Mildred From All Sides ~ Book Review of ‘Mildred Pierce’ by James M. Cain

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on July 8, 2011 0 Comments

There are three incarnations of ‘Mildred Pierce’ I’m going to write about (okay four, which includes the skit Carol Burnett performed on her show in the 70s, but since I can’t find a clip to that, here is a clip for the skit she did on ‘The Soupy Sales Show).  First, there is the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford in her most signature role besides that of a wielding wire hanger mother.  She also won an Oscar for her performance as the long suffering mother who indulges her daughter to the point that she is willing to take a murder wrap for the darling.  Second, is the recent HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet, which has followed the book much more precisely than the original movie.  Lastly and primarily, the book itself by James M. Cain; first published in 1941 it is a man writing from the point of view of a woman therefore is layered with the attitudes of the time it was written.


The impression through the decades about the character of Mildred Pierce “was a woman before her time” since she was a divorcee entrepreneur who started catering pies and then built up three restaurants (as stated in the book).  In the 1945 film Mildred was a glamazon with the mid 40s fashionable shoulders  (the film is set in the 40s instead of the 30s) and her hair just so despite her early work efforts including baking specialty yummies to cater and taking on the morning and lunch shifts at a busy restaurant.  The recent miniseries and book have a more paired down Mildred.  She wears simpler clothing and tends to look washed out.  Her best asset according to the narrative is her legs which she has toned up from her kitchen endeavors.  Different too is the portrayal of various characters such as Veda.  Mind you, Veda isn’t any better than she was in the now classic movie in book or miniseries form; but her evil diva side doesn’t betray her in the end.


The movie version is a film noir like mystery, which is something neither the book nor miniseries is in fact there isn’t a murder in the book.  What I assumed happened was that the Hays Code got in the way of telling the story the way it was written.  Briefly, the Hays Code was tied into Hollywood productions from 1930- 1968.  The underlining theme according to those that enforced it was, “That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.”  Thus with a story {SPOILER AHEAD} where ultimately a daughter steals her stepfather from her mother the Hays Code demands that the daughter needs to meet her karma (sort of speak) which in the case of the film meant that because she did the crime so she had to do the time.  Further, the fate of the stepfather isn’t that grand either since he is the one who is murdered.

I suppose that when I watched the miniseries and read the book (some of which overlapped) the thing that surprised me most story wise {SPOILER ALERT} was that Monty Beragon not only lives but ends off going to New York with Veda, the same Veda who in the film version ended up working at some two bit bar.  No, in the book and miniseries Veda makes a name for herself as an opera singer.  There is violence in the novel, but this violence comes from Mildred not being able to control her emotions when all is literally and figuratively revealed with Veda emerging from the bed she is sharing with Monty in her all together.  All the while she demonstrates a grace, as the book keeps pointing out, that Mildred does not share.


What I found interesting in the book, and even the latest miniseries version, was that certain interactions between men and women weren’t as direct as what we today take for granted.  For instance, much is made about Mr. Pierce not working and taking up with a mistress while Mildred is trying her best to make do with selling her pies.  I got the feeling in the book that she was more okay with her husband’s affair than she was with him not working.  When she confronts him with her, I would say justified anger, he feels put upon and unappreciated – especially after she suggests he move in with his new honey while ignoring the fact that he had just mowed the lawn.  Of course Mildred’s plan is flawed because he up and takes the family car which means that she has no way to transport her pies – the same pies that are the only thing putting food on the table.  About midway into the book she remedies the situation while her husband is at the house visiting the children by stealing the car keys from his coat.  Instead of just saying, like most of us would now, “Hey, you aren’t working, you are sleeping with your (insert harsh word) and you aren’t providing for the kids so I’m taking the car from you (insert harsh word) so I can at least drive myself to work and make some extra bucks delivering my pies and cakes!”  What Mildred says, and only after her husband goes outside to get into his car and drive off but finds that he doesn’t have his keys, is “Maybe I took your keys.” Maybe Mildred? Really? She then reveals for the first time to him that she has started a job as a waitress and that she needs the car especially since he isn’t working.  Although through modern eyes I think the premise would be to demand the keys and kick him to the curb.


Although now it is fun to read the book for clues on sexism, the primary focus of the novel was the social divides between Mildred versus her background and Mildred versus what she wants for Veda (not to be confused with what Veda wants for herself which is basically the same thing as her mother except without the interference of her mother).  There were several times I rolled my eyes when there was a reference to making men feel needed, which isn’t to say I disagree that men should be made to feel that they are needed, but not to the degree where it is done through manipulation or at the constant expense of women.  I say let them they can feel as appreciated and unappreciated as the rest of humanity.  Although I intellectually get how the wearing of a uniform (which Mildred does as a waitress) is seen as a degrading step down, especially if at one time you were the quintessential middleclass woman, but emotionally I just can’t go there.


I think the book was an interesting read from a historical standpoint, but it wasn’t an overly appealing novel.  The sex is boring and the story itself isn’t the most enjoyable for instance, Mildred never seems to take too much delight in her accomplishments outside of how the money will propel Veda into a higher society.  Although Veda is in many ways a creation of her mother; the book never puts any blame on her father nor her paternal grandparents for helping create the monster she becomes.  Oddly enough, Monty, who comes off as a complete villain in the Crawford movie, is actually given some depth in the novel at least to the degree that you understand his motivations and how his relationship with Mildred derails.

What makes the 1945 version memorable and fun is that now if you watch it it seems very campy. Mildred is such a saint in the film.  Although she obviously overindulges her daughter the audience is led to believe that she only goes into hyper spoiler drive after her youngest child dies from pneumonia.  Yet, beyond her concern that Veda wears the right clothes and has music lessons to encourage her talent, Mildred cares for everyone else and is swindled by Monty because she is generous and too trusting.  All of this results in losing her restaurants.

Cain, to his credit, makes Mildred’s motivations for spoiling her daughter much murkier in the novel.  There is almost pseudo sexual undertones thrown into the mother daughter relationship.  After Moire’s death Mildred makes note that at least the snobbish Veda survives and that she is willing to sacrifice the child who was most like her than the daughter who is nothing like her image.  One gets the idea that the death deteriorates the balance that remained between Veda and Mildred after the divorce and all but cancels out and that the

thing, or person as the case may be, that kept Veda grounded.  Mildred in too many ways is a masochist living amongst a culture that almost expected women to be masochists on a daily basis (managing the home sphere, keeping the moral center of the family, and if employment was required working lowly paid jobs that shamed them in status – not to mention keeping the men in the family happy with good self esteems).


If you take on this book from the point of historic sociological perspective, “Mildred Pierce” is highly entertaining because it is sprinkled with many fantastic observations.  However, as a book to read in the summer sun by the pool it will miserably fail.  The one thing that makes “Mildred Pierce” a film classic is that the audience is rooting for the spunky little housewife who is doing it all for her daughter even though Veda deserves a swift kick in the pants.  The miniseries makes Mildred’s character less cheer worthy, although you can’t help but like Winslet as Mildred, but the book just makes you want to shake Ms. Pierce in order for her to tell anyone that they can jump in a lake (Monty or Veda) who wisecracks about her “pie wagon.”


I highly recommend seeing the miniseries if you want to understand the story.  Besides a slightly different conclusion (the ending quote remains the same) the miniseries follows the book throughout.  It is about a five hour investment which will pay off with interesting conversation as well as evening or two of entertainment.  Overall, I still love the film.  There is just something about Joan Crawford in a fur (although I’m with PETA on fur wearing) that makes me happy and you marry that image with a pie you’ll find me in heaven.


Westerfield © 2011

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