One of my biggest pet peeves in talking to my peers about classic film is when they tell me, “How can you like movies without complex female characters?” I’m not sure where this assumption started, but a lot of people believe that there is a lack of strong female characters in classic cinema.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially in the pre-code era, complex women were everywhere! If you don’t believe me, just look up Baby Face or The Divorcee. The movie I want to discuss today, Mildred Pierce, is ALL about complicated women.
I first saw this movie back in high school. I didn’t know anything about it and so, each melodramatic twist hit me hard! What surprised me the most was that the film didn’t shy away from making the characters unlikable. Even the titular Mildred is far from being a perfect person!
If you’re not familiar, Mildred Pierce, made in 1945, follows Mildred (Joan Crawford), a mother blinded by the love for her two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). When she splits with her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred works to give her daughters the life she believes they deserve. She becomes a successful businesswoman and even finds a new man, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), but is it enough to win her daughters’ respect and love? Let’s just say, lots of momma drama ensues!
Here are just a few reasons you need to watch Mildred Pierce NOW:
Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her career-defining performance as Mildred, but she was not the original choice for the role. In fact, they offered the role to three other actresses including Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck before finally offering it to Joan. Michael Curtiz, the film’s director thought Stanwyck a has-been and apparently really didn’t like her shoulder pads. She surprised them all by giving a truly Oscar-worthy, nuanced performance as Mildred.
I had the pleasure of seeing this film at the TCM Film Festival a few years back with Ann Blyth in attendance for a Q&A afterwards. Blyth was just seventeen years old when she played Veda, Mildred’s vapid, beautiful daughter. She’s deliciously evil and obnoxious. Apparently, the Academy thought so as well since they gave her an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.
Of working with Crawford, Blyth “…remembered her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about (Blyth, TCM Article).”
Also, this is a fascinating piece TCM put together a few years ago. Lots of interesting tidbits! Ann talks about THE SLAP. It’s great.
Eve Arden is also wonderful as Ida, Mildred’s business party and best friend. She takes snark to a whole new level.
Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Jo Ann Marlowe also give great performances.
The script was based on a James M. Cain novel. He also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mildred Pierce wasn’t one of his bestselling novels, but nevertheless, it caught the attention of producer Jerry Wald, who took charge of the project.
There’s much debate about whether the film is really a film noir or a women’s melodrama. Certainly, the subject matter seems more female oriented than most film noirs. But, still, the main plot surrounds a murder (very film noir). Certainly, this film is more a character drama than anything else. Mildred is fascinating. She’s not a bad person. But, she does do bad things for her daughter. She has blinders on, only seeing the goal of trying to provide for her daughter.
Blyth’s Veda is similarly complex. We wonder how she became this way, this self centered, money hungry young girl. She will, like Mildred, go to any lengths to achieve her goal, even if that means spurning her mother. But, there are moments when she seems human and child-like, and that makes her difficult to hate completely.
To me, the film feels like it’s partially about not seeing what’s really there. To an extent, we see what we want to see, in our family members especially. When Mildred really does see Veda, it’s devastating.
Michael Curtiz’s name is not as well known as it should be. After all, he directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. He apparently did not see eye to eye with Crawford, “…referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew (Rob Nixon and Stephanie Thames, TCM Article).” They apparently did build a respect as the film went on, but Jerry Wald often acted as referee between them. Despite the feeling behind the scenes, the film Curtiz made is nuanced and masterfully directed. Given the fact that it was so female-oriented, I thought he did a great job portraying their struggles without belittling them.
Max Steiner is most well known for scoring Gone with the Wind, which makes complete sense when you listen to Mildred Pierce‘s score. It has an epic quality to it. There are moments of the film which may have benefited from a lack of score, but still, Steiner’s score is pretty hard to hate. It lends a dramatic quality to literally every line.
Like the score, Mildred Pierce also borrowed Gone with the Wind DP Ernest Haller. Haller also shot Rebel Without a Cause and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in his long career. Film noir, despite the way it’s discussed now, is really a style. Haller helps create that style, the shadowy darkness. The black and white is gorgeous and haunting.
It’s a bombastic, affecting, female-driven film noir.
You watch this movie now and you can’t not be amazed – that they got the story and dialogue past the censors, that Crawford and Blyth are SO good, and that it is completely female driven. It was a true game-changer. It revitalized Crawford’s career and started Blyth’s. Is it melodramatic? Yes, of course. But, that’s the fun of it.
The book was remade into a miniseries by HBO in 2011 and although I love Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, the movie still reigns supreme. If you’ve never seen Mildred Pierce, you’re in for a treat and some really fun momma drama!
Vintage trailer below:
BONUS: I came across this wonderful parody of Mildred Pierce, which was done on the Carol Burnett show in the 1970’s. Carol as Joan is ON POINT.
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