Mildred Pierce

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Mildred Pierce is a novel (1941) by James M. Cain. It was made into an Oscar-winning feature film starring Joan Crawford.

Contents

Plot

Set in Glendale, California, in the 1930s, Mildred Pierce is the story of a middle-class housewife's attempt to maintain her and her family's social position during the Great Depression. Frustrated by her unemployed cheating 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, she finally finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. Actually, Mildred worries more that her ambitious elder daughter, Veda, will think her new job is demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and tragedy, opening three successful restaurants and operating a pie-selling business, and coping with the death of her younger daughter, Ray. Veda enjoys Mildred's newfound 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.

Characters

  • Mildred Pierce – middle-class mother of two
  • Bert Pierce – Mildred's husband
  • Moire ("Ray") and Veda Pierce – Mildred's daughters
  • Wally Bergin – Bert's former business partner
  • Monty Beragon – wealthy playboy and Mildred's lover
  • Lucy Gessner – Mildred's friend

Adaptations

1945

In 1945, the novel was made into a film starring Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott, and Lee Patrick.

Mildred Pierce is a classic postwar film noir with elements of the melodrama or 'weeper'; it was structured as a typical murder mystery told in flashbacks. The family melodrama was significantly modified from its original source due to pressures from the Hays Office regarding its sordid nature, specifically the behavior of the dissolute playboy character, Monty, who initiates a quasi-incestuous romance with his stepdaughter, Veda. At the same time, however, the screenwriters made violence much more central to the plot than it was in Cain's novel.

Versatile Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz had already directed films of many different 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). Curtiz reluctantly began filming with the 'has-been', Joan Crawford, who had developed a reputation for being mannered and difficult, but he was pleasantly surprised when she delivered one of the best performances of her career. The role was always considered for Crawford, but at certain stages also for Ann Sheridan. This film was a tremendous box-office hit and critical success, and was adapted by Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and William Faulkner from James M. Cain's 1941 'hard-boiled' novel of the same name. Cain's book was a satire about bourgeois values and a tale of poor parenthood. (Cain wrote novellas that provided source material for two other film-noir classics: his 1934 novella The Postman Always Rings Twice, filmed in 1946, and the 1936 novella, Double Indemnity, filmed in 1944.) Atypical of films noirs, the protagonist in the film is female, but she is conventionally brought down by a femme fatale, in this case, her own daughter. Successful promotional copy for the film read: "Mildred Pierce — don't ever tell anyone what she did."

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