Originally published July 5th 2013.
My notes on Mildred Pierce are extensive, almost filling two pages of my notebook; and yet I argued with my mother about the message of the movie. To start, I loved Mildred Pierce. I thought the performance by Joan Crawford was the best I’ve seen and Ann Blyth is so evil you can’t help but be taken in by her. My problems lie within the overall message of the movie, which I know was bound by the constraints of the era, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. So let’s dive into the crazy world of a woman who just wants to make her daughter happy.
Mildred Pierce (Crawford) desperately wants to give her two children everything she never had. Forsaking male relationships, Mildred works her way up to become a powerful businesswoman and restaurant owner but she can’t seem to please her selfish daughter Veda (Blyth). When Mildred meets playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), Mildred could lose everything, including her daughter.
There’s a lot of behind the scenes stories for this movie, so let’s start there. Can you imagine this film being sold as a date movie? Well it was, especially for couples after the war. For a film about the perils of having selfish offspring I’m surprised there was a baby boom if everyone saw this! In terms of acting, Joan Crawford was the last actress the studio wanted after being famously labeled “box office poison.” The role of Mildred was originally offered to Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, but neither of them wanted to play “the mother.” Ironically, Stanwyck played a similar role in Stella Dallas – that of a woman trying to please her selfish daughter. Davis and Stanwyck seem too hardened to be Mildred Pierce and while Crawford gets a bum rap now for being a terrible mother, here she’s not hard but tenacious. The role relaunched Crawford’s career for a brief time and got her an Oscar – all at the age of 39 – and she looks stunning!
The film is based on a novel by James M. Cain who wrote Double Indemnity. Both have murder and a woman who’s up to no good, but there’s also some fantastic fast-talking sexual dialogue in both films. Audiences generally remember the “speeding” exchange between Walter and Phyllis in Double Indemnity, but there’s some great dialogue involving Mildred and poor Wally (Jack Carson) that’s on par. Obviously for the time period much of the book had to be changed; in this case, the relationship between Veda and her stepfather. According to Wikipedia, the novel and film are vastly divergent. I originally saw the 2011 television miniseries with Kate Winslet, which I enjoyed, and which does include the incestuous relationship between Veda and Monte. I recommend watching both as they tell two different stories and the endings leave you with two completely different ways to interpret the message.
Moreover, Mildred Pierce is a film noir despite being a “woman’s picture” or “weepie” melodrama. We open with the murder of Monte whose words introduce us to the movie and it’s title character – “Mildred.” The story is told via flashback, with Mildred narrating and being brought down by the machinations of a femme fatale; in this case Mildred’s daughter, Veda. Other amazing stylistic techniques include the expressionistic set design such as the spiral staircases of the Beragon house and the large human shaped shadows on the wall (actually the entire Beragon estate is gorgeously shot in this film). In the opening, as Wally is running through the house the rooms look big enough to swallow him up. I’m not sure if that’s forced perspective, or something similar, but it’s beautifully rendered. I kept noticing small touches like cinematography and sound, and if you’ve read my reviews you know it takes a lot for me to notice those. The scene in the police station is suitably uncomfortable with the sound turned up to heighten every little thing keeping Mildred constantly on edge. The camera itself is left on her in the center of the room giving the audience a complete view, but leaving Mildred to feel as if she’s being watched, making the audience voyeurs.
The film’s objectors find the coldest elements in the relationship between Mildred and Veda. Effectively, mother and daughter are forced to compete for the love of a man and Veda is a heartless, materialistic little girl whose mother can’t do anything right. Mildred herself is depicted as a resourceful businesswoman able to make her way without a man. In the opening of the film she tells first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) that the children come first, causing him to leave. Of course, Mildred’s work is all for naught because Veda is a total bitch. The theme of the film appears to be “Ladies, don’t love your children too much or bad things will happen.” This is sharply punctuated and reinforced at the end as Mildred and Bert leave the courthouse with the allusion being that they’re able to reconcile and have a “proper” marriage now that Veda is out-of-the-way. It’s a sad message now as it was in 1945, and thankfully I don’t feel the 2011 remake reinforces that. I wouldn’t say the film is entirely anti-women, but it definitely is in the vein of the time period, reinforcing a woman’s place is in the home; this is especially prevalent upon seeing Mildred’s scenes with male characters and in the home as bright and sunny, only to watch the scenes get darker and shadows come in as the film progresses.
The various men in this movie are all stubborn, rude, opportunistic, or all three. Bert is meant to be the “nice” guy who just wants Mildred to pay attention to him, and actor Bruce Bennett is a solid actor for the role. Bert feels the children are spoiled and yet Mildred wants to give them everything she didn’t have…what’s wrong with that? Mildred is a woman who supports her children’s dreams and vows she’ll do “anything” to make them happy. Obviously, we’re meant to see this as a flaw, but in a time where actresses didn’t want to play a mother Crawford makes you believe she’d lay down her body and die if it’d give her children an advantage to reach their goals. This is the reason Bert feels their marriage is crumbling, yet he leaves her for a married woman……yeah, he’s definitely the better person in this situation; I didn’t understand the hypocrisy, at all. Mildred wants to give her kids the best and she’s punished with her youngest child dying (I know it’s the trait of a “weepie,” but seriously) and another being downright evil, all while Bert’s mistress Mrs. Beiderhof (Lee Patrick) lives happily ever after!
Zachary Scott returns to the blog in another snooty playboy role (the others include Let’s Make It Legal and Born to Be Bad). I did enjoy his suave attitude here more so than in the previous two films where he played a fairly stock character; that of “man with money.” Jack Carson plays Wally, the biggest opportunist of the group; Monte is an opportunist asking Mildred for money and all but you’re meant to see him on par with Veda. Veda and Monte both condemn Mildred for working while holding their hand out for cash. Who’s truly worse, the spoiled little girl or the grown man whose fortune has been squandered? Wally on the other hand could wind up in prison the way he acts throughout the film. We open with him trying to seduce Mildred, while she’s trying to frame him for murder. During the flashback we see him arrive after Bert’s left and expects Mildred to sleep with him because she’s newly single: “You know, you keep on refusing me, and one of these days I’m going to start thinking you’re stubborn.” She’s been single for less than a day, let her grieve! It doesn’t help that both men refuse to take Mildred seriously, as whenever they enter a room the camera focuses on Mildred’s legs, implying they see only those; Mildred knows all this and covers up. She understands their stupidity and constantly keeps three steps ahead of them, like when Monte asks her what kind of drink she wants, she replies “harmless;” I love classy lines like that. By the end of the movie both Monte and Wally have decided Veda’s a better bet to achieve their aims, whether sexual or financial, strengthening the motif that men move on to younger women when the mother becomes too old.
I’ll come back to Mildred in a second, but we HAVE to talk about Veda. Seriously, if they wanted a prequel to the recent We Need to Talk About Kevin, it should be entitled We REALLY Have to Talk About Veda. (Hollywood, I have a million ideas!) Ann Blyth blew me away! Veda is equated with a black widow, or any spider that constructs a web so fine you don’t realize you’re in it until you’re already partially digested (sorry if I grossed you out). Veda is that crafty; but it’s easy to see why Mildred ignores it or can’t see it since Veda’s her daughter. Sure, Veda thought there was no problem pimping her mother out to a man she didn’t love in order to gain a new house but who hasn’t (I’m joking of course). Veda has a wealth of personality issues, but she’s able to project any face she needs to in order to get what she wants. Poor Ted Forrester, the boy she ropes into marrying her, who seems to love her and is confused on why they can’t stay married; Veda doesn’t give a damn about him. She can’t love anybody unless there’s a challenge involved, and when she slaps her mother there’s no remorse. Veda lays down the law and asserts her dominance no matter the situation; a far cry from when Mildred slaps Veda in the beginning and starts to cry, proclaiming “I’d rather cut off my hand.” Veda doesn’t feel she should give up anything; she’d probably cut off Mildred’s hand and help her along.
When Monte’s true colors are revealed at the end you can’t help but feel bad for the girl. She’s still a child in many ways and Monte uses some harsh language that the girl isn’t used to. When Veda tells him she knows he loves her, he replies “I must have been drinking.” Monte even goes so far as to call Veda a tramp. REALLY guy, you married her mother for money and started fooling around with the girl and she’s the slutty one? When Mildred comes back in after Veda has shot Monte – regardless of how you interpret Veda’s actions – her cries to her mother of “What are you going to do” don’t feel like a woman attacking another woman but a child asking her mother to fix the situation. Maybe it’s because I’ve had issues with siblings who feel they’re grown-up only to turn to my mother and say “help me,” but I felt for Veda; and while Mildred has done everything and can’t turn back time to prevent Veda from being a murderer she does try to take the fall for her child, protecting her till the end. In a way, Veda was only acting out Mildred’s hatred for Monte by shooting him, allowing the audience to possibly feel, in some tiny speck, that Veda was helping her mother. Can you believe Shirley Temple was originally offered this role?! The girl from The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer playing Veda? Sorry, but Ann Blyth wins by a landslide!
Crawford herself is filled with expression and emotion that pours out of her throughout the almost two-hour runtime (which simply zooms). You can tell from the minute the police tell her of Monte’s murder that she knows something is wrong, but she’s holding back. I can’t name an actor or actress able to convey fear and the absence of fear at the same time but Crawford does it with aplomb. Her character lives the American Dream throughout, and yet she’s punished for it. There’s an interesting thesis that could be cobbled about Mildred Pierce’s views on inherited vs. earned wealth with Veda being pro-inherited, but who wants me to discuss that? Although there’s an ironic line spoken by Veda: “Business and making money. That’s all mother thinks about.” Did I mention we need to talk about Veda? Returning to the anti-feminist angle, Mildred does develop masculine traits as the restaurant, Monte and Veda take their toll; she begins to drink “straight” alcohol and smoke, implying her femininity has been corrupted by business and gaining her independent wealth. By the end, when she leaves the station with Bert, it is under the assumption that her femininity will be restored through the help of a man.
Mildred Pierce has a muddy message, but the acting and the story make everything worth while. I forgot to mention the darling Jo Anne Marlowe as Kay who brightens up the film for the few moments she’s on-screen. Blyth and Crawford are perfect and the story is worth sitting down and watching…just don’t watch it with your kids. You don’t want them to get ideas.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.