'Mildred Pierce' review: Very entertaining soap opera
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.
Unbridled Hollywood melodrama
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 (Joan 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.
'Terrific' Joan Crawford as 'masochistic Mildred'
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.
Cinematic prose vs. poetry
Mildred Pierce was adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, who also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The adaptation was credited to Ranald MacDougall, though Catherine Turney (Of Human Bondage, A Stolen Life) and novelist William Faulkner were two among several uncredited writers who contributed to the project. Given what I've read of Faulkner's melodramas, it's no surprise this was right up his alley.
Mildred Pierce also has a fine soap-operatic score by Max Steiner, with just enough gravy in the right places to make the silliness entertain. The cinematography by Ernest Haller (who won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind) and the editing by David Weisbart are solid if prosaic. The lack of a real “vision” in classic Hollywood films – such as Mildred Pierce – vis-à-vis the great European directors of the day, is stark; it defines the difference between cinematic prose and poetry.
In general, most of the films directed by Michael Curtiz, as with most studio directors, exhibit little distinctive style. The lone exceptions seem to have been in some quite deliciously Joseph L. Mankiewiczian dialogue afforded Jack Carson's and Eve Arden's characters.
'Terrific' documentary 'Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star'
The 111-minute Mildred Pierce has been well restored on the single-disc DVD from Warner Bros. One side has the film, unfortunately sans audio commentary, while the other has a Joan Crawford film-trailer gallery and a terrific 90-minute documentary directed by Peter Fitzgerald and narrated by Anjelica Huston, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star.
Fitzgerald's documentary is so good it almost makes up for the DVD's lack of commentary, as it features comments from Joan Crawford's fellow actors, directors, and even her adopted daughter Christina Crawford, who went on to write the infamous tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest. Fortunately, Christina keeps her jealousy over her mother in check … most of the time.
'Mildred Pierce': Film noir?
Now, Mildred Pierce is often called a film noir, when it really is not. After all, a film noir requires gritty realism, whereas Mildred Pierce lacks that quality. Film noir penetrates deeply into character; Mildred Pierce is propelled not by character exigencies, but by the Dumbest Possible Action and by having any real-world issues easily resolved. Curtiz's film also relies on that old Hollywood standby: style over substance.
But since Mildred Pierce is inherently melodramatic, the foregrounding of style over any deeper elements actually makes the film more enjoyable as a guilty pleasure. And on that score, Mildred Pierce is terrific. It may not be a work filled with cosmic profundities and great performances for the ages, but it is loaded with charm and appeal, in addition to a who cares if it's over the top? attitude that damns any claims of pretense.
Thus, Mildred Pierce is freed into being itself: that soap opera you guiltily love, but don't want anyone else to know unless you tell first. Go ahead, now. It's your turn!
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Mildred Pierce (1945).
Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
Scr.: Ranald MacDougall (Catherine Turney, Albert Maltz, and William Faulkner were among the uncredited contributors). From James M. Cain's novel.
Cast: Joan Crawford. Ann Blyth. Zachary Scott. Jack Carson. Eve Arden. Bruce Bennett. Jo Ann Marlowe. Lee Patrick. Moroni Olsen. Veda Ann Borg. Uncredited: Robert Arthur. Leah Baird. Joyce Compton. Bell Flowers. Fred Kelsey. Marion Lessing. Butterfly McQueen. Paul Panzer. George Tobias. Charles Trowbridge.
'Mildred Pierce': Oscar Movies
Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one.
- Best Actress
- Best Picture
Winner: The Lost Weekend.
- Best Supporting Actress
Eve Arden. Ann Blyth.
Winner: Anne Revere in National Velvet.
- Best Screenplay
Winners: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend.
- Best Cinematography, Black and White
Winner: Harry Stradling Sr. for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
1 Academy Award Win
5 Academy Award Nominations
Mildred Pierce cast information via the IMDb.