In “Mildred Pierce,” which is set in Depression-era Glendale, the sun-dappled curtain rises on a domestic scene of failure and dread. It’s 1931, and Herbert Pierce, a stylish family man in his mid-thirties, is tending the lawn. Taking care of his modest Spanish style bungalow is one way for him to pass the time. Another is hanging out with the wonderfully named Maggie Biederhof, a neighborhood widow whose regard provides Herbert with a much-needed ego boost. He’s unemployed. At the height of the go-go twenties, Herbert, a former stunt rider for the movies, teamed up with some developers to convert a ranch he’d inherited into a bedroom community, called Pierce Homes, with Herbert as its enthusiastic president. But when the stock market crashed, so did Herbert’s dreams.
Pierce Homes tanked, and now all the president has to hold on to, other than his lawnmower, is his pragmatic twenty-eight-year-old wife, Mildred, and their two daughters: Veda, a pretentious, musically inclined eleven-year-old, and the seven-year-old Moire, known as Ray.
In a sense, Mildred’s life doesn’t begin until Herbert is gone. And it is the stigma of being an upstanding woman alone that drives her forward. Mildred Pierce is the odd woman out in this gallery of moral ineptitude. Her aspirations are not for herself, but for her children. She doesn’t want to be rich so much as she wants them to feel entitled. She’s a great believer in women’s rights, but she knows that, as second-class citizens, women can only raise themselves through work. Mildred works hard so that Veda can realize her dreams. But Veda is more conventional than her mother and more of a performer; the only audience that interests her is male, and she sets out to upstage her mother with cunning and artifice. One of the most horrifying scenes in the book comes when Mildred, in a moment of rage and frustration, grabs Veda by the throat. Of course, Mildred loves Veda too much to want to hurt her, but Veda uses Mildred’s loss of control to her advantage, falsely asserting that Mildred has damaged her throat and thus her career. Again and again, Mildred forgives Veda’s transgressions because she believes in her, and in the idea that a woman can triumph over the exigencies of gender through art.
Although Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her strong-jawed performance in the title role, it’s Ann Blyth’s depiction of Veda that seems the most revealing today. With her tight little mouth and eyes turned down in disapproval, she captures the social climber’s disdain for the working class. The California we see here is a microcosm of America, with its penchant for producing dreams that only money can buy. But, as Cain himself knew, with dreams come responsibilities, especially when your dream is to catapult yourself past society’s limited view of your class or your gender. In discussing “Mildred Pierce,” Cain explained, “This book simply says perhaps a dream come true is the worst thing that could ever happen.”
It is a generational story. One that is timeless in its striving and futile in its end. We all want the best for our children. How they get there is a path they must choose for themselves.