Film Noir February: Mildred Pierce (1945)
The weather is unfriendly, the skies get dark early, and the world is a scary place. Join us this month as we embrace dark, gritty movies in the film noir genre.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Mildred Pierce is the first film that Joan Crawford made after she left MGM in 1942. It’s based on a 1941 novel by James M. Cain, who also gave us notable source material for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Mildred Pierce is a weaker novel in comparison by this excellent crime writer, it is less tightly edited, but the film version fares better.
RB: The film is really well known among those that aren’t classic film buffs, and I settled into my first viewing with high expectations, which were ultimately met. But, like the film itself, I’m starting at the end and should likely circle back to the plot.
When we first meet Mildred, she’s unhappily married with two children and an unreliable and shifty husband. The younger daughter, Kay, played beautifully by Jo Ann Marlowe, provides some of the only bright spots in a film which has far too few bright spots, is a precocious and adorable tomboy. The older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth) is a miserable, spoiled brat, embarrassed and scornful of everything that smacks of the lower-middle class lifestyle. It is upon Veda that Mildred showers all of her affection and energy.
After the end of her marriage and the tragic death of Kay, Mildred channels all of her energy into building a successful restaurant chain in order to provide for Veda’s increasingly extravagant tastes and desires. It’s Veda’s twisted desire to stop at nothing for status and Mildred’s undying devotion to her daughter that provides the taut melodrama that continues in this film.
SG: It is sad how much Mildred needs her daughter Veda’s approval and how she constantly makes allowances for her bad behavior. She’s a textbook enabler. Thank goodness for Eve Arden's character's frankness. She uses humor to disguise the fact that she sees Veda for what she is, a little monster.
Ann Blyth is a powerhouse in her role as Veda. Her beauty hides the mean spirit of the character, a social climber who steps on the people who work hard to give her all that she has. She is the perfect villain, but never becomes a cartoon. Prior to landing the role, Blyth had broken a vertebrae in her back and had to wear a back brace in her convalescence. Perhaps it helped give her the posture she used in the film. Her singing is an indication of her own vocal training; she worked with the San Carlo Grand Opera Company.
Butterfly McQueen is a treat in her role helping Mildred with her pie business. She didn't make many films, but the one she did make are high quality.
This was one of the very first classic movies I ever saw. After discovering Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel, I put out a plea to classic movie fans (few as they were) on Fan Forum for more Crawford and/or great classic movies for a newbie. One person recommended Mildred Pierce. I first saw it on a VHS borrowed from the library. I later got to see it screened at the Ohio Theater in 2015. Each time I see it, I appreciate something else about it. So many talented people were involved in its making and each contributed something to give it depth.
RB: While James M. Cain today is considered one of our legendary crime authors, very little of that sense is seen in this film, as Cain’s novel was simplified and reduced to a more easy plot to follow on film. Crawford handles her role as ably as one would expect, and indeed won a Best Actress Oscar for it, although in retrospect, it is a little difficult to buy her in the role of a lower-class working woman. That said, I tend to place the blame on that not on her performance, but on the things that we’ve read about her in the nearly 70 years since this picture hit screens.
I’ll give one good example. While watching this movie, I kept finding myself distracted by Crawford’s shoulder pads, to the point where I found their presence taking me out of the film. Upon reflection, I recalled recently reading a piece about Crawford that focused considerably on her wardrobes and particularly spent a few paragraphs on this particular accessory.
The article quotes costume designer Milo Anderson, who had previously worked with Crawford more than a decade previously on Rain, who was chosen by director Michael Curtiz to handle Joan’s wardrobe extensively. “She was impossible from day one. She insisted that we go out to her house to do the fittings – something that we never did for anybody, and when we got there she didn’t want to fit at all…she didn’t know what she wanted and she rejected many costumes.”
For Joan’s part, she tells a different tale in her autobiography, Portrait of Joan. “I went down to Sears Roebuck on my own and bought the kind of house dresses I thought Mildred would wear. When I arrived on the set for wardrobe tests, Mr. Curtiz walked over to me, shouting ‘You and your damned Adrian shoulder pads. This stinks.’ And he ripped the dress from neck to hem. ‘Mr. Curtiz,’ I sobbed, ‘ I bought this dress this morning for two dollars and ninety-eight cents, there are no shoulder pads.’ Well, I don’t know about you, but I know a shoulder pad when I see one, and I personally can’t envision Joan Crawford heading to Sears to buy some dresses, but that’s just me.
SG: In an article for Photoplay, producer Jerry Wald said that Crawford was dismayed to see the cheap Sears-Roebuck dresses among her costumes, but that "we had a hard-working technician, who was on time every morning, who never complained how late we worked at night, who knew her lines and who was not only willing but positively humble about doing what she was told." It turns out she also had a sense of humor. As a wrap gift, she gave director Michael Curtiz a set of shoulder pads.
I adore Crawford and have seen most of her movies. She is the definition of a movie star from this era in my mind. She worked doggedly to maintain her image, to write letters to her fans, and to remain in the spotlight throughout her life. It was sometimes at the detriment of the people in her personal life, but I have intense respect for the work she put into her career and for her output. Even her Oscar win for this film was a spectacle. She stayed home, giving her excuse as a bout of the flu, but the cameras came to her home to congratulate her on her win and found her fully made up and glamorous. Although I can’t fully fathom it, as a devoted fan, her popularity was slipping in the early 40s, and she was one of several screen legends called “Box Office Poison.” Mildred Pierce worked to revitalize her image for the public. Curtiz did not want to work with her and took convincing from the producer. Mildred Pierce helped Wald step away from being labeled as a producer of movies about men. Prior to this one, he had made a string of action and war movies.
Cinematographer Ernest Haller does a beautiful job of using lighting to differentiate the flashback scenes from the present time. The opening scene is very atmospheric, using passing headlights to illuminate the dark home where Monte lies dead on the floor. Curtiz stages the reveal in a creative way; when Wally knocks over a floor lamp, the camera pans down with it as it lands and reveals the body.
At first it is shocking to see that Mildred is setting Wally up to be the murder suspect, a man she obviously knows well. That is, until we see him as the pushy lothario, incessantly trying to take advantage of Mildred. Jack Carson is wonderfully cast as the overbearing braggart because he never becomes scary. Carson's sense of whimsey makes him seem harmless in spite of his pushiness.
RB: Mildred Pierce is a worthy, if a touch overlong film, that is worthy of its reputation among film buffs of all kinds. Nearly universally praised at the time of its release, it has a lustre that has not diminished in ensuing decades. While the 2011 HBO adaptation of Cain’s novel starring Kate Winslet is a more faithful
adaptation of the source material, this is an easy four star film that is irresistible in spite of the dreary and sour proceedings. Highly recommended.
SG: Motion Picture Herald wrote, "Threads and counter-threads sprawl like tentacles through 111 minutes which stress unnecessary detail and deprive the outcome of all the tautness of which, perhaps, it might have been beneficiary in less footage." I would argue that these details work as red-herrings for the final solution, and also soften the edges of a gritty noir film, making it feel more feminine. This is a five star film for me because of the amount of talent involved and the way it holds up to repeated viewings. I'm glad you finally got to see it.