Single working mothers no doubt identified with the willful Mildred Pierce, played by Joan Crawford in career resuscitation mode. Ever the tough and resourceful Hollywood survivor, a fortysomething Crawford breathed new life into her career by switching from MGM (which was turning its attention to younger starlets) to Warner Bros. She embarked on a series of intense melodramas starting with Mildred Pierce and adapted her persona to that of a resilient mother who wants her daughters to have the opportunities she never had. With an eye for opportunity, she opens a successful restaurant and puts all her money into her children’s well being: dance lessons, music recitals, and the best clothes honest money can buy.
Mildred’s eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), spoiled rotten and ashamed of her mother’s blue-collar lifestyle, aims higher than her class and starts having a fling with Mildred’s second husband, ne’er-do-well playboy Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott). Mildred’s will to provide for her daughter conflicts with Veda’s irrepressible urge for independence by any means possible, including blackmail and betrayal. Based on a novel by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and opening with Monte Baragon getting pumped with bullets and Mildred contemplating suicide by the seashore, the viewer eagerly anticipates third act tragedies and mother-daughter catfights. Ann Blyth’s daughter is so obnoxiously perky-cute while damaging the lives of the innocent (a false pregnancy bilks $10,000 from a wealthy neighboring family) or herself (singing in a nightclub prowling with sailors), we eagerly anticipate the moment when animalistic Crawford will lose her patience. And we all know Joan can slap someone in the face like nobody’s business.
Mildred Pierce is melodramatic trash, constructed like a reliable Aristotelian warhorse where characters have planted the seeds of their own doom in the first act, only to have grief-stricken revelations at the climax. Directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn’t quite go with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir, and scored by Max Steiner with a sensational bombast that’s rousing even when it doesn’t match the quieter, pensive mood of individual scenes, Mildred Pierce is professionally executed and moves at a brisk clip. Crawford is well cast as a protective she-wolf, dominating the stock company male players that surround her and her face, showing the first signs of age from the meat grinder of show business, is well matched against the smug freshness of Ann Blyth.
Though all of its craft is accomplished, Mildred Pierce never gets deep under one’s skin the way it ought to. Its tale of class warfare within the shattered nuclear family only seems close to home, but it’s a Hollywood photocopy of life’s struggle where the solid directing, camerawork and acting call attention to themselves. This one should have been more rough-hewn and sloppy, the way life is and the way movies so seldom are. If it comes close, it’s because Crawford’s desperation transcends the studio gimmicks. In his review of Possessed, my Slant colleague Dan Callahan refers to it as the “paranoid animal glint that flickers behind [her] eyes.” She wanted that Oscar so very, very badly, and like Mildred she would do anything to stay alive in the Hollywood jungle.
Aside from squint-inducing harsh whites in the outdoor scenes, the picture quality sharply details the high contrast blacks and whites. The sound is clean and audible.
Running close to 90 minutes, "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" is a fairly detailed account of Crawford's ability to continually morph her image to suit the times. Her work as a chorus girl and a fun-loving flapper gave way to roles as self-sufficient women with a hard edge. It's exhausting to observe her highs and lows as a career actress, and admirable in a way that she pulled through. Her drinking problem and "Mommie Dearest" cruelties to her children aren't glossed over, though Turner Entertainment tries to shy away from the exploitative angle. I'm not sure whether to praise their tact or accuse them of fearfully brushing Crawford's demons under the carpet. Ditto her adversarial relationship with Bette Davis and Norma Shearer, which are touched on but insufficiently explored. Clips from her films are accompanied by interviews with her surviving directors and co-stars, as well as family members. I'm glad they included her praise of Lon Chaney in the still-potent circus horror film The Unknown, and Chaney's influence on Crawford's performance techniques. The cast and crew breakdown provides Crawford's long résumé, an awards list, and a Crawford trailer gallery that includes nine of her films for Warner Bros.
A protective mother's love leads to familial tragedy, and you know what you're in for when mommy dearest happens to be the incomparable Joan Crawford.