Film Score: Max Steiner Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Jack Carson and Ann Blyth
Mommie Dearest probably did more to hurt the long-term popularity of Joan Crawford than any other biopic did to another famous star. And it’s too bad. Crawford was a beautiful woman and an amazing talent. She excelled at a very specific character type and was a huge star in her day. But her later exploitation pictures, combined with her adopted daughter’s tell-all biography has served to put her below other, lesser talents of her day, like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, in popularity today. But all one has to do is look at her films, especially her Oscar award winning performance in Mildred Pierce to understand why she was so revered: she was a real live movie star.
Warner Brothers’ version of Mildred Pierce is as frustrating to watch as James M. Cain’s original novel was to read. And that’s a good thing. The tension from the main character’s refusal to see that her daughter as a spoiled, unappreciative brat is at the center of the story. The film reimagines Cain’s novel and structures it like The Letter with Bette Davis. Gunshots open the film and a man falls dead in a beach house. Crawford drives to the pier in Santa Monica and thinks about killing herself. Once the cast makes its way to the police station, the story itself emerges as her confession. After her husband abandoned her, she vowed to do everything possible for her daughters. She supported herself by owning and operating and increasingly successful chain of chicken shacks and became fairly wealthy in the process.
The conflict in the story comes mainly from her oldest daughter, Ann Blyth, who wants all of the money that Crawford can give her, but is embarrassed about the pedestrian way she earns it. In an ironic twist on Mommie Dearest, the daughter here is snobbish, arrogant, insolent, and downright cruel in her treatment of her mother, and still Crawford keeps coming back for more. In the meantime Jack Carson, her ex-husband’s ex-partner keeps sniffing around Crawford, but he’s pedestrian and wolfish. More to her taste, and unfortunately her daughter’s, is down on the heel socialite Zachary Scott whom Crawford winds up getting married to, presumably with an eye to keeping her daughter out of his clutches, but with predictable results.
You know, it’s not a flashy movie, but it earns its reputation for greatness by being extremely solid in nearly every way. The direction by the magnificent Michael Curtiz is spot on, the music by Max Steiner is also wonderful. Of course, the source material, James M. Cain’s novel is the foundation, but the reworking into a noir film works great too. And the acting is top notch. Blyth’s performance makes you wish somebody in the film would smack her around, and Carson is just about as annoying. Eve Arden is fantastic as Crawford’s best friend and it makes one wish she hadn’t gone into television so quickly. There are also appearances by Butterfly McQueen as Crawford’s maid and George Tobias. But the star is definitely Joan Crawford. Unlike a lot of noir films of the period, Mildred Pierce has a solid story that can appeal across a wide range of audiences and that’s probably one of the reasons it has remained a classic through the years, that and the star power of the great Joan Crawford.