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James T. Farrell

Cain’s Movietone Realism

Novels Written for Hollywood

(December 1946)


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 10, December 1946, pp. 296–301.
Copyright © December 1946 by James T. Farrell.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


James M. Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce, might have been a very good novel; it might even have been a great one. Had this novel been properly handled, James M. Cain might even have lifted himself to the level of Dreiser in American letters. The story he told could have been a very representative one. It is some time since I read a book in which a real story was so wantonly squandered as is the case here. Because of this and because there are so many touches revealing how Cain has empirically grasped important details concerning the modern American scene, I winced again and again as I read this book and saw how it was disfigured into movietone realism.

The Pierce family is middle class, living on the lawn, bracing trees. The time opens impressively with the husband, a smallish man named Bert Pierce, working on the lawn bracing trees. The time is the depression. Bert Pierce had been an executive in a real estate company, Pierce Homes, which had built a group of standardized houses. One of them is the house in which he lives. The company had gone into receivership and Bert Pierce was forced out of the concern. His spirit is broken. He cannot find a job and he doesn’t even seem to look for one any more. He is a decent man but his personality is disintegrating. He has lost his function in society and is no longer the provider. It seems as though it were profoundly symbolic that his personality disintegrates when he becomes bankrupt and can no longer play a role in Pierce Homes, Inc. His name was given to the company, to the group of houses it built, to a street in the community which is composed of these houses, and there also is a Pierce Drive. There is nothing left of Bert Pierce’s activity in this work except the name; and there is little will left in the man. We see that his will, his very self, has deteriorated with his loss of function as the head of a family, as well as the loss of his business position in the community.

His wife Mildred is in her thirties; they have two girls, one of them in her teens. Mildred is not beautiful, but she remains very attractive and has lovely legs. Although she has been a housewife, she has definitely not lost her looks. She is physically described by the author, cut to the pattern so that she could act the part of a movie star. An excellent cook, she is supporting the family by baking pies and cakes for neighbors. Bert is having an affair with a woman named Mrs. Biederhof. The marriage is broken up. It is clear that Bert gets comfort, consolation and sympathy from this vague Mrs. Biederhof. Mildred sometimes nags him. But even if she had not nagged him, the fact that she – the little wife – was providing for the family is, in itself, sufficient to unman Bert. The petty bourgeois American male who has skyrocketed to a position of affluence in the 1920’s cannot be supported by his little missus. The personality of Bert Pierce had, we can easily deduce, been intermingled with Pierce Homes, Inc.

The older daughter, Veda, is an incorrigible snob. She is ambitious and wants to live among the rich. She has contempt for her middle class Glendale surroundings. The mother has fixed all of her ambitions on Veda’s future. She wants her to be a great pianist and even now, in adversity, she scrapes enough money to provide for Veda’s music lessons.

Commodities and Human Relations

The story then opens with a petit-bourgeois man on a lawn. What he does is described; but what he feels is not touched on by the author. The lawn is one of Bert’s things. The life of this family has been a life of things. Here is his last thing, as it were. Then there is a quarrel and Mildred takes the initiative in driving him off to go and live with Mrs. Biederhof. Now she is alone, and the support of the two children depends on her. She has had no training in the business world. And in a depression when many trained people are almost on the bread line, what chance has she? She looks for work and the only prospect offered her is that of domestic service; she is repelled by this.

One of the striking and promising features in the early portions of this novel is that the two main characters are presented with reference to things, to objects and to conventional conceptions. They possess little individuality in the sense that many literary characters have individuality. The style of the book is objective, even a little flat in places: it records movements, performances, the handling of tilings, such as Bert bracing the trees, Mildred cooking and the ingredients of what she cooks which go into the making of something that she will sell. This presents to us a world of private life in which things, commodities, almost become the protagonist.

But to continue, Mildred overcomes the revulsion she feels about doing menial work and becomes a waitress. She works diligently and in time she gets the pie concession in the restaurant where she has found employment. She gets a few other customers. Wally Bergen had been associated with Pierce Homes, and when the company had gone bankrupt, he had managed to wangle himself into a job as the receiver. He happens to call after Bert had left, wanting to see Bert concerning some business details. When he learns that Mildred and her husband have separated, he shows interest in her. He makes a date with her. Mildred talks about this with her neighbor, Mrs. Cessler, the wife of a man who is getting on by engaging in the illegal liquor business, hauling it from the boats which bring in booze along the Pacific coast. Mrs. Cessler tells Mildred how to behave in order to capture Wally. Instead of letting him take her out to eat, Mildred should cook for him, give him good drinks which Mrs. Cessler provides, tie him to her by being the person who provides the food and liquor before she lets him sleep with her.

Mildred acts on this advice. She cooks a dinner which Wally devours, gives him drinks that he couldn’t get in speakeasies where the quality of booze is bad, and then, lets him seduce her. But Wally is smart enough not to be trapped. In time, however, Wally helps Mildred start a restaurant. She begins without capital, but Wally manages to help her get adequate credit. In order to protect herself financially she divorces Bert. Further, while working as a waitress, she has met a wastrel named Monty Beragon. His family is rich and socially prominent in Pasadena; he is a polo player. He picks up Mildred on her last day at the restaurant where she works, takes her to his little shack at the beach and they have a weekend together. While Mildred is away, the youngest daughter, who is spending the weekend with the father, becomes fatally ill. Then, the restaurant opens, and Mildred quickly catapults to success. She has an affair with Monty. His family loses its money, and he has to depend on her financially. He is contemptuous of her. A kinship of social snobbery develops between him and Veda who is growing up into a desirable female of the Hollywood type. It turns out that she cannot play the piano well, but she becomes a coloratura singer. Mildred kicks Monty out just as she did Bert. She works energetically; her business expands and she is able to run several restaurants. The daughter, Veda, detests her mother, detests the fact that her mother earns money in a bourgeois manner and detests Glendale. With Wally’s aid – he is a lawyer – Veda blackmails a motion picture family with whose son she has slept, and this enables her to leave home. Veda is the one substantial human relationship in Mildred’s life.

With Veda gone, Mildred’s life seems empty. Monty, in decay and with a spreading bald spot, has to sell his family home, an atrocious stone pile. Mildred buys it, and marries him in order to get Veda back. Veda returns and Mildred lavishes the profits and resources of her business in providing for Veda and Monty, with whom, however, she doesn’t live as a wife. Veda becomes a famous singer and earns five hundred dollars a week in radio.

Mildred, wasting the money of her business, is going to be forced out by her creditors. It is when she learns this that she returns home late at night and finds her daughter in her husband’s bed, naked. She almost kills her daughter. The girl pretends that she has lost her voice because of the way that her mother choked her. Monty leaves. Mildred is forced out of business. She divorces Monty. She takes Veda back. Veda seems changed. But it has only been a ruse on the part of Veda. She has pretended to have lost her voice in order to be able to get out of a five hundred dollar contract so that she can accept another one for twenty-five hundred dollars a week. She leaves home and goes off to New York with Monty. Mildred has, after all of her driving effort, now come to the point where she is thirty-seven; her looks are going; she is getting fat. She meets Bert. In the meantime, Bert’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, has gone back to her husband who has gotten a good job. Bert and Mildred talk things over and come back together. Bert tells her that Veda is no good. She finally realizes this. She is purged of her almost unnatural love for her daughter. And then the book ends, with Bert and Mildred reconciled, having each other, and Bert says: “Goddamn it, that’s what I want to hear. Come on, we got each other, haven’t we? Let’s get stinko.” And Mildred has the last line: “Yes, let’s get stinko.”

Cain – Hollywood “Realism” Master

I have only roughly and hastily told the story. But this account of the story should indicate how it has been Hollywoodized. The story, however, when presented in outline only suggests what is wrong with this novel but doesn’t indicate what is the character of the opportunity that Cain has squandered. Cain is able to tell a story which has the merit that the reader doesn’t have to spend too much time in getting on from the first to the last page. Shocks and violence punctuate his novels. They are written as a kind of literary movie. And, inasmuch as a greater latitude is permitted the novelist than the scenarist, Cain’s books have the appearance of greater reality than most films do. Unrestrained by a production code, the pattern of a Cain story can be more like patterns of real lives than can those of a motion picture. Mildred Pierce is no exception here, but it could have been an exception. Cain began with a real problem, one relatively untouched in contemporary writing. Mildred Pierce could well have been an account of the middle class housewife. It could have been a poignant story which told what happens to many of these housewives so that in the fictional character, Mildred, there would have been particles from real life of hundreds of thousands of such women. At times there are suggestions of this. The opening portions of this book are highly promising. But then we see where James M. Cain has learned his literary lessons. Story values take the place of Mildred’s problems. Plot involvements, relationships based on plot and story, falsify what has been begun as a story of people. Further, what is important in the promising portions of this book is that we see how things, objects, commodities have become the basis for the spiritual content of Mildred’s life, and how Bert, having lost all of his things becomes a good natured and ineffectual person. And we see further the transformation of one of the roles of the housewife – as a cook – into a businesswoman. Things and money creep out of every page of this book and they become fetishes which are pressed into the very soul of Mildred. She has affairs. She has scenes of anger and reconciliation with her daughter. She knows success and wins prestige. But one of her high moments is when she gives Bert a few drinks, cops the key to the automobile which he had taken when they split up, and then, by this means, she gets possession of the car itself. After taking Bert home, she drives rather wildly and she feels elated, almost ecstatic. At the wheel of the car she forgets herself even more than she does in sexual affairs with Wally or Monty. Much has been written about the standardization of human beings in modem American society. But here was the promise of a vivid, empirically grasped and well presented fictional account of the structure of American standardization. Here, in Bert and Mildred, were the beginnings of two characterizations which reveal how things take the place of human relationships. This was what made the novel so promising, and it, in turn, is the reason why I winced when this fine beginning was wrapped up in a package of cheap glamor and cynical melodrama.

Cain writes of valueless people who are cruel, violent, self-centered and who have a minimum of consciousness. In his world there is neither good nor bad and there is little love. People commit adultery and the wicked do not always go punished. If the wicked are punished it is purely fortuitous: punishment is a result of the needs of the story and not of the stern hand of Providence. This is a world in which the incapacity of an automobile to go as fast as the driver wants it to can send the adulterer to a sinner’s grave just as well as can the moral law of the Almighty God and the almost equally Almighty Joseph Breen, Code Administrator for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

The historic past has given us a high level of literary culture. This level is expressed in a series of great tragedies which come down from the Greeks to modern times. In tragedy there is an unhappy ending. Serious American writers such as Theodore Dreiser have written in this tradition, and the spirit which motivates work such as Dreiser’s is one that is drawn from a high level of literary culture. Contrasted to such work, there is the cheap escape fiction, the best seller and the plot short story. By and large, the plot short story and the saccharine best seller cannot be maintained in the modern American world. The falsity of writings of this order is so patent that in a hard, atomized, cynical urban world this type of writing seems merely funny – unintentionally funny. Slowly and surely, the old type of saccharine best seller is being driven from the market. There can be very few new Gene Stratton Porters.

A best seller today must have something different from the best seller of thirty or forty years ago. If it is given a religious tone it can be a market sensation, as we find in the case of Lloyd Douglas. But naive virgins, happy and good housewives performing their role, love without hormones – these ingredients of the old best seller are rapidly declining in sales value. It is writers such as Cain who stand in between the work of a serious and tragic character which has been fathered by such men as Dreiser in America and the work that has connection with the more or less forgotten writings of Robert W. Chambers, Gene Stratton Porter or Harold Bell Wright. And in this in-between, neither-fish-nor-fowl-literary medium, James Cain has become the master. He is a literary thrill-producer and he profits by the reaction against the sentimentality of other years. At the same time, he gains from the prestige of more serious and exploratory writing. As a consequence, James M. Cain is not an insignificant or unimportant American literary phenomenon. He has helped to perfect a form which combines Hollywood and serious realism.

The Mencken Background

And herein hangs an irony which should be pointed out. James M. Cain is an old newspaper man, a former contributor to The American Mercury, a writer whose background is intimately associated with the 1920’s. The sophisticated attitude of The American Mercury of the Twenties remains in his writing. For instance, in Mildred Pierce, Veda is a caricature of a flapper of the Twenties and she describes bourgeois people as peasants. If one reads Cain’s book, Our Government, one is transported back to the days when we all read that green-covered magazine. Cain has not grown by jumping off from the positive sides of Mencken and of The American Mercury. Mencken was a major voice in America agitating for serious realistic fiction: at the same time that he played such a role in advancing Dreiser, that he welcomed Sherwood Anderson and others, he attacked, parodied, flayed the books of Chambers, Winston Churchill and others, and cast on their kind of work the brand of ridicule at which he had become so expert. In doing this he helped to open channels for the more serious writer and contributed toward the creation of a better taste for literature among more serious and literate people, especially younger people. Cain comes out of this period. The taste for reality exists in him. To it he has added lessons learned from Hollywood. Therein lies the irony. The James M. Cain who wrote about a government which was elected by yokels and middle class “peasants” is now the thrill-producing movietone realist who shocks these yokels and the sons and daughters of these yokels with novels of adultery, murder, cynicism and violence. To drive home the irony, one might say that in the Twenties, the attitude on government which Cain implied was, more or less, that people deserved the government they got. The American middle class yokel deserved a Calvin Coolidge. These same yokels deserve, as it were, the realist they now have and that realist deserves his audience.

Pseudo-Realism and Public Taste

Mildred Pierce has been made into a movie by Warner Brothers, produced by Mr. Jerry Wahl, who is likely to become one of the Hollywood producers of movietone realism in which there is adultery, murder and unhappy endings. The saccharine story of the happy ending, the virgin, the pure but masculine and smartaleck hero has become the typical story of Hollywood. Boy meets girl. The boy is immature; the girl is immature. The story of the boy and the girl is juvenile and revolves around how the boy comes to meet the girl and how they end up in a kiss, sufficiently short not to constitute a sin, and properly directed so that the kiss is more like that of a brother and sister than that of two lovers. The endless retelling of this story, the stupefying succession of movies with this kind of happy ending has now confused public taste. If a movie has an unhappy ending, it is realism – not romance on the level of a popular song. Because of such facts, the filming of novels of James M. Cain has a certain significance and will be falsely interpreted by many who are now so groggy with stories of purity that they accept as realism any story with murder, an unhappy ending and love which violates the Sixth Commandment. Such stories then are falsely accepted as signs that Hollywood is growing up and becoming sophisticated. It is apparently assumed that if Hollywood can “crack” a Cain book, and produce it within the boundaries set by the Production Code, then we see signs of change, of a new era in pictures. Intellectuals, producers, writers and others have, in fact, begun to look forward to such achievements with hope and confidence. Mr. Jerry Wahl has begun to produce more serious pictures. Now, Hollywood will advance into the stage of real film art.

With this in mind, it is well to take a quick look at the film, Mildred Pierce. The novel begins with a description of a middle class home that is breaking up because of the depression. The sense of the novel relates to this beginning. Mildred Pierce is a middle class woman whose capacities have been restricted by the performance of her role as mother and wife. When her husband is driven out of business she has to assume the role of the man and she has to enter, unprepared, the savage and competitive world of the breadwinner, of the male. The life of the middle class is atomized. Socially it is crushed between the two antagonistic classes of modern society, the big bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Its social relationships are dictated by business considerations. Its women are half-ornament and half-slave. They often preserve their beauty, their figure, the loveliness of their flesh, but their characters go into a stagnant sleep, and their inner life dries up. They are trained for nothing but to be a mate, a mother, a housekeeper and housewife. The performance of this role makes them the queen of their class. Mildred is such a woman.

But the film opens with a murder. There is no murder in the novel. Mildred seems to be a murderess and she even wants to commit suicide in one of the first scenes of the film, but a policeman prevents her and this permits some quasi-humorous dialogue in which the policeman tells her to go home and remarks that if she tries to go swimming rather than home, he will have to take a swim too and he might even get pneumonia. The edge is thus taken off of the murder and of the torn image of Joan Crawford standing over a bridge getting ready to dive into turbulent waters. Also the movie story is told backwards and becomes a quasi-mystery story.

Movie Changes Plot

In the novel, home, things and an inadequately motivated mother-daughter relationship are the basis of what subsequently happens. In the motion picture, false suspense as to who killed Monty is the starting point, and the story unfolds in such a way as to suggest that Mildred is the murderess. This change of plot and emphasis, obviously helps the studio sneak the film past the Code. [1] All that is promising in the opening of the book is sacrificed. Even less than in the novel is the mother-daughter relationship motivated. Veda is turned into an outright and humanly impossible movie villainess. The consequences of the Hollywood alterations of this already Hollywoodized realism are such that the film becomes stupid and senseless.

The same comment could be made of a previous film based on a Cain novel – Double Indemnity. The demands and restrictions of the Production Code are such that this is one of the most likely types of realism, of sophistication which can be introduced into films. Such realism, such sophistication is usually further enhanced and made vivid by the familiar and glamorous background of sin in our time. There is a suggestion of the “sins” of the glamor boys and girls of the newspaper columns in such films. The “sinfulness” of the characters is made thrilling in scenes of night clubs or road houses, and it is also laid against a background of furnishings and decorations such as one might see in the advertisements of The New Yorker. The magic of the movies, the capitalization on glamor, the skillfulness of producers, directors and scenarists are thus all put into the creation of a pseudo-realism. At the same time the demands of the stern Mosaic Code of the Hays Office (really the Johnston Office) are met: the sinners die. Murder and adultery are punished. The thrills of adultery in the most modernistic setting are then compensated for. The Vedas of this realism die in the end. If this new movietone realism continues it will most likely have the effect of further debauching popular taste in America. One of the major virtues of serious realism is that it describes the pitiless force of circumstance and the equally pitiless drive of human emotions which often play so central a role in causing the tragic destruction of human beings. But in this pseudo-realistic type of novel and movie the pitiless force of circumstance and of human impulse is turned into the fortuitousness of automobile accidents and the like and into a melodramatically simplified conception of good girls and bad girls. Furthermore, the tendency in such films can be that of sneaking just a few added thrills of adultery into the plot. If this happens, then the censors will howl anew. The Hollywood movietone realists will, under such circumstances, crawl back into the usual motion picture defense of virtue. They will, then, be in a position to claim that they tried realism, tried to produce serious art and were thwarted by powerful forces which are beyond their control. This will undoubtedly make it likely that serious realism will be open to fresh attacks. With these fresh attacks it will have to carry along the burden of defending and of being held responsible for this movietone realism. Herein, it seems to me, is one of the significant aspects of this new movietone realism, one which must be watched and analyzed. Far from being any serious step in the light direction, it is merely one of the new and rapidly developing “art” forms of our contemporary and commercialized culture.

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1. The rigorous prescriptions of the Production Code are such that motion picture scenarists are again and again faced with the problem of “licking” a picture. This means to contrive some means of saving something of a story and, at the same time, recontrive it in such a way as to make the film permissible under the terms prescribed in the Code. To my knowledge, no one has attempted to observe and study the consequences, moral and artistic, of this practice. The need to get by the Code conditions or ran condition the picture-maker to think in terms of ambiguities. It imposes false problems on the writer. In time, it will undoubtedly contribute greatly toward helping create cynical and dishonest attitudes toward material. This cynicism will threaten to infect the audience as well as the picture-makers. For the audience will perceive the sexual meanings behind many contrived ambiguities of invention and will draw proper conclusions. I would hazard the guess that the problem of “licking” the Code which is so constantly imposed on writers is one of the significant causative factors in inducing the artistic decay of so many writers who work in Hollywood for a long period of time. In order to suggest the dangers involved here we might refer to Freud. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud revealed and exposed the psychological structure of forgetting. He discovered that in an instance of significant forgetting, a process of thought had been begun and then left incompleted just prior to the act of forgetting. This incompleted process of thought is intimately involved in the act of forgetting and is bound up with the repression which underlies the same act of forgetting. Consider the significance of this discovery in terms of the scenarist who is constantly required to sneak something by the Code, and to recontrive something else so as to make it acceptable to the Code administrators. There must be involved here an endless series of little repressions, repressions of the kind which sap the artist.

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