April 4, 2008

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Grade: 88/100

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson

What it's about. Restaurateur Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is held by the police and questioned about the murder of her good-for-nothing husband, Monte (Zachary Scott). The police have plenty of suspects, which include Mildred's entertainingly conniving business partner, Wally (Jack Carson), and her humorless first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett).

Mildred's interview with a police detective allows the story to be told in flashback. Mildred is initially a housewife who dotes on her two daughters, stuck-up hottie Veda (Ann Blyth) and tomboy Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Bert's inability to hold a job, and his disagreements with Mildred over Veda, lead to his separation from Mildred. Mildred becomes a waitress to support her daughters, and eventually owns a successful restaurant in partnership with Wally and Monte.

Initially, things are looking up for all concerned, but Veda and Monte become big-spending freeloaders, which leads to a crisis. Mildred's hard work and sacrifice, all for the sake of Veda, leads only to heartache.

How others will see it. Classic movie fans will find Mildred Pierce to be manna from the gods. But then, there are those who can't conceive of watching a black and white movie when there are so many color films to choose from.

How I felt about it. Joan Crawford understandably campaigned for the title role, which was as good as it gets for a middle-aged actress. In fact, it was the role of her lifetime, and it won her only Best Actress Oscar. Alas, she is better known today as the victimized sister in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but while that film has its sadistic charm, it is no match for Mildred Pierce in terms of quality.

Crawford's character dominates the film. She is wed to two men and is courted by a third (the only one who is right for her), but she has eyes only for Veda, her beautiful but despicable and ungrateful daughter. Veda has only one redeeming character trait: she loves her sister Kay.

But Veda was a great role for Ann Blyth, who unfortunately broke her back the same year. Another magnificent role went to Jack Carson as ebullient, confident dealmaker Wally Fay. Wally is the only character Mildred Pierce can rely upon, but she isn't practical enough to choose him. Perhaps she prefers to marry failures (and live with parasitic daughters), which will force her to excel.

While the cast shines in Mildred Pierce, the real credit belongs to Michael Curtiz' impassioned directing, Ernest Haller's gorgeous black and white cinematography, and Ranald MacDougall's wonderfully melodramatic screenplay. According to imdb.com, eight different screenplays were considered (and passed over) before filming began with MacDougall's version. There's not much that a mainstream director can do with a mediocre script. A great script inspired Curtiz to make his best film since Casablanca.