James M. Cain’s Beachwood Years: A Hard-Boiled Writer in Hollywoodland

August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

James M. Caine

James M. Cain (1892-1977) came late to the writing that would earn him lasting fame; his first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” was published in 1934, when he was 42. By the time he was 40, Cain had been–to varying degrees of failure–a singer, insurance salesman, teacher, newspaper reporter, playwright and magazine editor (at the New Yorker, where he lasted a year). Unhappy with literary life in New York, he signed with Paramount and hopped a train to Hollywood, arriving in 1932, the trough of the Depression. Though he would remain a screenwriter for the next 15 years,  only three of his screenplays–the now rarely seen “Stand Up and Fight,” “Gypsy Wildcat” and “Algiers”–made it to the screen.

Then came “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a blockbuster of a book. Cain had found the themes–loser men, dangerous women, violence, sex, financial desperation–that, recombined in all his future novels, would make him a successful writer. The money that rolled in purchased this magnificent Norman manor on Belden Drive where he lived with his second wife, Elina Sjosted Tyszecka:

cain house
Cain house (with turret) and Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Ironically, his bestsellers didn’t make him a success at screenwriting–in part because Cain remained contemptuous of movies and the people who made them. Though his novels were perfect for the movies, they were adapted by other screenwriters; the excellent results brought acclaim to their stars. The 1946 adaptation of “Postman,” by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, made an icon out of Lana Turner. “Double Indemnity,” (1944) by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed) was a huge success for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and is considered by many to be the greatest example of film noir. “Mildred Pierce,” (1945) by Ranald MacDougal, William Faulkner (no less) and Catherine Tunney, was a triumph for Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for her portrayal as a long-suffering working mother with an unhealthy attachment to her sociopathic daughter. It also made a star out of Ann Blyth and became an enduring classic–so enduring that a new “Mildred Pierce” mini-series starring Kate Winslet has just been announced. 

 Cain reacted to his literary success by drinking even more heavily–he was a lifelong alcoholic–and grousing about being labeled a “hard-boiled” writer along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” he wrote archly in 1947. It’s true that his novels don’t feature detectives or mysteries (except to the extent that readers wonder what attracts losers to sociopaths and vice versa). But what else do you call a novelist whose books deal with adultery, violence, incest, conspiracy and murder?

Raymond Chandler, forever linked to Cain through “Double Indemnity” and the “hard-boiled” designation, returned the favor. “He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking,” he wrote of Cain. Chandler, though also an alcoholic , had a much more successful career both as a screenwriter and novelist and lived out his life in Los Angeles. 

In contrast Cain had burned through Hollywood by 1947. Washed up as a screenwriter, he divorced his third wife, actress Aileen Pringle, married his fourth, opera singer Florence MacBeth Whitwell, and returned to his hometown of Anapolis, MD. There he continued to write, though none of his later work matched his early novels’ popularity or critical acclaim. He outlived Whitwell and died of a heart attack in 1977, at 85.

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