Noir Nook: Dame Name Noirs – Mildred Pierce (1945)
If you know anything about me, you know I love my noir dames. Everything about them fascinates me – from their fearless approach to life to their mercenary ways – and don’t get me started on their unadulterated sexiness. No wonder they leave so many hapless gents in their wake!
This month’s Noir Nook is the next installment in my series about films featuring femmes whose awesome-saucery earned them their own monikers in the titles – my favorite dame-name noirs. My spotlight dame name noir this time around is the fabulous Mildred Pierce, which just happens to be one of those films that have made it onto every top 10 noir list I’ve ever made.
Mildred Pierce tells the story of the title character (played in an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Crawford) who, when we meet her, is a California stay-at-home mom with two daughters and an unemployed husband (with a funky attitude). Mildred spends a lot of her time in the kitchen, whipping up delectable baked goods to help make ends meet, pay for dance lessons for her adorable moppet of a younger daughter, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) – and buy frilly party dresses for her snobbish, ungrateful older daughter Veda (Ann Blyth).
As it turns out, a major upheaval in Mildred’s life (she gives her hubby the heave-ho when he can’t stop paying visits to their attractive neighbor) turns out to be a blessing in disguise. After working for a while as a waitress, she gets the bright idea to start a restaurant, and it turns into success beyond her wildest imaginings.
So where’s the noir? I guess I left out a couple of important details. First off, the film opens with the murder of a handsome, mustachioed man who, after having his body riddled with bullets, says just one word: “Mildred.” And after a mink-coated Mildred is detained by police for questioning, we’re introduced to a flashback (complete with a noiresque voiceover and scenes painted with contrasting lights and shadows) that lasts almost the entire film.
As the single mom who displays the strength to send her wayward husband packing, and both the intelligence and the determination to create a restaurant empire, Mildred is undoubtedly a woman with which to be reckoned. But one of the (many) things I love about this film is that she isn’t the only standout femme. There’s Ida (played by the always fabulous Eve Arden), who was Mildred’s manager when she worked as a waitress and then left her job to work for Mildred when she opened her first restaurant. She’s the kind of friend everybody would want to have and to be – loyal, supportive, honest, and a blast to be around. And then there’s Mildred’s daughter, Veda who, while undeniably avaricious and self-centered, possessed an admirable ability to land on her feet and use her considerable wiles to get her way – even if those wiles were used to gain less than admirable ends.
Mildred Pierce is one of the movies I’ve seen most often – I have it on VHS, DVD, and BluRay, and I’ll still watch it every time it comes on TV. Whether you’ve never seen it, or you haven’t seen it in a while, treat yourself, track it down, and revel in this first-rate dame name noir.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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