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Mildred Pierce: The (Re) Making of an “Event”

By Ramna Walia

The current economic recession in the United States of America and world over has led to a literary resurgence of an odd kind as the writings of economic theorist Karl Marx started selling in record numbers. Marx has now been accorded the status of the “comeback kid” of the present financial crisis.[1] Such spacio-temporal travels of past forms testify to the retrospective view of historical narration, one that is recounted through the gap between the moment of first encounter and the moment of recounting. Revivals, adaptations, and remakes have often been seen as cultural symptoms of this echo of history. Released among a web of inter-textual as well as inter-historical articulations, Todd Haynes’s multiple Emmy award winning mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011) strategically places itself along the nodes of a faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 depression era novel and a reflective remake of Michael Curtiz’s inventive noir adaptation (1945) of the same.  Riding on the success and cultural memory of Curtiz’s film and socio-economic resonance of Cain’s novel, Haynes builds his version of Mildred Pierce as a mega television event which uses historical memory as a means to explore and expand generic possibilities of a remake, while simultaneously foregrounding its travels through the mediums of literature, cinema and television.

“A mother’s love leads to murder”, reads the tagline of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 noir classic, Mildred Pierce. Produced by studio giants- Warner Brothers, the film adapted James M. Cain’s melodramatic tale of a single mother in Depression era Glendale, into a whodunit murder mystery. The success of Cain’s earlier novels- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943), both of which were soon adapted to films, established him as a lucrative crime writer. Mildred Pierce however vastly differed from his earlier works. For the first time, Cain created a female protagonist and narrated her struggle through divorce, financial crisis and troublesome relationships, particularly the one with her daughter Veda. The novel spans over nine years, from 1931 to 1940 middle-class Los Angeles and is primarily related as a third-person narrative. Mildred, newly separated from her adulterous husband Bert and faced with the challenges of a new role as a single mother to her two daughters- Ray and Veda, takes up a job as a waitress  in the troubled economy of the Depression. Working through her job and intimate encounters with Wally and Monty Beragon, Mildred turns an entrepreneur while obsessively providing for her snobbish daughter Veda. The central premise of Cain’s narrative revolves around this mother-daughter relationship of Mildred’s obstinate, almost irrational love and the eventual betrayal by Veda. Cain laboriously crafted  the complexity of this relationship in order to reflect on issues of class and socio-political realities of 1930s America.

Warner Brothers decided to adapt Cain’s Mildred Pierce but adventurously mutated the ostensible social-realism of the novel into a noir film eliminating the crucial references to the Depression in the process . Infused with the noir leitmotif of crime, deceit and blackmail, Michael Curtiz audaciously supplanted the narrative with subplots, voice-overs and flashbacks directed towards the generic premise of a crime thriller. The 109 minute long film opens with a serene but imposing mansion by the seaside which is undercut in the next shot by the aural and visual violence of gunshots directed at a man who whispers the name ‘Mildred’. What follows is a police investigation of the crime wherein Mildred Pierce, wife of the murdered Monty Beragon is interrogated as she narrates the story of her survival and relationships.

Film scholars like Pam Cook, Elizabeth Cowie and Zoe Bolton have debated the generic hybridity of Curtiz’s version which lies at the interstices of melodrama and crime thriller, between ‘woman’s picture’ and ‘man’s film’, most starkly present in Mildred’s flashbacks(Cook  1978: 26). Bolton for instance elaborately describes how from the violent opening shot of the murder to Mildred’s introductory shot at the night time pier in the next scene, Curtiz skilfully interrupts the tone of violence by the melodramatic aural track with which Mildred is revealed.  It is in her subsequent narrative (flashbacks) during the police interrogation that the fur-draped iconography of the femme fatale (a typical film noir figure) is replaced by the domestic set up. It is in this shift that melodrama constantly intercepts the overwhelming visual connotations of noir. Curtiz’s film however uses this detail ultimately in service of revealing the truth of the murder. In his adaptation of Cain’s novel, the central premise of Mildred’s irrational love towards Veda is directed towards the play of concealment and revelation of a murder mystery.

As against this widely known framing noir discourse that ingeniously coupled melodrama with noir aesthetics but engulfed the details of the Depression and turned it into a noir classic, Haynes’s Mildred Pierce returns to the original source of the novel and reinvents it into a 5½  hour long historical mini-series. For Haynes, the premise of Cain’s novel becomes a trope through which he explores the haunting realities of history on the present. In the novel, the political is represented through the personal- Mildred is quick to point to Mrs. Geesler that the breakdown of her marriage was “depression’s fault” (1941: 15). In Curtiz’s adaptation, the political is obliterated in favour of generic conventions of noir and melodrama. In his revisit to Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes employs similar treatment of the subject as Cain by narrating the political, this time of both the historical past and the socio-economic realities of the present narrated through the personal. The official HBO trailer for Haynes’s mini-series for instance, introduces Mildred as a woman of indomitable spirits – a woman who found love when divorce was unthinkable, who worked when women stayed home and a woman who made her fortune when America was suffering[2].  Mildred’s relationships most apparently visible in her pathological relationship with Veda embody this spirit of incessant and continuing aspirations of social mobility and economic ascension (intrinsic to the American dream), which according to Haynes get played out in the series through money, finance and class. (Haynes 2011) It is in this moment of cross-historical resonances that Haynes foregrounds the generic conventions of 1970s filmmaking in order to place the meta-text of Cain’s novel through the retrospective glance at film history.

Much like Haynes’ previous remake venture, Far from Heaven (2002) where he returned to Technicolor and ’50s tropes of filmmaking (with special regard to Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder), in Mildred Pierce he turned to genre filmmaking of the 1970s . He describes the naturalism of the series as an artifice, a return to the ‘dressed-down” style of American cinema of the 1970s, visibly apparent in films like The Godfather, Chinatown and The Exorcist which revisited genres and earlier historical eras. In The Making of Mildred Pierce he goes on to justify his choice of the ’70s as a mid-way era between the 30s and today, a moment that ‘brackets the progressive era that the ‘30s began – idealizing of wealth and unbridled consumption and ideals that are associated with our dear Veda.’  Shot on Super-16 mm film resonant of the ’70s in natural light of outdoor locations, Haynes effectively employs tropes and techniques reminiscent of  ‘old movies, old genres and old subject matter (with the aim) to trick people into thinking about their world today.’ (Haynes 2011) Employing his signature technique of using reflective frames of windows, reflections, and dusting surfaces (a technique reminiscent of Fassbinder’s films), Haynes foregrounds Mildred Pierce in the history of re-presentational form of reconstituting the past. The Remake then becomes the prism through which the cultural biography of generic film practices is built around the dramatic narrative of Cain’s novel on the one hand and a memory text of Cutiz’s on the other. Haynes’s remake is thus not merely a reflective form; rather it rides on the artefact of memory that travels through various generic conventions, historical moments and mediums.

In its journey from a socio-realist melodrama in Cain’s novel to its metamorphosis as a noir-melodrama in Curtiz’s 1945 film adaptation to Todd Haynes’s expansive canvas of a period drama, Mildred Pierce fluidly travels through genres and mediums as a testimonial to the complexities of adaptation and remaking. Endowed with high production costs and a powerful star cast, the series was advertised as a mini-series “event” on television.  Haynes employs the historical biography of the depression era recounted faithfully from Cain’s novel while redirecting the aura and memory of the 1945 film, particularly in relation to stardom. In returning to this source material while capturing the overhaul of films’ success and its persistent presence in public memory through the presence of Joan Crawford’s aura (in her Oscar winning role as Mildred Pierce),  Haynes employs the extravagance of star profiles, set design and costumes and binds them into generic constraints of a period drama.

Samples from HBO’s publicity campaign ostentatiously parade the Oscar credentials of its star cast particularly with respect to Kate Winslet, who essays Mildred’s role in the series. The publicity poster of the series for instance, triumphantly declares Kate Winslet is Mildred Pierce’ (my emphasis). Writing a review on the series, Brian Lowry of Variety aptly points out

The way Kate Winslet’s name is displayed in enormous block letters — right before “Mildred Pierce” — provides key insight into how HBO operates, using this sort of extravagant exercise to market the channel. Who else, after all, would have the audacity to commission a five-part, nearly-six-hour version of James M. Cain’s period melodrama — enlisting not just Winslet to star, but surrounding her with a splendid cast that includes fellow Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood? That the production proceeds deliberately becomes somewhat irrelevant. Because before it’s over, “Mildred” is big, beautiful and clearly not just any TV.[3]

Straddling this in-between space of commercial veracity and generic experimentation, Haynes’s Mildred Pierce pushes the limits of the medium of television in order to reinvent the narrative of ‘the great American institution that never gets mentioned on Fourth of July–a grass widow with two small childreninto a mega event. (Cain 1941: 10)



Cain, James Mildred Pierce (e-book), The e-Mystery weekly, Vol. II N. 32

HBO: The official Website: Mildred Pierce; See http://www.hbo.com/mildred-pierce/index.html

Hilton Als, ‘This Woman’s Work: James M. Cain on the Grass widow’, A Critic At Large, March 28, 2011, The New Yorker, Volume LXXXVII,  No. 6, 108-111

Lowry, Brian ‘Mildred Pierce (Review), Variety, March 20, 2011; http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117944847/

Bolton, Zoe ‘Entertainment and Dystopia: Film Noir, Melodrama and Mildred Pierce’ in Crime Culture, 2005

Cook, Pam, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce’, in Women in Film Noir, ed. by E. Ann Kaplan, (London: BFI, 1978), pp. 68-82.

Cowie, Elizabeth, ‘Film noir and Women’, in Shades of Noir, ed. by Joan Copjec, (New York: Verso, 1993), pp. 121-161

Radish, Christina ‘Kate Winslet and Director Todd Haynes: Mildred Pierce (Interview)’ Feb 2’2011; http://collider.com/kate-winslet-todd-haynes-interview-mildred-pierce/69347/



[1] ‘The Return of Karl Marx (The Comeback Kid of the Economic Crisis)’, Encyclopedia Britannica Editors’ Blog, January 5, 2009; See http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/01/the-return-of-karl-marx-the-comeback-kid-of-the-economic-crisis/

Also, see Kate Connolly, ‘Booklovers turn to Karl Marx as financial crisis bites in Germany’, The Guardian, October 15, 2008

[2] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oufmYeBbyIU

[3] Brian Lowry, Mildred Pierce (Review),Variety,  March 20, 2011; See http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117944847/



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