Mildred Pierce (1945) is a classic, post-war film noir mixed with typical soap-operish elements of the woman’s melodramatic picture or “weeper,” including a strand of a typical murder mystery often told by flashback. The family melodrama was significantly modified from its original source due to pressures of the Production Code regarding its sordidness – namely, the incestual behavior of the dissolute playboy character named Monte.
Famed Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (who had already directed many diverse film genres, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and This is the Army (1943)) shaped this significant film in the genre. Curtiz reluctantly began filming with ‘has-been’ star Joan Crawford, who had developed a reputation for being mannered and difficult, but was pleasantly surprised when she delivered one of the best performances of her career.
This film, a tremendous box-office hit and critical success, was an adaptation by Ranald MacDougall and Catherine Turney (and William Faulkner) of James M. Cain’s 1941 ‘hard-boiled’ novel of the same name. Cain’s original novel was a satire about bourgeois values, and a tale of poor parenthood. [Cain was responsible for two sources for film noir classics – his 1936 novella for Double Indemnity (1944) and his best-selling work for Mildred Pierce (1945).] Atypical for film noirs, the main protagonist in the film is a female – but she is typically brought down by a femme fatale – her own daughter. The intriguing murder story is told with a flashback structure reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941). Successful promotional copy for the film read: “Mildred Pierce – don’t ever tell anyone what she did.”
The gripping and cynical film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth, both with their only career nomination), Best Screenplay (Ranald MacDougall), and Best B/W Cinematography (Ernest Haller who had previously co-won the Color Cinematography Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939)). Former MGM star Joan Crawford performed in the melodramatic Warners’ film in an astonishing comeback role (and debut role for Warner Bros.) after a two year absence and slumping decline. [The role was first considered by Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan.]
Crawford won the film’s sole Academy Award Oscar (it was also her sole Academy Award win out of three career nominations) as Best Actress for her title role. She went on to star in such films as Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Flamingo Road (1949) – again with Curtiz directing, the self-produced thriller Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), a string of flops in the late 50s, and then Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Her career really went into decline with her appearance in low-budget 60’s B-grade horror films (i.e., the slasher film Beserk! (1967), The Karate Killers (1967), and her last film Trog (1970)).
The title character is a hard-working, neurotically-devoted, long-suffering and determined mother who has a status-seeking, spoiled, detestable and mean-spirited, unloving daughter named Veda (Blyth). [Mirroring her real life, Joan Crawford supported herself as a waitress and saleswoman before she began making films.] Mildred’s ruinous but noble downfall occurs as the result of poor choices of men (including her dull, middle-class broker husband Bert (Bruce Bennett)) and her caring for an ungrateful Veda. (Other films of maternal self-sacrifice for an insufferable child – before this one – include Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Stella Dallas (1937) with Barbara Stanwyck, and later would include Terms of Endearment (1983) with Shirley MacLaine.) Although Mildred’s maternal sacrifice is portrayed as noble, some have claimed that the film is cautionary and anti-feminist, with Mildred presented as a typical 1940’s post-war housewife whose ‘American dream-fulfilling’ role-switching movement from suburban, middle-class home-maker to divorced, successful business entrepreneur (restaurant-chain owner) results in corruptive, destructive disaster (both financial and personal). This was symbolized in the film in movements from bright, daytime S. California scenes to dark, criminal, nightmarish scenes.