On November 28, 1945, Warner Bros. received a letter from a Mrs. Rex R. Simpson in Springfield, Illinois regarding their recently released film Mildred Pierce. The letter expresses praise for the film and for its star Joan Crawford, before pointing out what the writer calls a “slip”:
In the scene where Joan is getting ready to open her first restaurant, she is sitting on a stepladder cleaning the chandelier. Zachary Scott walks in and—I don’t remember the exact wording but—he remarks about the “Nylon shortage” not affecting the attractiveness of her—Miss Crawford’s—legs. The impression I had before this scene, and after too, was that this was not a war-time picture. Nylons did not become scarce until after we had been at war for six months or more. There were scenes in the restaurant where there were crowds of people, and surely there would have been a few servicemen in uniform. That is, I didn’t see one. Also the boy “Veda” was married to for a short time was of draft age. Please correct me if I am wrong in my criticism.
The fact that the writer was so attuned to the absence of wartime signifiers may seem surprising and even nitpicky, but it bears closer scrutiny. After all, Mildred Pierce was made to speak directly to an audience—particularly a female one— transitioning out of complete wartime mobilization, which had granted them unprecedented access to work. Linda Williams has argued that the film’s refusal to include the kinds of overt signifiers that Mrs. Simpson finds palpably missing is part of how it “manages”—that is, both reflects and represses—the historical issue of women’s experiences during World War II (25). According to Williams, the film abstractly engages the issue of women’s economic independence without tying it to the explicit context of the end of the war. Yet we do know that Warner Bros. was well aware of the film’s thematic topicality. As James C. Robertson describes,
Jack Warner deferred the release in the hope that the war with Japan would end shortly (Germany had been defeated in May), and that the film would fare better in a post-war atmosphere. This would inevitably embrace the anxieties and insecurities about marriage and relations between the sexes which Mildred Pierce exploited. (91)
Japan surrendered in August of 1945, and Mildred Pierce was released in October. Thus despite the film’s careful treading, the war is—supposedly—something like its absent center. The vast body of scholarship on Mildred Pierce, a canonical work for feminist film studies, reflects critics’ persistent awareness of the war’s role in the film’s production and ideology.1
Yet for the woman who wrote this letter, that role was not obvious. She wrote from the vantage point of a society that looked different enough from the one represented in the film to be worth questioning. For her, the absence of wartime signifiers placed the film at a different period, one in which its depictions of economic struggles made more sense. What strikes me about this letter is that though Mrs. Simpson does not mention James M. Cain’s source novel, whose events take place between 1931 and 1940, her criticism is in keeping with the observation that the film Mildred Pierce does in fact inhere the residues of that Depression-era text. We can only speculate about Mrs. Simpson’s reading habits; the point here is that an audience member, even one possibly unfamiliar with the novel, immediately recognized the film’s temporal incongruity. It is not only the absence of signifiers like servicemen that codes the film as pre-war: the film’s narrative of economic struggle, self-made success, and class anxiety is far more befitting of the 1930s than the 1940s, when work was in extremely high demand and far more permissive of social movements across lines of gender, race, and class. Mildred Pierce provides an interesting case study to consider the issue of historical adaptation because of how the same narrative is applied to two eras whose economic milieus are almost completely oppositional. The result is something of a hybrid temporality, part Cain’s rendering of a single mother trying to find work during the worst economic crisis in American history, part Warner Bros.’s attempt to rework that material to resonate with the millions of American women who had entered the workforce after Pearl Harbor and would soon be expected to leave it. This essay will consider the process of transforming the 1930s context of Cain’s work into a narrative relevant to a 1945 audience, looking at how the process of adaptation selectively converted the concerns of the earlier decade to speak to the issue of wartime working women. It argues that the film hovers between these two historical contexts as it attempts to fit a narrative of economic hardship into a period of economic boom. Through this process we can discern its paradoxical messaging in regard to representations of working women, thus complicating our understanding of Mildred Pierce as simply a “wartime” film. What initially looks like a straightforward commentary on the postwar return to normalcy instead can be understood as multiple competing historical configurations of gender and labor. This essay will not only compare the film’s temporal setting with the novel’s, but also consider archival production material to elucidate how screenwriters and filmmakers consciously effected this change.
While many critics have recognized that World War II is a crucial context for understanding the relationship between gender, labor, and maternity in Mildred Pierce, most have conflated the film’s temporal setting with the period in which it was made. My interpretation shows the ways in which this both is and is not the case. Early script drafts were much more direct about signaling to the war in the film, but very few of these signifiers made it into the final version. Additionally, the film retains structural vestiges of the Depression-era events that propelled the narrative of Cain’s novel. Therefore, any argument about the place of the war in Mildred Pierce must take into account the contradictory ways the film deploys history to construct its arguments about women—particularly wives and mothers—working outside of the home. Kathleen McHugh and Catherine Jurca have argued that the film mitigates this cultural anxiety by muddling the distinctions between work and home, housework and paid work, family and business. Jurca in particular asserts that the film does this in order to recuperate the institution of the corporation in relation to the new consuming power of the postwar American family. I argue that the film’s temporal dimension—its toggling between Depression and wartime modes—is yet another source of muddling that complicates the view of Mildred’s labor as simply meriting narrative punishment at the end of the film. Critics like Joyce Nelson and Janet Walker have discussed the ways Mildred’s daughter Veda’s (Ann Blyth) crime of murder is conflated with Mildred’s “crime” of bad mothering, thus indicting her foray into business in maternal terms. I argue instead that under a different optic, Mildred’s labor should be understood as the thing that separates her from the evil, freeloading Veda, and that in the context of World War II propaganda aimed at women would have been lauded as patriotic. I ultimately agree with Jurca’s claim that much of the feminist film criticism on Mildred Pierce has “a certain predisposition to make patriarchal oppression the bottom line of classical Hollywood film,” thus missing the ways that the film offers up a more nuanced representation of women’s labor and the cultural messaging around it (31).
1945 is not simply “wartime” or “postwar” but the period of tense shift from one to the other. The common reading of Mildred Pierce’s ending states that it stages the return of American women from the workforce back into the home by having Mildred (Joan Crawford) reunite with her now-employed first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), whom, the film strongly implies, she never should have left.2 Having toyed with the fantasy of a female-driven workforce, the film safely fades out with the reassurance of a patriarchal status quo—a clear analogy for the state of the nation. Yet this reading does not take into account how extremely abruptly and dramatically the government shifted its messaging about female labor between the Depression and World War II, and the many ideological contradictions that resulted. With the scarcity of jobs in the 1930s, the needs of white men came before those of women and people of color. After the United States’ entrance into the war in 1941, however, not only did opportunities suddenly open up for women, but they were bombarded with propaganda that encouraged them to work, and even censured those who did not. Between 1940 and 1945, the female workforce rose from 12,000,000 to 19,000,000. Even with the millions of women who sought out employment, the need for labor was still so severe that Congress considered passing a bill that would draft women as well as men into compulsive civilian service. It was nevertheless understood from the beginning that this social change was only temporary, which made the radical ideological shift more palatable. However, polls indicated that by the end of the war, most women—two-thirds or more, according to Doris Weatherford—wanted to keep working (307). We can therefore understand the period between 1942 and 1945 as extremely anomalous in its social attitudes towards women, bracketed on either side by years that reinforced the prioritization of white male workers.
It is not hard to see this social ambivalence towards working women in the cinema of the period. Throughout the 1940s Hollywood reveled in the image of the career woman with her broad-shouldered suit and no-nonsense wit in films like His Girl Friday (1940) and Lady in the Dark (1944), celebrating her novelty while also making sure she was subservient to a man by the end credits. But Mark Jancovich has compellingly argued for a critical revision of Hollywood’s portrayals of working women in film noir, in which the femme fatale is usually understood as “a demonization of the independent working woman at a time when there was a concerted effort to persuade women to surrender the jobs that they had taken on during the war” (100). Instead, Jancovich shows how femmes fatales, both during and after the war, were “not associated with the independent woman, but rather with the figure of the ‘slacker,’ the greedy, selfish ‘Mrs. Stay-at-Home,’ who refused to ‘subordinate her personal concerns’ to the war effort, despite warnings that ‘a soldier may die if you don’t do your part” (101). Interestingly, Jancovich does not discuss Mildred Pierce in the context of his claim even though it is one of the most significant films (and film noirs) about female labor of the 1940s. Perhaps that is because it provides a litmus test for the historical limits of tolerance for working women. As June Sochen writes, “Mildred Pierce ended the playful admiration of the Independent Woman,” the culmination of the woman’s films that dominated in the 1930s and early 1940s (13). As a wartime film, Mildred Pierce valorizes Mildred’s drive to work, while as a narrative informed by the Depression and the impending postwar period it also refuses to find a place for her and her labor in the national patriarchal narrative. This aspect of the film—the celebration of Mildred’s self-made success—has been frequently overlooked by critics, who prefer to focus on its negation via the film’s ending. Yet by turning to the film’s negotiation of its source material in conjunction with the historical moment of its production, this study hopes to nuance our understandings of how ideologically Mildred Pierce navigates the different historical moments with which it is in dialogue. Instead of presuming the film’s temporal incongruity, I will emphasize its historical tensions as a way of revising what has been assumed to be its ultimately negative commentary on gendered labor.
Mildred Pierce for FDR
The Depression permeates almost every aspect of James M. Cain’s novel, published in 1941. It begins with the failure of a white middle-class patriarch: Mildred’s first husband Bert, who is hardly the stand-up guy down on his luck that he is in the film. Though the 1929 Crash ruins Bert financially, the text makes clear that his previous business success was due to the random luck of boom and bust cycles: having inherited some farmland in Glendale, California, he was saved by the massive real estate bubble of the 1920s. Bert’s prosperity gives him an inflated sense of is own genius, so when he loses everything in the Crash, he sinks into deep denial about his failure and refuses to look for a job. Williams argues that the film’s initial temporal ambiguity prompts doubt as to whether to read Bert as unemployed because of the Depression or because of his own laziness, allowing the film to “have it both ways” (25). But the film, contrary to the novel, wants the viewer to see Bert as a productive member of society who has fallen on hard times. In the film’s voiceover Mildred informs the audience, “For a long time [Bert and his partner Wally] made good money. They built a lot of houses. Then suddenly people stopped buying. The boom was over” (see Figure 1). Small wonder that moviegoers like Mrs. Simpson assumed that the film took place in the 1930s when they heard this reference to the end of the “boom.” This description maintains the logic of an event like the 1929 Crash but historically separates it from the patriarchal crisis that ensued.
It is out of this situation that Mildred finds herself in need of work, after kicking Bert out of the house more for his shiftlessness than for his affair with one Mrs. Biederhof. In the novel, Mildred does not actively seek independence, but is compelled to find it because of patriarchal failure. This indictment extends to the nation: the text announces Mildred as a member of “the biggest army on earth…the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July—a grass widow with two small children to support” (13). The phrase is meant to reflect on the unreliability of men and the lack of social protections for women. In the novel, Mildred’s neighbor and confidante Lucy Gessler utters the line after Bert leaves Mildred for good. The film too uses the “grass widow” line to describe Mildred’s plight (the term refers to a woman whose husband is absent rather than dead), yet in a very different way. In the film, Lucy’s character does not appear, and instead the line is said by Wally, Bert’s former business partner who is “on the make” for Mildred as soon as he learns she is single. Wally delivers this line with more irony, as it reflects Mildred’s perceived need for male support (sexually as well as financially) that he is willing to provide. Thus whereas the novel uses the line to posit the shared plight of women, the film uses it to suggest that Mildred’s problems can be solved by another man.
Class is also a far greater concern in the novel than it is in the film, especially class as it is coded by racialized forms of labor. In this we can glean Depression-era fears of white class precarity. At her most desperate, the Mildred of the novel anguishes over whether to take a housekeeper job, but is ultimately too humiliated by the prospect. The racial nature of work is elaborated on through the character Letty, whom Mildred hires as a housekeeper once she starts making enough money. In the film, this character is named Lottie and played by the African American actress Butterfly McQueen, but in the novel Letty is apparently white, and embodies the need to perform class difference in the absence of racial signifiers. In an important episode that appears in both novel and film, Mildred comes home from work to find Letty wearing her own waitressing uniform. She learns that Veda found the uniform while snooping in Mildred’s closet and, suspecting the nature of Mildred’s job, made Letty put it on as a way of outing her mother. This episode suggests that Mildred and Letty hold similar social positions by dint of their similar labor. In another episode that occurs only in the novel, at the funeral of Mildred’s younger daughter Ray Letty answers the door for the guests before having the chance to change into her uniform, and Mildred’s parents shake hands with her, thinking she is one of the mourners. Once they realize she is the maid, they are indignant and embarrassed at their faux pas. Here, the visual privilege of whiteness conflicts with the laboring mark of class. It is significant that it is Mildred’s parents who cannot tell the difference between their presumed social inferiors and social equals, for their unease speaks to a general anxiety of the fragile border between middle and lower class, and their attempt to distinguish themselves from Letty only reinforces their closeness to her through Mildred.
Lottie in the film is portrayed mainly as the racist caricature of the ditzy Black maid, a variation of the role McQueen played in Gone with the Wind. The choice to make Lottie Black seems to serve the purpose of distinguishing between Mildred’s “whitened” housekeeping and Lottie’s work (she works for Mildred, not with her), but this decision also reinforces the non-white affiliations of Mildred’s labor. Production documents indicate that Lottie was originally conceptualized as “A white maid, a little on the stupid side” (“Bit Players Needed For ‘Mildred Pierce’”). According to Albert J. LaValley, it was William Faulkner (who briefly worked on the screenplay) who first came up with the idea of making Lottie Black, but he pictured someone “like Hattie McDaniel, a Dilsey type” (36). Faulkner thus envisioned Lottie as a mammy, serving as Mildred’s protector rather than her mirror. Instead, the film sought recourse in another kind of racial trope, but with different consequences. Ironically, this change from mammy to maid in keeping with the character’s original description may have been the studio’s feeble attempt to write less offensive Black characters in the 1940s, at the behest of the OWI and the NAACP—the former organization was willing to support the latter’s petition for better representations because they needed African Americans to participate in the war effort. In this way, we can read the reinvention of Lottie as a product of the film’s wartime moment. But even though Lottie is used mainly for comic relief, the novel’s sustained paralleling of Mildred and Letty residually persists in the film. The scene in which Veda has Lottie don Mildred’s waitressing uniform appears in the film, suggesting how Lottie, in Eric Lott’s words, “figures the proletarian fate Mildred is driven to beat and whose disabling likeness suggests Mildred’s darkest dread” (560). Lottie, then, is both a figure of racial displacement for Mildred’s labor and a figure who makes the racialization of that labor discernible. In another scene, Lottie is helping Mildred bake pies in her kitchen and comments on how hard Mildred works while she (Lottie) just sleeps all morning. Mildred tersely quips that the work keeps her thin, prompting Lottie to appraise her own body and mutter, “Don’t do nothing for me.” This is a clear jab aimed at Lottie’s presumed laziness, also intended to naturalize the idea of her as “fat” and non-glamorous in comparison to Mildred. In the script, the scene ends with Mildred’s line: “It keeps me thin…(indicating bankbook) and this fat” (LaValley 127). The jab at Lottie appears to have been added at the last minute, perhaps to insist on the comic differentiation of her character. Strange, then, that when Lottie puts on Mildred’s uniform in the very next scene, it fits her perfectly (see Figure 2). By using Lottie as the foil for the social embarrassments that Mildred’s position should make her susceptible to, the film is more suggestive of the similarities between the two women than it would like to admit.
The politics of the Depression also inform the novel’s construction of socio-economic relations. Its plot is punctuated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential elections in 1932, 1936, and 1940 and his administration’s repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Mildred’s avid support of Roosevelt is tied to her success as a business owner, a financial “recovery” from her own recent crisis that adumbrates the New Deal:
She hadn’t been in business very long before she became furiously aware of taxes, and this led quite naturally to politics and Mr. Roosevelt. She was going to vote for him, she said, because he was going to put an end to all this Hoover extravagance and balance the budget. Why the very idea, she said of all those worthless people demanding help, and this Hoover even considering doing anything for them. There was nothing the matter with them except they were too lazy to work, and you couldn’t tell her that anybody couldn’t get along, even if there was a Depression, if they only had a little gump. (123)
Like Bert, Mildred refuses to see the role of circumstance in her success, believing it to be purely the result of her hard work. She is able to purchase her first restaurant for cheap because Wally’s real estate company wants to show a profit loss on their tax return; and when Repeal comes, Mildred is able to add bars to her restaurants, thanks to the acumen of Lucy (whose bootlegger husband, ironically, is put out of a job by the same event). In these ways, the novel depicts women’s abilities to adapt to the shifting economy in places where men fail. Yet the novel’s bleak dénouement, after Mildred catches her spoiled daughter Veda in bed with her second husband Monty, is also rendered in terms of the nation’s political-economic stage: having gone to Reno for a divorce, Mildred “constantly listened to Mr. Roosevelt and couldn’t get it through her head that she couldn’t vote for him this year, as she would be a resident of Nevada, not of California” (234-235). This election year coincides with Veda’s betrayal and Mildred’s loss of her business. In this way, Mildred’s punishment suggests her ejection from the New Deal vision that she believed in so resolutely. She has undercut the nation’s efforts through her own misguided, maternal ambition. The end of the novel suggests that the New Deal, having fulfilled its economic vision and returned society to patriarchal normalcy, no longer needs women like Mildred.
The Wartime Treatment
When Mildred Pierce was published it received mixed reviews and sold relatively well, though Cain’s novels had been considered too perverse for screen treatment under the film industry’s Production Code. But after Double Indemnity unexpectedly got Code approval in 1943, Cain’s other works became instant hot commodities with the studios. Warner Bros. bought the screen rights to Mildred Pierce and immediately started conceptualizing it as a woman’s picture. Thames Williamson wrote the initial screen treatment of Mildred Pierce in January of 1944, prefacing it with the following statement:
By way of intensifying the importance of this story, the time has been moved up into the period of the present war—1940 to 1945.
The resulting adjustments have been made in such a way as to lose no force, and actually to strengthen the central theme; i.e. effects which Author Cain somewhat diffusely tied up with a no-longer dramatic depression, and a similar no vaguely-remembered economic shifts, have been welded into personal character and action.
Bert’s practical unemployment spreads over several war years, and would thus seem to be out of accord with the busy facts of the American economic situation. It is not. The man is a specialist; he is, moreover, not a pliable undifferentiated youth, but a mature person. His predicament has special irony, and enhances his value as a story character. In addition, it is perhaps worth noting that by showing such an individual really hunting work in vain during wartime, our story can supply an interesting, poignant, and valuable commentary upon the significance of bona fide job-seekers in a world in which the general over-all picture is one of man-power shortages.
Anticipating that the film would be released the following year, Williamson projected 1945 as its ending date without knowing that the war would end too. But particularly telling is Williamson’s insistent reduction of the Depression of less than a decade before to “vaguely-remembered economic shifts.” It seems that his current moment’s booming economic prosperity was so out of keeping with the extreme privations of the 1930s that he felt that historic specificity would diminish the film’s thematic appeal. At the same time, his wording betrays the concern that certain elements of Mildred Pierce might not easily fit into the 1940s milieu. These concerns manifest more through Bert’s character than Mildred’s. The film removes much of Mildred’s struggle to find a job that characterizes the first part of the novel, but audiences would have had a hard time reconciling Bert’s unemployment with the manpower shortage unless it was due to his own shiftlessness. Here, too, Williamson’s justifications feel forced. It is clear that for a man with a family to be out of work in the 1940s required special contextualization, and Williamson jumps through some unconvincing hoops to make Bert’s unemployment make sense.
Yet this historical framing stayed through screenwriter Catherine Turney’s first draft of the screenplay. Her script stipulates that the film takes place from 1939 to the present time. By way of conveying this explicitly, it opens with a paperboy mentioning Hitler’s invasion of Danzig. Rather than downplaying the war as the final film does, Turney’s script is shot through with not only wartime references but actual wartime developments. At his lakeside cabin, Monte (spelled differently than in the novel) listens to the radio announce British air raids on Kiel and scoffs, “We’ll be in it yet—the way they’re acting in Washington. (pause) You’d think we’d have our fingers burned after the last war, wouldn’t you?” Later, Wally says to Mildred, “We’ll be in this war yet, kid” and she responds, “Aw, now Wally—don’t be an alarmist.” These bits of dialogue, which do not appear in the final film, not only definitively set the story along a specific timeline that corresponds to a historical reality, but they also persistently remind the audience of the unique social exigencies of wartime. It appears that Turney’s strategy was to foreground the narrative setting so as to obviate potential confusion. She may have also been conscious of the need to distinguish the film’s setting from that of Cain’s novel.
Nor does Turney’s script rely on one-off lines to convey the narrative’s new temporality. In her script, though not in the final film, the major plot point of how Mildred gets her first restaurant is embedded in the issue of the wartime mobilization. In the script, Wally sells Mildred on the idea that a model home located near an aircraft factory is the perfect place for her restaurant. A calendar in the background of his office gives the date of their exchange as June 4, 1940:
Wally: You saw the factory we passed over there.
Mildred: That’s another thing I don’t like. Being so close to a factory.
Wally: But that happens to be the Eagle Aircraft Company. And there’s a war in Europe. And I happen to know all that property over there […] has been sold to Eagle because they’re expanding. They’re going to be able to use fifteen or twenty thousand employees before they’re through, and—
Mildred’s Voice: Oh come one, now, Wally—I know all that real estate gab backwards and forwards. I was married to it for fourteen years.
Wally: (patiently) Will you listen to me for a second? There’s a war on, in case you’ve forgotten. We have to supply England with planes. Every aircraft company in this country is going to go into mass production and go quick. And the people who build the planes are going to have to eat, you know. So why not be on the ground floor and work up a patronage before a thousand other restaurant owners have the same idea?
Recognizing the role of historical circumstance that so characterized Cain’s novel, here Turney attempts to replicate that idea by showing how the war likewise created a need for the kind of domesticized labor that Mildred’s cooking provides. Under this optic, Mildred’s labor even takes on a patriotic tinge.
Turney’s script also tries to account for Bert’s unemployment despite the abundance of wartime jobs. There, Mildred says to him, “You say there’s no work. I know there is—plenty of it—but not the fancy kind you want.” This is similar to the novel, where Bert’s refusal to find work is a matter of ego and class. At the same time, it appears as though Turney is trying to abide by Williamson’s outline by using Bert as an example of someone who struggles to find a job befitting him despite economic plentitude. Even this kind of hedging, however, might not have been convincing enough. Weatherford describes how despite the nation’s desperate need for workers in all sectors of the economy, women with college educations and specialized skills were frequently underutilized and passed over for positions they were more than qualified for, meaning that men were still privileged when it came to hiring (180-181). Thus Bert’s complaint that he cannot find white-collar work comes across as unlikely, since in real life he would have been more likely to be offered a job before any woman would. In the actual film the line about there being plenty of work does not appear, and facts are kept vague, even contradictory, as to why Bert has not looked for a job. In the film he says to Mildred, “When the time comes, I’ll get a job,” as well as, “That’s right, throw it up at me that I can’t support my own family.” The first line suggests that he will start looking for work on his own time, while the second implies that he has in fact been looking and has not found it.
It seems no accident that the beginning of the film reads more like a Depression narrative than later parts, when a few references to the war clarify the setting. It is possible that between Bert’s initial unemployment and the opening of Mildred’s business, filmmakers were attempting to register the shift from the scarcity of the 1930s to the thriving 1940s. The dialogue about the nylon shortage described by Mrs. Simpson is Mildred Pierce’s first reference to the war, and does not occur until almost halfway through the film. In that scene, Monte walks in on Mildred perched atop a ladder installing light fixtures in her restaurant, ogles her bare legs, and quips, “You know, it’s moments like this that make me happy that nylons are out for the duration” (see Figure 4).3 Nylon and silk were used to make parachutes, and campaigns during the war actively encouraged women to donate their worn stockings to the cause (see Figure 5). This particular privation of war was felt hard by women, who resorted to inferior cotton or rayon stockings that tended to bag at the knees, or, in some cases, to drawing a line directly on to their leg to imitate the stocking look. A Washington Post article cheekily noted in 1945, “America has awaited, presumably with bated breath, the recurrent dispatches from the nylon hosiery front these last five years” (“Nylon Saga”). At the end of the war when DuPont, the manufacturers of nylon, announced that they would shift nylon production from wartime materials back to stockings, customers crowded to department stores in what became known as the “nylon riots” (see Figure 6).
The realization that the events of the narrative are taking place in at least 1942 would very likely have cast the aristocratic Monte’s refusal to work in a new light. Instead of being merely effete Old Money, Monte’s life of leisure might seem almost criminal given the need for manpower. This criticism would also extend to Veda, since she emulates Monte and shares his scorn for people who work for a living. It follows that Mildred’s commitment to her work would be viewed as all the more ennobling, which is in keeping with the sequence of events that follows the nylon comment: Monte convinces Mildred to ditch work to go swimming at his beach house, and their tryst ends with Mildred returning to find her younger daughter Kay on her deathbed. The criticism on Mildred Pierce has by and large read Kay’s death as implicitly punishing Mildred for indulging in a moment of sexual gratification. Sochen, for instance, argues that the film implies that “Mildred should have been on call, always ready to care for her children. Making love to Monte, rather than sitting home awaiting the return of her children, was an abdication of maternal responsibility” (8). But by this logic we might also read Kay’s death as the punishment for Mildred’s momentary distraction from labor—labor of national importance.
Of particular relevance here is the role of mothers in the wartime workforce. The notion that Mildred has neglected her daughter by neglecting her work was in perfect keeping with the national refusal to accommodate jobs to the needs of mothers while simultaneously demanding their labor. Weatherford reports, “By the end of 1943, one-third of women war workers were also mothers of children living at home” (161). With available childcare facilities being the exception rather than the norm and companies bearing no responsibilities for their workers’ children, the working mother was placed in a double-bind: “when she was forced into thus skipping work at the factory for work at home, the media was quick to term her a ‘slacker,’ an apathetic, ignorant woman unknowingly aiding Hitler” (Weatherford 164). Though many have recognized Mildred Pierce as conveying the patriarchal message that motherhood and working outside of the home are incongruous, it is important to recognize the particular way that it promulgates this message. It does not insinuate that Mildred is a bad mother because she spends too much time working and not enough time tending to her children. Instead, the film filters its condemnation of Mildred’s parenting through her commitment to spoiling Veda, whose lavish needs give Mildred misguided motivation. The valorization of Mildred’s work, even as a mother, would have been in accord with wartime ideology. Even the era’s anxieties of “momism” need to be understood as filtered through the need for female labor: hysteria around mothers coddling their children was very much a concern in the 1940s, but as we see in Philip Wylie’s famous vituperation Generation of Vipers,it was tied to the image of the lazy housewife with too much free time on her hands, which Mildred is patently not.
This ideological unevenness is a symptom of the film’s attempt to force Cain’s narrative into the logic of not just wartime society, but also to make it abide by the moral logic of the Production Code, which still upheld the sanctity of the home and a woman’s place in it even if government policy said otherwise. This included maintaining the virtuous image of motherhood. Thus the completely toxic mother-daughter relationship between Mildred and Veda had to have its cause in exceptional circumstances (in this case, Mildred’s working so she can spoil Veda), but in point of fact Veda’s evil comes across as far more excessive than Mildred’s few gestures of indulgence can account for. That is because the novel treats this relationship very differently than the film does. The Mildred of the text worships Veda because she believes her to be musically talented, though the middle-class Mildred herself hardly knows what that means. But Mildred’s ambitions for Veda quickly exceed what she and her sensibilities can provide when it turns out that Veda is actually a talented opera singer. Cain articulated this theme as follows:
O.K., says God, you think this girl is talented. You want her to be a concert pianist. But if you want an artist in the family, why not a real one, a coloratura soprano? “Thanks, God,” says Mildred, “you sure are treating me swell.” But, says God, are you sure you want an artist at all? They’re kind of queer, you know. Maybe Glendale is not the place for one. Maybe you’re not the mother for one. I can’t even hear what you say. So God says, O.K., here she is—I hope you like what you ordered. (Hoopes 248)
What Cain downplays here is the role that class plays in acting out this drama. Mildred’s motivation to work and succeed is prompted initially by sheer need, but a need that is deeply imbricated with fantasies of class rise for her daughters. Her investment in a grand piano for Veda, an instrument that Mildred can barely afford and that is ultimately irrelevant to Veda’s talent, reflects her role in financially fostering Veda’s life while remaining emotionally ancillary to it. Even her successful restaurant chain is prompted by an act of Veda’s snobbery: when Veda scornfully confronts her mother for working as a waitress, Mildred quickly comes up with the justification that she is planning on opening up her own restaurant (thus owning the means of production instead of being it). The entire novel is a contest between Mildred’s middle-class notions of work and Veda’s desire to escape them, for in order to acquire the capital necessary for maintaining the upper class status Veda desires, Mildred must perform labor that indelibly marks her as anything but.
In adapting the book to film, screenwriters largely nixed both the theme of class and the theme of talent and ambition, concerns that they understood as related. A Warner Bros. internal memo recounting the writing process reads:
From the first, Mildred Pierce presented a difficult problem in adaptation. As Cain originally wrote the novel all the characters in it, including Mildred, were unpleasant. It is well known that in a successful motion picture the audience must be able to identify itself with the interests of certain good characters as against certain bad ones. At the same time the immoral activities of Mildred actually were unscreenable because of the Production Code. Since it was clear that Mildred must be the heroine of this story it was necessary to clean up her character. For this reason she was made a member of the upper middle class instead of the lower middle class; vulgarisms were dropped from her speech she was made more the victim of circumstances than a sinner…
Mr. Cain’s book gave Veda the saving graces of a passionate devotion to music and a genius for singing. We did not wish Veda to have these saving graces and so eliminated this from the picture. (Behlmer 255)
Another memo says that producer Jerry Wald felt “that audience sympathy might be lost for Mildred if Veda had this much talent and ability, and he therefore insisted that she go into a low dive and become a night club singer” (Behlmer 257). In both of these instances we see how filmmakers and film censors overlaid class and morality, even within a narrative that suggested that class rise and morality were fundamentally opposed. Veda’s lack of talent helps justify her “fall,” which comes to refer to her own class standing as much as to her character arc. But also, in making Mildred upper-middle class the film yet again distances itself from the Depression-era anxieties of the novel, placing her beyond the reach of its impact. To “clean up” Mildred effectively meant to diminish her struggle by placing her outside of real economic precarity, and to insist on her respectability in ways that, so it seems, would be impossible if she were “lower middle class.” Instead of historical calamity, her devastation is personal, ahistorical, and completely of her own making.
The final film does not include most of the direct mentions of the war from Turney’s original script, but there are a few comments that confirm its temporal setting as wartime: sailors in a dive bar whistle at Veda while she performs; and Bert eventually lands a job at an aircraft manufacturer, to which Mildred’s female manager Ida (Eve Arden) responds with the wry line, “The manpower shortage must be worse than we think!” (see Figure 7). It is this line that I want to end with, because it more than any other moment encapsulates the film’s direct attempt to situate its thematic engagement within its historical milieu. It is hardly incidental that this line is spoken by the butch Ida, who represents the masculine aspect of Mildred’s labors in ways that Mildred herself, as the female star, cannot. She also has the perspicacity that Mildred lacks, noting the chicanery of all the members of Mildred’s inner circle (Bert, Wally, Monte, and Veda). In this respect, the audience identifies with her perspective and her critiques. Thus even as Bert’s new job foreshadows his restoration as patriarch, Ida undercuts his masculine achievement by pointing to the cushy circumstances under which he got that job: in this economy, how could he not find work? But the line also serves to feminize work itself. The men in the film are mostly feckless, and while the absence of working men makes sense in terms of the manpower shortage, the characters are none too concerned with doing their part for the war effort either as soldiers or civilians. It is Mildred, Lottie, and Ida who perform most of the film’s work. Bert’s job may be an attempt to reassure audiences that after the war things will go back to how they were, but manpower has already been effectively transformed into womanpower, and his off-camera labors pale in comparison to theirs.
1 For discussions of Mildred Pierce’s relationship to World War II, see John Davis, June Sochen, Andrea Walsh, Linda Williams, Catherine Jurca, and Sheri Chinen Biesen.
2 See Nelson 70; Walsh 131; Robertson 51; Jurca 30; Biesen 143; and Corber 6.
3 Pamela Robertson and Catherine Jurca have both analyzed the significance of the scene through different lenses relating to gender, though neither discusses the reference to the nylon shortage and the war. Robertson sees the scene as proof of the film’s voyeuristic “masculine positioning” (45-46), while Jurca focuses on how Monte’s earlier dialogue about checking in on his “investment” indicates the film’s overlay of sexual desire with economic concerns (36).
Behlmer, Rudy. Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Biesen, Sheri Chinen. Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
“Bit Players Needed For ‘Mildred Pierce.’” Undated. Folder 2086. “Mildred Pierce” Story-Memos 3 of 4. Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Cain, James M. Mildred Pierce. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Cook, Pam. “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce.” In Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: BFI Publishing, 1980. 68-82.
Corber, Robert J. “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce.” Camera Obscura 21.2 (2006): 1-31.
Davis, John. “The Tragedy of Mildred Pierce.” The Velvet Light Trap 6 (Fall 1972): 27- 30.
Hoopes, Roy. Cain: The Autobiography of James M. Cain. Carbondale; Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Jancovich, Mark. “‘Vicious Womanhood’: Genre, the ‘Femme Fatale’ and Postwar America.” Revue Canadienne d’Études cinématographiques/Canadian Journal of Film Studies 20.1 (Spring/printemps 2011): 100-114.
Jurca, Catherine. “Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros., and the Corporate Family.” Representations 77.1 (Winter 2002): 30-51.
LaValley, Albert J. Mildred Pierce. Madison; London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
Lissauer, Herman. Letter to Mrs. Simpson. 14 Dec 1945. Folder 1015. “Mildred Pierce” Research. Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Lott, Eric. “The Whiteness of Film Noir.” American Literary History 9.3 (Autumn 1997): 542-566.
McHugh, Kathleen. American Domesticity: From How-To Manual to Hollywood Melodrama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Nelson, Joyce. “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered.” Film Reader 2 (Jan 1977): 65-70.
“Nylon Saga.” The Washington Post, 29 Aug. 1945, p. 8.
Robertson, James C. The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz. London; New York: Verso, 1993.
Robertson, Pamela. “Structural Irony in ‘Mildred Pierce,’ or How Mildred Lost Her Tongue.” Cinema Journal 30.1 (Autumn 1990): 42-54.
Simpson, Mrs. Rex R. Letter to Warner Bros. 28 Nov 1945. Folder 1015.
“Mildred Pierce” Research. Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Sochen, June. “Mildred Pierce and Women in Film.” American Quarterly 30.1 (Spring 1978): 3-20.
Turney, Catherine. Mildred Pierce. 3 April 1944. Folder 2086. “Mildred Pierce” Story- Temporary Script 4/3/44. Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
--. Mildred Pierce: screenplay. Ca. 1944. HM 71516. The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Walker, Janet. “Feminist Critical Practice: Female Discourse in Mildred Pierce.” Film Reader 5.5 (1982): 164-172.
Walsh, Andrea S. Women’s Film and Female Experience, 1940-1950. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. New York; Oxford: Facts on File, 1990.
Williams, Linda. “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War.” In Female Spectators: Looking At Film and Television, edited by E. Deirdre Pribram, London; New York: Verso, 1988, pp. 12-30.
Williamson, Thames. Mildred Pierce story treatment. 21 Jan 1944. Folder 2086. “Mildred Pierce” Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.