But check out the film noir mystery MILDRED PIERCE (1945) based on the novel by hardboiled crime writer James M. Cain and directed by Michael Curtiz and you'll see Joan Crawford was quite beautiful in her heyday and a very good actress, so good that she won the Academy Award for best actress in 1945 for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce Beragon. Crawford had been dropped by film studio MGM as she had just turned 39 years old and Warner Brothers picked up her contract. MILDRED PIERCE was her first film with her new studio. She must have loved the irony of it all.
Two of author James M. Cain's more famous novels were turned into classics of the film noir genre - DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. Film noir is a French term (it means "black film") for crime drama and mysteries set after World War II that usually involve a man caught in a moral predicament (murder, adultery, robbery) and a woman who may not be as virtuous as she seems (whore, murderess, femme fatale). The photography is often very stylized, with many scenes taking place at night, shot in a criss cross of black and white shadows like the moon shining through Venetian blinds. MILDRED PIERCE had never interested me primarily because of the title. It didn't sound very film noirish. Who was this Mildred Pierce? Her name was mundane sounding. Was there murder involved? There was only one way to find out. I had to watch it.
MILDRED PIERCE begins very film noirish like, with a CITIZEN KANE opening as rich playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is shot multiple times by an unknown assailant, falling over and muttering "Mildred" before dying. We next see Mildred Pierce Beragon (Joan Crawford) walking idly at night on the Santa Monica pier. She peers into the water and contemplates jumping before a cop scares her away. On her way back to her car, Mildred passes a club on the pier. The club's owner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) sees her and invites her in for a drink. Wally has recently taken over Mildred's restaurant chains. Mildred invites Wally back to her place, a beach house next to the ocean. Unbeknownst to Wally, Monte's body lies inside that house. Mildred pretends to go to change, locks Wally in the house, and flees. The police arrive, find Wally breaking out of the house and Monte's body inside the house. The police show up at Mildred's house (she is the dead Monte's wife after all) and bring her in for questioning. At the police station, we meet all the players in this mystery as Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) questions Mildred.
It's at this point that MILDRED PIERCE turns from film noir mystery to melodrama as director Curtiz turns to flashbacks as Mildred chronicles her climb from pie baking housewife to entrepreneur. Stuck in a sterile marriage to recently unemployed Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), Mildred's life revolves around her two girls - younger tomboy Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and older sibling Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth). It's Veda that Mildred works so hard for - baking pies so Veda can get new dresses or piano lessons. When Bert begins spending too much time with the widow Mrs. Biederhof (Lee Patrick), Mildred kicks Bert out of the house.
Bert's former insurance partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) shows up looking for Bert and begins to immediately make a play for Mildred's affections. Knowing she is broke and with bills piling up, Mildred looks for work and lands a waitressing job at a diner run by Ida Corwin (Eve Arden in a nice comedic supporting role). Mildred learns the restaurant business quickly and wishing to make more money so she can buy Veda better things, Mildred turns to Wally to help her start her own restaurant. Mildred eyes a particular piece of property that happens to be owned by the rich but lazy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Beragon refuses at first but eventually relents and sells her the property.
Mildred's diner (called Mildred's) takes off and she ends up starting up a chain of Mildred's diners. Mildred also begins a relationship with Beragon. After spending a day swimming and cuddling with Monte, Mildred returns to her home to find Bert waiting in the rain. Little Kay has contracted pneumonia and dies. Mildred throws all her energy into her chain of restaurants. But as successful as she becomes, she can't seem to impress her remaining daughter Veda. Veda gets mixed up with a naive young man Ted (John Compton) and they elope only to quickly divorce after Veda pretends to be pregnant. Veda and Wally force Ted's family to pay a cash settlement to keep her quiet. Fed up with Veda, Mildred throws her beloved daughter out of the house.
Mildred returns from a month long vacation in Mexico to find that Veda is now singing in Wally's nightclub. Mildred wants to reconcile with Veda and decides to marry Monte, who Veda enjoys being around. Monte agrees to the arranged marriage but only if he gets one third ownership of her restaurant business. Mildred agrees. But Monte and Veda's lavish spending begins to drain Mildred's finances. She has to give up ownership of the business which Wally takes over. Then, Mildred discovers that Monte and Veda may be more than just friends. So Mildred takes a gun and sets out to Monte's beach house to confront him.
MILDRED PIERCE is ground breaking in that the film deals with divorce from the woman's point of view. Mildred is an incredibly resilient, strong female film character. When she's down on her luck, she doesn't turn to any thing drastic like street walking but takes a menial job as a waitress. As she begins to have success in her job, she does it thru hard work and perseverance and doesn't use her sexuality to climb the ladder of success although she probably could if she wanted to. Her two biggest flaws are her unconditional love toward Veda and her choice in men. The three male leads in MILDRED PIERCE run the gamut of bad masculine tendencies.
Mildred's first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) is passive and intimidated by Mildred's independence, even turning to another woman for comfort. Bert will grow to admire Mildred as a mother and businesswoman and even become her ally and protector later on. Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is the wolf-ish former partner of Bert's who tries to bed Mildred almost every time they are together. He's part uncle, part business manager for Mildred, and part horndog. Wally's like a dog in heat, tugging at Mildred's bathrobe belt when he visits her one night. Actor Jack Carson does a nice job making Wally likable when he could have come off as sleazy. Carson may set the world record for biggest smoker ever in a film as well. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is the third cog in Mildred's wheel of men. Monte wastes away his family's fortune drinking and gambling, allergic to working for a living, selling a family piece of property here or there to keep his lavish lifestyle going. He may be enamored with Mildred but it's her money that he's more in love with. Actor Scott played Monte perfectly, self-deprecating one moment then pleasantly sneaky the next.
But there's another triangle in MILDRED PIERCE just as intriguing as the three men and that's the relationship between Mildred and her daughter Veda and Monte. It's a stormy relationship as everything that Mildred does for Veda isn't good enough. Mildred begins to realize Veda is a spoiled brat, a younger version of Monte who Veda begins to spend more and more time with. Veda lives for money. She figures if she has enough, she can get away from her mother. Beragon seems to drain every one's money - his and Mildred's. Veda wants to live the lifestyle Monte has but she ends up like Monte - spending money that neither of them has. Actress Ann Blyth as Veda is a mother's worst nightmare - a daughter from hell who will blackmail her innocent husband's family for a monetary settlement or steal her mother's husband for herself.
Director Michael Curtiz shows in MILDRED PIERCE why I consider him one of the great chameleons in directing as he can handle any genre just like other great genre directors like Howard Hawks or Stephen Frears. Curtiz is adept in every style; drama (CASABLANCA), western (DODGE CITY), swashbuckling (THE SEA HAWK or THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD), musical (WHITE CHRISTMAS) or horror (THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM). MILDRED is really only film noirish at the beginning and end of the film and Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall keep the mystery of who shot Monte Beragon close to their vests until the very end.
MILDRED reminded me of Curtiz's CASABLANCA in a couple of ways. There is the love triangle of Mildred, Monte, and Veda which CASABLANCA (1943) has with Rick, Ilsa, and Victor. Also, Curtiz uses Mildred's Restaurant as a character and location just like he did with Rick's Cafe in CASABLANCA and sets many scenes in the diner, often with the hustle and bustle of customers and waitresses in the background for realism. But where CASABLANCA told Humphrey Bogart Rick's back story in a couple of flashbacks and was mostly set in the present, Curtiz's MILDRED PIERCE has some interesting shifts in time. The film opens dramatically with Monte's murder but when Mildred goes to the police station, she tells her back story in flashbacks to Inspector Pearson. Each time we return briefly to the present, Inspector Pearson reveals a twist to the mystery. Curtiz then returns to the events leading up to Monte's murder at the start of the film.
In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, author Cain uses the insurance clause "double indemnity" where an insurance company will pay double the claim amount if the death is accidental as a motive for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray to commit murder. In MILDRED PIERCE, Wally cautions against Mildred seeking to divorce Bert because of California's "community property" law where both parties would split things evenly 50/50. Bert could get half of Mildred's share of her business. Bert turns out not to be interested in Mildred's money, the only one of the three men not after her wealth. These type of real life claims and laws add to the authenticity of Cain's stories of greed, murder, and revenge.
I am going to make it a point to go to the bookstore and purchase Cain's MILDRED PIERCE. I'm curious to discover if Mildred was more sexual in the book then the 1945 film was able to show. Both DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE had protagonists who commit adultery yet Mildred seems to refrain from using her sexuality for advantage although she is clearly aware of her sexual freedom. I want to find out if Wally Fay ever made it with Mildred.
HBO recently remade MILDRED PIERCE (2011) as a mini-series starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce and directed by Todd Haynes. I'm sure Kate Winslet does a fine job as Mildred but for me, this is Joan Crawford's defining role. At the beginning, I mentioned that Crawford was relegated to acting in horror films toward the end of her career but to see Joan Crawford at her best, pick an afternoon and watch MILDRED PIERCE. I'm glad I did.