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


All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field

All This, and Heaven Too

Published in 1938 by The Macmillan Company.
596 pages.
Top 10 Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller in 1938 (#6) and 1939 (#2).

One Sentence Summary: Governess Henriette Desportes witnesses domestic strife in the household of her employers– strife that leads to a suicide, murder, and contributes to revolution in 19th century France in this true story of surviving the fallout of a scandal.

How I Found It: There’s been an old copy of All This, and Heaven Too in my parents’ house for years.  I assume it was a thrift store selection by my grandmother, who loved dramatic films as much as I do.  I finally read it several months ago and I am so glad I did.

The Author: Rachel Field lived from 1894-1942.  Field wrote the 1930 Newbery awardee (for children’s literature) Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and numerous others, including a winner of the Caldecott Medal for children’s picture books.

The Setting:  Primarily France, and then America, beginning in the 1840s.

The Narrative: First and foremost, please note that this book is historical fiction—and features actual events.

The book begins with a letter of introduction in which the author, Rachel Field, addresses the subject of the novel: her great-aunt, Henriette Desportes.  “Although I never knew you in life, as a child I often cracked butternuts on your tombstone.”  This beautiful letter describes the research that inspired the writing of the book.  “I set down here only what may have happened.  Perhaps I have put words into your mouth that you would never have said.  My thoughts, at best, can never be your thoughts.  I know that, and still I must write them, since you yourself emerge from the web of fact and legend as definite as the spider that clears the intricate maze of its own making.”

The Story: Henriette Desportes is 28 years old when the novel opens in 1841.  She is traveling from England to her homeland of France now English charge is of age and no longer in need of a governess.  Henriette has secured a position teaching a prominent family’s youngest children.  The Duc and Duchesse de Praslin are Catholic; the Duchesse strongly disapproves of Henriette’s Protestant faith.  The children find it easy to love their governess because they are terrified of their mother.

Time and trials make Henriette aware of the strife between the oft-hysterical Duchess and her long-suffering husband.  The Duc often begs Henriette to remain in the household—and eventually develops romantic feelings for her.  Years pass… everyone has a breaking point, including mistreated husbands and the nation of France.

The Themes:  Faith, growth, fortitude, solitude, loneliness, love, passion, individuality.

The Best Thing: The book has romance without being a romance novel.  It’s more the romance provided by setting—say, attending a dance or a fancy party—and the love of a way of life—than love for a particular person.  This is not a love story, yet it has its love scenes.  It’s a story of recovery and growth from the most terrible of circumstances without sacrificing personal identity.  Similarly, it is a novel of faith without being strongly religious or even preachy.

The writing is rich with description without being too wordy:

“Her first impression was of disorder.   The small room seemed overflowing with costumes and baskets of flowers whose fragrance mingled with the scent of powder and pomades.  Then she became aware only of the woman who dominated it.  Rachel lay on a divan wrapped in a cloak of crimson wool.  Under her make-up she looked utterly spent and no flecks of light stirred in the somber darkness of her eyes.  Seen at such close range there was no disguising the worn lines of that face the hollows that showed too prominently at cheeks and throat.  But the full red lips curved into a smile as a long transparent hand was extended in greeting” (pg. 522).

The Worst Thing: The story continues many years past the climax, and the last few chapters drag a little.

Of Note:  Rachel Field, the novel’s author, was from a talented family.  Her great-grandfather was the well-known American minister David Dudley Field.  Her father was Dr. Matthew Dickinson Field, Jr.  Her great uncles held positions of Supreme Court Justice, clergyman, writer, U.S. Representative, and businessman.  You can read more about their family on Find a

Rachel Field died in 1942, at the age of 47 and only four years after this novel was published.

To Read It: The novel is available on

The Film

Released in 1940.
Produced by Warner Brothers.
Directed by Anatole Litvak.
142 minutes.
Black and white.

The Best Thing: The movie is a flashback framed in Henriette’s new classroom—her past is discovered by her new pupils and she is forced to tell the story for herself.

The Worst Thing:  Because the bulk of the movie is a flashback, action in later chapters is simplified or skipped altogether.  While this works for a movie, I missed certain scenes from the book.

Differences from the Novel: The movie selects the best events of the book and makes several changes that benefit the medium.

The first is that the story is framed—instead of meeting Henriette as she concludes a journey from England to France, we see her have a disastrous first meeting with her teenage students on her first day as a French teacher in an exclusive New York girls’ school.  The rest of the story is a flashback until the end of the movie when we see the girls react to her story.  It works beautifully, despite many pages being scrapped.

The second change is the introduction of a supporting character from later in the story to Henriette’s journey to France.  Both changes improve the movie into something both believable and watchable in two and a half hours.

Cast: Bette Davis is great as she always is.  Charles Boyer is equally competent as a happy man altered by unhappy circumstances. Richard Nichols played the youngest Praslin child, Reynald.  He was in other classics like Kitty Foyle and Blossoms in the Dust.  He gives a good performance, especially considering he was only about four years old when the movie was filmed.

The standout in the cast is Barbara O’Neil as the hysterical Duchesse.  The scenes that have her berating her husband and dominating her children were just as written in the book.

And Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind; Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis, etc) has a supporting role.

Awards: It received 3 Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress—Barbara O’Neil (lost to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath), Best Black-and-White Cinematography—Ernest Haller (lost to George Barnes for Rebecca) and Best Picture (lost to Selznick International Pictures for Rebecca).

To Watch It:  The DVD is available at Amazon and currently priced at $7.40.

If you’d rather watch a trailer first, view one on Youtube:

It’s a must-see.  Certain scenes from the book, such as Henriette’s introduction to Reynald and Berthe in the presence of their mother, play out perfectly.  And for me, this is the ultimate Bette Davis costume drama.

Your Comments Invited
Share your thoughts below.  Thanks for reading, and have a very merry and safe holiday season!