April 28, 2011

Paradise Lost

With the recent HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's remarkable 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet in the title role as the Glendale housewife during the Depression who works her way up to owning a chain of restaurants, I thought of writing about the book. Fortunately, I didn't waste my time, because whatever I wrote couldn't have come close to Benjamin Schwarz's review in The Atlantic, "The Great Los Angeles Novel." 
Los Angeles was to utterly change Cain’s fortunes. Not that he succeeded in his new career path: after six months, Paramount dropped his contract. Months later, Columbia finally picked him up (for half his Paramount pay), but he lasted only six weeks. After barely a year in Hollywood, he was once again unemployed and broke. 
But he had taken to his new home. Though the studios had fired him, his intelligence at assessing scripts impressed his bosses—even the hideous Harry Cohn. For his part, Cain, far from lapsing into the East Coast writer’s unlovely habit of bad-mouthing the picture makers for stifling his imagination, returned the esteem. As he wrote for The American Mercury, “I have never worked any place where courtesy was more in evidence than on a movie lot, or where daily contacts were more pleasant.” He liked the camaraderie of an army of intensely skilled people working on tight production schedules at breakneck speed. Cain wanted to succeed at writing for the pictures; he had a jaundiced admiration of moviemaking, and studied it assiduously to comprehend how the studios, shot by shot, sequence by sequence, created a new type of brisk and efficient storytelling. Countless writers have blamed Hollywood for ruining them creatively. Its impact on Cain was just the opposite. After all, there’s nothing like writing for the pictures to impose the discipline of showing, not telling. And the movies taught Cain a new style that suited him—a style that prized tautness, compression, and a cool point of view. 
If Cain’s understanding of the literary value of picture making was rare for a writer, even more so was his appreciation of his new surroundings. Just as hipsters today use white pejoratively, denoting sterile, bland, non-ethnic suburbia, so sophisticates in Cain’s day enjoyed skewering Los Angeles—America’s whitest, most Protestant, most bourgeois big city—as an artificial tropic teeming with displaced rubes, an opinion Frank Lloyd Wright neatly encapsulated in his contemptuous remark, “It is as if you tipped the U.S. up, so that all the commonplace people slid down to Southern California.” So conditioned, writer after writer churned out the same derisive commentary on Los Angeles. Cain, though, saw the place with fresh eyes—and perhaps more important, heard it with fresh ears. 
After a year in Los Angeles, Cain wrote an article, “Paradise,” for The American Mercury, a piece that he always said was the best he’d ever written and that Mencken judged correctly as “the first really good article on California that has ever been done.” Cain acknowledged all of Southern California’s wacky shortcomings, its indifferent restaurants, and its un-urbane urban life, but he took in the place with a discerning appreciation. To start, he observed precisely and without prejudice its topography, flora, climate, and above all, light. Cain, a musical connoisseur, understood that the region’s high-minded WASPs had actually developed a refined musical culture (one rooted in the tradition of ambitious church-based choral music). He grasped that the lower-middle-class former midwesterners who defined the place may have engaged in flimsy occupations, but they offered Los Angeles’s relatively few indigents “genuinely humane treatment,” and they excelled at providing “things that require an effective communal effort”—roads (a subject on which Cain, thanks to his pre-writing life, was an expert), recreational facilities (he rightly marveled at the number of public tennis courts; thousands of them were built in the 1930s), and, especially, public schools, which he rated the best in the country (as a family man whose stepchildren thrived in their new home, Cain recognized certain attributes, such as “a cleanliness hardly to be matched elsewhere,” that were perhaps lost on more-footloose writers). 
The product of all this, Cain asserted, was the Southern California common man, who has “an uncommonly high level of education” and “addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile.” Cain, the former English teacher who contested points of usage with the erudite Lippmann, had an astute ear, and trumpeted the “excellent English” and superb pronunciation he found ubiquitous in the region. “The populace seem to be on familiar terms with most of the words in the language”; the natives’ most conspicuous quality, he said, was that they were “too articulate to seem plausible.” 
... In Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the great Los Angeles novel, and although the world it evokes is all but lost, it’s a world that remains in the DNA of the place.
... Mildred Pierce stretches across the Great Depression (both the book and Haynes’s production open in 1931, the eve of its bleakest year); and whereas Cain had kept those previous novels spare, here with cumulative detail he created a panorama of petit bourgeois Los Angeles. Cain set his novel in unglamorous Glendale, perhaps the quintessential L.A. community (which McWilliams nicely defined in 1946 as “lily-white and white-collar, made up of middle-class and lower-middle-class elements”). His ruthlessly unsentimental tale of the Depression’s impact on Mildred and of her efforts to build a restaurant business made vivid the twin pillars of Los Angeles life, the self-owned free-standing house (L.A. had more of them than any other American city) and the small entrepreneur. The progress of Mildred’s married life is tied inextricably to the home-owning instinct, the defining force behind L.A.’s development and character. Both the novel and HBO’s production lavishly detail the cynosures of the L.A. house, the kitchen and the bathroom, which were “built with the best of skill, and polished with the utmost care,” as Cain pointed out in “Paradise,” largely because cleanliness, functionality, and convenience were prized by L.A.’s unusually servant-less middle class (the most Anglo-Saxon major city, Los Angeles had a relatively tiny population of immigrants to draw on for domestic work).
Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, 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. ... He 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. 
In Mildred, Cain created a great character who was, as he wrote in the novel, “a credit to the curious world that had produced her, Southern California.” He later told his biographer, Roy Hoopes, “I never could make up my mind if she had any brains”—but that’s the point: here was a protagonist defined not by intelligence or attractiveness but by character and temperament. Her most appealing feature is her squint, a feature that “was anything but alluring, that betrayed a rather appalling literal-mindedness,” yet convinced her admirers that there was “something to her.”

42 comments:

Truth said...

Just watched "The Postman Always Rings Twice" last week. Great film, see the Lana Turner version though, the Nicholson / Lange version pales.

Ray Sawhill said...

That's a good piece, tks for pointing it out. Loved the book myself. Can I be excused for linking to a piece I wrote about it? If not, feel free to not post this comment.

LINK

Dutch Boy said...

My high school educated, Midwestern small town, intelligent parents loved Southern California and prospered there. What they loved has not entirely disappeared but it is not long for this world. My children will doubtless join their older cousins and head for greener pastures.

Whiskey said...

California, as recently as the 1980s, was utter paradise. All gone now, replaced by Northern Tijuana.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Whiskey. California peaked in the early/mid 60s, but was alright for a while. It really started to slide after the 1986 amnesty. That one act was the kiss of death, as the amnestied illegals went on to bring in hordes of spouses/relatives and spawn a huge number of offspring.

Maybe, not surprisingly, California was solidly Republican for time immemorial, but flipped blue just a few years after the amnesty.

I wonder when we lose Texas, assuming we haven't already.

jack strocchi said...

The three most popular TV sit-coms in US history - Ozzie & Harriet, My Three Sons & The Brady Bunch - were all set in suburban LA during the sixties. They certainly reflect the success and hegemony of the middle-class patriarchal WASP mentality. Whether one wants to call this a "Golden Age" depends on which side one takes in the Culture War.

Anonymous said...

The last time I was in LA, I thought they had a severe shortage of white people.

dearieme said...

American accounts of American history seem to me to be usually risible rubbish, but I must say that the popular account of the delights of California from(?)the 1920s to the 1970s is entirely convincing.

Heliogabalus said...

"Los Angeles—America’s whitest, most Protestant, most bourgeois big city"

Reading this phrase in 2011 is utterly surreal.

Wes said...

Great piece about SoCal. Steve, hope you comment on the fascination with the Royal Wedding. It sure seems to touch a lot of people for something that ostensibly is so politically incorrect: Rich, White,royal people being honored by the entire world. More than previous weddings, I sensed a longing for the kind of community displayed today.

Glass not entirely empty view said...

What are you complaining about? California is still paradise.

Have you ever traveled outside major tourist destinations in Mexico or China? California has a long way to fall before it's worse than those places and people stop coming.

This, epecially considering all the freebies like health, education and other generous welfare programs. Also, consider intangibles like clean air and a declining but relatively high trust system.

Anonymous said...

The state is dead, Jim.

-osvaldo m.

Robert Philabaum said...

I never thought about it before, but it is really quite unbelievable how fast California deteriorated. From the book I was thinking 3 generations, then other commenters are saying it peaked in the early/mis 60s, amd by the mid mid-80s screenplays for movies like Colors (1988) with Sean Penn were in the works. That's ONE GENERATION. Sad.

Anonymous said...

The three most popular TV sit-coms in US history - Ozzie & Harriet, My Three Sons & The Brady Bunch - were all set in suburban LA during the sixties. They certainly reflect the success and hegemony of the middle-class patriarchal WASP mentality. Whether one wants to call this a "Golden Age" depends on which side one takes in the Culture War.

Those were television shows. Television shows aren't real life. In real life Mike Brady contracted AIDS through homosexual sex. Carol Brady dated the actor who played her son, Greg, on the show. Marsha became a drug addict. There was never any "Golden Age" in Los Angeles. It was just an illusion. It's not called the "City of Dreams" for nothing.

Anonymous said...

"The three most popular TV sit-coms in US history ..."

Source, please.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in LA and remember the old Glendale-Eagle Rock-Los Feliz corridor well. I was quickly priced out so I moved to a far north Whiteopia in my twenties.

Anyway we went to pick up the stepson flying in from LAX this week and I couldn't believe all the Vibrant Peoples stepping off the plane from LA and Salt Lake - into the waiting arms of Vibrant families. You wouldn't know it to look around here in town but they must be here somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Whether Los Angeles was good or bad, it eventually became bad for the nation, with its auto-mania, cultural vapidity, crassness, shallow narcissism, and etc. Los Angeles may no longer be what it used to be, but you can see evidence of Los Angelesization all over the nation and even around the world, in places like Dubai and Shanghai. A
neo-urban planning of pure artifice and without roots/identity. A plaster/plastic city.

Of course it was better when Los Angeles was more a city of Los Anglos, but it was lost easily to others because of the pure artifice, a sense that it could be anything and that culture is all about making-stuff-up, a kind of collective fantasy. A city of Ken and Barbie Dolls don't make for a city of cultural warriors to define/defend identity and turf.
And even at its height, Los Angeles was less cosmopolitan and more cosmetic. I do not weep that the city I saw in SHAMPOO is a goner.

PS. But I love MILDRED PIERCE the movie. Joan Crawford knew how to suffer nobly. She did the same in JOHNNY GUITAR. But what is the great lesson that she learns at the end of the movie? That you can't buy love/meaning/truth with meaning. Though she tried to be a good mother, she was a bad mother cuz she spoiled her kid with materialism. And kids raised on pure materialism will think only in terms of me, me, me, than we, we, we.

Anonymous said...

Texas and California are pretty much done.

Anonymous said...

"But what is the great lesson that she learns at the end of the movie? That you can't buy love/meaning/truth with meaning."

I meant she couldn't buy all that stuff with MONEY.

Anonymous said...

Well, at least Los Angelinos don't have to go south of the border for Mexican tourism.

Carol said...

There was the movie location and there was the actual place. LA in its Spanish Revival period was beautiful with very distinct and charming architecture. There were great schools and colleges and some pretty serious intellectual firepower around Cal Tech, JPL, and out at Claremont.

You could live a serious life there and ignore Hollywood, but its values gradually leaked out to environs at large.

Anonymous said...

But BLADE RUNNER still looks kinda cool. What we need are replicants. More Aryan than Aryan is our motto.

Difference Maker said...

What are you complaining about? California is still paradise.

Have you ever traveled outside major tourist destinations in Mexico or China? California has a long way to fall before it's worse than those places and people stop coming.

This, epecially considering all the freebies like health, education and other generous welfare programs. Also, consider intangibles like clean air and a declining but relatively high trust system.


I'd rather not have my country destroyed. Since those places are bad, we need to avoid becoming those places.

Anonymous said...

OK. Just read the plot synopsis for Mildred Pierce, the novel. OMG, how horridly bad. I don't think there's a Mexican soap opera that disjointed and implausible. Thanks, Sailer, for setting me straight: Sometimes fiction is stranger than fiction!

P.S.

Didn't you say you had written an article on the topic of sometimes the movie is bettern' the book, one featuring the works of Ray Bradbury? ;0)

Steve Sailer said...

You don't read "Mildred Pierce" for the plot, you read it because James M. Cain understood how the world worked. Cain was one of the great middlebrow writers, not all that aesthetically edifying, but hugely informative.

"Mildred Pierce" is an unusual novel because you have a 140 IQ heterosexual man writing with deep insight about a 100 IQ woman who isn't a great beauty or a buttkicking babe or anything else to interest a heterosexual man in her. She's above average only in willpower, which makes her a successful restaurant owner-manager.

Anonymous said...

"She's above average only in willpower, which makes her a successful restaurant owner-manager."

I'm not certain this is an accurate description of Kate Winslet & will be surfing the internet for the "daughter" who is so much hotter than mom that stepdad would prefer her.

My personal opinion is that film noir was mostly an indictment of capitalism despite the fact that the pie-baking mother was a much more sympathetic character than the opera singer daughter.

Come on, get into the anti-burgeois propaganda of film noir. This not only explains the huge discrepancy that a working class family could produce an opera star but also that the working class mother is somehow trumped by the amoral yet more culturally sophisticated daughter.

Anonymous said...

"Come on, get into the anti-burgeois propaganda of film noir. This not only explains the huge discrepancy that a working class family could produce an opera star but also that the working class mother is somehow trumped by the amoral yet more culturally sophisticated daughter."

I was thinking about this myself. Usually the stage mother is the villain in these flicks which include many instances of the child star or less gifted siblings being abused. It's so commonly accepted that the stage parent has the wrong priorities in life, as well as in child rearing, no one thinks to empathize with the mommies and poppies dearests when child stars go bad.

When looking up background material on some of these old flicks, it also seems it might be uncomfortably self referential for many of these actresses to play parts in movies in which fame has destroyed the soul of at least one character. I wonder if at least a few of the directors weren't incredibly sardonic about casting choices for movies that were a bit too like the actors lives. This perhaps deliberate bit of sadism on the directors behalf disturbs me deeply when I think about it so I usually don't.

Ray Sawhill said...

Steve writes:" "Mildred Pierce" is an unusual novel because you have a 140 IQ heterosexual man writing with deep insight about a 100 IQ woman who isn't a great beauty or a buttkicking babe or anything else to interest a heterosexual man in her. She's above average only in willpower, which makes her a successful restaurant owner-manager."

That's exactly right. Plus it's really funny, in a mean-and-sardonic kinda way.

A major novel, and a majorly-underappreaciated one too, IMHO.

Kylie said...

"I wonder if at least a few of the directors weren't incredibly sardonic about casting choices for movies that were a bit too like the actors lives. This perhaps deliberate bit of sadism on the directors behalf disturbs me deeply when I think about it so I usually don't."

Then you'll really want to avoid Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder cast a has-been director working as an actor (Stroheim) as a has-been director working as a butler. He cast several formerly big silent stars (Nilsson, Warner and Keaton) as has-beens the narrator calls "The Waxworks".

He let Gloria Swanson pull out all the stops in her role as a forgotten star obsessed with the younger man she supports but while it's a sympathetic role, it's hardly a flattering one.

Overall, it's a cruel movie, almost autocannibalistic. It is worth watching for Stroheim's incredible performance, though, if nothing else.

Steve Sailer said...

"Plus it's really funny, in a mean-and-sardonic kinda way."

And, yet, she really is a heroine, all at the same time. If you like eating at restaurants that provide good food at a reasonable price, then the world needs pushy people like Mildred Pierce, even if they can get on the nerves of more refined people like James M. Cain.

The parts of the book that are more personal to Cain about Mildred's daughter's opera career (Cain's mother was an opera singer and his father a college president) are ho-hum compared to the more journalistic stuff about how hard it is to launch a restaurant.

Steve Sailer said...

Here's another James M. Cain story:

The studio buys Cain's bestseller "Double Indemnity" and Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler start to work on adapting it. Chandler announces that Cain's dialogue won't work on screen and that Chandler will rewrite all of it. Cain is working on another picture on the same lot, so Wilder calls Cain in to talk to Chandler. Cain and Chandler are rivals and they've never liked each other much. Cain listens to Chandler's complaints about his dialog and his ideas for how to rewrite them and ... he agrees with Chandler.

Out of this process comes one of the best movies ever.

Anonymous said...

"American accounts of American history seem to me to be usually risible rubbish, "

Can you give us specific examples, Dear Limey?

Oh, and good luck with the new royal. I look forward to seeing Harry snort coke in uncle Gary's Casa de Bang Bang.

Kylie said...

"The studio buys Cain's bestseller 'Double Indemnity' and Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler start to work on adapting it. Chandler announces that Cain's dialogue won't work on screen and that Chandler will rewrite all of it."

I never read any Cain but I just now read the Google Preview of Double Indemnity Ouch! Chandler was right. Cain's observations are astute but his dialogue is flat.

I've read a couple of Chandler's novels. Good writing but something's missing. When it comes to hard-boiled, give me Hammett. Red Harvest, especially, is terrific.

Anonymous said...

Can we get some Joan Didion for contrast?

Wandrin said...

"There was never any "Golden Age" in Los Angeles."

There's never a golden age for ACTORS because actors are generally ****ed up.

That has nothing to do with the average person.

Anonymous said...

"You don't read 'Mildred Pierce' for the plot, you read it because James M. Cain understood how the world worked. Cain was one of the great middlebrow writers, not all that aesthetically edifying, but hugely informative."

You mean like James Michener and Herman Wouk?

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, Mildred Pierce resembles in some ways the hugely informative books of Michener and Wouk. Few read them anymore because the stuff they informed people about is now out of date.

Cain has a higher reputation today because his works also helped stoke film noir, which is a hugely influential aesthetic style, although I'm not sure how much he contributed aesthetically. His Mildred Pierce, for example, is much less noir than the 1945 Joan Crawford adaptation of Mildred Pierce.

But, yes, it's right to see Mildred Pierce as a first rate middlebrow novel, but one given added interest because it's written by a man with a cool eye.

lesley said...

"Overall,[Sunset Boulevard] it's a cruel movie, almost autocannibalistic. It is worth watching for Stroheim's incredible performance, though, if nothing else."

Cruel and prescient. http://www.bricksandstonesgossip.com/2011/05/03/former-playboy-pinup-yvette-vickers-body-found-mummified

Yvette Vickers, a young actress with a small part in the movie, later became a pin-up, playmate and B movie starlet. Her body was found her a big old house not too unlike Gloria Swanson's in the movie. The former Bunny was in a "mummified" state. A neighbor, after not seeing her for months, finally wondered enough to go to her door, and found cobwebs around Ms. Vicker's mailbox. Not a good sign.

lesley said...

"You mean like James Michener."

Say what you will about Michener, I learned a lot of history from him. He was not a great formuator of character, but his description of environment and situation was exact. He did his research. His fascination with family or "extended family", generational epics and the twists of fate that separated and connected as the years went on, could have something to do with his being an adopted child.

Foresight Gaga said...

"Say what you will about Michener, I learned a lot of history from him."

SHUNNING is an excellent novel. And he introduced me to Henryk Sienkiewicz, and I hope to read POLAND one day, so he's okay in my book. But I refuse to read Tom Clancy.

Luke Lea said...

Having gone to the trouble to get Mildred Pierce and read it, I must say I was disappointed. If this is "the" novel of Los Angeles, then I must say I feel sorry for Southern California. What is it about the West Coast and literature?


Anonymous had it right when he wrote, "Whether Los Angeles was good or bad, it eventually became bad for the nation . . ."

Anonymous said...

L.A. had its heyday and things at one time were good. But it couldn't last, like a drug high. There must have been a reason why old Protestant L.A. fell harder than old Catholic San Francisco did.