After the William Castle psychobiddy Strait-Jacket, Mildred Piece is the second five-star, all-timer Joan Crawford film I fell in love with last year that starts with a violent murder. Unlike the late-career hagsploitation camp fest where Crawford maniacally wields an axe, however, Mildred Pierce is a much classier affair. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1946—including Best Picture—and won Ms. Crawford her own first Oscar statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even its opening murder is much classier: an elegantly staged shooting with a revolver at an upscale beach house, adorned with impossibly tall ceilings & drastic noir lighting. Still, even with all the Old Hollywood elegance classing up the joint, Mildred Pierce manages to land some perfectly outrageous fits of drama & dialogue that outshine even the over-the-top fervor of her post-Baby Jane psychobiddies. That combination of the refined & the obscene is exactly what makes it such a joy – an exquisite clash of violence & melodrama.
Crawford stars as the titular Mildred Piece (duh), a wealthy woman being interrogated by the police for the murder of her husband – a crime to which her ex-husband has already confessed. We cut from this noir frame story to Mildred’s past as a proto-June Cleaver housewife, dutifully keeping house & selling home-baked pies on the side to keep her family’s finances afloat. As to be expected, all the men in Mildred’s life are scoundrels & jerks: the adulterous first husband who leaves her for another woman, the family “friend” who constantly tries to talk her into bed, the new husband who exploits her go-getter work ethic for frivolities & play money, etc. What really distinguishes this melodrama, however, is that none of these selfish brutes emerge as the movie’s central villain. That dishonor belongs to a young girl, Mildred’s own brat of a daughter. The movie (and its source material novel) could have totally still been worthwhile if it had chosen any one of Mildred’s beaus to stand out as her ultimate nemesis; it can never be reinforced enough that men are awful. Opting to pit Mildred against her own daughter instead makes for a much more distinct, idiosyncratic experience, however, a memorably outrageous source of conflict.
Veda Pierce (played with expert icy cruelty by a young Anne Blythe) rivals The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark as cinema’s greatest brat. Imagine a child so spoiled that their self-serving greed has its own body count. While Mildred claws her way up from neighborhood pie saleswoman to diner waitress to Lady Boss restauranteur, her efforts are entirely focused on raising her kids above her financial means. Still, Veda’s wealth envy knows no bounds. Like the murderous fop of Kind Hearts & Coronets, she’s bitter that she wasn’t born into the immense inherited wealth of royalty, and she’s ruthless in manipulating her way to achieving as close to that ideal as possible – often at the expense of her mother’s labor & health. The resulting clashes between Mildred & Veda are some of the most outrageously violent battles to ever reach the screen, even though instead of bullets & punches they trade cruel insults like “common frump,” “It’s your fault I’m the way I am,” and complaints about the stench of fried chicken grease. It’s just as much an Oscars-caliber showcase as it is soaringly over-the-top melodrama – a pure pleasure to behold.
There are plenty of other, smaller pleasures to soak in throughout Mildred Pierce: the comic relief of Mildred’s coded-lesbian business partner; the German Expressionist maximalism of the noir set pieces’ lighting & production design; Mildred’s costuming’s transformation from housewife drag to a pile of jewels & furs, etc. Yet, the main draw of the film is clearly the outrageous conflict of its central mother-daughter rivalry. The movie touches on themes of class envy & financial desperation, but at its core it’s just as much a horror film about mothering a seemingly evil child you don’t even like as recent titles like Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. If Mildred were entirely focused on the bullying & exploitation of the various shithead men in her life or if the murder mystery investigation were the sole source of intrigue, this would still be a solid Old Hollywood relic (even if a pedestrian one). By focusing on a viciously cruel mother-daughter rivalry instead, it stands out as one of the all-time greats, yet another masterwork from Ms. Crawford’s immense catalog of troubled, fierce women butting heads with their equally ambitious nemeses.