Like any baby boomer, I heard my fair share of tales of the Depression Era while growing up in a comfortable, middle class suburb of Houston. I learned about soup lines and frantic searches among couch cushions for recalcitrant coins that might have gone AWOL from my grandpa’s gaping pockets. I knew that my aunt’s baby clothes were little dresses recycled from flour sacks and that her “newborn bassinet” was an empty box lined with softened towels and kept under the checkout counter of my grandfather’s general store. I learned that shoes could pull double duty as summer time sandals when the leather ends were cut out to make room for a child’s growing toes. I also knew that if the weather hadn’t warmed yet and the shoes still fit but their leather soles were beginning to wear out, that sections of cardboard could be cut out to form a makeshift Dr. Sholls insert to prolong the need for resoling. And I knew that “hobos” had put their invisible mark on my grandmother’s back kitchen door so that many an afternoon she would be seen ladling soup into a cup for them as they continued on a trek in search of employment, or family help or both.
For me in the safety of my childhood home with food in the cupboard and a refrigerator full of fresh produce, these stories took on the context of fairy tales, as alien to my comprehension as Oliver Twist’s plea for one more bowl of porridge. I knew nothing of hunger until I reached puberty and stupidly decided to embrace starvation as a means to the new trend of beauty. Unfortunately, though, those far away stories that conjured up images of a foreign land of need are becoming a bit more of a reality in our own time.
Recently, the story Mildred Pierce has been receiving a great deal of attention as HBO is presenting a miniseries based upon the novel. Published in 1941 by James M. Cain, it centers on the travails that the title heroine endured in a 10 year period of her life, beginning in 1931 depressed Los Angeles. Joan Crawford starred in the first film version in 1945 and received an Oscar for her rendition of a woman hit by hard times who tries to make something good of her life. Typical of movies of its decade, Pierce is portrayed as a tough as nails dame, and the movie concentrated more on the film noir aspect of Cain’s novel, factoring in a murder mystery not present in the novel for good measure. But there is more to this story than the black and white classic would tell.
I had never read the novel, and being the nerd that I am, I decided that I needed to read it before seeing the 2011 version of the story. I was completely surprised at the differences between the novel and Crawford’s movie. Sure, the basic story plots were there—those that had to do with love and betrayal, elements familiar in film noir. But the novel and its subsequent 2011 movie were almost another story altogether. And it frightened this baby boomer who thought she knew all she needed to know about the Depression. Crawford’s movie appeared to be set in the 1940s, and the Depression might have been refreshingly behind them. But its gaunt ugliness is ever present in the novel and HBO’s movie. And reading/watching it is like a mirror held up to our present predicament. There are scenes of people with placards pronouncing “Will work for food”—wait, was that in HBO’s movie or did I see it at an exit ramp of I-30? Yes, the clothing is different, the cars look like they belong in a July 4th parade, but the images are decidedly and eerily similar to what our world is experiencing.
You see, those far-away stories I listened to as a kid have come to roost in the 21st century. And they aren’t quite so interesting in that “Hmmm . . . what would I do if . . . “ kind of way. People are losing their jobs as you read this column. People like you and me, with kids, a mortgage. People who haven’t squandered money on things like summer camps and trips to Cancun since 2007. And that savings account can’t last forever . . .
The ironic plot in Mildred Pierce is that as her fortunes increased, her life began to spiral into a darker place. The rich times, however, were not to last, and it is her flagrant spending on family and a home she couldn’t really afford that leads to the third leg of the story—rags to riches, and then back to rags again. It is absolutely haunting the way that this story with its Depression setting has replicated into our world. But there is one tiny plot line that gives Mildred hope at the end — one that might let me conclude on a brighter note. She decides to get back to the basics of life and to restart her business from her home. Something I see happening right now in our own generation. And there can’t be anything bad about getting back to the basics.
After all, tomorrow is another day.