- Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
This afternoon, the Authors & Auteurs Book Club meets to view the 1945 adaptation of James M. Cain’s classic tale of California excess, Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford in an Oscar-winning role as the title character, a housewife-turned-entrepreneur who builds a California restaurant empire only to crumble in the face of her daughter’s rejection of Mildred’s middle class morality. The film differs significantly from the book, condensing the narrative and adding in more crime story tropes (unsurprising for a film made at the height of film noir’s golden age) yet each shares the same basic story and underlying menace.
Cain’s novel follows the title character through a linear life marked by highs and lows. As the novel begins, Mildred Pierce, after having discovered her husband’s affair, puts an end to her marriage and strikes out on her own, ready to singlehandedly beat the Great Depression into submission by selling pies. Upon her separation from her affable but destitute husband, she attempts to secure what she considers to be dignified employment, yet finds that with her lack of work experience, her only recourse is to continue developing the skills she’d mastered in the home – her pies and her wonderful cooking.
A playboy named Monty takes an interest – first in her voluptuous legs, and then later, in her money. He also takes an interest in her status-obsessed daughter, Vera, whose schemes provide much of the novel’s momentum towards its shattering conclusion. Vera is as obsessed with music as with hobnobbing with the upper classes, yet her musical talents belie her cold, driven personality. The cruelty she inflicts upon her mother may convince some readers to never reproduce – or to, at least, never give a child everything she wants.
The film completely restructures the narrative as a tale told by Mildred to police officers investigating her after a murder in the family. German expressionist lighting, and Joan Crawford’s eyebrows, together form a menacing picture of extremely dysfunction family life for an adaptation so different from the original, it feels entirely complementary.
Mildred Pierce, as a book, is not quite a classic crime novel, but it certainly fulfills the bleak promise of his more true-to-the-genre work, presenting a brutal vision of the pitfalls of success and showing that a story about a woman clawing her way from mortgaged housewife to entrepreneur extroardinaire is noir as hell (just like any honest tale of capitalist success).
Mildred Pierce may fall more comfortably into the domestic suspense category of crime fiction, but not the contemporary narrative focusing on dangerous husbands – Mildred may have a weakness for loafers, but her conflicts with the men in her life pale in comparison to her epic struggles with her snobbish daughter, determined to cut her mother down for her hard work even as she takes advantage of the financial benefits of a successful home.
The Authors & Auteurs Book Club meets to view and discuss the film and book today, at 2 PM! You can find copies of Mildred Pierce on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.