Marriage, Motherhood, and Money: The Morality of the American Dream in Mildred Pierce

Nominated for six Academy Awards, and winner of one (Best Actress – Joan Crawford), Mildred Pierce is a practically perfect film. It boasts a taut, compelling storyline; lush, evocative, noir-style cinematography; and first-rate performances across the board.

Essentially a cautionary tale about flouting the institution of marriage, misguided methods of mothering, and the idolatrous pursuit of money, it makes a powerful statement regarding these three foundational elements of the American dream. Its themes are equally apt today as in 1946, the year of its release—perhaps more so.

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Mildred Pierce is a woman driven by a solitary desire to profusely provide for, protect, and please Veda, the elder of her two daughters. Veda is also driven by a singular desire—she longs for wealth and social status. Veda’s obsession feeds into that of her mother, and the drama of the film is catalyzed by this conflict-ridden interaction, which leads to divorce, an in-name-only marriage, financial ruin, and even murder.

Mildred’s husband, Bert, sums up the core conflict of the film in one of its opening scenes: “The trouble is, you’re trying to buy love from those kids and it won’t work.”

“I’ll do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything,” Mildred replies. “They’ll never do any crying if I can help it … I’m determined to do the best I can for them. If I can’t do it with you, I’ll do it without you.” And just like that, Mildred capsizes their marriage.

Mildred does indeed do anything, and virtually everything, in an effort to please and appease the perpetually dissatisfied Veda. Veda, for her part, disdains and disparages everything her mother does, forever demanding more.

The dynamic of their relationship is overtly demonstrated the night after Bert moves out. Veda suggests that Mildred should marry a man she doesn’t love, simply because he is well-off. “If you married him, maybe we could have a maid like we used to, and a limousine, and maybe a new house,” Veda muses. “There are so many things that I—that we—should have and haven’t got.”

“I want you to have nice things,” Mildred replies. “I’ll get you anything, everything you want.” And, being a woman of her word, Mildred works night and day in an effort to earn the money necessary to placate and indulge Veda.

First, she surreptitiously takes a waitressing job, which pays well enough to provide the family with a comfortable life. But when Veda discovers the working-class nature of Mildred’s job, she charges her mother with having “degrade[d] us,” and accuses Mildred of having a low-class background, which she speculates is the cause behind her father’s departure.

So Mildred steps up her game. She opens her own restaurant, which is quite successful. She buys the building from society-page darling and unapologetic loafer Monty Beragon. Veda, who is rapidly “becoming a young lady with expensive tastes,” is instantly charmed by Monty, and they begin to frequent the places patronized by the idle rich.

Desperate to keep pace with Veda and Monty’s profligate spending habits—Mildred is supporting them both by this point—Mildred opens additional restaurants, transforming her business into a chain. Every location turns a handsome profit.

Veda, meanwhile, inveigles a young millionaire into a quickie marriage. She then asks for an annulment, deceitfully claims to be pregnant, and demands a $10,000 settlement to care for the non-existent child.

Mildred is furious when she discovers Veda’s deception. She demands to know why Veda would do something so remarkably reprehensible.

“With this money, I can get away from you … and everything that smells of grease.” Veda spats. Then she really lets Mildred have it: “You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store, and whose mother took in washing.”

Livid, Mildred rips up the $10,000 check and throws Veda out.

In an effort to run away from her past and problems, Mildred travels. But when she returns, nothing has changed—she still wants Veda, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get her back.

Bert takes Mildred to Veda’s workplace. They find her wearing a skimpy, flashy dress and singing “The Oceana Roll” in a cheap dive. Mildred begs Veda to come home.

“You still don’t understand, do you?” Veda asks. “You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that … the way you want to live isn’t good enough for me.”

In an effort to overhaul her lifestyle into something that will be good enough for Veda, Mildred proposes marriage to Monty Beragon, who has social standing and a veneer of respectability in spite of his lack of real wealth. In exchange for his aristocratic name and residence in his lavish family home, Monty demands a 1/3 share of Mildred’s business. They settle the terms of their marriage as if negotiating a business deal, and Mildred winds up doing exactly what Veda suggested years earlier—she marries someone she doesn’t love in order to elevate her social standing.

Attracted by the possibility of entry into blue-blooded circles afforded by Mildred’s new marriage, Veda returns home. But all is not well. The old pattern repeats, ultimately leading to financial ruin and violent death.

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In Mildred Pierce, marriage and motherhood are inextricably interrelated. They, along with money matters, are serious business that ought to be transacted according to traditional rules and conventions. A multitude of misfortunate events are triggered by the characters’ failure to follow the established socio-cultural norms associated with these structures.

For example, when Mildred walks out on Bert, she jettisons perhaps the only person who could have curtailed Veda’s evolution into a materialistic and morally bankrupt golem. Though Mildred defines herself primarily by her deep devotion to her children, no amount of effort or good intention on her part can ever compensate for the lack of a husband and father. Her attempt to redress Bert’s absence by showering her children with material things backfires horribly. And when she discards the time-honored customs associated with disciplined child-rearing in favor of parental prodigality, one child turns out to be a ruthless monster, and the other winds up dead. Her maternal vocation cannot be successful in the absence of matrimony, and no amount of money can change that.

Mildred’s divorce also leaves her vulnerable to the vicious exploitation she endures in her second so-called marriage. This seemingly tidy financial transaction leads to several serious and sundry betrayals, and ends with the untimely death of one involved party. Mildred’s divorce and remarriage for material ends also promote Veda’s moral dissipation; they insinuate that money is more important than love, that a marriage can be casually cast aside if it becomes inconvenient, and that matrimony and motherhood can and should be manipulated for material gain.

Veda’s marriage misadventure also serves to illustrate the film’s matrimonial, monetary, and maternal morality. When Veda misuses marriage and feigns motherhood for financial gain, she sabotages several important relationships, and ends up as catcall and wolf-whistle fodder in a tawdry dump—an existence that couldn’t possibly be any further removed from the aristocratic life of leisure she imagines she is owed.

At the film’s end, on the other hand, the properly wed Mildred and Bert are reunited. They walk together toward the rising sun of a new day, and a film heretofore characterized by the liberal use of shadows and darkness is filled with the light of dawn.

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Clearly, the worldview promulgated by this film has Catholic overtones, in that it endorses the same traditional values to which we adhere.

For example, Bert, in his role of husband and father, is the voice of moral authority and truth. His observations concerning the origin and nature of Veda’s greed and conceit, as well as their probable consequences, all turn out to be true.

Mildred’s first marriage is portrayed as the only truly legitimate one—one which remains even after a civil divorce. And Mildred’s decision to divorce Bert is not treated as a mere mercurial mistake—on the contrary, it’s outrightly condemned as wrong.

Suffering builds inner strength and forges a sound moral compass. The avoidance and lack of normal suffering, on the other hand, leads to the ugliest selfishness, an absence of charity, and grave sin. Mildred, who voluntarily adopts an excess of suffering in order to spare her children therefrom, is a formidable person with a strong sense of right and wrong who gracefully weathers many misfortunes. Contrarily, Veda, who has been handed virtually everything she ever wanted without the pains of labor, is an amoral beast completely lacking in love.

Finally, the intemperate love and pursuit of wealth provides no lasting happiness, but, rather, leads to dissipation and disaster. True success is not gauged by the size of one’s bank account, but by the extent to which one lives according to traditional moral principles.

In sum, according to Mildred Pierce, the authentic American dream is the achievement of moral, rather than material, prosperity. It is a timely message, now more than ever.

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