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.