Mildred Pierce (film)

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For the 2011 miniseries, see Mildred Pierce (TV miniseries).
Mildred Pierce
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Jerry Wald
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall
Based on Mildred Pierce 
by James M. Cain
Starring Joan Crawford
Jack Carson
Zachary Scott
Eve Arden
Ann Blyth
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by David Weisbart
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • September 24, 1945 (1945-09-24) (United States)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,453,000
Box office $5,638,000

Mildred Pierce is a 1945 American drama film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott and featuring Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Bruce Bennett, in a film noir about a long-suffering mother and her ungrateful daughter. The screenplay by Ranald MacDougall and the uncredited William Faulkner and Catherine Turney, is based upon the 1941 novel Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. The film was produced by Jerry Wald, with studio head Jack L. Warner as executive producer.

Mildred Pierce was Crawford's first starring film for Warner Bros. after leaving MGM, and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.


From the trailer for the film

While the novel is told by a third-person narrator in strict chronological order, the film uses voice-over narration (the voice of Mildred). The story is framed by the questioning of Mildred by police after they discover the body of her second husband, Monte Beragon. The film, in noir fashion, opens with Beragon (Zachary Scott) being shot. He murmurs the name "Mildred" as he collapses and dies. The police tell Mildred (Joan Crawford) that they believe that the murderer is her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), who under interrogation confesses to the crime. She then relates her life story in flashback.

We see housewife Mildred married to a newly unemployed Pierce. Bert at the time was a real estate partner of Wally Fay (Jack Carson) who propositioned Mildred after learning that she and Bert separated. Mildred retained custody of her two daughters: 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth), a bratty social climber and aspiring pianist, and 10-year-old Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), a tomboy. Mildred's principal goal is to provide for Veda who longs for possessions the family cannot afford. Mildred needs a job and the best she can find is as a waitress – a fact she hides from Veda. One day, Veda gives their maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), Mildred's waitress uniform, knowing fully well it's Mildred's, forcing her to admit her employment as a waitress, infuriating Veda, who thinks it lowly. Kay contracts pneumonia and dies; to bury her grief, Mildred throws herself into opening a new restaurant. With the help of her new friend and former supervisor, Ida (Eve Arden), Mildred's new restaurant is a success. Wally helps Mildred buy the property, and expands into a chain of "Mildred's" throughout Southern California.

Mildred continues to smother Veda in affection and worldly goods, but Veda is nonetheless appalled by Mildred's common background and choice of profession while becoming obsessed with money and materialistic possessions. Mildred goes as far as entering into a loveless marriage with the formerly wealthy Monte Beragon in order to improve her social standing to reconcile with her estranged daughter. Beragon lives the life of a playboy supported financially by Mildred, much to Mildred's dismay and potential ruin. Mildred ends up losing the business thanks to Monte's manipulation and Veda's greed. When Veda takes up with the scheming Monte, a showdown ensues at the beach house where the film began. We discover what really happened: that Veda, furious over Monte's unwillingness to marry her, is the one who shoots him. Mildred can cover for her daughter no more, and Veda is led off to jail. Mildred tells Veda "I'm sorry; I tried" but Veda typically says "Don't worry about me; I'll get by" and is led away to be prosecuted. As Mildred leaves the police station, Bert is waiting for her.


Comparison to the novel[edit]

Though James M. Cain was often labeled a "hard-boiled crime writer", his novel Mildred Pierce was mostly a psychological work and relatively nonviolent. The adaptation was designed as a thriller and a murder was introduced into the plot.[1] The novel spans nine years (from 1931 to 1940), whereas the action of the film is set in the 1940s and spans only four years. Accordingly, in the film, the characters do not really grow older: Mildred does not change her appearance, she does not put on weight and become matronly; Veda ages only four years, from around 13 to around 17. Generally speaking, Mildred is more of a tycoon in the film; her restaurants are glamorous places, and she owns a whole chain ("Mildred's") rather than just three. The evil Veda, who is prodigiously talented and brilliantly devious in the novel, is a somewhat less formidable figure in the film. All references to the Depression and the Prohibition era, which were important in the novel, were absent from the screenplay.

The plot is simplified and the number of characters reduced. For example, Veda's training and success as a singer (including her performance at the Hollywood Bowl) were dropped in the film and her music teachers merely mentioned in passing. Lucy Gessler, a key character in the novel and Mildred's good friend, is not present in the film, although the character of Ida, Mildred's boss at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, is given much of the wise-cracking personality of Mrs. Gessler in the script.

Monte does not die in the novel, and Veda never goes to jail. That portion of the story was invented by the filmmakers because the censorship code of the time required that evildoers be punished for their misdeeds.


The working title for Mildred Pierce was House on the Sand;[2] and filming began on December 7, 1944.[3] Ralph Bellamy, Donald Woods, George Coulouris were considered for the role of Bert, and Bonita Granville, Virginia Weidler and Martha Vickers were considered for Veda.[2] Scenes for the film were shot in Glendale, California and Malibu, California; the film had to receive permission from the U.S. Army to shoot in Malibu, due to wartime restrictions.[2]

Joan Crawford had been released from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer two years prior due to a mutual agreement. Crawford campaigned for the lead role in Mildred Pierce, which most lead actresses didn't want, because being the mother of a teenage daughter implied being of a certain age. Warner Brothers and director Michael Curtiz had originally wanted Bette Davis to play the title role, although she refused. Curtiz, however, did not want Crawford to play the part. Curtiz campaigned for Barbara Stanwyck to play Mildred Pierce, although she was working on My Reputation (1946) at the time. When hearing that Stanwyck wasn't going to be cast, Curtiz actively campaigned that either Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine play the part of Mildred. However, after seeing the screen test Crawford consented to do, Curtiz approved of her casting. Nevertheless there was tension on the set between the director and the star, with producer Jerry Wald acting as peacemaker.[3][4]


Critical response[edit]

The staff at Variety liked the film, especially the screenplay, and wrote, "At first reading James M. Cain's novel of the same title might not suggest screenable material, but the cleanup job has resulted in a class feature, showmanly produced by Jerry Wald and tellingly directed by Michael Curtiz...The dramatics are heavy but so skillfully handled that they never cloy. Joan Crawford reaches a peak of her acting career in this pic. Ann Blyth, as the daughter, scores dramatically in her first genuine acting assignment. Zachary Scott makes the most of his character as the Pasadena heel, a talented performance."[5]

Critic Jeremiah Kipp gave the film a mixed review: "Mildred Pierce is melodramatic trash, constructed like a reliable Aristotelian warhorse where characters have planted the seeds of their own doom in the first act, only to have grief-stricken revelations at the climax. Directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn't quite go with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir, and scored by Max Steiner with a sensational bombast that's rousing even when it doesn't match the quieter, pensive mood of individual scenes, Mildred Pierce is professionally executed and moves at a brisk clip."[6]

Historian June Sochen (1978) argues the film lies at the intersection of two major film genres of the 1930s and 1940s: the "weepie" and the "Independent Woman" film. It accentuates the common ground of the two: women must be submissive, must live through others, and must remain in the home.[7]

Awards and honors[edit]



National Film Registry
In 1996, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.[8]

American Film Institute lists


A five-part television miniseries of Mildred Pierce premiered on HBO in March 2011, starring Kate Winslet as Mildred, Guy Pearce as Beragon, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda, and Mare Winningham as Ida. Separate actresses portray Veda at different ages, as opposed to Ann Blyth alone in the 1945 film. The character of Wally Fay in the original film has been changed back to the name used in the novel, Wally Burgan, played in the new adaptation by James LeGros. The cast also includes Melissa Leo as Mildred's neighbor and friend, Lucy Gessler, a character omitted from the Crawford version. The film is told in chronological order with no flashbacks or voice-over narration, and does not include the murder subplot added for the 1945 feature version.

DVD release[edit]

Mildred Pierce is available on Region 2 DVD in a single disc edition which includes an 86-minute documentary into the career and personal life of Joan Crawford with contributions from fellow actors and directors, including Diane Baker, Betsy Palmer, Anna Lee, Anita Page, Cliff Robertson, Virginia Grey, Dickie Moore, Norma Shearer, Ben Cooper, Margaret O'Brien, Judy Geeson, and Vincent Sherman. Mildred Pierce is also included in a Region 2 release a signature collection of Crawford's films together with the films Possessed, Grand Hotel, The Damned Don't Cry!, and Humoresque.

The Region 1 edition is flipper single disc with "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" documentary and a series of trailer galleries on the reverse of the film.



  1. ^ Mildred Pierce at AllMovie
  2. ^ a b c "Notes" on
  3. ^ a b "Mildred Pierce" on
  4. ^ Ben Mankowitz, intro to the Turner Classic Movies presentation of Mildred Pierce on February 3, 2013
  5. ^ Variety. Film review, 1945. Last accessed: February 7, 2008.
  6. ^ Kipp, Jeremiah. Slant, magazine, film review, 2005. Last accessed: February 8, 2008.
  7. ^ June Sochen, "'Mildred Pierce' and Women in Film," American Quarterly, Jan 1978, Vol. 30 Issue 1, pp. 3–20, in JSTOR
  8. ^ "National Film Registry". Library of Congress, accessed October 28, 2011.

Further reading

  • Cook, Pam. "Duplicity in Mildred Pierce," in Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1978), 68–82
  • Jurca, Catherine. "Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros., and the Corporate Family," Representations Vol. 77, No. 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 30–51 doi:10.1525/rep.2002.77.1.30 in JSTOR
  • Nelson, Joyce. "Mildred Pierce Reconsidered," Film Reader 2 (1977): 65–70
  • Robertson, Pamela. "Structural Irony in 'Mildred Pierce,' or How Mildred Lost Her Tongue," Cinema Journal Vol. 30, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 42–54 in JSTOR
  • Sochen, June. "'Mildred Pierce' and Women in Film," American Quarterly, Jan 1978, Vol. 30 Issue 1, pp. 3–20, in JSTOR

External links[edit]

Streaming audio[edit]