Tuesday, January 21, 2014
MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
(September 1945, U.S.)
Like just about any other young movie fan in the early 1980s, my only real hint of the legendary Joan Crawford was watching Faye Dunaway play her as a raving psychotic bitch who would blow a gasket at the sight of a three hundred dollar dress on a wire hanger in the 1981 film MOMMIE DEAREST. To this day...well, not much has really changed. I haven't seen or come to appreciate much of Joan Crawford's work. I saw her in a wheelchair in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and watched her swing an ax in STRAIGHT-JACKET (1964). Pretty grim stuff, to be sure. However, her most well-known and quintessential piece of work has been and continues to be MILDRED PIERCE, based on the original novel by James M. Cain, and I'm proud to own it as part of my classic film collection.
Strangely enough, for someone like myself who knows Crawford best as the infamously portrayed MOMMIE DEAREST, it's her role here as a mother that's made the film so focal of her very long career. When we first meet Mildred, she's a woman quietly on the edge...literally! She's on the verge of ending her life but instead decides to frame her business partner and would-be lover inside her beach house where a corpse lies waiting. It would appear from the beginning that Mildred Pierce is no mommy! When she's taken to the police station supposedly announce her confession, it's here that her story unfolds in flashback form. We go back four years to when Mildred was just a simple, rather common California housewife who's only function was to make her husband happy, raise their two daughters and spend her days baking pies (why aren't there MORE woman like that today? Just kidding!). A sudden divorce and a realization that she's dead broke sets Mildred off on a personal journey that starts her out in the world of employment (for the first time) as a simple waitress in a diner and eventually leads to her ultimate destiny as a wealthy owner of a franchise of California restaurants filled with fried chicken, potatoes and grease. From housewife to business mogul, it would seem the story of Mildred Pierce is a happy, successful one.
Not so fast...
Remember, this is classic black and white film noir, so things are destined to get a bit ugly. For starters, let's go back to the fact that Mildred has two daughters. The oldest one is named Vida (played by Ann Blyth) who is, in relatively kind terms, an ultra-bratty social climber who's only concerns in life are money, material possessions and the people who can give them to her. In more honest and blunt terms, Vida Pierce is the best cinematic example I can think of to never, ever have any children! The girl is a monster and we as the audience are meant to understand that very early in the film. What we may never come to understand is why Mildred can't see this for herself! Her entire purpose behind her business success appears to be only that she can provide for Vida the things in life she insists on having. Her second daughter, having died at a very young age of pneumonia, may serve as some explanation to Mildred's need to hold onto Vida at all unreasonable costs. Still, though, you can't help but long to see Vida get her just dues much earlier in the film than she inevitably does. At one moment, Mildred does catch onto things, slaps Vida's face hard (THAT'S our Mommie Dearest!) and orders her out of the house (You GO, Mildred!). That maternal sensibility doesn't last long, though. Within months, the desperate need to cling to her daughter and continue to be her sap and sucker returns and there's nothing anybody can say about it. Mildred may be a successful business woman, but she's not a particularly smart business woman. By the end of the film, her businesses have been bled dry by not only Vida's financial needs, but her crooked husband's needs as well. It's her crooked husband who's actually the corpse at the beginning of the film and by the end we learn that it was Vida who shot him. You see, this is what happens when you fuck your wife's daughter behind her back (Woody Allen, take note!). Rest assured, though, that Mildred Pierce finally learns her valuable lesson by the end and permits her own daughter to "go down" and "take the rap". And believe you me, after witnessing the horrors of a kid like Vida for two hours, you can't help but hope that she gets brutally gang-banged by a bunch of hard time prison lesbians! Just sayin'.
Just a couple of years ago, I did get caught up in HBO's mini-series remake of MILDRED PIERCE with Kate Winslet in the starring role. It was admirable and had some good moments and is more faithful to the original novel, which to be clear, did not feature a murder by Mildred or anybody else. It was pure, dark drama that pays closer attention to structure and detail, including sex! It's a good film. It's not a great film. I still prefer a little, juicy murder added to the mix now and again. Keeps things spicy!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ida: "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."