You might think that Mildred Pierce, director Michael Curtiz’ marvelous 1945 melodrama that won a best-actress Oscar for Joan Crawford (fittingly accepted in her bedroom; see above), is pretty raw for its time.

After all, the picture covers quite of bit of territory — murder, drinking, rampant infidelity, double-crossing financial manipulation complete with intense mother-daughter conflict not to mention a near suicide attempt.

Hello, everybody, Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, recalling that when Mildred Pierce first came out, the theater one-sheets presented her as a film noir-style femme fatale — The kind of woman most men want, but shouldn’t have! — rather than the entrepreneurial heroine she is, battling considerable social and personal odds.

Confused, we turned to our Books2Movies maven Larry Michie to help us to sort out the Mildred Pierce of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel versus the Joan Crawford portrayal in the movie. (Last year’s HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet, which hews more closely to the novel, was not included in Larry’s survey.)

Here’ Larry:

After reading Cain’s Mildred Pierce, I have to admit that I give high praise not only to the novel but to the famous movie, which I vowed years ago to never bother to see. The previews sounded like crap and I never cared for Joan Crawford.

OK, so I eat my words.

As for the novel, I think it’s a powerful tale, and my sympathies all took Mildred’s side from the beginning.

The story starts with Mildred practically destitute in Southern California. Her husband doesn’t support her and their two daughters, and he spends most of his time in bed with a woman down the street in the housing development — a development that went up with high hopes just before the Great Depression wrecked the economy even more dramatically than what we’ve been puzzling over for the last few years.

Mildred’s only real talent is making pies. After being turned down for job after job, she finally succeeds in selling her pies to a local diner. Those pies are a success, and soon Mildred manages to open her own diner, and soon she has three eateries. So much for success in the Depression.

Early on, Mildred’s youngest daughter dies (and some folks would like to blame Mildred).

As gutsy as Mildred is, she manages to get ahead in the world, but she chooses to fall in love with the wrong man, and her financial advisers are somewhere just north of Bernie Madoff.

Mildred is a sucker for her remaining daughter, who is not only spoiled, but is one horrible person. On the other hand, the girl is a gifted musician and singer. She’s also gifted in other ways, as she steals Mildred’s playboy lover.

Mildred eventually figures out just how bad her little girl is. In the end, Mildred even gets her original husband back. But it wasn’t easy being Mildred, folks. James M. Cain knew how to stir a potent brew.

Tomorrow, Larry specifically enumerates what is included in the novel but glossed over or dropped entirely from the movie. It turns out that as raw as Mildred Pierce the movie is, the book is rougher and tougher.  Stay tuned. 


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