The Big Idea Behind MILDRED PIERCE
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James M. Cain was a popular novelist in the 1940s and a graduate of the "hardboiled" school of writing, one which was characterized by tough language, urban settings and crime-centered plots. Mildred Pierce was not a best-selling title for him, but it must have been interesting enough to catch the attention of producer Jerry Wald, whose fortunes were on the rise at Warner Brothers at that time. The studio bought the film rights for $15,000 in February 1944 and immediately set about making it more "acceptable" for the screen. The biggest problem right off was the general unpleasantness of the characters. The studio found them unsympathetic across the board. Mildred, herself, ends the novel miserable, drinking heavily, and fat - a physical detail Bette Davis might have found challenging if she had been cast in the role but it was unthinkable for Crawford.
Warner Brothers was concerned about getting the story passed through the Production Code censors, but they also had to make it more palatable to a mass audience. Mildred's vulgar expressions and lower middle-class behavior were dropped or softened, and she was made more noble, less a sinner than a victim of circumstance. In the novel, she has an affair with the sexually aggressive Wally Fay, but that was dropped from the movie, and only Wally's dogged but unsuccessful pursuit of her remain. On the other hand, daughter Veda and second husband Monty were made more villainous. Cain had given Veda the saving grace of talent and a passionate devotion to music. In the movie, she still takes music lessons and performs but it is merely a minor plot detail. And Monty is transformed from a down-at-the-heels society playboy to a more sinister backstabbing gigolo.
Another big change from the novel was the introduction of the murder plot. By all accounts this was Wald's idea, along with the flashback structure used in the film. Catherine Turney, one of the early writers on the project, suggested Wald got the flashback idea from the screen adaptation of another Cain other novel, Double Idemnity (1944), but according to Warners' assistant story editor Tom Chapman, Wald came up with the idea independently in the summer of 1943.
Wald farmed out the script to a number of writers. According to Chapman, rather than pass a script version on to a new writer to add or subtract from it, Wald preferred to have each writer make his own fully unique contribution and then Wald would synthesize the final script from those. He originally set Cain himself on the task of writing a treatment incorporating the murder and flashback, but the author hit a dead end in his efforts. Over the months a number of people worked on different versions. Well-known contract writer Turney was supposed to bring in the "woman's perspective," but she and Wald disagreed on so many details that she was dropped and only bits of her script used. William Faulkner also added distinct touches of his own; he wrote a scene in which a distraught Mildred is cradled by her maid (Butterfly McQueen) singing a gospel song. The famed writer was deemed unsuitable to continue on the project. Finally after seven months and as many different scripts and treatments, Jack Warner gave an enthusiastic go-ahead to the screenplay credited to Ranald MacDougall in September 1944.
by Rob Nixon