Thursday, January 8, 2004

Mildred Pierce

Veda and Mildred

I can thank Sonic Youth for getting me to watch the 1945 film classic Mildred Pierce in my first year of university and I watched it again last night. It really is brilliant.

The film essentially begins when Mildred (Joan Crawford) tells her husband Bert to leave if he will not stop the affair he's been having - and when he does leave he challenges her to live without him and support their two daughters. This is a story of what one woman will do to give her family what she thinks they deserve.

(Mildred first supports her family not because Bert leaves her for another woman, but because he loses all their money in the stock market crash, feels emasculated, becomes despondent, stops working and the family ends up destitute. Presumably, this situation provides a reason, if not an excuse, for his extracurricular activities as well. James M. Cain's novel takes a much darker and critical look at the American Dream and although the utter bleakness of the novel's Depression-era setting is missing from the movie version, the film does offer an intriguing picture of middle-class aspirations in pre-war America. The movie also introduces the element of murder which, although a departure from the book, helped to create a wonderful example of film noir.)

Anyway, the women in this movie are still amazing almost sixty years later. Mildred herself is a complex character - part independent woman, part master manipulator, part guilty mother - driven by a simple (and perplexing) desire to do anything and everything for her eldest daughter, the horribly mean, selfish and materialistic Veda (Ann Blyth was very convincing and deserved her Oscar nomination!).

Mildred's friend Ida says "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." (Actually, I think that Ida is my favourite character: when given an approving once-over gaze by Wally-the-womaniser, Ida tells him to "Leave something on me--I might catch cold." More in keeping with the era, Ida's fierce humour and independence leads to her being treated like one of the guys, and she laments "When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings.")

There is also a really peculiar scene where Lottie, Mildred's African-American maid, remarks that she doesn't understand how Mildred can work so hard, and how she prefers to sleep in mornings while Mildred hardly sleeps at all. It seems Mildred is more than a bit of a martyr!

But back to the loathsome Veda - and the dreams of the American middle class. Veda treats Mildred horribly, saying things like "You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can't, because you'll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing ... With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls." Mildred's success as a business-woman is punished by her daughter and by her prior-to-the-Depression-wealthy-man-about-town and second husband Monty when he says "Yes I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease." (This mutual dislike for the smell of grease is not all that Monty and Veda end up sharing.) And the film's original marketing as a thriller was not much kinder to her feminine character.

But Mildred Pierce is incredible - inspiring and depressing all at once - well worth watching again.

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