“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review
I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again.
Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.
Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.
Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.
But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.
Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.
What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.
After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after nearly seventy-four years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.