The major momma drama of ‘Mildred Pierce’

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:

The Cast

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.

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And her fashion is on point too, no?

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).”

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THAT FAMOUS SLAP.

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.

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Mildred doesn’t look too happy about this toast.

Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Jo Ann Marlowe also give great performances.

The Script

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.

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Just a mother trying to provide for her daughter…

The Direction

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.

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Bills, bills, bills. I feel you, Mildred.

The Score

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.

The Cinematography

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.

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Just look at the water…HAUNTING, amiright?

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!

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Is it wrong that I’m distracted by how cute her dress is?

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. 

Images and gifs property of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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Brief Encounter, the best romance film you’ve never heard of

Alright, so maybe I’m being glib or pompous to say that you’ve never heard of this film. However, in my experience, unless you’re a film historian or classic film junkie, you haven’t. First things first; the title of this 1945 film is Brief Encounter, not to be confused with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I don’t know why I find myself correcting people on that so often, but just to be clear; they are two very different films.

I first became introduced to this film in my late teens. My dad told me that when he first saw it, in his early 20s, he didn’t appreciate it. However, he thought that given that I was female (how sexist can you get?) that I might be different. So, we watched it and thus began one of the most powerful movie watching experiences I’ve ever had. The movie was so well done and so poignant (even today!) that I found myself thinking about the movie long after it was over.

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The film stars Celia Johnson as a British housewife and mother who happens to have a chance meeting with a Doctor played by Trevor Howard while at a train station one day.

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Both of them have spouses who are not at all evil. They have children. They have lives. And yet, they can’t help their feelings for one another. Celia Johnson’s voiceover lets us in to her private thoughts and feelings. In film, when there is an affair, there tends to be stereotypes. The people cheating are often vilified. This film sets to explore the reasons behind their actions in an adult way.

The film was directed by David Lean, whose credits include such epics as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Brief Encounter is not an epic, but he makes it feel like one. It’s a small story about two people. The film is quiet, but powerful. Much of that comes from the script which was adapted from Noel Coward’s one act play, Still Life.

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I love this movie so much because it’s understated, intimate and sincere. You feel like you’re going through everything with them. The score of the film, Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, along with the beautiful, haunting black & white cinematography lift this film to epic status.

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This is not a happy movie. In fact, it’s particularly depressing. But, it feels real and takes you on an emotional journey. Also, it gave us some of the best lines in film…ever (IMHO).

Also, little known fact: Billy Wilder, the famed writer and director, saw the film and got caught up thinking about the guy who owns the apartment, so caught up that he made a film about it with Jack Lemmon called The Apartment.

Vintage trailer below.