“What is this a family reunion?” said the tall, determined woman with a quick draw for a mouth. She is in the end what she is in the beginning. Her name is Ida Corwin and her quips alone are worth the price of admission.
We first see Ida in Mildred Pierce in a police station. The usual suspects, if you will, have been summoned in regards to the murder of one Monte Beragon. “Ida Corwin” a detective calls out and the woman marches forward, annoyed and dripping with truth and her usual sarcasm. Who the hell wants to be there? We know at that moment nearly all there is to know about Ida Corwin.
That scene, which takes place on the night Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) was shot dead, begins Michael Curtiz’s movie, but it is the end of the story. We are about to learn by way of flashbacks how it all came to be as our protagonist, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), recounts the four years of her life that led up to Beragon’s murder. Beragon was Mildred’s second husband, the money-grubbing heel who was playing more than canasta with her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).
As we learn from Mildred it was four years before Beragon’s murder that she met Ida Corwin. Ida hired Mildred as a waitress in the restaurant she managed. It was an instant friendship, one that turns out to be the only healthy relationship Mildred has, certainly her best life choice. To some degree Ida becomes the professional standard for Mildred who’d first stepped into Ida’s restaurant in desperate need of a job, determined to make something of herself after her separation from her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett).
Under Ida’s tutelage Mildred quickly becomes the best waitress in the place and she is soon able to save enough to venture forth with her own restaurant, which she opens with Ida by her side, as her right-hand woman. In no time Ida becomes the one positive constant in Mildred’s life, her confidant and a woman who mirrors her own drive for competence and matches her work ethic. Ida is Mildred’s ideal professional woman one could say. We know Mildred’s fierce motivation is impossible and sinfully flawed – to gain the love and admiration of Veda. We learn little if anything at all of Ida’s, however. How she developed the unwavering spine she demonstrates throughout the story is never explained. Ida is just strong in contrast to the complex Mildred who is fiercely determined, possesses inner pride and self-worth but has the one great weakness – viperous, Veda.
Michael Curtiz directs Mildred Pierce with usual flair. He manages, thanks to Ranald MacDougall’s screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, to add twists and turns to a story that could have easily been a predictable melodrama. Yet what we get is as near a perfect movie as has ever been made, certainly one of the most enjoyable and stylish films of the 1940s. Aside from the compelling story Mildred Pierce features beautiful photography and memorable performances across-the-board. Among those is Eve Arden’s revelatory depiction of Ida Corwin – a linear character who serves several purposes in the film.
As a character in this story Ida Corwin has no arc, hence the linear notation. But in this case the line is stacked with great attributes. Ida is the witty purveyor of truth, the unwavering voice of reason, a loyal friend and a light in the ever-deepening darkness in Mildred Pierce. Without Ida we might be inclined to turn away from what results of the choices made by Mildred Pierce, the largely incomprehensible circumstances she ultimately finds herself in. And make no mistake, while we love down and dirty dark dramas, we need respite or we can do little more than tread water. Ida Corwin allows our respite.
(To leering customer, Wally (Jack Carson) “Leave something on me – I might catch cold.”
Ida has no ties to anyone in Mildred Pierce other than to Mildred herself. As such she is free to judge harshly and often and does so with gusto. Veda, Wally and…everyone – except Mildred – fall victim to Ida’s brutal honesty. Toward Mildred Ida has empathy despite the fact that Mildred creates her own hell. Interestingly, it’s Ida empathy for Mildred that allows Ida’s own humanity to surface giving depth to a character that would otherwise do little but delivery a series of wisecracks, albeit welcomed and meticulously timed wisecracks that distill our anger and serve as warnings thanks to the character’s insight and intelligence. These wisecracks delivered by Arden’s unmistakable voice stand out like beacons in the otherwise dark and distorted world we are presented. No one knew his/her way around a wisecrack like Eve Arden and she takes every moment allowed her in Mildred Pierce to demonstrate this exceptional talent.
Eve Arden received her only Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her depiction of Ida Corwin. Some would say it’s arguable whether this role merited placement alongside that of Ann Blyth’s Veda, a role for which the latter was nominated in the same category that year. After all, Blyth’s depiction of Veda in Mildred Pierce is legendary – she portrays one of the most hateful, intrinsically duplicitous characters of all time. Yet, the passage of time has only strengthened the argument for Arden as Ida in that regard and repeated viewings of Mildred Pierce cement her place among the memorable performances.
In this relatively small role, a character upon whom the camera rarely even focuses Eve Arden creates one of the enduringly great supporting characters in the movies. In fact, it’s impossible to not look forward to her scenes in Mildred Pierce, scenes during which she verbally slaps those who deserve it in our name. We cheer for Ida’s hilariously cynical remarks because through them and her we get a bit of our own back. Someone in this world sees things clearly. In that way, in the distinctively Arden way Ida sustains the film by delivering those bits of wisdom in key moments. Just when we’re about to opine – loudly – she does it for us. It is her voice – our voice from the periphery – that allows us to accept the unacceptable in this story. Arden is in that regard as reliable to us as Ida is to Mildred Pierce. And it is that consistency and trust that makes the deliciously atmospheric film noir murder mystery that doubles as a “woman’s movie” unforgettable. Make no mistake – it’s the Ida factor.
Special notation: This post was originally published in the special Mildred Pierce issue of The Dark Pages, the newsletter for film noir lovers helmed by Karen of Shadows and Satin. If you’ve yet to subscribe to the quarterly you must!