Mildred Pierce: Crawford’s Comeback

A MOTHER’S LOVE LEADS TO MURDER. 

I can see why a decision was made to turn James M. Cain’s original novel into an HBO miniseries in 2011. After all, the wonderfully entertaining Michael Curtiz adaptation that premiered in 1945 ditched most of the writer’s Depression-era depiction as well as a great number of characters. The ones that survived the bloodbath were significantly simplified, especially Veda, who perhaps remains the silver screen’s most ungrateful daughter ever. There was a need for a new take on Cain’s novel that stayed closer to it. Still, Curtiz’s version is one of the decade’s most riveting soap operas.

The movie opens with the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). We have no idea of who shot him, but one likely suspect is Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) whom we see fleeing the scene. She is eventually arrested by police and during interrogation Mildred begins to tell her side of the story. It all started with her marriage to Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) who had become unemployed and desperately tried to find a job. Their relationship went down the drains, but Mildred got custody of their daughters, teenager Veda (Ann Blyth) and ten-year-old Kay. Now, Mildred had no choice but to go out and find a job somewhere and she managed to get hired as a waitress at a diner. She turned out to be an apt pupil and soon started thinking about opening her own restaurant.

With some help from her ex-husband’s business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and new boyfriend Monte, she found the funds needed to open “Mildred’s” – and was soon able to start a whole chain of restaurants. What she didn’t reckon with, however, was Veda’s alarming lack of gratitude… and her new husband’s dark side.

Glorious Hollywood fiction
Anyone who watches this movie in 2011 has to accept a few things about the times of Mildred Pierce. First of all, the fact that a woman was forced to go out and find a job in order to provide for herself and her children was generally regarded as a failure in the 1940s. That task was primarily reserved for men, which explains why Veda is so upset to learn that Mildred is working as a simple waitress and also why she can’t accept the lowliness even when her mother actually starts making real money from the chain of “Mildred’s” restaurants. It also helps explain why Mildred initially doesn’t tell Veda what kind of work she’s doing.

But explanations aside, Mildred Pierce is foremost simple, glorious Hollywood fiction. Veda has another reason for not appreciating her mother – the girl is simply not a good human being. Even though Mildred toils like a slave to finance her daughter’s extravagant lifestyle, Veda can’t stop loathing her for not finding a proper husband to do all the work (which becomes evident in one particularly electrifying confrontation between them that would have Dynasty writers salivate with envy).

Director Curtiz vividly brings the story to life, adding a noir touch in the beginning of the film where Mildred leads Wally to the corpse of Monte that becomes highly effective, not least thanks to Ernest Haller’s moody cinematography.

Curtiz wasn’t too happy about making this film with Crawford. She had a reputation for being difficult, but Mildred Pierce became her celebrated comeback after being labeled box-office poison. Her personal experiences combined with many rags-to-riches films throughout the 1930s provided the foundation for her powerful performance in this movie. Anyone who’s read “Mommie Dearest”, her daughter’s account of the abusive relationship with Crawford, is forgiven for wondering if Christina Crawford was a Veda or not… 

Mildred Pierce 1945-U.S. 109 min. B/W. Produced by Jerry Wald. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall. Novel: James M. Cain. Cinematography: Ernest Haller. Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett… Butterfly McQueen.

Trivia: Shirley Temple was allegedly considered for the part of Veda; Ann Sheridan as Mildred. The beach house in the film was actually owned by Curtiz. Remade as a miniseries, Mildred Pierce (2011).

Oscar: Best Actress (Crawford).

Last word: “I had to be the referee. We had several meetings filled with blood, sweat, and tears. Then everything started to settle down. Mike [Curtiz] restricted himself to swearing only in Hungarian, and Joan stopped streamlining the apron strings around her figure and let them hang.” (Wald, TCM)

 

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