In February 1944, Jack Warner announced to Joseph I. Breen, of the Motion Picture Association of America, that Warner Bros. intended to film James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce. Breen was vociferous in his rejection and told the studio “the story contains so many sordid and repellent elements that we feel the finished picture would not only be highly questionable from the standpoint of the Code, but would, likewise, meet with a great deal of difficulty in its release…”
The Code in question is the Hays Code of 1930 that determined subject matter that could be depicted in Hollywood films of the era. The transformation of Cain’s 1941 novel into Michael Curtiz’s classic 1945 noir melodrama Mildred Pierce is a fascinating example of how material was censored and changed for the cinema audiences of the day.
Set in Glendale, California, the movie depicts a middle-class housewife who overcomes many adversities to maintain her family’s social status after the depression of the 1930s. After Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) separates from her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), she sets out to support her two daughters and reluctantly accepts a job as a waitress. Although she’s hard working and quickly gains some business acumen, she worries about the stigma of taking a job beneath her class and what her selfish, ambitious, and conniving daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) will think of her.
With the help of businessman Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), Mildred eventually opens her own chain of restaurants, working all the hours to keep the ungrateful Veda in the style to which she’s rapidly become accustomed. Her youngest daughter Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe) dies of pneumonia, and Veda’s own ambitions and Monte’s dependence on Mildred for money undermine her success. She and Mildred become estranged when Veda marries and blackmails her young husband with a false pregnancy. Missing her daughter, Mildred decides that only by marrying Monte can she reconcile with Veda. However, Monte’s debts ruin Mildred and when she sets out to confront him at his beach house she discovers he and Veda have other plans.
The studio, encouraged by producer Jerry Wald, paid $15,000 for the rights to make Mildred Pierce. The studio also found the characters in Cain’s book rather unsympathetic, too, disliking how housewife-turned-entrepreneur Mildred’s journey ended in misery and alcoholism, and found getting the screenplay approved by Breen’s office a tortuous exercise.
Mildred is quite vulgar in the book, best described as a loose woman, who only married Bert because she was pregnant. Veda, her eldest daughter, uses this as a stick to beat her with. Cain’s novel is not shy about pre-marital sex, shows Mildred and Bert considering an abortion for Veda as the result of her pregnancy (which turns out to be fictitious), and contains overt references to Veda’s relationship with stepfather Monte.
Although Ranald MacDougall received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, Cain had initially been approached by Wald to adapt the book for the screen. When he withdrew, Wald turned to a number of contract writers to make it suitable for the Code, the studio, and the audience’s own tastes. They included Thames Williamson, whose first draft encouraged Warner’s purchase of the rights.
Former playwright Catherine Turney, who often worked on melodramas, and crime writer Albert Maltz were given an opportunity to develop the script. Turney, who eventually requested her name be removed from the credits, noted “Mildred Pierce was a very big novel, about 600 pages, and to break it down to around 90-minutes you had to do a lot of manoeuvring and cutting and dove-tailing . . . I think that playwrights generally do this better than, say, novelists.”
Turney had completed two-thirds of the script when she disagreed with Wald about the introduction of Monte’s murder (not in the book) and a flashback structure. This crime element of the film was perhaps inspired by the successful opening of another Cain adaptation, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, in April 1944. When Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, fresh from the successes of Casablanca (1942) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), joined the production, he asked for Turney — now writing A Stolen Life for Bette Davis — to return to do rewrites. Davis, however, would not release her.
Although MacDougall devised the flashback structure, other writers also had a crack at the screenplay even while production was underway in December 1944. Louise Randall Pierson, a contract writer who’d adapted her own autobiography, Roughly Speaking (1945), for Curtiz, contributed some feminist touches to the script. William Faulkner’s rewrites introduced an elaborate voiceover narration and concentrated on the underhanded business dealings at Mildred’s restaurants. Veda is even more calculating and cold than she appears in the final film, but much of his material was unused.
Wald, apparently, had Joan Crawford at the top of his list to play the lead role in Mildred Pierce. Bette Davis was allegedly also up for consideration, but this is somewhat apocryphal as there’s no evidence in the Warner Bros. archive to show she was, and Davis later confirmed she’d never read a script for the movie.
After leaving MGM in 1943, where her 18-year career declined to such a level she was being labelled ‘box office poison’, Crawford had signed a picture deal with Warner Bros. in July of that year. Crawford lobbied Warner Bros. for the role, but Curtiz rejected her and demanded the studio cast either Barbara Stanwyck (who’d wowed audiences in Double Indemnity) or Rosalind Russell, having just completed Roughly Speaking with him.
Curtiz made no bones about rejecting Crawford, “with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder-pads, she’s a has-been. I won’t work with her.” Crawford was determined to do the film. She had spent over a year frustrating Jack Warner by refusing to make any of the pictures he offered her and, at her own request, had been taken off salary. She more or less humbled herself by agreeing to test for the role in order to persuade Curtiz to cast her. In October 1944, her test convinced him and he capitulated. Their relationship was extremely fraught to begin with and they argued over script changes, costumes, and her interpretation of the role. Producer Jerry Wald was ultimately the referee in such matters and he would produce six more films with Crawford until 1959.
Crawford also tested with the young actors lined up to play Mildred’s spoiled daughter, Veda. Wald suggested Shirley Temple but Curtiz was not convinced. By the end of November it looked like Virginia Weidler was the favourite, until Crawford tested with Ann Blyth. She saw Blyth’s potential and rehearsed the test with her in her dressing room before going in front of the cameras. It persuaded Wald and Curtiz that Blyth was good for the role.
When Zachary Scott was cast as the caddish Monte Beragon, Crawford thought he was ideal for the role and Variety certainly praised him for making a “society idler and murder victim, charming enough to love a woman out of her money and repulsive enough to justify his murder.”
Curtiz worked with esteemed cinematographer Ernest Haller to create the essential film noir mise en scène, particularly for the dramatic opening and closing sequences that framed the rest of the story. Even Crawford was impressed with Haller’s techniques, saying “I recall seeing Ernie’s copy of the script and it was filled with notations and diagrams. I asked him if these were for special lights and he said ‘No, they’re for special shadows’. Now that threw me. But when I saw the rushes I realised what Ernie was doing. The shadows and half-lights, the way the sets were lit, together with the unusual angles of the camera added considerably to the psychology of my character and to the mood and psychology of the film.”
At a cost of $1,342,000 dollars and on a schedule of 54 days, Mildred Pierce started shooting on 7 December 1944. The Breen Office still continued to demand changes, objecting to the use of the word ‘tart’ and the phrase ‘to hell and gone’ in the script’s dialogue. The Warner Bros. executives were worried about the budget, attempted to tighten the purse strings and also thought the title of the film should be changed to The House on the Sand but Wald persuaded them that there was enormous publicity to be gained from the name of Cain’s book. Curtiz frustrated the studio with his meticulous shooting and he eventually went over schedule by thirteen days.
The film was a huge success, relaunched Crawford’s career and was released at the end of World War II, just after the Japanese had surrendered in September 1945, when insecurities and anxieties about family life were at their highest. It underscores this with a psychological portrait of a mother attempting to keep her family together, trying to connect to an estranged daughter and to be desired and needed by a man.
Despite her entrepreneurial flair for running her restaurants, she still has a constant and strong psychological desire to be wanted by her daughter Veda and, mistakenly, Mildred thinks she can achieve this through conspicuous consumption, buying Veda whatever she wants in order to secure her love.
Counter to this, there is Mildred’s manipulation of men to achieve her own desires, whether they be material in the form of investing in her business or satisfying her dormant sexual longing. She divorces Bert simply because he can’t support her ambitions, she lures Wally to Monte’s beach house at night to frame him for murder and, in flashback, again at the same location, it’s her sexual impulses which are revived by Monte Beragon after a long period where she has denied herself such pleasures.
These are all markers of destabilisation within the family unit where film noir, especially, can be used to symbolise frustration and unfulfilled desire, dysfunction of the family’s potential for socialisation and reproduction, class conflict and oppression. Sylvia Harvey sees this dissonance reflected in film noir’s choices of “unbalanced and disturbing frame compositions, strong contrasts of light and dark, the prevalence of shadows and areas of darkness within the frame.”
Mildred Pierce’s cinematographer Ernest Haller certainly exploits these stylistic tensions in the opening and closing sequences that frame the flashback to Mildred’s journey through the film. The framing device uses all of these very powerfully to show Monte’s murder and how the paths of these characters trace across the disintegration of the fragile family values established by Mildred’s flashback.
The other unusual element to note after the flashback is that the voiceover narration that accompanies it is Mildred’s own. Conventionally, it was the male hero who provided the hard-boiled narration to accompany film noir’s narratives and Mildred Pierce again offers a dissonance between film noir’s requirements and the generic conventions of the ‘women’s picture’. Here the main character is female and Mildred’s story is a melodrama focused around domesticity, work and productivity rather than murder and violence.
The split between these two discourses suggests a split between female and male voices, between Mildred’s story and the police’s reinterpretation of events that lead to Mildred’s confession to murder in order to protect Veda. Pam Cook sees this hybridity of film noir and melodrama as a way for the audience to “anticipate the fate of independent successful career women and to force a separation or distance between audience and any sympathy or identification with Mildred’s success.”
Mildred Pierce mutates into a melodrama where the class status of the main female characters Mildred and Veda is also determined by their relationships to the three male characters of the film, Mildred’s husband Bert, the fast-talking real estate agent Wally Fay and the caddish loafer and parasite Monte Beragon. All three determine the means by which these women navigate their independence, their sexual (re)awakening, their social climbing and eventually their downfall.
Costume is a significant visual shorthand for this. In the opening and closing sections, Mildred power dresses in fur coat and smart suits, and in the flashbacks she appears wearing an apron and making pies within a domestic, suburban setting. The story is told via ‘rags to riches’ genre conventions and Jeanine Basigner notes how costuming and sets in Mildred Pierce define the central character’s struggle for independence from men to provide for her selfish daughter: “Mildred, no matter how much she glamorises herself, will always feel like a waitress deep inside… The cold glitter laid over the sets and costumes of Mildred Pierce gives the audience a sense of the success dream turned to stone.”
It is best emphasised by the ending of the film, where Mildred’s confession is overturned and she and Bert are reunited. Female chaos and disruption is tempered by male law and order. As she leaves the police station, they walk past a group of women scrubbing floors. They suggest Mildred’s power and status has been taken from her and, like them, she is put back in her proper place.
Another aspect to Mildred Pierce worth touching upon is the gay male response to the film. On the Criterion Collection release the extra features present a Q&A with Ann Blyth at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s acknowledged that the audience for the screening and the event are, in the majority, gay men who know the film extremely well because Mildred Pierce and Joan Crawford have a particular place in the lexicon of gay male culture for a certain generation.
This lies in the film’s appeal as melodrama and the use of excessive performance codes and, in Veda and Mildred’s violent confrontation that results in Mildred throwing her out, what David Halperin sees for gay men as “a camp opportunity to work through the traumatic possibility of maternal rejection and, hence, social de-authorisation.” The attraction to Crawford as a Hollywood icon also throws out a number of questions within contemporary gay culture about how the identification between gay men and film stars has altered over the decades and indeed whether this level of appreciation for Mildred Pierce and Crawford is now of any significance to gay male culture beyond merely camp nostalgia.
Suffice it to say, Mildred Pierce is a successful hybrid of Hollywood melodrama and noir, and Crawford’s performance is certainly one of her best, even if one is conscious that she’s indeed giving a ‘performance’. The film is a fascinating, often brilliant exploration of motherhood and childhood, of female and male power in a period when women’s independence during the Second World War was about to be reconfigured by the return of men to the domestic environment. It’s beautifully shot too and the high definition transfer on Criterion’s release is very sympathetic to the sharp contrast and exceptional detail in the picture.
The special features are also worth indulging in. There is a a good exploration of the themes in the film and the novel by Molly Haskell and Robert Polito; a feature length documentary about Crawford with Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star covering her career, her ‘feud’ with Bette Davis and, in a parallel with the film’s themes, the abuse she dished out to her adopted children; the aforementioned Q&A with Ann Blyth; David Frost interviewing Crawford in 1970 and a Today Show interview with author James M. Cain from 1969.
I am indebted to the following authors, essays, and articles for details and quotes:
- Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, Shaun Considine (Warner Books, 1989).
- The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz, James C. Robertson (Routledge, 1993).
- Women in Film Noir, edited by E.Ann Kaplan (BFI, 1998).
- Zachary Scott: Hollywood’s Sophisticated Cad (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).
- How To Be Gay, David Halperin (Harvard University Press, 2012).
- Mildred Pierce (1945) — Notes — TCM.com.
- Obituary: Catherine Turney, Tom Vallance — (Independent, 15 September 1998).
- Hollywood’s America: Understanding History Through Film, edited by Steven Mintz, David Welky, Randy W. Roberts (John Wiley & Sons, 2016).
Cast & Crew
director: Michael Curtiz.
writer: Ranald MacDougall (based on the novel by James M. Cain).
starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden & Ann Blyth.