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Piercing the Past with Mildred

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Studio: Warner Brothers
Starring: Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Zachary Scott
Rating: PG

It’s not always a good to focus on the now. Sometimes its better to have a moment of reflection, relax in the comfort of your warm bed and watch an old movie. If you are in a position to enjoy normal creature comforts such as cable, you may be fortunate enough to catch a good black and white film on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics. If, however, you are like the vast majority of we lowly broke first-years, an occasional video rental is probably more viable. The next time the new release section of the local Blockbuster appears unfulfilling, consider renting Mildred Pierce.

The 1945 Warner Brothers production is a personal favorite and is considered a classic in every aspect. A book-to-screenplay adaptation, Mildred Pierce manifests all the elements of a good film noir product. It opens with an image of a well-dressed man desperately approaching the camera. Several shots are heard. The unknown man falls to floor gathering just enough energy to call out, “Mildred.” A murder has been committed and it should come as no shock that the remainder of the film will uncover “who done it.” Yet, Mildred Pierce is not thought of as a pure noir text, but rather as an inter-genre piece that combines melodrama, war film, and film noir techniques.

This genre cooperative surfaces most notably in the lead character, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) who appears to be a hybrid of the classic femme fatale and the female melodrama protagonist. Pierce is a middle class married woman with two children, whom she adores and completely invests in family. Eventually faced with the responsibility to provide monetary support to keep her children happy, Pierce begins making sacrifices. The rest is left for the viewing. But, like most noir films of the 1940s, Mildred Pierce is loaded with surprises and nice treats that make the film enjoyable even sixty years later.

The social ramifications of women entering the work force during the war to sustain familial lifestyles are even more interesting. Pierce is frowned upon because of her occupation as a waitress and later as an owner of a growing small business. This image becomes more complex when you consider that this 1945 film was based on a 1941 book. Unemployment and female workforce levels are different even within this short time frame. (See BGIE Supplemental Data Note!) Yet, the film manages not to become a socio-political commentary on war.

Rent it on an upcoming three-day weekend. Just remember, leave your bedazzlement with DVD and THX technology back in the future when revisiting this classic. The cinematic experience has come a long way!

February 4, 2002
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