The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

James M. Cain
James M. Cain
And Yet He Hated the Movie Industry

James M. Cain wrote some of the best-known crime fiction to come out of the 1930s, among them The Postman Always Rings Twice (which became a movie classic starring Lana Turner and John Garfield in 1946 and was remade in 1981, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange), Double Indemnity (starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson in 1944), and Mildred Pierce (starring Joan Crawford in 1945). He wrote first-person narratives of often self-destructive characters without moralizing. The result was sex, crime, and violence. In his introduction to Double Indemnity, Cain said:

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent…

A native Marylander, James Mallahan Cain was born to Irish-Catholic parents who lived in the Paca-Carroll House on St. John's College campus in Annapolis. His father taught there at the time and his mother was an opera singer. He skipped several grades and at age 14 entered Washington College in Chestertown, MD, where his father had become president. He graduated in 1910 when he was 18 and subsequently taught English and math there while working on his master's degree.

Rebelling against his erudite parents who constantly corrected his English, he wrote in the vernacular and claimed that his major literary influence was a bricklayer named Ike Newton from Maryland's rural Eastern Shore.

Cain reported for The Baltimore American and The Baltimore Sun between 1917 and 1921. Some years later, H.L. Mencken recognized Cain's talent and asked him over lunch at Marconi's Restaurant to write for his new magazine, the American Mercury. They became lifelong friends and spent much time in each other's company, often at Mencken's home on 1524 Hollins Street. Mencken used his influence to get Cain a job writing editorials for Walter Lippmann and then his own Sunday column in The New York World.

In 1933, Cain decided to go to California. He wrote to Mencken, "I got cleaned out in Baltimore and have to make a little more money." He invited Mencken to join him there because he felt that there was more money to be made with less effort than anywhere else. He may have been right. Writing for the movies, he earned up to $2,500 a week, a huge sum for the 1930s. Nevertheless, he hated the movie industry and the way writers were treated, saying, "I parked my pride, my esthetic convictions, my mind outside on the street."

Cain didn't stop writing until his death at 1977, but his most prolific years occurred between 1933 and 1948, while he worked in California. In addition to five screenplays, he wrote seven novels, six magazine serials, and more than 24 short stories. He married four times. When he died, his body was donated to science.

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