During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
After a long hiatus, we pick up again with 1945’s “Mildred Pierce”. Winning Joan Crawford an Academy Award for Best Actress, “Mildred Pierce” follows the titular character after she marries, remarries, and murders her way to her evil daughter’s own self-destruction. It is two hours of whining about status in a story stripped of its Prohibition context when compared to the novel on which its based. As a film noir, it enthralls from the outset and sets a mood counter to its California setting to keep you on edge while you watch strong female characters do what thus far in this series they haven’t been able to do: be the sole focus.
Our largest critique of the film was its use of class in a less than convincing way. In the chronological beginning of the movie when Mildred begins to tell the police her story, we learn that her husband Bert was financially well-off but they had since fallen on hard times. What hard times, dare you ask? How about a nice suburban California home, a car, and piano and dance lessons for the kids. Starving! Bert walks out after Mildred let’s him know the children will always come before his jobless, deadbeat ass.
That is where Mildred ultimately sets herself up for her own failure. As soon as she tells Bert who comes first and he leaves, we are introduced to their oldest daughter, Veda, who is an insufferable brat who seems to have delusions of having a Nigerian prince send her millions of dollars. (Please excuse the anachronism – this is the 40’s and the African American characters are still just the help, not princes or princesses.) Her mother sold cakes and pies to buy her a dress, but Veda calls it cheap just by its smell and has zero appreciation or respect.
Veda is equally the best and worst thing about this movie. She’s the prime cause of most of its melodrama. Joan Crawford’s Mildred is a mother, conflicted by a justified loathing of her own daughter, who repeatedly fails to break her of her spoiled habits of insubordination. For all her trouble, Veda is a spoiled heiress despite being heir to nothing, and chews on scenes like a villain twice her age and experience. Early on, she says her younger sister looks like a peasant and she puts on other airs throughout the rest of the film.
If Veda made sense, then her turn as the movies antagonist and chief cause of mischief would be a worthwhile reason to return to this film. Instead, the movie does little to explain why she is such a bitch all the time to everyone or how her nose got stuck up quite so high. As her counterpoint, her mother is a woman who makes it in a man’s world by starting a business where there was none, all while she bats off suitor after suitor who cannot take no for an answer until they themselves tire of the chase.
I absolutely loved that women were front-and-center in this film even if there’s little worth celebrating of either character. They both, for me, represent the toxic extreme of mother and daughter taken to an illogical conclusion. Despite her daughter’s horrible, borderline psychopathic behavior, Mildred continues to baby, spoil, and ruin any hope of Veda becoming a capable, independent adult. At the same time, Veda expects the world to be handed to her for zero effort and isn’t afraid of doing whatever it takes to support her own self-interest and ego, including lying about a pregnancy to a dullard with money stupid enough to marry her in secret.
“Mildred Pierce” remains immensely watchable due to its acting and some solid cinematography. The writing is a product of its time, but the whole affair moves at a brisk pace, never lingering long enough to overstay any welcome. Yet, upon further reflection, the film feels more like a daytime television soap opera condensed to a rapid-fire two hour format. There’s murder, lying, divorce, poor rich people, rich poor people, and a suspension of disbelief that let’s it all happen. The film noir overtones maximize the intrigue and help fill in the gaps in what is otherwise a straightforward melodrama.
With all that in mind, I still feel a little trashy having watched this movie. It isn’t risque or disturbing, mind you, but it is sleezy all the same. A soap opera with great acting, “Mildred Pierce” is what happens when white people fret over how high up the middle class ladder they are standing while nothing else in the world is important enough to even register. The film has a timelessness to it since it feels so far removed from its context but more emphasis on the Great Depression and its direct impact on these characters might have shored up the only real flaws I found in the movie.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.