MILDRED PIERCE (1941) by James M. Cain

In what I hope is not a sign of encroaching old age, I recently picked up my James M. Cain omnibus to refresh my memory of Mildred Pierce before sitting down to watch the new HBO mini-series adaptation starring Kate Winslet … and discovered something a bit scarier than a story of baked goods and the most ungrateful daughter in the history of literature: I discovered a book that was new to me! Which was a nasty surprise because I really thought I’d read it before. As a result, it remained unopened (and the miniseries consequently unviewed) for several weeks, mainly because I was just so irritated with myself! So, finally sitting down to actually read this novel has been a really different experience than I originally anticipated, especially as it made me realise that the memory I had in fact was based solely on the classic 1945 movie version. That beautifully crafted Noir, directed with abundant flair by the great Michael Curtiz and featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Crawford, is a real favourite but in many respects it is a very different beast from the novel. Indeed, it probably belongs to a completely different genre …

“…you’ve let half your life slip by without learning anything but sleeping, cooking, and setting the table, and that’s all your good for.”

The book begins in Glendale, California in the Spring of 1931, at the height of the Depression. This proves crucial to any understanding of the story, which is all about money and the value that people set on it. All the plot twists and turns, and there are many, are all about the desire for filthy lucre and the power and happiness that people think it will bring them, though this is no Marxist tracts (more’s the pity). Mildred is a proud housewife, unschooled and fairly conventional in her outlook. She is a hardworking mother and has a lot of problems – chief among them being her errant husband, Bert. A kindhearted but fundamentally weak man, since the Wall Street Crash he has been unable to find work and has been cheating on his wife with Maggie Biederhof, a character mostly defined in the book by the fact that she apparently doesn’t wear a brassiere (the hussy!). Mildred initiates a showdown, insisting that he either commit to the family right there and then or leave. Feeling pushed out, Bert opts for la Biederhof, though he pops up frequenly throughout the rest of the story. Mildred is left with a mortgage on the house and virtually no means of supporting her children, the cute poppet ‘Ray’ (really Moire but they can’t pronounce her name properly) and Veda, a precocious, talented and frankly scary pre-teen of 11.

After several excruciating defeats as Mildred tries and fails to find employment, she eventually ‘lowers’ herself and wangles a job as a waitress, supplementing her income with a sideline baking pies. The latter proves to be a great success and, with the help of her neighbour Lucy Gessler and fellow waitress Ida, she is able to eventually start-up her own business. In this sense this a true (pause for deep breath) ‘woman’s novel’, at least as it was understood then – all the main dynamic characters being women and all the men either passive, weak or untrustworthy (or a mixture of all three). The scenes in which Mildred and her friends finally manage to make their cottage industry a going concern are wonderfully empowering – but his doesn’t last long as Cain reminds us, and not very subtly either, that there is always a price to be paid. In fact, on the night before her restaurant is due to open, Ray tragically dies while staying with her grandparents while Mildred is out having a fling with Monty, the local playboy. At this point the novel’s main emotional core becomes exposed with a ratcheting up of the soul-destroying, truly exhausting neurotic relationship between the haughty and condescending Veda and her mother. Mildred is wracked by a sense of guilt and social inadequacy, both of which are exploited relentlessly by the cold and calculating daughter, things only getting worse when rich loafer Monty enters both their lives, introducing a truly disturbing element of psycho-sexual jealousy into the equation.

“”He plays polo for Midwick, and he lives in Pasadena, and he’s rich, and good-looking, and all the girls just wait for his picture to come out in the paper. He’s – keen!”

Cain clearly patterned his novel after Imitation of Life, the classic 1933 tear-jerker by Fannie Hurst that was twice made into hugely popular films, first in with Claudette Colbert and then with Lana Turner. Both novels explore the themes of social mobility and focus on troubled relationship between a single mother and her ungrateful daughter, set against a background of commercial success created through the building of a baked goods business. In the Hurst novel a waffles mix provides the road to wealth and position but  also poisons the relationship with the child, leading to a love triangle between mother, daughter and a man they both love. This is copied outright in Cain’s book, as Mildred’s success as a maker of pies and her attempts through Monty to acquire social status, and thus hold on to Veda’s affections, ultimately also bring about the complete breakdown in the mother-daughter relationship. The scenes of their conflict are frequently overwrought but undeniably effective – Mildred is of course blinded by her love and simply isn’t capable of seeing how she is played by her daughter, though Cain is canny enough to comment on the mother’s shortcomings so that it doesn’t come across as too one-sided.

But is this James M. Cain book actually a mystery novel at all? Well, actually, no – rather, it’s a melodrama written with a hardboiled edge, though some of the writing can be a bit ripe at times. It has many of the elements familiar from the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (easily Cain’s best book), including the fascination with complex legal maneuvers and extra-marital sex, but it’s a melodrama pure and simple. For the 1945 movie adaptation a murder mystery element was introduced along with a flashback structure, to make it feel like a Film Noir – this is actually a great idea and helps distinguish it from the Hurst story, which it has to be said it does in fact follow too closely for comfort sometimes. The book has been adapted many times, especially for radio – the main versions though are as follows:

1945 Warner Bros. Movie
This is first and foremost remembered as the comeback movie for Joan Crawford, who had been labelled ‘box office poison’ a few years before but who made a triumphant return to the screen, winning her only Oscar as the long-suffering heroine. She is perfectly cast in the role – in fact it’s hard not to imagine that Cain didn’t have her in mind when writing pats of the book frankly. Eve Arden is just as good in her prototypical role as wise cracking best friend to the leading lady, while Zachary Scott oozes smarm as Monty, a role he would replay several times on radio as well as the 1956 TV version of the film broadcast as part of the Lux Video Theatre, with Virginia Bruce as Mildred.

1993 BBC Radio
Dramatised by John Fletcher into a 90-minute audio play, it was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 26 June 1993 for the Saturday Night Theatre and directed by Andy Jordan. It starred Shelley Thompson as Mildred, Siriol Jenkins as Veda, Ed Bishop as Bert (he also played Philip Marlowe for BBC radio at the time), Geraldine Fitzgerald was Lucy Gessner and that radio perennial Martin Jarvis was intriguingly cast as Monty. This version is prety successful, especially by turning Can’s third person narration into a story told my Mildred, which helps considerably in boiling down the plot to manageable lengths, though it does mean that it is a bit of a breathless race to the finish by the end as it tries to pack as much in as it possible can.

2011 HBO miniseries
This five-hour miniseries starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce is a highly ostentatious and fairly close adaptation of the book, reveling in the period decor and in the ability, denied obviously to the 1945 version, to be much earthier and graphic in its depiction of the sex, violence and language of the piece.

I’m really glad to be able to say that I’ve finally read this book, but am also satisfied that it really shouldn’t be classed as a crime or Noir novel, despite Cain’s authorship, though it does deserve to be considered a hardboiled novel I think – just. The final showdown between mother and daughter on the other hand is truly hysterical and deliberately operatic (Veda becomes a successful coloratura soprano). If you want a mystery version, then that honour belongs solely to the 1945 movie, which does a great job of making the story work within the mystery movie conventions of the day – it provides a great hook and helps telescope the narrative which is spread out over a long 9 years.

As the book came out before 1960, this review is also (sort of) eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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6 Responses to MILDRED PIERCE (1941) by James M. Cain

  1. Funny thing, I read Mildred Pierce earlier this year, too, and I thought I’d read it before. I loved the book and found is quite different from the film, which I love, too. What could the book be? Domestic noir?

    • Hello Marley, thanks for the comments. It certainly is a ‘sui generis’ type of Film Noir isn’t it? Bridges that gap between melodrama at its most emotional and the more psychoanalytical tropes of the crime genre – weird and wonderful!

  2. Thanks for this one! I have yet to read a Cain book. The Postman is sitting on the TBR pile (well one of the piles…), have to see if it works its way onto the list for next year.

    • Hi Bev – well, that’s certainly the best of his crime novels in my opinion, though he did others that are well outside the genre like Serenade for instance, which like Mildred Pierce has a classical music background.

  3. Lately, I’ve come to think that everything is melo, the presentations are just different. MacBeth, for instance can be… well..Shakespeare or a Lifetime movie.

    As for Postman, I’d never read it either, but am a huge fan of the original film. I like the remake, but my allegiance is with John Garfield, one of my favorite actors. I read the book this summer with Mildred Pierce. It’s different from both films to some extent but all work good for me. Double Indemnity though….very different. The film is far superior to the novel, which goes way over the top, especially at the end.

    • Yes I agree, the ending of Cain’s Double Indemnity is very over the top in its melodramatic excesses – but then I’ve always considered Chandler a far superior writer to Cain and the script he wrote with Billy wilder is a real classic.

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