From Script to Celluloid: Mildred Pierce (1945)
Countless film noir features were based on popular novels of the day, from The Postman Always Rings Twice to Nightmare Alley. One of the best was Mildred Pierce – novel by James Cain, film starring Oscar-winner Joan Crawford in the title role, supported by Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, and Eve Arden. Here, I take a look at this great film and the book from which it emerged.
I’ve had a collection of James Cain’s novels in my home for many years, and Mildred Pierce is one of my favorite – and most frequently watched – films noirs, but until recently, I’d never read a page of Cain’s work. So it was quite a revelation to read the novel and note the many departures – some minor, some quite significant – that the film had taken, as well as the plot points, and even dialogue, that came straight from the book.
First off, while the film is presented in flashback, the book is written in a straightforward chronology – Mildred lives with her family in a Spanish bungalow in Glendale, California, and the opening description of Mildred and her family are nearly identical in the book and in the film – there’s Bert Pierce (played by Bruce Bennett in the movie) out of work, Mildred baking pies and cakes for the neighbors to earn extra money, and their two daughters, snooty and self-centered Veda (Ann Blyth) and adorable, precocious Kay – who, in the book is named Moire, Ray for short. And, as in the film, the book shows Mildred and Bert’s break-up coming in the wake of her ultimatum regarding Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick) – the film even uses some of Cain’s words, with Mildred telling Bert to “pack up,” and later, Veda empathizing with her mother and labeling Mrs. Biderhof “distinctly middle-class.” In the book, however, Bert actually is having an affair with Mrs. Bierderhof, and when Bert’s former partner Wally (Jack Carson) comes sniffing around Mildred following Bert’s departure, she doesn’t turn him down as she does in the film – she not only agrees to a date, but concludes the date in bed with him!
Several characters in the book were missing from the film – Bert’s parents and, most notably, Lucy Gessler, Mildred’s next-door neighbor, close friend, and the person who gives her step-by-step instructions on how to prolong Wally’s interest. (“You play it right, and inside of a week your financial situation will be greatly eased . . .” Lucy advises.) Also, there were a number of minor differences between the book in the film. In Cain’s work, Ida (Eve Arden) is married, while in the film, famously, she was usually treated like a pal by the opposite sex. Also, Mildred doesn’t meet Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott) when she and Wally visit him in an effort to purchase his property – in fact, her first restaurant was housed in a model home owned by Bert and Wally’s real estate company. Instead, Monty is Mildred’s last customer on her final day as a waitress (although he did ask her on a date and the dialogue between them was taken directly from the book, as Monte tells Mildred it would be a “highly original thing” for her to “say yes, right away – like that.”) And when Mildred’s youngest daughter becomes gravely ill, “Ray” isn’t taken to Mrs. Biederhof’s house (although she offered), but instead, dies in the hospital.
A significant difference between the book and the film concerns Bert’s relationship with Mildred after their split. In the film, Bert is not around much – he is seen objecting to Mildred’s request for a divorce, he shows up at the restaurant and demonstrates a flash of heated jealousy toward Monty, he takes Mildred to the nightclub where Veda is performing as a singer, and he brings Veda home after Mildred buys and refurbishes Monty’s mansion. But in the book, he continues to be a solid, important presence in Mildred’s life, serving as her sounding board, confidante, and friend. And the film provides a departure from a major plot point related to Veda’s relationship with Ted (“Sam” in the book) Forrester. In the movie, Veda secretly marries Ted, lies about being pregnant, and works with Wally to demand a financial payment in order to give Ted a divorce. When Mildred discovers her deception, she tears up the check that Veda receives and orders her out of their home. But in the book, Veda is dating Sam, claims to be pregnant, and seeks money from his wealthy family in exchange for forcing the boy into marriage. Further, Veda not only collects the blackmail money, but uses it to move into a swanky apartment, gets a job singing on the radio, and turns out to be a talented coloratura soprano!
In both the film and the book, Mildred’s relationship with Monty sours over time, as he spends more and more of her money and becomes an increasingly negative influence over Veda, and they finally split, shortly after arguing about “taking tips” from Mildred. And, in both, Mildred successfully uses Monty in order to win back Veda, purchasing his mansion and proposing marriage. The book and film were also similar in their depiction of both the rise and the fall of Mildred’s restaurant chain, although the specifics differed. In the book, Mildred’s expansion restaurants are managed by Ida and her neighbor, Lucy, and it is Wally and a reluctant Ida – not Monty – who engender Mildred’s loss of her businesses.
It was the climax of Mildred Pierce, the novel, that offered the greatest – and for me, the most surprising, departure from the film. In both the book and the film, Mildred discovers that her beloved daughter is having an affair with her husband. And in the film, of course, it is this revelation that sets up the movie’s entire context – Monty is fatally shot, Mildred tries to take the blame, and it turns out that Veda killed him when he cruelly rebuffs her matrimonial aspirations. The book couldn’t have been more different. In Cain’s novel, Mildred physically attacks Veda after finding her in Monty’s bed, choking her so severely that Veda loses her voice – and her $500-a-week radio contract. Over the ensuing months, Mildred and Bert reunite and remarry, and Mildred, who has been wallowing in shameful remorse for her attack on her daughter, is gratified when, in an elaborate, highly publicized event, Veda forgives her and moves in with her parents in their new home inReno. But at Christmastime, after sharing a festive glass of eggnog, Veda announces that she hasn’t lost her voice, that she’d faked the injury in order to get out of her current contract, that she was signing with a radio program that was paying four times as much, and that she was leaving – with Monty. As the novel ends, after a good cry, Mildred finally agrees with her husband to say “to hell with” her daughter, and she and Bert decide to “get stinko.”
Reading Mildred Pierce was quite a revelation. I didn’t know what to expect going in – certainly not, for instance, that Bert actually was sleeping with Mrs. Biederhof or that Mildred had given Wally a tumble, and it never would have occurred to me that instead of getting shot by Veda, Monty would ride off into the sunset with her – her and her cash-cow, coloratura soprano voice. The book was interesting throughout – and I definitely enjoyed several aspects, such as Mildred’s continued connection with Bert, despite their divorce, and the loyal, frank-speaking character of Lucy Gessler. I do prefer the flashback structure of the film, the murder of Monty Beragon, and the mystery that the film presented (and I admit that, the first time I saw it, I never guessed that Mildred was not the killer), but I highly recommend the novel – it’s an excellent read and definitely worth your while.
(Incidentally, the 2011 HBO Mildred Pierce miniseries, starring Kate Winslet in the title role, so closely mirrored the novel that, if you saw the miniseries, you pretty much know everything that happened in the book. I actually watched the miniseries with the book in my lap, following along as if I had a copy of the script.)