Genre and Gender


Mikiro Kato
Associate Professor at University of Kyoto

The Hybrid Genre

  Hollywood, the factory of dreams, has spectators under the illusion that there are always solutions to the various forms of affliction in which they are actually trapped. On the screen, any unjust social conditions simply reflect the characters personal lives, and in the end they come up with literally dream-like solutions. In Hollywood narrative films, it is possible that millions of spectators, however different their life styles and principles are, share the same feelings toward a single character, just like the beams of light shine through a concave-convex lens and focus on a single spot. It is this empathy that will eventually lead the audience to believe in the fairly-tale endings.

Under these circumstances, one might question what kind of characterization and ideology Hollywood lends to its protagonists, who are supposed to distract public attention from the various contradictions hidden in the seemingly happy endings. At the same time, one might ask if a single character can possibly manipulate the audience to that degree. Some of them might momentarily reveal the films latent meanings.

Mildred Pierce, a classical Hollywood film, is presumably a most effective text to discuss the above-mentioned issues since it has been controversial for years, particularly among recent feminist scholars. This essay will discuss the film with reference to its production and genre in order to read the films hidden meaning, through which Hollywood’s film-making activities and the trends of the times are inextricably linked.

The film[1] was produced by Warner Brothers, one of the five major studios shaping the Golden Age of Hollywood, and released throughout the United States in October 1945. It is no coincidence that the majority of GIs were returning home at the time. Warner Brothers had completed the film during World War II and decided to put it on shelf until the war ended as part of their marketing strategy.

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz whose Casablanca, a fugitive melodrama starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, had won him the Oscar for Best Director in 1943. Mildred Pierce brought Joan Crawford the Oscar for Best Actress, marking a successful comeback after many years as a has-been. On the other hand, the films production faced rough going: it actually took two full years until the film was released. This delay owed a good deal to the box-office success of Double Indemnity (director: Billy Wilder, 1944) produced by Paramount, another major studio.

That film noir caught on with the audience, which led a top Warner Brothers producer, Jerry Wald, to follow the trend and have Mildred Pierce altered from a women’s picture into a film noir. Initially, the shift did not seem difficult since the film was based on a novel by James Cain who also wrote the original story for Double Indemnity. The script was to be revised by Catherine Turney, a specialist in women’s pictures, and by Albert Maltz, a prominent figure in film noirs (who would later fall victim to the anti-Communist witch-hunt as one of Hollywood Ten). The script, however, remained incomplete until after shooting was in progress. It was, in fact, revised through the efforts of more than eight writers including William Faulkner, as well as James Cain. Completing a script by multiple hands was their standard operating procedure at the time, although Mildred Pierce was still an exceptional case[2].

The film is indeed exceptional not only in its lengthy production but also in its genre. It is a most unusual hybrid form: a women’s picture and a film noir, two entirely different genres. The following essay will discuss Mildred Pierce in a context wider than general studies of the film industry and consider the history of genres, gender, and social conditions. As a background for the textual analysis, the next section will study how genres and gender were established and developed in pre- and postwar Hollywood film.

Juvenile Delinquency Category
               Supposing that women’s pictures mean those melodramas made for women with a woman as central character and featuring a sentimental treatment of heavy themes like marriage and family, then film noirs can be considered a genre for men.

As typified by John Huston’s considerably tough The Maltese Falcon (1941), regarded as the prototype for film noirs, this genre has nothing to do with the typical narrative in which a heterosexual couple is formed at the end. The film ends with a close-up of a deadly femme fatale, who attempted to lure Humphrey Bogart into his downfall, covered by a cross-like shadow symbolic of their irreconcilable relationship. There is no single trace of pity here between a man and a woman: a man is deceived by a phallic woman and lapses into self-destruction. Film noirs, therefore, imply misogyny, and it is this genre that drew the Hollywood cinema to turn its trend from heterosexual to homosexual love.

This is what makes Mildred Pierce exceptional: it is the only film in Hollywood film history that successfully integrated two sharply contrasting genres (with pro- and anti-women plots) in the Hollywood film history. One might doubt, though, if the films distinction can simply be ascribed to Warner Brothers marketing strategy, as conventional studies have contended. It can be argued that this particular hybrid rather came out, within the changes of the time, as a kind of universal joint whereby various genres and ideologies could meet. In Mildred Pierce, several mainstream and subsidiary genres which shaped film history intersected, enabling people to get a glimpse of many different ideologies, each of which represented a part of the contemporary ethos.

Mildred Pierce made the combination of a women’s picture and a film noir possible because it belonged to a third genre: a sub-genre which was not part of either genre. Hollywood executives, acutely aware of new trends, found a wide marketability in this sub-genre, which reveals how social conditions were reflected symbolically in Hollywood strategies.

The sub-genre was constituted by a series of low-budget exploitation films which dealt with juvenile delinquency, as exemplified by Juvenile Court (director: D. Ross, 1938). That film was produced by Columbia Pictures, one of the minor studios, and starred a twenty-year-old new talent, Rita Hayworth. The opening of the film begins with a scene in which the downtown boys, playing a make-believe gang fight, witness the pitiful arrest of a leading gangster. These boys successfully go straight in the end.

The film was made against the historical background of the Production Code, imposed by the Hays Office between 1930 and 1934 with the purpose of mollifying pressure groups. The comprehensive self-imposed code forbade depictions of criminals as heroic characters, figures who might possibly encourage some spectators to follow their example. The Hays Offices rigid administration weakened the gang films popular in the early 1930s so that the genre reached its lowest ebb. As a result, the sub-gang films assumed prominence, as exemplified by a major film, Dead End (director: William Wyler, 1937), starring Humphrey Bogart. This film no longer portrayed a pitiable gangster who dreamt of extravagant success, but placed emphasis on guiding delinquent boys. Many other films after that, including Juvenile Court, followed this direction.

Before long, the delinquency films had girls as central characters instead, a shift reflecting Hollywood’s war-aims campaign. In 1939, Hollywood, the industry of the Diaspora, took a firm anti-Nazi stance propagandizing for the relief of the Jewish people in Europe and subtly provoking the public into the service of the federal government. Under the circumstances, the downtown delinquent boys were called up for military service and it was girls who took the place of boys on the screen. For instance, the opening of Girls under 21 (director: Max Nosseck, 1940) begins with delinquent girls hanging around downtown. Interestingly, this film was produced by Columbia, the studio which had made Juvenile Court only two years before.

As I have mentioned in another essay[3], the American declaration of war required Hollywood to carefully think about making films exploiting an unprecedented audience: American women. Prewar Hollywood films had aimed at international markets and domestic male viewers to ensure enormous profits. The war brought Hollywood an incredible loss of its resources: the Asian market, the European market, and even American males who left for military service. The only ray of hope was now women. At the time, their greatest topic of concern was juvenile delinquency. During their husbands’ absence, national mobilization obliged them to become Rosie, the Riveter and take charge of both their families and business, with the result that some of their children felt left out and became misguided. It was a sensational social problem when these juveniles (mostly girls) turned to crime. Naturally, Hollywood took advantage of the trend and the new sub-genre, the so-called juvenile delinquency films, was started. (Hollywood genres did exploit gender issues.)

In response to the economic crisis of the early 1930s, Hollywood established gang films, which declined shortly thereafter as a result of Production Code. In the late thirties, they made up for the lost genre by developing the juvenile delinquency category and, on a war footing of the early 1940s, even reinforced it with the girls version.

There was indeed a flood of the juvenile delinquency films with such provocative titles as Delinquent Parents (director: Nick Grinde, 1938), Girls in Chains (director: Edgar G. Ulmer, 1943), Delinquent Daughters (director: Albert Herman, 1944), and Youth Runs Wild (Mark Robson, 1944). The new sub-genre, though having plots entirely different from those gang films, lived up to Hollywood expectations. The sub-genre brought the industry a commercial success which revealed its pragmatic system: it always coordinated its filmmaking principles with contemporary propaganda and social conditions. This is what underlies all of Mildred Pierce. Nevertheless, this has been actually overlooked and rarely integrated into film studies.

The Hollywood Postwar Strategy
           During the war, that is, during men’s absence, the sub-genre rapidly caught on among the women who could no longer afford as much care for their children and felt guilty about it. The mass-produced delinquent girls films, thus, underline the fact that Hollywood exploited mothers and daughters instead of men and boys.

The plot of Mildred Pierce explicitly came out of this background. The film portrays a woman (Joan Crawford) who left her husband and worked hard to make a good living for her two daughters only to lose both of them: one died of pneumonia and the other, feeling left alone, ended up as a most disgraceful girl, a murderer. In the first half of the film, Mildred became a woman of independent means and relished her business success, which presumably reassured wartime women of their significance. In the second half, however, she was betrayed and lost credit as a mother. The bitter ending, apparently meant to teach women a lesson, indicates that Hollywood was quick to take advantage of the postwar trend.

After the war, Hollywood exploited women again, but in a different way from the wartime when they promoted female labor outside home in order to make up for the absence of men. Now that men had returned home, it was time that their wives should go back to do the housework. All industries had to let go of women regardless of their merits and willingness to work so as to take in the male workforce and avoid excess labor. Hollywood then mass-produced a new style of women’s pictures from the late 1940s to the 1950s. They did remakes of women’s pictures of the 1930s, in which the female protagonists decided to give up their business careers in response to their children’s demand for maternal love and care. Their new situation was aligned with a reality reflected in postwar labor force statistics: six hundred thousand female workers were laid off within a month after the war. The number exceeded two million by November 1946 and 95 percent of them left their jobs against their will. Hollywood multilaterally (on mythical, imaginative, ethical, and emotional levels) manipulated women to work as a good safety valve in social and economical terms, by means of which it made an enormous profit.

Mildred Pierce was made under these unique circumstances. Consequently, the film, though planned as a career-minded women’s picture at its inception (1943), turned out to be in favor of the postwar regimes policy against the female workforce in the fall of 1945. Film noir methods were adopted in the process of production so that the plot was changed a great deal, from pro- to anti-working women.

Flashbacks: A Women’s Versiontrategyategory
                Film noirs evince misogyny through the figure of a deadly woman called the femme fatale: incredibly greedy, she causes the downfall of a man. In Double Indemnity, the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces an insurance salesman into murdering her husband. The plot appealed to the audience of the time, and Mildred Pierce producer Jerry Wald came across a new commercial value.

He was quick to make additional scenes in the early stages of adaptation: in the new script, Mildred’s daughter Vega was to seduce her step-father and eventually murder him, a plot that was missing from the original story. Vega, just like Stanwyck’s character, was characterized as a snobbish materialist who took whatever her mother had. She was the new hybrid of a delinquent girl and a femme fatale, each of which experienced a boom in the early 1940s. Mildred gave Vega as much money as she could out of deep affection, as a result of which Vega turned into a real monster, a cruel murderer.

The film was made under the influence of different regimes during and after the war. In the first half, they had to depict a woman of independent means to encourage female workers; and then, they were required to lay emphasis on the ironical ending in which her successful career only turned Vega away from a moral conscience. The murder is symptomatic of Mildred’s failure as a mother, which parallels her success as a business woman.

Film noir fit perfectly with this catastrophic material: in the genre, characters look back on their past with great regret in flashbacks. By 1944, many film noirs had flashbacks, such as Double Indemnity, Laura (director: Otto Preminger, 1944), The Woman in the Window (director: Fritz Lang, 1944), and so on. Mildred Pierce was no exception to the rule.

Film noir protagonists disclose their crimes by talking about their past after they are undone (and irretrievably hurt). Under the control of the Production Code, prompting a kind of purity code, their confession usually occurs at the ending where they expiate themselves. In Double Indemnity, the protagonist describes over the dictaphone in the dead of night how he was lured by a bad woman into committing a crime. In Mildred Pierce as well, Mildred confesses her crime as the police interrogate her as a suspect in murdering her husband. Nevertheless, the charge brought against her is full of ambiguities. Was she really responsible for her husband’s death? This is the issue that various feminists have discussed in recent years.

The False Cut
                These feminists have pointed out that the opening of Mildred Pierce, just before the flashback, proceeds with a false cut[4]: the scene consists of two incoherent shots presented as if they were relevant in terms of time, space, and plot. Consequently, this editing tricks the audience into believing throughout the first half of the film that Mildred is a murderer. It is a clever film technique, accompanying the anti-women plot that the film noir style establishes, to mislead the audience.

Now let us detail the scene at issue. After the credit titles fade out, a man is shot at a seaside cottage in what is apparently Malibu Beach. At deaths door, he gasps out a woman’s name, Mildred. The camera pans across to the mirror beside the dead man, but fails to show a glimpse of the murderer who runs away from the crime scene.

Following conventional methods, the camera is supposed to take a reverse angle and register the criminal, but that is entirely missing here. What substitutes for the necessary following shot is a close-up of a miserable looking woman in the rain on a Santa Monica pier. Her wretched countenance, together with the fact that she is Mildred, whose name was pronounced by the victim, naturally puts the spectators under the wrong impression: that she has something to do with the crime. This is what feminists have pointed out as false cut. The marvelous camera angle and the careful editing manipulate most spectators to such a degree that they take Mildred for the murderer.

The spectators accordingly pose the question, “Why did she kill her husband?”, instead of the most basic question, “Who killed him?” The film that follows, therefore, proceeds with Mildred’s soliloquy (in flashback) in which she confesses what motivated her to commit the crime. From the feminist point of view, these opening frames are designed literally to frame a woman. The misled spectators do finally find out that Mildred has been lying in order to defend her criminal daughter; simultaneously, they realize that they had been taken in all along. Some of them might even realize here that they were easily manipulated because their distrust of women was so deep.

What makes it possible to prove the viewers mistaken is the flashback which organizes the film within a sort of circular structure: the ending, through a repetition, makes a revision of the opening murder sequence. The insertion of the significant reverse shot which shows the real criminal exposes the initial false editing and the film finally reveals the facts. In Mildred Pierce, therefore, the latter part works to make the story coherent by resolving the obscurities that the film lends to the first half.

There is another scene that underlines this framework which has been overlooked by feminists. At the beginning, Mildred and her ex-husband go into a night-club and the camera shows them seated. It pans left only to register, beyond the other customers, a female singer in the distance. This camera movement is more enigmatic than the previous pan to the mirror in the crime scene. We cannot help but wonder why the camera necessarily has to leave out these two main characters just to introduce the singer, an irrelevant, small role. Some of the viewers might even consider it a technical error, thinking that the editors maybe inserted an extra shot by mistake. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely that the film would include an unnecessary shot; economical editing is the principle of Hollywood filmmaking. In fact, the viewers are made to view a repetition of this scene, just as with the murder scene, in the last part. Once again Mildred and her ex-husband take the same seats at the same night-club when the camera this time shows Vega singing on stage. This is a shock to Mildred. She cut down on living expenses and even separated from her husband after bitter arguments in order to afford music lessons for Vega, who now comes out as a bar singer dressed in a provocative costume, attracting the male gaze. The initial peculiar camera work thus foreshadows this ironical outcome, although it is so subtle that no one can do anything but accept the image as it is.

In Mildred Pierce, the tricky editing and camera movement of the first half leave the viewers confused, a confusion that the second half straightens out: through the repetitions, spectators come to know the truth and read the symbolic meaning as described above. While the last part seemingly consists of a repetition of the first half, the film indeed lends it much weight. The viewers encounter rapid development and resolution in the second part that the first half only subtly prefigures.

If this is the case, it can be argued that the main theme of the second half also supersedes that of the first. In other words, the heroine, who momentarily enjoyed success in business, is destined to fail as a career woman as well as a mother, before she starts all over again with her ex-husband. Mildred Pierce was, after all, designed to be a lesson to the women of the postwar period in both its theme and its narrative.

The Lesson Latent in the Ending
                As feminists have pointed out, the last scene after the harsh police interrogation implies that Mildred, totally lost and hurt, returns to her ex-husband. The real murderer comes to light (which means an end to the darkness of film noir), and dawn is breaking when her ex-husband benignly comes and picks her up[5].

Nonetheless, their daughters are no longer with them. Vega is jailed for murder and her sister is already dead; they were, so to speak, actually and symbolically sentenced to death. Mildred is explicitly to blame for their tragic endings: apart from Vega, the other daughter died when Mildred was in love with a man other than her husband. Betrayed and deserted by her daughters, she cannot help but admit that she has lost credit as 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 (her second husband was killed at the opening), who shows his deep affection for her. Though at one time devoid of work and confidence, he is no longer a weak man, but seems to Mildred a ray of hope, and they leave at the break of dawn as if they have promised each other to start over together.

It is, thus, symbolic that Mildred Pierce, while produced in the wartime, was released after the war. Men were obliged to join the services and their wives, whether wanting to or not, to take charge of their business. Their business contributions, however, were valued only until the war ended. As soon as men returned home, working women were deprived of any sense of achievement and pushed out of the business circle. They had no choice but to rely on their husbands again.

This postwar social ethic is further reinforced by the two charwomen kneeling down at the entrance of the police station, the symbol of law and justice. Working beside Mildred and her ex-husband, the women, shot in silhouette like objects in an oil painting, are scrubbing the marble floors 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. It is indicative that not a single but a pair of charwomen are portrayed here. Actually, their presence was foreshadowed in the first half of the film.

The charwomen, as it were, substitute for Mildred and Ida, who are supposed to repent their sin: the sin of having excelled men. They relished financial power, which even men would desire, and looked down on men not only on social but also visual terms. At the same time, it is a paradox that they are illustrated as objects along the axis of male (and spectators) gaze.

Mildred recalls: I was in the kitchen all the time as if I had been born in the kitchen. It was only a few hours for my wedding when I was away from the kitchen. After she separated from her husband, she climbed from being a penniless waitress to being the proud owner of a chain of restaurants. She owed her success only to her creativity and effort, as if we have come across a female version of the American dream. Her business with Ida, however successful, was still limited within a particular industry for women: a restaurant is a kind of extended form of the kitchen. They quickly descend, therefore, into downfall when they are betrayed by a man; and now it is time that they, not men, kneel down. They kneel down before the police (at the mercy of law and order). This is when the plot and theme of the second part overwhelms the first half and when the film symbolically teaches working women a lesson.

The lesson is reflected symptomatically in the mise-en-scene: the charwomen, silhouetted against the light, are not identifiable at all. This effect of light and shadow is not only the vestige of film noir but also denotes the charge against women. They are no longer depicted as individuals but as just charwomen, a collective form of women. Totally devoid of identity and perfectly mute, they only scrub the floors whereas the detectives (men) have successfully resolved the enigmatic murder. In addition, scrubbing, as well as cooking, symbolizes the labor required traditionally of women (household chores).

Through the film, women experienced the nightmare of a stormy night (the Second World War) in which they had to be independent from their husbands. The storm, however, shortly passed by, after which they were required to return to their husbands: and to the days when law and order carried authority. This plot might work for the female spectators of the time. Through their empathy toward Mildred, they might have enjoyed the first half of the film as a vigorous women’s picture like those seen in wartime. In the end, however, Mildred was bathed in the morning sun with her husband after she came out of the dark interrogation room. Likewise, those women were required after the film to go out of the dark movie theaters into the light, into the world where their husbands (the men who were legitimately in charge of them) were waiting for them. Now that the war was over, they had to leave the world of women’s pictures for that of male chauvinism by way of misogynistic film noir.

Mildred cleared herself of suspicion of murder, but another issue was barely resolved: her responsibility as a mother. She was without a doubt innocent of the crime, but she could be blamed for having raised the daughter who turned out a murderer. This issue actually comes out as a result of the hybrid mixing of the three genres: film noir, women’s picture, and gang plot (juvenile delinquency). The ending in which Mildred returns to her husband is the sole resolution to this difficult issue.

Men worked out several strategies to deal with working women in postwar films, and as a last resort, they highlighted maternal love and the sacred bonds between mothers and children (particularly daughters). This was obvious in Mildred Pierce: a femme fatale was the product of a bad mother who hardly cared about her family. The femme fatale eventually destroyed everything just like World War II and left her mother at a loss in the debris. The ending, therefore, was meant to convince working mothers of their last chance: to start all over again with their husbands and to reestablish their happy families.

It is amazing that Hollywood was so quick to deal with the postwar trend: Mildred Pierce was released in October 1945. They initially planned the film as a women’s picture, a genre film for women, and then cleverly weaved the social (strictly speaking, the male producers) customs and desires into the story. While films were supposed to be a social product, women were left out of society in the film, a picture which accordingly turned into a lesson for the women of the time.

Mildred became a woman of independent means, a successful business woman, for her daughters who never appreciated her endeavors. Having failed to gain her daughters sympathy, Mildred had no choice but to return to her ex-husband. Her business success was only meant to make a good living for her daughters, since women were tacitly not allowed to pursue their own happiness at the time.

Just as a genre film like Mildred Pierce displays a variety of politics centering around gender issues in its story, Hollywood protagonists embody several contemporary social contradictions in their personal lives. Furthermore, in Hollywood’s treatment of each problem, we will come across Hollywood’s pragmatic system that always takes the lead, in its filmmaking activities, in reflecting the changes of the times.
                This essay is based on the film co-seminar that Ms. Midori Yajima and I conducted at the Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan [Kyoto Cultural Museum] (co-sponsored by Kyoto Asahi Cinema), on July 11, 1993. Japanese version of this essay is included in my book Eiga: Shisen no Poritikusu (Cinema: the Politics of the Looks), published by Chikuma Shobo in 1996.

[1] See Andrea S. Walsh, Women’s Film and Female Experience 1940-1950 (New York: Praeger, 1984), pp. 123-31; Joyce Nelson, “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered,” in Bill Nichols ed., Movies and Methods Volume II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 450-58; Linda Williams, “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War,” in E. Deidre Pribram ed., Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 12-30.

[2] See Albert J. LaValley, “Introduction: A Troublesome Property to Script,” in Alert J. LaValley ed., Mildred Pierce (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1980), pp. 9-53; Rudy Behlmer, Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), pp. 254-61; Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 414-22.

[3] Mikiro Kato, “Eigashi no Ressun (The Lesson of Film History),” in Gendai Shiso (Modern Thoughts) Oct. ‘92 (Tokyo: Seidosha, 1992), pp. 243-50.

[4] Nelson, pp, 450-52.

[5] Nelson, p. 457; Williams, p. 28.


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