Film Title: Mildred Pierce
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Joan Crawford
- Jack Carson
- Zachary Scott
- Eve Arden
- Ann Blyth
- Bruce Bennett
Please don’t tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did! With a tagline like that, so much is left to the imagination. By 1945, Joan Crawford had made a series of flops at MGM and her career was fizzling out. At 40 years old, she’d already passed her prime. Many of the big studios had employed younger stars, so Crawford was more likely to be a mentor than a headliner. Nevertheless, after Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell turned down the part, Crawford beat Barbara Stanwyck to the punch for the starring role in Mildred Pierce. In retrospect, no other actress could have become this character, so perhaps there is something to fate.
A shot rings out…what could have happened? Joan Crawford stars as Mildred Pierce, an over-worked housewife whose husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) has an affair with their neighbor Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick). Bert takes the defensive when Mildred confronts him, even though he is clearly in the wrong. He suddenly leaves Mildred to raise their two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Veda, the older of the two, is completely consumed with the idea of material wealth. With this new living arrangement, she can no longer enjoy the benefit of two parents who are financially comfortable. Veda belittles her mother for causing the broken home and pulling her monetary rug out from under her. She also condescends anyone who works an ordinary job. With her back against the wall, Mildred secretly takes a job as a waitress just to make ends meet. She knows this position would mortify Veda, so she hides her uniform. Veda does eventually find the uniform and assumes it belongs to their live-in housekeeper Lottie (Butterfly McQueen). Mildred admits to the waitress job, causing Veda to cry tears of shame. However, while working at the diner, Mildred devises a brainstorm to open her own restaurant. She believes this will have a two-fold effect…she can earn the respect of her daughter by becoming a business owner, and she can return to a life that does not count every penny. Mildred finds the perfect spot for her venture, a place owned by Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). The only problem is, she has no start-up money, so she offers to give Monte a percentage of the business as soon as it thrives. Monte is hesitant at first, but Mildred’s desperation and persistence win him over and the deal is made with the help of Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Wally is Mildred’s realtor, but longs to be more despite her constant rejection of his advances.
Veda begins to take a liking to Monte. Monte has money, and to Veda, that’s as important as having a pulse. As Mildred’s restaurant becomes increasingly popular, her finances soar, making her a certified millionaire. Veda and Monte begin a romance, and when Mildred finds out, Veda plays the victim (in true drama queen fashion). She puts on the act of perpetual innocence..nothing is ever her fault and she is merely a victim of circumstance. As time goes on, Veda’s expenditures spin out of control and she continues to get herself in trouble. Though she has endured verbal abuse from her daughter on countless occasions, Mildred’s maternal instinct will not allow her to leave her child to the wolves, so she rushes to her aid. Mildred wants her and her daughters to be a family again, and she sacrifices her dignity to make that happen. Veda has other plans. Her extravagance knows no limits; her star-like demeanor feeds her a complex of superiority that her mother cannot satisfy…so she moves out. Mildred is heartbroken but understands that she has little say in the matter. Veda’s troubles continue until she finds herself in the worst situation she’s ever caused…a terrible turn of events…an unforgivable criminal act. Mildred is now torn between the right thing to do and rescuing her daughter. What’s a mother to do?
Mildred Pierce took a typical family and shattered it to pieces. In a time where glamour and status defined the worth of people, the idea of money reigning over values was a realistic view of life. This was a role made for Joan Crawford. In real life, she was at a crossroad with a string of unsuccessful movies that all but promised the end of her career. It stands to reason that she ran for this part, and in art imitating life, her character was in a similar position. It was interesting to see such a strong personality (Mildred) brought to her knees by the incessant whining of a spoiled child (Veda). Ann Blyth did a great job portraying Veda. She played her in a split-personality type of way. Veda was a Jeckyl and Hyde character, on one hand she was the face of adolescent confusion, yet, on the other she was a ruthless, materialistic monster. Children are usually demanding with no concept of cost, and in this case, Veda was at the forefront of the movement. Jack Carson was a great choice to play Wally Fay. As mentioned in the Arsenic and Old Lace review, Carson often played characters that never got what they really wanted. Wally was a respectable businessman and a genuinely nice guy, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask Mildred out, or to proclaim his desire for her. She shot him down repeatedly, and lesser men would have given up or even become angered by the rejection. Wally keeps walking back into the firing squad. He has a hint of a self-esteem issue, and even though he tries to cover it with playful banter, it comes through in his facial expressions. Zachary Scott was another strong additive to this mixture. As Monte, he carried himself very cool and laid back…very fitting to the era of suave actors. His words were spoken softly, yet confidently. He very seldom needed to raise his voice, because his choice of words was so dead-on that the point was made with little effort. This was a great balancing act for the film. Mildred herself was similar, but Veda was like a wedge of cold steel that forced its way into the calm.
Mildred Pierce was released on DVD in 2005 by Warner Home Video. Aside from the vibrant audio and video transfer, we are treated to a couple of bonus features. The first is an acclaimed feature length documentary called Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star. This documentary is a fascinating look into the life of Crawford and the roles for which she is best remembered. Many do not realize that her career goes all the way back to the 1920s, before the advent of sound. Her return with Mildred Pierce is a great testament to her staying power in an industry that operates like a revolving door – out with the old and in with the new. In addition to the thorough documentary, the disc also includes a Crawford Trailer Gallery. Again, this is a good way to look back over her body of work and appreciate the versatile ground she covered in her characters. The disc has become slightly hard to find in retail stores as a single, however, the Joan Crawford Collection includes the movie as well as four other films. The single disc can still be obtained from online retailers.
Falling under the multiple genres of Drama, Mystery and Romance, as well as being noted as a Film Noir, Mildred Pierce has just about everything anyone could ask for in a solid film. In our current age of extravagance, it’s easy to understand the pitfalls that money can bring. However, this being over 50 years earlier, it’s even easier to conceptualize the transition from rags to riches and it’s hardships. Most people lived simply, and Hollywood was a world away from Anytown, USA. Today the lines have somewhat blurred, because even the most modest family has one or two impulses lying around the house. When you consider the vast difference between the haves and the have nots of yesterday, this is a blueprint for how people change in the face of wealth. In the end, money simply cannot buy everything…especially a clean conscience.
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