Now that the HBO five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce has begun, I wanted to bring attention to the original 1945 movie of the same name. Mildred Pierce has actually become one of my favorite films over the years...a Warner Brothers film noir classic. It's based on the 1941 novel by noir master James M. Cain, who was responsible for writing the great Double Indemnity as well. Yet there's something deeper in this particular work of his. The story is set in the midst of the Great Depression and its topics are eerily on point today. The strain on a family during that extreme economic crisis, a working single mother, an entitled and rebellious teenager, and a woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and vision. It's for these reasons that HBO thought it was perfect to remaster today.
But nothing can come close to the edge of the original movie. For one, Michael Curtiz was at the helm as director. If you don't know the name, you do know his films and one happens to be widely regarded as the best of all time--Casablanca (1942). What's key is the way that Curtiz allows the story of Mildred Pierce to unfold in pure film noir fashion--we meet Mildred dressed in fur ready to jump off the Malibu Pier, a mystery right from the start and told in flashback complete with main character voiceover. Now add the look of the film from cinematographer Ernest Haller, who won an Oscar for his color cinematography on Gone with the Wind but bathes Mildred Pierce in rich black and white.
We also have many actors at their peak here and most were nominated for Oscars, including Ann Blyth (Mildred's spoiled daughter, Veda) and the wonderful character actress Eve Arden (Mildred's best friend, Ida). But it was Joan Crawford who won the Oscar for Best Actress...and what a win it was. After decades at glamorous MGM, Louis B. Mayer cast her from the studio and Joan felt as though she had lost everything. Surprisingly, it was the gritty Warner Brothers studio who picked up her contract and gave her a home. Mildred Pierce was Joan's one shot to prove herself to them. She literally had to fight for the role from director Curtiz. He hated Joan and hated her style, particularly the strong shoulders that were her trademark at MGM. He even allegedly ripped a sleeve off her dress during one heated exchange. Joan, in an attempt to delve into character, had bought a simple housedress from Sears for the audition...one without any such padding. With the sleeve dangling from the dress, she flashed Curtiz a bare shoulder and said, "I'm afraid they're all mine." This is exactly the type of challenging life experience that made her empathize so strongly with this character and allowed us to see her best performance. She was strong yet vulnerable in the role, and she's so good that there are actually moments you may forget you're watching Joan Crawford.
But it is Joan Crawford and part of the pleasure of her pictures is the glamour she will always bring. Because Mildred moves from poor to professional woman, Warner Brothers' head costume designer Milo Anderson provided a slightly more subtle glamour for their leading lady. That said, we can still see that he managed to sneak in the strong shoulders, a style that Adrian began in order to create the illusion of height for her petite frame (reported as being anywhere from 5' to 5'4"). That design continued its magic here since Joan always seems 6 feet tall. What impresses me most, though, are her close ups--the perfect bone structure of her face and the emotion that she's able to bring to her big blue eyes. See if they don't draw you into all the drama of the classic Mildred Pierce.
Trouble in the marriage right from the start, and husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) moves out to be with another woman
Parting ways in a perennial favorite--polkadots
Faced with life as a single mother in the midst of the Depression, Mildred fights to find employment
Mildred in a classic trench at the downtown restaurant, where she boldly asks for a job
Mildred's eldest daughter, Veda, is so spoiled and wicked that Mildred ends up opening her own restaurant
just to give her daughter the kind of high life she wants
Together with her best friend, Ida, Mildred's restaurant is a success from the start
Perfectly professional in pin-stripes, white silk blouse, and diamond broach...
even when deciding to dump her gold-digging boyfriend, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott)
Admiring Mildred's birthday gift to Veda parked outside--a 1940 Buick Special convertible
Ever defiant and devious Veda in black wool dress (above) and silk robe with her frequent floral flourish
Faced with extreme betrayal on all sides, Mildred seems appropriately dressed
in a beautifully ruched black dress and hat with veil
Publicity shots released led the audience to believe what Mildred would do, but instead...
Driving out to Monte's Malibu beachhouse, Mildred finds Veda in her husband's arms
But when Veda finds out that Monte was just using her as well as her mother...