Sly guys, coffee, pie: It’s all in ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce/ 1945/Warner Bros./ 111 min.

“Mildred Pierce” was Joan Crawford’s comeback role and she won an Oscar for her performance.

I saw “Mildred Pierce” for the first time nearly 20 years ago on a Sunday afternoon in my small, studenty London flat – pale gray walls, Venetian blinds, a Victor Skrebneski print opposite the TV.

Just before the opening scene unfolded – a shooting in a shadow-drenched California beach house with a sinister vibe – I remember popping a batch of popcorn in oil on the stovetop and making American lemonade (fresh lemons, sugar and water). Such wholesome snacking for the decadence on the little screen.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Mildred Pierce” is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, adapted by Ranald MacDougall with uncredited help from William Faulkner. Joan Crawford plays the title character, a wife and mother, who tries to buy the love of her spoiled and ungrateful teenage daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is easy to love, but Mildred is determined to win Veda over as well.

Hubby Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) doesn’t think Veda is worth it and they break up over Mildred’s intense maternal devotion. Some subtexters theorize that Mildred’s love has romantic overtones; I don’t think there’s a strong case for that.

Mildred works as a pie-baker and a waitress, then opens a chain of restaurants to pay for Veda’s clothes, music lessons and extravagant taste. Problem is, nothing’s ever good enough for the Everest-level high-maintenance Veda. “I can’t wear that rag,” she snarls, upon seeing a dress Mildred bought for her.

Besides sniping at loved ones and spending their money, Veda enjoys hatching blackmail plans and singing in sleazy nightclubs. So it’s no shocker that she also has designs on Mildred’s new love interest Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Monte is an aristocratic playboy who’s always short of cash but really rather useful for Veda’s plan to become patrician.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford as daughter and Mumsy

No matter what, Veda sinks her serpent’s teeth deeper and deeper into Mildred’s flesh, which, by the way, at 40, was still very shapely. Curtiz wisely gives Crawford plenty of opps to show off her gams. And her little hats, tailored suits and ankle straps are the picture of retro chic.More