Historical Circuit: Mildred Pierce (***)


posterIn preparation for the HBO miniseries, I decided to take a look at the original Mildred Pierce, about an independent and successful divorcée desperate to win the approval of her ungrateful daughter.  The film is widely remembered today for Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance, though it was nominated for several others and was a major box office success in its day.

Having never seen this film before, and to sate my appetite for Todd Haynes’ newest project, I was curious to see what attracted him to this film in the first place.  Far from being satisfied, I am now more curious than ever, for Mildred Pierce is not an elegant tragedy or a cutting indictment of its era like I thought it would be (like the Douglas Sirk films that served as inspiration for Haynes’ Far from Heaven) but a very uneven, borderline trashy melodrama.

Warning signs popped up right from the start, when the film opens with the murder of who we later discover is Mildred Pierce’s second husband, which is wholly inappropriate for the story it’s trying to tell.  At first I didn’t mind opening the film as such, but as the story went on I realized that the screenplay’s effort to refashion this film as a noir mystery made it far less coherent than it should have.  The fact that multiple uncredited screenwriters had a hand in this mess of a script is no surprise to me.

Flashing back from the police interrogations to Pierce’s life story, we see her kick her unemployed first husband to the curb and gaining custody of her two daughters, the good-hearted tomboy Kay and the covetous, snobbish Veda.  Veda desires the very best (and most expensive) possessions, which Mildred works tirelessly to provide.  She even goes so far as taking an extra job as a waitress, a fact she tries to hide from her spoiled daughter.

Ann Blyth plays the ungrateful Veda with such contemptuous iciness that it becomes increasingly hard to believe that any parent would put up with her BS.  But I suppose Mildred is not like most parents, as she throws herself into providing anything Veda could ever want and even opens a new restaurant after the death of her other daughter (oh, did I not make that seem like an important plot point?  Don’t worry, the movie doesn’t much care about this small detail either) in order to be “good enough” for her now-only child’s affections.

Those feeling intrigued at the prospect of a character study between these two will be sorely disappointed, as the film doesn’t really dig into the issues surrounding their destructive relationship.  What made the mother so hopelessly obliging, and the daughter so destructively greedy?  The film is far too busy wallowing in their flaws instead of adequately addressing them, or they make their characters do things totally contrary to their nature for the sake of spectacle.  This is most obvious when Veda – the same girl who was repulsed by her mother’s job as a waitress – becomes a crooner at a seedy nightclub for no other reason than to showcase Blyth’s singing abilities.

But I suppose that’s somewhat preferable to the film’s treatment of Bert Pierce.  I could not get a read on this character to save my life, but since the film didn’t seem to care about his relationship to Mrs. Pierce or how important he is to her, I guess I shouldn’t feel to guilty for not giving a decent analysis of how he fits into the story.

So it looks like I’ve just described a film that I hate, which is not true.  For all of its cheesy dramatics and jerry-rigged suspense, Mildred Pierce is a highly entertaining bit of junk food.  For starters, Crawford – who director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) initially didn’t want as she was a “has-been” at the time – is a considerable screen presence and brings much to her titular heroine.  While I can’t say with absolute certainty for that year, I would call her Academy Award for Best Actress a deserved one relative to the category’s history.  Blyth’s performance as the ultimate bitch of a daughter is hardly subtle, but it’s so fun to boo and hiss at her.  The film looks fantastic as well, with Ernest Haller’s lush photography admirably showcasing the gorgeous stars and locales.  Despite my criticisms of the film’s story structure, I must concede that Curtiz’s stylish direction does a fine job of keeping an engaging pace throughout the picture, even if he never succeeds at making the story as interesting or coherent as it should have been.  There’s something entertaining about such an over-the-top tacky melodrama, with Hollywood moments of murdered characters whispering names with their dying breaths and women being interrogated in mink coats.  I even had a blast with things I should hate, like Max Steiner’s hilariously exaggerated score.

Plus, it’s also exactly the type of film that should be remade.  I never understand why Hollywood is intent on remaking timeless classics instead of films with enormous potential that either didn’t work so well the first time or are no longer as powerful as they were in their era.  Mildred Pierce, for all its value as a sublime guilty pleasure, arguably has both of those issues.  I’m now more excited than ever to see how Haynes will update and improve this story.

  • jmlatinsir

    One of the best films of the forties, beautifully crafted and acted.