MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Jack Carson, Eve Arden, Bruce Bennett, Jo Ann Marlowe, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall (Catherine Turney, Albert Maltz, and William Faulkner were among the uncredited contributors); from James M. Cain's novel
Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
Time has a way of making some films seem grander than they really are. A good example is Mildred Pierce, the 1945 black-and-white melodrama directed by Casablanca's Michael Curtiz, and that won star Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar.
Mildred Pierce is in no way, shape, or form great art, even though it's certainly not a bad film. In fact, as a soap opera it's quite entertaining – no, make that very entertaining; and entertainment is a quality that can stand on its own. (The problem in recent decades is that cinema has become nothing but entertainment.) In the case of Mildred Pierce, the entertainment is formulaic and rather predictable – but in an enjoyable, campy sort of way.
Now, what makes Mildred Pierce a melodrama is something known as the Dumbest Possible Action – DPA for short; that's when a character does something stupid merely to push the story onward. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
One such DPA in the film takes place near the beginning, when restaurant owner Mildred Pierce (Crawford) brings a witness to her home where her second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), has been murdered. Mildred is clearly trying to incriminate herself. The problem is that we know early on she is not the murderess and so do the cops. The very stupidity of her action makes it plain that she is covering for another party.
In the film's lengthy flashback, we learn that housewife-turned-waitress Mildred is ashamed of her impoverished childhood, which allows her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) to exploit this at every opportunity. That includes having the black family maid, Lottie (Gone with the Wind's Butterfly McQueen), wear Mildred's waitress uniform. It's a sinister little touch, but one that raises a red flag for the film's denouement.
In fact, it is clear early on both that Veda has romantic eyes for Beragon and that Mildred is incapable of murder. Logically, the only person who could have killed Beragon is Veda, who is clearly shown as a budding sociopath throughout the film. In other words, there is no real drama in Mildred Pierce.
So, if the solution to the "murder mystery" is obvious from the first few minutes, then why do I recommend Mildred Pierce? Because, the film is not really a whodunit but a howzitdun. Also, despite the archetypal nature of many of the characters, Mildred Pierce is remarkably well acted.
Joan Crawford is terrific as the over-the-top masochistic Mildred; one revels in her dilemmas, even to the point of enjoying what Veda will do to her next. Zachary Scott's Beragon set one the templates for playboy types in future films, right on down to David Strathairn's Pierce Patchett in L.A. Confidential. And Bruce Bennett is solid as Mildred's first husband.
But Mildred Pierce truly belongs to the other secondary characters. Eve Arden's Ida, Mildred's wisecracking friend, is funny and profane – her best line is when she tells Beragon he avoids work because he was "frightened by a callus at an early age." Jo Ann Marlowe's Kay, Mildred's good daughter, is as sweet a creation as Ann Blyth's Veda is a spoiled bitch (Marlowe is delightful impersonating Carmen Miranda singing South American Way). And Jack Carson is superb as a slick-talking, lead-with-his-dick hustler.