Mildred Pierce (1945)
Written by Ranald MacDougall
Directed by Michael Curtiz
I’ve come to realize Joan Crawford is a far more complicated person than pop culture has made her out to be. Most people think of “No wire hangers!” or some other element of Mommie Dearest. I wouldn’t doubt Crawford wasn’t a great mother, but she certainly feels like someone ahead of her time as an actress. The role of Mildred Pierce is not a glamorous one. She’s an older woman whose daughter steals the spotlight, but Pierce is also so complex and layered, making choices that can’t be seen as operating inside your standard binary thinking. It’s the rich nuance and texture you’d expect from a story written by James M. Cain, a predominately noir-leaning author.
Monte Beragon is murdered in the opening scene. He’s a wealthy playboy who was the second husband of local entrepreneur Mildred Pierce (Crawford). She’s told by the police her ex-husband Bert has confessed to the murder, but she knows that’s wrong. Thus the film takes us back four years to see how Mildred ended up in this horrible position. We see how Bert leaves her for another woman, how Mildred struggles to raise her two daughters, how eldest child Veda (Anny Blyth) becomes spoiled, and how Mildred becomes the head of a lucrative food business. All the while, Mildred is aware that the people she has surrounded herself with are a mix of genuinely loyal and craven opportunists. All this leads to that fateful night and the shooting, where Mildred’s entire world is destroyed.
There was a cultural shift in America during World War II where women were propelled into a place of admiration for labor and independence. When the war wound down, and the men were returning home, there was an expectation that women would go back into being passive domestics. As we can see with the oppressive culture of the 1950s, for the most part, this did happen. However, women like Mildred wanted more, yet they lived in a society where men were the gatekeepers to becoming financially independent. Her purpose for the men she encounters is as a servant and sex object. When the news of her husband’s abandonment reaches his business partner Wally the man can’t wait to get over to the Pierce house and start ordering Mildred around. He knows masculinity is something Mildred needs to survive and plays into an established hierarchy.
This leads her to marry Monte, an act she views as entirely transactional, a move calculated to help her. And it infuriates men like Bert and Wally, who don’t care for Mildred taking control of the direction of her life. Monte helps fund her business venture not because he has faith in their success but because it gives him access to Mildred’s body. This food business grows directly out of how women were viewed at the time; they are domestics that feed the hungry, so she can pivot out of being a housewife by playing into these stereotypes.
There is an argument that the movie promotes ideas that women should stay out of the workplace. However, the horrors that befall Mildred can be traced back to her absence in the home. The terrible fates of her daughters might have been avoided if poor Mildred had just stayed at home and had snacks ready for afterschool. But, the life Mildred has access to is portending for her daughters. The misery she would have suffered by bending to Bert’s whims would inevitably be visited upon the girls with their own future partners. I would like to believe the film is defending women, but it’s a tough defense to make.
This was coming out amid high moralizing within American cinema, and film scholars have made some compelling arguments that Mildred Pierce is misogynistic propaganda meant to show women how being absent from the home will lead to the moral downfall of their children. If you look at the picture’s conclusion, we see Mildred walking into the sunset with Bert, who cheated on her and left the mother of his children. She’s leaving the workforce, and this is framed as a “happy ending.” Due to the Hays Code, Monte had to be murdered rather than just shot, and there had to be other dubious morality forced on the characters, which wasn’t present in Cain’s novel. That said, Mildred Pierce is a fantastically made noir film, but it should be approached with the understanding that its perspective is not kind towards women. Instead, it can be viewed as a horror film about being a woman in such oppressive circumstances and one of Michael Curtiz’s stronger theatrical accomplishments.