Mildred Pierce (1945). 111 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford (as Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (as Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (as Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (as Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (as Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (as Lottie), Bruce Bennett (as Bert Pierce), Lee Patrick (as Maggie Biederhof), Veda Ann Borg (as Miriam Ellis), Moroni Olsen (as Inspector Peterson), and Jo Ann Marlowe (as Kay Pierce). Music by Max Steiner.
Mildred Pierce is equal parts entrepreneurial narrative, film noir, and melodrama. In some regards, it is an earnestly liberal tale about a hard-working woman who divorces, establishes her own business, and becomes a restaurant mogul. But it is also a lurid and somewhat punishing soap opera about her downfall, which is intertwined with and inseparable from her devotion to her evil young daughter Veda. In the end, in order to get its point across, the movie relies on a fairly conservative understanding of rightful social order and what happens when that order is violated in the form of divorce and dysfunctional family relations. The result is a decidedly peculiar mixture of modes and politics. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, its wild plot lines and the erratic give-and-take of its moral universe, Mildred Pierce is fabulous from beginning to end, and the character Veda has to be one of the most frightening creations of the Golden Age.
The movie is told through a series of flashbacks as the protagonist Mildred Pierce is interviewed at a police station under suspicion of murder. Mildred is a housewife whose family falls on hard times during the Depression. To make ends meet, and to furnish her daughters Veda and Kay with extravagances in the midst of the economic downturn, Mildred bakes and sells cakes and pies. When her husband Bert loses his job and squabbles with her about her indulgent attitude towards her daughters—especially towards the elder child Veda, who is developing a snobbish attitude—Mildred throws him out of the house. To survive, she finds work as a waitress and soon learns the ins and outs of running a business. With the help of her friend Wally, she purchases a restaurant space from local real estate heir Monte Beragon and opens her own diner with her coworkers Ida and Lottie.
Mildred divorces Bert, she and Monte embark on a love affair, and her restaurant proves very successful. Soon she establishes a chain; the proceeds from her endeavors go towards furnishing Veda with an increasingly deluxe lifestyle (after Kay’s death, Mildred spoils Veda even more) and funneling money towards spendthrift Monte. She and Monte marry—she in order to please her daughter, and he for her money. But Monte and Veda’s needs drain the restaurants of their funds, and Mildred learns she will have to cede ownership of them. On the same evening that she is made aware of this, she also discovers that Veda and Monte are having an affair. Veda, crushed that Monte will not divorce her mother and marry her, kills him, and although Mildred attempts to protect her daughter, Veda is caught and arrested for Monte’s murder. In the final scene of the movie, Mildred leaves the police station, devastated, but is reunited with Bert.
Mildred Pierce is in part about an industrious woman who makes a splash in the food industry and achieves prosperity. In most scenes Mildred’s mental focus is on her business, and the way that small details, such as what she is doing with her hands, compliment that focus is impressive. She is always touching or writing on papers, ledgers, and notepads, or handling things like dishes or kitchen trays (we hear her chide a waitress on the opening night of her first restaurant: don’t ever pass through the dining room with an empty tray; there is always something to be bused). She is almost always engaged in what the business world refers to as “multitasking,” talking to someone about one thing while involved in a separate and simultaneous activity. The all-consuming nature of her enterprise feels real and convincing.
In modern business, people talk about the concept of “work-life balance”: the equilibrium between the personal and the professional that a person needs to maintain if they are to find happiness in either sphere. But sadly, that balance does not exist for Mildred. It is not a coincidence that the movie’s two most devastating events occur when Mildred is either treating herself to a spontaneous afternoon off or neglecting her private life to take care of business—either way, she cannot win. Her daughter Kay dies when Mildred takes a holiday rather than unpack dishes and screw in light bulbs in her first restaurant, and she learns of Veda’s affair with Monte when rather than attending Veda’s birthday party, she works late and discovers that she has lost control of her business. But Mildred’s problems stem from more than a faulty sense of proportion: she may have a strong vision for her restaurant empire, but she lacks insight into her private life. She throws herself into her never-ending work and shares the fruits of her labor with those close to her, but her long hours at the restaurant and overwhelming desire for success dull her sensibility when it comes to truthfully comprehending the intentions of her daughter or her second husband.
Mildred’s friend Ida is similarly industrious. She teaches Mildred how to work as a waitress and handles the money at Mildred’s first restaurant. In addition to being a shrewd businesswoman, Ida is sharp and witty, delivering some of the movie’s best dialogue, which greatly amused the audience at the Pacific Film Archive screening I attended. But interestingly when Ida talks about herself, she focuses on her unsuitability as a female. On several occasions, she remarks that men think of her as a man and that as a result, she does not get anywhere with them romantically. In this way, while Ida is a sane and judicious resource in Mildred’s business affairs, she exists outside of Mildred’s melodramatic dimension and cannot maintain a private, erotic life. Mildred, on the contrary, ultimately cannot be a successful businesswoman because she is dragged down by her emotional endeavors. So it would seem that neither of the women is able to triumph both romantically and professionally, a sad commentary on the difficulty of entrepreneurial life, perhaps especially for women in the 1940s.
Most of Mildred’s private trouble is, of course, related to her experience as a mother. She spoils, worships, and turns a blind eye to the failings of her daughter Veda, who behaves as if she were her mother’s moral and social superior. Veda is an outrageous snob, a would-be elite who humiliates, shames, and despises her mother for her hard work, which embarrasses rather than impresses Veda. In one scene, she lashes out at her mother for the way she smells of grease, a marker of Mildred’s labor that cannot be washed off.
Criticizing your mother’s personal aroma is a pretty hurtful and demeaning thing to do, but then Veda’s hatred is powerful. Her facial expressions are calculating and cold, even in scenes where she appears as a younger girl. And her language is excessively cruel: she uses and abuses her poor French vocabulary to brutishly ridicule her mother in one scene, causing Mildred to feel shame in front of others with an awareness that Veda is trying to make her feel stupid. That Veda is not using the vocabulary correctly implies that she is as ignorant as Mildred and makes the gesture seem even more unfeeling. She seems possessed by her class aspirations (she marries and divorces a young man exclusively for his money), ruthless in her determination to ascend the social and financial ladder, and more than willing to enthusiastically trample over her sacrificing parent to get there. In the intensity of her nefarious nature and otherworldly focus on greed and stature, she reminds me of other characters in cinema who are memorably evil in a similar way, albeit in different contexts, such as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
But part of what the movie suggests is that Veda’s bizarre obsession with class and esteem, while it is her own preoccupation, nevertheless has roots in the indulgent practices with which Mildred raises her. Look at the way that Mildred encourages her daughter: piano, singing, and French lessons—perhaps this training is not so surprising among parents who are intent on giving their children a good life. But Mildred’s encouragement is different. She grooms her daughter to be a cultured person but also a performer who is trained to impress. At one point when Veda runs off after a fight with her mother and finds work as an entertainer, Mildred discovers her in a nightclub performing a sleazy song in a corny, tawdry costume. After Mildred visits her in her dressing room, we see that Veda is going to change into something even sleazier—a cheap-looking grass skirt ensemble. With the exaggerated tropical island gear, Veda looks like a little girl playing a questionable dress-up game. It reminds me of the child pageant participants who assume the guise of adults on stage; their version of adultness feels like a caricature, inappropriate and exceedingly unsettling.
And much as young pageant participants are typically and awkwardly sexualized for prizes, so too are Veda’s sexual gestures of a transactional nature. Her mother accuses her of prostitution when she marries and divorces a young man for his money, pretending to be pregnant to negotiate a big settlement. But Mildred is guilty of prostituting her daughter and herself as well, not merely by inadvertently grooming Veda for the exhibition at the nightclub, but by marrying Monte largely to please Veda. By securing Monte and providing him with the money he needs, it is as if she is grooming both Monte and Veda for an advantageous match with each other. Unfortunately, when that match works out, and Mildred learns that Veda and Monte actually have a romantic relationship together (one that is, it should be noted, clearly and disturbingly physical), Mildred is horrified. But in a story that is preoccupied with settlements, financial arrangements, and pay offs, that two money-minded people who repeatedly sell themselves end up with each other is hardly surprising. We actually can imagine how Veda and Monte could live together in mutual contempt rather successfully.
Although on the whole I am a great fan of Mildred Pierce, I must acknowledge that one of its weaknesses is its pacing. The movie clocks in at nearly two hours long, and yet some of its scenes race along as if they are in a contest to finish with record speed. The audience that I saw the movie with tittered during these sequences, largely influenced by the melodramatic twists and turns that the movie was engendering in a small space. But there were other reasons for the audience to chuckle to itself, and they were not necessarily weaknesses in the film. I got the distinct feeling that my fellow movie-goers were giggling nervously at times, especially in scenes that featured Veda. I propose that their nervousness had to do with their discomfort at Veda’s objective evil. She is a rare film creation: a character who is so bad, so depraved in her badness, that her persona seems to exist beyond the film. Mildred Pierce is a great story about establishing a successful business and an intriguing melodrama about a woman’s love life, but it is for me primarily a terrific movie about being related to, and being devoted to, someone who turns out to be a terrible person. Watching Mildred continue to love Veda in spite of what Veda does to her is painful up to the very end, but perhaps that is one of the story’s strengths and one of the things that earned Joan Crawford an Oscar for her performance as Mildred: the way that the movie allows Mildred to be both hard-edged in business and vulnerable in her private life, even if that means being attached to someone who is so obviously rotten. In this way, Mildred Pierce may make us feel uncomfortable or as if we are watching something depraved and unnatural, but that is precisely where much of its power lies. It manages to make a mother-daughter relationship more intriguing than a murder story, which is a huge testament both to the movie’s acting and construction and to the story’s ability to unnerve us through everyday cruelty rather than just crime.