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Literature / Mildred Pierce

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"And I'll do anything for those kids. D'you hear me? Anything!"

"Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."
Ida Corwin

Mildred Pierce began as a 1941 novel by James M. Cain. However, it's best known as a 1945 Film of the Book from Warner Bros., directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford.

The film opens with a single gunshot. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) collapses onto the floor, and chokes out "Mildred" before dying. Mildred herself is walking out to the docks, looking over the edge as if to jump. The police take her to the station and she relates her story via flashback.

Mildred Pierce (Crawford) is a typical middle-class housewife in suburbia. Bert (Bruce Bennett) is her recently unemployed husband, and they have two spoiled daughters — pre-teen Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and teenaged Veda (Ann Blyth). Bert is against Mildred's parenting style, which he calls "buying them love", but Mildred sees it as protecting them. After fighting over this and Mildred's claims that he has been cheating on her, Bert decides to leave.

Mildred rebuilds her life by becoming a waitress — though Veda sees the work as degrading — and eventually becomes the owner of a successful restaurant chain with help from her friend and former boss Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) and money borrowed from Bert's onetime business partner, callow heel Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred does anything she can to impress Veda, but the snobbish girl insists on regarding her mother as "a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing." Mildred eventually marries Monte, a rich playboy, to impress Veda. Things go downhill from there, until we find out how Monte was killed.

Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, and the film was nominated in several other categories.

In 2011, the original novel was adapted into a three-part, five hour mini-series by Todd Haynes for HBO, with Kate Winslet as Mildred, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Guy Pearce as Monty. The mini-series followed the novel more closely than the movie, restoring the novel's Downer Ending and plot points such as Veda becoming a successful opera singer.

Sonic Youth named one of their songs after the film.

Tropes used by the story:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie; while the entire third act and murder plotline are invented for the movie, it is largely seen as a move that better fits the story. Having Joan Crawford as Mildred helps as well, as Crawford's strong will makes Mildred's blind spot towards her daughter's sociopathic nature all the more believable.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Mildred finds Veda working in a Bikini Bar, singing as a Ms. Fanservice on stage in the film. This seems extremely odd, considering Veda's classism and disgust at Mildred being a waitress earlier. In the book, she had actually been having success as a coloratura singer, but the Hays Code wouldn't allow a villain to experience that kind of respectable success.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The name of Mildred's younger daughter was changed from Ray (short for Moire) to Kay in the movie. Also, Monte's name was spelled as Monty in the book.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Mildred of the book has plenty of classist notions herself, at one point going to vomit after she admits to becoming a waitress out of shame, and the narration admitting at one point she was glad Ray died since it meant Veda survived. To make her more acceptable as a protagonist for the 1940s, she becomes a plucky businesswoman who, although flawed and corruptible, is ultimately a good person. What's more is that the book describes a weird obsession that Mildred has with Veda, even only thinking of her during sex. The film shows she's just a doting mother who wants to help her daughter succeed.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Bert at the start comes across as worse in the film with the setting change. The book was set during the Great Depression, where there was no work, so Bert simply couldn't get a job. The film updated things to the present, and America was experiencing a booming economy, making him look lazy.
  • Adaptational Karma: Necessary for the film to fly along the Hays Code's restrictions. The film now opens with Monty being murdered, punishing him for his adultery. Veda becomes the murderer, and Mildred initially want to take the fall for her, but she goes to jail in the end. The book had no murder at all, and in fact ended with Mildred losing everything as Veda embarks on a potential big break. What's more is that Veda in the book is found working as a coloratura, which the code deemed too respectable for the film's villain, so she's now discovered singing in a Bikini Bar instead.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Veda as a child is more likable in the series, having a Jerkass Realization when Mildred confesses to being a waitress, that she's not happy with it either, but getting her to understand that it's just the first step to running their own business and that they also need the money. She's also proud of her mother at the restaurant's opening night.
  • All Take and No Give: Mildred's relationship with Veda, obviously.
  • Amicable Exes: Mildred and Bert get into an argument that leads to the former telling the latter to Get Out!, and it's pretty obvious that he's gotten involved with someone else immediately after. However, he still visits for his stuff and the kids, and they're at an awkward but understanding standstill when Mildred gets the car from him, revealing that she has a job now. When it turns out Mildred's only option at buying a building for her company is to divorce Bert due to him being an incorporator, it's the last thing either of them wanted and both are in tears when they discuss it.
  • Artistic License – Music: Veda somehow becomes a soprano coloratura in a matter of weeks, rather than the years of training and discipline it would realistically take. The 1945 film edges this closer to realistic, where she's just a lounge singer in a Bikini Bar.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film's version of the ending. After finishing her recount of the events, the police inform Mildred, who tried to pin the blame of Monty's death on Wally, that they already know Veda murdered her step-father. While Veda is arrested and taken to jail, Mildred finds Bert has been waiting for her, and the two tentatively take their first steps out of the station together, into the morning sunlight, and a possible reconciliation.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: The story deconstructs this trope, through Veda, who manipulates her mother and everyone around her to get what she wants.
  • California Doubling: invoked In the miniseries, New York doubles for Southern California.
  • Character Title: Naturally, the film is named after Joan Crawford's character, Mildred.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Kay, the sweet good child has blonde hair. Veda, the bratty, manipulative daughter is a brunette.
  • Composite Character: Lucy Gessler, who is Mildred's neighbor and best friend in the novel is left out from the movie, but a part of her personality is incorporated into Ida's character.
  • Cool Car: Mildred gets Veda a very nice, expensive car.
  • The Corrupter: Monty encourages Veda into the lavish, expensive lifestyle and talking trash about her mother.
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: Where the Pierces live.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: In the movie, Wally says this is where he got the cut on his hand when he was framed for Monte's murder.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Ida — oh, so much!
    • Kay, awesomely (when Veda whines about her new dress not being good enough, she drawls, "Oh, you're breakin' my heart."). Sadly, she doesn't get too many good lines.
  • Death by Adaptation: Monte. While the novel ends with him leaving with Veda, the film opens with his murder.
  • Downer Ending:
    • In the original ending from the novel, Mildred throttles Veda after she catches her with Monty. Veda fakes being rendered mute, in order to use the "injury" to get out of her existing contract and to a more lucrative one, that would relocate her to New York. However, there is the matter of the public scandal her actions have caused: Wally uses it to force Mildred to resign from her company, while Veda fakes a reconciliation in order to salvage her career. While Bert and Mildred remarry once Mildred divorces Monty, the couple spends their days getting drunk and not noticing Veda's plot until Christmas morning, where she drops the bomb on them via speaking for the first time in months and announcing her move to New York to live with Monty. And for the final indignity, Mildred has gotten fat and ugly since strangling her daughter and Monty is physically repulsed at Mildred when he sees her as he picks Veda for the trip to New York.
    • The miniseries takes the downer ending and turns it into a Bittersweet Ending: Mildred loses the company, Monty, and is back-stabbed by her daughter; however, her friends are still by her side and Ida is begging Mildred to start a new company. Veda keeps her distance from Mildred as she "recovers from her injury", with Mildred calling her out on her scam within seconds of finding out that Veda was trying to get the New York job offer. Mildred disowns Veda and gets drunk with Bert, who FINALLY convinces Mildred to renounce her evil daughter once and for all.
  • Fanservice:
    • In the movie, Joan Crawford gets a bikini scene at Monte's beach house, leading to this funny moment:
      Mildred: [goading] Don't I get a whistle?
      Monte: ...I'd need a police siren.
    • In the miniseries, Kate Winslet rises to the occasion.
    • Evan Rachel Wood gets a full-frontal nude scene at the end (though considering how revolting her character is by that point, it could be something else).
  • Femme Fatale: Mildred fits this role in the movie. While a fairly good person throughout most of the story, she frames Wally for Monte's murder.
  • Fille Fatale: Veda in the movie.
  • Film Noir: The movie. After all, it's from the man who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and the man who directed Casablanca.
  • Film of the Book: It adapts the book, but with plenty of changes outlined above, especially the ending.
  • Food Porn: Any scene with Mildred cooking or serving food.
  • Framing Device: Mildred telling her story to the cops.
  • Freudian Excuse: Veda insists on it. "You're the one who made me the way I am..."
    • And the one for Mildred herself constantly doting on Vera despite seeing how rotten it's turning her is the death of her other daughter causing her to become obsessive over Vera from the loss.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: In the book, Bert and Mildred consider "an operation" when Veda falls pregnant, but veto it for health and moral reasons. Turns out she was faking it anyway.
  • Gosh Darn It to Heck!: In the movie, we get:
    Kay: Aw, pretzels!
  • Hope Spot:
    • In the book, once she is stripped of her restaurant empire, it is stated that Mildred doesn't have the will to try again at business.
    • In the mini-series, Ida (who now runs the business) is still friends with Mildred and makes it clear to Mildred, that she needs to get back into the food service industry when Ida points out how their customers have noticed a drop in quality in the product ever since Mildred was forced out.
  • Housewife: Mildred, when married to Bert. After the divorce, she becomes a working single parent in order to please her ungrateful daughter.
  • How We Got Here: The movie uses flashbacks to explain how Monte ended up shot dead.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Kay develops one right before going on vacation with her father.
  • Karma Houdini: Monte and Veda in the novel; in the miniseries, Monte gets one, but Veda at least gets one last chewing out by her mother before walking away.
  • Kill the Cutie: Ray/Kay, Mildred's sweet and innocent younger daughter, dies of a sudden illness in all versions.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Mildred in the 1945 film isn't too different from her actress Joan Crawford. The latter had grown up in poverty, and had to work very hard to scrape by, eventually reinventing herself to become a Hollywood starlet. And she too was experiencing a complicated relationship with two children at the time - one of whom would later write an infamous tell-all book about her abusive nature - although it wouldn't have been known to the public at the time.
  • Leg Focus:
    • Mildred's attractive legs are commented upon by both Wally and Monte.
    • In the movie, Ida gets some attention from Wally while standing on a ladder, leading to this line:
      Ida: Please, leave something on me...I might catch cold!
  • Mama Bear: Mildred, so much. She'll do anything for her ungrateful daughter. Even taking her murder charges as her own.
  • May–December Romance: Veda and Monte.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Veda full stop. At first, she mostly just uses her mother to get things she wants. Later, she does this other people. At one point, she gets married to a rich young man, then almost immediately demands separation in order to get money out of him. When she doesn't get much at first, she lies about being pregnant in order to squeeze more money out of him and his mother.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: Ida notices Wally checking her out and snarks "leave something on me, I might catch cold."
  • Parental Favoritism:
    • Bert favors Kay above Veda, due to how spoiled the latter is. Mildred doesn't sway too much toward either daughter, though she is the reason Veda is the way she is.
    • In the book, Mildred favors Veda — to the point when Kay (Ray in the book) dies, she (guiltily) thinks to herself that she's glad it wasn't Veda.
  • Pretentious Pronunciation: Mildred's younger daughter is named Moire in the novel. Her parents think that it's a French name and pronounce it as "Mwaray" (and shorten it to "Ray"). Mildred only learns the correct pronunciation at Ray's funeral.
  • Pretty in Mink: Mildred has a sable coat and hat at the end.
  • Setting Update: The book was set in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. The film moved the time period to be the then-present. The 2011 miniseries restores the original setting.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: Veda begins to smoke to fit in with her social groups once her mother gets rich enough to please her.
  • Social Climber: Veda is one of these, which leads to Mildred becoming one as well in an attempt to make her happy.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Veda for definite. The story follows her teenage years of her greed and her obsession with her social status.
  • Truer to the Text: The 2011 miniseries is more faithful to the novel, so the film noir elements are removed.
  • Ungrateful Bitch: Veda will gladly waste Mildred's hard-earned money while she spends every second complaining about how Mildred earned it in the process. And then she'll ask for more.
  • The Vamp: Veda, much to everyone's surprise.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: In the book, Mildred's daughters are called Veda and Moire, due to "the principles of astrology, supplemented by numerology". Mildred and Bert mispronounce Moire as "Mwaray", and shorten it to Ray.