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.”