MILDRED PIERCE (1945) Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Produced by Jerry Wald. Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall (with uncredited help from William Faulkner and Catherine Turney). Based on the novel by James M. Cain. Run Time: 111 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Drama, Mystery
It is interesting to note that at the time the film was released, Variety pointed out in their review that "At first reading James M. Cain's novel of the same title might not suggest screenable material…” And if you saw the dreadful HBO miniseries based on the book that is painfully clear. That 2011 production, which starred Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, was a faithful page by page adaptation of Cain’s 1941 novel. As a result, it plodded along for five hours and was deadly dull.
Such is not the case with this 1945 adaptation. You might even say that this is loosely based on the novel, but it is a definite cinematic improvement. In less than two hours, the book is transformed from a psychological study of a middle class mother and daughter into a taught thriller and classic film noir. This is one of those cases where the movie is better than the book, which is not to take away from the original work of fiction.
The film opens with, what else, a murder. We see a well-dressed and dapper man get shot several times and collapse to the floor. And just before dying, his last word is the name Mildred. What a great way to start a movie. There is so much left for the film to complete. Using the voice over narration of Mildred, we learn that the man is Monte Berganon (Zachary Scott) and that the police have a suspect, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), the first husband of the man Berganon was married to, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), a restaurateur in Los Angeles.
While Bert confesses to the crime while being interrogated, that is too simple a story. Mildred, whose interview with the police frames the story, is brought down to talk to Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) about the crime. The meat of the story is Mildred recounting the events that led to Monte’s murder.
Told in a chronological order, the story opens with Mildred baking a cake for a neighbor while her husband, the recently unemployed Bert, mows and waters the lawn. We learn that the couple has two daughters, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), a tomboy and Veda (Ann Blyth) who wants to live the good life. Things quickly fall apart when Bert is leaving the house. Mildred knows he’s going to see Mrs. Biederhof, a widow he is apparently doing more than playing gin rummy with. Mildred kicks him out of the house.
Suddenly, Mildred finds herself having to tend not only for herself, but for her two daughters. But first, Mildred has to fend off Wally Fay (Jack Carson), former partner of Bert’s in a real estate venture. Hearing the two are getting a divorce Wally swoops in hoping to bed Mildred. This is the age of the Production Code in Hollywood, so none of that is allowed to happen.
Needing to support and wanting to lavish her daughters, Mildred goes out looking for work. She is unfortunately unqualified for most jobs. When she stumbles into a restaurant, head waitress Ida (Eve Arden) gives Mildred a job. But Mildred hides the fact from Veda. Mildred is able to subsidize her income by baking pies for the restaurant. The pies turn into quite a side-business and she brings on Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) in to help bake and to take care of the house. When Veda discovers her mother’s waitress uniform, she makes Lottie dress in it.
Mildred confessed to Veda that she is a waitress, but while Veda wants the things the money can buy, new dresses and piano lessons, she is ashamed for her mother for doing such lowly work. But Mildred knows a good thing when she sees it and has plans to open her own restaurant. And it is while she’s putting the finishing touches on it that she first meets Monte, who used to own the site. He whisks her away to his beach house for an afternoon of sun and surf. This is something that Mildred deserves, but her having fun is repaid with tragedy, when Kay contracts and dies of pneumonia and at all places Mrs. Bierderhof’s (Lee Patrick) house.
Throwing herself into her restaurant it turns out to be a big success. And with the help of Ida’s know how and Wally’s financial support, the restaurant turns into a chain throughout Southern California. But along the way, Mildred loses Veda. When Veda’s short marriage to wealthy Ted Forrester (John Compton) is annulled, Veda pretends she might be pregnant in order to bilk the Forresters for $10,000. Veda wants to use the money to get away from her mother and a lifestyle she thinks is below her. Mildred is appalled by her daughter’s actions, rips up the check and kicks her daughter out. Veda turns out to get a singing job at a shabby nightclub that Wally owns.
Looking for a way of winning Veda’s approval, Mildred enters into a loveless marriage with Monte, who in exchange for a third of her business provides Mildred with a higher social status. That is enough to woe Veda back but she stays for Monte. The two of them share the same contempt for working and therefore the same contempt for Mildred, who provides for both. Monte meanwhile bleeds Mildred and her restaurant chain dry.
Facing creditors and with Monte trying to sell his third interest, Wally forces Mildred out of her own business. And that’s not all. Veda has forced Mildred out of her marriage, replacing her as Monte’s love interest. At a final confrontation at the beach house, Mildred leaves Veda to Monte. But Monte doesn’t want her and tells her so. Her feelings hurt, Veda kills Monte. Mildred, who is still outside, runs back into the house. Veda begs for her help and Mildred gives it. She lets Veda flee and then tries to rope Wally into taking the fall for the murder. But when that fails, Mildred goes to the police to confess.
But Inspector Peterson doesn’t believe her. The police already have evidence that Veda killed him and they caught her before she could escape town. Veda is suddenly resigned to her new future and tells her mother “I’ll get by” just as they haul her off to jail. And as Mildred leaves the police station at dawn, Bert is there waiting for her. Now that they are both back at zero they can rebuild their lives together. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to hope will happen.
MILDRED PIERCE does seem to have a bit of a forced happy ending, but that is in line with filmmaking of the day. Hollywood liked a happy-ending and despite everything else, still does.
One of the things that makes MILDRED PIERCE such a great movie is its leading lady, Joan Crawford. Once the reigning queen of the movies, Crawford enjoyed great success with MGM; appearing in eight films with Clark Gable and in such classics as GRAND HOTEL (1932). But in 1943, after 18 years with the studio, her contract was terminated by mutual consent. Two days later, she signed a three picture deal with Warner Bros. When she wanted to play Mildred in this movie, Michael Curtiz balked. He thought of her as a has-been and made her do a screen test for the part. But afterwards, he agreed to cast her in the part. Crawford would go on to win an Academy Award for her portrayal. She would go onto be a top actress at the box office for several more years to come.
But there is more to love about the film than just Crawford’s performance. Equally deserving of praise is Ann Blyth for her turn as Veda, the daughter from hell. She is the epitome of not judging a book by its cover. Sweet and pretty on the outside, Veda is dark, snobbish, and evil on the inside and Blyth is responsible for bringing that out on the screen. She would receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in this film.
I want to personally point out the great work Eve Arden does in the role of Ida. She provides the comic relief the film needs to avoid becoming too melodramatic. Some of the best lines from the film were written for and delivered by Arden. While she is probably best remembered for the lead in Our Miss Brooks, a radio and then TV comedy about a high school teacher, her work in MILDRED PIERCE is a stand out. Like Blyth, Arden also received a nomination for MILDRED PIERCE as Best Supporting Actress.
Not to be left out, director Michael Curtiz deserves a lot of credit as well. In a career that spanned from 1912’s THE LAST BOHEMIAN to 1961’s THE COMANCHEROS, Curtiz’s career hit a high in the mid-1930’s to mid-1940’s with such films as CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), THE SEA HAWK (1940), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), CASABLANCA (1942), PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), and THE UNSUSPECTED (1947). He would also direct such films as JIM THORPE – ALL-AMERICAN (1951), WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) and WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955). He is one of the many unsung heroes of the studio system, taking on a wide range of topics and genres and making classic films in nearly every one. There’s no doubt he wouldn’t also make a classic film noir.
Mildred Pierce is available at the WB Shop:
Mildred Pierce is available at the WB Shop: