In its heyday of the 1930s-1950s, Hollywood could be somewhat unfair and cruel to its glamorous leading ladies. Once many of these beautiful stars reached the ripe old age of 35 or so, they were rarely ever cast in many glamorous leading roles. This was due in part that these women were superficially valued as objects of desire for audiences and by studio heads who were narrowly thinking of these stars as commodities of the films’ successes.
Actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Joan Crawford were suddenly offered only roles as angry, meaner, more spiteful, and less attractive middle-aged character parts. Later in their careers, Davis and Crawford even made a series of unflattering, campy horror films. Other stars, like Greta Garbo, refused to play these parts and retired early.
Yet, at the peak of her stardom, Joan Crawford won a much-deserved Oscar as the best actress playing the title role in director Michael Curtiz’s 1945 crime melodrama “Mildred Pierce.” I feel, like many others, this was her finest screen performance.
In this hidden gem, Crawford plays an independent working mother who runs a restaurant business and raises her two daughters, after divorcing her unfaithful husband. This tale, adapted from a James M. Cain novel, was nominated for best picture, adapted screenplay, best cinematography, as well as two nominations for best supporting actresses, Ann Blyth as Mildred’s daughter, Veda and Eve Arden, as the sassy friend, Ida Corwin.
Curtiz begins his film with a bang—six to be precise–as a man is shot in the living room of a dark, ocean-side house near midnight. As he falls to the floor, he mumbles his last word, “Mildred.” In the very next scene, on a rainy wet pier, an elegantly dressed woman in a fur coat, hat and gloves walks over to the railing and looks into the ocean. Suddenly a policeman stops her, and says, “What’s on your mind, lady? Know what I think? I think you had an idea you’d take a swim. That’s what I think… I don’t want to take a swim.”
What follows is a complex murder mystery and detailed character study of a determined woman who has three men involved in her life. Curtiz reveals his story through three significant flashbacks that occur in an overnight local police interrogation of the emotionally distraught Ms. Pierce. Cinematographer Ernest Haller’s black and white noir visuals so effectively capture the ambiguity of the truths of the case.
Mildred’s first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) is a frustrated father, who loses his real estate job and begins an affair with Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick), a local neighbor. Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is Bert’s slick partner in the real estate business and Mildred’s old friend, who’s had lecherous eyes on her for years. Finally, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is a lazy rich guy who has squandered much of his legacy and eventually ends up being Mildred’s second husband.
Bert’s job troubles cause Mildred to look for work to provide for her daughters, Veda and Kaye. Eventually, she accepts a job at a local diner and befriends hostess Ida Corwin, a strong professional woman who frequently speaks her mind. Within months, with Wally’s real estate advice, Mildred purchases a building from the wealthy Monte Beragon and decides to open her restaurant. The business quickly booms with Ida’s expertise and friendship. Wally warns Mildred that she’ll need to divorce Bert. Otherwise, state law will demand her earnings could be used to cover a husband’s debts. Further tragedy falls on Mildred when her youngest daughter Kaye becomes sick and dies from pneumonia.
Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall builds incredible empathy for Mildred as most of the story’s details are revealed through her passionately narrated flashbacks. Crawford is so compelling playing the dutiful mother and dedicated businesswoman struggling to manage her responsibilities, please her spoiled teenaged daughter, Veda and handle the advances of the charming Monte.
In several terrific touches of humor, thanks to Arden’s sharp performance, Ida responds to Wally’s creepy gaze while she stands on a step stool, “Leave something on me, I might catch cold.” And when Veda’s spending habits and lies get out of control, Ida offers this wisdom, “Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
After nearly two hours of mysterious suspense, Curtiz skillfully unravels the labyrinth of facts with a satisfying conclusion for his heroic protagonist.
Thankfully in recent years, this trend of casting older female stars has somewhat changed. Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Blythe Danner have let their grey hair down and played fascinating, exciting older women with a touch of glamour in films like: “Our Souls at Night,” “Book Club,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
By the way, in a 1970 television interview with David Frost, Crawford stated Mildred Pierce was her favorite role.