On Saturday, a 60-year-old film had the grand old Alex Theatre in Glendale packed for two shows. Of course! “Mildred Pierce” is the Glendale movie.
You probably know the story: Plucky Glendale gal with great legs throws her husband out, gets a job as a waitress, then starts a restaurant of her own and builds it into a wildly successful chain.
And then, because “Mildred Pierce” is a classic tear-jerker, her highflying world comes crashing down in a colossal ruin! -- thanks to her worthless second husband and her vicious, ungrateful witch of a daughter.
But besides being the great Glendale movie and a classic weepie, “Mildred Pierce” is the consummate story about running a restaurant in L.A. We may not have a “Big Night” or a “Dinner Rush” set in our town, but we have our plucky Mildred.
The James M. Cain novel from which the 1945 movie was made is even more restaurant-oriented -- it’s practically a how-to book on starting a restaurant in L.A.
When the story begins, Mildred (played by Joan Crawford in the movie) is a good home cook, known for her pies. But when she starts to work at a lunch counter, she has a lot to learn: how to call her orders to the chef, how to balance plates on her arms, how to get her job done with no wasted motion.
Most of all, how to get tips. She quickly learns to concentrate on the male customers, but not in a flirtatious way. “Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy,” wrote “Mildred Pierce” author James M. Cain. “Going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.” Cain must have gotten some waitresses to spill their professional secrets.
When she decides to open a restaurant, Mildred studies how things run at the lunch counter where she works: bookkeeping, marketing, little tricks of the trade. Then she gets a loan and a line of credit.
She lucks into a location: a subdivision model home, unsalable because of the Depression. Then she has to make decisions on kitchen equipment, restaurant design, signage, uniforms -- even parking. (A friend advises her to dump a load of gravel next door and put up a sign saying “Free Parking.” That’s how parking lots were put in at the time.)
The first night is a whopping success. She serves 48 people at 85 cents a head. That’s more than $80, pally; big bucks in 1931.
In the movie, Mildred’s is a full-menu restaurant. By contrast, in the novel, Mildred’s is what we’d call a concept: a low-overhead, limited-menu restaurant serving nothing but chicken and waffles. As it happens, at the exact same time that Mildred opens her humble Glendale eatery, August 1931, an L.A. restaurant called the Maryland making a big splash with its novel combination of chicken and waffles.
The Maryland stressed that chicken and waffles was a Southern tradition. There’s no reason to doubt that. Waffles are at least a second cousin to biscuits, cornbread and dumplings, and a first cousin -- the formally dressed cousin -- of pancakes, which were also a well-known accompaniment to chicken.
In the movie, Mildred adds four spinoff restaurants, all apparently the same as the original except that some have carhops. But in the novel, there are only two spinoffs, and each is specifically targeted at the community where it opens.
A waitress friend suggests that Mildred open a place in Beverly Hills. “That town is just crying for a place that will put out a real line of ready desserts,” she says (hey, some people would say it still is). “Them movie people giving parties every night, and the dessert nothing but a headache to them women.”
But no corny red-checked tablecloths for Beverly Hills, honey; soothing green walls and comfortable booths. And no chicken and waffles, either: instead, pastries, sandwiches on “health bread” and fruit salads. Also, a soda fountain for UCLA students after class (“wonderful refined kids on their way home from Westwood that want a chocolate soda or a malt before they start playing tennis” -- oh, those tennis-mad Bruins!).
So that’s what Beverly Hills wants: health food and sweets.
As for Mildred’s third restaurant, it’s in Laguna Beach, which was just turning into a booming beach resort in the 1930s.
There she comes across another big, unsalable house, this one on a bluff with a commanding view of the sea. It’s modeled on the Victor Hugo Restaurant, which dominated the Laguna restaurant scene for decades; today it’s Las Brisas.
Once again, Mildred wants to serve her homey old Glendale chicken and waffles, and once again she is overruled by strong-minded advisors. People don’t come to the beach for chicken, they tell her; they want seafood -- fish, lobster and crab. And for those who don’t want that, she should put in a charcoal broiler.
So there’s the Laguna food scene for you: surf and turf, and a verandah for drinking. Another successful restaurant.
Right around then, of course, Mildred’s highflying world comes crashing down! But she has shown the world how to run a chain of restaurants in our town. With hard work, determination, a little bit of luck and -- in Mildred’s (and Joan’s) case -- a great pair of legs.