Mildred Pierce: ‘remarriage melodrama’ among novel, cinema and television

Simona Busni



This essay intends to analyze melodrama, in its enigmatic and heterogeneous essence, through a female character: Mildred Pierce, protagonist of the novel by the American writer James M. Cain (1941), of the film by Michael Curtiz (1945) and the miniseries by Todd Haynes (HBO, 2011) – three different works and the same title, which coincides with her name. Mildred’s story reinterprets the rhetorical myth of the melodramatic unknown women, those heroines searching for an existential way to state the right to tell their stories.       


Paraphrasing Stanley Cavell, author of a famous philosophical theory on cinematographic genres, that of Mildred Pierce’s could be defined a remarriage melodrama, namely a version of the story where we can find the restoration of the first marriage although in a melodramatic context of avoidance. The first step regards a rhetorical datum, that is the negation as the (re)generative tool in a system within which it’s possible to obtain a particular kind of melodrama from a certain comedy. Then this datum is incorporated in a wider philosophical perspective – concerning language, skepticism and the concept of “unknowness” – and it’s compared with the main theories about melodrama, from literature to cinema (Frye, Brooks, Elsaesser, Doane, Williams, Cook), until the implications connected to TV seriality (Mittel).         


Through the case “Mildred Pierce” in its different versions, using categories belonging to philosophical reflection, it’s possible to test the theoretical strength of melodrama as crucial and constant mode of modern imagination, as well as to reread its potentialities as intermedial genre.


melodrama; mildred pierce; novel; cinema; television

Full Text:

PDF (Italiano)


Bachtin, Michail, Estetica e romanzo. Un contributo fondamentale alla «scienza della letteratura» (1975), Torino, Einaudi, 1997.

Bourget, Jean-Loup, Le mélodrame hollywoodien, Paris, Stock Cinema, 1985.

Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (1976), tr. it., L’immaginazione melodrammatica, Parma, Pratiche, 1995.

Cain, James M., Mildred Pierce (1941), it. tr., Milano, Adelphi, 2012.

Cammarata, Valeria - Marcenò, Serena (eds.), Narrazioni di genere e biopolitiche neoliberali. Mildred Pierce e i suoi spettri, Milano-Udine, Mimesis, 2014.

Cavell, Stanley, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1996.

Cavell, Stanley, Pursuit of Happiness. The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981), tr. it Alla ricerca della felicità. La commedia hollywoodiana del rimatrimonio, Torino, Einaudi, 1999.

Cavell, Stanley, The Claim of Reason. Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy (1979), tr. it. La riscoperta dell’ordinario. La filosofia, lo scetticismo e il tragico, Roma,  Carocci, 2001.

Cavell, Stanley, “The Fact of Television”, Cavell on film, Ed. William Rothman, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2005: 59-85.

Coglitore, Roberta, “Le donne di Cain. Confessione e identità transessuale”, Narrazioni di genere e biopolitiche neoliberali. Mildred Pierce e i suoi spettri, Eds. Valeria Cammarata - Serena Marcenò, Milano-Udine, Mimesis, 2014: 61-90.

Cook, Pam, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women in Film Noir, Ed. Ann E. Kaplan, London, BFI, 1978. 

Cook, Pam, “Beyond Adaptation: Mirrors, Memory and Melodrama in Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce”, Screen, 54. 3 (2013): 378-387.

Cook, Pam, “Text, Paratext and Subtext. Reading ‘Mildred Pierce’ as a Maternal Melodrama”, in “SEQUENCE: Serial Studies in Media, Film and Music”, 2.2 (2015),, online (last accessed 07/11/2016).

Doanne, Mary Ann, The Desire to Desire. The Woman’s Film of the ‘40s, Bloomington,  Indiana University Press, 1987.

Doanne, Mary Ann, “Le disavventure del desiderio femminile nel woman’s film degli anni quaranta”, La grande Hollywood, Ed. Veronica Pravadelli, Venezia, Marsilio, 2007.

Elsaesser, Thomas, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama” (1973), tr. it. “Storie di rumore e di furore. Osservazioni sul melodramma familiare”, Forme del melodramma, Ed. Alberto Pezzotta, Roma, Bulzoni, 1992 : 65-109.

Elsaesser, Thomas, “Modalità del sentire o visione del mondo? Una rivisitazione del melodramma familiare e dell’immaginazione melodrammatica”, Il melodramma, Ed. Elena Dagrada, Roma, Bulzoni, 2007.

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), tr. it. Anatomia della critica, Torino, Einaudi, 2000.

Lebrun, Michel, “Les figures imposte du mélo”, Le Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, 28 (1979): 90-93.

Lukács, György, Teoria del romanzo (1920), Milano, SE, 2004.

Merritt, Russel, “Melodrama: Postmortem for a Phantom Genre”, Wide Angle, 3.V (1983): 24-31.

Mittell, Jason, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015), tr. it., Complex Tv. Teoria e tecnica dello storytelling delle serie tv,  Minimum Fax, Roma 2017.

Nelson, Joyce, “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered”, Film Reader, 2 (1977): 65-70.

Orabona, Francesca (ed.), L’immaginazione melodrammatica secondo Peter Brooks. Per una costante della visione estetica nei tempi moderni, Milano, Cuem, 2004.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo, Empirismo eretico (1972), Garzanti, Milano 2015.

Pezzotta, Alberto (ed.), Forme del melodramma, Roma, Bulzoni, 1992.

Pravadelli, Veronica, La grande Hollywood, Venezia, Marsilio, 2007.

Quaresima, Leonardo, “Melodramma”, Cinema e cinema, 30 (1982): 47-53.

Schatz, Thomas, The Genius of the System, New York, The Pantheon Books, 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), tr. it. Critica della ragione postcoloniale, Roma, Meltemi, 2004.

Viviani, Christian, “Qui est sans péché: Le mélo maternel dans le cinéma américain, 1930-39”, Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, 28 (1979): 73-82.

Williams, Linda, “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War”, Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, Ed. Deidre E. Pribram, London-New York, Verso, 1988: 12-30.



Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM


Between is published by the University of Cagliari - Maintenance for this OJS installation is provided by UniCA Open Journals, hosted by Sistema Bibliotecario di Ateneo.

Between Journal was founded in 2011 with the financial contribution of Fondazione Banco di Sardegna (years 2010-2011).

ISSN 2039-6597 

CC-By lockssDOAJ seal SPARC Europe