Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Thwarted Life

I recently finished reading the 1941 James M. Cain novel Mildred Pierce. Many of you may recall the 1945 film version that was a comeback vehicle for Joan Crawford. The novel, like the movie, follows the life of a put upon woman struggling to make a success of her life. At every pass, just when success is seemingly hers, someone or something gets in the way.

From that common framework, the movie version veers 180 degrees from the novel. The movie is showy and soapy. Joan Crawford’s Mildred is more caricature than character. Her daughter Veda, played by a teenaged Ann Blyth, is more petulant brat than scheming she-devil, as she is in the novel. Fundamentally, however, the movie diverts from the novel in its tone.

Mildred Pierce the star vehicle is bombast and revenge melodrama, with a murder plot thrown in as a nod to the popular noir films of the era. The novel, on the other hand, portrays its lead character as a woman striving to succeed on her own terms. She is decidedly low class, with no skills or standing to guide her other than her own fierce determination. Her daughter Veda fashions herself a high society girl embarrassed by her mother’s menial work as a waitress in a greasy spoon in Depression era Los Angeles. Even after her mother rises to become the owner of a chain of restaurants, Veda is only impressed when Mildred shacks up with worthless playboy Monty Beragon. Monty may not amount to anything, but at least he hails from Pasadena blue-blood stock.

The central conflict of the story is between Mildred and Veda, each vying for victory and only one winning in the end. The novel deals not in murder and mayhem, but rather in the universal theme of earned versus unearned success. It is a sombre work, and whilst it treats Mildred as a heroine of sorts, it is essentially a period slice of life piece, albeit a compelling and well written one.

Reading the novel reminded me of the same kinds of people I’ve met and dealt with my entire life, some who have striven to earn their own way, and others who live as parasites on the backs of those who do succeed. Some people think the Vedas of this world are the norm and that the Mildreds are an impossible fiction. I am sometimes aghast at the abject cynicism of young adults who have already given up merely because they confuse the occasional louts they meet as the norm, as the to-be-expected. Looking at the politicians of our era, I cannot say I blame young people entirely. That is why I often tell younger people to look beyond the empty platitudes and dangling carrots that politicians proffer and focus on their own integrity.

When I decided at a fairly young age that my life would consist of adventures spanning the globe, I didn’t know the precise nature of the obstacles that lay before me. Even someone with the sunniest of attitudes can get caught in a web of deceitful or opportunistic imbeciles, and I was no different. Despite these occasional setbacks, I never allowed others to get me down for long. I cast them aside and continued forward, only occasionally glancing back to assess a failed friendship, job or relationship as lessons of what to avoid in the future.

Since moving to Australia nearly three years ago, I’ve met a great number of new people, some who have become friends and on-going business associates, while others fleeting acquaintances of little consequence. My greatest joy, however, is in knowing that I shall never accept the fate of Mildred Pierce: a woman who had high goals but who enabled a wicked child to get the best of her.

In writing this, I am thinking of someone I’ve come to know well over the past six months who occasionally struggles with some of his recent decisions. I remind him that he needn’t ruminate too much about the past because he has a radiant future. Neither of us, in other words, are Mildred Pierce, and that is a damn fine thing.

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