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Unknown Women: Pre-Code Naughtiness and Exquisite Melodrama in John Stahl’s Back Street (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933)

Back Street (John M. Stahl, 1932)


In The Good Fairy (Wyler, 1935) plain, innocent and true-of-heart Louisa “Lu” Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan, with a very Coen-worthy character name) sneaks into a screening of the Budapest movie palace where she works as an usherette. She witnesses a scene that captures her heart and imagination: a wronged man ordering his unfaithful wife to “GO!”. The wife pleads with him to reconsider, after all, she loves him and that must mean something despite her transgression? ”GO!” the man repeats. The woman points out that beside her love there is also their child to consider? She points at the crib where a little babe is sleeping. “GO!” the husband repeats. She pleads again, but in vain. “GO!” he echoes, his anger and hurt pride reduced to a monosyllabic growl.

The movie audience is in tears at this Ur-scene of the melodrama of the heart and hearth, where a woman, rightly or wrongly, is harshly punished for her lack of virtue. I noticed there were a lot of fallen women/unfaithful women/ women falling for the wrong man in Il Cinema Ritrovato’s pre-Code program focusing on Carl Laemmle Junior’s early years at Universal. Some people in the Bologna audience were outraged by many of these films’ blatant misogynist undertones and/or old-fashioned gender politics. In The Kiss Before the Mirror almost all women are reduced to vain seductresses (either that or they are lesbians) and the right of the husband to defend his honor (i.e. murder an erring wife) is defended with quivering vigor. I was mostly upset by the fact that in several of these films dull and insufferable John Boles played the man responsible for so much suffering and passion! At least the homme fatale should be sexier? What follows are some thoughts on two of these (fallen) woman’s films that showed that women and socially unsanctioned love make bitter companions.

Coeurs Fidèles

There were two adaptations of two important twentieth century Jewish authors on the program, one (uncredited) from Austrian Stefan Zweig and one from American Fannie Hurst. Zweig is obviously the more renowned of the two; an author (novelist, journalist, playwright, and biographer) who wrote with great sensitivity and nostalgia about a world and society in decline, ill fated desires and thwarted dreams. Fannie Hurst, whose popular and sentimental storytelling was famously mocked in a Mel Brooks song (“hope for the best, expect the worst, you could be Tolstoy, or Fannie Hurst”), is less prestigious, but arguably just as important when it comes to the movies (and actually, when you think about it, she too wrote about ill fated desires and thwarted dreams quite a lot). Her stories and novellas were turned into several successful films, both in the silent and talkie era. Frank Borzage made more than a few adaptations, his 1920’s weepie Humoresque was a smash hit, but Back Pay (1922) and the Nth Commandment (1923) all scripted by Frances Marion, did respectable business too. In the sound era it was John M. Stahl who filmed two of her famous stories, Back Street (1933) and Imitation of Life (1934). The latter is the Claudette Colbert version, which stands up nicely against Douglas Sirk’s more lavish Technicolor widescreen production with Lana Turner. The sexual and racial politics are part of the source material and are equally problematic in both versions.

The Greeks Had a Word for Them

Back Street (1933) is a fallen woman picture of which there were many in the pre-code era (Lea Jacobs has written extensively about these films in her book The Wages of Sin). Compared to other more famous fallen woman films, such as Susan Lennox, her Fall and Rise (Leonard, 1931), The Red-Headed Woman (Conway 1932) and Baby Face (Green 1934), which featured Garbo, Harlow and Stanwyck respectively, Back Street is less spectacular and a more sensitive and understanding portrayal of a loyal woman who is no gold digger but who simply falls for the wrong man. When Walter D. Saxel (John Boles) meets Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne), a young fun loving girl who dresses up in silly frilly things and who laughs too eagerly – reminding one quite a lot of Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallasin King Vidor’s 1937 remake, where she is vying for the attention of… that same John Boles again! – her fate is sealed. She is smitten as a kitten and foolishly ignores the fact that Boles is engaged to another woman and that he insists on meeting her in secret at the other side of the river. Yet, despite the relationship being hush-hush, Walter seems prepared to make Ray more than just his secret lover. He suggests she meets his mother and then they can things from there (“if you are dating a guy for more than three months, and you haven’t met his mother, you are NOT his girlfriend!” Chris Rock could’ve told her). They plan a rendezvous at Eden Park but Ray misses it because she has to help her little sister, who is “in trouble.”  Perhaps the meeting would have led to a respectable life (but who are we kidding?) but her missed rendezvous condemns her to a different fate. When she meets Walter five years later in New York City Ray becomes his mistress, his shadow wife for more than thirty years and misses out on a life of comfort, on a family, and respectability. At the end of the film, when Dunne’s character is dying, she bitterly remembers that missed appointment.

Back Street is a discomforting picture, really, as there are but few moments of happiness for Dunne, who is no gold digger and thus does not at least enjoy a life of luxury and indulgence, as the other fallen women mentioned above did. This tristesse is heightened by the fact that in the “romantic” scenes between Boles and Dunne there is no sense of actual love or tenderness between them (he nags while she tries to be a good sport and their body language is on the whole rather cold). Despite the fact that the shadow marriage lasts for almost three decades the lovers do not change their awkward courtesy towards each other and there is no evidence of a passion or affection brimming under the surface that would warrant Dunne’s coeur fidèle. Stahl’s mise-en-scène is mostly austere and affectively restrained, and there is a still life quality to many of the carefully framed compositions of Ray in her domestic cage. There is at least one brilliant still life shot of Ray sitting on a sofa next to a bowl of fruit, slowly realizing that -like the fruit- her life is slowly rotting away.

And Boles really behaves like a cad. He has it all: the upper middle class wife, socially climbing children, a big career and a devoted mistress, while she is eradicated the moment her man dies (Ray dies just days after Walter, reduced to utter purposelessness.) What makes the film even more discomforting for modern audiences is that even though John Boles is despicable (the kind of character you would like to throw a hiss at, or better, the heavy festival catalog) we find out in one of the film’s final scenes that his love and devotion for Ray is sincere! For all intents and purposes he has been “faithful” to his mistress and true love, and he fiercely defends her before his son who obviously despises her. On his deathbed, a traditional Victorian emotional climax, a site for moral purging and a Hurst favorite, his thoughts are with her, showing ultimate proof of his love for Ray. Perhaps it was exactly this ending that made the whole story such a dire and depressing affair: he does not deserve our sympathy but the movie insists he does. (But anyway, she should’ve told him to “GO!” years before.)

Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933)
Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933)

Only Yesterday (1933) is officially an adaptation of Frederick Lewis Allen’s non-fiction Only Yesterday (with no plot and no fixed characters) but its shadow source is clearly Stefan Zweig’s famous 1922 Briefe einer Unbekannten or Letter from an Unknown Woman, which was filmed by Max Ophüls in 1948 with Joan Fontaine, as the plot resembles Zweig’s novella on key points. Dave Kehr notes in the festival catalog that Universal bought the rights to the Zweig property just two weeks before the film’s release and the studio was baffled to learn that RKO had already taken an option on the English translation that had appeared in 1932. The studio made no reference to the Zweig novella in its publicity however. Only Yesterday is not set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, but opens on October 24, 1929 in New York, and so the themes and setting (changing sexual mores, woman’s emancipation and suffrage, the financial crisis, business ethics, changing demographics etc.) are borrowed from Allen’s book.

In Only Yesterday we encounter James Stanton Emerson (John Boles), who is contemplating suicide after he has lost all on the stock market. As he is taking out his revolver – in a very unambiguous representation of a touchy subject – he happens upon a mysterious letter that has been delivered for him personally. (In both film versions the letter’s addressee is on the brink of death – in Only Yesterday James Emerson is contemplating suicide; in the Ophüls film, a duel at dawn that Stefan Brand is bound to loose was added as a frame story by screenwriter Howard Koch.) The letter is from Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) who has written:

“My Dear, Does the name Mary Lane mean anything to you? And have you forgotten completely a night in Virginia before the war? To me it seems only yesterday…”

We receive this information not via a voice-over of the letter’s writer but instead we have to read these lines ourselves straight from the handwritten letter presented in close up. After the close up of the letter we plunge into the past. In Ophüls’ later adaptation of Zweig’s book a close up of the letter’s dramatic opening sentence (underscored by a powerful musical cadence) is followed by a close up of Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan) halting his routine grooming activities and concentrating fully on Lisa’s (Joan Fontaine) letter. From a wider frame there is a dolly in, a dissolve, and then the images of the past are paired with Fontaine’s voice-over repeating the opening lines of the letter “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.” Sarah Kozloff’s important research (Invisible Storytellers) tells us that the voice-over (long burdened by accusations of being too literary, redundant, or a sign of a director’s visual deficiency) only became a widespread grudgingly accepted and conventional storytelling technique from the late thirties onwards (an influential trendsetter was Ford’s How Green Was My Valley from 1941 but even then Zanuck complained about “that voice”) and even though voice-overs were used in flashback structures (such as in the 1933 The Power and the Glory), they seemed to have turned up sparsely in the first half of the decade. In combination with flashbacks – where a perspective, a point of view from the past is imagined or recounted by a character – the voice-over accentuates that someone, a “narrator” whom we may or may not have seen before as a character, narrates the images we see on screen. By 1948 it was quite conventional to do things the way Ophüls did (the combination of letter-writing or reading onscreen, a voice-over and a dissolve or cut to the past) but perhaps this was not so in the early thirties.

There was actually another interesting use of the combination of a flashback with voice-over in James Whale’s 1935 The Kiss Before the Mirror: after a couple of minutes of dry narration, we are briefly shown what the narrating character is telling us with his voice over the images before returning to the scene of narrating. The voice-over is not used as a narrative encadrement or frame (as in for example the The Power and the Glory) but serves to briefly tether the images to a particular narrator or perspective during a longish stretch of narration. (A later scene in the same film features a Hitchcockian Rebecca-moment when there is camera movement on the empty spaces where characters stood and talked in front of a mirror in the past ending in something of a re-enactment of that recalled scene.) Surely, the flashback was a convention familiar to cinema from the silent days on (as Maureen Turim in her book and David Bordwell on his blog have argued before), but in the early sound era the use of a voice-over when a text (letter or diary entry) is being read, was apparently no given, as the Only Yesterday letter/flashback suggests.

If you’ve seen Letter from an Unknown Woman, the plot of Only Yesterday is familiar (although there are differences in the films’ conclusions): Mary Lane (Sullavan) meets James Stanton Emerson (Boles), on whom she has had a girlish crush for two years, at a ball. They have a talk and some laughs and next thing you know they emerge from a thicket and Boles is tying up Sullavan’s dress with pre-Code relish. The lovers part but promise to see each other again. Of course fate intervenes and Boles’ regiment has to leave for war in Europe (without leaving a note for Sullavan). Nine months later Sullavan gives birth to their son in New York, where she has been living with her delightful Suffragette aunt (Billie Burke). Aunt Julia is modern, open-minded and something of a cougar (she enjoys a frisky romance – screwball comedy style – with a toy boy.) When Sullavan tries to meet Boles after the war at a military victory parade she is stunned to find he does not recognize her. (In order to reach him she had to fight her way – Reneé Adorée-in-The Big Parade-style – through a mass of onlookers walking in the opposite direction.) She raises her child by herself and years pass. Then, ten years later, on New Year’s Eve 1928, she meets her love again by chance. Boles (who has a loveless, “open” marriage) finds himself attracted to her anew, but still does not remember her! The “romance” is repeated at his bachelor pad in the city and afterwards they part ways again (Sullavan is too proud tell where he’s seen her before). When Boles receives the letter ten months later, Sullavan is dying of heart failure (of course!). He rushes to her house, too late to recognize Sullavan’s love on her deathbed, but in time to connect with the son he never knew he had (and who is most welcome, as his official marriage has remained childless). The son is dressed in a military uniform (he goes to a military-style prep school) and this image of father and son ironically and bitterly promises that the boy will become like daddy (a military man and a “hunter”) and that history will probably repeat itself.

Charles Barr has aptly pinpointed (in his notes on the film) how the figuration of the letter from a forgotten woman is the perfect emblem for what is today (with the financial crisis of 2007 just “behind” us) one of the films most devastating resonances: “What is the lesson of the 1929 Crash and of all the crashes that have succeeded it? Financers forget, in their pursuit of profits – forget sound principles, and forget, repeatedly, the lessons of what happened before.” So Boles’ character forgetfulness is rather apt, as was the fact that this difficult to find film, like its bitter ironies, was also almost forgotten.

Have We Met before?

So, what will we remember from these two woman’s pictures? (Apart from the fact that John Boles is obviously the wrong man to date?) We have learned that Universal in the early thirties was good for much more than the well-known (and quite wonderful) horror films that dominate its reputation today. The moral melodramas (or fallen woman pictures), the romantic comedies (Whale’s 1935 Remember Last Night, an over-the-top Thin Man-esque detective comedy with more martinis than Nick or Nora could’ve stomached), and the domestic dramas (Wyler’s 1931 A House Divided) were quite up to standard as well, as were the back stage musical and gangster films (Fejos’ 1929 Broadway, and Cahn’s 1933 Laughter in Hell) and they deserve to be more easily available. It seems that Carl Laemmle Jr. who was famously kicked out of his own studio in 1936 actually left behind a respectable legacy for the short time he was there. Dave Kehr’s program notes rightfully describe Junior as a “sophisticated, ambitious and risk-taking” producer and it seems fit that he showboated his way out of Hollywood with a financial disaster to his name.

We’ll also remember that structural gender stereotyping and gender inequality bordering on outright misogyny were at the core of several scripts (okay, maybe no surprise there) despite Only Yesterday’s Aunt Julia’s assurance that “today a woman can face life as honestly as any man can.” Being the exception in an old-fashioned and bigoted society, Aunt Julia’s story arc is exceptional and characters like her would soon be ousted by the Code.

Women did not fare better in later Universal pictures. Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie was also on the program (another Universal film and promoted as “a suspenseful sex mystery”) and features one particular cringe-worthy scene where Sean Connery’s brutish Rutland points out to Tippi Hedren that most wives follow their husbands to the door on their way to work and sometimes manage “a little wave.” (Okay, it’s actually funny too.) The notion that a woman’s only life fulfillment is still a man really hurts the eyes when it’s in Technicolor, but then again there is that great crane shot (revisiting the one from Notorious), the amusing horse symbolism (“The best thing for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse” Rutland muses; and a horse is the one thing Marnie will tolerate between her legs), and the very quotable tongue-in-cheek “You Freud, Me Jane.” So it’s hard to be offended for too long.

When cinema is this good, all else can be forgotten really.