Mildred Pierce (1945) has frequently been read as an exemplary instance of feminine repression within classical Hollywood cinema generally, and as a powerful critique of the independent working mother in particular, whose unprecedented welcome in the World War II workplace was coming to an end. But critics who are predisposed to make patriarchal oppression the bottom line of Hollywood film have seriously underestimated the value that is placed on Mildred's labor and as a result have miscast the meaning of that labor in relation to her maternity. This essay argues that Mildred Pierce responds to the most basic reconversion crisis faced by every American industry in the postwar period: not how to get women back into the home but, rather, how to effect the smooth transition from a frenetic economy of government spending and debt to a robust civilian economy fueled by pent-up consumer desire. With Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros. imaginatively fostered an economic substitute for war by giving corporate culture some of the sentimental credibility of home. Mildred's career in the restaurant business, which begins in the home to which she is supposedly to be returned, evaporates the standard capitalist dichotomy between domestic and commercial spheres and, like the Warner Bros. studio itself, between family members and business partners: because business is so obvious and necessary, it is what mothers and brothers do. Unlike other melodramas of the period, the home is not represented as why we fight but as the reason we go into business. The disciplinary function of the controversial film noir segments is thus not to punish Mildred as a bad mother but to liberate her and the nation from the economically destructive daughter,Veda, an irresponsible consumer who embodies the threat of inflation. Mildred's otherwise preposterous failure to prevent Veda's confession in the final moments can only be explained in terms of Mildred's commitment to a different kind of sacrifice on behalf of constructive economic expansion.
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