Since the beginning of cinema popular books and novels have been converted to screenplays in an attempt to draw audiences to big screens to watch stories that were familiar to them. Not to mention books have always been a wonderful resource for film material. During the time when Michael Curtiz’, Mildred Pierce was produced for the big screen in 1945, the height of the studio system – or what has come to be known as Hollywood’s Golden Age – studio heads devoted entire departments to finding stories worth telling. Once the stories were found, from novels, books, short stories, serials or directly from news headlines, these would be matched with the famous directors and popular stars of the time. In this sense, Mildred Pierce is a typical example of that system at work. An outstanding example, I might add.
Converting a novel to a screen adaptation can be a long process, longer during those Golden years when they had to adhere to many rules. There were two major factors that affected the changes from one medium to the other during Hollywood’s golden age. One, that still pertains today was that stories shown on the big screen had to fit into an allotted time, after all audiences’ attention spans lasted only so long. The other was the all-powerful production code, which set all the rules of conduct and values that had to be adhered to. All the major differences between James Cain’s 1941 novel, “Mildred Pierce” and the 1945 film version discussed below are due to one of these two factors, although it is worth mentioning that Hollywood during the time in question did whatever it had to stick with what worked as often as possible. In other words, it was very popular to “Hollywoodize” characters and situations so that they were relatable and more acceptable to audiences. As a result of this, many characters were stereotyped – regularly.
As mentioned above, by way of the Production Code, Hollywood set standards for its product in order to avoid “offensive” plots, characters, or situations. The Code resulted in all projects being reviewed so that no lines were crossed. Mildred Pierce is certainly no exception and, keeping the Code in mind, it is easy to see why there are some “necessary” changes from one medium to the other. Following are some of those differences and be aware, spoilers are included.
One significant difference between the two versions of Mildred Pierce is the fact that in the novel Bert and Mildred Pierce marry because she is pregnant. Veda, the older of the couple’s two daughters, throws this in her mother’s face in the novel but premarital sex in 1940s films was considered offensive to American audiences and reserved for “seedy” or “loose” women. The second blatant omission in the film is what is referred to in the book as “the operation.” This, of course, refers to an abortion and something that Mildred and Bert consider having Veda go through as a result of her ultimately fictitious pregnancy in Cain’s book. This procedure would not have been a part of a mainstream film during the 1940’s and in this instance pregnancy is mentioned only because it turns out to be false, a part of Veda’s games to gain money and independence from her mother. Worth mentioning here also is the fact that any overt mention of Veda having a sexual relationship with Monte, who would be her step-father is also omitted from the screenplay. In the novel, Mildred actually finds them in bed together.
Aside from any sexual messages the Production Code’s frowned upon, it also kept a watchful eye on anything that could be construed as glorifying crime. This premise of “crime doesn’t pay” covered such obvious bad behavior as murder and theft but also included extramarital affairs, in particular when the “sinner” was a woman. Again here, Mildred Pierce is no exception. When we see that Mildred goes with Monte, after just having met him, to the beach house to have a romantic day with him she returns to a dying child. This is no coincidence nor is it unique to this film. By the standards of the time clearly a married woman, even if separated and despite the fact that her husband has cheated on her for years, is not entitled to such sins – life will punish her for this behavior.
Along these same lines, in Cain’s novel Mildred has a very healthy sexual appetite and enjoys physical relationships with both Wally and Monte. The film steers away from this characterization after that day at the beach because it is simply not acceptable. In the film the character of Wally pursues her but never quite gets anywhere.
Further character differences can be seen between the novel and the film aside from Mildred’s sexuality. Some are in the relationships between the players and others are in their physicality. In the novel, Mildred is much younger than she is in the film and she is also more insecure about her social status. Her need to somehow succeed is similar in both versions, which is also fed by the fact she falls for losers in all instances. Although both the film and the novel feature her relationship with daughter, Veda as a central driving force, it is interesting to note that in the novel this relationship goes a step or two beyond a mother’s love and obsession. As examples of this we see that she actually thanks God that younger daughter, Ray dies instead of Veda (can a parent do or feel anything worse than this?), she hugs and kisses Veda “passionately”, and even ceases sleeping with her husband once Veda moves back in with her (all of these “feelings” are depicted clearly in the film version but not to the extent they are in the novel.).
Also interestingly depicted in the novel is the fact that once Mildred becomes involved in business she also becomes very interested in politics. Who the country’s leaders are and how they affect her life is central to her character. By contrast, the film depicts her as a more linear character, always feminine (by old standards) in the sense that she would never be interested in such “masculine” things as politics, world affairs, or even business dealings that directly affect her (hence her “business manager” becomes Ida, who will be discussed below).
The character of Bert – Mildred’s ex-husband – also changes from novel to screen in several ways. He is seemingly a gentler, rather spineless, momma’s boy in the novel. He floats along with the punches and never gets rattled about anything. In the film, however, he is designated as the one the audience is to suspect as Monte’s murderer in the beginning, which leaves him a much darker, brooding man. He is bitter and angry about Mildred’s relationship with Monte, who he dislikes quite a bit from the get-go. Bert’s feelings toward his eldest child is also quite different in the film where he sees her for what she truly is in contrast to the novel where their relationship is loving – assuming Veda is actually capable of loving her father. Interestingly and stereotypically, Bert’s affair with Mrs. Beiderhof is of no consequence in either the novel or film. In both cases it serves the story in that it leads to his leaving Mildred and drives her to succeed. But he is never portrayed as the villain for breaking up his family or for betraying his wife.
The characters of Wally and Veda make no significant changes from one medium to the other aside from some differences in the story. He is as money-hungry and she is as hateful, going for her mother’s jugular whenever the opportunity presents itself. The other three “main” characters are a different story and quite interesting in their own right. Monte, Lottie and Ida become fairly typical Hollywood stereotypes as a result of the transition.
In the film Monte is the typical Latin lover/playboy who women can’t resist but also happens to be a loafer. It is quite telling that when Mildred asks him if his name is Spanish he says yes but that his mother is a Yankee and therefore he is a “responsible” young man, this clearly insinuates that Spanish men have no sense of responsibility. Of course Monte has no trace of responsibility as he has never had to use that trait in all of his life. In both the film and the novel he is a user and never makes pretense not to be as he is satisfied with being a kept man as long as he can maintain his stylized lifestyle. However, there is one major difference between the Monte in Cain’s novel and the film version. Monte in the novel turns into a pathetic character whereas the Monte in the film never quite loses his luster, even after he borrows and borrows money from Mildred. In the novel he even chooses to live in the servants quarters of his mansion after things go bad for him. Here we see he can no longer fool even himself and feels he is unworthy of the life he’s pretended to live all along. Cain even goes so far as to describe the physical changes this character goes through in relation to his growing bald spot – it is barely visible in the beginning and quite a bit larger later. Imagine a man being measured in that way – when there is no character to a man then a bald spot looms large. In the film, however, Monte is as slick as spit from beginning to end. He acts degraded when borrowing money from Mildred but there’s a sense that he’s insulted by her insinuations, rather than by the fact he is borrowing money. Here there is a definite sense of entitlement to the man.
Although she is not a main character in the film, in Lottie, Mildred’s maid, we see the most blatantly stereotyped character. She is the maid, she is black and she is portrayed as pretty dumb, not even knowing how to pick up a telephone receiver in one scene. Unfortunately, this is typical of how African-Americans were depicted in all media at the time and Hollywood was no exception. There is no mention in the book that this character is black so it is obvious that this pairing of character and race is deliberate. It is worth mentioning here that the actress who plays this role, Butterfly McQueen, is uncredited in this movie. Despite the fact that her role is not a major one, she certainly deserves her credit and it boggles the mind that six years before Mildred Pierce she played a significant role in the most successful movie of all time.
The final major character that makes some important transitions from the novel to screen is Ida. First is the fact that in the film she is an amalgam of the characteristics ascribed to both Mrs. Gessler and Ida in the novel – Mildred’s confidant, best friend, voice of reason, smart, hard-working – but in the film she is further depicted as spunky, driven, competent, somewhat masculine (Wally even refers to her as not being a woman), a career woman who is also single. The “norm” would not have allowed a driven, career woman to also have a husband and children. In the novel Ida is married and struggles financially like everyone else. Clearly, women could never handle a career and a home and be successful in both up on the big screen (or could very rarely do so) – as we see with Mildred who cannot seem to succeed in both at the same time.
The character of Ida also supplies the comic relief in the film and utters the best line with the standout being, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
Mildred Pierce, the film, is one of those that gets better with each viewing – with wonderful performances across the board, a gorgeous noir and story that render it unforgettable. It is certainly worthy of a post dedicated to its merits as a film alone. That one is to come – one of these days. I’ll give one view I have toward the film now – that is that although Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Academy Award for her depiction of the film’s title character, and a damn good acting performance it is, it’s Ann Blyth’s portrayal of Veda that lingers. She’s magnificent in a despicable sort of way. Actually, she may well be the most hateful character in all of film to me. Here’s the film’s original trailer to whet your appetite if you’ve yet to see the film…
In the meantime, take a look at the novel, James M. Cain’s fourth, it’s definitely worth a read and making the comparison between mediums for yourself. Enjoyable. As are Mr. Cain’s other novels, and he wrote great ones including “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” How noirish is that for you? Although he was a great novelist beyond the superb film adaptations that his work birthed.
Mildred Pierce, 1945
Director, Michael Curtiz
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce
Jack Carson as Wally Fay
Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
Eve Arden as Ida Corwin
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce
Bruce Bennett as Bert Pierce