Eve Arden, Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, and Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce (1945)


(director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriters: James M. Cain novel/Ranald MacDougall; cinematographer: Ernest Haller; editor: David Weisbart; 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); Runtime: 113; Warner Brothers; 1945)
“Mildred Pierce is a noir melodrama that served as a comeback film for waning star Joan Crawford…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mildred Pierce is a noir melodrama that served as a comeback film for waning star Joan Crawford, who was recently dumped by MGM. Producer Jerry Wald insisted she get the part over director Michael Curtiz’s objection that she was a prima donna and difficult to work with. The film was nominated for 6 Oscars, and Joan won the Best Actress award. The star actresses on the Warner studio lot, such as Barbara Stanwyck, turned down the part because they didn’t want to be seen in a part that called for them to have a 16-year-old daughter. After this film’s success, Joan was back on top. She also won Curtiz over, who was very pleased with her work attitude and performance.

Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall toned down James M. Cain’s steamy novel where Cain had Mildred Pierce as a waitress who slept her way to financial success to provide her daughter with all the things she never had while growing up poor, such as music lessons and a rich wardrobe. But her daughter betrayed her by stealing her true love. There is no murder in the novel, which in the film is what the story revolves around. In the movie Mildred is a mother who has spoiled her rotten daughter by giving her too much, as the sex scenes get replaced by an overbearing mother not knowing how to handle her spoiled daughter. She has become obsessed with providing her daughter with materialistic luxuries and living only for her.

The film begins with the murder of unctuous playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) in the swanky house he lives in with his wife, Mildred Pierce Beragon (Joan Crawford). Four bullets are fired into him at close range and he dies while calling out Mildred’s name. Mildred walks in a drizzle down a pier and appears to be the one who killed him. She certainly had a reason to kill her good-for-nothing abusive husband.

The film is told in flashback from the murder scene, as all the suspects are brought at night to the Los Angeles police station and Inspector Peterson (Olsen) interrogates them until morning. The suspects include former husband Bert (Bennett), whom Mildred married at 17; business associate and close friend, the wisecracking Ida (Eve Arden); a rapacious former real estate partner of her husband’s, Wally Fay (Jack Carson); and, the beaten-down Mildred.

Mildred reveals how her once happy first-marriage to Bert changes when her intransigent husband loses his real estate broker partnership with Wally and starts seeing another woman over her objections. To try and make it on her own, she gets hired by restaurant manager Ida and becomes a waitress to support herself and her gentle younger daughter Kay and her obnoxiously snooty 16-year-old daughter, Veda (Blyth). With the help of Wally’s keen business skills, who also foolishly makes a crass play for her which she easily fends off, she secures an ideal place to open a restaurant. She purchases the land from wealthy society loafer Monte Beragon. The place is an overnight smash and Mildred is now wearing fur, living in a mansion, and providing Veda with all the love that money could buy. But this kid is so rotten and has such a vile mouth, that it’s impossible to believe that her mother could still like her so much. Soon Mildred’s sweet younger daughter dies from an illness and Mildred becomes even more obsessed with Veda.

Monte turns out to be a snaky guy, playing off both mother and daughter for his love. When he has cash problems Mildred helps him out despite how he looks down upon her, just like her daughter does as someone with greasy hands from working in the kitchen.

After Mildred divorces Bert, she is beguiled the handsome Monte’s charms. She marries him, despite not loving him, because she wants Veda, now 17, to stop being a tramp and return home. But Monte turns out to be scoundrel and bankrupts her chain of restaurants.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph revealing the killer.

The climax is when Mildred sees Veda and Monte embracing in their house and they reveal their long time affair, and she goes to get her gun. But she can’t kill him, and leaves the two parasites together. Monte refuses to marry Veda, saying: “You’re a rotten little tramp.” Veda then picks up the dropped gun and kills him. Her mother hears the shots and tries once again to protect her daughter by setting up Wally to be in her house with the dead body, while Veda tries to flee the state.

The acting and cinematography and Curtiz’s directing were fine. The story didn’t make too much sense, but it was lively. It places all the blame on Mildred, all because she did not realize how bad her daughter really was and how desperate she was to make up for a poverty stricken childhood. Blyth is over-the-top bitchy in her femme fatale role.

In the end Mildred can’t save her family through money and misplaced love, and must learn how to survive without the parasites, Veda and Monte, who ripped her off.

All these melodramatics were heavy-handed and Mildred’s possessive desires were hard to explain, except she’s someone who encouraged others to take advantage of her because she never found satisfaction in either marriage or with herself. It was hard to feel sorry for her, since she brought this tragedy onto herself. But the noir film also is intent on making the point, how difficult it is for a woman on her own to make it in a patriarchal society. The film is very reflective of 1940s attitudes about independent women who desert the idea of a nuclear family, and how dangerous it could be for them to do that.