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What makes Mildred Pierce a great film noir? Joan Crawford, of course!

Up until about a year ago, I had never seen a Joan Crawford film. Probably an astonishing remark for someone who loves classic films. I guess over the years I’ve subconsciously stayed clear of Crawford because of her undeserved reputation as a diva and a cruel mother to her four adoptive children. The disputed sordid memoir by her daughter Christine Crawford in 1978 in particular has been all too often been the primary source of her public character assassination. But after reappraising my judgement about her (onscreen at least) no one can deny Crawford’s drive to succeed in Hollywood. She went from a contract player at MGM who towed the line to choosing her own roles and lobbying for film parts that were challenging and rewarding. In many of her most ‘rewarding’ performances, in films such as Grand Hotel (1932) or Strange Cargo (1940), she often sort to play an aspiring or complicated woman. Equally important to Crawford were the roles where she liked to play as she once said, “human beings in the gutter”.

As you might imagine Hollywood in those early years was very kind to Crawford. She had cemented her place in Hollywood as a starlet. But by the late 1930s her popularity started to decline. So Crawford decided it was time to move from MGM to Warners in 1943 in an attempted to reignite her stalled career. It was arguably the best decision of her life, which would usher in her second coming as one of the most in demand actress in Hollywood. But first she had to do something that was almost beneath her to get back on top by uncharacteristically pleading with Warners for the lead role in an exciting new film project called Mildred Pierce (1945). To add to her humiliation, Casablanca director, Michael Curtiz made Crawford do an onscreen test for Mildred Pierce after he fumed to Jack Warner that, “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads…Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?”

The so-called ‘has-been’ was in fact a twenty year screen veteran and arguably the only actress best suited to play the role of Mildred Pierce. (In truth, Bette Davis had knocked back the role, opening the door for Crawford to become frontrunner.) Crawford believed that it was a role that she was born to play, mirroring in a lot of ways her own rags-to-riches story, of a woman determined to rebuild her life, especially with an ungrateful daughter in tow, who scoffs at her mother’s working class determination as a business entrepreneur.

For more than a half-century, Joan Crawford has received more than her fair share of praise for her outstanding performance in the title role of Mildred Pierce, who seemingly sacrifices herself for her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). That said, I’m honestly not giving anything away by telling you that, the film begins with the murder of Mildred’s second husband. Soon after, at the police station Mildred’s first husband is accused of the murder, but Mildred protests his guilt. During her interrogation at the police station, Mildred then unexpectedly confesses to murdering her late husband to the police. But as she goes on to explain why she did it, told in a series of flashbacks of her life, which leads us through a labyrinth of twists and turns, we eventually uncover a different version of the harrowing truth that Mildred seems to insist on.

Nominated for six academy awards including Best Picture it’s easy to see why Mildred Pierce is one of Hollywood’s greatest melodramatic noir thrillers. Central to the film’s success is undoubtedly its seething mother-daughter story and how a daughter’s insatiable hunger for success and jealously all but destroys both of their lives. It’s no wonder why Crawford went on to win the film’s only Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Mildred. And since I am throwing around praise, let’s not forgot actress and teenage sensation Ann Blyth, in  her nominated supporting role as the film’s female fatale. The dynamics Crawford and Blyth shared onscreen was arguably pivotal in the praise Crawford would receive from both critics and the Academy. Moreover, Crawford’s success and resurgence as an actress meant that she was able to pick and choose her next film projects as she pleased, which included Warner Bros. classics such as Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947) and later What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).  

Photo credit: The header image is a scene from the film Mildred Pierce (1945) is courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing the key characters of the film, played by actresses Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.

3 comments on “What makes Mildred Pierce a great film noir? Joan Crawford, of course!

  1. Great article Robert! While not a big fan of Joan Crawford, I love her performance in this film, which is arguably among the greatest film performances by an actress. And I agree that Ann Blythe was fantastic too, so effective at making Vida into such a vile character that we loved to despise.

  2. I don’t think I have seen this one, I will give it a go!

  3. You’re absolutely right that Crawford’s move to Warners revitalized her sagging career. She gave even better performances in Humoresque and Possessed–films she made after her Oscar-nabbing turn in Mildred. Love her assertion that she liked playing people who are in the gutter. Obviously, that’s where all the drama happens! You might want to check out my Queen of the Lot blog. I’ve written an entry on Crawford’s career at Warners vs. MGM.

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