“Often like a ghost in the shadows, the mother haunts film noir,” observed Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo in 2003. “She is mentioned but never seen, yet she leaves her traces throughout film noir. Paralleling the dichotomy of the bad omnipresent or bad absent mother, in film noir the mother is everywhere and nowhere.”1 Yet, as the two critics note, a handful of film noirs placed mothers and women at their center, ultimately both pushing back against noir restraints, but still reinforcing domestic, gender, and racial normatives of the day.
In two such films, “Mildred Pierce” and “The Reckless Moment,” Los Angeles and its suburbs provide the backdrop for film noir’s judgment on the role of women in post war America. Few venues engaged ideas regarding motherhood, adolescence, and gender in a nation emerging from four years of war, like suburban California. Places like Glendale and Balboa operated as the knife edge of suburbanization — early examples that expanded and served as models, both in design and cultural politics, for all the hundreds of thousands of subdivisions that followed.
“With this money I can get away from you and your pies and your chickens and everything that smells of grease,” Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) snarls at her mother in the 1945 film noir, “Mildred Pierce.” “You’ll never be anything than a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.” This pivotal scene cemented Veda’s place as the kind of child that, as one character observes, inspires alligators to eat their children. Veda’s snarling outburst also serves as testament to the kind of fears regarding masculinity, gender roles, and juvenile delinquency that haunted WWII America and the years that followed.
Released in October 1945 (it turns 70 next year), “Mildred Pierce” came on the heels of WWII, though the movie never once mentions or references the conflict, as the nation anticipated the return of hundreds of thousands of men from abroad. Critically, the film combined aspects of 1940s weepies, independent women films, and noir. As one writer noted, Betty Davis melodramas and Katherine Hepburn professional women culminate and ended with “Joan Crawford’s Mildred.” Both it and 1949’s “The Reckless Moment” (65 years ago this December) provide plenty of commentary on the sexual and gender politics of post WWII reconversion. Indeed, the conclusion of both films could be interpreted as a none too subtle instruction to American women that they should leave the business of leading a family to men and, in Pierce’s case, get out of the restaurant industry to make way for returning doughboys.
Opening with the murder of Monte Beragon, Pierce’s lazy, useless second husband, the audience meets Mildred on the then-seedy looking Santa Monica Pier. She soon ends up in the police station, answering questions and propelling the plot forward. The authorities believe her first husband to be the culprit, but anyone versed in noir knows that allegations against Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) obscure a darker and more insidious reality, bathed in suburban striving and middle class respectability.
Indeed, the film emphasized the uniformity of suburban life. Even with the accoutrements of middle class life, Veda remains unsatisfied with such an existence, “I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.” Glendale’s simple life, simply did not appeal to such a “striver.” Nor did middlebrow culture, the dominant meter of culture in places like Glendale, suffice. “Well, it seems to me, if you’re buying anything, it should be the best. This is definitely not the best,” Veda remarks to Kay upon receiving a new dress from Mildred. Suburban fashion failed to impress Mildred’s oldest daughter.
In HBO’s five-part Todd Haynes-directed adaptation of “Mildred Pierce,” Glendale serves as a cultural punching bag. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog noted that in its last two installments, Glendale bashing took center stage as Veda “screeched for hours about the sleepy neighborhood and Monty insisted that he would never even think of marrying Mildred as long as she lived there.” Apparently, suburban hell somehow became more miserable in the intervening years between the 1945 film and the 2011 interpretation. “Don’t take anyone from Mildred Pierce shopping at the Americana. They wouldn’t like it,” Kyle Buchanan snarkily pointed out.
Granted, the original James Cain novel upon which the film and mini-series was based didn’t do Glendale any favors, depicting it as “the epitome of the working-class aspirations and disappointments in Depression-era California,” as noted by Arlene Vidor, former president of the Glendale Historical Society in 2010. “The frenetic parceling of land, the explosive building boom resulting in rows of Spanish Revival bungalows, and the ‘poor cousin’ stigma suffered by Glendale, the ‘endless suburb,’ in relation to the monied elegance of neighboring Pasadena,” as she pointed out, left the suburb’s image wanting. While the 1945 film reduced Glendale’s role, its connotation remained central to the plot.
It all began in Glendale at 1143 Corvalis Street, “where all houses look alike,” Pierce tells the police chief in a series of flashbacks that, as critic John Davis points out, emerged as the “fatalistic method of the forties film.”2 Married at age 17 with two daughters, “I never knew any other kind of life,” she confesses. Mother to tomboy Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and the adolescent snob Veda, Pierce and Bert struggle to make family life work. “Those kids come first in this house before either of us,” Mildred tells her husband during a heated exchange that ends with Bert leaving for the company of his mistress, Ms. Maggie Biederhoff (Lee Patrick), and ultimately, divorce. As UCSD Professor Rebecca Plant points out in her work, “Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America,” during the 1920s and 1930s ideas about motherhood transformed. “In the interwar period, psychological experts and popular commentators increasingly argued or implied that women cannot be a good mother outside of a sexually satisfying marriage,” notes Plant, “for they regarded unmitigated mother love as a burdensome force, tinged with repressed sexual desire.”3 Few figures embody this concern like Mildred Pierce.
The unemployed Bert had brought home very little proverbial bacon, but his departure forces Mildred to seek employment, which she finds as a waitress. Thus begins Mildred’s ascent to the top of the Los Angeles food scene, from lowly wait staff to restaurant magnate. With help from one of Bert’s acquaintances, real estate conniver Wally Fay (an exceptional Jack Carson), Mildred purchases a “white elephant” mansion from playboy/aristocratic ne’er do well, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), which soon houses Mildred’s first restaurant and establishes her first connection with the “gypsy” Spanish aristocrat, who would eventually become her second husband and the murder victim at the center of the film’s plot. “He sells Mildred the house, begins a love affair with her, and stays around to watch Mildred become a female Horatio Alger,” summarized Julie Sochen in 1978.4 In general, the men in Mildred’s life are failures unto themselves, yet it would seem Mildred’s combination of ambition, of the stereotypically masculine financial type, and doting motherhood, contribute to her family’s demise.
Still, much like the suburban existence that shrouded so much unhappiness in Pierce’s marriage, Monte’s family name became only that: an impressive name with very little wealth. He soon finds himself tutoring Veda in the ways of the upper classes, but does so while spending Mildred’s hard earned dough. Not that Mildred’s work ethic impresses Monte or Veda; at several points in the film the two characters scoff at Mildred’s work ethic, and by extension those of Glendale’s residents, by throwing the word “work” around like an insult, and snidely telling Mildred that she smells of “grease”. Likewise, Bert’s departure looks to Veda like opportunity rather than loss; perhaps now Mildred might marry up and improve the family’s fortunes, thereby shedding their own middle class status and abandoning Glendale — which eventually they do — absconding for the Pasadena mansion of Mildred’s second husband.
For all of Mildred’s financial success — “Everything I touched turned to money,” she asserts at one point — her home life seems to only decline. When she takes time away from her crushing business schedule to spend a romantic Malibu rendezvous with Monte, Kay becomes sick with pneumonia and dies. Despite the fact that Kay became ill while away with Bert and Veda at Arrowhead, the film clearly seems to place the responsibility for the child’s health with Mildred. Moreover, Veda’s transformation into a teenage seductress capable of pulling Monte in her sexual orbit, and her subsequent violent fit of wounded pride and jealously that culminates in her murder of Mildred’s second husband, lands squarely on the protagonist’s shoulders. “It’s your fault the way I am,” Veda tells Mildred. After her daughter’s confession, Mildred walks out to a waiting Bert, a conclusion that more than a few critics and film theorists view as a declaration of women’s place. “Mildred lost her business as well as her children,” noted Sochen. “Defeat became fate: ambitious women beware.”5
While Mildred’s importance as a symbol of burgeoning post war anxieties regarding masculinity, motherhood, and gender should not be underestimated, fewer critics and scholars have noted how Veda’s conniving sexuality embodied fears about wayward youth, particularly promiscuous young girls. During WWII, young women migrated to cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, finding jobs working in defense plants, restaurants, bars, and theaters. Military officials and social reformers openly worried about the effect of these young women taking advantage our nation’s soldiers and sailors.
Veda’s aggressiveness, her lack of propriety in seducing her mother’s husband, and her violent reaction to Monte’s rejection, represented a moral reformer cocktail of worry. Connected implicitly to Mildred’s failure as a mother and wife, her flouting of traditional gender roles, and the resulting familial dysfunction, bred Veda. However, “Mildred Pierce” did not stand alone in its noirish depiction of women, daughters, and sexuality.
Four years later “The Reckless Moment” (1949) provided further comment. Residing in the seaside suburb of Balboa, a peninsula located in tony Newport Beach in Orange County, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) opens the film by hectically driving up to the city to confront her daughter’s much older secret beau, Ted Darby (Sheppard Strudwick). Meeting Darby at his ramshackle hotel, Lucia implores him to stop seeing her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). Predictably, Darby refuses unless Lucia pays him. When he admits as much to Bea in a clandestine, nocturnal meeting in the family’s boathouse, Bea strikes him and stalks off, not realizing that a dazed Darby then plunged to his death over the railing and onto an exposed anchor below. As Lucia frantically seeks to conceal her daughter’s action, a mysterious Mr. Martin Donnelly (James Mason) approaches her in regard to a series of passionate letters, written by Bea and addressed to Darby, in his possession, that might lead the police to the Harper’s daughter. “We want to liquidate our stock while the market is high,” he tells Lucia, expecting to blackmail her for $5,000.
Lucia’s husband Tom Harper, who had been abroad for years during the war, and now away rebuilding bridges in postwar Berlin, knows nothing of the events. His absence and Lucia’s eventual attraction to Donnelly reflect two aspects of gender roles in the late 1940s. During the war years the country witnessed an unprecedented boom in marriage rates, followed by an equally explosive divorce rate.6 Lucia’s and Tom’s marriage survived his time at war, but now his absence meant that all family responsibilities again fell on Lucia, thereby raising the possibility of both infidelity and a dysfunctional home. “You don’t know how family can surround you at times,” Lucia admits to Donnelly in a moment of vulnerability. “You’re quite a prisoner aren’t you,” he replies. “I don’t feel like one,” she responds somewhat unconvincingly. Again, family, often represented as the heart of suburban life, here appears a crushing force without the leadership of the patriarch. “There’s nothing wrong that Tom’s coming home won’t cure,” she says aloud at one point, confirming the dominant belief that a household needed a man.
Clearly, “The Reckless Moment” plays sleight of hand with the idea of suburban family and the good wife. For example, Donnelley acts as a surrogate father to Lucia’s son, David. Lucia introduces him to the family as one of Tom’s friends, rather than the extortionist he is; soon he’s fixing David’s car and sets up grandpa with some betting tips for the local racetrack. When his partner Nagel (Roy Roberts), after growing frustrated with Donnelly’s compassion toward Lucia, demands the blackmail be paid, it costs Donnelly his life to spare Lucia and her daughter. Yet, it is his attraction to Lucia and her inherent decentness and maternal instinct that destroys him. “This lady’s not in your class. You get mad at me because I remind you of what you are,” Nagel tells Donnelly in a scene before their final confrontation. “You’re not respectable.”
If “Double Indemnity’s” insurance agent Walter Neff fell for the corrupted, very non-maternal cynical sexuality of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, the criminal Mr. Donnelly falls for the earnest, motherly, purity of Lucia Harper. Though he comes to his end more nobly than Neff, his attraction to Lucia proves his demise. Still, even with a questionable moral constitution, Donnelly provides the steady hand and precise amount of masculinity to save Lucia, one could argue, reinforcing directives toward women to know their place.
“Yes, I take money from you Mildred but not enough to like kitchens or cooks; they smell of grease,” Monte tells her during a fight in “Mildred Pierce” that leads to their initial separation. Veda, he argues, could never be a waitress and Mildred, like the lamentations of so many career women after her, can’t have everything, “You want Veda, your business, and a nice quiet life,” he snaps, “and the price is me.” Sure they eventually marry, but Monte soon falls prey, at least momentarily to Veda’s charms. Truly with Monte at her side, Mildred could not have it all; only a return to Bert and those days in the kitchen can make things right. In “The Reckless Moment,” Lucia Harper, ever faithful to her husband even when tempted by the brooding Irish masculinity of Donnelly, suffers from the absence of her man. Home life consumes her and though she spares Bea disgrace and possibly jail, it comes at the cost of two additional lives.
In the wake of WWII, rapid suburbanization, changes in sexual behavior, fears about juvenile delinquency and increased divorce rates, women needed to know their place and Los Angeles film noir seemed comfortable telling them where that was.
1 Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo, Noir Anxiety, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) pg. xxvi.
2 Julie Sochen, “Mildred Pierce and Women in Film,” American Quarterly 30.1 (Spring, 1978), pg 4.
3 Rebecca Plant, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
4 Ibid, pg. 6.
5 Ibid, pg. 8.
6 Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1998), pg. 120-121.
This article originally appeared at KCET Departures under the Intersections column in October 2013.