MILDRED PIERCE: The Essentials
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Mildred Pierce is a working class woman struggling to make ends meet after she splits from her unemployed husband. To care for her two young daughters, she takes a day job as a waitress and moonlights as an independent baker, selling cakes and pies to local restaurants. When her youngest child, the sweet-natured Kay, dies of pneumonia, Mildred devotes all her time and energy to her spoiled teenage daughter Veda. With the help of local businessman Wally Fay and down-on-his-luck playboy Monty Beragon, she opens her own restaurant. It proves to be such a success that she soon expands it into a string of eateries in the Los Angeles area. But nothing she does pleases the willful Veda, not even marrying Beragon for his family name. It all comes crashing down on the night of Veda's eighteenth birthday, when Mildred loses her empire and Monty is mysteriously murdered. And Mildred is faced with having to make one last sacrifice.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producers: Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, from the novel by James M. Cain
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editing: Daniel Weisbart
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monty Beragon), Eve Arden (Ida Corwin), Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce).
BW-111m. Close captioning, Descriptive video.
Why MILDRED PIERCE is Essentials
Mildred Pierce has become so closely identified with the persona and myth of Joan Crawford that the achievements of the film itself and the other artists involved are often overlooked. Not that its connection to Crawford should be trivialized. Her performance here represents one of the most famous comeback stories in Hollywood history. She had been in the business about 20 years when she was tapped for this role (which was first offered to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ann Sheridan, respectively). The much-noted Crawford durability had taken her from freewheeling flapper parts in the 20s to a Depression-era Cinderella of the early 30s to the glamorous and trend-setting MGM clotheshorse late in the decade, making her one of the biggest stars of the era and one of the three queens of the Metro lot (along with Garbo and Norma Shearer). But by the early 40s, her career was in decline. She left MGM in 1943 and landed at Warner Brothers, where she waited two years before making a significant film appearance (other than a cameo as herself in Hollywood Canteen, 1944). With Mildred Pierce, Crawford at 40 reinvented herself again, scoring a huge commercial and critical success and launching a new phase in her career as a tough-as-nails but nobly suffering woman "of a certain age" in cautionary melodramas of greed and possessiveness. Winning the Academy Award on her first nomination brought new respect for the actress who had clawed her way to the top, and it put her back in the category of major stars.
But Crawford isn't the only reason the movie is essential viewing for cinema lovers. Warner Brothers and producer Jerry Wald, a great friend and champion of the star for many years, made sure that the studio's most skilled technicians and crew were entrusted with bringing James M. Cain's popular novel to the screen. The production was helmed by one of Warner's most prolific directors, Michael Curtiz. Born in Hungary, Curtiz began as an actor and producer in the Budapest theater before moving to silent film work in Sweden and Germany. He came to Hollywood in 1926, where he established a reputation as Warner's most dedicated and tireless director (he stayed with the studio until 1953), cranking out hits in just about every genre- action: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), crime: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), historical epic: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), western: Santa Fe Trail (1940), war: This Is the Army (1943), and musical-comedy Romance on the High Seas (1948). Although he has never been considered among the top rank of artist-directors, many of his films have become classics- particularly his most famous and lasting success, Casablanca (1943). And it's a sign of the faith Warner Brothers had in Crawford that Curtiz, who had directed Davis, Bogart, Flynn, Cagney, and Robinson, was assigned to shepherd the actress through the role, even though he was reluctant to work with her in the beginning.
Wald also brought in a seasoned cast of supporting players; the studio's top composer, Max Steiner; Anton Grot to design the evocative sets; and, most notably, Ernest Haller, who had shared an Oscar with Ray Rennahan for the cinematography of Gone with the Wind (1939). Haller was one of four cinematographers who made tests with Crawford "with not very satisfactory results," according to an internal studio memo dated November 6, 1944. But he got the job anyway, and much of the look of the film can be credited to him and Grot, working together to create the stark daylight of Southern California and the expressive night shadows that underscore the characters' darkest motives and desires.
It's this look, as well as the flashback structure and cynical tone, that places Mildred Pierce among the moody postwar motion pictures that have come to be known as film noir. Some film scholars argue the movie belongs more correctly in the genre of "woman's melodrama" because, unlike film noir, it has a female at the center of its story and its conflicts revolve around family and relationship issues. But film noir films, for all their excursions into the paranoid underworld, are often about tangled and "unhealthy" relationships, too, and have much to say in their own way about gender politics. And like the typical male protagonist of film noir who is led astray by a double-crossing femme fatale, Mildred is also brought to ruin by a wicked female - her own daughter.
There are a couple of other points rarely mentioned about Mildred Pierce but worthy of consideration. One is the expressive use of sound. Notice especially in the police station scenes the way every little noise- the rustle of a newspaper, the buzzing of a telephone, a pencil being sharpened, the echoing voices and footsteps- are isolated and heightened to plunge the barely contained Mildred into paranoia and confusion.
Film scholar David Thomson, in his book America in the Dark (William Morrow and Co., 1977), also points out that this is one of the earliest incidences of suburbia taking a prominent place in American film. Movies of the 1930s, Thomson notes, took place in either the city or the countryside (or at least small-town America). Mildred lives for most of the story in one of those sunny California tracts "where all the houses look the same." Curtiz, Haller, and company bring the dark expressionistic feel of the urban crime thriller to the modest homes and neighborhoods increasingly familiar to most viewers in the postwar years. Mildred Pierce depicts the middle-class world of hardworking dads, piano-playing schoolkids, mom, and apple pie as violent, treacherous, and poisonous in its own way as the suburbia of American Beauty (1999).
There was nothing typical about Crawford's performance in Mildred Pierce. Not only was Oscar kind to her, but it revived her slowed career and led to Humoresque(1946), Possessed (1947), and later, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In fact, Director Michael Curtiz had not even wanted Crawford for the role of Mildred, making her consent to a screen test. It seems he didn't like her trademark shoulder pads. After the success of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz and Crawford patched up their working relationship, and Joan gave her director a peace offering - a pair of custom made shoulder pads.
by Rob Nixon