Mildred Pierce (1945): Michael Curtiz’s Brilliant Noir Melodrama, Starring Joan Crawford in Oscar Performance

Michael Curtiz’s brilliant noir melodrama Mildred Pierce, based on James Cain’s novella, tells the story of the rise to wealth of an independent “career” woman, Mildred Pierce.

Though not the first choice, Joan Crawford (who won an Oscar), is perfectly cast as the tough woman  who parts from her husband and opens a chain of successful restaurants in Los Angeles.

Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce (1945 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Mildred’s motivation for financial success and upward mobility is provided by her daughter Vida (Ann Blyth), a spoiled, vicious, self-indulgent girl. Mildred is obsessed beyond all reason with her love for her wicked daughter (almost incestuously), determined to give her all the rewards that she herself had lacked.


Mildred’s love for her daughter is so mindlessly pervasive that she enters into a loveless marriage with a millionaire playboy (Zachary Scott), just in order to be able to indulge her more in finery. At the end, the daughter is punished for her sexual infatuation with her mother’s lover and Mildred is punished for her career ambitions; she is restored to the family by being reunited with her former husband, after their girl goes into prison for shooting her stepfather.

Nonetheless, children can be ungrateful, and even monstrous to their parents. In Mildred Pierce, Veda despises her mother for belonging to the working class, for being a waitress. And even when Mildred becomes successful as a business woman, Veda reminds her mom of her lower origins.

Mildred’s ambitions are not self but other oriented, as she tell her husband Bert, “I’ll do anything for those kids, do you understand, anything.” Love for children is more important than self-fulfillment or love of mate.

Ambitious career women have also been consistently punished for stepping out of their place, entering into men’s domain thus competing with them for desirable jobs and rewards. The best example of this type is Joan Crawford’s Oscar role, as the suffering mother in Mildred Pierce. An ambitious woman, she builds up a chain of restaurants in order to provide her ungrateful daughter all the rewards she was deprived of. Throughout the movie she is punished. Her younger daughter dies of pneumonia while she is spending her first weekend off from work with her lover. She then throws herself into a second, loveless marriage with a playboy, whom she ends up supporting. But her eldest daughter despises her for her lower-class origins and job as a waitress, and flirts with her stepfather, whom she later kills out of jealousy. At the film’s end, having lost everything, including her business, she goes back to her first husband–and to a second life as a housewife, placed back where she belongs.

Mildred Pierce is by no means an exception. The portrayal of career women In Hollywood films has been quite consistent up to the late 1970s. Screen career women have been typically single, which suggests that it is impossible for them to combine successful careers with satisfactory personal lives–which screen men have managed to achieve with relative ease. Even women choosing the perennial female occupation of acting have been single, as in All About Eve: Margo Channing, while she was professionally successful, and Eve throughout the film.

In Classic Hollywood Cinema, career women had largely been ridiculed and condemned as grotesque, “unfeeling monsters.”


Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Jerry Wald
Actress: Joan Crawford
Supporting Actress: Eve Arden
Supporting Actress: Ann Blyth
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall
Cinematography (b/w): Ernest Haller

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” won Best Picture and other Oscars over Hitchcock’s suspense-thriller “Spellbound” and Leo McCarey’s comedy “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” both starring Ingrid Bergman. The other two nominees were the MGM musical “Anchors Aweigh” and Warner’s noir melodrama “Mildred Pierce,” for which Joan Crawford won the Best Actress for a comeback performance. This was Crawford’s first of three Oscar nominations; the other two being for “Possessed” in 1947 and “Sudden Fear” in 1952. The most nominated film was “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (8), though it won only one award, for Stephen Dunn’s Sound Recording, perhaps because it was a sequel to “Going My Way,” which swept most of the 1944 Oscars.

The Supporting Actress winner was Anne Revere for “National Velvet,” and Harry Stradling won the Cinematography Oscar for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Jerry Wald
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, based on Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by David Weisbart
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: September 28, 1945 (New York)
Running time 111 minutes
Budget $1,453,000
Box office $5,638,000


Narrative Structure: How the Plot Unfolds

The tale begins and ends at the present time, at the police station.  The narrative consists of three flashbacks, which differ in length. Mildred provides the voice-over narration as she relates events of the past few years.

As narrator, Mildred is the storyteller of her own past, and she must constantly be brought back to the present by her listener, the police inspector, who’s also sort of a psychologist-social worker.  As such, he is tasked with making Mildred succumb her irrational and destructive devotion to her daughter to the laws of the social order.

First scene: Present

Monte Beragon, Mildred Pierce’s second husband, is murdered; five gun shots are heard.

Mildred tries to frame Wally for the murder by bringing him into the house, and then escaping

About to commit suicide, she is saved by a policeman, and taken to the police station.

The police tell Mildred that her first husband, Bert Pierce, has confessed. Mildred protests that he is too kind and gentle to commit murder, and reveals her story to the officer in three flashbacks.

Flashback 1:

Mildred and Bert are unhappily married. Mildred must sell her baked goods to support the family after Bert splits with his business partner, Wally Fay. Bert accuses Mildred of favoring their two daughters over him. Their quarrel intensifies after a phone call from Bert’s mistress, Maggie Biederhof.

They separate, and Mildred retains custody of 16-year-old Veda, a bratty social climber, and 10-year-old Kay, a tomboy. Mildred’s principal goal is to provide material possessions for Veda, who longs for high social status and is ashamed of her mother being a baker. Mildred hides the fact that she has taken a job as a waitress, but Veda learns the truth and treats her mother with derision, claiming she’s sick and tired of the “smell of grease.”

Mildred meets Monte Beragon, a Pasadena society playboy and heir whose inheritance is almost depleted. Beragon owns the building that Mildred wants to purchase for a restaurant, and he pursues a romantic interest in her. While the two are at his beach house for a weekend, Kay contracts pneumonia and dies after a trip with Veda and Bert.

Present: Back to the police station.

Flashback 2: Mildred continues her story, relating how she channeled her grief into work and throws herself into opening a new restaurant. With the help of her friend and former supervisor, Ida Corwin, Mildred’s restaurant is a success. Wally helps Mildred buy the property, and soon she owns a chain of five restaurants throughout Southern California.

Veda secretly marries well-to-do Ted Forrester for his money and position, but his mother objects. Veda agrees to dissolve the marriage but claims she is pregnant and demands $10,000 from the Forresters. Veda smugly confesses her pregnancy is a sham to Mildred, who tears up the check and throws Veda out of the house.

Bert, too distraught to simply tell Mildred about Veda’s latest escapade, takes her to Wally’s nightclub, where Veda is performing as a lounge singer. After seeing several sailors in the audience wolf-whistle at Veda in her sexy costume, Mildred begs her to come home, but Veda sneers and says her mother can never give her the lifestyle she deserves.

Desperate to reconcile with her daughter, Mildred coaxes Monte into a loveless marriage to improve her social status, with Monte’s price being a one-third share of Mildred’s business to allow him to settle his debts. Veda, eager to live out her dream as a debutante, pretends to reconcile with her mother and moves into Beragon’s lavish mansion.

Eventually the cost of supporting Monte and Veda’s rich lifestyles—and Monte’s underhanded ploy to retain his share in the business while causing his wife to forfeit her own—bankrupts Mildred, forcing her to sell the restaurant chain.

Present: Police Station

Flashback 3:

After driving to his beach house to confront Monte, Mildred finds Veda in his arms. Veda scornfully tells her mother that Monte intends to marry her after divorcing Mildred, who runs to her car in tears. When Monte tells Veda he would never marry her because she is a “rotten little tramp,” she shoots him.
Veda begs her mother to help conceal the murder; Mildred reluctantly agrees.

Fed up with Wally’s misdeeds—helping Veda blackmail the Forresters, hiring her to sing in his seedy nightclub, assenting to Monte’s business moves against her, and making constant sexual overtures toward her—Mildred tries to pin the murder on Wally by luring him to the beach house. Police officers arrest Wally when he flees in panic after seeing Monte’s body, but the investigating officer tells Mildred that Wally cannot be the killer because he has no motive.

Present; The detectives tell Mildred that they knew all along that Veda committed the murder. Mildred tries to apologize as her daughter is led away to jail, but Veda rebuffs her–“”Don’t worry mother, I’ll get by.”

Last scene: It’s dawn.  After spending the whole night there, Mildred leaves the police station to find Bert waiting for her outside.