The term melodrama is often seen as a bad term when it comes to storytelling. Melodrama’s have often been associated with dramatic stories with exaggerated characters that deal in emotion rather than logic. A bad melodrama is when a film is so over-exaggerated that it has unrealistic characters and situations that no one can take seriously, making the film more laughable than dramatic. But sometimes melodrama’s can be used so effectively in capturing your emotions that it sucks you into the story. Mildred Pierce is one such a movie that’s so melodramatic that it’s actually really effective based solely on how it makes you feel.
The film starts with a murder seemingly committed by Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford). She’s questioned by the police and she tells them her life story, the majority of the films plot. We see Mildred being left by her husband for another woman. But this doesn’t deter her as she decides to become a single mother and raise her two daughters. As the movie goes on, we see her claw her way from being a poor waitress to eventually owning her own chain of successful restaurants. During this time, she meets her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), who happens to be the man shot at the beginning of the movie. But even with all her success she’s still resented by her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) who constantly is at odds with her mother because she wants more social status and money. Mildred must deal with her daughters’ missteps and her own during this murder investigation.
The movie relies heavily on emotion in order to tell its story. Many of the big events are driven by a character’s emotional choice and how it affects them and other people. One of the turning points for Mildred is when her youngest daughter dies from illness. Instead of lying around and thinking about it, Mildred goes back to working and is able to expand her restaurant into a bigger business. It’s an important scene as it demonstrates how Mildred processes such a huge loss and decides she needs to move on from it. The biggest strength of the film is its focus on developing Mildred. Mildred is such a complex character. The first thing we see her do is standing on a pier contemplating suicide. This is intriguing and makes us want to know more about this woman. In fact, the movies thrilling tone and mysterious story telling is similar to that of a film noir. But the movie is smart enough to give us flashbacks of who this woman is. So, when we see important events in her life like her getting divorced, becoming a powerful businesswoman, and getting remarried, we can connect the pieces and figure out what is really going on in the story.
What the film does best though is portraying Mildred as an extremely interesting character. It’s rare to see movies about strong women building their lives up from nothing. After her divorce and the death of a child, one would think that would be the end of her story. Most films during the 1940s did not focus on these types of female centered stories. But Mildred does what she can to support her and her remaining family. She’s independent, is great at running a business, works her way up from rags to riches, yet is always humble and isn’t corrupted by her success. She’s been through such hardships, yet always comes out a better woman. She’s probably one of the best female characters in film as she’s such a well-rounded character. Major props have to be given to Crawford for pulling off this type of character. A lesser actress could have played the character as too soft or not forceful enough. But Crawford gives a powerful performance and makes Mildred a stronger woman through her acting. This performance shows just how great she was as an actress and she won the Academy Award for her performance. Crawford sells both the relatable and the tough side of the character so well that her performance alone is enough to carry this movie.
The other great aspect of her character is her relationship to her daughter, Veda. Veda is a bitch… plain and simple! At the beginning of the film she’s pretty timid and doesn’t have a lot to do in the story. But once Mildred starts to make money Veda is at odds with her constantly. She hates her mother for working a “low-class” job and hates being poor. However, even after Mildred’s restaurants take off and she makes money, her daughter is still not satisfied. She wants everything the rich have. She constantly is upset with her mother and treats her like trash. You just want to smack this character in the face, and I don’t say that lightly. At one point the two have an argument and Veda slaps Mildred so hard that she falls down. When Mildred gets back up, she doesn’t hit or yell at her; she just glares and tells her to leave her house or she’ll kill her. It’s a great scene that shows off both the actresses’ abilities and the bad relationship these two have. Blyth really sells the mean and bitter parts of her character making Veda a snobby little girl.
But Mildred, being a mother, can’t ever be that mad at her daughter. She makes all of her decisions for the sake of her daughter and Veda never thanks her. This is the rare mother/daughter movie where it really explores such a toxic relationship. We know that Veda is never going to be satisfied with her mother, but Mildred is never mad at her because Veda is all the family she has left. This all builds to the ending of the film where all of this is put to the test. There’s no way that I’m spoiling the ending because it’s so perfect that no one will see it coming. All you need to know is that Mildred Pierce is the best example of what a great melodrama looks like.