“The kind of Woman most men want - but
“A mother's love leads to murder.”
That first tagline may sum up Hollywood's promotional angle for this film at the time of its release (watch the trailers), but it doesn't seem to fit this movie very well. Mildred Pierce, as a character, doesn't seem very “racy” today, even if she might have in 1945. However, the movie remains relevant in part for reasons hinted at by the second tagline above and also for its portrayal of a strong woman who succeeds in life through her own efforts. For her portrayal of Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford won an Oscar for Best Actress. Michael Curtiz directed Crawford and a host of strong supporting actors in this excellent crime drama / “soap opera” based on James M. Cain's popular novel.
The movie begins, near the end of the actual story, with the murder of one of the film's main characters: Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott, who gives a very effective portrayal in this relatively early role in his film career). Shot multiple times Monte falls and with his last breath utters the name: Mildred. The killer tosses a now empty revolver on the floor next to Monte and leaves the stylish California beach house, driving off into the evening.
Later, at a different location on the same coastline, a lone woman walks along a pier, apparently thinking of jumping off to do away with herself. When a cop on the beat interrupts her and sends her home, the woman, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), walks past a waterfront bar. The owner of the bar, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), recognizes Mildred as she passes and raps on a window to get her attention. Concerned for her, Wally offers her a drink “on the house.” As he escorts her to a table, he orders drinks. They discuss a recent business deal in which Wally had the upper hand at Mildred's expense. Mildred comments on the low quality of Wally's liquor and says “There's better stuff to drink at the beach house, Wally.” Wally drives her there.
In the beach house, after Wally asks if her husband has gotten "broad-minded," they head to the bar. Wally makes them drinks as they trade comments. After Mildred rebuffs Wally's first physical advance, she says she'd like to change her dress. Wally waits for her return, but instead she leaves him locked in the house. When Wally discovers that she has gone, he finds doors out of the house won't open. As he looks for a way out he also discovers Monte Beragon's corpse. While lights from the road shine through the beach house's French doors, Wally uses a chair to break their glass panes making a way out. However, leaving the house running, police in a passing car see him. When the cops also find the dead body, they bring Wally in for questioning.
Mildred arrives at her very large home via taxi. When she enters, her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) runs up to ask her what has happened. Two plain clothes policemen take Mildred to see the police inspector. When they arrive at the Los Angeles “Hall Of Justice” Mildred sees her friend Ida (Eve Arden, excellent as Mildred's “sidekick") also in police custody. Wally Fay leaves questioning by the police inspector when Ida goes in for questioning. The police also bring 'Bert' Pierce (Bruce Bennett), Mildred's first husband for the inspector to question. (It seems very obvious this movie takes place in a pre-Miranda decision America.)
Eventually, Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) asks to have Mildred brought in. However, he starts the conversation by telling Mildred they don't need her. They've already figured out who did it. He tells her she can go, but she asks who did it. The inspector decides he can tell her, but I'm not going to tell you. As Mildred talks with the inspector, she relates the story of her life from the time she left her first husband forward.
Mildred Pierce contradicts the “Leave It To Beaver” theory of American culture. That theory holds that prior to some date (what date depends on who propounds the theory), American culture depicted life in the USA as a continuous episode of “Leave It To Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.” The existence of such TV shows constitutes some evidence for the theory. However, plenty of evidence exists which does not fit the theory. This movie belongs among those counterexamples. With Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford portrays a strong woman who goes her own way mainly alone, struggles against adversity and succeeds through her own effort in business. The movie also shows “seamy sides” of life in the early forties: things which don't fit in a “white bread and mayonnaise” world.
In many ways during her lifetime, Joan Crawford seemed much like Mildred. She did not often let societal mores dictate what she did with her life. However, from what I know of Crawford, it seems unlikely that she “lived for her children,” perhaps the biggest flaw in Mildred's character. Was the Mildred Pierce role Joan Crawford's best performance? Maybe, but many other roles contend for that honor. In addition to this portrayal and those from many of her other hit films, before playing Mildred Joan Crawford gave a masterful performance as Sadie Thompson in Rain (1932). After Mildred, she played a heroine in her other great Michael Curtiz directed film: Flamingo Road (which also co-starred Zachary Scott). I favor those two films with this one, as Joan Crawford's best movies, but I haven't seen all her films. In any case, I recommend the classic Mildred Pierce as an excellent place to start in appreciating the films of Joan Crawford.
James Cain Anthology
Joan Crawford DVD set