It’s not the mystery, or the emotional impact, or the philosophical theme that make this film a pleasure, as it has none of those. It’s the humor. This is a movie to laugh at (not with), and occasionally just to stare at in disbelief.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Ranald MacDougall, and other un-credited writers, including William Faulkner (from the novel by James M. Cain)
Produced by: Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner
Music by: Max Steiner
Warner Brothers, 1945
Runtime: 113 min
Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce), Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson). Eve Arden (Ida), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie), Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay), Lee Patrick (Maggie Binderhof), Chester Clute (Mr. Jones);
A Few Thoughts
It’s often claimed that some movies are so bad they are good. Or at least fun. Sure, it’s true, but only if the film is bad in the right ways, which brings us to Mildred Pierce. Here we have a film that has many good qualities, and just the proper awful ones to make it a good time.
Mildred Pierce fits into its own sub-category, the Noir-Weepy. Take away the Noir elements, and you’re left with an overly-melodramatic soap opera. But you can’t take away those elements. The shadows. The flashbacks. The greed, corruption, and betrayal. No, this is Film Noir; it’s just not very good. Yes, this is a “must see,” but for its historical significance, not its quality.
Based on a novel by Noir mainstay James Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), producer Jerry Wald and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall (along with at least five other writers) removed the sex, changed Mildred into their vision of a plaster saint, and added a more satisfying climax. Over the objections of Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), fading star Joan Crawford was given the part of Mildred, the first in a long line of self-parodying roles she played for Warner.
The film begins with a murder, and Mildred’s attempt to cover it up. She is soon sitting in a police station recounting the unhappy events that led to that unavoidable murder. Unfortunately for the viewer, it’s obvious that Mildred isn’t covering for herself, and her attempt to frame a “friend” lets another suspect off the hook. Within a few minutes, the candidates are narrowed to two, and a death makes that one. I watched this film for the first time on DVD with my wife and a friend, and, at the same moment, all three of us identified the murderer as well as everything that was going to happen for the next 90 minutes. That’s not a good thing, not when the film is pretending to be a mystery.
So there’s nothing to do but follow Mildred as she steps exactly where we knew she would. That could be forgiven if Mildred were likable. And here is where it all falls apart. You see, she’s supposed to be. Everything in the film, every angle, every shadow and pillar of light, and every musical theme, points to her nobility. The film is structured around the saintliness of Mildred. But she’s no saint; she’s just creepy. She discards her unpleasant husband without emotion. She tells her daughter not to worry, that the break-up wasn’t due to his adultery, but because of the daughter’s dress; I’m reasonably certain that it’s a bad idea to blame a divorce on the children, at least when talking to the children. Instead of teaching her vile daughter (and she is vile—no child outside of a horror movie is worse) that money isn’t everything and that all people have value, she hides that she has to work as a waitress and hires a slave.
Yes, a slave.
Mildred, on a waitress’ salary (with some added income from homemade pies) picks up Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) to perform whatever random task is needed for the remainder of the film. Lottie personifies every racist stereotype, including a scene where she is confused by the operation of a phone; that might have been acceptable for the Three Stooges, but this is suppose to be serious.
The movie then follows the trials and tribulations of Mildred as terribly unlikely events occur and she interacts with extremely funny characters, except they aren’t suppose to be funny. Jack Carson’s cartoonish wolf, Wally Fay, kept me laughing, as did Moroni Olsen as Inspector Peterson, who apparently thought he was in an episode of the Twilight Zone. At least Eve Arden’s Ida was meant to be comic relief.
Curtiz displays his normal mastery, as long as we’re not crediting him with the quality of the acting. The scenes look good. While there is nothing innovative in the camera work or lighting, there are no flaws either. The music, by always-reliable Max Steiner, works wonderfully, as long as you want to be smashed over the head. And for this movie, you do. Subtlety would be out of place.
The acting is a mixed bag. Crawford more or less succeeds (though from time to time, she reminded me of Norma Desmond (I’m ready for my close-up Mr. Curtiz). Ann Blyth plays Veda without a shred of reality, but reality would be as out of place in Mildred Pierce as subtlety. Bruce Bennett comes off the worst, taking “wooden” to new levels. But I can’t blame him, considering the part he was given. To act well, an actor needs some idea of what his character is doing and why, but no actions by Bert Pierce follow from motivation. Bert just does things as the script requires. He “leaves” Mildred early in the film because the plot requires Mildred to be on her own. He pops back from time to time because the film needs his body. Does Bert love Mildred or care about what is happening? I doubt if Curtiz knew, and considering what he filmed, I doubt he cared. Mildred Pierce is a film to watch and enjoy with a group of friends and a big bowl of popcorn. It’s not the mystery, or the emotional impact, or the philosophical theme that make this film a pleasure, as it has none of those. It’s the humor. This is a movie to laugh at (not with), and occasionally just to stare at, with your mouth hanging open in disbelief. Some high points:
- Wally Fay’s Pepé Le Pew-like attempt to get Mildred to sleep with him because she’s separated from her husband—a few hours earlier.
- A child coughing once as a sign she will die—and does within 24 hours.
- The scene switching from the dead daughter to Mildred working at her restaurant with Mildred’s voice-over telling us that after her child died, all she could think about was making her restaurant a success. Hmmmmm. Can you feel the love? The grief? Me neither.
- Evil daughter Veda, who is nearly psychotic in her hatred of anything not from high society, singing at a cheap bar.
- Mildred being questioned in the police station, wearing her overly fluffy fur coat. I guess it’s one of those police stations that you need to dress for.
- The already mentioned racist telephone joke.
- Wally Fay’s backstabbing, first of Bert, then of Mildred, and yet he figures he’s still got a chance with her. Actually, all of Wally’s scenes count as high points, as this character exists in the world of screwball comedies, not Noir melodramas.
Playing With the Censors
If you’ve read my other Film Noir reviews, you’ve seen that I like to mention how the filmmakers got around the censors and got sex, homosexuality, and general 1940’s “immorality” on the screen. So how did Mildred Pierce do it? It didn’t. There is nothing implied in this film, and it really needs it. In the book, Mildred sleeps her way to wealth and power (as well as giving Wally a tumble just for the experience) and Veda has an incestuous relationship with stepfather, Monte Beragon. But those are left out of the film. Had they been there, the movie would almost have made sense. But instead, Mildred becomes rich due to her excellent pie baking. Sure. As for Monte, without him sleeping around in general and with Veda specifically, his actions have no motivation. The closest the film gets is by having Monte and Veda embrace once, as a prelude to sex that never happens. And what about Bert? It is made very clear that Bert has not had a sexual relationship with the woman down the street. So, why does he leave? Why does he live with (for some limited time) that woman? And what exactly is she doing hanging with him in the middle of the night to play nurse for the dying child? These “shocking” elements were sanitized from the story, but nothing replaces them. But it’s just as well, as this way the film is hilarious; with human motivations, the movie would have been too close to a serious melodrama, and there it would have failed.