A hard-working mother divorces her husband and starts a successful restaurant business to keep her spoiled daughter’s rich-tastes satisfied, but her lust for wealth seems unquenchable, and the pair hurdle towards disaster.
A few years ago I watched “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and thought that Joan Crawford (“Sudden Fear”) was terrifyingly spellbinding as Blanche Hudson. I knew that at some point I needed to dive further into her career, and when we at TMM decided to do a week on studio films I figured now was my best chance to finally watch the film that won Crawford her Oscar. I was not at all disappointed. “Mildred Pierce” has some of the most forward thinking feminist themes I’ve seen in a film to come from the 1940s, and the story told is one with great character arcs, an intriguing murder, and fantastic performances by all of the leads.
“You’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.”
Mildred (Crawford) and Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) are a couple whose relationship is constantly on the fritz. One day, Bert decides he’s going to leave Mildred for another woman, and Mildred is forced to raise their children Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), so she gets a job as a waitress, and soon, with the tips she earns over a matter of months, with the help of Wally Fay (Jack Carson, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) she is able to purchase a building from Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott, “Flamingo Road”) where she intends to open a restaurant. As Mildred’s restaurant business grows, so do Veda’s expensive tastes.
I didn’t know much about this film going into it, but within the first few minutes I was already hooked. “Pierce” starts with the murder of Monte Beragon, and then the rest of the film is told in flashback form while Mildred recounts her story to a police officer under questioning. The story itself is moody and melodramatic and a little bit depressing, but it’s also incredibly well crafted. This film feels far more epic than I ever expected it to feel, for as we watch Mildred work her way up in a world that is predominantly dominated by men, her character makes decisions that not only alter the lives of her family and those close to her, but the landscape of the world itself.
The most interesting parts of this film are the character dynamics, particularly the relationship between Mildred and her daughter Veda. Even from the beginning of the film, Veda is a bit of a spoiled brat, and Bert seems to blame Mildred for this, saying that she has spoiled their children with dresses and other things they can’t afford. However, as Bert is sleeping around with another woman and neither he nor Mildred are happy in their relationship, the two of them decide to split, and Mildred is able to get a job as a waitress. Because Mildred spoiled Veda so, Veda’s ideology towards work is that only the lower class must actually participate, and that those who do work are beneath her. Mildred tries to change Veda’s attitude by working hard and continuing to support her expensive endeavors, even though Veda only becomes more and more spoiled in the process. The blame almost becomes cyclical in a downward spiraling manner; it’s Mildred’s fault for raising her children to view work as a horrible prospect, but it’s also Veda’s fault for not seeing how hard work is the only thing that is providing for her lifestyle. The relationship becomes destructive for both parties, and it becomes obvious that this relationship can only end in tragedy.
The direction of Michael Curtiz (director of “Casablanca”) lends itself to some wonderful moments of misdirection, which, in turn lead to some great moments of revelation. The subtlety with which he crafts the world around Mildred is also pretty great, for with every scene it feels as if Mildred is helping to change the world around her; it’s not only the characters that are dynamic, the world is as well. While I will admit there are a few slower moments in the beginning of the second act, most of the film is remarkably compelling, and even the scenes that are primarily dialogue are wrought with subtext and double meaning. The acting from pretty much everyone in this film is remarkable, but it’s Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth who really steal the show.
“Mildred Pierce” is a really good movie from a masterful director who left his mark all over cinema. I would absolutely recommend this film to people who love noir, and I think most people with an interest in classic cinema would enjoy this film too. It’s just a great story, told in a great way.
Review Written By: