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John M. Stahl: The Invisible Master

John M. Stahl on the set of 'The Song of Life' (1922) [courtesy of Kevin Brownlow]


For years, John M. Stahl’s name was mainly associated with the fact that Douglas Sirk remade three of his movies — Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935) and When Tomorrow Comes (1939). Ironically, his other, more personal claim to fame was the Technicolor marvel Leave Her to Heaven (1945), his most ‘Sirkian’ film.

This year’s Cinema Ritrovato festival took a step towards redeeming Stahl as a great director in his own right, with a retrospective program dedicated to his work. This article will briefly look at the films shown in Bologna, but the core of this text will address a statement by film historian Imogen Sara Smith — who introduced some of the Stahl films at the festival —, describing John M. Stahl’s style as “self-effacing”. Turning to the works of David Bordwell and Barry Salt, I will argue that Stahl’s directorial style is not so much self-effacing, as it is part of a different, more European tradition of movie making. Even though Stahl never worked in the European film industry, this different approach did influence American directors. It relied less on editing and more on longer shots, fixed camera positions and a different way of using movement and framing. I will position John M. Stahl as a director who on the one hand was very much in tune with the changes that shaped Hollywood cinema in the transition from the 1930s to 40s and thus deeply entrenched in the Hollywood studio system, while on the other hand adhering longer to the ‘European’ style than most of his contemporaries and therefore is perceived as having a less expressive mode of direction.

John M. Stahl directing Richard Headrick on the set of ‘The Child Thou Gavest Me’ (1921) [courtesy of Kevin Brownlow]

John Malcolm Stahl

Jacob Morris Strelitsky was born in Baku (current Azerbaijan) and immigrated with his family to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Jacob started working in the thriving new film industry and directed his first (short) feature in 1914. He took on the ‘nom de plume’ John M. Stahl and started working voor Louis B. Mayer. Stahl was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences in the late twenties and moved to Universal after a short-lived attempt at running the independent studio Tiffany Pictures.

While he had some successes during the silent period — notably Suspicious Wives (1921) and Why Men Leave Home (1924) — it wasn’t until the advent of the talkies that he became a truly successful director and settled into the genre of the melodrama that he would be associated with the rest of his career. A string of well-received films between 1932 and 1939 (with the notable exception of Parnell (1937), which lost a lot of money for MGM) also saw a best picture Oscar nomination for 1934’s Imitation of Life. Adapting to the changing landscape of cinematic storytelling in 1940s Hollywood, Stahl also directed two complex war dramas that used the flashback structure for maximum dramatic effect. The popular film noir genre offered him his biggest success with Leave her to Heaven (1945). After 1945 Stahl’s career would never reach the same heights again and he died in 1950, aged only 54.

Stahl had the bad luck of not being rediscovered by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma as an auteur, nor being acknowledged by their American counterparts. That might be because most of Stahl’s silent output has been lost. Availability was an important factor in the formation of the critical canon, as David Bordwell states in The Rhapsodes: How 1940’s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016), in other words, as Bertrand Tavernier explains in his thesaurus 50 ans de cinéma américain (1991): the fact that Stahl was already dead by the time French critics became really interested in American cinema was part of the reason why he was never picked up. Only Leave her to Heaven gained a lasting reputation and when Douglas Sirk remade Magnificent Obsession (in 1954), When Tomorrow Comes — which became Interlude in 1957 — and Imitation of Life (in 1959), Stahl’s only lasting claim to fame became the fact that Sirk had great success with the remakes of these movies. In the decades that followed, popular movie history forgot the originals and only the Sirk versions remained in the collective memory.

Il Cinema Ritrovato

As the starting point for this article was the 2018 retrospective of John M. Stahl’s work at Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, I will take a quick look at the films shown there and point out some salient facts that I will return to in my analysis below (I will list the films in the program chronologically, regardless of the order in which they were shown and presented at the festival).

The Woman Under Oath (1919) is one of Stahl’s few remaining silents and already mixes social subtext with the presence of a strong female lead. The story criticizes class differences (a rich entrepreneur preys on the poor, which leads to murder) and is centered around the first woman to be elected on the jury of a New York murder trial (a fact that in reality only came to pass as late as 1937). Florence Reed delivers a fine lead performance and is the first in a long line of strong female characters in Stahl’s films, even though in the end, she still needs to be rescued by her male colleagues. I’d like to touch upon two things here, which I will return to later: first, The Woman Under Oath has a remarkably static camera. On the one hand this adheres to a late teens trend in American cinema that steered away from the elaborate camera movements that Hollywood introduced in the wake of Giovanni Pastroni’s Cabiria (1914) — the diagonal tracking shot was even named ‘the Cabiria movement’ — and linked movement more closely to editing. On the other hand, Stahl is clearly positioned on the extreme end of this tendency, as the film contains — as far as I counted — only one instant of actual camera movement. Secondly, The Woman Under Oath offers an ingenious flashback-structure that uses some poignant story telling techniques that would only be fully developed during the 1940s.

Seed (1931), one of Stahl’s masterpieces, is the movie that forms the basis of this article’s argument. “Stahl’s direction is self-effacing to the point of invisibility”, Imogen Sara Smith stated in Ritrovato’s 2018 catalogue, a statement she repeated when she introduced the film at the screening in Bologna’s Cinema Jolly. I will argue that while Stahl was quick to adapt to the emerging rules of the continuity cinema of the sound age, he also resorted less to editing and favored a long take style that relied more on composition and fewer cuts. This ‘slower’ approach definitely comes off as simpler and maybe a little outdated (as this approach mostly used in European films was by then only picked up sporadically by American directors) but Stahl put it to such great and subtle use that describing his style as self-effacing hardly does him justice. As I will demonstrate, Stahl’s mastery of the continuity style hides the fact that he has a rather idiosyncratic approach to it, which, while being very subdued, does in fact endow his films with a very personal stylistic approach. This gripping melodrama about two women — one a housewife, the other a powerful business woman — whose lives are both centered around their love for the same man, offers a plethora of scenes and images in which the power of Stahl’s directorial style is on full display. A more in-depth look at a scene from Seed will be part of my arguments below.

The same observations apply to Imitation of Life, one of the director’s most famous films, even though most viewers would associate the title with the 1959 version by Douglas Sirk. Less lyrical than the remake, this 1934 version showcases its directors mature style and manages to distill its emotional power from Stahl’s mastery of seemingly simple moments that obscure (too much) how delicately they are actually crafted.

When Tomorrow Comes is the only Stahl movie that Sirk remade that has a bigger reputation than its fifties counterpart, the disappointing Interlude. Inserting some clear social commentary and the real-live event of a 1938 storm in the New York area, When Tomorrow Comes offers one of Stahl’s most moving love stories and exemplifies both his feeling for changing trends — the bulk of the story is set during the course of a single night — and his remarkably consistent style.

Stahl’s wartime propaganda effort took the shape of the Henry Fonda vehicle Immortal Sergeant (1943), a movie that testifies to Stahl’s ability to adapt quickly to the changes in 1940s Hollywood. Weaving a pattern of intricate flashbacks and focusing on the group dynamics within a platoon lost in the African desert, Immortal Sergeant employs to full effect some of the new story devices Hollywood started using in the early 1940s. (He did the same with his second wartime movie, 1944’s The Eve of St. Mark). While the film thematically stays well within the limits of jingoistic gung-ho heroism (only the war will make a man out of you), the romantic flashbacks are well structured and — surprisingly — the combat scenes are among the best moments in the movie.

One of oddest entries in the Bologna program (and in John M. Stahl’s career) was Holy Matrimony (1943), a delightful, albeit forgettable little comedy about a reclusive (fictitious) English post-impressionistic painter who assumes the identity of his deceased butler (played by the eternally funny Eric Blore). If ever Stahl’s direction were to be called invisible, this would be a prime example to prove the point, as e.g. the rather pedestrian mise-en-scène of the concluding courtroom scenes illustrate. Holy Matrimony is snappy and above all well acted, but it seems to lack the full power of Stahl’s usual brand of visual storytelling.

The last film in the series was Leave her To Heaven (of which a vintage 35 mm Technicolor print was screened), arguably Stahl’s last important film and without a doubt his most famous. Of all the films in the program, this is the one in which the director comes closest to being completely in tune with the then reigning studio style. The long flashback-structure, with the flashback bookended at either side by a frame story, is perfectly attuned to the growing use of the device in 1940s cinema and Stahl executes it in a purely filmic way, by changing the color scheme to evoke the changing mood and the passage of time within the narrated story. Leave her to Heaven is a prime example of the way Hollywood incorporated the ‘mild modernism’ of mainstream literature into its storytelling devices.

I will mainly draw from these films shown in Bologna (adding other examples when necessary) to first position Stahl as a director that quickly adopted the reigning studio style of the 1930s and 1940s, to then argue that he injected that style with a different approach that relied less on editing and more on the ‘European’ longer shot style.

Seed (John M. Stahl, 1931)

A Valiant Studio Soldier

“Without metaphor he conjures mood; without symbol he suggests a world.”

With those words, film critic Richard Brody’s appraisal of Stahl touches upon one of the important features of the director’s style: the fact that his direction avoids drawing attention to itself to such a degree as to be called ‘invisible’ or as Smith puts it ‘self-effacing’.

Part of this perceived invisibility is due to the fact that John M. Stahl was a director that subscribed completely to the emerging and ripening ‘continuity style’ of 1920s/1930s and 1940s Hollywood. Below I will look at a prime example of this tendency in Stahl’s films, while the last chapter of this article will juxtapose these findings with a more idiosyncratic approach, that — in my opinion — clearly sets John M. Stahl apart from most of his contemporaries and does indeed endow him with a signature style, that may not draw attention to itself, but is still on full display in the majority of the movies he directed.

The Woman Under Oath offers some interesting material in order to position the director within the Hollywood studio system. As pointed out above, it is a film that fits within an emerging trend in American cinema at the time (a greater emphasis on editing) and impeccably adheres to the maturing continuity style championed by the American directors. Simultaneously, the movie displays an innovative approach to the flashback device, foreshadowing developments that would only come to full fruition two decades later.

It is beyond the scope of this text to look at the full development of the so-called continuity style, so I’ll limit myself to a few pointers. From the 1910s onwards, Hollywood directors started mastering a narrative style that emphasized a fluent way of visual storytelling that was geared towards an optimal absorption of the audience within the psychological reality of the diegesis. Camera movement and positioning, cinematography and editing all served the same common goalDavid Bordwell has published extensively on this topic and The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006) offers a detailed analysis of its history and development.: to capture the audience in the illusionary reality of the movie and to disturb this ‘bonding’ as little as possible (when more expressive camera movement found its way back into American cinema in the late 1920s during a short period that is referred to as the ‘rotambulating’ trend, the famous director Rouben Mamoulian had to defend himself in a meeting of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) for his use of outrageous camera movements that — according to those attending — destroyed the strong link with the audience by drawing too much attention to the filmic device itself). Quoting David Bordwell in The Rhapsodes: “a style that respected both the medium and the way people lived”, or put differently: a movie language that told — and still tells one might add — stories in a naturalistic way and used the elements of the medium to tell these stories as smoothly and fluently as possible.

As I already pointed out, Stahl (here still a novice filmmaker with only a few years of experience) is clearly adapting to the (unwritten) rules of the emerging continuity style and incorporating the rules of editing that go with it (see my earlier remark about the very static camera in The Woman Under Oath). The young director proves very apt at a flawless use of rather complex cuts, as demonstrated by the heated discussion scene in the jury room, that frantically cuts between the different jurors as they state their opinions.

Even more remarkable, is the fact that Stahl and (the uncredited) writer(s) present the courtroom drama through an ingenious series of flashbacks that are really quite ambitious. In his most recent book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017), David Bordwell explores the significant changes that 1940s filmmakers introduced. Among others, he singles out the flashback as one of the main story telling devices that evolved drastically during the period: “The flashback is a fundamental resource of 1940s cinematic storytelling.” This filmic device obviously had been around for a long time (according to Barry Salt, in Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis (3rd edition, 2009), the earliest incarnation is to be found in 1908 in the Cines film La Fiabe della Nonne) but underwent significant changes and grew more and more complex during the 1940s, according to Bordwell. Stahl’s Immortal Sergeant is a prime example of the maturing use of the flashback, as is Leave Her to Heaven, which opens and closes with a framing story that bookends the rest of the movie: one long narrated flashback.

What is so remarkable about the flashback-scenes in The Woman Under Oath is that they gradually reveal elements that are at first withheld from the viewer, in order to slowly reveal what really happened the morning of the murder. In his chapter ‘What they didn’t know’, Bordwell analyses how this technique also matured and offered more complex outings in the 1940s, but it is quite a rare instance to be found in such an early studio outing. When we first see the events on the fatal morning, our information is limited to the knowledge of two characters (Florence Reed’s, through whose eyes we see the proceedings, and the boy who stands trial). When the whole scene is replayed, Reed’s testimony suddenly not only offers a different point of view that allows us to see the room in which the murder took place from a different — and very revealing — angle, but also introduces the presence of a third character and how that character ended up there. In fact, Reed’s character can’t know all these details, but David Bordwell points out that — different from flashbacks in literature — “a film flashback is almost never restricted to what a character could plausibly know.”

This ‘blocking’ of information is not a common device to be found in a 1919 film. According to the research conducted by Barry Salt, the flashback became more or less widely used in Italy and Russia in the early 1910s and only became popular in Hollywood cinema when David Wark Griffith somewhat awkwardly tried his hand at it in 1912’s Man’s Genesis. In the period leading up to 1920, the use of a flashback became very common, but usually didn’t involve any complex storytelling (American films were still coming to terms with finding acceptable visual motives to start and end a flashback, so confusing the audience within the flashback was still a leap most directors weren’t willing to take). In most cases, we witness earlier events that clarify a present situation in a clear and unambiguous way. Salt finds one example of a more daring use late in the period, when W.S. Van Dyke develops two different storylines within the same flashback in The Lady of the Dugout (1918). All of this substantiates the exceptionality of the flashback scenes in The Woman Under Oath.

I single out the use of the flashback device here to position Stahl as a director who was clearly starting to master the ‘tricks of his trade’ and was able to introduce variations on, and to deviate from, well-established techniques, all firmly entrenched within the ‘continuity style’ that was finding its definitive shape in this period. By this account, one could look at John M. Stahl as a ‘valiant studio soldier’ without a personal signature (and thus an ‘invisible style’).

In the last part of this article I will argue however that the director’s way of staging his shots was rather idiosyncratic within the American studio system and that because this style relied on longer shots and less on editing, it made for an approach that draws even less attention to itself, thus resulting in being labeled ‘self–effacing’.

Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934)

The Invisible Master

In this last section, I will argue that John M. Stahl’s directorial style does set him apart from his contemporaries and owes a lot to the European rather than the American approach to staging. While the American studios’ style was more geared towards editing and less to camera movement, Stahl’s shots were markedly longer than average. By circumventing part of the editing-driven storytelling that was closely linked to the ‘continuity style’, Stahl’s films have a different rhythm and contain more static sequences, an element that in my opinion lead to his style being perceived as more mundane and ‘self-effacing’. It is true that Stahl as a director always put his filming technique to the functional use of telling the story, but in this area he merely follows the lead of almost every other American director working in the same period (as he did in other areas, something I tried to demonstrate in the previous section). If this was the benchmark to measure a director’s ‘expressiveness of style’, then almost every studio director at the time — save a few — could be labeled as having a ‘self-effacing’ style (or as David Bordwell jokingly put it at this year’s Antwerp Summer Film School in commenting on the Stahl retrospective in Bologna and the question of the director’s style: “Well, if you’d take Von Sternberg as a comparison, everybody’s style could be called self-effacing”). I will use this last part to argue that the fact that Stahl is singled out as a ‘self-effacing’ director has actually more to do with the use of longer shots and less editing, than with the fact that his technique is more subordinated to telling the story.

I already mentioned the fact that post Cabiria, American/Hollywood films drifted away from frequent use of elaborate camera movements and the continuity style developed with a focus on editing to emphasize movement and faster cutting. These tendencies have been studied extensively by many scholars (Bordwell and Salt among them, but also Jakob Nielsen and Richard Raskin) but are best summed up by Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985): “By 1920, Hollywood had bound cinematic storytelling closely to cutting” (Jakob Nielsen elaborates on this statement in Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema: Towards a Taxonomy of Functions (2007), claiming that there was “a gravitation towards the resources of continuity editing before taking on the resources of camera movement”). Barry Salt has traced the advent of this tendency back all the way to Griffith, but the main argument is that (faster) editing was an integral part of the developing continuity style and camera movement within a scene was often regarded as excessive and needlessly focused the attention on the technique of filming itself. (In the aforementioned meeting, Mamoulian even felt the need to point out that he thought the camera had been “neglected” in Hollywood cinema and that its role was reduced to “dispassionately record what was before it”).

In order to claim that Stahl used less editing and longer shots, one could go through all his surviving films and take notes (a prospect to look forward to) but fortunately there is already available empirical evidence to support this claim. In Film Style & Technology, Barry Salt gathered a massive amount of empirical data, among them extensive listsThe specific lists by Salt I am using cover films from the 1930s and 40s. with the ASL (average shot length) used in different films and by different directors for almost every period he tackles. There are numerous things to be learned from these statistics, but for the case at hand, it is important to note that they show that John M. Stahl’s use of cuts (and reverse angle cuts) is much lower than most of his contemporaries. On a scale of 0 to 100 percentThe scale represents the number of cuts in relation to all the scenes in the film: so if a film contains 70 different scenes, the scale represents a median for how many cuts occur within each of these scenes: if a director would cut generally 2 times for each minute a scene runs, the percentage is very low, if the median would be 15 times fort he same timespan, the percentage would be at the extreme high end of the scale., we find films by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh that hover around 50-60 % in their use of cutting and very rare instances such as William Wyler’s Counsellor at Law (1933) that go as low as 17% (which means a very static approach that eschews most of the traditional way of cutting). More important are the averages: most directors find themselves around or above 40%, which testifies to the extensive use of (fast) cutting in Hollywood during this era. John M. Stahl however constantly finds himself in the 20 to 30 % range (When Tomorrow Comes being one of his fastest cut films with a 32% rating and 1932’s Back Street being close to his average of 25%).

This testifies to the fact that Stahl does use less editing and one could easily see how this could be perceived as being ‘less expressive’: static shots with dialogue and story could be viewed as a less optimal way to use the full arsenal available to the medium (as pointed out earlier, Hollywood’s continuity style favored editing and (reverse angle) cutting). What this doesn’t prove is the fact that Stahl is resorting to a style that is more European than American.

However, if we turn to another set of dataThe Bary Salt charts I am using here cover films from 1918 to 1939., it isn’t too difficult too see that the same discrepancy we saw above arises when comparing European ASL to American ASL. To cut things short: European films favor longer shots; American films favor shorter shots (and thus faster editing).

Barry Salt and Ben Brewster link this “European resistance to using scene dissection” to a different way of staging, that puts a lot more emphasis on the background and the movement within the filmic space. The move towards faster cutting in American cinema is also fostered by the fact that American directors almost always adhered to the ‘nine foot line’, the ideal distance to shoot characters within the frame. The fact that European directors were more willing to put the camera further away from the action automatically meant that there was more room for ‘background – movement’ and this lead to a growing difference in the approach to editing scenes. While American directors championed faster cutting, European directors favored camera movements within the scene, which lead to the clear discrepancy in ASL to be found in the charts mentioned above.

To illustrate how John M. Stahl’s style more closely resembles the European approach, I will briefly look at two scenes from movies that were part of the Bologna program. The first one is a crucial scene from Seed.

The scene shows the protagonist Bart (John Boles) coming home to his family, after spending time at the luxurious apartment of his mistress, a place where he can quietly pursue his writing ambitions. The sequence is a turning point in the movie, as it is the key moment when Bart will decide to leave his wife and children; it takes place on the vestibule stairs of the modest family home. The start of the scene is nothing out of the ordinary, with Stahl using reverse angle cuts to register the start of the conversation between Bart and his wife. Once the situation is set, though, the camera recedes and we get a shot that shows us Bart at the bottom of the stairs, a few of his children on the stairs and his wife near the top. In between is the vast empty space of the grey wall (in contrast to the richly decorated apartment we saw a few minutes before) illuminated by a few light beams (supposedly coming from a window somewhere in the hall). Instead of continuing the scene with juxtaposed reverse angle shots, Stahl keeps the camera at distance and allows the bitter confrontation to be played out this way. Near the end, he resorts back to cuts, but the bulk of the scene is a semi-long shot that emphasizes the distance between the characters (strengthened by the motif of the staircase, a visual trope that would become a signature style element in the sophisticated dramas of Joseph Losey). Instead of filming the scene in the usual series of reverse angle cuts, Stahl is clearly opting for a very different approach that relies on composition more than editing. The result is a static semi-long shot that obviously has a different dynamic and could be interpreted as being just a consequence of the ‘slowing down’ of the movie language in the early sound era (it is 1933 after all). However, there are two arguments against this reasoning. The first one is the fact that although movie making did have a few hiccups concerning pacing with the advent of sound, there’s been enough research that contradicts the idea that the development of cinematic style just came to a full stop for a few years when sound was introduced. The second reason is, as I will argue below, that Stahl is still using this approach later on and uses it often enough for it to be considered a deliberate staging technique and not an element born out of the restrictions implemented by the use of the sound equipment.

To illustrate the fact that John M. Stahl does indeed systematically avoid using reverse angle cuts as much as possible and instead opts for uninterrupted shots from a distance that keep all protagonists in view, I would like to end with a brief look at a series of conversations from Imitation of Life. They all take place when Beatrice (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers) first start up the pancake business that will grow into an empire. Beatrice has several conversations with suppliers that could easily be handled as regular dialogue scenes with the usual reverse angle cuts. Each of them however keeps both characters in the frame from mid-distance, even when, at a certain point near the end of the sequence, the children of the household pass through the frame and the camera pans to pick them up briefly, before halting and allowing the dialogue between the adults to take over again. All these conversations are subjected to only a few cuts (to Delilah cleaning the window, to the children entering the room etc.) as well as two dissolves in between the scenes (it is also remarkable how Stahl uses ellipsis in the continuity without any clue for the viewer to be aware of the passing time). There are several more instances in Imitation of Life where this happens (as there are in Only Yesterday (1933), When Tomorrow Comes and many others), so it is safe to claim that this is no coincidence.

Returning to the charts Barry Salt uses in Film Style & Technology (see above) two conclusions can be drawn regarding ASL and the use of reverse angle shots in early American sound cinema: the ASL was not very different from that of the late silent era (once again contradicting the idea that the introduction of sound drastically stopped cinema in its tracks) and when the use of sound equipment was maturing (very quickly one might add) the use of reverse angle cuts increased. Both of these tendencies were different for European cinema however (with the exception of British films). By refraining from extensive use of cuts, keeping the camera at a distance and filming conversations in one shot, John M. Stahl adhered more to this European approach and championed a style that was different from most of his American contemporaries. It would be wrong to look at this approach as being dictated by the limitations of using early sound equipment or to look at it as being less expressive (as in geared towards strictly delivering dialogue in a functional way). In my opinion, Stahl’s idiosyncratic staging of these scenes is exactly what sets him apart as a visionary director who had mastered the studio’s continuity style to such a degree that he was able to spin variations on it and enrich it with different approaches that injected his films with a tremendous sense of visual mastery and an eye for exquisite composition.


Bordwell, David (2017) Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940’s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Bordwell, David (2016) The Rhapsodes: How 1940’s Critics Changed American Film Culture, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London: Routledge

Nielsen, Jakob Isak; Raskin, Richard; Keu, Edvin (2007) Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema: Towards a Taxonomy of Functions, University of Aarhus

Salt, Barry (1983/2009) Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis 3rd ed., London: Starword