Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

I didn’t have a Reel Old Reads post for January because I was busy with editing a much bigger work, my master’s thesis.  Though I’m not done with it quite yet, I should have a little more time to work on this blog and a couple of other projects.

I was rarely a straight-A student, but I always turned in my work and almost always had it in on time.  I am treating this blog the same way.  I’m not skipping January’s post; this is January’s post.  I will have a post for February posted by the end of this month or at the very latest by the early days of March. 

Book Details:

By James M. Cain
Published 1941 by Alfred A. Knopf
288 pages

One Sentence Summary: Ambitious housewife Mildred Pierce becomes a successful entrepreneur, but fails in relationships with men and with her greedy, vindictive daughter.

How I Found It:  Annual library bookfair, but I’d seen the movie long before and first heard of it when watching Mommie Dearest.

The Setting:  Depression-era Los Angeles.

The Narrative: Third person limited.  Cain is a descriptive writer, but his descriptions don’t go on too long.  It makes for a fast read.

The Story: Mildred Pierce is a housewife in her late 20s who makes ends meet by selling cakes and pies while her unemployed husband cheats on her and avoids contributing to the household.  Mildred begins making decisions viewed by those around her to be extreme: kicking her husband out of their house– in a subdivision that bears his name, taking his car because she needs it more than he does, and looking for a job that will keep her daughters– one playful, one snobbish– and herself in their home.  She discovers that housewives are only qualified to be waitresses or housekeepers—servant positions that she always thought herself above.  Eventually she swallows her pride and manages to make her way from waitress to entrepreneur in only a few years.

Mildred’s personal struggles weigh on her.   She falls in love with a socialite who, like her ex-husband, has no work ethic.  Mildred constantly seeks the approval of elder daughter Veda, who is only satisfied when she receives the best that money can buy, and later on, with money alone.

The Characters:  Mildred is a mostly likeable character who twice makes the mistake of marrying a man whose company she enjoys but who is unambitious and financially irresponsible.  Ex-husband Bert is a well-intentioned if clueless parent, and socialite Monty Beragon, who embraces a carefree lifestyle and puts a smile on Mildred’s face.  The standouts are Mildred’s friends, Ida and Mrs. Gessler.

The Best Thing: What stood out to me in this book was that the description of the restaurant business was complicated, realistic and interesting: waitressing from the standpoint of a novice to the economics of baking pies to sell to a restaurant to sell to the process of opening up a new restaurant and growing a chain business.

The Worst Thing: How sad the story is… Makes me want to go and be extra nice to my mother!

Of Note: James M. Cain also wrote the novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Availability:  In paperback at

MP Cover

The Movie
Released 1945
111 minutes
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Warner Brothers

Review: The film Mildred Pierce is told as a flashback after one of the characters is murdered.  Mildred is being interviewed by a detective and we see where she started began years earlier and how she wound up in that position.

See a trailer here:

Differences:  Vast differences.  Most importantly, the murder plotline is added no one gets murdered in the novel.  Personally, I don’t mind it now that there is a miniseries that is so true to the story.  Without the murder plot, the movie would have lost a lot of its excitement as it had to be tamed down for those protected cinema-attending masses in the 1940s.   Other than typical condensed-for-runtime and edited-for-Production Code changes, Mildred meets lover Monte Beragon when she is buying property for her first restaurant rather than by waiting on him during her last day at her first restaurant job.  Veda works as a singer/dancer after a big fight with Mildred rather than as a singer at places of prestige as in the book.  The younger daughter’s name is changed from Ray to the more feminine and ordinary Kay.

Cast:  Joan Crawford is great as Mildred, and Ann Blyth is a terribly bratty Veda, but Eve Arden gets all the best lines as Ida.  She comments on Monte’s getting involved with Veda: “Don’t look now, Junior, but you’re standing under a brick wall.” “I don’t get it,” Monte says. “You will – when it falls on you.”

Awards:  Joan Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress (beating out Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, Jennifer Jones in Love Letters and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven).  It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden AND Ann Blyth lost to Anne Revere for National Velvet), Best Cinematography (Ernest Haller lost to Leon Shamroy for Leave Her to Heaven), Best Writing/Screenplay (Ranald MacDougall lost to Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend) and Best Picture (lost to The Lost Weekend).

Of Note: This film revived Crawford’s career.  That fact, along with references to it in Mommie Dearest (based on Joan’s daughter’s memoirs), make it a must-see to any movie fan (in this fan’s opinion).

Availability: Digital format and DVD on Amazon.


The Miniseries
Aired March 27, 2011
5 episodes, 336 minutes

Review:  I was pretty surprised a couple of years ago when I saw a trailer for a new 1930s-set HBO miniseries… and that it turned out to be Mildred Pierce.  I finally saw it last year, weeks after  finishing the novel.  It’s as true to the book as any other book-to-film adaptation I’ve seen.  All of the dialogue especially seemed to have been taken verbatim.

The highlight of the miniseries is its look—hair, costumes, cars, houses.  All of these make the story come alive for an audience who never saw the 1930s in a way that words couldn’t.

My complaint is that the miniseries is too long.  Adapting the fewer than 300 pages into a 2 hour movie would have been a struggle, but 5 hours is excessive.  In making a miniseries so true to the novel, very little fat was cut.  Perhaps it was because I’d read the book just weeks before and everything was so fresh in my mind, but I think a 3-hour Mildred Pierce would have been better.

Differences: It’s been a few months since I’ve seen the miniseries, but I can’t come up with anything to say here.

Cast: The casting is just right.  Guy Pearce as Monty is likable but slappable at the same time.  Kate Winslet is even more Mildred than Joan was, but her American accent sounds to me like she has a cold.  My favorite character Mare Winningham as Ida, Mildred’s coworker and friend.

A trailer is here:

Awards: Mildred Pierce won five Emmys: Best Leading Actress-Miniseries or Television Film (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actor-Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Guy Pearce), Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Movie) Mark Friedberg, Peter Rogness and Ellen Christiansen De Jonge), Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Carter Burwell), and Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Laura Rosenthal).  Kate Winslet also won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Availability: Digital format, DVD and Blu-ray available at Amazon.


The Book: Yes.

The Movie: Yes.

The Miniseries: Yes, but not right after reading the book.  If you’re seeing the miniseries first, wait awhile before reading the book.

Next on Reel Old Reads: Dragonwyck by Anya Seton


Author: reeloldreads

I'm an amateur genealogist, a somewhat critical reader and a fan of the golden age of Hollywood.

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