Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

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If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.

Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.

Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.

With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.

There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.

We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.

All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.

Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.

The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.

It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.

Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.

Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.

Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.

Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.

The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.

The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.

Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.

4/5 Stars

Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

Theodora Goes Wild (1936): Irene Dunne The Comedienne

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The Lynfield Bugle, led by their fearless leader Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell), keeps their nose to the proverbial grindstone printing the news as it happens in “The Biggest Little Town in Connecticut.”

Their latest act of rebellion constitutes printing a spread from the latest lurid bestseller from author Caroline Adams. It causes quite the to-do in such a proper, God-fearing community.

Because it’s true Lynfield has all the customary facets of a town its size, including emblematic moral watchdogs such as Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), a key member in the Lynfield Literary Circle, the key force in swaying public opinion and consequently, keeping the town’s gossip in a state of constant flux. Rebecca just happens to be the most insufferable of them all.

With their mouths, they openly condemn Adam’s latest piece of titillating prose as they secretly relish its vivid detailings of passionate romance. One of their younger members, who sits zealously by, next to her two austere aunties (Elisabeth Risdon & Margaret McWade), is Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne). She’s a devoted Sunday School teacher and plays the organ at church on a weekly basis.

Theodora also has a secret in the form of a pen name and a mendacious life as a writer, although that is rather harsh because this is Irene Dunne we’re talking about in a generally raucous screwball comedy. You see, she is the one and only Caroline Adams!

Her Uncle John is the so-called black sheep of the family (Robert Grieg) because he escaped the puritanical lives of his sisters for a much more “worldly” life in the city. He’s a jolly fellow and with a twinkle in his eye, he believes Theodora to be different. There’s still hope for her yet.

In fact, she has a streak in her that old Uncle John might just be downright proud of. It’s a decent streak mind you — helping a young woman be with her husband and setting her up with her job — but it’s the kind of activity people back home might turn their nose at. This all happens as she makes a meeting with her publisher incognito to talk business as part of her double life.

Although he does his best to keep her under wraps, that miracle elixir: whiskey has a habit of loosening the tongue. Their prying dinner companions are fascinated by the very contradictory nature of her character. Among them is a wry ne-er-do-well, Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas). Soon the small-town gal finds herself in a fairly big city situation, in Grant’s bachelor pad, with deeply comic underpinnings.

Of course, nothing happens at first. That is until Theodora, that is Caroline Adams, has her cover blown — an old friend wanders through town quite by chance, with a furry companion Jake. He railroads his way into the aunties’ shed as a gardener and quickly sets up shop. As he sees it, he’s her deliverance from the clutches of her town, and he gleefully whistles his way into her life, tearing up their gardens backward and forwards.

She has very little in the form of a rebuttal aside from retaliating through a song of her own, “Be Still My Heart” through gritted teeth. This could be the end of the movie right there or else it wouldn’t have enough gas to wheeze its way to the finish. In this specific moment, it’s not what I would term a screwball in the strictest sense though, it does have a feel of some of the Loy and Powell comedies of the same vintage. Be it Libeled Lady, Love Crazy, or I Loved You Again.

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Mervyn Douglas often feels like a version of Powell I don’t take a shining too quite as much. He has a similar playful banter at his disposal, even mustachioed good looks, but it doesn’t tickle the fancy in the same way — at least for me.

Irene Dunne, of course, in her first foray into out-and-out comedy is exquisite, although she would continue to up the ante with the likes of The Awful Truth, arguably her best film and the finest pairing she ever had with Cary Grant (or anyone for that matter).

But we must attend to this story because it doesn’t end right off, instead, it turns the tale on its head and once Theodora has been handily liberated of her small-town’s repressiveness, it gives her the freedom to have a go at Michael. Because it turns out they’re not all that different. He needs his own push of encouragement.

Instead of church choirs, temperance, and women’s book clubs, it involves high society, governorships, and public appearances. His father expects him to keep out of the newspapers and remain married to his estranged wife — at least until the public office is secured. Meanwhile, Michael becomes unhappier by the hour.

Dunne takes the movie by the horns now and truly kicks it into overdrive right when it could use a good jolt. The way she trollops and sashays around, first through her lover’s bachelor pad, and then making her way up the totem pool on the dance floor, with her new pal the governor, is the picture of jovial inhibition. She redefines our perceptions and the underlining dynamics of the movie shift wildly — and humorously — as a result of her antics.

She goes back to her publisher in fancy new duds absolutely gobsmacking him as she proceeds to drum up all the publicity she possibly can. Theodora Lynn is going to become a household name. Accordingly, she gets the newsboys in her corner, and they go to great lengths to help her (and themselves).

Soon she’s plastered over the front pages, and the ever-fastidious Bugle gets the scoop out. Like clockwork, the town is shaken into an uproar, and it even reaches the upper echelons too as Michael gets dragged into it. What a beautiful mess; just what the movie required to spruce it up. Theodora’s making waves like never before.

The key is how Dunne always has a firm handle on everything — turning the sass on and off as needed — she knows what she’s doing. Whereas other heroines are often dizzy and ditzy, like frantic hurricanes of passion and emotion, she’s probably the most controlled of all of them even as she does bring her own “wildness” to the party.

What’s even more hilarious is watching public opinion rise up like wildfire and turn in her favor. She gets as good a homecoming as the war heroes in Hail The Conquering Hero a few years down the line. All her decency and newfound transparency are met with affection.

By now, she’s harnessed the power of her neighborhood and finds a way to be a beacon of change in an uproarious manner with a romance to complement the major strides in her personal life.

As such, Theodora Goes Wild becomes a surprisingly pointed (and poignant) portrait of a young woman casting off the shackles of religious hypocrisy, societal repression, and general small-mindedness, all conveniently wrapped up in a quasi-screwball, rom-com format.

3.5/5 Stars

The Silver Cord (1933): Loving Joel McCrea is a Battlefield

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“Surely I can be a good son and a good husband.”

Whether it means to or not, the opening interlude of The Silver Cord plays like a comic inversion of typical Hollywood. It opens in Heidelberg, and they make us blink; they’re actually speaking German and Irene Dunne is one of them!

Then Joel McCrea wanders in, Dunne at the microscope deep in her work. He kisses her on the nape of the neck, and she responds coolly in English. I got the same sudden delight out of this moment that I did in the train car at the start of Design for Living. Why? For a brief instance, it caught me off guard and I smiled.

The rest of The Silver Cord begins as nice as you please like a hunky-dory sunbeam. She is a world-class biologist. He is an up-and-coming architect. New jobs beckon in New York, marital bliss swells around them, and meeting the brother and his new wife gets off to a grand start. It’s only the mother who remains to be seen.

It just so happens Mrs. Phelps (Laura Hope Crewes reprising her stellar stage role) is the lynchpin. She’s a maternal hurricane of frenzied energy, shouting her son’s name elatedly in the drawing-room, and obsessed with him a bit more than what feels kosher. She also meets her new daughter-in-law even as the ripples of slight agitation show themselves in how she subtlety rebuffs her younger son’s fiancee. There’s already tension.

In fact, she dominates the entire household with her ways, whether it’s her views on parenting or how she conveniently puts Dave in his old room so he’s separated from his wife. It becomes plainly apparent she a smothering woman; It feels like she’s playing a desperate game of tug-of-war as she lauds an old-fashioned conception of motherhood while coveting a piece of her son’s heart.

In another moment, Mrs. Phelps literally tucks her grown son into bed. But there’s an ulterior motive. She wants all the dirt on his new wife and then she proceeds to natter on about how possessive, exacting, and selfish she is. “If only she learned to care for me as I care for her,” she says. The irony of her words fails to leave an imprint on those actually involved in the conversation. Of course, a moment later finds the belittled wife awkwardly walking in on mother and son. Yet another disconcerting scenario.

We have a two-front war on our hands. The fight is first over Robert (Eric Linden) and then David (McCrea). First, dear old Mom talks her impressionable younger son out of his love for his wife, Hester (Frances Dee), going so far as to poison his mind so her undue influence is felt in full force even when she’s not in the frame. After all, she is an insinuating, controlling woman who plays mind games and whether she does them subconsciously or not, it doesn’t much matter. She’s a genuine terror.

Crewes is so infuriating in her effectiveness making it so difficult to be civil and to concede without falling over backward like a bowling pin. If we learn anything about Christina (Dunne), it’s the fact she has a life and aspirations to go with them. A husband is part of it but as things unravel, she’s going to stand up for herself. One thing’s for certain. It moves fast.

Soon Christina makes a plea to her husband to relinquish the arid places in his heart where he retires. She plays another card by supplying a grand surprise of her own. Mrs. Phelps home is a swath of his heart on a larger scale — one she is looking to hold onto as her own by any means possible, but Christina makes it clear she will not go down without a fight.

Meanwhile,  Hester, who has been subjected to the torment the longest, is about ready to burst. They have “shocking” conversations about something as controversial as babies, and she’s just about had it. She can’t take how her marriage and her own aspirations for children have been twisted and trampled into something bad.

She’s left a trembling hysterical mess driven to get out of the house. And she cannot be anything if not a portent for what might happen to Christina as well if she doesn’t take her own leave.

Because among Mother’s many attributes is also diabolical hypochondria. The jaundice doctor rightly acknowledges a stick of dynamite would be needed to subdue her. In fact, she peps right up just when things come back around to what she’s always envisioned for her sons with wives out of the way.

If you’ll afford me a brief tangent, even with Irene Dunne wedged between them in the frame, it’s hard not to look at France Dee and Joel McCrea and think of what a fine couple they would make. What’s even more remarkable is how long they made a couple: 57 years!

Although the story’s internal logic is purposefully maddening, it gives way to a fine bit of melodrama because it manipulates the scenario in such a way to make us feel almost immediate revulsion, and it builds for little over an hour in fairly splendid fashion.

A standout moment comes with Irene Dunne ably stripping her mother-in-law down to size with a perceptive deconstruction of all her various hangups and maternal misdemeanors. She puts words to all the many things we take issue with but are unable to say as passive observers.

Her is a woman finding romance in motherhood where she didn’t find it in marriage, highlighting the peculiar dynamics the movie is being drawn up on. Mrs. Phelps reaches her own point of hysteria though she’s too delusional — too set up in her own ways — to understand who she is and what she’s doing. Still, if you can bear it, The Silver Cord is an effective drama for all it manages to heap on top of us.

3.5/5 Stars

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

Three Comrades (1938) in Body and Soul

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“Germany’s a pretty rough sea if you’re drifting.” – Breuer

“But I’m not alone anymore. There are so many drifters!” – Patricia Hollmann

Erich Maria Remarque is of course most famous for his work All Quiet on The Western Front, which was adapted to great effect for the silver screen by Lewis Milestone in 1930. Three Comrades, another one of his novels, feels very much like an extension of the same themes found in the earlier novel.

We find ourselves at the tail-end of the Great War. Mainland Europe is jaded and bedraggled. One must recall these were the days before Nazism: a force that felt like personified evil. When we look around from trench to no man’s land, it feels like everyone’s equally besmirched, equally implicated in the senseless killing.

So in this regard, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think a cohort of three German veterans might be likable to an American audience (especially because they are also Caucasian). However, equally importantly, they are played by three strapping young talents with charm bouncing off them like pinballs. It’s how they’re able to leave the calamitousness of war behind and attempt to discover a new life of humble contentment.

It was the war that instilled them with a certain collective memory, both scarring and then firmly solidifying their friendship in the aftermath. They take the world on like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all. Together they happily resolve to become car mechanics, carving out a peaceful existence for themselves, even as their beloved country has succumbed to a kind of mob rule with rampant new ideologies. To each his own.

Erich Lokhamp is the first, played by a dashing, if a bit wooden, Robert Taylor. Though it’s his friends who really seem to bring him alive. Franchot Tone is Otto Koster, always ready to support his friends and speak sense into their lives. His brand of loyalty is finer than gold. The other is Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young) also light-hearted while stricken with the mind of an idealist. Still, he gladly gives up his social conscience for the sake of his friends’ well-being. At least for a time, life is happy.

But before there’s any greater stakes, it begins as three lads having a blast taking a stuffy socialite (Lionel Atwill) for a ride as they roar down the thoroughfares in their beloved, hopped-up creation “Baby.” It’s a bit of good fun, but it also introduces the trio to one of the most important people in their subsequent life together: Pat

Margaret Sullavan is at it yet again a husky-voiced, troubled soul and yet overwhelmingly resolute in her pursuit of love and the preservation of those around her. It’s a quality found in all these characters — this self-sacrificial nature that becomes so laudable, if not entirely necessary. She is the one who surmises how lovely it might be to pick when we were born. Perhaps an age of reason and quiet. This sounds like a Borzage picture. Because of course, they must make do with the here and now, where evil still exists in the world (as it does in any era).

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Their favorite hangout belongs to a jolly man named Alfons (Guy Kibbee). Erich takes his new girl there following some awkward interplay over the telephone. Also, his buddies always have a penchant for showing up uninvited to sit in on their evenings. It’s one of the added delights of the pictures because Young and Tone can supply the wisecracks to rib their friend.

I admire Otto and Gottfried even as I relate. They are faithful, they wish the best for their friends, act as encouragers — spurring each other on — and celebrating their victories while taking any setbacks as they always do: together.

This courtship brings with it other complications, namely trying to impress a high society girl of culture no matter how good-natured she might make out. It’s still easy for a man used to the inside of cars, to feel out of place with the social elite, dancing and wearing customary uncomfortable clothing, which also has a habit of coming apart at the seams. He even spins tall tales of rolling down to South America, an exotic land full of monkeys and coffee, just so he might be able to keep up with her.

All of this show proves unnecessary. This is how it works when you are smitten with a rich man’s girl and, more importantly, when she is in love with you. In another line that feels transcendent in the usual manner of Borzage, they aspire to being “lovers on the edge of eternity between day and night.”

A lesser film — or at least one ill-befitting the predilections of Borzage — would probably have made this a fight for the woman’s hand. It’s easy enough to see how this would have pulled the boys’ bond asunder. And yet these characters are more genial, enlightened, and well-intentioned. The story itself strives for something more. Young plays cupid urging his friend toward marriage. Tone’s character knocks out a concerto on their automobile as he tries to hammer away some sense into Pat in favor of his friend.

Propitiously, all this coaxing culminates in the quaintest wedding, which somehow fits all the players to a tee. Borzage captures it such that we feel we are there with them discovering it as it happens, partially spur of the moment, but also imbued with this star-crossed purposefulness. In step with everything else, their honeymoon to the seaside is as gay as can be until it is met with a setback.

It plays into the film that Sullavan always feels emotionally strong and sturdy but often physically frail. Maybe she just exudes this quality between her throaty vocals grasping at words and the obdurance she gained a reputation for. But in Three Comrades, she is bedridden and in critical condition from hemorrhages — still nursing sickness that has clung to her for some time. Erich has little idea, but once again, Otto comes to their aid with his usual expediency. It only serves to bring them together.

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While remaining unnamed throughout the film, there’s little question that the rising Nazi Party is the instigator of public brawls. Dr. Becker (Henry Hull) speaks out on his soapbox about the need for reason in confronting the issues of the times, instead of the prevailing violence. Since it’s not the first scuffle or an isolated event, Gottfried feels compelled to stand up for his beliefs, putting his ideals on the line.

Meanwhile, Erich has a less politically charged fistfight in the streets over a work claim. He gets ganged up on before his comrades, of course, fly to his defense. Just like old times. Pat is placed in a sanitarium on the behest of her doctor (Monty Wooley) just in time for the snows of winter and then Christmas.

The violence continues to escalate, this time dragging Tone into a shootout in the streets with Handel’s “Hallelujah” clamoring in the background. It’s oddly hypnotic even as it spells what feels like the end of the beginning.

If it’s not apparent already where Three Comrades is going, it easily functions as a fitting companion piece to Borzage’s later Mortal Storm because there is this same uncanny prescience about it, although it probably did very little to halt the impending course of history. The unholy mechanisms were already in place.

Every Borzage movie makes the world a little broader and love a little grander to match. In this regard, the meeting of the prose of Erich Maria Remarque and F. Scott Fitzgerald somehow manages to work in the hands of a director.

What sets it apart from a melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s is the slow burn and how the characters take each moment on with their own brand of quiet fortitude. In many ways, love (and camaraderie) are an antidote to the wiles of the world. Our heroes know what’s inevitable and they brave it together — smiling until the end of days — even in the face of tragedy and hardship.

Is it high-minded and idealistic? Most assuredly. But it’s also one of the most blessed hallmarks of Frank Borzage’s filmmaking. This hallmark, more than anything, is why we can easily draw a line in the snow from something like Seventh Heaven or Man’s Castle to Three Comrades and then The Mortal Storm.

One is especially reminded of Margaret Sullavan because one of the pervading attributes of her characters is this all-encompassing dignity to see her to the end. We feel like unsightly sots and indignant pions compared to her eminent calm.

But really, the same might be said about all the players in Three Comrades. It’s a pacifist portrait. Not so much in prognostications of any sort. It has to do with the inner peace inside the characters that radiate out from them, due to their affections for one another. Thus, in a fitting Epilogue, with fighting breaking out in the city, the four inseparable friends walk off solemnly together. If not in body, then certainly in spirit.

4/5 Stars

The Shopworn Angel (1938): Remembering Margaret Sullavan

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“Dreaming’s alright if it’s all you got but if you find the real thing you’re just not satisfied with it anymore.” – Jimmy Stewart as Bill

It’s 1917: the eve of the U.S. entry in WWI. The nation is yet to feel the jadedness of everyone else in mainland Europe. James Stewart seems perfectly cast as a fresh-faced soldier boy, or as the contemporary vernacular goes, a Doughboy, named Bill Pettigrew. The whole country seems to be caught up in Jingoism spurred on by the tunes of George M. Cohan and exuberant patriotic parades.

For his part, when he’s not drilling with his buddies, Bill is observing the mating customs precipitated by men going off to war. The counter of the soda fountain boasts a waitress who is a sweetheart to the masses. He gains a lesson in the facts of life.

For Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan), it disrupts her rest as she tries to sleep off the previous night’s reveries. She looks perfectly disheveled in a kind of manicured Hollywood sort of way, lounging in her evening dress, hair perfectly askew.

Her longtime socializing partner is the perfectly civilized Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon) who looks to have never worked a day in his life, at least in any menial capacity. The war doesn’t concern people of their stature or breeding, and they’d rather not be bothered with its nuisance. She makes a living on the stage where he finances and they spend their evenings drowning in the bubbly ’til the wee hours of the morning.

These would remain two separate stories of two vastly incongruous lifestyles if it were not for Jimmy Stewart’s penchant for stepping into oncoming traffic. You see, he’s from a small, two-horse town where the horses outnumber the automobiles.

So when he’s just about run over, about to join back with his outfit, he finds himself thrown into a cab commandeered by a demonstrative but kindly street cop who’s looking out for his servicemen. However, when the doors close his coinhabitant happens to be Ms. Heath.

Given the circumstances, they get off on the wrong foot as she feels put upon and turns slightly snide, cutting Stewart’s callow Texaner’s naivete down to size. She’s a city dweller with no patience for yokums of his ilk. Again, this initial encounter might as well be the end of the picture right there, if not for Bill’s attempt at a masquerade to impress the boys.

From the story he dreams up, his beau is an extravagant movie star, and he’s got them all heartily impressed (if he’s telling the truth). In other words, they’re rightfully suspicious their dorky buddy could land such a dame.

Next Time We Love proved a fairly stale weepie, albeit boasting the fledgling leads as well as a handsome best friend played by Ray Milland. Here you have an agreeable, if lesser, second-fiddle in Walter Pidgeon. However, while maintaining Sullavan and Stewart, it has more get-up-and-go in its chassis to carry us forward.

Whereas Ralph Bellamy would always be playing this part as the other man on the outside looking in, Stewart gets the benefit of our attentions in his pursuit of a woman from such a different stratosphere than he’s accustomed to. After all, he’s just a “dumb country rube” as she so eloquently puts it, but he’s also got all the charm of Jimmy Stewart at his disposal, growing more assured by the minute.

One second he’s educating Pidgeon in the art of rolling cigarettes, and the novelty of the experience has the other man deciding he wants to put on a show for the soldiers. Far from being jealous, he seems caught up in camp life. Bill couldn’t be happier, getting a chance to show Daisy around camp one evening after the show, and she reciprocates by showing him the city limits.

They take on the raucous funhouse attractions of Coney Island together, and Sam finally allows his jealousy to come out; he’s realizing the depth of his feelings for Daisy even as she becomes more and more charmed by Bill’s brand of geniality. Still, their time together looks to have a short leash due to his impending deployment.

Surely it cannot last. And yet he makes a rash decision so he can see her one last time; he goes AWOL to say goodbye, and she drops everything to join him. It hits the height of the rom-com preposterousness right about here.

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At times, Shopworm Angel feels like a testy high wire act to navigate feelings without totally ruffling feathers. How will it fit together between Bill, Daisy, Sam, and the immovable reality of war? The pieces look ill-suited to align and yet on all accounts, the trio carries their parts with a certain aplomb that falls together nicely.

You may or may not be astonished by what happens next, but it sets up a teary-eyed ending where Sullavan goes out with a stiff upper lip singing “Pack up Your Troubles” (with the aid of Mary Martin’s vocals).

Shopworn Angel was reborn as a relic of the Pre-Code era meant for a fresh take with one of its icons, Jean Harlow, who died tragically in 1937. Instead, it got retrofitted with a new cast, including Sullavan, and toned down its content to appease the norms of the late ’30s, bleedings into the ’40s. Daisy was no longer a chorus singer but a stage performer and Sam, in part, gained a more respectable pedigree.

However, equally important to the film’s success is the subtext of Stewart and Sullavan in real life. Because not unlike their screen romance, Stewart had unacknowledged feelings for her even as their friendship and professional careers continued to bloom. His, in part, because she encouraged him and helped with drawing out his own tendencies in the performances he gave. Their first two pictures together are fine proof.

They both met in an acting brigade back in the early days, which included Henry Fonda, Stewart’s longtime friend and also Sullavan’s first husband. However, she was the one who broke first in Hollywood, and it was partially thanks to her encouragement and tutelage that Stewart was able to get a leg up in Hollywood. He got beyond the bit parts and supporting spots MGM was handing him in pictures like After The Thin Man and Wife Vs. Secretary to develop the persona the moviegoing world would come to admire.

The actual screen partnership between Sullavan and Stewart started off in The Next Time We Love with the pinnacle arriving in 1940 when they would star in Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm and then their most acclaimed pairing The Shop Around The Corner, which at the very least, has become revitalized through Christmastime viewing (and maybe its tenuous relationship with You Got Mail).

Thereabouts James Stewart would shoot off into superstardom on the silver screen and the Christmastime circuit. It’s a Wonderful Life is a Yuletide stalwart for many folks even if they don’t know a plethora of Stewart classics with the likes of Capra, Hitchcock, and Mann.

But the bottom line is that none of this would have been possible if not for Margaret Sullavan — an actress who was known to be difficult, who cycled through numerous marriages, and who ultimately died in 1960 before her time after struggles with hearing loss and mental illness. Still, do yourself a favor and search out her films.

While not to everyone’s taste, she is a singular actress with her own sense of beauty, assurance, and grace — husky-voiced but often warm and sentimental. Stewart loved her dearly and even after he was married in 1949 and she died in 1960, Sullavan’s lifelong friendship impacted him greatly.

It’s true you rarely forget those you came up with (like Henry Fonda) or those who were fighting in your corner (like Sullavan). Thanks be to Margaret Sullavan for being a friend to Jimmy Stewart and for leaving a body of work worth rediscovering on its own merit. She was a Good Fairy and a Shopworn Angel all rolled into one.

3.5/5 Stars

Little Man, What Now? (1934): Borzage Vs. The Depression

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Little Man, What Now? is a curious title although Carl Laemmle seemed to believe in the tale even giving it a public service announcement to make the point very clearly. This is a story for every man even as it seeks to document the daily problems of the contemporary society.

From the opening vignette, the movie preaches a message of peace, tolerance, and minding one’s own affairs like an upright citizen. If you’re like this jaded viewer, you grow wary of a picture with a self-serving agenda, especially one done poorly. Thankfully, Little Man is about a lot of ideas, including the things that get jumbled up inside a person’s head as they try to make their way through the world. Or rather, when they try and make their way through the world connected with someone else in marriage. This is Frank Borzage, after all, so a romance must be key.

One is reminded instantly we are in the throes of the Depression though this is Germany. It’s true much of the western industrialized world was plagued by stagnation and poverty. Herr Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) is a clerk and his tyrannical boss might very well be Ebenezer Scrooge though bald, bearded, and more oafish.

His family lives in the adjoining room with a cackling freckle-faced son and his dowdy daughter, who’s not had any luck landing a husband. Her belittling father has tried to up her prospects by hiring three bachelor’s to work for him. She dislikes them all except for Pinneberg. The feelings are not mutual, and he’s already wed. To keep his job, he conveniently keeps this detail a secret. It’s out of necessity. He’s madly in love with his wife.

Margaret Sullavan has a youthful vigor and prevailing spirit of a newlywed about her to be sure, but there’s also something deep and wise layered into her performance. She’s steady as her husband seems to crumble in the face of every change in the winds.

Next to her, Douglass Montgomery at times feels weak-willed and green, almost deserving of the world’s ill-fortunes because he gripes about them so much. And yet it’s difficult to be too harsh with him lest someone puts the mirror (with its three panes) up to my face as well.

We are continually reminded of the world’s many ailings from bigotry to unrest and poverty. Against this, Borzage literally captures them frolicking together in the lap of nature. While they do model a slightly different cross-section of Depression society from say Man’s Castle, they still exhibit the same rapturous affections for their beloved. Throughout the entire film, they remain the deliriously fixated center. What remains to be seen is how the characters and situations around them evolve.

The old man starts feeling positively chummy even as his daughter becomes petty even vindictive criticizing the “other woman” he was seen with. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t matter the age, there is a helplessness, nay, a uselessness that comes with being unemployed, especially when others are counting on you. Hans remains resolute when it matters most. Maintaining his pride and the love of a good wife mean more to him than money.

There’s another wonderfully staged scene between husband and wife as the merry-go-round sends our heroine round and round through the frame as she responds to her husband’s questions about where she’s been. She sheepishly admits she got so hungry she ate all the pieces of salmon from the market and now they have no dinner. Far from being angry, he laughs riotously. This is what love is.

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The movie is melodrama in the way that a life is full of smatterings of drama, cycling through the highs and lows, the devastations and elations, that come with the daily grind. The picture never feels like it’s aiming for a particular peak. Instead, it’s content enough to offer up vignettes because we have a couple to hold onto and root for, even as the scenery, the jobs, and the hardships change. They remain our steadfast point of reference.

Next, they make their way to Berlin, which we come to realize is only one decision out of a whole host they will have to make. They meet Hans’s step-mother at the station, a bubbly absent-minded woman always holding onto her inseparable dog.

However, she’s not so genial when you get to know her, and their desperate financial straits don’t help matters any. Thankfully, they have one friend, a most curious fellow named Jachmann. He’s a close associate with Mrs. Pinneberg. His real title, I couldn’t say.

Alan Hale was always the good-humor man but, in this case, he’s also a man with means. He just might be able to set them up with a home and a job, when he’s not kissing hands and laughing his head off, that is. Certainly, he’s some kind of shyster but a generous one with a heart of gold, especially when beautiful girls and their downtrodden husbands are concerned.

Another impeccable image comes when the couple is crammed in bed together as the mother’s party hits full stride just outside their doors. If we talk about the wage gap between our parent’s generation and us, this image of contrasting social statuses within a single family says as much about the Depression Era. However, it turns out she advertises in the papers because her home is actually a house of ill repute, and it carries with it a local reputation. They must move on.

Hans is a naive idealist and yet he rarely seems ready to make the sacrifices and the allowances his wife is; he’s not really willing to live within his means. Their new home has a Seventh Heaven rooftop, though he fails to see its quaint qualities; it’s close to a barn or better yet a stable.

If it was good enough for the baby at Christmastime, it’s good enough for them in their own humble estate. After all, being a Little Man is only in the eye of the beholder. In the eyes of his devoted wife, there couldn’t be a greater, grander, more important person to fill up her world.

As for the “What Now?” only time will tell. They rightfully state, “We created life so why should we be afraid of it?” What it does supply is this renewing sense of hope in the face of uncertainty. Again, it’s akin to the foremost Borzage pictures. It’s a testament to his convictions that he’s able to remain a romantic during the dog days of the Depression, and he keeps us believing in the power of love even within these dire straits.

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