Friday, February 26, 2010

#54: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Released: September 24, 1945

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Ranald McDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: Ernest Haller; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Jerry Wald; Studio: Warner Brothers

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Ardin (Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie), Bruce Bennett (Albert “Bert” Pierce), Lee Patrick (Mrs. Maggie Biederhof), Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson), Veda Ann Borg (Miriam Ellis), Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay Pierce)

- "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea... they eat their young."

On the heels of the placement of Pickup on South Street, which shocked even me as the list-maker, we come to another film that I originally slotted in much higher than it now resides. I re-watched this one in the large batch of noirs that I made sure to get before I started the countdown. This film-watching binge included ones that I had previously and first-time viewings, with the result that an initial rough draft was radically altered in spots. The dropping of Mildred Pierce to here at #54 is not so much a reflection of a decline in my own assessment of the film, but more the result of “new” noirs entering the countdown very high or repeated viewings moving up other strong contenders. This is still a wonderful movie, and the kind of film that reminds one of how capable the Hollywood system of the 1940s was of continually churning high quality melodramas and mysteries.

This is the film that returned Joan Crawford to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. It is easy to repeat this folklore now, but at the time that Mildred Pierce was made, Crawford’s career was waning. Crawford rose to prominence 1920s silent films before moving to MGM in 1930. She worked at MGM for 13 years and arguably became _the_ starlet of the screen – the so-called “First Queen of the Movies.” But by 1943, some of that luster had worn away, and rather than force her to fulfill the one film left on her contract, MGM opted to buy out the $100,000 balance and part ways. She signed at Warner Brothers shortly after the release, and early in her stint there she ran into resistance landing the choicest roles, due to the fact that she was no longer her studio’s marquee star. Bette Davis was the one picking and choosing the top-notch roles and it was only after she declined the lead in Mildred Pierce that Crawford landed the part. Not even veteran director Michael Curtiz wanted her involved in the production, going so far as to demand that the experienced Crawford perform a screen test. She obviously impressed him enough that he relented. The result is another of those fortuitous breaks that seem to be sprinkled throughout Hollywood history.

Crawford turns in a superlative performance as the title character, a woman who leaves her husband (Bruce Bennett) and attempts to survive and support her two daughters independently. Mildred is convinced that her daughters, particularly the oldest Veda (Ann Blyth) deserve more than her unemployed husband can provide and thus is determined to do whatever is necessary to provide it for them. The eternally ungrateful Veda is mortified when her mother takes a job as a waitress, but when Mildred decides to open up her own restaurant, the family fortunes begin to surge. She is assisted by Wally Fay (Jack Carson), her husband’s former business partner, and Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), a wealthy California heir. The restaurant becomes a huge success and Mildred begins showering lavish gifts upon Veda, particularly after her other daughter dies from illness. Along the way, she also is officially divorced from Bert and marries Monte. But her life is complicated even more as the relationship between the unappreciative Veda and her new husband becomes uncomfortably close. Monte then begins playing mother against daughter, with murderous results.

As anyone who has seen the film knows, all of this is told in flashback, with Monte’s murder taking place in the opening moments. This opening sequence contains incredibly impressive photography from Ernest Haller – in fact it’s the most impressive work that I have seen from the veteran cinematographer. The beach house setting feels like it is completely isolated, cut off from everything else, and the shadows literally leap and dance across the rooms. The diagonal angle of the shadows in these scenes is intentionally disorienting and with the deft direction of the continually under-appreciated Michael Curtiz it is all the more unsettling. My love of Curtiz and his work has been well-established on this blog and while I think his two unconditional masterpieces had already been made (Angels With Dirty Faces and Casablanca), this one is just a small notch below.

But let’s not kid ourselves; as outstanding as the work of Haller and Curtiz is, there is a reason that what is most remembered about the film is Joan Crawford. She deserves the praise she gets. What convinces me of this performance’s greatness is how effective Crawford is able to make me believe that she is a woman struggling. This is a huge compliment, because when I think of Joan Crawford I picture a fiery, forceful personality. I know that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the roles she chooses, but sometimes it can be hard to separate the two. As Mildred, that fierceness eventually emerges, but not before we get to watch her work her to that point after struggling and earning her way through determination and hard work. It really is a performance for the ages.

Oh, and since I routinely give short shrift to scores and composers, don’t overlook the contribution of the legendary Max Steiner. It’s not his best, but it certainly adds to the film.


  1. I waver on my appreciation for this film. It seems that every time I watch it I find myself liking it less. It may be because its too soapy and more of a woman's picture than gritty noir. The problem with that opinion though is that I still greatly admire Laura and Gilda which can be classified identically. Regardless, this is a well made film and still worthy of its position on your list. Getting somewhat off topic, I watched Road To Perdition tonight for the third time. I can't believe how great this film seems to get with each viewing. I didn't love it the first time I viewed it but now consider it a masterpiece. I would even put it in my top ten of the 2000's.

  2. ^^^....M.Roca (There is another anonymous who posts here lol)

  3. Great write-up, Dave, on a film that I think is extremely interesting, as well. It is both melodrama and noir, and even though it's only 111 minutes, it feels almost epic in how deeply it covers Mildred's story. I would personally say this one is a little undervalued, not on your countdown, but in film circles, in general.

    Thanks for the great thoughts, as always!

  4. Soapy noir! I like that. There is a lot to like in this film and you touch on all, the photography ,the direction, like you I am a fan of Curtiz, one of the best studio directors, and of course Crawford. I read Cain's novel way back when I was in my late 20's or somewhere there abouts, along with about three others of his works.
    We'll soon be at the half way mark!

  5. I adore this movie. And it taught me to love one of my favorite actresses, Joan Crawford (didn't like her very much in "Sudden Fear," the first film I watched with her), so... Unfortunately, I was a bit spoiled on the ending. And I really like Eve Arden. (Ann Blyth and Jack Carson -- not so much.)

    On the whole, it was a very high quality production which didn't look like a Warner Bros. movie at all.

  6. Dave, I've never watched this, probably because I think of it as a women's picture rather than a noir despite the Cain label. Those distinctions probably never occurred to Cain himself, and there are a lot of 1940s pictures that I could stand to approach without my genre filters on. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. M.Roca - Our feelings on Mildred seem pretty similar. As for Road to Perdition, I agree with you that it's a great one... I placed it in my Top 20 of the 2000s list as well!

    Jeffrey - You're right on the epic scope presented here... it feels like you've watched Mildred's entire life play out before, which in a way I suppose you have.

    John - Yes, Curtiz was a pro's pro and I would probably rank this as his third best film behind the two masterpieces that I mentioned.

    Quirky Character - Yes, Crawford is spectacular in this one... and I don't see anything wrong with Warners in general from this era!

    Samuel - Give it a shot... as M.Roca points out, it has a soapy noir feel similar to some noirs like Gilda. Plus, with Curtiz at the helm, you know it's going to at least be well made.

  8. This is a film that fully deserves to be on this countdown. I completely disagree with "Anonymous" and agree with so many here. I can't even count the number of times I've seen it. Crawford, of course, is irresitible, but Ann Blyth as Veda, is one of the screens most notorious villians. It's melodramatic, but in the best sense, and the story of how a woman fights to achieve success at the ultimate price always rivets, especially when the ingredients here are so tasty. Max Steiner's music and ernest Haller's cinematography are exquisite!

    Outstanding choice and great essay Dave!

  9. Dave, you have identified the essential elements, and Sam's assessment nails it. This is one of the great Hollywood pictures.

    The story of family tragedy played out against the pursuit of the California dream of wealth and ease through hard-work and ambition destroyed by wastrel conceit and shameless greed, is as strong an indictment of the moral corrosiveness of wealth and privilege as Hollywood has achieved. But it is also a story of profound humanity and the worth of simple decency and personal integrity. Mildred makes tragic mistakes and misplaces her trust and love, but she is always true to herself, and in even in her darkest hour towers above the morass of greed and selfishness that would suck her down.

    This was Crawford's come-back picture after the studios were saying she was too old...