Joan Crawford - Mildred Pierce
Jack Carson - Wally Fay
Zachary Scott - Monte Beragon
Eve Arden - Ida Corwin
Ann Blyth - Veda Pierce
Bruce Bennett - Bert Pierce
Michael Curtiz - Director
Jerry Wald - Producer
Ernest Haller - Cinematographer
Ranald MacDougall - Screenwriter
James M. Cain - Original Novel
Max Steiner - Film Score
Mildred Pierce is the story of the eponymous housewife and mother (Joan Crawford), who has a pathological need to win the love and approval of her older daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred asks her unemployed husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) to leave their home when he begins spending way too much time with a Mrs. Lee Biederhoff. Mildred takes a job as a waitress, afraid that snobbish Veda will find out what she does for a living and think less of her.
She enlists her husband's unctuous former business partner Wally (Jack Carson) to help her open her own restaurant and throws herself into her work after the tragic death of her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Mildred becomes involved with Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the owner of the property she buys, but she sends him packing when he turns out to be a parasite. When she has a falling out with Veda, however, she marries Monte in the hopes that the people he knows and the elegant world he inhabits will attract Veda into coming home. This it does, but with disastrous consequences.
Mildred Pierce is almost perfect moviemaking. The picture is imbued with real cinematic know-how (albeit in a style not as showy as Alfred Hitchcock's), and the dialogue is often priceless. Michael Curtiz's direction is crisp, smooth and highly efficient, his handling of both players and props taut and assured. Curtiz and the brilliant cinematographer Ernest Haller ensure that Mildred Pierce is filled with expert camerawork, interesting angles, and evocative lighting schemes. Max Steiner may have recycled some music from his score for Now, Voyager (1942), but his opening theme for Mildred Pierce is excellent.
It is a question if Mildred Pierce, like Double Indemnity, can truly be classified as film noir. It shares many of the same elements--sleazy men supported by women, too-young women with hot bodies, illicit love affairs, murder in ritzy quarters on a moonlit night--but it lacks one of the most essential ingredients: a hard-boiled anti-hero, unless one counts Veda (Ann Blyth).
--LAWRENCE J. QUIRK, from Joan Crawford:
The Essential Biography, 2002.
The 1941 film version of the James M. Cain novel Mildred Pierce was the brainchild of Jerry Wald. He had been a 1930s Warner writer for seven years, performing much the same machine-like screenplay function that Zanuck had done in the late 1920s. Wald and Michael Curtiz had been personal friends since at least 1934, but they had never worked together until Wald had grown determined to bring Mildred Pierce to the screen with Curtiz as director.
Cain's novel was a sleazy domestic drama without crime or thriller ingredients, unlikely as it stood to be allowed by the Hays Office. Wald had hit upon the idea of introducing a murder at the opening and then a flashback narrative device which would open the way for the "moral retribution" element so beloved by the censors. Jack Warner had given him no encouragement, but Wald persisted to the point where he had approached Cain himself to write a screenplay in mid-1943. When Cain had first agreed and then withdrawn, Wald had invited Thames Williamson, a story analyst and an aspiring writer, to try his luck. The resulting script was good enough for Wald to show it to Jack Warner, who agreed to buy the screen rights.
At this point various actresses, including Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan, and Barbara Stanwyck, were considered for the part of Mildred. This seems to have been destined for Rosalind Russell, presumably on the strength of her showing in Roughly Speaking, still being filmed. But Joan Crawford, who had not appeared in a major role since signing for Warners, lobbied relentlessly for the part. By degrees her sheer perserverance won over Wald, Trilling, and finally Jack Warner as it dawned on them that her movement into early middle age, combined with the rags-to-riches roles she had so often played at MGM during the 1930s, rendered her more suitable for Mildred than they had previously appreciated.
Shooting opened on December 7, 1944. Everything was then in place except for the script which needed detailed rewriting. Curtiz knew the outline story beforehand and decided to film chronologically, as Crawford desired, leaving the murder and police station sequences until last when, it was assumed, the final script would be ready. Curtiz spent much time on camera angles and lighting, soon incurring Jack Warner's wrath for being a week behind schedule. When shooting was completed in February 1945, Curtiz was nevertheless thirteen days late, and extra exteriors and interiors were filmed on March 2 and 3.
Curtiz gave this soap opera plot gleaming treatment. The opening scenes of Beragon's murder by an unseen assailant, Mildred's effort to frame Fay by luring him to the beach house and then locking him in with the dead body, and the police station exchanges before the main story dissoves into flashbacks, are electric. Curtiz's direction keeps the plot moving steadily, while the players are without exception in top form. Joan Crawford embodies energetic ambition, Eve Arden wisecracking sisterly humor, Jack Carson ruthless opportunism, Zachary Scott smooth but brainless idleness and lust, Bruce Bennett worthy salt-of-the-earth dullness, and Ann Blyth detestable self-centered go-getting heedless of the consequences for others.
The 1945 summer was occupied with the Steiner score, editing, and sound fine-tuning, after which Jack Warner deferred the release in the hope that the film would fare better in a post-war atmosphere. On this basis it was released a few weeks after Japan's surrender in September 1945. It raked in a profit of just over four million dollars and gained the best actress Oscar for Crawford, revitalizing her career. Oscar nominations also went to Blyth, Arden, and Haller. Mildred Pierce, arguably the finest noir film of its genre in cinema history, rounded off a very impressive wartime record for Cutiz. The three largest studio box-office draws were Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce in that order. All three have remained classics.
--JAMES C. ROBERTSON, from The Casablanca Man:
The Cinema of Michael Curtiz
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