Playing Sun May 13 at 1:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
The final day of “If Looks Could Kill” in this year’s annual Fashion in Film Festival at MoMI.
Alt Screen contributor Imogen Smith, for The Chiseler:
Crawford’s career was guttering when she made her first noir entry, Mildred Pierce (1945), a triumphant comeback and a title role that perfectly summarized her strange blend of fiendish energy and quivering need, the hard face and big shoulders overlaid by strained refinement and undercut by rampant vulnerability. Mildred Pierce seamlessly fuses full-throttle melodrama and keen, unsparing social criticism. Mildred is an extraordinary everywoman: a housewife who turns her talent for baking into a successful chain of restaurants after splitting from her husband. A capable, hard-headed businesswoman, she’s also consumed by a neurotic obsession with her daughter, the snobbish and monstrously selfish Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred and Veda represent two poles of noir femininity: the nurturing martyr and the greedy glamour-puss. The mother spoils her daughter, and the daughter lives off the mother she despises. Men are marginal, at least for Mildred, who is only interested in how she can use them.
The film finds a gaping hollowness in both the avaricious minx and the no-nonsense professional. Mildred gets everything a woman can have: love, marriage, motherhood, a career, a fur coat, yet none of it brings her real happiness. This was the paradox at the heart of the “woman’s picture.” It offered women in the audience wish-fulfillment fantasies—glamorous wardrobes, passionate love-affairs, high-powered jobs—and at the same time made suffering the defining female experience. These films reassured women that it didn’t matter whether they chose domesticity or a career, because either way they would wind up unsatisfied.
James Cain’s novel of the treacherous life in Southern California that sets house-wife-turned waitress-turned-successful restauranteur (Crawford) against her own daughter (Blyth) in competition for the love of playboy Zachary Scott, is brought fastidiously and bleakly to life by Curtiz’ direction, Ernest Haller’s camerawork, and Anton Grot’s magnificent sets. Told in flashback from the moment of Scott’s murder, the film is a chilling demonstration of the fact that, in a patriarchal society, when a woman steps outside the home the end result may be disastrous.
Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:
Though Mildred Pierce is renowned for marking Joan Crawford’s return to the apex of Hollywood stardom, Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of hardboiled author James M. Cain’s novel is, first and foremost, a hearty genre pic fraught with tense social/sexual anxieties. Divorcing her unemployed husband, Mildred sets about supporting her two daughters – younger tomboyish Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), not long for this world, and spoiled, voraciously greedy Veda – by starting her own restaurant. The disdainful Veda finds her mother’s new blue-collar career unbecoming, but Mildred is so obsessed with trying to please her ungrateful older daughter that she willingly suffers the girl’s horrendous abuse, ultimately sacrificing her own happiness and success in a vain attempt to craft a life centered around her offspring and totally free of men (and, thus, any romantic/carnal satisfaction). It’s a vision of excessive maternal devotion with a decidedly unprogressive slant, as the film presents Mildred’s unhappiness as a byproduct of her desire for an independent career at the expense of fulfilling traditional feminine roles (wife, homemaker). Employing a familiar noir flashback structure in which his female protagonist desperately attempts to make sense of fate’s cruel machinations, Curtiz handles his melodramatic noir material with little flair but welcome efficiency. It’s Crawford, however – in a put-upon victim role lacking, until the finale, her trademark fierceness – who truly ignites Mildred Pierce, the actress portraying her character’s paradoxical impulses with an expressiveness and intensity that’s something to behold.
David Denby in the New Yorker:
In the early forties, Joan Crawford left the suffocating glamour of M-G-M and entered the noirish shadows of Warner Bros. Her second film there was the startling “Mildred Pierce,” from the James M. Cain novel, which is perhaps more candid about money and social status than any American movie of the period. Crawford’s performance is convincing and intelligent, and the bitterness feels genuine (Crawford herself was a wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who struggled for respect). Like other good forties movies, “Mildred Pierce” starts with a murder and then works back to the roots of the crime. The director, Michael Curtiz, keeps the palette dark and rich and the psychological undertones resonant.
Jeremiah Kipp says some of these things like it’s a bad thing, for Slant:
Mildred Pierce is melodramatic trash, constructed like a reliable Aristotelian warhorse where characters have planted the seeds of their own doom in the first act, only to have grief-stricken revelations at the climax. Directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn’t quite go with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir, and scored by Max Steiner with a sensational bombast that’s rousing even when it doesn’t match the quieter, pensive mood of individual scenes, Mildred Pierce is professionally executed and moves at a brisk clip. Crawford is well cast as a protective she-wolf, dominating the stock company male players that surround her and her face, showing the first signs of age from the meat grinder of show business, is well matched against the smug freshness of Ann Blyth.
While Alt Screen’s Managing Editor Brynn White admits a loyalty to the James M. Cain source novel, but the Haynes-Winslet mini-series sure made Joan look good:
But Mildred is, as Cain regularly reminds the reader, a voluptuous lady, rather indistinctly but acceptably handsome with knockout legs that she employs in an attention-garnering strut. Winslet’s Mildred has more of a graceless, bow-elbowed trot. Her accent-restraining voice is too dried out for Mildred’s overbrimming femininity. While saucer-eyed Crawford was physically incapable of conveying Cain’s Mildred’s “resolute squint,” she undoubtedly displayed the hard, feline quality it required even while brimming with tears.
One can’t help but wish Haynes and Winslet had embraced the pulpy breathlessness of Cain’s potboiler, taken more risks, had a little more fun. Even though the 1945 version lost much of the point in classing-up Mildred and her chicken joints (and denying Veda her divine talent), Crawford supplied the needed operatic force, the power of a star lost in her worship of an undeserving other.
Alt Screen contributor Dan Callahan, in his comparison, considers the Curtiz version “a model of adaptation,” for Slant:
Toward the end of his tale, Cain concocts a bizarre subplot where the nearly satanic Veda suddenly discovers that she has a once-in-a-century coloratura soprano voice; she goes on to success as a vocalist, leaving her terminally middle-class mother behind, and this reads like something of a private fantasy for the writer.
The Crawford movie smartly axed this operatic plot turn, and in many ways it remains a model of adaptation, doing away with Cain’s unnecessary plot detours and characters. The 1945 film begins with the murder of playboy Monty Beragon, and the rest of the movie functions as a “Who shot Monty?” mystery noir as well as a corking melodrama, but its main function is as a vehicle for Crawford, who revived her career and won an Oscar for her work. Cain’s small, ordinary Mildred got swallowed up by the insistent noble throb in Crawford’s voice and the Medea-like size of her resentment, which reaches a nearly psychotic height in the famous scene where she screams “Veda!” at the top of her voice, charges over to her blackmailing daughter, rips up a check, and receives a slap in the face from the girl. Crawford looks briefly surprised at this point, and then her saucer eyes start to fill with the kind of murderous anger that can only be described as animal-like.
David Thomson agrees, for The New Republic:
In the original movie, Joan Crawford—never exactly ordinary—was brilliant at being over-emotional, desperate, and her own wrong-headed drama queen (so Veda had competition). She was ideally suited to the pitch of Cain’s melodrama and to the unequivocal intention at Warner Brothers to make a knock-down, drag-out women’s picture in which Mildred and Veda shatter every Hollywood cliché about natural and requited mother-love. By contrast, Winslet is too placid, not fierce enough. She eats pies, where Crawford fed on raw flesh. The story needed “too much”—Max Steiner’s raging music and the gorgeous film noir look where the shadows dipped down into Mildred’s brow until you felt the pits of her rueful, ruined eyes. That’s why it’s the originally version is a camp classic movie now—and so hard to resurrect as a literary classic. Our movies once were fast, sensational, and reckless. Lifting them up to be something like modern novels only reveals the cunning intuitions that ruled at Warner Brothers and elsewhere in the 1940s. The great American movies were never meant to be literary or respectable.
Thomson again, in America in the Dark:
For the first time, despite Crawford’s brooding glamour, the woman on the screen is the woman in the movie house. Mildred Pierce is significant because of the straight-faced but patronizing view of this woman’s definition of a good life. In hindsight, it becomes a piece of social criticism – more subtle than Warners – or director Michael Curtiz recognized, I suspect.
Rob Nixon with some background, for TCM:
Mildred Pierce has become so closely identified with the persona and myth of Joan Crawford that the achievements of the film itself and the other artists involved are often overlooked. Not that its connection to Crawford should be trivialized. Her performance here represents one of the most famous comeback stories in Hollywood history. She had been in the business about 20 years when she was tapped for this role (which was first offered to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ann Sheridan, respectively). She had left MGM in 1943 and landed at Warner Brothers, where she waited two years before making a significant film appearance. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford at 40 reinvented herself again, scoring a huge commercial and critical success and launching a new phase in her career as a tough-as-nails but nobly suffering woman “of a certain age” in cautionary melodramas of greed and possessiveness. Winning the Academy Award on her first nomination brought new respect for the actress who had clawed her way to the top, and it put her back in the category of major stars.
But Crawford isn’t the only reason the movie is essential viewing for cinema lovers. Warner Brothers and producer Jerry Wald, a great friend and champion of the star for many years, made sure that the studio’s most skilled technicians and crew were entrusted with bringing James M. Cain’s popular novel to the screen. The production was helmed by one of Warner’s most prolific directors, Michael Curtiz. Wald also brought in a seasoned cast of supporting players; the studio’s top composer, Max Steiner; Anton Grot to design the evocative sets; and, most notably, Ernest Haller, who had shared an Oscar with Ray Rennahan for the cinematography of Gone with the Wind (1939). Mucch of the look of the film can be credited to him and Grot, working together to create the stark daylight of Southern California and the expressive night shadows that underscore the characters’ darkest motives and desires. Director Michael Curtiz had not even wanted Crawford for the role of Mildred, making her consent to a screen test. It seems he didn’t like her trademark shoulder pads. After the success of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz and Crawford patched up their working relationship, and Joan gave her director a peace offering – a pair of custom made shoulder pads.
A great link to Ann Blyth, at the Castro Theater, discussing those shoulder pad battles.
Ed Howard on the mother-daughter dynamic, for Only the Cinema:
Veda is an infuriating character, and a despicable one, and the film handles her very cleverly: she initially just seems like a mildly bratty kid, a bit distant and pouty, a bit ungrateful, a bit spoiled, like a lot of teenagers. Over the course of the film, she reveals herself as something else entirely, a real outsized movie villain, hiding an almost sociopathic indifference to her mother’s feelings behind her cheery, charmingly girlish face. She becomes almost terrifying in the way she exploits and manipulates her mother, draining the strength from this strong, intelligent woman. Blyth’s performance, this sweet but emotionally empty aura she projects, is fascinating when juxtaposed against Crawford’s tough, expressive tour de force. As Crawford runs a gamut of feelings from steely determination to near despair, delivering a powerhouse performance, Blyth maintains her slightly creepy composure except when, with obvious forethought, she turns on a particular emotional reaction to get a desired effect. The girl’s disconcerting control over her emotions is captured most tellingly in a sequence where she announces her engagement to a rich young boy; when her fiance is looking at her, she’s all smiles and affectionate glances, but the moment he turns away from her she betrays a flash of a cold, cruel expression, her lips curled into an expression of distaste, her eyes dead and empty.
Coldness and warmth, the traditional dichotomy of womanly behavior, are embodied in these two characters, mother and daughter, but not in the usual ways. Mildred, for all her independence, for all her strength and ability to survive without a husband, isn’t a caricature of the cold, loveless career woman. She feels a great deal, maybe even too much — her compassion, her love and tolerance for people who don’t deserve it, is her ultimate weakness. It’s Veda who’s the cold one, Veda who isn’t strong at all, who only knows how to use and exploit people, how to take advantage. Veda is contrasted, in the early scenes of the film, against Mildred’s younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), another independent woman in the making, a girl who likes to play, who likes to join in on the boys’ games, not caring if she gets dirty, like her mother who digs in at work, and very unlike the prim Veda. Mildred takes Kay for granted, knowing that the girl isn’t demanding, that like her mother she can take care of herself — it’s Veda, who can’t, who gets all the attention. This situation symbolically comes to a head in a staggering tragedy, as Mildred loses Kay, loses the girl who might have otherwise grown up to be like her strong, spirited mother. Later in the film, when Veda returns to Mildred after a time apart, a photograph of Kay is tellingly placed in the foreground as Mildred runs to the window to see her inconstant daughter. The photo is a reminder of the very different daughter who’d suffered the fate of so many other cinematic independent women.
Donald Lyon in a career overview of Curtiz, for Film Comment:
The old city-country antitheses no longer apply in the world of Mildred Pierce, where all places-exurban Glendale, ritzy Pasadena, beachy/Bohemian Santa Monica-are soulless and corrupt. This time, even the Curtizian celebration, Veda’s birthday party, excludes the central character (Mildred is stuck in her office trying to stave off bankruptcy) and ends in illicit, quasi-incestuous sex and murder. Apart from Mildred’s gleaming eateries, there is, in the way of public space, only Carson’s seedy dive, where Veda is reduced to singing, in a sarong, “Oceana Roll”: Veda is enough to give a bad name to women who sing in bars.
Mildred Pierce is Curtiz’s darkest and saddest film; Crawford at its heart is grim, victimized, self-pitying, monumental. She seems to be in some dream of her own career. The performance, only half-aware of what it is revealing, is a triumph of the will, doubtless. The movie’s bleakness continues in the two final shots: Joan and hubby #1 embrace in the police station as three washerwomen scrub the floor; the pair walk through an arch (similar in look but not in significance to the grandiose railroad station at the end of Roughly Speaking) into a milky, hazy dawn. Those cleaning women epitomize the realities of life for women who don’t own restaurant chains; the togetherness of the somber couple is the togetherness of exhaustion and despair. With family in ruins, they go dispiritedly-and in longshot-into the morning, a Glendale Adam and Eve leaving Eden.
Stephen Farber, also for Film Cmment:
There is a furtively ambivalent attitude toward success even in this film. The most evil character in the film, aside from Veda, is slimy Monte, and his greatest sin is that he has never worked fora living. Languorous, arrogant, devious, he embodies all of the American prejudices against the man of leisure. Mildred’s robustness and energy are deliberately contrasted to his indolence. In the scene in which she belittles him for his dependence on her, the film’s attitude is unclear. Mildred may look peremptory and cruel to us, yet the filmmakers cannot help preferring her sturdy, homely aggressiveness to Monte’s ruffled-shirt decadence.
But in the characterization of Veda the filmmakers have considered the other side of the coin; she represents all their fears about success. Ambitious Americans often justify their avarice and their aggressiveness by saying that they are doing everything for their children; and they may well be trying to escape the humiliation of their own past by giving their children the luxuries that they had imagined for themselves while growing up in poverty. In the deepest sense, Mildred is selfish-living out her own dreams of material glory vicariously, through her pampered daughters. Mildred Pierce makes a shrill, melodramatic, but still pertinent criticism of this American compulsion by showing that the spoiled child is a moral monster, deadened by greed and unaffected by murder. What the film seems to say-with all its contrived plot machinations it’s difficult to be sure-is that the obsessions of materialistic, success-oriented parents lead to violence and corruption; the fruit of ambition is murder.
Callahan concludes by catching a piquant detail revisiting the film:
Haynes’s Mildred Pierce finally seems like the most elaborately produced critical close reading of a novel of all time; for all its many virtues, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to sit through it again, but I’m certain I’ll be looking at the 1945 version for the rest of my life. In fact, I did watch it for the umpteenth time the day after I watched the miniseries, and I was surprised by a small detail I hadn’t remembered: Curtiz ends his film with a shot of Mildred walking out of a courthouse past two women who are hard at work scrubbing floors. It’s a perfect little grace note, and it’s not in the book, and its meaning is excitingly ambiguous. A great movie is always a bit of a mystery, and that creative mystery is missing from the center of Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, which cannot be faulted for craft or intelligence, but cannot be felt on the gut level of Cain, Crawford, or Curtiz, who might not have had a thought in his head about the story, but directs the hell out of it in pure visual and visceral movie terms.