The legacy of Joan Crawford has, for the most part, become entwined with her dark side as an adoptive mother in Mommy Dearest, which chronicled the abusive nature of the Hollywood icon and the cruelty that defined her parenting style. Nothing will ever, nor should it, overshadow the personal cruelty that she inflicted upon her adopted children. But it’s all a part of a never-ending debate about the ability to separate art from the artist. One of Joan Crawford’s most iconic screen roles was in Mildred Pierce as the film’s eponymous mother and her struggles as a business owner, mother, and woman. Directed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, Mildred Pierce is a classic that is now joining the ranks of the Criterion Collection with an astounding new Blu-ray. Mildred Pierce is the subject of a glorious new transfer and features an array of special features that examine the legacy of the film as well as the troubling legacy of its star.
Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce is a film that defies typical genre classification for its era. Curtiz’s direction has the characters soaked in shadows yet it’s not quite a film noir. Women are the leading characters yet it’s not quite the women’s picture of the era. Defying typical genre constraints are in fact a huge part of the appeal of Mildred Pierce, as it’s a domestic drama about women and class that also delves into the darkened heart of the murder which kicks off the story.
Shots ring out in a beachside house on the California coast. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) falls to ground. With his dying breath, he says, “Mildred.” This is Michael Curtiz’s “Rosebud” moment, a nod to the iconic opening of Citizen Kane. Mildred Pierce (Crawford) is then taken to the police station, where she’s informed that the police have a suspect in the murder – Mildred’s first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). But Mildred knows that Bert didn’t commit the murder and soon begins to testify, telling the story of the past few years of her life and the events leading up to the murder of Monte Beragon.
Mildred Pierce recalls the end of her first marriage to Bert, driven by Mildred’s excessive spending in order to please her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred’s youngest daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) isn’t as demanding as Veda and her needs often take a backseat to her elder sister’s demands. Tragically, Kay dies following a bout with pneumonia, leaving Mildred with only Veda. Over the years, family friend Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is consistently hitting on Mildred, his affections for her haven’t damped since childhood but Mildred soon finds herself in the company of the aristocratic playboy Monte Beragon. Eventually, Mildred becomes a successful restaurateur but all of her profits are dedicated to maintain the lifestyle demands of Veda, whose tastes are becoming more and more expensive. Both Monte and Veda have drained the resources of Mildred and it leads to a fateful showdown in the beach house.
As Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford gives one of the best performances of her illustrious career. This is a strong character that is able to overcome all sorts of obstacles to gain professional success and respect. She has a yearning for love but that always takes a backseat to her one true weakness – Veda. Mildred struggles with keeping up to the demands of her daughter in a never-ending attempt to satisfy her growing lust for social status and wealth. No matter what Mildred does for his daughter, it’s never enough and this is established early on in the film and only grows like a cancer of greed as the film progresses. Veda Pierce isn’t a typical movie villain but Ann Blyth brings this dark soul to vivid life, a young woman of natural beauty and inner-ugliness. Cold and cruel, Veda will do anything to climb another rung on the social ladder and she cares not at what cost it might cost.
Michael Curtiz never earned the critical acclaim of his peers such as Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock. Seen more as a journeyman director, Curtiz has faced a longer road to critical recognition. As you can see in Mildred Pierce as well as the immortal classic Casablanca, Curtiz wasn’t a schlub that got lucky now and again; he was a truly strong visual storyteller. You can see this in the opening scenes of Mildred Pierce as Crawford is just facing the interrogation that will tell her story. In a single shot, Mildred occupies the center of the frame as the smoky surroundings of the police station are all happening around her in a frame full of pertinent information and atmospheric shadows. Curtiz was also quite adept at using various storytelling techniques to flesh out his movies, such as the flashback structure that builds the intrigue and creates depth to the story of Mildred Pierce.
As should be expected from any release from the Criterion Collection, the Blu-ray for Mildred Pierce features an impressive set of special features. Critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito converse over the Mildred Pierce, examining the film’s unusual genre classification, the legacy of Joan Crawford, and how Ranald MacDougall’s screenplay stacks up against James M. Cain’s novel. There’s also a feature length documentary about the life of Joan Crawford, which examines her personal troubles as well as her professional legacy. Of course, there’s the amusing anecdote about Joan Crawford staying at home from the Oscars when she won for Mildred Pierce, faking an illness so she wouldn’t be upset if she lost. Crawford won and the cameras came in tow to deliver the actress with her statuette while in bed. There are also archival interviews with James M. Cain in 1969 and Joan Crawford in 1970, as well as a Q&A featuring Ann Blyth filmed in 2002. Each of the special features give more and more insight to the legacy of Mildred Pierce, the personalities that shaped it, and why it endures as a Hollywood classic.
Mildred Pierce is one of those Hollywood classics that endures because it captures so much of the Hollywood mystique – a legendary movie star, a director at the top of his game, and a story that touches on issues of class and gender with a dark side. Joan Crawford will always be remembered because of the dark side of her own personality documented in Mommy Dearest, but she was also one of the great movie stars who delivered captivating performances for decades. Both sides of Crawford are shown in the Criterion Collection edition of Mildred Pierce, and it’s the depth and context provided that allows the Criterion Collection to remain the preeminent line of movie classics on Blu-ray and DVD.
One the great Hollywood dramas of the ’40s, Mildred Pierce enters the Criterion Collection with an expansive set of special features and a gorgeous 4K restoration highlighting the excellent direction of Michael Curtiz and one of Joan Crawford’s finest performances.