Back Street (1932): Irene Dunne and Director John Stahl

Back_Street_1932“There’s not one woman in a million who has ever found happiness in the back streets of any man’s life.”

John M. Stahl is a bit of a neglected craftsman, even by me. Like others, I became aware of him solely for Leave Her to Heaven, a noirish technicolor melodrama positively dominated by Gene Tierney.

However, as with any director, he wasn’t formed in a vacuum and during the 1930s he worked on some of his most intriguing efforts like Back Street. Then, the following year’s Only Yesterday offered up similar dynamics, featuring Margaret Sullavan front and center. Sullavan and Dunne implement different personas and yet in trying to put my finger on what might draw them together, my mind goes instantly to one thing: class.

This particular story was adapted from a Fannie Hurst novel. Dunne ably anchors the leading role of Ray Schmidt, earning a bit of a reputation because she’s a glamorous girl who likes to get out and have a good time. However, there is a distinction to be made between a girl who has no standards and one who probably opens herself up too much. Ray fits in the latter category. She says it all in one fleeting line of dialogue, “It’s all the way or zero with me.”

Opposite her is John Boles as a gentleman narcissist somehow managing to suggest the jarring contrast of mild manners and infidelity in bodily form. Coincidentally, he would also reappear opposite Sullavan the following year. Here he meets Ray, this extraordinary girl while he is still engaged, and he’s instantly smitten. It happens when a mutual acquaintance introduces them in passing, as he makes his way out of Cincinnati. It’s the beginning of something that will define their lives.

One key benchmark occurs in a local park in front of the bandstand. Walter is to bring his mother to see the performance, and he conspires to have Ray show up, making a glowing appearance, as if by accident. It’s the bit of manufactured serendipity they need to gain approval in their relationship. And yet it never happens like it’s supposed to in the movies (at least the ones we usually play in our heads).

The story starts to construct itself out of these vignettes.  It’s now 5 years later. We’re on Wall Street in New York, and the two former flames bump into each other right where they left off. The fire hasn’t died because old habits die hard. Ray willingly waits for him because it’s true there’s something electric between them. Unfortunately, it disregards reality. He’s married with two children (all but unseen).

Instead of meeting on street corners and hiding in doorways, they get a bit more sophisticated. He furnishes her with a room and so now we have the new status quo where this clandestine, illicit thing feels almost mundane.

But that’s a curious factor to Stahl’s picture. Surely it is melodrama — especially on paper — but he makes it feel instinctively human. Of course, humanity isn’t always high-minded and righteous. It can be selfish and lonely and confused. In fact, we often embody these feelings most of all.

It’s not about the accumulation or even the escalation of scenes to the apex of a bigger climax. Instead, each moment supplies an impression to add another layer to this searing romance. And it’s in these successive snapshots from which we must fill in the gaps for ourselves. It’s a testament as much to what is shown onscreen as off. This is not in the sense of Production Codes getting in the way, but a concerted choice to have ellipsis set up all around the story. We drop and then pick up the narrative at these various intervals in the cycle of life.

Later he’s too busy to get away from all his professional and personal responsibilities. These are his excuses. She’s waiting on his words, for the ring of a telephone, playing solitaire. It feels like a thankless position to be in.

Down the hall from her, a woman is burnt badly in a house fire — all but disfigured, though she won’t call her husband — she is another kept woman. Is this the writing on the wall? Ray chides her to get out, preaching independence, although she doesn’t quite know how to put it into practice. She still believes she might just be the one in a million who will make it work.

It’s the film’s first true wrinkle when she makes a decision to break with convention. It remains to be seen what the consequences might be. Kurt (George Meeker), who’s had a crush on her since childhood, comes a-calling again, goofy and endearing as ever but having made good. He casts his usual line, and it might as well be the same old story. Ray looks at him and there is sadness even pain in her eyes. He thinks she’s rejecting him again because she’s not free, and he’s right, but not in the way he thinks.

The reunion with Walter, now a successful businessman in his own right, is a complicated thing. He has a way of exerting his will on her but making it feel like it’s her decision to determine whether he is happy or totally devastated.  It’s this driving, prevailing selfishness and woebegone attitude that dominates the story.

We settle into another scene. It’s on an ocean liner. Walter is with his wife and a grown son and daughter. It has the flavor of One Way Passage and a very different sort of Love Affair. One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes when the young upstart son comes to confront Ray to try and get her undesired presence out of their life. And in another movie this scene would play out like so — at least like how he’s imagined it. She’s the wicked, opportunistic woman ready to tear through a household with blackmail and scandal.

Still, we know Ray to her core, how much she loves — how decent and thoughtful she is — and yet she has somehow found herself in such a frowned upon station in life. It doesn’t seem fair. Then again, how much does she have herself to blame? Worse yet, is the fact that the men — the ones with money and the benefit of the doubt — are allowed the position of victim.

The whole family must come to terms with reality. Walter continues with his entitled streak telling his son, “a corner of my life belongs to me alone.” There Ray is somewhat loved but literally waiting on the end of the line for him even unto death. The ending is a kicker, a fitting dream for it to coast off on even as Ray’s own light finally goes out.

Back Street is a love story that could not have existed in mainstream Hollywood a mere 5 years later. It more than lives up to its title as this little, cofounding film working not in the mounting drama but the quiet splintering of a lovelorn soul. It befuddles my own sensibilities even as it makes me sympathize with the lovers in its grips.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1933): Margaret Sullavan Shines

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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.

3.5/5 Stars