Mildred Pierce (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Curtiz|
|Produced by||Jerry Wald|
|Screenplay by||Ranald MacDougall Catherine Turney (uncredited)|
|Based on||Mildred Pierce
by James M. Cain
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Edited by||David Weisbart|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
Mildred Pierce is a 1945 American film noir directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott, also featuring Eve Arden, Ann Blyth and Bruce Bennett. Based on a novel by James M. Cain, this was Crawford's first starring film for Warner Bros. after leaving MGM, and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
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 Mildred's interrogation by police after they discover the body of her second husband, Monte Beragon. The film, in noir fashion, opens with Beragon (Zachary Scott) having been shot. He murmurs the name "Mildred" before he dies. The police tell Mildred (Joan Crawford) that they believe the murderer is her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). Bert has already been interrogated, and confessed to the crime. Mildred protests that he is too kind and gentle to commit murder, and goes on to relate her life story in flashback.
Mildred was married to Pierce, who is presently unemployed. Bert had been a real estate partner of Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred has been supporting her family by baking and selling pies and cakes. Bert accuses Mildred of caring more about their daughters, and making them her priority instead of her husband. Mildred admits this, and the two decide to separate.
Wally propositions Mildred the moment he learns that she and Bert separated. Mildred retained custody of her two daughters, the 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 that her mother can't afford, and social status above that of her family. She is ashamed of her mother's work as a baker.
Mildred searches for a job, but is hampered by her lack of employable skills. She has never worked outside her home except for her small baking business. 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, with full knowledge that it's Mildred's. Mildred confronts Veda and is forced to admit she is a waitress. Veda treats her with derision and makes it clear that she is ashamed of her mother.
Bert arrives to take his daughters for his weekend visit. Kay contracts pneumonia on the trip and dies. Mildred channels her grief into work and 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 she expands into a chain of "Mildred's" throughout Southern California.
Mildred continues to smother Veda in affection and worldly goods. Veda, despite her mother's love and lavish gifts, remains spoiled, selfish, disrespectful and expresses her scorn of Mildred's common background and choice of profession. Veda's obsession with money and materialistic possessions only increases.
Veda secretly marries a well-to-do young man for his money and position, but expresses unhappiness about her marriage. Mildred and Wally agree to help her get out of the mess she's made, but Veda demands ten thousand dollars from her husband and claims she's pregnant. Her husband's family agrees, but she smugly confesses to Mildred that she lied about her pregnancy just to get the money. Mother and daughter argue, exchanging insults. Mildred tears up the check, is slapped by Veda, and throws Veda out of the house.
Bert invites Mildred out for the evening, but takes her to a club where Veda is performing as a lounge singer. Bert says he couldn't bear to tell Mildred what their daughter was doing and had to show her. Mildred begs Veda to come home, but Veda sneers and says her mother can never give her the lifestyle she wants.
Desperate to reconcile with her daughter, Mildred coaxes Monte Beragon into a loveless marriage in order to improve her social status. She knows Monte is a playboy with high social standing and an elegant mansion, but is virtually bankrupt. Monte's price for marriage is a one-third share of Mildred's business, so that he can settle his debts. Mildred agrees, and Veda, eager to live out her dream as a debutante, pretends to reconcile with her mother.
Beragon lives the life of a playboy, and takes Veda along for the ride. Mildred continues to support everyone financially, but ends up losing her business because of Monte's debts. She goes to confront Monte at his beach house, and finds her daughter in his arms. Veda scornfully tells Mildred that Monte loves her, and will leave Mildred.
Mildred runs out to her car in tears. Monte shouts that he never promised to marry Veda, and wouldn't lower himself to wed a tramp like her. A showdown ensues, and Veda shoots Monte. Mildred hears the gunshots from her car.
Veda begs her mother to help her one more time, tearfully proclaiming her love and penitence. Mildred refuses to rescue her daughter this time, and calls the police, but can't go through with it.
The detectives bring Veda into the interrogation room and explain they've trapped Mildred all along. They knew Veda committed the murder, and lead her off to jail. Mildred tells Veda "I'm sorry; I tried" but Veda, in typical careless fashion says "Don't worry about me; I'll get by" and is led away to be prosecuted. Mildred leaves the station to find Bert waiting for her.
- Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon
- Jack Carson as Wally Fay
- Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
- Eve Arden as Ida Corwin
- Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester
- Butterfly McQueen as Lottie
- Bruce Bennett as Albert "Bert" Pierce
- Lee Patrick as Mrs. Maggie Biederhof
- Moroni Olsen as Inspector Peterson
- Veda Ann Borg as Miriam Ellis
- Jo Ann Marlowe as Kay Pierce
Ann Blyth is the last surviving primary cast member.
Comparison to the novel
Although James M. Cain was often labeled a "hard-boiled crime writer", his novel Mildred Pierce (1941) was mostly a psychological work, with little violence. The adaptation, released four years later, was designed as a thriller, and a murder was introduced into the plot.
The novel spans nine years (from 1931 to 1940), whereas the film is set in the 1940s and spans only four years. Its characters do not age as a consequence. Mildred's physical appearance doesn't change, although her costumes become more elegant as her business grows. Veda ages from around 13 to 17. Mildred is more of a tycoon in the film; her restaurants are glamorous places, and she owns a whole chain ("Mildred's") instead of the novel's three. Evil, spoiled Veda, who is prodigiously talented and brilliantly devious in the novel, is somewhat less formidable in the film. All references to the Depression and the Prohibition era, which are important in the novel, are absent from the screenplay.
The plot is simplified and the number of characters reduced. Veda's training and success as a singer (including her performance at the Hollywood Bowl) were dropped in the film and her music teachers only mentioned in passing. Lucy Gessler, a key character in the novel and Mildred's good friend, is eliminated. Ida, Mildred's boss at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, is given much of Gessler's wise-cracking personality.
Monte does not die in the novel, and Veda never goes to jail. The murder portion of the story was invented by the filmmakers because the censorship code of that time required evildoers to be punished for their misdeeds.
The working title for Mildred Pierce was House on the Sand; and filming began on December 7, 1944. Ralph Bellamy, Donald Woods, and George Coulouris were considered for the role of Bert, while Bonita Granville, Virginia Weidler, and Martha Vickers were considered for Veda. Scenes for the film were shot in Glendale, California and Malibu, California. Permission had to be granted from the U.S. Army to shoot in Malibu due to wartime restrictions.
In 1942, two years earlier, Joan Crawford had been released from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer due to a mutual agreement. Crawford campaigned for the lead role in Mildred Pierce, which most lead actresses didn't want, because of the implied age as mother of a teenage daughter. Warner Brothers and director Michael Curtiz had originally wanted Bette Davis to play the title role, but she declined. Curtiz did not want Crawford to play the part. Curtiz campaigned for Barbara Stanwyck, who was working on My Reputation (1946) at the time. When he learned that Stanwyck was not, however, going to be cast, he then tried to recruit either Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine to play Mildred. He ultimately approved Crawford's casting after seeing her screen test. Even so, the director and the star were often at odds on the set, with producer Jerry Wald acting as peacemaker.
Contemporary reviews praised Crawford's performance but had mixed opinions about other aspects of the film. A review in The New York Times wrote that although Crawford gave "a sincere and generally effective characterization," the film "lacks the driving force of stimulating drama," and it did "not seem reasonable that a level-headed person like Mildred Pierce, who builds a fabulously successful chain of restaurants on practically nothing, could be so completely dominated by a selfish and grasping daughter, who spells trouble in capital letters." 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." Harrison's Reports wrote that Crawford gave a "good performance", but the story "lacks conviction, and the main characterizations are overdrawn. For example, the daughter's hatred for her mother has no logical basis, consequently, it weakens the story." John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote: "Certainly, despite its unconscionable length–it takes almost two hours–'Mildred Pierce' contains enough excitement to jolt even the most lethargic customer ... it is pleasant to report that Miss Crawford is no longer as frantic in appearance as she once was. Despite all kinds of chances to go berserk as a Cain mother, Miss Crawford remains subdued and reasonable, like most of the rest of a highly competent cast."
Critic Jeremiah Kipp (2005) 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."
Historian June Sochen (1978) argues the film lies at the intersection of the "weepie" and "independent woman" genres of the 1930s and 1940s. It accentuates common ground of the two: women must be submissive, live through others, and remain in the home.
Awards and honors
- National Board of Review: Best Actress, Joan Crawford; 1945.
- Academy Award: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Joan Crawford; 1946.
- Academy Awards: 1946
American Film Institute lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Veda Pierce – Nominated Villain
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
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. Wally Fay's character in the original has been changed back to the novel's Wally Burgan, and is portrayed 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 eliminates the murder subplot that was added for the 1945 version.
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 a flipper single disc with "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" documentary and a series of trailer galleries on the reverse of the film.
- "Mildred Pierce". American Film Institute. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
- "National Film Registry". Library of Congress, accessed October 28, 2011.
- Mildred Pierce at AllMovie
- "Notes" on TCM.com
- "Mildred Pierce" on TCM.com
- Ben Mankowitz, intro to the Turner Classic Movies presentation of Mildred Pierce on February 3, 2013
- "Movie Review - Mildred Pierce". The New York Times. September 29, 1945. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
- Variety. Film review, 1945. Last accessed: February 7, 2008.
- "'Mildred Pierce' with Joan Crawford, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott". Harrison's Reports: p. 155. September 29, 1945.
- McCarten, John (October 6, 1945). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp.: p. 95.
- Kipp, Jeremiah. Slant, magazine, film review, 2005. Last accessed: February 8, 2008.
- June Sochen, "'Mildred Pierce' and Women in Film," American Quarterly, Jan 1978, Vol. 30 Issue 1, pp. 3–20, in JSTOR
- 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
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