Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce is a movie about a middle class mother who decides to leave her husband with tragic results.  Although she makes a fortune in the restaurant business, Mildred loses both of her children, one to pneumonia and the other to snobbery.  In addition to the troubles with her children, she renounces her middle class husband for an upper class husband who ends up betraying her in the end.  This film noir portrayal of a middle class woman’s life came out in 1945.  The way race, class, and gender are portrayed in the film clearly show the attitudes prevalent about women throughout the 1940s.

Race in Mildred Pierce is mostly conspicuous by its absence.  The only non-white in the movie is Mildred’s African-American housekeeper.  This housekeeper has a high, childish voice and is always bumbling around in silly ways and making mistakes.  An example of this is when she tries to announce Mildred’s husband Bert, but forgets that she needs to announce people until the last minute, and then performs the announcement too loud.  When Mildred corrects her, she acts confused.  The fact that the only non-white person in the movie is portrayed as childish and silly is indicative of white ideas about African-American women during the 1940’s.  Just like in the movie, African American women were largely left out of women’s issues during the war.  As more men went overseas to fight in World War II, women were encouraged to take their jobs, “for the duration.”  Although white women were able to take advantage of these new opportunities, African American women were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.  African American women were not even allowed in women’s military groups such as the WAC until the war was nearly over.  Aside from Mildred’s housekeeper, everyone else in the movie is white, from the customers at Mildred’s restaurant to the police officers at the station.

Class is another issue that is explored in the film.  In stark contrast to earlier ages, where the upper classes were revered completely, the upper class people in Mildred Pierce are unenviable.  Monty Beregon, Mildred’s second husband, is an upper class playboy who loafs around on Mildred’s dime, steals her company out from under her, and finally cheats on her with her own daughter.  Mildred’s daughter Veda wants desperately to belong to the upper classes, berating her mother, blackmailing, and stealing money to afford the things her middle class life will not allow her to.  When Veda secretly gets married, her mother in law comes to Mildred’s house and insults the whole family.  These portrayals of upper class people are terrible.  In stark contrast to that is Mildred’s friend Ida, a smart and snappy woman who runs Mildred’s restaurant business admirably, and also Mildred’s first husband Bert.  Both of these people are middle class, and are there for Mildred throughout the film.  Even Wally, a friend of Bert’s who is constantly making passes at Mildred, won’t take no for an answer, and is often a jerk, helps Mildred to start her business, and offers her much financial support along the way.  In the 1940’s, as the number of middle class people grew along with their purchasing power, middle class became the way to be.  We can clearly see this in the way the middle class is portrayed throughout the film.

The issue of gender in the film is very complex.  In many ways, Mildred breaks the established female norms by divorcing her husband, and leaving the kitchen to become a business woman.  Although Mildred achieves success financially, her home life is completely destroyed.  The moment Mildred leaves her tract house kitchen the family starts to have problems.  In fact, the loss of Mildred’s youngest daughter and the betrayal of her oldest daughter can both be attributed to the fact that Mildred is not at home supervising her children.  Kay, Mildred’s youngest child, dies of pneumonia after Mildred has failed to notice that her cough is not getting better.  Mildred is not even informed of Kay’s sickness because she is out gallivanting around with her boyfriend Monte, and she arrives only in time to watch her daughter succumb to the disease.  Veda’s affair with Mildred’s husband Monte can also be seen as a consequence of Mildred’s working ways.  If Mildred had stayed at home and supervised things like a proper 1940’s housewife should, Veda and Monte would not have had the opportunity to behave so horribly, the film seems to imply.  In the 1940’s, literature was everywhere telling women how important it was for the welfare of their children for them to stay home.  The prevailing attitude of this time is reflected completely in the fate of Mildred once she chooses to leave the home.

Mildred Pierce is an interesting film about a mother who becomes a successful business woman.  The things it tells us about class, race, and gender give a clear picture of the attitudes and opinions of the time in which the movie came out.  The 1940’s were a time in the history of America where women were moving back to the home and middle class values became the measuring point for society.  We can see this measuring through the film, and see how it has shaped our values and opinions today.

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Categories: Women's History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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