By Ginny Padgett
Recently HBO aired a remake of Mildred Pierce as a mini-series, starring Kate Winslet. Many of you will recall the 1945 Joan Crawford version. During the credits I noticed the movie was based on a novel. Since I had mistakenly thought this script came from an original screenplay, I was curious about the author of the original work. Quick research yielded more surprises.
James M. Cain, the author of Mildred Pierce, (the first ever block-buster novel) wrote several other novels that were made into big movies: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Serenade. In addition, I found a collection of his short stories entitled The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction, which I checked out from the library.
His introduction to this book of short stories was more interesting to me than his fiction. His father was president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The younger Cain graduated from that college at seventeen, after which he spent the next four years drifting from one job to another, including teaching grammar at his alma mater. One day in 1914, “out of the blue…he heard his own voice say: ‘You’re going to be a writer.’”
He was not successful at first, but he was committed and kept writing. He enlisted in WW I, came home and spent three years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and began to work on his first novel. After three drafts, he threw them all away. While he was writing a column for the “Metropolitan” section of the Sunday World, his short works were published in the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the American Mercury, the Bookman, and the Saturday Evening Post. When the World folded, Cain went to the New Yorker magazine where he was very unhappy.
Upon the advice of his agent, he accepted a job as a screenwriter at Paramount Studios and moved to California. He was let go after six months: another failure. However, he decided to stay on the west coast and try to make it as a free-lance writer.
He found his voice and his characters in California, and he enjoyed his highest success as a novelist during the 1930s and ‘40s. Eventually, his work fell out of favor with the public and critics. He moved back to Maryland in 1953 and wrote twelve more novels – but only five were published before his death in 1977.
James M. Cain is my new hero because he never stopped writing, even when it became unprofitable. He felt that “those who can write must write.” I’ve adopted this as my personal motto. In addition, his experiences speak volumes to me about determination and passion.
I leave you with his quote about the practice of writing, recorded during the time he was working on his memoirs just before he died. “It excites me and possesses me. I have no sense of it possessing me any less today than it did fifty years ago.”