Dress Down Sunday: Opera in an Unlikely Place

Career in C Major by James M Cain

written (and sold to 20th Century Fox) in 1939, published in hard cover 1945

Career in C Major 1

They left about six-thirty, and I mixed another drink so we could have one while we were dressing for a dinner we had to go to. When I got upstairs she was stretched out on the chaise longue in brassiere, pants, stockings, and high-heeled slippers, looking out of the window. That meant trouble. Doris is a Chinese kimono girl, and she always seems to be gathering it round her so you can’t see what’s underneath, except that you can, just a little. But when she’s got the bit in her teeth, the first sign is that she begins to show everything she’s got. She’s got plenty, because a sculptor could cast her in bronze for a perfect thirty-four, and never have to do anything about it at all…. It’s the kind of shape that makes you want to put your arm around it, but if you do put your arm around it, anyway when she’s parading it around to get you excited, that’s when you made your big mistake. Then she shrinks and shudders, and gets so refined she can’t bear to be touched, and you feel like a heel, and she’s one up on you.

Career in C Major 4

commentary: James M Cain’s novel Serenade is a high camp, melodramatic, risqué mashup of opera singing and hard-boiled fiction. When I posted on it recently, Colblimp 1984 said in the comments:
If you enjoyed this seek out Cain’s similar Career in C Major. More operatic noir.
What a tempting come-on. I ordered it instantly – it wasn’t easy to find, and eventually it had to come from the US in a collection of some very varied Cain pieces, published in 1985 as a mopup anthology of otherwise uncollected stories. Most of the book is only for completists, but Career in C Major – novella length – was well worth the effort, a highly enjoyable tale.

The narrator, Leonard, is a wealthy businessman, with nothing much to do because of the Depression – he is a contractor, he builds things. His wife Doris, above, is a piece of work: she is snobbish, funny about money, and convinced that she has a wonderful singing voice. She looks down on her husband as a Philistine. She takes singing lessons, and Leonard is suspicious of her sparky male teacher. Doris forces Leonard to help her organize a showcase singing recital. It is not a success, but then Leonard meets a professional singer, a woman called Cecil, and by an absurd turn of events the two of them realize that LEONARD is the one with the great voice. Will this give him the chance to put one over on Doris?

Yes it does all sound rather like the Florence Foster Jenkins story, only – of course - more noir. (And elements reminded me of the recent film The Greatest Showman, where PT Barnum goes touring with Jenny Lind.)

But there is no crime in the book, it is a satirical comedy of manners, with a long description of Leonard’s attempts at a singing career - fascinating for an opera fan. And the plot is completely unpredictable, with Leonard’s raw and eyes-wide-open view of his wife and their relationship particularly impressive.

The operatic world described is fascinating – the singers provide their own costumes, and there is a lot of earnest discussion of Rigoletto’s cape, and how it will be useful in other roles, but he must be sure it goes over the jester’s hump.

Career in C Major 2Career in C Major 3
Gilda and Rigoletto: bring your own jester’s cap

And there are most enjoyable discussions on the kind of gowns an opera singer should wear in recital, and who gets it right and wrong - echoed many years later in James Wood’s novel The Book Against God, where I chose this picture from the NYPL -

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- to illustrate one or the other mode: I wonder if you can guess which?

But – personal opinion here – I think early 20C diva Mary Garden looks lovely in this recital dress:

Career in C Major 6

Career in C Major has been made into a film twice, and in the usual blast of proper research, I got hold of one of them and watched it… This version, from 1949, was inexplicably called Everybody Does It, and starred Paul Douglas, Linda Darnell and Celeste Holm. It was written Nunnally Johnson and directed by Edmund Goulding, so all in all quite a high-class effort.

It was an enjoyable romp, drifting into slapstick: all vestiges of nuance had been stripped out of the story. In Cain’s version, there is a melancholy about the central relationship, an attempt at something complex and unknowable. There is not a sign of that in the film, but it was certainly a jolly enough telling of the story, with some good singing. A sequence where everything goes wrong at an opera performance went on far too long, and I could have done without Paul Douglas wandering around without his trousers for no real reason… but it was a pleasant enough way to pass an afternoon.

Woman on chaise longue by Pierre Bonnard, from the Athenaeum website.

The picture In the Boudoir by Friedrich C. Frieseke, comes from The Athenaeum website.

Mary Garden from the Library of Congress.


  1. You know, it's funny, Moira. I wouldn't have paired Cain up with opera singing. But he was such a good writer that I suppose I should have been surprised. At any rate, I do like the setup for this one, and I like Cain's writing style.

    1. It couldn't be more different from Double Indemnity or Postman - but I think he was a really good writer, and he could write well about anything.

  2. "The son of a prominent educator and an opera singer, Cain inherited a love of music from his mother, but his hopes of a career as a singer were thwarted when she told him that his voice was not good enough... Cain made use of his love of music, particularly the opera, in at least three of his novels: Serenade, about an American opera singer who loses his voice and, after spending part of his life south of the border, re-enters the United States illegally with a Mexican prostitute; Mildred Pierce, in which, as part of the subplot, the surviving daughter of a successful businesswoman trains as an opera singer; and Career in C Major, a short semi-comic novel about the unhappy husband of an aspiring opera singer, who unexpectedly discovers that he has a better voice than she does. In his novel The Moth, music is important in the life of the main character. Cain's fourth wife, Florence Macbeth, was a retired opera singer." Wikipedia

    1. I have never read Mildred Pierce, and really must. From this and Serenade, it is obvious that he really knows his stuff about singing and writes well about it in an unashamedly dramatic and arty way.

    2. Mildred Pierce is good, but the film is better. Mildred lives in Glendale, where all the houses are "Mission" style - faux Spanish with a lot of wrought iron. By the 20s, this must have been the equivalent of living in a close full of half-timbered villas. Mildred is desperate to get on and up, but both sound cosy to me! And not exactly a shack.

    3. You are making me even keener to both re-watch the film (seen years ago) AND read the book.

  3. I love the extract in the beginning, and that has sold me on the novella. I will look around for it,

    1. It should be easier to find in the US, hope so. You will enjoy it I think.

  4. Operas a big no-no for me, but James M. Cain might make me change my mind

    1. Citizen Kane turned me on to opera - sounds good even when sung that badly!

    2. Col, it's probably at the milder end of Cain (who in general is right up your street) but I do feel it has been slim pickings for you here lately, so at least here is the right kind of author!

      Lucy, that's a great introduction to opera.


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