Warner Brother’s Mildred Pierce is a fine film, but it fails to rock my socks off. At its best, the film works as a showcase for Joan Crawford’s elegant and subtle performance, and at worst it is but a serviceable domestic character drama. Released in 1946 and based on a novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce tells the story of an eponymous devoted mother (Crawford) who strives for the love and happiness of a spoiled rotten daughter (Ann Blyth). To do this, Mildred sacrifices her own happiness, relationships, and sense of worth, all culminating in tragedy. But despite some good performances (and some bad), the film fails to offer much of anything memorable, beside a handful of clever lines, chiefly delivered the hilariously dry Eve Arden.
Perhaps to offset the dryness of the story, the film uses a noir whodunit as a framing device. The film opens with a character whom we will come to know being shot, and all signs point to Mildred as the culprit. Soon after, as Mildred tells her story to a detective, the film enters an extended flashback and reveals itself as a personal melodrama. I was relieved when this shift occurred, because the noir elements the film suggests in its opening play as generic and predictable — all around poorly handled. These elements aren’t present in the novel, which includes no murder mystery or the like, so it’s likely Warner Brothers included them to add interest. Although the shift is interesting, it fails in imbuing the film with any extra weight or tension. The drama of Mildred’s story, though somewhat mundane, has enough depth and emotionally to support the film without this device.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. As I’ve said, Eve Arden as Mildred’s business associate is super funny, albeit underused. Likewise, Jack Carson as Wally manages an interesting performance with some excellent lines. On the other hand, Ann Blyth as Mildred’s snotty daughter is a bit over the top, though she is completely able to capture the snide spirit of a spoiled, privileged brat, insulting characters by referring to them as, “distinctly middle class”. To round out the players there is the wonderfully greasy Zachary Scott who, “loafs, but in a decorative and highly charming manner” and Bruce Bennet, whose wooden performance is akin to watching paint act.
Scored by the legend Max Steiner, who’s responsible for the scores of pretty much everything (Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, King Kong, The Searchers and Little Women to name a few) the film is a treat sonically. Though in fairness, during the screening I found a particular theme rather familiar, only to find that it was recycled from his Oscar-winning score for Now Voyager. Nobody can claim the old-Hollywood machine was wasteful. Everything went to use, and then they’d use the bones for soup. “Oh, we have this award winning love-theme laying around? Throw it in that Crawford picture! Nobody will notice.” Well, we did notice Mr. Studio-Man, and do we care? No.
If you’re a fan of Crawford, mediocre noir mysteries, or the awkwardly-named in retrospect genre of the woman’s-picture, Mildred Pierce is for you. If you’re familiar with the recent HBO adaptation, it may be interesting to see the most famous adaptation. I don’t know if I would choose to watch it again, but I’m glad that I did.
You can watch Mildred Pierce at the Clayton Theatre in Dagsboro DE on Monday, May 2nd at 7 pm.