Very thoughtful of them to provide a compare-and-contrast moment, which makes even clearer that the 1945 “Mildred” isn’t as much an adaptation of James M. Cain’s vision, as it is an expression of the Hollywood studio system.
Where the adaptation by Haynes and Jon Raymond is immersed in the Depression — the costumes, set decoration, lighting and music grounds the story in the economic and cultural realities of Southern California in the 1930s — the 1945 “Mildred” is outfitted and designed as if it’s taking place in the mid-1940s. This happened sometimes in the studio era, especially when a story took place in the not-that-distant past, as opposed to costume dramas (which were often not all that accurate, either).
Joan Crawford strides through “Mildred Pierce” in shoulder pads that make her resemble a chic battleship. Her hair is tightly coiffed, her makeup the ’40s Crawford mask of thick brows and dramatic lipstick. She’s formidable — but her own movie-star narrative utterly upstages her character’s story.
Watching Crawford, we don’t see Mildred, the hard-working mother trying to lift her family up from its lower middle-class constraints, even as the Depression makes the challenge even harder. We see Crawford, who has already made more than 61 movies over her long career, setting her jaw and going at this ’40s comeback role with — it’s easy to imagine — all the scars, indignities, ruthless self-absorption and hard-won savvy that must have been requirements for a woman holding on to her star status in Hollywood.
The sexy minx that was Crawford in 1932’s “Grand Hotel” has grown into this ironclad survivor. She declares that she’ll do anything for her dreadfully manipulative daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth, who very effectively makes Veda a baby viper with a sweetheart face). But whatever maternal compulsion is meant to drive Mildred, Crawford seems more irritated than anything else with this pesky brat. You get the sense that Crawford’s Mildred would happily crush this kid like a grape, and move on. But the story dictates that Crawford suffer with martyr grace, as Veda’s selfish deceptions pile up.
Even through this Warner Bros. filter (and the script’s inventions — i.e., the murder and flashback plot hoke), a few moments still pack the kind of punch that transcends time. Notably, the chilling implications of the plot twist in which Mildred’s younger, loving daughter dies.
The scrupulous Mildred has, for once, allowed herself to act on impulse, and spontaneously takes off with Monte for a romantic rendezvous at his beach house. Everything at the beach house is open, warm, free — Mildred and Monte take off their heavily constructed clothes and run out into the surf in swimsuits. Later, back in the house, they sit in front of the fire, and flirt, and then give into the temptation of the moment. We don’t actually see what comes next, but director Michael Curtiz moves the camera away in the manner that then signaled the hot stuff that was soon to follow.
And what are the consequences for Mildred — a separated woman, after all — surrendering to her desires? As the story has it, Mildred pays for her brief, passionate escape from her unending duties, by losing her “good” daughter. As her husband, Bert, says, “Nobody knew where you were.” Mildred letting down her guard, having her own moment of thinking about herself instead of others, has killed her daughter.
It’s not stated so bluntly, of course, but the implication is obvious. All these years later, it’s still a powerful example of how female characters are expected to behave — as opposed to men — and the havoc that follows when a woman diverges from her gender’s conventions.
We see a similar note struck in another 1945 movie, the lovely “Brief Encounter.” Though David Lean’s version of Noel Coward’s script is set among middle-class English people, the morality is the same — after giving in to the temptation of spending time with another man (Trevor Howard), a wife and mother (Celia Johnson) returns home to find one of her children is sick. The boy, it turns out, only has a minor ailment. But Johnson’s shamed guilt over not having been there gets the point across — when a woman responsible for others makes the unaccustomed choice to think of herself, who knows what damage it may cause?