Mildred Pierce

After months of feeding an obsession with 30s and 40s movies, I finally decided to dip into original source material, starting with the master, James M. Cain. Mildred Pierce (1945) is a nearly perfect movie– rain-drenched noir at its finest. The book is also a gem, and it was delightful to see what made the cut for the movie, and what was axed or embellished or re-written.
Mildred is described as a plain woman with a glint in her eye and great gams, mother of two daughters, her husband Bert suffering the Depression by moping about and carrying on with another woman. Daughter Ray is all light and energy and happiness, contrasted with daughter Veda, a snobby brooding older sister with musical talent and the ability to make Mildred’s heart skip. To keep her family afloat, Mildred bakes pies and obtains a job at a restaurant as waitress (this, after several weeks of job hunting, turning down a job as a tea room hostess and a housekeeper). She hides her uniform from Veda, not wanting her to know that her mom has taken such a lowly position. When Veda ultimately finds the uniform, Mildred quickly explains it’s background work to owning her own spot so they can be rich again, which sets a whole plan in action.
Ray’s death doesn’t stop her from opening her restaurant on time. The chicken joint is wildly successful, and she opens up another two spots once Prohibition eases. She hooks up with Monty Baragon, ultimately feeding him $10s and $20s once he goes broke. Veda’s arc rises and falls with music, the sudden death of her piano teacher sending her into a spiral from which she emerges with a plan to hook a wealthy boy (pretend pregnancy). Mildred throws her out of the house when this fraud transpires. Months later, she hears Veda on the radio, a gorgeous voice, and begins plotting to bring Veda back into her life. This entails buying the house from Baragon and then marrying him. She begins hemorrhaging money, footing the bill for Veda and Baragon’s extravagances. Finally, she’s nearly dead broke, and after reviewing her options she realizes she must ask Veda to chip in for living funds. The night she attempts to talk to Veda, she finds her in Monty’s bed. A scuffle, and Mildred throttles Veda’s throat. After the fight, Veda dashes to the piano and pretends no sound comes out as she tries to sing. This leads to the final deception, where Mildred spends six weeks in Reno to divorce Monty then remarry Veda’s father. Veda comes and has a very public reunion with her mother that the newspapers cover with photos. This was all for show, and as Christmas day unfolds, Veda grabs a taxi to the airport where she’ll meet Monty to fly to New York and start her life all over.
There’s a lot more morally loose behavior in the book than 1940 Hollywood would allow, and the ending was decidedly different from the shooting in the movie. Great writing.