Dir. Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson
I spent most of my life in the kitchen, Mildred (Crawford) tells a policeman in the beginning of the movie. It is bizarre to see Crawford in an apron not merely because she’s Joan Crawford, but because her star image was based primarily on the depiction of women in the workforce. So many of her roles in the ’20s featured women who made good after paying their dues in menial jobs. In Grand Hotel, there are industrialists and doctors and dancers and playboys: she played a secretary. Mommie Dearest is about a zillion things, but certainly much of it is about how Crawford was absolutely not someone’s mom; as versatile as she was, playing someone’s mother always seemed well outside of her orbit. Thus Mildred Pierce, a movie about a woman displacing herself played by an woman who seems awfully out of place herself. Running a business looks like hard work when Mildred does it, but she also appears totally competent. Her restaurant is full from the word go, and given the sheer amount of capital she burns on her daughter Veda (Blyth) and her handsome hanger-on, Monte (Zachary Scott), it seems like it only becomes more profitable.
Something I really admire about Mildred Pierce is that it never pretends that there’s a right man for Mildred. She divorces Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), whose business failures make him brooding and difficult, a half-man. She marries Monte Beragon after a long flirtation followed by an even longer period of coolness; Monte is the epitome of the gigolo, the thin-mustached, smooth-talking, smelling of polo ponies and lecherous intimations. (I hesitate to mention this because you can’t unsee it…the tip of Zachary Scott’s nose bounces when he talks.) The only man among her trio of suitors who she doesn’t marry is Bert’s old business partner, Wally (Carson), who has the manners of, well, a frequently intoxicated man from the 1940s. A true gladhander and moneymaker in public life, Wally is a truly seedy character behind closed doors. He takes care of his profit margin first, even when it might come at the expense of a friend or his moral fiber. He can’t keep his hands off of Mildred and is not great at the whole “taking no for an answer” thing, so much so that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Mildred Pierce doesn’t have a Franchot Tone or Clark Gable to swoop in and rescue her. It seems, for some time, as if Bruce or Wally might in a moment of glory be able to summon up a little rubber-faced Gable; we could wait forever for Scott to be as charming and well-intentioned as Tone. But Mildred Pierce’s best friend and only real confidante is Ida (Eve Arden), who knows that with her deep voice and casual attitude that men look at her and see another guy, the kind of person you can have a “man to man” discussion with. For Mildred, “I spent most of my life in the kitchen” takes on a new meaning by the end of the film. Of course it retains the ’40s ideal that Mildred can stay home because her husband works, and more than that, she ought to stay home and be as domestic as possible. But the kitchen, being hers, is as close to a safe space as she can muster up. Later on there will be a restaurant for her to call her own, but the kitchen is her first, and for a long time only, domain. In the end, the problem in Mildred’s life is not man trouble. It’s daughter trouble.
The “woman’s film” frequently assesses the relationship between mothers and daughters; where more recent movies like Terms of Endearment and Lady Bird have amplified the hidden warmth in that relationship, older movies like Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, and Mildred Pierce each recognized the hidden chill stemming from an ungrateful daughter. Mildred Pierce has Veda (Blyth), the elder of Mildred’s two daughters with Bert and the only one to survive to adulthood. (The younger, Kay, starts coughing at one point, and you just know that’s gonna be trouble.) In an early scene, Bert is terrifically frank with Mildred about what’s wrong with her parenting. You can’t buy Veda’s love, he tells her. No matter what you give her, it will never be enough. Not long after he says this, Mildred spies on Veda as she tries on the new dress her mother has bought for her. The fabric is too cheap, the design too ugly, the overall look not nearly elegant enough. I can’t wear this out, Veda spits, and the look on Mildred’s face is not one of rage or frustration but deep sadness. Mildred’s daughter might be pond scum, but she is the pond scum that she desperately needs approval from. She is a parent who would have fit in better fifty or sixty years later, when it was more actively in vogue for parents to succumb to the whims of their willful kids.
Veda has what Mildred calls “expensive tastes” later in the movie, although “aristocratic pretensions” might be a better way to phrase it. In one scene, the trouble makes itself awfully clear when Veda suggests that her mother marry Wally so they can have a bigger house and a limousine, even if she doesn’t love him. (Put Veda on Game of Thrones and we would fall over ourselves praising her for her practicality: location, location, location.) When Mildred gets a job waiting tables to make ends meet, because I guess that was possible in the ’40s, Veda snoops around to find out what her mother is up to. When she does discover it, Mildred has to pry the truth out of her daughter and then listen to her call that work “degrading” to the family. Both Veda and Monte dismiss the way Mildred makes money with a memorable olfactory line: they don’t care for “the smell of grease.” Mildred’s clapback for Monte is unimpeachable: you don’t mind taking the money that smells like that. Monte sneers at people who have to make money for a living, but as one of those heirs to a family fortune that no longer exists, the luxury of pride is forbidden to him.
Veda, who grows up middle-class, is the beneficiary of other people making her life as comfortable as possible, and is Mildred’s daughter as opposed to her lover, can one-up Monte. She shares his sneer and doesn’t have to hold back for want of pride or need for security. Only a genuinely depraved act is enough to kick Veda out of the house. She secretly marries a well-to-do young man who is smitten with her, knows that his family will disapprove, gets an annulment, and walks away with a $10,000 check because she tells them that she’s pregnant. She isn’t, of course, but the check will go a long way to fund her own plans. (So she thinks, anyway. The movie lands her in Wally’s dive bar, performing in her bare midriff to the shame of the family.)
Mildred Pierce has it all in terms of acting lanes for actors who really were the age of the people they were playing: middle-aged women woebegone or snarky, middle-aged men alternately tired or randy or louche, nasty teenage girls. The noirish qualities of Mildred Pierce, exemplified by its murder in the opening scene and tell-all quality, are heightened significantly with a forty-year-old Joan Crawford. Crawford looks better than forty, obviously, because it’s Joan Crawford, but she’s clearly not Letty Lynton anymore; Bruce Bennett, who was Herman Brix growing up, no longer looks like an Olympic silver medalist or former movie Tarzan; Jack Carson is a little paunchy and Zachary Scott on the verge of showing his years. It’s an important hedge against some of the stranger elements of the movie that we are expected to take for granted, such as Mildred’s meteoric success or her total foolishness about her daughter. (At the same time, the movie’s use of shadows like Michael Curtiz lost a bet to Robert Wiene is made stronger by the fact that the shadows are pudgy and average.) It’s also one of those quietly effective choices that makes the movie work that much better; no one in Mildred’s sordid life can be too handsome, too charming, too brilliant. It’s a victory for a deep cast of character actors.