Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Classics: A Review of Mildred Pierce by Lauren Ennis

Don't make me go all 'Joan Crawford' on your ass

Family relationships are some of the most fulfilling, frustrating, and ultimately complicated relationships in our lives. Today, television and film focus upon dysfunctional families so often that the concept has become a cliché. In the 1940’s, however, the family was the most crucial and sacred institution in American life and remained beyond the reach of Hollywood critiques. One film of the post-war era, however, managed to not only explore the complications of a dysfunctional family but also reveal the good intentions and loving impulses that fuel its dysfunction; Mildred Pierce. Adapted from the James M. Cain novel of the same name, Mildred Pierce is an excellent female take on the noir genre as well as an exploration of the dangers of love in all its forms.

The story begins as an expensively dressed Mildred (Joan Crawford) wanders along the seedier part of town before contemplating suicide at the boardwalk pier. She is startled by a patrolling policeman and renounces her thoughts on suicide, instead choosing to turn to her friend and former business partner, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), regarding her mysterious troubles. She lures the eager Wally to her husband’s beach house only to sneak out the window, leaving Wally to be discovered by the police inside the house along with the body of Mildred’s murdered husband, Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott). Despite her clever ruse, the police still track Mildred to her home and bring her in for questioning. She seems unnaturally collected during the proceedings until police reveal that they are planning on charging her ex-husband, Burt Pierce (Bruce Bennett), with Beragon’s murder. The thought of sending an innocent man to prison proves too much for Mildred and she explains the events in her tumultuous life leading up to Beragon’s murder, launching a flashback that takes up the majority of the film’s running time. The flashback reveals how Mildred went from betrayed housewife, to struggling divorcee, to finally successful businesswoman over the course of the Great Depression. All through her various ups and downs, Mildred finds herself motivated by a consuming, almost pathological, love for and need to impress her eldest daughter, Veda (Anne Blyth). As Mildred’s financial woes subside, she finds herself faced with what prove to be just the beginning of her domestic troubles as Veda grows up into a spoiled, calculating, woman as well as her mother’s greatest rival.

The most notable aspect of the film is the way in which is seamlessly blends domestic melodrama with film noir. The film begins with a fatalistic start typical of noir as Mildred first considers ending her life and is later apprehended by police despite her best efforts. This bleak atmosphere continues as she is forced to choose between letting her ex-husband be penalized for a crime he did not commit or revealing a secret so painful that it could destroy the life she has struggled to build for herself. Once the story shifts to Mildred’s flashback, however, the film takes on an entirely different tone as its focus moves to her family life. As it follows her divorce and the eventual rise of her business empire, the film remains sharply focused upon Mildred’s family life, particularly her codependent relationship with her older daughter, Veda. As the plot unfolds, it becomes obvious that Mildred has based her entire existence around Veda’s happiness at the expense of her marriage and her relationship with her younger daughter, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). The toxicity of the pair’s relationship increases as Mildred’s career takes off, setting the stage for a climax in the true noir tradition. While the blending of these two vastly different genres could have easily been jarring and disjointed, the combination of the two instead forms a coherent whole that reveals the desperate measures that average people will go to in times of personal crisis. The blending of genres serves as excellent social commentary upon the struggle to survive during the Great Depression and the devastating effects of class warfare.
Veda Pierce; a one woman arguement for birth control

The cast provides the already fascinating script with ample support in a series of engaging performances. Eve Arden and Jack Carson nearly steal the film in their comic relief roles as Mildred’s snarky best friend and smarmy business partner. Zachary Scott has all the smoothness required of his playboy but also adds an unsettling ruthlessness to his portrayal of Monty. Unfortunately, Jo Ann Marlowe’s performance as Kay is of the sugary quality typical of child actors of the era, and Bruce Bennett’s Burt remains distant and unreadable throughout the film. Ann Blyth is stellar as the conniving Veda, producing a performance that is by turns insufferably haughty and chillingly cruel, but always believable. Her chemistry with Crawford lends credit to the central mother-daughter relationship, which in turn supports Crawford’s portrayal of the pathetically devoted heroine. Despite the quality of the supporting cast’s performances, however, the film belongs entirely to Crawford. Prior to Mildred Pierce’s release, Joan Crawford was considered a fading star. While she had enjoyed success throughout the twenties and overcame the transition to sound in a series of successful films in the thirties, her career experienced a sharp decline by the early forties. In 1943, MGM, the studio over which she had reigned as the undisputed queen for nearly two decades, declined to renew Crawford’s contract. Two years later, the once in demand star found herself out of work as she approached her fortieth birthday. Despite her previous success as a ‘glamour girl’ and the taboo against playing mother parts in Hollywood, she fiercely campaigned for the role of working-class mother Mildred. Crawford went on to not only win the part but also turn in an Oscar winning performance, proving that she had lost none of her talent or shrewdness. Throughout the film, she manages the difficult task of keeping audiences both engaged with and rooting for Mildred despite the fact that she is a character who is consistently self-destructive. Without Crawford’s dynamic performance, the script would lose its emotional impact and credibility and Mildred Pierce would likely not be the timeless classic that it is.

Mildred Pierce is an example of film noir and domestic melodrama at its finest. Through its combination of social commentary and dramatic tension the film tells a fascinating story about the pitfalls of success and the hidden dangers of motherly love. The film marked a meteoric comeback for leading lady Joan Crawford and went on to set the stage for the female centered noirs that came after it. The film’s tagline pleaded with viewers “don’t tell what Mildred Pierce did”; while spoilers are never fun, I highly recommend that you give this film a try and tell other viewers just what you think of Mildred Pierce.

Can't you just feel the family love?



  1. Is there a movie where Joan Crawford doesnt play a manipulative woman w/ homicidal tendencies, or was she pretty much been type-casted into that type of role

  2. Oh ye of little faith, Joan isn't the homocidal maniac, just the enabler