Mildred Pierce Through the War

Giulianna Hsu

Timothy Robinson

ENG 2300

29 August 2013

            Mildred Pierce follows the life of a middleclass American woman through a series of events that eventually lead up to the murder of her husband. Through this very basic plot stems numerous narrations on the role of gender and class constraints in 1940s America. Despite the state of total war that existed throughout the entire production and release of Mildred Pierce, the film never once touches on war or even the possibility of other countries with the exception of Veda’s idolatry of French. The movie shows the state of American culture at a time of extreme stress.

The film begins with the gunshot that murders Monte Beragon. Through the investigation of his death and the testament of his wife, Mildred Pierce, the movie unravels through flashback narration. Mildred begins her story with “I felt I’d been born in a kitchen and had lived there all my life”. Mildred exemplifies middle class women at the time. She works for her family, does not overly nag her husband, and considers her daughters her first priority above all else. Despite this middle class ideal seen later in American culture, Mildred is looked down upon by her daughter and second husband. Mildred enjoys huge success through hard work but still remains a social disappointment without the marriage to Monte to solidify her status. Mildred Pierce’s inability to be accepted by her daughter and husband because of her status shows the class constraint of the time. Although Mildred is the breadwinner for the family Veda still considers her low class.

Through her first flashback, Mildred shows her divorce with her first husband. He agrees to separate to show her how she could never survive on her own with the children. Mildred, however, successfully finances both her and her children singlehandedly. She accepts a position as a waitress, starts her own cake business, and eventually opens a chain of extremely successful restaurants. The initial message of such a story would imply a change in American culture towards a woman’s ability to work. The ending of Mildred Pierce, however, contradicts this idea. Mildred shows her initial business prowess and hard work ethic, a prized attribute for the World War II housewife, but gradually becomes more and more conflicted between her business and family. Mildred fails to be a proper mother to Veda. The final discovery of both her husband’s infidelity and her daughter’s betrayal represent Mildred’s failure in her family.

As a study of 1940s American culture, Mildred Pierce shows society’s views on gender and class. World War II completely changed American attitudes towards women and gave birth to the rising middle class. This film, however, was released within months of the end of World War II and thus shows the conflict between previous and up and coming views on social matters. Mildred Pierce, as the heroine of the film, is hard working and loves her family but ultimately fails to move past her social class. She also fails to fulfill her role as a mother and raises Veda as extremely arrogant and self obsessed.

Cinematographic Elements in Mildred Pierce

        Mildred Pierce is the 1945 film directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred Pierce follows the story of a selfless mother who attempts to cover up the murder of her husband, Monte Beragon, by her step daughter, Veda. Curtiz uses a variety of cinematographic elements to progress and expand upon the narrative. Such elements include, a variety of establishing shots, excessive use of shadows, and a number of different visual elements which demonstrate the passage of time.

Every scene that introduces a new setting has an establishing shot to show the location of the scene as well as giving the audience a sense of the mood of the following screen. The first shot of the film was a high-angle shot of the beach house at night.  This shot introduces the audience to Monte’s beach house has an ominous tone because of the darkness in the frame and the high-angle shot makes the scene more dramatic. The pier Mildred walks along can also be seen in the background of this shot, providing some slight foreshadowing to events later in the film. Another establishing shot is when Mildred is starting to tell her story, the camera pans over their neighborhood. In this shot the sun is shining and kids are playing in the street, which portrays a blissful mood which is how Mildred felt with Bert before he left her.

Mildred Pierce has a number of scenes that use shadows. These shadows are used to magnify the emotions in certain scenes and are also used as a symbolic features. The scene where Mildred is trying to frame Wally for Monte’s murder uses a lot of shadows, like when he is running around the house he has his giant shadow following him, and all of the items in the room are casting large shadows, so large that you pay more attention to them than the actual objects the shadows come from. They even have a shot where Wally is trying to get out through a door which is not actually in the frame, all the audience can see is the shadow of him trying to escape. These shadows are used to show the rising fear and panic felt by Wally as he learns he is being set-up for the murder of Monte Beragon. When he breaks out of the house the police put up a spotlight on him, illuminating him from the shadows, his demeanor does a complete 180 and he goes from a panicked mess to calm. He is so calm that he tells the officer “You got a stiff in there” even though his previous actions of breaking out of the house might make him an obvious suspect in the case. Another use of shadows is in one of the later scenes when Mildred goes to the beach house to confront Monte after he sold his share of her company. She walks in on two silhouettes kissing. When Mildred walks in the couple steps into the light and they are revealed to be Monte and his stepdaughter Veda. The shadows serve as symbolic element here as the relationship between Veda and Monte had been kept a secret until it was revealed as the couple stepped out of the shadows and into the light as Mildred learns of their affair.

The film’s plot is non-linear and spans over a multi-year time period, so Curtiz uses a number of setting elements to show the passage of time throughout the film. In the police station scene there are several shots of the clock. The first shot of the clock is a little after one and then when they do another shot of the clock the time is around two in the morning, showing that Mildred has been in the station for around an hour before she is called in for questioning. Another visual element that shows the passage of time is the sunrise in the inspector’s office at the end of the film. After Veda is arrested the inspector lifts up the blinds to reveal that it is now morning after Mildred tells her story, so they’ve been talking for several hours. The dawn in this scene not only indicates a passage of time but serves as a symbol for the new life Mildred might live now that she is free of Veda and Monte, who have been a hindrance on life.

Death of One, Birth of Another

In the film Mildred Pierce, there are a lot of underlying themes that are left to interpretation to the spectators. I would like to emphasis on the theme of materialism that is present in the film and bring up the argument that a parallel connection exists between Mildred’s transformation and the change that desire of money has on an individual. Through the narrative of the film one will realize that there is a development of all the characters especially that of Mildred. From the beginning of the film when the first flashback occurs Mildred is self-described as only knowing two things, the kitchen and cleaning. Mildred’s transformation in the film goes from a docile housewife to a business owning entrepreneur. When Bird losses his job Mildred forces herself to bake cakes to make money, to get her kids the things that they want. From the beginning, Mildred already had a materialistic view of the world. Throughout the film her desire for money will continue to grow.

The key point in the film that can be interpreted as separating the “old” Mildred from the “new” Mildred is when her youngest daughter, Kay, dies from pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection due to viruses or bacteria that inhibits the lungs of a person. Out of the many ways that Kay could have died it can be interpreted that the death by pneumonia is correlated with the desire of money that is growing within Mildred. Before the death of Kay, Mildred was still struggling financially and had not been able to make the promise she made to her children come true.  After the death of Kay, Mildred was able to successfully launch her restaurant and it leads her to become a successful business owner because of the desire that kept growing within her to make as much money as she could.

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The change in the way that Mildred dresses in the film provides visual conformation to the audience on how Mildred is evolving. In the image above it shows Mildred dressed in colloquial clothing that your typical housewife would wear. The contrast of her clothing is lighter than that of Bird and can be interpreted to be more of blue-collared work attire. This is before the death of Kay which can be understood as the point of paradigm shift for Mildred. Mildred does desire to make but only enough for a new dress for her daughter. She will eventually desire to have it all.

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The image above depicts Mildred after her transformation. She no longer wears the colloquial clothing of a housewife but has changed her clothing style to that of a business man. The colors of the clothes that she wears after the death of Kay are a darker shade than of her previous attire. She is being portrayed as a business woman and the perception that was once had of her is lost in her new attire.

Through my interpretation Mildred transformed because of the continual desire to have more and more money.  Mildred’s desire to obtain more wealth grew after the death of Kay and through the death of Kay Mildred changed into a woman that did everything that was possible to obtain the wealth that she once promised her daughters. From the death of Kay came a new version of Mildred. Mildred no longer had to bake cakes to pay her bills but owned a successful chain of restaurants.

Mildred Pierce. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott. Warner Bros., 1945. Film.

The Use of Shadow and Flashback in Mildred Pierce

The film noir Mildred Pierce is a murder-mystery that unfolds primarily through flashbacks. The film uses both the flashback structure and a recurring shadow motif to indicate the inevitable conclusion and the reasons for its occurrence.

The film begins with the murder of Monte Beregon, as revealed in a brief initial scene, which shows only the barest details of the circumstances surrounding his death. Mildred walks along a pier immediately following this, the crashing of the dark waves only adding to the sense of bleakness that is evident from her distraught expression. Her face is shadowy and damp, and her heavy fur coat reinforces the idea that there is a mantle of darkness surrounding her. As Mildred is persuaded away from the edge of the pier, toward the lights and the music, she seems as separate from that world as the audience is from hers—looking through a window at the lives others lead, with the muted music and the indistinct conversation highlighting her aloneness. Even when her old friend Wally pulls her inside the bar, she cannot even pretend to belong, instead drinking grimly and saying ominously, “I’ve learned how these past few weeks. I’ve learned a lot of things.”

The use of shadows is prominent in many scenes, such as when Wally discovers Monte’s body on the floor of the beach house, an obvious moment of thematic darkness. Later, a flashback features the silhouettes of Wally and Mildred against the wall as they leave together to attempt to buy Mildred’s restaurant. “Oh Wally, you’re wonderful!” the shadowy form of Mildred says, to which Wally replies, “This is all business, remember?” Though both characters seem optimistic and at ease with each other in this scene, the shadows hint at the dark turn this friendship will soon take, when Mildred attempts to frame him as the murderer. Another example of this shadowy foreshadowing is the silhouette of Bert crumbling the newspaper that announces the marriage of Monte and Mildred, a union that was, as the audience already knows, doomed from the start.

The first hint the audience receives in the flashbacks that Mildred may, in fact, be capable of violence is an example of when the shadowy visuals and importance of flashbacks collide. As Mildred finally realizes the truth of the extent of Veda’s greed and corruption, her face in the close-up has none of the half-shadow of her earlier confession scene, but is completely illuminated, fitting for the moment in which she, as she herself puts it, sees Veda for the first time. Veda’s slap on the staircase literally forces Mildred into the shadows, and as she rises and utters her shocking pronouncement—“Get out before I kill you”—the shadows begin to creep in on the edges of her face. The use of chiaroscuro, the harsh lines of shadow, is effective in emphasizing the importance of the scene, but not so obvious as to distract from the action.

The final shot of the movie, in which the two parents of the murderess leave the world of shadow, together, to emerge in the light, is a poignant last shot of the film—with the darkness that crept in between them firmly in the past, they can, perhaps, look optimistically toward the future at last.

Both the flashback format and the use of light and shadow are essential in telling the story at the center of Mildred Pierce.  The flashback structure means that the viewers will consider each image, event, and spoken word in the context of what they already know is to come. Seemingly inconsequential lines become illuminating when they are regarded as possible motivation for future events. This fact is a distinct advantage of using flashbacks in regards to the film noir genre, since this ensures that the audience will be paying close attention in order to find out who committed the crime. The same is true when using distinct visual styles, such as a shadow or chiaroscuro, to reinforce the storytelling, whether by causing the viewer to question the goodness of a character or making them reconsider what is happening in regards to future events. Viewers that may not normally pay attention to visual storytelling techniques are pulled in by the mystery and end up paying attention to the methods used to tell the story, making a richer viewing experience for all.

Discovering the Recipe to Happiness: A Critical Analysis of Mildred Pierce (1945)

The American drama, Mildred Pierce, takes typical American hardships, such as social-economic standings and complex family dynamics, and makes them multidimensional by incorporating murder, self-indulgence, and deceit into the plot. The presentation of time, transitions, lighting, and dialogue throughout the film help communicate relatable themes such as social class, devotion, and greed as the protagonist eventually finds tranquility.

     Mildred Pierce begins to shift between past and present when the protagonist discloses her back story to the police. This film technique brings to light Mildred’s character development and eventually exposes her husband’s murderer. It also intrigues the viewer, leaving them constantly guessing who the killer is. For example, in the introduction, the viewer is lead to believe that Mildred is the culprit and later that her ex-husband is guilty of the crime. As the movie progresses, the viewer is even tricked into suspecting Wally killed Mildred’s husband out of jealousy. This enhances the shock the audience feels when the film ultimately reveals that Veda is the true murderer.

Mildred’s narration is incorporated in several of the film’s transitional scenes. Ironically, these transitions expose the transitions that exist in her life, such as her being hired as a waitress, opening her business, and returning from Mexico. During each of these scenes, the audience learns that she achieves something new and becomes more independent, despite her constant need to please her daughter. The sequences of images fading into one another along with Mildred’s narration creates a personal connection between the audience and the protagonist and makes the viewer feel as if they were venturing through time with her.

Though Mildred’s success is apparent, the dialogue makes it clear that she is displeased. In her lines, it can be inferred that her increased drinking is due to the innate need she has to please her daughter, who is unsatisfied with every aspect of their life. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mildred admits to not drinking very much. However, towards the end, as Monte apologizes for not have anything to mix the alcohol with, Mildred states “I like it straight”, leaving Monte and the audience stunned by this abrupt change. Throughout Mildred’s development, Veda is constantly dragging her down. Mildred believes her purpose in life is to provide for her daughters, which is proven when Beragon says “Your reason to do anything is usually Veda”. Through dialogue, Mildred is shown to be entirely devoted to Veda.

Veda, however, does not show the same dedication. She exemplifies a direct contrast to her mother, showing that there are people whose main concerns can center around their family, but also there are others that only care about bettering themselves, regardless of who they hurt. For example, when Mildred is spending the majority of her time baking and selling pies to buy Veda a dress, Veda is shown as critical and unappreciative with no regard for her mother’s effort. This sequence purposely shows Mildred overhearing Veda’s negative response to illustrate that, despite Veda’s obvious apathy towards her mother’s hard work, Mildred will continue to spoil her daughter because of her desire to please her.

To symbolize Mildred’s future happiness and the fact that she no longer feels the burden of trying to satisfy her daughter, the very last scene shows Mildred and Bert walking into a bright light together. This conclusion makes a point to show that despite Mildred’s inferiority when it comes to wealth and social class, she still has the potential to become a self-actualized individual. Mildred’s character conveys an important message that the audience hopes to be true: in order to live a truly happy life, one must find a proper balance between caring for others, and oneself.

The Death Throes of a Dying Class

Mildred Pierce(1945) is an outstanding movie that depicts the dying of the wealthy upper class who lived off the money of their family and lived ridiculous, extravagant, expensive lives without working a day in their lives. The Great Depression has just started in the United States and everyone was looking for work that could not survive for longer than a month or two on whatever money they had saved up. There was a group of people that appeared to be unaffected by this global tragedy. They continued to live frivolously despite the economic collapse. However, as this historically valuable film shows, they were on their way out.

Descent of the bourgeoisie

Mildred’s second husband, Monte Beragon, is one of these men who inherited a large estate from their family and has not truly worked as Mildred has to purchase whatever he desires. In order to fuel his expensive tastes, Monte is forced to sell one of his properties to Mildred and later even has to resort to borrowing money from Mildred instead of trying to get a job like the rest of the country  in the midst of Depression. Large families with large sums of money have been around for a long time and still exist today, however, the Great Depression cut many of those families off who could not adapt to the downward spiraling economy. Veda is a good example of a person who wanted to be one of the non-working wealthy citizens, however, she didn’t have the money to back up the lifestyle she wished to live. Because Veda was groomed to live like a princess, she didn’t know how else to live and married at the age of 17 and shortly divorced her young husband,Ted Forrester, claiming that she had a baby on the way in order to acquire more money to try to make her happy. Had her mother not ripped up the substantial check she was granted for her non-existent child, she would have burned through the money quickly, with little satisfaction, and returned to scheming to find her next source of easy income.

Misfits in Society

This film also shows how the current socioeconomic environment no longer suited those who wouldn’t work to live. “Monte: ‘I wish i could get that interested in work’ Ida: ‘You were probably frightened of a callous at an early age!’ ” With many people suffering from the Depression, those who had expensive tastes often enjoyed those tastes alone or with only a few others who could either afford it or were too foolish enough to spend most of their money on activities or objects that granted very little happiness. This class of people never learned that money can’t buy happiness and so they spent all their money trying to be happy to no avail. Monte shows this perfectly by always taking Veda out to expensive outings but it only causes more trouble than enjoyment, like most other activities either Veda or Monte were involved in. Veda married for money like a lot of girls who want expensive things and she was not in love and she was not happy. Monte married Mildred for a share in her business. Needless to say, their marriage did not have a happy ending.

The Psychology of Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce is considered one of the greatest films of all time, bringing the audience through a harrowing journey of one woman’s fight for rights and even her very survival through times of poverty and despair. The title’s namesake, Mrs. Mildred Pierce, battles every day to provide a lavish and rich life for her only surviving daughter, Veda, buying her daughter the things that she could never afford as a child. Through a divorce, the death of her youngest daughter and a disastrous romance, she still fought to buy her daughter the best life she possibly could, and make a name and career for herself. Audience members are able, through this extraordinary film, to feel their own fears, hopes, dreams and apprehensions played out on screen through the riveting characters. The psychological influences in this film is quite interesting and not easily recognizable, however Mildred Pierce still provides a compelling story full of relatable concepts and an inside view to aspects of the human psychological condition that any audience member can see and relate to.

There are so many aspects of the human psyche that can be seen and related to in this film. The main and most prominent aspect in the film is the desire to be needed. Everyone wants to be needed throughout their life, whether it be in small ways in which they serve their fellow men and women or a stronger desire to be needed by others who hold a great importance in their life. Through the film Mildred Pierce, Mildred demonstrates a constant and strong psychological desire to be needed and wanted by her daughter Veda. She is constantly striving to be exceptionally close to her daughter, trying to form a bond which would make Veda impossible to be separated from her mother. Mildred continuously purchases the best and most expensive items for Veda in hope to fill her desires and keep her close. In other words, she is trying to buy Veda’s love. The audience can also observe that Mildred has a desire to be needed by the men in the film. She continually entertains their sexual desires for her by going on dates with them, and giving into their financial demands. Although it appears that Mildred did not necessarily have a sexual relationship with all the men, she psychologically desired, no, craved to have their attention and to be desired by them, giving her a psychological high as if she were on narcotics. She manipulates the men in her life to give her the attention and neediness she so craves, giving them all they desire and more in an effort to keep them close. Any audience member can relate to the want to be needed and the director and producer exceptionally portrayed this need to the audience through a vivid and exaggerated portrayal of Mildred’s deep and passionate desire to be needed by her daughter, becoming so much a part of her life that it became a deeply rooted need and key to her very survival and sense of self.

Mildred Pierce provides insight to the psychological desire to be needed that so many crave. So many aspects of the human psychological condition and experience can be seen in this classic film. The aspect of the deep desire to be needed is brilliantly delivered to the audience through a riveting and enticing storyline, presenting to the audience a tale of desire and passion and the constant battle of Mildred Pierce to live her life in the way that most fulfilled her. The director did a superb job in the film when it came to the film form. The film started off in present time and then moved to the past in a chronological order, occasionally returning to the present until the final scene which finished the film in the present. Also, the narration of the film added a great effect to the movie as it was coming from the main character Mrs. Mildred Pierce and then slowly vanished with the audience barely noticing it was missing. Although through her journey Mildred encountered many obstacles and tribulations, she continued to fight on for her daughter, consistently trying to buy herself a place into Veda’s life. She fought until the end when even all she had done no longer counted, and she lost the person most important in her life, the one she craved to be needed by the most.

Example of Blog Post

Note: Hyperlinks in this blog post are links to screen shots I took of Metropolis to give insight into the cinematic choices made in the film.

Metropolis (1927):

The science fiction epic, Metropolis, is set in an art-deco inspired dystopian future and it explores the duality of technology. Technology is both a reflection of man’s noble goal of attaining perfection and a threat to the very civilization which gave rise to it. The aesthetically breathtaking mise-en-scène with the vibrant low shots of the towering city provided impetus for the former viewpoint and the eerie, surrealistic (think Moloch the sacrificial machine) diversions provided support for the later view. In the production of the film, inventive cinematography, camera tricks, and literary allusions were employed to convey character and thematic subtleties that the sparse dialog could not.

Maria, undoubtedly a reference to the Biblical Mary, virgin mother of Christ, is introduced to the viewer in a long shot of the Eternal Gardens doorway. To emphasize her virtuous nature, she is dressed in simple, modest attire despite her attractive features and is encircled by a group of children while framed in a soft halo of light imbued by an iris effect.

Maria and children

The machine man Maria has darker, more seductive makeup and more suggestive gestures, often clawing at the neckline of her frock during the incitement of the worker uprising.

Machine Man Maria

Meanwhile, Joh Frederson, the dialectic of Maria and the creator of the Metropolis, is portrayed as an emotionally deficient, logical man through clever uses of camera angles. After Freder enters his father’s office overlooking the cityscape, Joh seldom makes eye contact with his son. Instead Joh spends much of his time with his back facing the camera, and eyes averted from Freder, Josephat and Grot even while engaged in conversation.

Joh Frederson Back Turned to Son

Rotwang, perhaps the most tragic figure in this film due to his unrequited love for Hel, gives the most poignant insight into the film’s message about humanity. Besides being a simplistic, almost storybook rehashing of the class struggle as explored by Marx and Engels, Metropolis explore the limits or flaws of the machine man in the almost fetishistic combination of technology and sexuality. The decision to make the machine man in Metropolis a woman not only reflects Rotwang’s own carnal desires but the role of male-centric gender roles on the development of technology. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that at no point where any camera angles from a female character’s point of view and until the worker uprising, not a single female had screen time with the exception of Maria. The film posits that the concept of a machine man was not inherently evil but the circumstances under which it was created – the jealous rivalry between Rotwang and Joh, and the violent abduction of Maria – imbue corruption in the machine man. The created are only as wholesome as their creator. Indeed, several scenes establish Rotwang as a malevolent character, particularly the abduction scene where the camera briefly does a close-up of his face obscured by the flashlight and framed by two skulls in the catacomb.

Rotwang and Skulls

The Biblical depictions of Maria and false-Maria as both the virgin Mary and the Whore of Babylon in Metropolis serve to highlight the dichotomous view men hold of women – as either virtuous virgins or promiscuous whores with no middle ground. It comes to reason that, technology, in man’s quest to control nature, takes on the extremist views of its creators, much to their undoing.

*On a personal note, Rotwang, probably one of the earliest examples of the mad scientist archetype in film, with his exaggerated gesticulations, crazed expression and mysterious gloved hand are reminiscent of the main character of one of my favorite films – Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Details on Blog Comments

The weeks you are not posting a blog you are required to comment on two posts from your classmates.  Below are the guidelines for this assignment:

  • Read each blog post (check the dates and deadlines on the syllabus)
  • Choose two posts that intrigue you most and that you want to comment on
  • Write one comment on each post.  Your comments should reflect your understanding of both the film discussed and your classmate’s analysis
  • Comments must be at least two sentences long to receive credit
  • Your comments must show me that you are engaging in a productive discussion with the author of the blog post.  That means that you can ask a question about the post; a comment indicating whether you agree with your classmate or not and detailing why (use evidence for support); a suggestion about how to strengthen the argument; an interesting fact or story that specifically relates to your classmate’s post; your thoughts on the film and how they relate to the post, etc.
  • You must always be respectful and considerate when you are commenting.  Rude comments on the blog will not be tolerated and will be deleted.
  • While you are only required to write two comments to get full credit I will take into consideration all the comments you make before the deadline before assigning you a grade for commenting that week.
  • Each pair of comments will be worth 5 points  (15 points total)
  • All comments are due by the beginning of class on Friday