Sly guys, coffee, pie: It’s all in ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce/ 1945/Warner Bros./ 111 min.

“Mildred Pierce” was Joan Crawford’s comeback role and she won an Oscar for her performance.

I saw “Mildred Pierce” for the first time nearly 20 years ago on a Sunday afternoon in my small, studenty London flat – pale gray walls, Venetian blinds, a Victor Skrebneski print opposite the TV.

Just before the opening scene unfolded – a shooting in a shadow-drenched California beach house with a sinister vibe – I remember popping a batch of popcorn in oil on the stovetop and making American lemonade (fresh lemons, sugar and water). Such wholesome snacking for the decadence on the little screen.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Mildred Pierce” is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, adapted by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited help from William Faulkner. Joan Crawford plays the title character, a wife and mother, who tries to buy the love of her spoiled and ungrateful teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is easy to love, but Mildred is determined to win Veda over as well.

Hubby Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) doesn’t think Veda is worth it and they break up over Mildred’s intense maternal devotion. Some subtexters theorize that Mildred’s love has romantic overtones; I don’t think there’s a strong case for that.

Mildred works as a pie-baker and a waitress, then opens a chain of restaurants to pay for Veda’s clothes, music lessons and extravagant taste. Problem is, nothing’s ever good enough for the Everest-level high-maintenance Veda. “I can’t wear that rag,” she snarls, upon seeing a dress Mildred bought for her.

Besides sniping at loved ones and spending their money, Veda enjoys hatching blackmail plans and singing in sleazy nightclubs. So it’s no shocker that she also has designs on Mildred’s new love interest Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Monte is an aristocratic playboy who’s always short of cash but really rather useful for Veda’s plan to become patrician.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as daughter and Mumsy

No matter what, Veda sinks her serpent’s teeth deeper and deeper into Mildred’s flesh, which, by the way, at 40, was still very shapely. Curtiz wisely gives Crawford plenty of opps to show off her gams. And her little hats, tailored suits and ankle straps are the picture of retro chic.

Mildred is tough, strong, smart and independent (so was Crawford). But this is 1945, and Mildred has to pay the price for being tough, strong, smart and independent. Besides showing materialism and social climbing at its most unsavory, the message is that Mildred should’ve stuck with her husband.

For the heinous crime of divorcing Bert and enjoying her hard-earned success, she gets punishment aplenty for the rest of the flick. Before the film launches into its flashback narrative, a penitent Mildred tells a police officer, “I was wrong.” (Off-screen she was perhaps, um, a less devoted Mumsy, but that’s fodder for another blog post.)

Mildred Pierce was, however, definitely the right role for Crawford (Bette Davis gave it a pass), and was Crawford’s first movie with Warner Bros. Curtiz reportedly did not want to work with Crawford and made her, one of MGM’s top female talents just a few years earlier, test for the part. She soon won him over, though, and “Mildred Pierce” proved the perfect tonic for her flagging career.

Jack Carson plays Wally, an operator and good-time guy.

The movie was popular with critics and audiences, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations including best picture; Crawford won for best actress. The superb cast members (Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott) balance Crawford beautifully. Arden and Blyth both got Oscar nods for supporting actress. They lost to Anne Revere in “National Velvet.”

Ernest Haller was in the Oscar running for best black-and-white cinematography and MacDougall was nominated for the screenplay. (Haller lost to Harry Stradling for “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” MacDougall to Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder for “The Lost Weekend,” a ground-breaking movie, with noir elements, about alcoholism.)

And Curtiz, who helmed “ Casablanca ” in 1942 along with many other movies in America and Europe (he was Hungarian by birth), does a terrific job layering the melodramatic storyline with gorgeous, glossy noir visuals to create a soigné yet thoroughly seedy atmosphere.

Director Todd Haynes is remaking “Mildred Pierce” for HBO with Kate Winslet as Mildred, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Guy Pearce as Monte Beragon. Very curious to see what they come up with, but Crawford, Curtiz and the rest have set a mighty lofty bar.

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