#353) Mildred Pierce (1945)

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#353) Mildred Pierce (1945)

OR “Bridge over Troubled Daughter”

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Written by Ranald MacDougall. Based on the novel by James M. Cain.

Class of 1996

The Plot: Late one night, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) discovers the dead body of her husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) in their beach house. At the police station, Mildred dismisses the notion that he was shot by her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), and a flashback tells us how this all started. After she and Bert divorce, Mildred works as a waitress to support her daughters Veda and Kay (Ann Blyth and Jo Ann Marlow). With support from Bert’s former business partner Wally (Jack Carson), Mildred purchases a building from playboy Monte and converts it into a restaurant. Assisted by the wisecracking Ida Corwin (Eve Arden), Mildred becomes a successful entrepreneur, but her relationship with a spoiled, ungrateful Veda has become damaged beyond repair. There’s loads of double-crossing and emotional manipulation in one of Hollywood’s most iconic melodramas.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it the “quintessential Joan Crawford film” and praises the work of Crawford, Blyth, Arden, and Carson. An essay by NFR-staple Charlie Achuff helps separate fact from fiction regarding the mythos of Joan Crawford.

But Does It Really?: I’ll label this one as “historically significant/a minor classic”. “Mildred Pierce” is not one of the essentials, but overall it is still a pretty damn good film. They sanitized the novel, but this story still has some bite to it, and a confident Crawford leads a strong ensemble. “Mildred Pierce” isn’t the Important Film it was in 1945, but it’s still an entertaining example of what was coming out of the Hollywood studio system, and holds up far better than most films of the era.

Shout Outs: Max Steiner’s score contains a brief reprise of his theme from “Now, Voyager”.

Everybody Gets One: Ann Blyth started acting at the age of five and got her professional start in the original Broadway cast of “Watch on the Rhine”. Shortly thereafter, she signed a film contract with Universal, and was loaned out to Warner Bros. after a successful screen test for Veda Pierce. Blyth’s career never replicated her “Pierce” success, but she’s still going strong at 90, speaking fondly of both the film and Joan Crawford.

Wow, That’s Dated: 1945 was an interesting year for women in America. The war was ending, and the same women who were asked to replace men in the workforce at the start of the war were now being told to go back to being housewives. “Mildred Pierce” was noteworthy for suggesting that women could be productive members of society outside of the kitchen.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1945, “Mildred Pierce” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The film lost to fellow NFR entry “The Lost Weekend”, but it won the category that mattered most: Best Actress. Joan Crawford was home with pneumonia (allegedly; some claim she opted to stay home rather than risk embarrassment) and director Michael Curtiz presented her the statuette at her bedside.

Other notes

  • Joan Crawford spent the ‘20s and ‘30s at MGM playing a high society flapper-type. When those roles no longer satisfied her, Crawford and MGM amicably parted ways in 1942. Crawford was immediately snatched up by Warner Bros., and rejected every script that came her way. Once she learned “Mildred Pierce” had been optioned, she lobbied hard for the role of a hard-working, middle class mother (a full 180 from her previous characters). Michael Curtiz did not want her for Mildred, but relented after she agreed to do a screen test. Curtiz and Crawford clashed often on set, but both praised the other in subsequent interviews.
  • The MPAA essentially forbid “Mildred Pierce” from being adapted to film, due to its many “sordid and repellent elements”. As a result, many liberties are taken with the source material. The primary change for the film is the Code’s insistence that these morally complex characters be punished for their actions, hence the addition of the murder subplot, which does not exist in the book.
  • I believe these opening credits are just upshore from Deborah Kerr & Burt Lancaster.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Ernest Haller. He’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to mix film noir elements into each shot. Lots of unnecessary shadows in this one.
  • Wally is a walking encyclopedia of ‘40s slang (Presumably the “Ball of Fire” edition).
  • Did Bert and Mildred ever debate which side of the family Veda’s “evil gene” is from?
  • Bruce Bennett was an Olympic shot putter and actor…in that order.
  • Does the Chekhov’s gun principle still apply if the gun is fired at the beginning of the movie, and then discovered in a flashback? Discuss with your group.
  • Wow, Ann Blyth is stealing this movie right from under Joan. It helps that Veda is the flashier part, and Ann is having a field day playing the bad seed. You earn that Oscar nomination!
  • I love me some young, sassy Eve Arden. You earn that Oscar nomination too!
  • The movie’s other comic relief, Butterfly McQueen as scatterbrained maid Lottie, does not age as well. Surely Lottie knows which end of the phone receiver you talk into.
  • This movie also features the “Chekhov’s Cough” trope. That character is not long for this world.
  • The movie loves its extended takes roaming through the restaurant. Is this where “Goodfellas” got it from?
  • Even in 1945 the age of consent in California was 18, so knock it off Monte!
  • Michael Curtiz is another director who knew the power of the close-up. There are only a handful in this film, but they’re always for something important, and pack the appropriate wallop.
  • What could have possibly attracted Joan Crawford to a script about a strained mother daughter relationship? Hmmm…
  • I must admit I didn’t take a lot of notes for the film’s second half, primarily because I was just watching the movie. I wasn’t necessarily rooting for Mildred, but I enjoyed being taken along for the ride.
  • The ending is completely different from the book, but it’s still a fun noir-ish twist.

Legacy

  • “Mildred Pierce” (and her subsequent Oscar win) cemented Joan Crawford’s comeback and solidified her new pubic image as a respected actor rather than a sex symbol. Crawford spent the next decade in prestigious dramas (picking up two more Oscar nominations) and eventually re-invented herself again for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane”.
  • The image of Joan Crawford with thick eyebrows and even thicker shoulder pads comes from “Mildred Pierce”. But you weren’t a ‘40s superstar unless you got spoofed by Carol Burnett 30 years later, and here is “Mildred Fierce”.
  • The original novel of “Mildred Pierce” was remade in 2011 as an HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet. Modern melodrama master Todd Haynes directed, and the series is a significantly more faithful adaptation of the source material. For starters, they acknowledge the book’s Depression-era setting!

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