- Mildred Pierce (1945) movie review: Best Actress Academy Award winner Joan Crawford is fantastic as an entrepreneurial waitress and self-sacrificing mother in director Michael Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel.
- Besides Joan Crawford’s win, Mildred Pierce was nominated for five other Academy Awards: Best Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Eve Arden, Ann Blyth), and Black-and-White Cinematography (Ernest Haller).
Mildred Pierce 1945 movie review: Joan Crawford delivers a memorable performance in noirish ‘mother love’ drama
Time has a way of making some films seem grander than they really are. A good example is Warner Bros.’ Mildred Pierce 1945, the 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 – 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.
One such DPA 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, something her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) exploits at every opportunity. In a sinister little touch that raises a red flag for the film’s denouement, that includes having the black family maid, Lottie (Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen), wear Mildred’s waitress uniform.
It’s also clear early on 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 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, why do I recommend Mildred Pierce?
Because the film is not really a whodunit but a howzitdun. Moreover, despite the archetypal nature of many of the characters, Mildred Pierce is remarkably well acted.
‘Terrific’ Joan Crawford & supporting cast
For starters, 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 of 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.
Yet 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. Besides, Marlowe is delightful impersonating Carmen Miranda singing “South American Way.”
Lastly, Jack Carson is superb as a slick-talking, lead-with-his-dick hustler.
Cinematic prose vs. poetry
Mildred Pierce 1945 was adapted from the 1941 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 reportedly 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 features 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.
Vis-à-vis the great European directors of the day, the lack of a real “vision” in classic Hollywood films is stark, defining the difference between cinematic prose and poetry. In general, Michael Curtiz’s movies, like those of most studio directors, exhibit little distinctive style.
Now, Mildred Pierce is often called a film noir when it really is not.
After all, a film noir requires gritty realism, whereas this Joan Crawford star vehicle 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. The movie 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 it more enjoyable as a guilty pleasure.
And on that score, the movie 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.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz.
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall. (Uncredited contributors included Catherine Turney, Albert Maltz, and William Faulkner.)
From James M. Cain’s 1941 novel.
Cast: Joan Crawford. Ann Blyth. Zachary Scott. Jack Carson. Eve Arden. Bruce Bennett. Jo Ann Marlowe. Lee Patrick. Moroni Olsen. Veda Ann Borg. Robert Arthur. Butterfly McQueen. George Tobias.
“Mildred Pierce (1945) Movie: Fabulous Joan Crawford in Noirish Melodrama” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Mildred Pierce (1945) Movie: Fabulous Joan Crawford in Noirish Melodrama” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Mildred Pierce (1945) Movie Review” endnotes
Mildred Pierce was Joan Crawford’s first starring role at Warner Bros. In 1944, she had a brief cameo as herself in the studio’s all-star extravaganza Hollywood Canteen.
Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, and Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce 1945 images: Warner Bros.
“Mildred Pierce (1945) Movie: Fabulous Joan Crawford in Noirish Melodrama” last updated in September 2021.