Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the second husband of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is shot. He murmurs the name "Mildred" before he dies. The police tell Mildred (Joan Crawford) that they believe the murderer is her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). Bert has already been interrogated and has confessed to the crime. Mildred protests that he is too kind and gentle to commit murder, and goes on to relate her life story to the investigating officer.
Mildred and Bert are unhappily married. Mildred must bake and sell pies to support the family after Bert leaves the real estate business he operated with Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Bert bitterly accuses Mildred of caring more about their daughters, and making them her priority instead of him. Mildred admits this, and the two decide to separate.
Wally propositions Mildred the moment he learns that she and Bert separated. Mildred retains custody of her two daughters, the 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth), a bratty social climber and aspiring pianist, and 10-year-old Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), a tomboy. Mildred's principal goal is to provide material possessions for Veda, who longs for a social status above that of her family and is ashamed of her mother's work as a baker. When Mildred is forced to take a job as a waitress she tries to hide the fact from Veda. But Veda learns the truth and treats her mother with derision.
While on a weekend trip with Bert, Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. Mildred channels her grief into work and throws herself into opening a new restaurant. With the help of her new friend and former supervisor, Ida (Eve Arden), Mildred's new restaurant is a success. Wally helps Mildred buy the property, and soon she owns a chain of restaurants throughout Southern California. She dotes on Veda, who remains spoiled, selfish and disrespectful of Mildred's common background and choice of profession.
When Veda secretly marries a well-to-do young man for his money and position, his family objects to the marriage. Veda agrees to leave the marriage but claims she is pregnant with his child and demands ten thousand dollars in return. Her husband's family agrees, but Veda smugly confesses to Mildred that she lied about her pregnancy just to get the money. Outraged, Mildred tears up the check and throws Veda out of the house. Mildred decides to go on a series of vacations in order to forget what happened with Veda, but eventually returns home.
Bert invites Mildred out for the evening, but takes her to a club where Veda is performing as a lounge singer. Bert says he couldn't bear to tell Mildred what their daughter was doing and had to show her. Mildred begs Veda to come home, but Veda sneers and says her mother can never give her the lifestyle she wants.
Desperate to reconcile with her daughter, Mildred coaxes Monte Beragon, a bankrupt but socially well connected playboy, into a loveless marriage in order to improve her social status. Monte's price for marriage is a one-third share of Mildred's business, so that he can settle his debts. Mildred agrees, and Veda, eager to live out her dream as a debutante, pretends to reconcile with her mother.
Eventually the cost of supporting Monte's and Veda's rich lifestyles bankrupts Mildred and she must sell the restaurant chain. She goes to confront Monte at his beach house, and finds Veda in his arms. Veda scornfully tells Mildred that Monte loves her and will leave Mildred. Mildred runs out to her car in tears. But when Monte tells Veda that he would never marry her, she shoots Monte. Mildred hears the gunshots from her car. Veda begs her mother to help her one more time. Mildred initially refuses and calls the police, but when Veda plays on Mildred's guilt that she was a bad mother, agrees to help Veda elude justice.
After Mildred finishes her story, the detectives admit they knew all along that Veda committed the murder. As Veda is led away, Mildred tries to apologize but Veda rebuffs her. Mildred leaves the station to find Bert waiting for her.Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon
Jack Carson as Wally Fay
Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
Eve Arden as Ida Corwin
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester
Butterfly McQueen as Lottie
Bruce Bennett as Albert "Bert" Pierce
Lee Patrick as Mrs. Maggie Biederhof
Moroni Olsen as Inspector Peterson
Veda Ann Borg as Miriam Ellis
Jo Ann Marlowe as Kay Pierce
Charles Trowbridge as Lawyer (uncredited)
Although James M. Cain was often labeled a "hard-boiled crime writer", his novel Mildred Pierce (1941) was mostly a psychological work, with little violence. The adaptation, released four years later, was designed as a thriller, and a murder was introduced into the plot.
The novel spans nine years (from 1931 to 1940), whereas the film is set in the 1940s and spans only four years. Its characters do not age as a consequence. Mildred's physical appearance doesn't change, although her costumes become more elegant as her business grows. Veda ages from around 13 to 17. Mildred is more of a tycoon in the film; her restaurants are glamorous places, and she owns a whole chain ("Mildred's") instead of the novel's three. Evil, spoiled Veda, who is prodigiously talented and brilliantly devious in the novel, is somewhat less formidable in the film. All references to the Depression and the Prohibition era, which are important in the novel, are absent from the screenplay.
The plot is simplified and the number of characters reduced. Veda's training and success as a singer (including her performance at the Hollywood Bowl) were dropped in the film and her music teachers only mentioned in passing. Lucy Gessler, a key character in the novel and Mildred's good friend, is eliminated. Ida, Mildred's boss at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, is given much of Gessler's wise-cracking personality.
Monte does not die in the novel, and Veda never goes to jail. The murder portion of the story was invented by the filmmakers because the censorship code of that time required evildoers to be punished for their misdeeds.
The working title for Mildred Pierce was House on the Sand; and filming began on December 7, 1944. Ralph Bellamy, Donald Woods, and George Coulouris were considered for the role of Bert, while Bonita Granville, Virginia Weidler, and Martha Vickers were considered for Veda. Scenes for the film were shot in Glendale, California and Malibu, California. Permission had to be granted from the U.S. Army to shoot in Malibu due to wartime restrictions.
In 1942, two years earlier, Joan Crawford had been released from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer due to a mutual agreement. Crawford campaigned for the lead role in Mildred Pierce, which most lead actresses didn't want, because of the implied age as mother of a teenage daughter. Warner Brothers and director Michael Curtiz had originally wanted Bette Davis to play the title role, but she declined. Curtiz did not want Crawford to play the part. Curtiz campaigned for Barbara Stanwyck, who was working on My Reputation (1946) at the time. When he learned that Stanwyck was not, however, going to be cast, he then tried to recruit either Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine to play Mildred. He ultimately approved Crawford's casting after seeing her screen test. Even so, the director and the star were often at odds on the set, with producer Jerry Wald acting as peacemaker.
Contemporary reviews praised Crawford's performance but had mixed opinions about other aspects of the film. A review in The New York Times wrote that although Crawford gave "a sincere and generally effective characterization," the film "lacks the driving force of stimulating drama," and it did "not seem reasonable that a level-headed person like Mildred Pierce, who builds a fabulously successful chain of restaurants on practically nothing, could be so completely dominated by a selfish and grasping daughter, who spells trouble in capital letters." The staff at Variety liked the film, especially the screenplay, and wrote, "At first reading James M. Cain's novel of the same title might not suggest screenable material, but the cleanup job has resulted in a class feature, showmanly produced by Jerry Wald and tellingly directed by Michael Curtiz...The dramatics are heavy but so skillfully handled that they never cloy. Joan Crawford reaches a peak of her acting career in this pic. Ann Blyth, as the daughter, scores dramatically in her first genuine acting assignment. Zachary Scott makes the most of his character as the Pasadena heel, a talented performance." Harrison's Reports wrote that Crawford gave a "good performance", but the story "lacks conviction, and the main characterizations are overdrawn. For example, the daughter's hatred for her mother has no logical basis, consequently, it weakens the story." John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote: "Certainly, despite its unconscionable length–it takes almost two hours–'Mildred Pierce' contains enough excitement to jolt even the most lethargic customer ... it is pleasant to report that Miss Crawford is no longer as frantic in appearance as she once was. Despite all kinds of chances to go berserk as a Cain mother, Miss Crawford remains subdued and reasonable, like most of the rest of a highly competent cast."
Critic Jeremiah Kipp (2005) gave the film a mixed review: "Mildred Pierce is melodramatic trash, constructed like a reliable Aristotelian warhorse where characters have planted the seeds of their own doom in the first act, only to have grief-stricken revelations at the climax. Directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn't quite go with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir, and scored by Max Steiner with a sensational bombast that's rousing even when it doesn't match the quieter, pensive mood of individual scenes, Mildred Pierce is professionally executed and moves at a brisk clip."
Historian June Sochen (1978) argues the film lies at the intersection of the "weepie" and "independent woman" genres of the 1930s and 1940s. It accentuates common ground of the two: women must be submissive, live through others, and remain in the home.
Awards and honors
WinsNational Board of Review: Best Actress, Joan Crawford; 1945.
Academy Award: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Joan Crawford; 1946.
NominationsAcademy Awards: 1946
Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Eve Arden
Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Ann Blyth
Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Ernest Haller
Best Picture, Jerry Wald
Best Screenplay Writing, Ranald MacDougall
American Film Institute listsAFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Veda Pierce – Nominated Villain
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
A five-part television miniseries of Mildred Pierce premiered on HBO in March 2011, starring Kate Winslet as Mildred, Guy Pearce as Beragon, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Mare Winningham as Ida. Separate actresses portray Veda at different ages, as opposed to Ann Blyth alone in the 1945 film. Wally Fay's character in the original has been changed back to the novel's Wally Burgan, and is portrayed by James LeGros. The cast also includes Melissa Leo as Mildred's neighbor and friend, Lucy Gessler, a character omitted from the Crawford version. The film is told in chronological order with no flashbacks or voice-over narration, and eliminates the murder subplot that was added for the 1945 version.
In 1976, the ninth episode of the tenth season of The Carol Burnett Show featured a take-off of the film called "Mildred Fierce", with Carol Burnett as Mildred, Vicki Lawrence as Veda and Harvey Korman as Monte.
The eighth track on the 1990 album Goo by alternative rock band Sonic Youth is an instrumental called "Mildred Pierce".
Gainesville, Florida restaurant Mildred's Big City Food is named after the film's titular character.
There was also a restaurant called Mildred Pierce in Toronto, Canada.
Blu-ray and DVD releases
Mildred Pierce is available on Region 2 DVD in a single disc edition which includes an 86-minute documentary into the career and personal life of Joan Crawford with contributions from fellow actors and directors, including Diane Baker, Betsy Palmer, Anna Lee, Anita Page, Cliff Robertson, Virginia Grey, Dickie Moore, Norma Shearer, Ben Cooper, Margaret O'Brien, Judy Geeson, and Vincent Sherman. Mildred Pierce is also included in a Region 2 release, a signature collection of Crawford's films together with the films Possessed, Grand Hotel, The Damned Don't Cry!, and Humoresque.
The Region 1 edition is a flipper single disc with "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" documentary and a series of trailer galleries on the reverse of the film.
Mildred Pierce is also available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection for Region A & B in a special edition which includes a host of special features including "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a 2002 feature-length documentary, a Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, a conversation on the film between critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito, an excerpt from 'The David Frost Show' featuring Joan Crawford, a booklet with an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith, and more.