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Being a parent can be a thankless task. We all want to do our very best for our children but good parents know that needs to be balanced with tough love at times to ensure our little angels don't grow up to be monsters.
James M Cain studied the mother who sacrificed everything for an unappreciative child in his 1941 novel "Mildred Pierce". The book was set in the depression era and it wasn't until HBO's 2010 miniseries that a true filmic adaptation was made.
The original film, released in 1945, had to change elements of the novel to fit the prevailing Hollywood code of the era, however it has to be said that for all of this, the film has become a classic and remains the best film Joan Crawford ever made - and the only film she ever won an Oscar for.
Mildred Pierce is a suburban Californian housewife who lives with her unemployed husband and two daughters, Veda and Kay. Her life revolves around the kitchen where she bakes cakes to earn money so she can indulge her children - Veda in particular.
Following her separation from Bert, Mildred works as a waitress before finding the confidence to open her own restaurant. Veda is appalled to discover her mother working as a waitress yet has no compunction in taking money from her mother as her business becomes more successful.
Veda's actions become more and more outrageous, especially once Mildred starts dating Monte Beragon, a playboy who has a great deal of social connections if not a great deal of money, leading to more heartache being piled on Mildred.
"Mildred Pierce" was billed as a film noir upon its release in 1945 and while there are certainly elements of that genre in the film, it is equally a glossy melodrama. The film is in black and white but you don't really notice thanks to the dark undertones and a darkness which sucks you in from the very first nightime scene.
Joan Crawford had taken a break from film acting after being labelled "box office poison", and "Mildred Pierce" was the first film she made after she left MGM studios. She was desperate to play the part but director Michael Curtiz initially wasn't interested, wanting Bette Davis instead. Davis turned the role down enabling Crawford to audition for the part where she impressed Curtiz into reconsidering his initial thought she was a "has been".
You can see why Curtiz was impressed as Crawford suffers quite magnificently in the role of Mildred, somehow soaking up every hurtful barb her snobbish daughter Veda passes her way. Her face is magnificent and to deliberately misquote Dorothy Parker, it runs the gamut of emotions from A to Z. Crawford used extreme dentistry to achieve her sculpted high cheekbone look which was incredibly photogenic but her eyes are hers alone and her ability to act with them is extraordinary.
This is a star vehicle for Crawford, making it hard for the rest of the cast to stand out but Ann Blyth as Veda perfectly captures someone who is quite simply rotten to the core. Blyth can switch from a sweet natured teenager to a scheming, manipulative bitch in the blink of an eye. Eve Arden is sardonic and cynical as Ida, Mildred's best friend, picking up some of the best one liners in the film on the way.
It is easy to dismiss "Mildred Pierce" as a mere "woman's picture" and it has to be said the best performances are from the women with Bruce Bennett just a touch too wishy washy as Bert Pierce and Zachary Scott perhaps a little too fey as Monte Beragon, muting the character's avarice and cunning along the way. Jack Carson has the best of the male roles, as Wally, Bert's former business partner who holds a torch for Mildred and helps her as she sets up her business.
Curtiz cleverly makes use of flashback as he tells the story, with Mildred recalling how events unfolded in typical noir style to a cynical detective. He knows how to get the best out of his cast but his focus on Crawford pays off handsomely, particularly in some of the more memorable shots he takes of her in close up. I suspect several of these were done in soft focus, a luxury Curtiz did not extend to Eve Arden who despite being 3 years younger than Crawford is photographed more harshly, making her look older.
When you are viewing a film made over 60 years ago then it goes without saying that some of it is going to appear somewhat dated. Crawford's love scenes are cold and unbelievable, with a plethora of those awful staged kisses so popular at the time. It goes without saying that Crawford slaps someone too - she herself admitted a few years later this was something she did "in all my films".
There's also no denying that for all we sympathise with the put upon Mildred, much of her misfortune can only really be blamed on herself and after a while the viewer's patience is stretched a bit by her unstinting support of her revolting daughter. Certainly you can't help but think if Mildred hadn't indulged the ungrateful Veda or had chastised her more then perhaps she would have turned out differently. The film doesn't attempt to judge Mildred however - it's up to us to wonder if Veda was born bad or if she is a product of her mother's desire to please her.
For all the darkness and the noir touches, "Mildred Pierce" almost works as a precursor for Douglas Sirk's melodramas filled with women who suffered in luxurious homes wearing designer clothes and the best jewels. The costumes are fantastic, with Crawford in particular wearing shoulder pads even Joan Collins in the 1980s would have proclaimed as way too big.
The DVD has only one extra, a 2002 documentary entitled "Joan Crawford - The Ultimate Movie Star" which runs for 90 minutes and tells the story of Crawford's life - warts and all. Crawford's adopted daughter Christina, who she disinherited in her will, famously wrote the book "Mommie Dearest" which was a tell all about how awful a mother Crawford was. Her legacy has been overshadowed by this for the past three decades so although it's great Christina Crawford features in the documentary, she is plays only a small part in telling the whole story of who Joan Crawford was and how she lived her life with contributions from many other Hollywood players who knew Crawford.
This is classic Hollywood at its very best. It is a star vehicle for Joan Crawford and she carries it off with aplomb. The female performances are undoubtedly the best but don't write the film off as a movie just for women as it's got suspense and intrigue along with romance and high fashion.
The story here does stray slightly from Cain's original novel so if you want to see a more faithful adaptation then the HBO version may appeal more but for me anyway, Mildred Pearce will always be played by Joan Crawford.
Audio 1.0 mono
Aspect Ratio 1.33 full frame/black and white
Run Time 107 mins
I purchased my copy in Sainsburys for £4 and it's available on Amazon for £2.99.