Tuesday, July 19, 2016

#2,147. Mildred Pierce (1945)

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 opinion of Joan Crawford was clouded by the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, in which she was portrayed as a half-crazed career woman that hated wire hangers and heaped abuse - mental and physical - on her daughter Christina. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered Crawford's on-screen persona. Movies like The Unknown, Grand Hotel, and Rain showed how alluring she could be, while 1945’s Mildred Pierce stood as a testament to her immense talent, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt she 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 from a nearby 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 in 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's story in the hopes it will clear Bert’s name.

The movie then switches to a series of flashbacks, starting with the day her marriage to Bert ended. Objecting to how 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 having an affair. 

Alone and with no income, Mildred took a job as a waitress, working long hours to afford the luxuries the teenage Veda demanded. 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 said house, and thus her new business partner, was Monte Beragon.

Through it all, from the whirlwind romance with Beragon to the personal tragedy that threatened to tear her family apart, Mildred remained committed to giving her children, especially Veda, the absolute best. 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 grew closer to Monte Beragon, who was 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 is eventually revealed, and not even the police can believe what really happened.

As played by Crawford, Mildred Pierce proves a complex character. 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 has been trying to woo her for years, but Mildred barely gives him the time of day). Yet the inner strength she conjures up when dealing with members of the opposite sex all but evaporates when it comes to Veda. Early on, Mildred even tells Bert, in no uncertain terms, that the girls will always be first in her heart. 

Not surprisingly, this preferential treatment turns Veda into a spoiled brat. With the money she made baking pies for neighbors, Mildred buys the young girl a new dress. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet Veda's high standards; Mildred overhears her telling Kay that the dress is “cheap”, and she will never wear it. Crawford, who netted her one and only Oscar for her work here, perfectly conveys both sides of Mildred's personality, and the scenes she shares with Ann Blyth (also quite good as the precocious Veda) are without a doubt the film’s strongest.

Others did their part to make Mildred Pierce an excellent motion picture, 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). But Crawford made it unforgettable. In a career that spanned almost 50 years, Joan Crawford had her share of successes, yet her work in Mildred Pierce remains her crowning achievement.

1 comment:

James Robert Smith said...

She was a decent actress. To my way of thinking, she tended to chew the scenery. But she was indeed good in this one. And I never knew how gorgeous she was in her youth until I saw RAIN. But she lost that beauty early on, becoming more and more masculine as the years progressed.