Set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Mildred Pierce is the story of a middle-class, single mother's attempt to maintain her and her family's social position during the Great Depression. Frustrated by her unemployed, shiftless husband, and worried by their dwindling finances, Mildred separates from him and sets out to support herself and her children on her own. After a difficult search for a job among the ranks of the unemployed, she finally finds one as a waitress but worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. Actually, Mildred worries more that her ambitious elder daughter Veda will think her new job beneath her. Mildred encounters both success and tragedy, opening several successful restaurants and coping with the death of her younger daughter, Ray. Veda happily enjoys Mildred's new financial success but increasingly turns ungrateful, demanding more and more from her hard-working mother and letting her contempt for people who must work for a living be known. Mildred's attachment to Veda forms the central tragedy of the novel.
Mildred Pierce is a classic, postwar film noir mixed with typical soap operish elements of the woman's melodramatic picture or 'weeper,' including a strand of a typical murder mystery often told by flashback. The family melodrama was significantly modified from its original source due to pressures of the Production Code regarding its sordidness - namely, the incestual behavior of the dissolute playboy character named Monte.
Hungarian born director Michael Curtiz (who had already directed many diverse film genres, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and This is the Army (1943) shaped this significant film in the genre. Curtiz reluctantly began filming with 'has been' star Joan Crawford, (The role was first considered by Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan) who had developed a reputation for being mannered and difficult, but was pleasantly surprised when she delivered one of the best performances of her career.
This film, a tremendous box office hit and critical success, was an adaptation by Ranald MacDougall and Catherine Turney (and William Faulkner) of James M. Cain's 1941 'hard boiled' novel of the same name. Cain's original novel was a satire about bourgeois values, and a tale of poor parenthood. [Cain was responsible for two sources for film noir classics - his 1936 novella for Double Indemnity (1944) and his best selling work for Mildred Pierce (1945).] Atypical for film noirs, the main protagonist in the film is a female - but she is typically brought down by a femme fatale - her own daughter. The murder story is told with a flashback structure reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941). Successful promotional copy for the film read: 'Mildred Pierce - don't ever tell anyone what she did.'
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth, both with their only career nomination), Best Screenplay (Ranald MacDougall), and Best B/W Cinematography (Ernest Haller who previously shared the Color Cinematography Oscar for Gone with the Wind (1939). Crawford won the film's sole Academy Award Oscar (it was also her sole Academy Award win out of three career nominations) as Best Actress for her title role.
The title character is a hard-working, neurotically devoted, long-suffering and determined mother who has a status seeking, spoiled, detestable and mean-spirited, unloving daughter named Veda (Ann Blyth). [Mirroring her real life, Joan Crawford supported herself as a waitress and saleswoman before she began making films.] Mildred's ruinous but noble downfall occurs as the result of poor choices of men (including her dull, middle class broker husband Bert (Bruce Bennett)) and her caring for an ungrateful Veda. (Other films of maternal self sacrifice for an insufferable child - before this one - include Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Stella Dallas (1937) with Barbara Stanwyck, and later would include Terms of Endearment (1983) with Shirley MacLaine.) Although Mildred's maternal sacrifice is portrayed as noble, some have claimed that the film is cautionary and antifeminist, with Mildred presented as a typical 1940s postwar housewife whose American-dream-fulfilling, role-switching movement from suburban, middle-class homemaker to divorced, successful business entrepreneur (restaurant chain owner) results in corruptive, destructive disaster (both financial and personal). This was symbolized in the film in movements from bright, daytime Southern California scenes to dark, criminal, nightmarish scenes.