DVD Review Of Mildred Pierce
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/13/11
Time has a way of making some films seem grander than they really are. A good example in 1945ís Mildred Pierce, the black and white melodrama from 1945, directed by Michael Curtiz (who also directed Casablanca), which won star Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar. Itís certainly not a bad film, and, as a soap opera, itís quite entertaining. No, make that very entertaining, and entertainment is a quality that can stand on its own. The problem, in recent decades, is that cinema has become nothing BUT entertainment. However, it is a very formulaic and rather predictable (albeit in a good, campy sort of way) film. And it is in no way, shape, nor form great art.
What makes the film a melodrama is a thing known as the Dumbest Possible Action, and this is where a character does something so stupid that no one in the real world would do such a thing, but such an action is required to push the filmís story onward. As I recount the filmís plot, I will append a (DPA) after an instance of the Dumbest Possible Action.
Mildred Pierce Beragon (Crawford) is wandering the seashore, seemingly wanting to commit suicide. We learn that her second husband, Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott), has been shot dead, and utters her name as he dies. A cop deters her suicide attempt, and she wanders by the restaurant owned by Wally Fay (Jack Carson), her first husbandís former business partner in real estate, and a slick talker with the hots for her. She takes him back to her home, then locks him in the house. He discovers Beragonís body and is caught by the cops as he escapes. DPA alert- why would she do something so dumb that would so obviously lead Fay to point to her as the guilty party, especially when, we know early on she is not, and so do the cops? Itís very stupidity make sit plain that she is covering for another party.
He and Mildred are then taken into custody, and, while questioned, Mildred tells the filmís tale in a flashback, wrongly believing that the cops have pegged her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), as the murderer. She insists they are wrong, and unwinds her tale of the past, starting with her split and divorce from Bert, four years earlier. He had been screwed out of his job by Fay, and seems to have been having an affair with another woman. The coupleís two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), are total opposites. Veda is a selfish, materialistic bitch, and Kay a sweet and outgoing tomboy. Mildred dotes on both of them; another source of tension that drives Bert away. In DPA fashion she simply accepts his leaving. This certainly does not suggest a strength of character, especially considering her indulging Vedaís whims. Later, we learn that Mildred is ashamed of her impoverished childhood, and Veda exploits this at every opportunity; including having the black family maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen, of Gone With The Wind fame), wear Mildredís waitress uniform when she finds out that is how her mother supports then without Bert around. Itís a sinister little touch, but one that so shows Vedaís evil side that it quickly acts as a red flag to the filmís denouement.
On a trip with their father, Kay gets pneumonia and dies, on a day when Mildred consummates her relationship with Beragon, a rouť playboy whose family fortune is in tatters, whom she met when she decided to open her own restaurant mere months after being hired as a waitress, by Ida (Eve Arden), a tart tongued restaurant manager that Mildred then hires to run her own restaurant. Beragon is the property owner of the building Mildred turns into her restaurant. Now, this is not exactly DPA, but Mildredís ascent from unemployed housewife to waitress to restaurant owner to owner of a budding restaurant chain is all too convenient, in a formulaic Hollywood fashion; especially in such a short time. Yes, Fay helps her, but if he were really such an astute businessman, why would he even need Mildred? Another DPA comes when, after Mildred had broken things off with Beragon, she tries to regain her daughterís affections (after throwing her out of her house when she discovered her daughter married and blackmailed a gullible heir with a false claim of pregnancy, aided by Fay) by marrying Beragon. She has promised Veda worldly goods, and has the means to deliver them herself, so why does she need to buy Beragonís estate and ask him to marry her? For his familyís name and reputation? Even considering that she then signs over a third of her business to Beragon so he will assent? It just makes no logical sense, especially since the film shows that Mildred is a good businesswoman, and has gotten over her affair with Beragon.
Beragon then racks up debts, and because he now owns a third of her business (along with Mildred and Fay), ends up forcing Mildred to sell her share of the business just to stay solvent, and thereby become an employee of Beragonís and Fayís. When she finds out of Beragonís double dealings she confronts him at their home, concealing a gun in her purse, only to find him in a compromising position with Veda. Veda claims he will divorce Mildred and marry her. Mildred cannot go through with the shooting, and runs out of the house. Meanwhile, Veda shoots and kills Monty when he mocks her claim that he would marry her. Mildred then covers for her daughter because Veda guilt trips her, claiming she is the way she is because Mildred spoiled her. But, the cops have nabbed Veda, who is resigned to her fate, and Mildred and Bert leave the police department and head into the morning.
Of course, it is clear, early on, that Veda has romantic eyes for Beragon, and that Mildred was constitutionally incapable of murder, so the only person who could have killed Beragon was Veda (who is clearly shown as a budding sociopath throughout the film), so there really is no drama in the film- even as a melodrama, and this was the first time I watched the film. So, if the solution to the Ďmurder mysteryí is so obvious, from the first few minutes of the film, then why can I say the film is good enough to recommend watching? Because, the film is not really a whodunit but a howzitdun? Despite the archetypal nature of many of the characters, the film is very well acted. Scottís Beragon set the template for playboy types in films to come for years, right on down to David Strathairnís Pierce Patchett in L.A. Confidential. Crawford is terrific as the predictable and over the top and masochistic Mildred, and one revels in her dilemmas, even to the point of enjoying what Veda will do to her next. Bennett is solid as her first husband, but the film really belongs to the secondary characters. Eve Ardenís Ida is funny and profane (her best line?- she tells Beragon the reason he avoids work is that he was Ďfrightened by a callus at an early ageí), Marloweís Kay (see her delightful impersonation of Carmen Miranda, singing South American Way) is as sweet a creation as Blythís Veda is spoiled bitch, and Jack Carson is superb as Fay, the slick talking, lead with his dick, hustler.
The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by James Cain, who wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. This was done by Ranald MacDougall, novelist William Faulkner, and Catherine Turney. Given what Iíve read of Faulknerís melodramas, itís no surprise this was right up his alley. The film has a fine soap operatic score by Max Steiner, with just enough gravy in the right places to make the silliness still entertain. The cinematography Ernest Haller (who won an Oscar for Gone With The Wind), and the editing by David Weisbart are solid and prosaic, if nothing else, but the lack of a real Ďvisioní in classic Hollywood films like this vis-ŗ-vis the great European directors of the day, is stark, and defines the difference between cinematic prose and poetry. In general, most of the films directed by Curtiz, as with most studio directors, exhibit little distinct style. The lone exceptions seem to have been in some quite deliciously Joseph Mankiewiczian dialogue afforded the characters of Ida and Fay.
The 111 minute film is well restored on the single disk DVD from Warner Brothers, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. One side has the film, unfortunately sans audio commentary, while the other has a Crawford film trailer gallery and a terrific hour and a half long documentary, narrated by actress Anjelica Huston, called Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star. Itís so good it almost makes up for the lack of commentary, and features comments from fellow actors, directors, and even Crawfordís own daughter, Christina, who went on to write the infamous tell all memoir, Mommie Dearest. Fortunately, she keeps her jealousy over her mother in checkÖ.most of the time.
The film is often called a film noir, but it is really not. For a film to be called film noir there needs to be a gritty realism to it. This is merely melodrama. Film noir penetrates deeply into character. This film is propelled not by character exigencies but by the Dumbest Possible Action theory, and also by having any real world issues too easily solved, as well as that old Hollywood standby- style over substance. But, because the work is immanently melodramatic, the foregrounding of style over any deeper elements, actually makes the film more enjoyable as a guilty pleasure. And, on that score, Mildred Pierce is terrific. No, it is not a film filled with cosmic profundities nor with great performances for the ages. But, it is a film loaded with charm and appeal, and a Ďwho cares if itís over the top?í attitude that damns any claims of pretense, and frees the film into being itself, that guilty soap opera that you love, but donít want anyone else to know you love, unless you tell first. Go ahead, now. Itís your turn!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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