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The protagonist of the film Mildred Pierce does everything in her power to help her children. Mildred dreams that one day her daughters will be prima donnas and concert pianists, and pursues these fantasies to the best of her abilities. By twenty-first century standards, she could be considered a good mothershe works as a waitress to make her single mother ends meet and starts her own business. The filmmakers, however, labor to portray her as the a bad mother according to standards in the 1940s: Mildred attempts to shoulder fatherly responsibilities, which makes her the worst kind of mother possible. The matriarchal coup ends in disaster, and reveals the filmmakers' message: a woman's place is in the household, and she cannot hope to thrive in a man's world.
Warner Brothers released the film in 1945, a year many American soldiers returned from World War II. It left millions dead, but the calamitous event also boosted women's place in society. During the WWII period, women became the main providers for their families while American men were at war, a situation that lead to increased independence for American women. Popular slogans and icons of the time, like Rosie the Riveter, encourage women to work and take charge of their lives. However, when men returned and re-entered the workforce, society expected women to step aside and rejoin the cult of domesticity. This background knowledge adds many layers of meaning to the movie and is vital to understanding the message of the movie.
Mildred Pierce is meant for an audience of women. It illustrates why economic independence is undesirable and reinforces why women must stay in the houseMildred's self-sufficiency only leads to catastrophe. The key to Mildred's failure unfolds in the early kitchen scene of the movie when she walks away from the Pierce marriage by kicking her husband Bert out of the house. Pressing financial problems arise as soon as he leaves because Mildred barely makes enough money to support her children. Much of her heartbreak could have been avoided if she had stayed with Bert, but a streak of independence makes it impossible for her to remain a docile housewife. She does not trust Bert to pull the family out of financial mire. Instead, Mildred decides to take provide and protect her children with her own strengths:
"You might as well get this straight right now, once and for all. Those kids come first in this house, before either one of us.
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These lines demonstrate the fundamental errors of Mildred's love for her children: "it's wrong." The love and devotion Mildred should have reserved for Bert were mistakenly given to Veda and Kay. Mildred's pie and cake money goes toward keeping her daughter comfortable. She snubs her husbandshe does not hoard any money to buy luxuries for Bert. The sex of Bert's replacements also highlights an important theme of Mildred Pierce. Mildred replaces men with womenshe chooses her female daughters over her male husband, which reinforces the idea of a matriarchy. Only Veda and Kay, who are female, can inherit from Mildred. The marriage dissolves on account of the Mildred's unbalanced, smothering, obsessive, insistent maternal love for her female children.
During the argument in the kitchen, Mildred seems justified in letting her husband leave: he does not make any money. Mildred tells Bert that she has daughters to raise and bills to pay, but no money because of Bert. He retorts that he makes enough to get by and counters with his own reasons for the financial troubles, placing the blame squarely on Mildred's shoulders. He "wouldn't have so many bills if [she] didn't try to bring up those kids like their old man was a millionaire. No wonder they're so fresh and stuck-up," Bert argues.
According to Burt, Mildred created this problem and the events that unfold justify his opinions. Veda emerges from her childhood as a femme fatal, a sure sign that something went terribly wrong in her upbringing. The filmmakers imply that if Bert had been around he would have put her in her place. Bert says that he is "so fed up with the way [Veda] high hats" him that he would eventually "cut loose and slap her right in the face." His attitude towards Veda contrasts sharply with Mildred's attitude, but in the end, Mildred hits their daughter first. Although he admits that he does not have the maternal connection that Mildred has with her daughters, he knows that her method of raising the kids "isn't right." These lines are also important because they show that Bert, the patriarch, knows more about being a mother than the Mildred. She is too busy making pies to provide for her children to see what has gone wrong. Interest in business already makes her blind to domestic problems. While the role reversal between Mildred and Bert does not become apparent until the end, a hint of Bert's prediction about Veda shows up in the scenes following his departure. Veda, the next matriarch in the line of inheritance, already tries to control her mother after Wally's visit by trying to trade Mildred's dignity for a new house.
After this, the filmmakers include a string of scenes which seem to empower women. Mildred works her way up the socio-economic ladder. She possesses the traits of the ideal all-American man: hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance. Her labors pay off in the Horatio Alger tradition and she reaps a handsome profit from her chain of restaurants. There are two messages in this sequence of events that contradict the ominous predictions of the kitchen scenefirst, her success demonstrates that if women leave their husbands, they are not condemned to lives of poverty and misery. Second, her successes with the restaurants show that women are also capable of being entrepreneurs in the business world. Ida also enters Mildred's world, and becomes another affirmative theme in the film. As the two bond, they create a relationship that is an equitable partnership devoid of the power structure present in Mildred's relationships with men.
These positive elements build audience empathy for Mildred. They celebrate along with Mildred when her restaurant does well and cheer when she opens the new branches of her dinner. The audience becomes Mildred through this empathy and lives through her vicariously. But these positive themes are later used to manipulate the female audience's emotive response. The heroine, who momentarily enjoys business success, is destined to fail as a career woman as well as a mother. Mildred Pierce was, after all, designed as a lesson to the women of the postwar period in both its theme and its narrative. The empathy created from Mildred's success resounds as strongly during her fall from happiness. By manipulating the emotive response in this way, the film reaffirms patriarchal cultural values. The filmmakers provide this devastation through three negative constructions of women in the film.
The first of the negative themes begins Kay's death. It warns of what happens when the nuclear family falls apart: while Mildred frolics at the beach with a new lover, her daughter is dying of pneumonia. The film constructs this scene as what happens with the decay of the nuclear family unit. While Mildred is off having an affair with Monte, her daughter is dying. This ultimately sends the message of the importance of the family unit: a woman must stay true to her family as a whole even if it means living an unhappy life. The film implies that an ideal mother would have been on call, always ready to care for her children. Of course Kay dies; she is a sacrificial lamb for Mildred's excesses. Her death also makes it possible for Mildred to concentrate on Veda and Monte, two key figures in Mildred's destruction. The second negative theme deals with Mildred's "maternal failure." As Mildred becomes more heavily invested in her business, Veda drifts further and further away from her, and buys into Monte's materialistic values. Veda ultimately becomes the femme fatale of the movie, and serves as an example of why women can not be successful businesswomen and mothers at the same time. Juggling two things at once does not work for Mildred because she can only focus on one thing at a time. She even remarks that after Kay's death "there was only one thing on [her] mindto open the restaurant and make it successful." Her obsession with making money forces her not to notice the unsavory developments in her daughter Veda, which Bert forecasts earlier in the kitchen: "The trouble is, you're trying to buy love from those kidsand it won't work."
One of the final negative images in the film comes at the very end of the movie. Through manipulation of the lighting, the male brings light to the present tense of the film. The detective, an ideal, powerful man, opens the blinds and disperses the shadows that plague the later half of Mildred Pierce. The opening of the blinds is symbolic. His ability to "shed light" on Monte's murder shows male victory over female conspiracy to hide the truth of the situation. This final sequence of images tells a multitude of message of the film: Women cannot be men, so know your place. Ambitions to enter the business world or divorce will only end in tragedy. Women must remain in the household, an arena that naturally suits them. Attend to your children, every hour of the daythis is the only way a mother can be assured of her children's well-being.
This message carries even more weight with Mildred childless return to Bert. No daughters remain. Veda awaits the penalty for murder in jail. Kay is already dead. Mildred's attempted coup of the patriarchal system symbolically sentenced them to death. Apart from Veda, Kay's death results from when Mildred strays from her marriage. Betrayed and deserted by her daughters, she cannot help but admit that she has lost the right to call herself a mother. Her best endeavors have, in fact, come to nothing. In order to please her daughters, she divorced her first husband, worked hard to make a fortune, and remarried a man who ended up embezzling all her property. Now she has no one to trust but her ex-husband, who still loves her. Though at one time devoid of work and confidence, Bert becomes a ray of hope for Mildred, and they leave at the break of dawn as if they have promised each other to start over together.
One of the most powerful images in the movies occurs simultaneously as the couple steps into the dawn's sunrise. Two cleaning women kneel scrub the floor as Bert and Mildred leave. A silhouette shot ensures that they scrub in anonymity and no discerning features of their faces can be seen. These two lowly scrub women are symbols of the two ambitious women of the film: Mildred and Ida. They wash floor as if trying to be cleansed of their sin: the sin of gaining a foothold in society. Truly repentant, they can no longer stand on their feet but only kneel down. Ultimately, this sends the message that female economic power must not be powerful at allonly humble and faceless
Mildred Pierce may initially seem like a strange hybrid of women's melodrama and film noir, but the two elements work together to transmit a particular message. In this sense, the combination works very well. Juxtoposition of the gritty underbelly of life's with a woman's attempt to gain financial independence from men broadcasts the filmmakers' suggestions in a very visual manner.