Feminist Empowerment Meets Film Noir in "Mildred Pierce"

Mildred Pierce

Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott
Studio: Warner Bros.

Genre(s): Drama
Rated: Not Rated

During the Great Depression, there was a dire need for stories about hope and obtaining the American Dream. Joan Crawford was known for playing roles in which she would go from rags-to-riches, and her most famous of these performances was arguably “Mildred Pierce.” Released near the tail end of World War II, a changed world was on the horizon, and Michael Curtiz’s drama about a woman taking charge of her life was considered as radical as it was prophetic. The world was already re-examining the role of women in society and the workplace.

With many of the men having to fly overseas to fight the war, women were given positions that would normally have been held by men. When the war was over, women would find that they enjoyed working outside of the house. I can only imagine what it must have been like for these same women to watch “Mildred Pierce” and see themselves in the character of Mildred Pierce (played wonderfully by Joan Crawford). Mildred is a woman who is doing everything that society expects of her. She cooks dinner, raises the children, and even overlooks what appears to be affairs her husband is having (and not doing a great job of covering up).

One day she drops a bombshell that was barely acknowledged during the time period: she wants a divorce. The husband is more than happy to call her bluff. He’ll drag the divorce out as long as he can to give her time to change her mind. After all, she’ll fail at life, and sooner or later crawl back to him. Instead, she takes a job as a waitress to make ends meet. Once she learns all about the restaurant business, she opens a place of her own. That one place turns into several, and before she knows it her ex-husband is at her bar, eating crow on his ignorant words.

Once money flows though, life gets complicated. Men come in to try and take her business away from her. A loss in her life brings her to the brink of depression. Most frustratingly, her daughter ends up taking on expensive hobbies, and seems to care more for what a dollar can give her than maintaining loving relationships. In a powerful scene, Mildred realizes that her success did distract her from her relationship with her daughter, and now she doesn’t recognize her anymore. “Mildred Pierce” was sold as a murder mystery (and indeed, the closing scene contains a dramatic reveal), but its popularity at the time was a result of women watching “Mildred Pierce” and being inspired by what Mildred makes of her life.

Here was a movie where a woman leaves the husband who took her for granted, and ends up being a self-made woman. Her family life suffers as a result of that success, but so too did many films starring men at the time. “Mildred Pierce” was a film where women felt like they were truly seen, and showed that many talented actresses were being wasted just playing “the wife” or “the love interest.” These days, “Mildred Pierce” doesn’t seem so radical or revolutionary. In fact, it feels even better: it feels surprisingly modern, which you can’t always say about other classics.