“It seems to me if you’re buying anything it should be the best. This is definitely not the best.”
Author James M. Cain was well-known for his hard-bitten, tough-guy novels of the 1930s — titles such as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” both of which would later be made into successful films at Paramount and MGM, respectively. In 1941, Cain departed somewhat from his formula to write “Mildred Pierce,” which offered a tale of the rise and fall of a well-defined female protagonist. As written, the book lacked a strong dramatic climax and, with some strong sexual content and the moral degeneration of the title character, seemed a difficult source for a successful film, given the restrictive nature of the Production Code of the time as overseen by the Breen Office.
Jerry Wald, then a producer at Warner Brothers, felt strongly about the book’s film potential. He envisaged the idea of a climactic murder, the restructuring of the story using flashbacks, and the maintenance of a generally higher moral tone to the film than had the original story. As a result, he was able to get a cautious go-ahead from the Breen Office and so, studio head Jack Warner finally approved the purchase of the novel in early 1944.
Even with Wald’s ideas, it took eight different screenplays from a succession of writers before settling upon a satisfactory version. With Michael Curtiz directing and Joan Crawford in her first starring role at Warners, the film took 12 weeks to shoot in the winter of 1944-45. The completed film opened in New York in late September 1945 (it was held back purposefully until the end of World War II in hopes that it would find a more sympathetic audience in the postwar atmosphere) and was immensely popular with filmgoers, though critical reaction at the time was somewhat mixed. (More recent critical evaluation is almost universally positive.) Mildred Pierce received six Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture, but the only win was for Joan Crawford as Best Actress.
Warner Brothers has now released the film on DVD in a stunning new transfer.
Mildred Pierce’s husband Bert makes a decent living in real estate with his partner Wally Fay. Wally manages to force Bert out of the business, and with time on his hands, Bert frequently argues with Mildred over money, particularly her indulgent spending on their daughters Kay and especially Veda. After one nasty argument, Mildred and Bert decide to separate. To survive financially, Mildred takes a job as a waitress, and after learning the business, decides to open her own restaurant. She finds a suitable building for sale and asks Wally Fay to negotiate the purchase for her.
The seller is Monte Beragon, forced to dispose of the property as his family’s fortunes dwindle. Fay and Beragon are able to come to an agreement for Mildred to acquire the property and pay Beragon out of the proceeds of her business. The new restaurant is a great success and allows her to continue her indulgence of the increasingly greedy and self-absorbed Veda. One day, when Bert takes Kay and Veda to Lake Arrowhead, Mildred agrees to go to Beragon’s beach-house for a swim. Returning late that night, she finds Bert at her home, frantic because Kay has contracted pneumonia. Despite their doctor’s best efforts, Kay dies. As a result, Mildred immerses herself even more so in her business and soon owns a chain of successful restaurants. Her relationship with Beragon deepens, but eventually she breaks it off, feeling that Beragon’s idle ways are a bad influence on Veda.
Veda, meanwhile, secretly marries the son of a socially prominent family, and when the parents try to have the marriage annulled, extorts money from them by falsely claiming to be pregnant. When Mildred learns this, she throws Veda out of her home, only to later find that she is making a second-rate living as a singer at a nightclub owned by Wally Fay. Eager to lure Veda back home and give her the socially prominent life she craves, Mildred persuades Beragon to marry her in exchange for a one-third interest in her business. Beragon soon starts to squander Mildred’s money and eventually she loses the business. Veda begins to show a more-than daughterly interest in Beragon herself and an affair begins that Mildred soon becomes aware of. Matters come to a head at the Beragon beach house.
In the 1940s, each of Warners’ major female stars had film opportunities that with time have come to be recognized as among their very best work. For Bette Davis, it was Now, Voyager (1942); for Ann Sheridan, it was Nora Prentiss (1947); and for Joan Crawford, it was Mildred Pierce. Both Davis and Sheridan had worked their way up on the Warner lot, but Crawford’s situation was different. From the late 1920s to early 1943, she was identified almost exclusively with MGM before leaving there after several less than successful films. Her MGM legacy was more one of image than substance, but that would change with a succession of films for Warner Brothers in the last half of the 1940s. When she signed with WB soon after the end of her MGM contract, it took almost two years before she found a mutually acceptable script in the final version of Mildred Pierce. The title role could have been played in full, pull-out-all-the-stops fashion, but Crawford’s great success is in slightly underplaying the part, creating a character that is memorable because it displays both strength and weakness in a story whose melodramatic tendencies could have overpowered it. This template served Crawford well in somewhat similar roles in successive films such as Humoresque, Possessed, Flamingo Road, and The Damned Don’t Cry.
Although Crawford is usually the first thing one thinks of whenever the film is mentioned, she is far from the whole show. Mildred Pierce also benefits immensely from a tremendous script shrewdly adapted from Cain’s strong original novel, from director Michael Curtiz’s style and sure hand with actors, and from the support of the amazing WB stock company. Overall, the film has that glossy look that only first-rate production values from a major studio of the time was capable of providing.
Curtiz’s contribution is often downplayed. His actual involvement arose at Jerry Wald’s insistence, for studio head Jack Warner had wanted Vincent Sherman to direct. The rightness of the choice of Curtiz is apparent from the film’s opening sequences at the shadow enshrouded beach house. Beragon is violently shot and pitches forward almost into the camera, which then pans to a bullet-scarred mirror before cutting to a medium shot of the room lit by the flickering light of the fireplace. Curtiz then cuts to a rain-sodden pier where a woman wanders uncertainly out to the pier’s railing, apparently intent on committing suicide before she is interrupted by a suspicious policeman. These images grab the viewer and immediately thrust him or her into a world of victim and victimized, fear and violence, money and sleaze that Curtiz then proceeds to reveal relentlessly over the next two hours. The results are an exercise in style and substance that is in the best tradition of film noir.
Of course, all the visual motifs that characterize film noir are here — low-key lighting, shadowy interiors, nighttime exteriors — and the often-present femme fatale is provided by Mildred’s daughter, Veda. The interesting variation in Mildred Pierce is the replacement of the hard-boiled detective by Mildred herself. She is a loner in the sense that she has opted out of the traditional woman’s social role to run her own business, subject to financial gains or losses (as opposed to physical beatings). She is dominated by the obsessiveness (albeit of a different type) that femme fatales draw from male protagonists, and when finally free of Veda’s influence, like them, she merely survives rather than gaining any great sense of achievement or satisfaction.
In casting the film’s key supporting roles, Wald and Curtiz made the inspired decision to hire Ann Blyth to play Veda. Blyth had only a handful of Universal B pictures to recommend her, but her forceful performance of the spiteful, grasping Veda earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Otherwise, it was the Warner stock company that provided the meat of the film’s supporting cast. Jack Carson was ideal as the sleazy, fast-talking Wally Fay while often under-appreciated Zachary Scott was ideal as Monte Beragon. Eve Arden added her welcome acerbic wit to Mildred’s business associate, Ida (and also received a Best Supporting Actress nomination), while reliable Bruce Bennett portrayed Bert Pierce. Other familiar faces include Lee Patrick as Bert’s mistress Mrs. Biederhof, Moroni Olsen as the police inspector, and Butterfly McQueen as Lottie.
Aside from Curtiz, among the filmmakers, Ernest Haller’s photography and Max Steiner’s lush and memorable score stand out.
Mildred Pierce is another of the classic films that Warners has accorded a thorough digital restoration by Lowry Digital Images. The results are startlingly good. The transfer preserves the film’s original 1.37:1 full frame ratio and delivers an image that looks like a brand new film. It’s crisp, bright, and clean and delivers deep glossy blacks, clean pure whites, and fine shadow detail. Age-related speckles and scratches are essentially non-existent. This ranks right up there with previous WB efforts on Now, Voyager and Citizen Kane.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack has also been restored to remove all traces of age-related hiss and debris. The results are reasonably rich-sounding, with Max Steiner’s score being well conveyed. Dialogue is clear throughout. Gunshots always had a distinctively sharp and almost-palpable presence to them in WB films, and the sound of the film’s opening sequence doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Subtitles are provided in English, French, and Spanish.
There are two super supplements, both of which are on the flip side of the disc. Principal is an 85-minute documentary on Crawford’s career entitled “Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star.” Originally produced for Turner Classic Movies, this is a fascinating portrait of the actress, rich in film clips, interviews, and insight. It fairly covers various viewpoints on her life and work, including comments from her daughter Christina Crawford (author of “Mommie Dearest,” the dark side view of Crawford). The other great supplement is a trailer gallery covering seven of the nine films she did for Warners during the 1945-1952 period. The films represented are: Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, Flamingo Road, The Damned Don’t Cry, Goodbye My Fancy, and This Woman Is Dangerous. Unrepresented are two films in which she had only cameos: Hollywood Canteen and It’s a Great Feeling. Other supplements (on the same side as the film itself) are an abbreviated cast and crew list with a link to a selected Joan Crawford filmography, and a listing of awards the film won. Included also are trailers for The Women and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
Mildred Pierce is one of the great films of the Hollywood Golden Age that should be on the shelf of any true film-lover’s collection. Film noir + Joan Crawford + the Warner stock company + Michael Curtiz + Max Steiner = Film lover’s heaven. Warner Brothers have given the film the loving treatment it deserves on DVD. Very highly recommended.