The Passionate Heart of Commerce
There are few movies or miniseries that depict day-to-day business as a central part of the story. Most screenwriters likely find it dull and uninteresting, believing audiences have no interest in watching how other people perform the duties that put food on their table. Moviemakers are loath to tell stories involving small-time entrepreneurs: the struggles, the long hours, the satisfaction of success, and possibly the unraveling. It's not easily done.
However, it turns out that the TV-watching public is interested in watching truck drivers haul mining equipment on Alaska's icy roads, fisherman catching crabs in the icy ocean, roughnecks working drill rigs, chefs cooking all sorts of dishes, and pawnshop dealers valuing esoteric items all the while wondering who they can sell the items to and for how much.
The fact is, when strangers meet, the typical question is "what do you do for a living?" That is virtually everyone's common ground. And most times an insider's knowledge about a profession or business is fascinating.
But Hollywood typically turns a blind eye. In the 1940s Hollywood had its chance with the third of James M. Cain's trifecta of Depression-era Los Angles novels, Mildred Pierce. Most fiction fans are familiar with only the first two, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both of which were made into blockbuster movies. Libertarians may recognize Cain as a contributor to the American Mercury and as a close friend of H.L. Mencken, who said, "The only author I ever knew who never wrote a bad article was James M. Cain."
Hollywood wanted Mildred Pierce on film as well, but insisted that what the story needed was a murder the novel lacked. The result was a Joan Crawford vehicle that, while winning her an Oscar, barely resembles Cain's classic novel.
Todd Haynes and HBO have righted this wrong, with Haynes faithfully telling Cain's story in five parts. And as Benjamin Schwartz writes for The Atlantic,
Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers.
Cain "rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce — the foundation of Los Angeles's service-oriented economy — not just absorbing but romantic."
Cain didn't set out to do this. He thought that one story that never fails is "the woman who uses men to gain her ends," writes Roy Hoppes in Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain. After a number of false starts, Cain develops a story about "the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support."
Cain's Mildred was a plain housewife with great legs, a good figure, and a way with men. Kate Winslet, herself a divorced mother of two, plays the role beautifully, which "was much harder than every film project I've done since Titanic," she says. "It was so much more intense, we were hyper-focused every day. It was like making two-and-a-half films in 16 weeks."
Cain's story runs over the decade-long Depression. Mildred's husband Bert had inherited a ranch on the outskirts of Glendale, California. He tried to manage the property to no avail, but when three men showed up and made him a proposition, suddenly he, with his 300 acres, became, "a subdivider, a community builder, a man of vision, a big shot," writes Cain.
He was the president of Pierce Homes, Inc., named a street after himself, married Mildred, and built a house on that very street. But Bert's a fallen man when Cain's story begins in 1931. Bert has been run out of the company, the house is mortgaged to the hilt, and he is finding solace in the arms of another woman.
Bert's dalliance down the street, combined with his lack of motivation to generate a new career, gives Mildred cause to give him the boot. However, selling pies won't keep food on the table for her two daughters, especially the eldest, Veda, who is embarrassed by her mother's pie making and the family's station in Glendale's middle-class suburbia.
Without a car, she takes a bus downtown looking for work as a receptionist. However, Mildred's skills lie in the kitchen and the bedroom; it's the Depression and she's met with a harsh reality.
"At the moment receptionists are out," employment broker Alice Turner brusquely tells Mildred. "That was then. In the good old days." Turner tells Mildred she has hundreds of woman with PhDs and ScDs from UCLA and other places, waiting by their phones, hoping for a call.
"I wouldn't call you a raving beauty, but you've got an A-1 shape and you say you cook fine and sleep fine. Why don't you forget about a job, hook yourself a man, and get married again?"
However, the determined Mildred doesn't give up and eventually lowers her standards, taking a job where she must "wear a uniform. And take their tips." She struggles in the beginning, but soon is the best waitress in the place.
Mildred works desperately to hide her job from the monstrous Veda. But when Veda finds her uniforms, it forces Mildred's hand. In response to her daughter's indignation, Mildred tells her that she only took the job to learn the restaurant business from the ground up.
And indeed she had. From the bookkeeping to how to use the leftovers, she studied her workplace. She went shopping for equipment to determine how much money she would have to save up to open an operation.
Efficiency and simplicity was her plan. Serve only chicken, either with a waffle or vegetables, selling each for 85 cents. She would sell pies for takeout and keep her wholesale pie business going.
Bert's old business partner Wally finagles a deal with the receivers of Pierce Homes for her to buy what was the sales office to open the eatery in. Everything comes together with the help of credit from restaurant-supply companies and vendors. Thinking about servicing the debt and paying the taxes terrifies and excites Mildred at the same time.
She was on the verge of opening, working her last day as a waitress downtown, when she meets polo-playing socialite Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) and takes him up on his offer to go to Lake Arrowhead. Pearce and Winslet's love scenes sizzle, and potential viewers should remember, "It's not TV, it's HBO."
Cain goes into great detail describing Mildred's opening food order and how she cuts and stores her chicken pieces to efficiently produce orders. Director Haynes says in an interview that he enjoys filming commerce in action and his depiction of Mildred's kitchen system doesn't miss a detail.
Despite the preparations and good intentions, as is typical of any opening night, plenty goes wrong, but the full restaurant isn't aware of the chaos in the kitchen, as Mildred's former coworker Ida (Mare Winningham) saves the day by stepping in to help. Haynes perfectly captures this dichotomy.
Mildred's empire quickly grows to three locations. And FDR's ending of Prohibition creates an opportunity for Mildred's neighbor Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo) to open a bar in the first location and ultimately manage and be a partner in the third.
But like many successful entrepreneurs, as careful as she was in planning and building her business, Mildred begins to take her business for granted and becomes obsessed with winning the approval of her increasingly distant daughter Veda (Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood). Every mother-daughter relationship is complicated, and most viewers without an eye for economic issues will see the peaks and valleys of Mildred and Veda's relationship as the central theme of Cain's book.
With business good and cash flow rich, Mildred pays the bills for everyone around her (including slipping Monty a few bucks here and there until he gets on his feet) and shovels money into Veda's music career. A successful business wasn't enough: she sought to buy the love and respect she craved.
Mildred's kindness is repaid with resentment by both, and over time Veda and Monty become quite close, as Veda sees Monty as the socialite she thinks she should be. Both derisively refer to Mildred's restaurant as the "Pie Wagon."
Cain wrote four versions of Mildred Pierce and each time he said the story "fell apart right in front of my eyes" at page 254. The Atlantic's Schwartz believes Cain's ending makes Mildred Pierce "one of the great failures of American fiction."
However, to this reader's (and viewer's) eye, Cain's creation of Veda as a preternaturally gifted coloratura soprano gives the story a jolt of energy that amplifies the conflict between mother and daughter to the finish.
Mildred Pierce is not an ideological story. There is not page after page of stilted speeches about the glories of capitalism. Cain shows the reader business instead of lecturing, and Haynes effectively captures his words on film. The characters are real and interesting, making you want to know what happens in the end.
Commerce isn't done in a vacuum. Even for a driven entrepreneur, business isn't everything. But decisions in personal life can deeply impact a person's business. That's just one of the lessons of Cain's extraordinary work.