In the opening designs of Only Yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange is encapsulated by its usual hubbub only to hit the skids of pandemonium when the market crashes. We’re talking about the Big Crash of 1929. It plays as the backdrop to our story, very much functioning as current events.
The backstory makes the film fall even closer to home. Because like just about everyone else, Universal Studios was saddled with their own financial troubles so it seems fitting Only Yesterday was the project made to get them out of the doghouse and salvage their holdings.
If we are to believe this film, part of what Black Tuesday did was totally humble both the rich and the poor (and the movie studios) in their separate estates. Before the sheer magnitude of the devastation has spread, we get a front-row seat at the party hosted in the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Emerson.
What becomes immediately apparent is the buzz of the atmosphere with tumultuous music and a smattering of glib zingers. There’s a cascading frivolity on all sides to go with the idle chatter supplied by such gossipping fiends as Franklin Pangborn.
However, Mr. Emerson (John Boles) comes home positively shellshocked because he’s been cleaned out. He’s in no state to make merry opting to disappear into his study. It’s in the backrooms and corridors where the crushing reality sets in, to the point of private devastation.
From the outset, Boles comes off as a sympathetic figure and a calming presence even as he comes to terms with the weight of the Crash and its innumerable implications. It’s true the man of the house looks to be teetering on the brink of suicide, if not for a mysterious letter on his desk.
He opens it up and thereby begins the heart and soul of our story. It is partially his story and someone else’s as well; it began before anyone knew of a Depression, in 1917. If you remember, without leafing through your history books, “The War to End All Wars” was reaching its conclusion.
Back then James was a dashing soldier, unmarried, and still looking to finish up business overseas. It was on one such evening back in 17 where he met a buoyant young woman (Margaret Sullavan in her stellar debut) on a dance floor.
She is the picture of youth and her voice has yet to reach depths of only a few years later Regardless, precocious Mary Lane comes out of the woodwork to confess her love for him from afar after well nigh 2 years!
He takes it good-naturedly enough, altogether flattered anyone might look at him in this manner, and it leads to something — a dance and then whatever might come next. If the cynical would term it a one-night-stand, then it’s a little bit of paradise and Mary holds onto the evening.
In her mind, it’s the first of many, if not for the fateful news that the 309th is engaged to be shipped overseas. This is the event her whole life seems to hinge on up to this point; one evening was an entire lifetime. It just goes to show how the same event can take on differing degrees of resonance for two people.
It happens so quickly as to totally catch the audience off guard. James is off to fight a patriotic war and Mary is going up to New York as to not besmirch her family with her ignominy; she is with child.
Shopworn Angel would capture much the same jingoistic “Over There” milieu a few years down the road and yet that time around, not only would Margaret Sullavan be the veteran opposite a still callow Jimmy Stewart, the Production Codes would exert themselves more rigorously.
In terms of solely content, there’s little doubt Only Yesterday is armed with the uncompromising brazenness of the Pre-Code era. This includes a broad-minded perception of a woman’s place in an evolving society. It makes for a fascinating bit of observation, especially considering how Classical Hollywood would eventually settle into a status quo — a cult of domesticity tailored to the mid-20th century.
However, in Only Yesterday, we get Aunt Julia (Billie Burke), a progressive woman who has a life involving such independent-minded things as bob hairstyles and full-time employment. Aside from The Good Witch, Burke often played ditzy oddballs in numerous comedies where she wears on the viewer. Here there’s something resolute and distinctly likable about her because she does beat to a different drum.
The words leaving her lips are both an encouragement to her rejected niece even as they color how she sees the world in the 1930s. She has effectively worked to “kick the bottom out of the bucket called the old double standard” and she fervently believes “Today a woman can face life as honestly as a man can.”
Aunt Julia also helps to temper the situation swirling around Mary helping ease her mind. As a word of comfort, she says, “It’s no longer a tragedy, it isn’t even good melodrama, it’s just something that happened.” Meanwhile, Burke’s jovial suitor (Reginald Denny) seems like a playful generally affectionate chap. This portion is one of the film’s most carefree as a result.
Armistice eventually comes and with it parades of victory. We know what must happen now: a reunion. There don’t seem to be many close-ups throughout the film, but Sullavan gets a few of the most crucial ones when she’s reunited with her man only to realize he doesn’t remember her, having found someone else to love (Benita Hume). It’s a devastating bit of exposition and her face says it all.
If Gold Diggers fo 1933 details a forgotten man, she’s a forgotten woman, although she’s not about to wait around to be noticed — she has a son to look after. It shows the depth of her character.
Mary shares a bit of the sacrificial devotion of Stella Dallas or the tragic unrequited point of view a la Letter from an Unknown Woman, maintaining a thin line of communication with her former love through a string of telegrams.
What’s astounding is even in her youthfulness — at only 24 years of age — Sullavan’s more than able to carry the weight of the performance, not only a vivacious ingenue but a mother who’s forced to weather the weight of the world alone. Like Stanwyck a few years later, they prove themselves wise far beyond their years. What a way to enter Hollywood.
Finally, it happens and The New Year brings her face to face with the man she once knew. Boles feels more and more of a cad over time, whether he was meaning to be or not. He has a steady demeanor, a serenity in his favor, but after being so ignorant of one woman, he manages to rebuttal his wife as well, all in a very civilized manner, mind you.
Even as Billie Burke represents something else, there’s still a prevailing sense that women can be cast aside for the sake of a story. Sullavan, on her part, exudes a quiet regality even unto death. What Mary has, however, is a legacy in the life of her child, and in him, like with any life, there is still some hope for the future.
From a historical perspective, there’s a lot to be learned. Even back then a young lad would rather go to the pictures to see Chaplin than read a book, and all the women want to look like Greta Garbo — one of the most sought-after glamour girls of the 30s. Some things never change.
It’s rather sobering to read Margaret Sullavan’s son Jimmy Jr. was played in real life by Jimmy Butler, who was affected by WWII like many were affected by the previous war — killed in action in France at the age of 23. It grounds Only Yesterday in real tragedy.