Mildred Pierce is a 1941 hardboiled novel by James M. Cain. It was made into an Academy Award–winning film of the same name in 1945, starring Joan Crawford, and a 2011 Emmy Award–winning miniseries of the same name, starring Kate Winslet.
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. The screenplay was adapted by Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner, and Catherine Turney and was directed by Michael Curtiz.
Set in Glendale, California, in the 1930s, the book is the story of a middle-class housewife, Mildred Pierce, and her attempts to maintain her family’s social position during the Great Depression.
Mildred separates from Bert, her unemployed husband, and sets out to support herself and her children. After a difficult search she finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will think her new job demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens three successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Ray. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but increasingly turns ungrateful, demanding more and more from her hard-working mother while openly condemning her and anyone who must work for a living.
When Mildred discovers her daughter’s plot to blackmail a wealthy family with a fake pregnancy, she kicks her out of their house. Veda, who has been training to become an opera singer, goes on to great fame, and Mildred’s increasing obsession with her daughter leads her to use her former lover, Monty (a man who, like Mildred, lost his family’s wealth at the start of the Great Depression), and his social status and connection to bring Veda back into her life. Unfortunately for Mildred, this means buying Monty’s family estate and using her earnings to pay for Veda’s extravagances. Mildred and Monty marry, but things go sour as her lavish lifestyle and neglect of her businesses has dramatically affected the company’s profits. Creditors line up, led by Wally, a former business associate of Bert’s, with whom Mildred had a brief affair upon their separation. With no one to turn to, Mildred confesses to Bert that she has been embezzling money from her company in order to buy Veda’s love.
Having decided that the only course of action is to ask Veda to contribute some of her now considerable earnings to balance the books – and fearing that Wally might target the girl’s assets if they are exposed – Mildred goes to her room to confront her. She finds Veda in bed with her stepfather. Monty reproaches Mildred for using him to bring Veda back and for her attitude to him as a financial dependent of hers, while Veda affects boredom but joins in to chide Mildred for embarrassing her and taking glory in her success. Mildred snaps, brutally attacking and strangling her daughter, who now appears incapable of singing and loses her singing contract.
Weeks pass as Mildred moves to Reno, Nevada, to establish residency in order to get a speedy divorce from Monty. Bert moves out to visit her. Mildred ultimately is forced to resign from her business empire, leaving it to Ida, a former company assistant. Bert and Mildred, upon the finalization of her divorce, remarry. Veda travels to Reno and apparently reconciles with Mildred but, several months later, Veda reveals that her voice has healed and announces that she is moving to New York City with Monty. The “reconciliation” (which had been accompanied by reporters and photographers) was designed to defuse the negative publicity resulting from the affair with her stepfather and it emerges her apparent loss of her voice was a ploy so that she could renege on her existing singing contract and be free to take up a more lucrative one offered by another company. As she leaves the house, a broken Mildred, encouraged by Bert, eventually says “to hell” with the monstrous Veda, and the pair agree to get “stinko” (drunk).
The Motion Picture Production Code in force at the time specified that 11 subjects “shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association” and listed 25 other subjects where “special care be exercised in the manner in which… [they] are treated.” These provisions made it impossible to film a literal depiction of the events in the novel. The screenplay removes any depiction of a sexual relationship (which would have been both incest and infidelity) between Monty and his stepdaughter, Veda. In the film, Mildred neither discovers them in bed nor injures Veda in any way.
These elements were replaced with a murder mystery told in flashbacks. In the movie, Veda commences an affair with Monty and kills him when he refuses to divorce Mildred to marry her. Mildred initially confesses to Monty’s murder in order to shield Veda from prosecution but ultimately gives her over to the authorities.
Mildred Pierce was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (both Arden and Blyth), Best Screenplay and Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Ernest Haller). Crawford won the film’s only Academy Award, as Best Actress.