MILDRED PIERCE and her travails famously won hard-charging, long-suffering Joan Crawford her Oscar and was a big hit in 1945. Yet watching it, along with enjoying the able cast, slick production and its Woman’s Movie Meets Murder Mystery weeper-noir melodrama, I can’t help but think of all the G.I.s and sailors, either back home in the audience, or those who saw it earlier, shipped out to them overseas as they waited to possibly invade Japan (and die), wondering if they ground out their Lucky Strikes and thought “Is this, and these people, what we’re fighting for?”
Ranald MacDougall took the screenwriting credit for taming tough-prose’r James M. Cain’s bleak 1941 novel into something Code-palatable for 111 minutes on screen, but sharp producer Jerry Wald wrung the attempts of at least seven writers (William Faulkner among them) before he was satisfied enough to let Warner warhorse (and actor-nemesis) Michael Curtiz direct. Wald also helped the dismissive Curtiz to grudgingly accept the 40-year-old ‘has-been’ Crawford, who would have, well, put her own kids in harm’s way to get the part. “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.”
A startling murder begins the Pierce piece, which has the ignored wife and mother of two brats dumping her weak husband ‘Burt ‘ (Bruce Bennett) and hiring herself out as a waitress to caustic cookie Eve Arden’s restaurant. Mildred becomes so good at the job she opens her own place, with help from jovially sleazy real estate pal ‘Wally Fay’ (Jack Carson). First thing you know—in the time-honored way old movies had of whipping through pesky likelihood timelines—she has her own chain of money-gobbling grub-hubs, even attracting the attention of Pasadena playboy reptile ‘Monte Beragon’ (Zachary Scott). But tragedy piles on, duplicity reigns, and worst of all, her utter shit of a daughter ‘Veda’ (Ann Blyth) shows all the gratitude and venom of a Mojave scorpion. She’s degraded by her Mom being—God forbid—a waitress!
The polo-playing, 4-F slimeball Monte: “Yes, I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease.”
The vapid, venomous Veda: “You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and turn yourself into a lady, but you can’t. Because you’ve never been anything but a common frump whose father lived above a grocery and whose mother took in laundry.”
Someone here needs to get ventilated with a .38, somebody else needs to go the slammer, and Mildred needs to stop being such a continually forgiving—and too well-dressed–dope.
The cast excels, Curtiz’ direction keeps it moving apace, and the fine camerawork from Ernest Haller sets the doomed noir mood from the start: the opening scenes of the killing, the beach house and Mildred on the pier with the cop sweep you in with a flourish. Did Joan see arch-rival Bette Davis plugging holes in that guy in The Letter and determine to match slug-for-slug firepower?
This is generally considered the defining Crawford role–and she’s very good, but I think she was better in both Humoresque and Possessed. I never got Crawford as a kid, and am sheepishly quite late to the table appreciating her talent, charisma and sex appeal. Plus, frankly, I’m straight; be honest, how many straight guys are big Joan Crawford fans? (save your outrage, our collective time is running out, anyway). Like astute critic Danny Peary, I prefer Ingrid Bergman’s delightful nun in The Bells Of St.Mary’s or the un-nominated Joan Bennett’s calculating femme fatale in Scarlet Street. *
The interesting, ill-fated Zachary Scott makes a seemingly effortless swine as the bullet-begging Beragon. New to the screen, he had another strong role, totally different, that same year in the superb rural drama The Southerner. Flipping his usual hearty persona, the always solidly dependable Jack Carson gets one of his best, most fully-fleshed-out outings as a jerk. Ann Blyth was only 16 when picked for the truly hateful Veda, creating one of the meanest, most-slap-worthy daughters in movie history; a further tweak on Art v. Life when you factor in Joan’s real-life escapades with her own captive Christina. Shortly after filming, Ann broke her back on a toboggan in Sun Valley: after being told she’d never walk again—she recovered to go on with her career.
If this film, like many others from older days, suffers when viewed through a lazy modern lens attuned to decades of refined technique, it’s more due to the quick-fix simplicity requirements of the period screenwriting that too often, too quickly condensed their character’s emotional changes from scene-to-scene. By default, audiences identify with the actors more than the script, and too readily blame them for the resultant awkwardness, when they were just being tasked with professionally relaying story info, per direction, subject to editing.
Along with Crawford’s Best Actress trophy, it was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actresses (Blyth, Arden), Screenplay and Cinematography.
Delivered for $1,453,000, the many happy returns depend on your source pipeline. Cogerson puts it at 16th place with a take of $9,700,000. Wikipedia has it in 4th, grossing $5,638,000. Is this how the Pentagon keeps books? We’ll go with Cogerson.
Also in the blend: Butterfly McQueen (yet another variation on ‘Prissy’, both uncomfortable and well-played), Jo Ann Marlowe, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen (the calm cop with precise diction), Veda Ann Borg and Charles Trowbridge. That beach house belonged to director Curtiz. Max Steiner’s score manages to sneak in a few subtle background refrains from his work for Now, Voyager.
* Mega-producer Wald later wrote Crawford essentials Humoresque, Possessed and The Damned Don’t Cry. With all the years of Joan-jettison jive since “Mommie Dearest”, it is worth mentioning a gracious Ann Blyth’s comment about her movie mommy: “…the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about.”