Some 75 years after its release, Mildred Pierce (1945) still offers many pleasures. Chief among them is Joan Crawford, at the peak of her powers in the title role, for which she won her only Oscar – despite Ann Blyth’s bid to upstage Crawford with her deliciously wicked portrayal of Veda, Mildred’s eldest daughter. Thanks to director Michael Curtiz (who directed Casablanca three years earlier), the film offers textbook examples of gorgeous noir filmmaking: rain-slicked surfaces, smoky detective offices, chiaroscuro lighting, expressive shadows, and frame composition. Thanks to Randall MacDougall’s screenplay, based on James Cain’s novel, it has punchy dialogue; Max Steiner gave it a wonderfully hyperbolic score. And then there is the midcentury fashion eye-candy: severe hairstyles, sumptuous furs, iridescent party dresses, and glittering jewels.
What Mildred Pierce does not offer—and did not offer in its day—is any hope that women might be able to both raise children and work outside the home.
Indeed, Mildred Pierce seems singularly designed to squash any such hope. A mash-up of noir and woman’s melodrama, the film effectively wields the former genre to discipline its female protagonist back into the latter, as film scholar Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues. Released two months after World War II’s end, Mildred Pierce tapped into social anxieties about the millions of women who had entered the workforce during the war. Would children be damaged by their mothers’ absence? Would men be emasculated by their wives’ newfound financial independence? Would society break down into a nihilism best rendered in the new shades of noir? Yes, yes, and yes, Mildred Pierce answered resoundingly, which is why it told a generation of working women to go back home (as did much postwar public policy). Rosie the Riveter could not also be June Cleaver.
Mildred Pierce mercilessly punishes its title character for venturing too far into the workplace, showing the terrible fate such a woman inevitably meets—even someone as glamorous and powerful as Joan Crawford. In typical noir fashion, Mildred Pierce has a non-linear narrative. It opens with gunshots and a dead body, after which we meet Mildred, in mink and diamonds, but also in tears; she leans over a pier’s railing, ready to throw herself off. Thus, a catastrophic end is predetermined from the start. Hauled in to Los Angeles’ Hall of Justice under suspicion, Mildred is interrogated by the chief inspector, who demands her story; it is given in three long flashbacks, starting in the register of women’s melodrama but steadily devolving into noir. The viewer does not yet know whether Mildred is our femme fatale murderess, but does know she “was wrong,” because those are the words she uses to launch her story. The flashbacks show Mildred as a discontented housewife, sick of being stuck in the kitchen, nagging her unemployed husband Bert (Bruce Bennett). After kicking Bert out for a suspected affair, Mildred is compelled to get a job waiting tables, determined to maintain the middle-class lifestyle enjoyed by her daughters, the angelic Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and devilish Veda (Blythe). So far, Mildred’s only crime is the era’s dreaded “momism”—the unhealthy tendency to over-mother and under-wife.
Things take a turn, though, when Mildred’s ambitions expand (along with the breadth of her shoulder pads) from part-time waitress to full-time businesswoman. She launches a successful restaurant franchise, which increasingly consumes her time and her femininity. Mildred stiffens, trading in her flower-patterned apron and housedresses for pinstriped power suits. When she was a housewife, Mildred demurely eschewed liquor; as a businesswoman, she drinks whiskey straight, a habit she explicitly describes as male. Along the way, Mildred’s professional success emasculates the men in her path, from Bert to her male financiers: Wally Faye (Jack Carson), who she puts in an apron, and Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), who she keeps as a lover and who will wind up dead, which the viewer knows from that opening scene.
Unsubtly, the film links Mildred’s bid for financial independence with a dangerous sexual looseness and, most importantly, her children’s ruin. While discouraging Wally’s sexual advances, she surrenders to Monte’s, for which she is harshly punished indeed. The scene of Mildred and Monte’s extramarital sexual consummation—rendered in a literal record-skipping ellipsis to pass muster with the Production Code—is followed immediately with the melodramatic sequence of Kay’s death from pneumonia, the early symptoms of which her distracted mother ignored.
If Mildred’s professional ambitions kill Kay, they make Veda a killer. Mildred fails to learn the correct lesson from Kay’s death: that she should return to full-time mothering and marriage. Instead, she pours herself further into growing her business, funneling funds towards Veda, instead of time and attention. Increasingly “spoiled rotten” and predatory, Veda feels entitled to Mildred’s money and, eventually, to Monte, with whom she conducts an affair that turns deadly. It was Veda who pulled the trigger in that opening scene, the viewer learns, returning to the chief inspector’s office. Mildred did not kill Monte, but she is guilty—guilty of sacrificing her children on the altar of (unnaturally unfeminine) professional ambition. The film ends with Mildred leaving the Hall of Justice, leaning on Bert’s arm, which she has learned the hard way is her proper place.
For all its pleasures, it would be nice to consign Mildred Pierce’s gender politics to the ancient past. Unfortunately, and despite the intervening second-wave feminist movement, Hollywood still likes to treat working motherhood as a foregone impossibility. Comedies from Baby Boom (1987) to I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011) and Bad Moms (2015) relish in running working mothers through the ringer for laughs, offering no plausible solutions to their real-life counterparts’ struggles, just as the title I Don’t Know promises. Here’s their advice, respectively: Leave your high-powered job for rural Vermont; “juggle” better; and stop being so uptight. Dramas and horror movies have been even more unkind, still suggesting that working mothers risk rendering their children maladjusted sociopaths. Motherhood as an artist (the most selfish of professions) is especially impossible, according to recent entries like Hereditary (2018) and Shirley (2020).
So maybe Mildred Pierce does offer something to today’s working mothers after all: the chance to see clearly—in stark black and white—the denigration and mom-blaming that lingers in our culture, and to reject it. As we begin to imagine our lives and society beyond Covid-19 quarantines,which have especially strained working mothers and pushed them out of the workforce again by the millions, it’s high time we figure out how to make working motherhood less impossible. As more women reach the top of the film industry, maybe the movies can finally help us envision the possibilities.