***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden
screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel by James M. Cain
directed by Michael Curtiz
by Alex Jackson The difference between Joan Crawford and her inextricably-linked contemporary Bette Davis is the difference between an icon and a mere actress. Davis was always acting and, in her lesser moments, downright hammy; Crawford simply was. A finished product, all she has to do is walk out and exude "Crawfordness." If it's not her best film, Mildred Pierce is certainly Crawford's best-known film, and one of the fascinating things about it is how it illustrates her screen persona blending together with her personal one. I'm fascinated with the idea of transforming from an inferior being into a superior one--the leap from ape to Star Child in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, to put it in its purest form. This is mankind's most pressing drive, is it not--that is, to escape the banality of our mortal existence? Perhaps such philosophical musings are a function of my still living in young adulthood: I'm a year away from beginning a career in which I expect to spend the next forty years, and there is the persistent fear of this being "all there is." That there's nothing left; I'm going to spend the rest of my life attempting to maintain a constant state of security. The iconology of Crawford achieves such escape. She's embraced the cinema in a way Davis never did. She's drunk from the proverbial cup and is now immortal. Prick her she doesn't bleed, tickle her she doesn't laugh. She is beyond the flesh now, a creature of light and celluloid.
Moroever, both Crawford and Davis are renowned for behaving like supreme bitches offscreen and on, but as Davis is an "actress" as opposed to an icon, she comes off as aware of her bitchiness. Self-conscious acting is nonetheless a form of consciousness and this consciousness trickles down to her bitchiness; in other words, Davis knows that she's a bitch, she has chosen to be one, and if you don't like it you can fuck off. With Crawford, her screen persona is so indistinguishable from our image of her as a woman that no such consciousness forms. Her bitchiness is pathological, a product of, for lack of a better phrase, her mental illness. Davis could be nice if she wanted, but Crawford could never hope to be anything else. That not only makes Crawford scarier than Davis, it makes her more tragic, too.
Joan Crawford is Mildred Pierce Beragon, whose second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) has just been shot in her beach house. She invites long-time admirer Wally (Jack Carson) over with the intent of framing him for the murder. The police pick him up, but they don't think he did it. They believe Mildred's first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) is the true culprit. Monte was shot by Bert's gun and Bert was plausibly jealous of Monte, thus he had a motive. Mildred says she still loves Bert and should never have divorced him. She then tells the police her story.
Bert was in construction, but then the house market dried up, leaving him out of work. While he searched for a job, Mildred baked cakes and pies and sold them to people in the neighbourhood. Mildred dotes on her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and has dedicated her entire existence to giving her everything Mildred never had for herself, effectively spoiling her rotten. Bert and Mildred fight about her coddling of Veda, about Bert's possible affair with their neighbour, and, of course, about money, and they separate. Forced to support the family herself, Mildred takes a job as a waitress. She gets to know the business and looks into opening her own restaurant so she can better provide for Veda. For this she obtains the services of Wally, who works in real estate and used to be partners with her husband. They see a hot property owned by the Beragon estate, which has been strapped for cash as of late; Mildred and Wally pay young playboy Monte Beragon a visit and offer to buy the property on an instalment plan. Monte agrees, even though it's an awful risk. He seems to be sweet on her.
Mildred's restaurant begins to expand and Veda and Monte continue to mooch off of her. While Mildred was once turned on by Monte, she has gradually become repulsed by him. She remains, however, enamoured of Veda, who is easily greedier and more ungrateful than the rather greedy and ungrateful Monte. Despite being her primary source of funds, Veda despises her mother for her lower class origins and adores Monte for his family's old-money reputation. In an attempt to retain her daughter's affections, she proposes marriage to Monte. He accepts on the condition that she hand over a third of her business. She agrees. Monte then goes on to sell his share of the restaurant and, combined with her bleeding the place dry on Veda's behalf and Monte's increased cost of living, she loses her empire--the necessary motivation for her to kill Monte.
Taken on its own terms, Mildred Pierce is only OK. The flashback structure does a lot to obscure the fact that this is a shaggy dog story without ever changing the fact that this is essentially just a shaggy dog story. The film is a little too in love with its own narrative. Once we've moved from point A to point B, point A is forgotten entirely. It doesn't really come together as a cohesive whole. The flashback structure is only a band-aid solution, a quick fix--but it's a development to which studio screenwriters hadn't always been privy. If you watch the Bette Davis melodramas Bordertown (from 1935) and In This Our Life (1942), you'll see how much worse a plotline like this plays straight.
Of course, the flashback structure also allows for a shocking twist ending--and while said twist ending slightly enriches the material, for the most part it's a real groaner, a last ditch manipulation as well as a crudely moralistic Hayes-ism that sees that every sinner get his or her comeuppance. (The original James M. Cain novel had a different, more natural and believable (if less salacious) ending.) Speaking of moralistic, perhaps the most obnoxious thing about the film is its sexist, Wizard of Oz message that--for women, at least--there's no place like home. Mildred's restaurant chain makes her a millionaire, but what she learns from the whole experience is that she should have stayed married to her first husband and found happiness baking pies and raising children. Although Mildred Pierce would probably never be successful as a female empowerment fantasy, the film's post-war orientation of fidelity towards the patriarchy is determined to completely snuff out any reading along these lines.
But if Mildred Pierce has dated badly in one or two major ways, it has aged well in half a hundred minor ways. Director Michael Curtiz keeps things consistently lively--the picture has an attractively slick film noir feel. He has a lot of fun with Wally's arrest, externalizing Wally's increasing anxiety by playing around with hard shadows, spiral staircases, and kooky blocking. I dug a shot where a phone, placed in the foreground, starts ringing and Wally unplugs it from the wall. Then he runs off to do something else in the background, yet the phone continues to dominate the frame. The film is filled with lots of snappy, deliciously quotable dialogue, with Wally and Mildred's working class assistant manager Ida (Eve Arden) reciting the lion's share of the wit. Wally complains, "Sure was a big night for me. I come out looking for an evening of fun and laughter and what do I get? Dishpan hands and a date with a Girl Scout," while Ida cracks, "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." Veda, meanwhile, turns snootiness into a kind of high art. Telling off her mother, she sneers:
"With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls."
"Dollar days." "Women that wear uniforms and men that wear overalls." Nothing short of poetry.
There's also a bit of good old-fashioned 1940s-style racism. Though Mildred's younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) briefly plays with a pickaninny doll, most of the offensive content comes from Butterfly McQueen in an unbilled performance as (what else) Mildred's maid Lottie, doing what Butterfly McQueen does. She expresses surprise that Mildred works all day and then comes home to bake pies "as if you had just been sleeping, only you ain't." Mildred says that it keeps her thin; Lottie looks at her behind and shrugs, "Don't do nothing for me." The most telling bit is easily when Veda gives Lottie her mother's waitressing uniform in case she needs to "answer the door," an action with ramifications that Lottie is either too dim or unwilling to realize. There's not enough of this to turn obnoxious, mind you, but it does add a nice bitter funk to the proceedings. I sort of find myself welcoming racist caricatures in older films, as they keep things from going flat and antiseptic. William Faulkner added a scene to the script, which was not used, wherein Lottie consoles Mildred by singing a gospel song. I'm glad that didn't find its way in the finished product, it sounds so patronizing and fake. Better to just lay the racial power imbalance out on the table.
And the film has a great throwaway moment where Kay, dressed up like Carmen Miranda, sings "The South American Way" with Veda on the piano. Her precociously sexy reading of the lines "With that hazy lazy/Like, kind of crazy/Like South American Way" is friggin' hilarious. There's plenty of stuff like that, stuff that you probably wouldn't see in a modern film but that accumulates into making Mildred Pierce consistently entertaining. I don't think that necessarily means it's a classic, but it's a great watch all the same.
The true value of the film is in how it reveals the Crawford persona. Mildred Pierce helps to provide the psychology that was sorely missing from Mommie Dearest. The obsessive hatred of dirt in Mommie Dearest may have been based on or, if you will, reflected, in the obsessive hatred of "grease" in Mildred Pierce. Pierce and Crawford alike rose from humble origins to become incredibly wealthy; and each will expend much of their energy trying to eradicate the memory of their past. Observe also the spoiled brat of a daughter, maybe the most spoiled of all brats in movie history. This isn't to say that Christina Crawford was such a spoiled brat, just that it's plausible that Joan saw her in those terms and hated her for it. Suddenly, "no wire hangers" makes a whole lot more sense: she has sacrificed and sacrificed to ensure that her daughter has nice things, and this is how she's appreciated?! And then there is the suffering, always the suffering. Nobody, save Christ on the cross, has ever suffered like Joan Crawford. Mommie Dearest briefly underlined a Christ parallel in some of its opening shots--a monogram on her bathrobe (or was it her towels? Been too long since I saw the film) draws attention to the fact that she shares her initials with the carpenter Jew. Perhaps she realized that, like Christ, she would achieve godhood if she died a nice slow death and the whole world were able to partake in her suffering.
The only reason that Crawford herself adopted a daughter was so that she could sacrifice and suffer for her. Mildred Pierce is sharp enough to observe that Mildred made Veda the way she is. She had to have created a spoiled brat with an insatiable appetite for luxury in order to always come up short and always have her inadequacy--her inescapable past as poor white trash--thrown back in her face. It's instructive to compare this film with Crawford's Possessed, released two years later. That film dealt with a love triangle involving Crawford, her daughter, and a gold-digging gigolo, but it changed the focus of her jealousy. In Mildred Pierce, she is competing against the gigolo for the affections of her daughter. She doesn't love him. In Possessed, she's competing against her daughter for the gigolo. She knows the gigolo is going to cause her grief and she wants to protect her daughter from suffering while having all the suffering for herself. What we get from looking at the two films is that Crawford is not turned on by greed, power, or lust. Suffering is her poison. She's going to go to the person who will hurt her the most. Mediocre on its intended level but pretty good on a nostalgic/ironic one, Mildred Pierce only proves great as a window into the psyche of one seriously fucked-up lady. Which is not at all an illegitimate standard for greatness, if you ask me.
Warner's audiovisual presentation of Mildred Pierce leaves little room for improvement. The DVD's 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is crystal clear and sports excellent attention to detail, while the Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 audio represents a fully-restored soundtrack and shows no real denigration from age. The sole extra, stored on the flipside of the disc, is an 85-minute Turner Classic Movies documentary entitled "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star". The doc is comprehensive and intended to be near-definitive, and you may wonder how they could have turned such a juicy subject into such a dull viewing experience. That said, interviewees include Christina Crawford, still stewing in her juices more than 25 years after the publication of Mommie Dearest, in addition to a number of starstruck historians. The film even begins with one lamenting that the first thing people think of when they hear the name Joan Crawford is "No wire hangers!"
They want to show both the good and the bad of Crawford, you see, and indeed the good and the bad can be equally traced back to her life in poverty. She loved her fans and was particularly kind to the crews of her pictures, going so far as to shower them with Christmas presents during the holidays; living in squalor had taught her to never forget the little people. And yet she was horribly abusive to her children--behaviour that Christina readily admits has its seeds in Joan's abusive childhood. Most of her scandalous behaviour is recounted, though they strangely omit her many alleged lesbian affairs with such names as Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead. Whomever selected the film clips shows a real talent for it: every film excerpted here (with the possible exception of Trog) looks like a keeper. Trailers for Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, Flamingo Road, The Damned Don't Cry, Goodbye My Fancy, This Woman Is Dangerous, The Women, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a cast and crew list, and a list of Crawford's awards round out the disc. Mildred Pierce is available individually or as part of Warner's 5-disc Joan Crawford Collection. Originally published: August 22, 2006.