By all accounts, Mildred Pierce was a box office and critical success, earning six nominations, including Best Picture, Screenplay (MacDougall), Supporting Actress (Blyth and Eve Arden) and Black-and-White Cinematography (Ernest Haller). While it lost Best Picture to Billy Wilder’s equally dark exploration of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend (1945), it remains Curtiz’s most haunting work.

This is in no short part to Crawford’s real-life family history, which brings us back to her tumultuous relationship with real-life daughter Christina. The real-life story was a tragic reversal of the victimization in Mildred Pierce, replacing Mildred’s positive self-sacrificing mother with a negative perception of Crawford as a child-sacrificing mother, to the point of cutting her own kids out of her will. Perhaps this was because Crawford was herself abused as a child, living homeless on a cot in her mother’s laundromat, where she helped by hanging clothes on wire hangers (the root of her “wire hanger” phobia).  (A) How tragic a true tale in the face of the fictional tragedy of Mildred Pierce. A Tale of Two Mothers.

Citations:

CITE A: DVD Bonus Feature Documentary: Joan Crawford, The Ultimate Movie Star
CITE B: IMDB Trivia
CITE C: Carol Krenz, 100 Years of Hollywood: A Century of Movie Magic

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