Directed By: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott
Tag line: "A mother's love leads to murder"
Trivia: The U.S. Navy granted permission to film in Malibu despite wartime restrictions, but asked to be allowed to view all footage shot there
For years, my perception of Joan Crawford was clouded by the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, in which she was portrayed as a half-crazed career woman who hated wire hangers and heaped abuse (both mental and physical) on her daughter Christina. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered her on-screen persona; movies like The Unknown, Grand Hotel, and Rain showed me how beautiful she once was, while 1945’s Mildred Pierce stood as a testament to her immense talent, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Joan Crawford was one of the finest screen actresses of her day.
We open with a murder: an unknown man is shot dead, and moments later, a woman contemplates ending it all by jumping off a dock into the water below. The woman is Mildred Pierce (Crawford), and the man who is now dead was her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Picked up by the police and brought to the station for questioning, Mildred discovers they’ve already made an arrest in the case: her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), who has confessed to the killing. But Mildred insists he is innocent, and proceeds to tell the cops her life story in the hopes it will clear Bert’s name.
The movie then presents a series of flashbacks, starting with the day her marriage to Bert ended. Objecting to the way she spoiled their two daughters Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), Bert packed his bags and moved in with the wealthy Mrs. Biederhof (Lee Patrick), with whom he had been romantically involved. Alone and with no income, Mildred took a job as a waitress, working many hours to afford the luxuries that the teenage Veda had grown accustomed to. Using her newfound skills, and with the help of family friend (and Bert’s former partner) Wally Shay (Jack Carson), Mildred rented a rundown house and turned it into a successful restaurant. The owner of that house, and therefore her new business partner, was Monte Beragon.
Through her whirlwind romance with Beragon and a personal tragedy that threatened to tear her family apart, Mildred remained committed to giving her children the best she could afford, especially Veda. But instead of being grateful, Veda complained openly, calling her mother a “common waitress” and demanding that they movie into a better neighborhood. Over time Veda herself grew close to Monte Beragon, who proved every bit as greedy as she was, yet no matter how much Mildred protested, Veda did what Veda wanted.
Of course, none of this answers the $10,000 question: who killed Monte Beragon, and why? The truth does eventually come out, and not even the police can believe what really happened.
The character of Mildred Pierce is a complex one. She refuses to let any man get the better of her, whether it be Bert, Beragon (who she marries for convenience, not love), or Wally Shay (he’s been trying to woo her for years, but Mildred will barely give him the time of day). Yet the inner strength she displays when dealing with members of the opposite sex completely evaporates when it comes to Veda (early on, Mildred tells Bert, in no uncertain terms, that the girls will always be first in her heart). As expected, this preferential treatment turns young Veda into a spoiled brat; using the money she made baking pies for the neighbors, Mildred buys the young girl a new dress. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet her high standards (Mildred overhears Veda telling Kay that the dress is “cheap”, and that she will never wear it) Crawford (who netted her one and only Oscar for her work here) perfectly conveys her character’s two extremes, and the scenes she shares with Ann Blyth (also quite good as the precocious Veda) are the film’s strongest.
Others had a hand in making Mildred Pierce the excellent motion picture that it is, including screenwriter Ronald MacDougall (like most film noirs, the dialogue is clever and to the point) and director Michael Curtiz (who uses shadows to great effect). In the end, though, it was the movie’s star who made it unforgettable. In a career that spanned almost 50 years, Joan Crawford had her share of great performances, yet her work in Mildred Pierce remains her crowning achievement.