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.