You may have noticed a bit of a theme from the last couple weeks of Cinematic Century. I’ve been talking about a lot of black and white crime stories. And you’d better get used that that, because the 1940’s really were a golden age of Film Noir, and it really does seem like we’re hit a string of some of the absolute best noirs of all time, that won’t be petering out for quite some time. I’ve certainly got a type when it comes to this era of Hollywood, and it’s really nice to see so many films that check so many of my boxes. Which brings us to 1945, and year that featured two films that I really love. It was a very tough decision picking my favorite of the two, but I eventually decided I couldn’t ignore the fascinating power that today’s film, Mildred Pierce, contains. But, that doesn’t mean that the other film I considered, The Lost Weekend, is any sort of slouch. If you’ve never seen the Lost Weekend, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a wonderful film about addiction, show one man as he desperately tries to make it a full weekend sober, all while shot like a horror movie. It’s a wonderfully engaging film, and gives us a truly fantastic performance from Ray Milland, showing us that the idea of taking a comedic actor and letting them try out their dramatic chops has been a thing for decades. But, as much as I love the Lost Weekend it’s hard to deny how great Mildred Pierce is, and what delightfully twisted experience it gives. Not that this means a whole lot, but it’s a film that ended up garnering nominations for just about all of the important Academy Awards, and ended up being the only film in her entire career that would win Joan Crawford the Award for Best Actress.
Mildred Pierce, just like last week’s Double Indemnity, is based off of a novel written by James M Cain. And, it’s honestly quite different. I’ve never read the novel, but doing a bit of research shows that Cain wrote a very different story to the one that eventually reached the silver screen, especially in regards to the ending and frame story that the film utilizes. And, just like last week, we can thank the Hayes Code for those changes. Which is strange, because I would honestly say that the plot of the film version of Mildred Pierce actually becomes more twisted and dark than the novel, all because murder had to be included. See, the Hayes Code specifically required stories about criminals to feature some concrete punishment. Filmmakers weren’t allowed to tell stories about the criminal element without having them get their comeuppance, and for whatever reason they were completely fine with that comeuppance taking the form of murder. So, murder was tossed into this story! And, I would say that it’s actually a bit of an improvement, based on just reading the description of the novel. It’s what took it from a psychological drama to a full-fledged Film Noir, and I love it.
The film begins with a woman named Mildred Pierce leaving the home of her second husband, Monte Beragon, and heading into town. She seems upset, and momentarily considered committing suicide until she’s recognized by a friend of hers, a man named Wally Fay who has always had a crush on her. She her best to seduce Wally, and brings her back to the home, before quickly abandoning him in the home, and calling the police. Wally’s confused, until he finds the body of Monte Beragon, realizing that Mildred is attempting to frame him. He’s arrested, and Mildred is also brought into the police station, where the police try to make some sense out of the murder. They quickly realize Wally didn’t have anything to do with it, and end up getting a confession from Mildred’s first husband, Bert Pierce. Mildred insists that Bert couldn’t have done it, and ends up regaling the police officers with her entire life story, beginning with her unhappy marriage to Bert. Bert was a philanderer who never gave Mildred much attention, and resented the fact that she devoted her life to her two spoiled children, Veda and Kay. The two girls run the house, and Mildred does everything she can to make them refined ladies, ignoring the fact that they’ve become petulant and snobby, constantly looking down at everyone around them, including their mother. But, Mildred’s life is forever changed when she and Bert get in a fight about the affair he’s been having, ending with him storming out and leaving the family.
Mildred then has to take care of the family on her own, and is at a loss at how exactly to do that. She tries her best to provide for the family, and ends up finding the only work available to her, being a waitress at a diner. She’s ashamed by this work, for some reason, and hides the truth from her daughters lest they mock her, but she actually ends up doing quite well. She makes enough to keep the family happy, and slowly begins getting confident enough to try and open up her own restaurant. She works with a former partner of her husband’s, Wally, and he helps her find the perfect location for her restaurant, a bit of property owned by a rich playboy named Monte Beragon. Beragon is charmed by Mildred, and agrees to sell her the property, which she begins turning into her own restaurant, while beginning a relationship with Beragon. But, when she ends up going away for a weekend getaway with Monte, disaster strikes. She gets work that Kay has acquired dire pneumonia, and she ends up dying. Mildred is distraught, and completely throws herself into her restaurant in the hopes of making it a big enough success that Veda will get everything she wants in her life. Which Veda couldn’t care less about, she just needs money and attention.
And it pays off. Mildred’s restaurant becomes a huge success, and she starts to become quite wealthy. She and Monte continue to see each other, and Veda slowly but surely starts to become an absolute terror. She ends up getting married and fakes a pregnancy to a rich young man just to divorce him and get a huge settlement, all to the amusement of Wally and Monte, but not so much to Mildred. She ends up realizing what a mess Veda is and kicks her out of her home, hoping that will finally teach her some responsibility. However, after going on a series of vacations to forget about what Veda has done, Mildred ends up learning that Veda has become a lounge singer in order to make ends meet, and Mildred feels sorry for her. So, she welcomes her daughter back, and even agrees to marry Monte even though she’s realized she doesn’t love him, just for the status that would provide Veda. And things get worse from here. Monte really doesn’t have much money at this point, and between he and Veda’s spending habits they quickly start leeching all of Mildred’s earning from her restaurants. And, eventually, things reach the point where Mildred has to sell her restaurants just to pay off their debts. She’s obviously not pleased by this, and when she goes to confront Monte about his spending habits she finds something devastating. Monte and Veda have been carrying on an affair. Mildred is horrified by this, and flees the beach house. And, when she’s gone, Monte explains to Veda that this was a fling, and she doesn’t mean anything to him. Veda then snaps, and ends up shooting a killing Monte. Mildred hears the gunshots and returns to the home, realizing what has happened. We then reach the beginning of the film, where she tries to frame Wally. The police understand what has really happened, and that Bert was just trying to keep his daughter safe, and they arrest Veda, leaving Mildred to realize what a terrible person she has raised.
It’s pretty easy to see why this was the film that finally won Joan Crawford her Oscar. It can certainly be debated why this is the only film of hers that got her the Best Actress Award, but her performance in this film is truly something special. It seems like they had some trouble finding an actress to tackle this project, since so many of the were worried to play a role that necessitated them to be the mother of an eighteen-year old, which put them at the risk of seeming old, but Crawford really leaps into the role, giving us one of the most frustratingly tragic characters I’ve ever seen. Like I said earlier, it’s interesting that this film falls into the film noir category, primarily due to the Hayes Code’s restrictions necessitating a murder being thrown in, because when you see this referred to as one of the best film noirs of all time you probably build a picture of a very different movie in your head. Because this really is a psychological drama, all about a woman’s attempts to hold herself and her family above water and find a purpose in life. And it’s fabulous. Everyone in this film is great, even though most of the men end up coming across as creepy jerks, but that’s kind of what they’re here for. Eve Arden really does a wonderful job as the utterly loathsome Veda, giving her an utterly arch performance that teeters on the edge of camp, but honestly ends up becoming one of the finest noir villains I’ve ever seen. It’s a gorgeously shot film, giving us some idealized domestic bliss that slowly but surely becomes more gothic and noirlike as the story begins creeping towards doom.
And that’s all in support of a story that revolves around a middle-aged woman trying to succeed. Which is something that honestly feels like an oddity, especially for this era of Hollywood. Yes, murder and noir find their way into the film eventually, but for the vast majority of this film it’s just a story about a woman who is doing her best to make a life for herself that isn’t defined by the men in her life. True, it ultimately becomes defined by her relationship with her horrible daughter, but by and large it’s a story about a strong, independent woman, which we just don’t see that often. Mildred Pierce is a prime example of the American Dream. Her husband leaves her and their two kids on their own, purposefully hoping that they’ll fail so Mildred will come crawling back to him, and instead she pulls herself up and makes something of herself. Which makes sense, since this comes from the mid-forties, not quite post-War but close enough. It’s a tale about American ingenuity, and the importance of business. Until it’s not. The film, after building Mildred up as a poster child for American gumption, slowly begins to unravel, showing us that ultimately this model is unstable. This focusing on money and success breeds two wretched layabouts, Veda and Monte, who exist as leeches. They become the dark side of the American Dream, showing us how easy it is for that ideal to be perverted and broken. Mildred does everything she’s supposed to as a good, honest American, and she ends up with a murderous daughter, a dead husband she never loved, and a failed business. It’s a shockingly cynical and bleak tale, especially from this period of time, and I love it for that.
Mildred Pierce was written by Ranald MacDougall and Catherine Turney, directed by Michael Curtiz, and released by Warner Bros., 1945.
Categories: Cinematic Century