Bright Lights Film Journal

Women in Love: Three Early ’30s Melodramas by John M. Stahl (Seed, Back Street, Only Yesterday)

Irene Dunne and John Boles in Back Street (1932)

The subtle beauty of John M. Stahl’s early ’30s work is revealed by the exquisite 35mm prints screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1936, which runs through Wednesday, June 15. The print of Back Street, in particular, has a glistening, pearlescent clarity. Stahl was one of Universal’s prestige directors during the period covered by the series (programmed by adjunct curator Dave Kehr), when Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the studio’s founder, sought to raise the artistic level of filmmaking at Universal to compete with the major studios. The three rarely screened Stahl films form a set of variations on a theme, female devotion and self-sacrifice. They treat this theme with unusual nuance and ambivalence, both accepting the great loves – whether maternal or romantic – to which the women give their lives, and looking with a cool and even cynical eye at how little they get in return.

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“I just bumped into my past,” a woman remarks in the opening scene of Seed. One of the staples of melodrama is the certainty that a woman’s past will bump into her sooner or later. Seed (1931), Back Street (1932), and Only Yesterday (1933), three of John M. Stahl’s early melodramas, all pivot on a chance meeting between a successful, independent career woman and a man she once loved and can’t forget. In all three films, the man is played by John Boles, who demonstrates how a mediocre actor can sometimes be perfectly cast. Boles was a matinee-idol type with a bland, mannequin-like handsomeness – his profile, smooth features, and pencil mustache all seem to have been drawn with a ruler. He is a lifeless presence on screen, with eyes so deep-set and inexpressive that he almost appears to be blind. The men he plays in these films are not villains, at worst they are cads, but they are patterns of male selfishness and entitlement, incapable of comprehending the far more complex and passionate inner lives of the women who make sacrifices for them. This is often the bargain of the woman’s picture: the plot may dwell on female suffering and martyrdom, but there is a kind of revenge inherent in the rich, detailed attention to women’s experience and the contrasting reduction of men to flat ciphers.

Genevieve Tobin and John Boles in Seed (1931)

Stahl is known as a woman’s-picture specialist, but remains underappreciated in part because many of his early films are hard to see, and also because his reputation has been obscured by several ironies. His most widely seen film, the stunning Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), is uncharacteristic of his style at its best. Like its heroine, a flawlessly beautiful sociopath, that film presents an unsettling mismatch between its lusciously pretty surface and its cruel story.1 Three of Stahl’s films (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, When Tomorrow Comes) were remade by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, and those versions are much better known. While it is perhaps unfair for Stahl’s name to be forever linked to Sirk’s, comparing their styles is hard to resist. Sirk’s baroquely stylized melodramas, hugely popular but often dismissed in their time as sudsy kitsch, have come to be embraced for their formalist rigor and undertones of unease, their deliberate theatricality and obliquely critical stance. Stahl, on the other hand, approached his early melodramas with restraint and sincerity. The sense of unforced sympathy for his characters, and the powerfully honest performances by the central actresses, are all the more remarkable given Stahl’s reputation as a harsh and temperamental director with whom actors did not enjoy working.2 Even when directing a contrived and over-the-top script such as Magnificent Obsession (1935), Stahl had a way of defusing bombast with straightforward simplicity, a way of finding the natural and nuanced emotions within ludicrous plot twists. There is little in the way of showy angles or camera moves to distract from the story, but these are handsome films, with moments of sudden loveliness.

This subtle beauty is revealed by the exquisite 35mm prints screening at the Museum of Modern Art in the series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1936. The print of Back Street, in particular, has a glistening, pearlescent clarity. Stahl was one of Universal’s prestige directors during the period covered by the series (programmed by adjunct curator Dave Kehr), when Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the studio’s founder, sought to raise the artistic level of filmmaking at Universal to compete with the major studios. The three rarely screened Stahl films form a set of variations on a theme, female devotion and self-sacrifice. They treat this theme with unusual nuance and ambivalence, both accepting the great loves – whether maternal or romantic – to which the women give their lives, and looking with a cool and even cynical eye at how little they get in return.

Seed

Stahl was one of the highest-paid directors at Universal in the early 1930s and had considerable control over his projects; he had producer credits on most of them, as he had at MGM during the 1920s. Many were based on literary best-sellers, tomes that appear under the credits in a typical gesture toward intellectual respectability.

Seed, based on a novel by Charles G. Norris, immediately sets up a contrast between two types of womanhood, one represented by a chic, single female executive and the other by an old-fashioned housewife and mother. At first, our sympathy and the film’s are with Mildred (Genevieve Tobin), the manager of a publishing house’s Paris branch, who on a visit to the New York office stumbles on Bart Carter (Boles), her “first, last and only” love. She lost him five years earlier, she explains wryly, to “a brown-eyed homebody, the clinging-vine type.” Mildred is smart in every sense of the word, a porcelain blonde with an elegant wardrobe, a high-toned mid-Atlantic accent, and a dry-martini wit. She recalls Bart as an aspiring writer; now he is the father of five unruly children, toiling as a clerk to support a financially and emotionally draining family. His wife, Peggy (Lois Wilson), seems smug in her domesticity, living solely for her domineering brood. The kids (the youngest played by dark-eyed Dickie Moore, a prolific child actor who would later appear as Mitchum’s deaf-mute sidekick in Out of Past [1947]) have a habit of speaking all at once, their voices blending into a shrill cacophony.

“Don’t you think your maternal instinct is a trifle overdeveloped, Peggy?” Mildred quips, earning a sure laugh. She proves there is a quicker way to a man’s heart than giving him meals and too many offspring: she convinces her publishing house to pay Bart a salary to finish his novel, and invites him to write in her glamorous art deco duplex apartment. (“It’s a writer’s dream of heaven!” he cries, to which I said amen.) She lavishes him with praise and confidence, while his home offers only noisy tykes who distract and interrupt, and a wife who shoos him out of her bed, saying they don’t want six kids, do they? You can hardly blame him for his shifting loyalty.

But then something interesting happens to the audience’s loyalty. Stahl begins to devote long, long close-ups to Peggy: the camera simply holds motionless on her face as she starts to cry after her sulky, exasperated husband makes a mean crack about the kids. It remains patiently fixed on her as she breaks down in tears of despair, her car stranded in the rain as she tries to set off across the country. Meanwhile Bart, far from showing any concern when he learns his wife has left him and taken the children, goes straight to Mildred’s for the night. Of course he plans to “make some arrangement” for the family after he decamps to Paris with Mildred. But when the movie jumps ahead ten years, we learn that Peggy hasn’t taken a cent from Bart; she has raised the kids on her own by opening a dress shop. And the passel of brats has grown into a passel of likeable, attractive young men and women – the one girl is now played by Bette Davis, in only her second film role. Davis later dismissed this as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, but in fact she’s on the screen quite a bit and is lovely, natural and engaging.

Boles, with Tobin and Lois Wilson

Lois Wilson, who plays Peggy, has a face as ordinary as her name, and her plain acting contrasts with Tobin’s more mannered, soigné style. Peggy reveals herself slowly, first earning pity, then sympathy, then admiration. The long, quietly forceful close-ups of her continue, for instance as she watches Bart hugging their daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. He has returned a famous, rich, and glamorous author (though his literary genius is never for a moment convincing). The children are excited and proud, harboring not the slightest grudge against the father who abandoned them, and Peggy must watch him swoop into their lives with expensive presents and plans for them. There is a striking shot of her watching through the shop window as they cluster around his car, and an even more exquisite one of her looking from an upstairs window, lace curtains shimmering in the darkness, as they return from an evening out with him. Framed in her separation, she looks desolate yet resigned. She has one big angry outburst, telling Bart he can’t take the children away from her, but in the end of course she lets them go, to benefit from the chances he can give them. And he remains as obtuse, as insensitive as ever, fulsomely declaring, “I think you’re the most wonderful woman in the world!” It’s the final slap in the face, and she takes it that way, absorbing the full bitter measure of how men sentimentalize female self-sacrifice even as they take advantage of it. The long scene in which she says goodbye to the children is all the more heartbreaking for being unadorned and pedestrian; it is followed by an even longer wordless scene of Peggy alone, eating the cinnamon buns her kids have left – which should be where the movie ends, rather than with a dispiriting coda in which Mildred returns to say that Peggy has “won” and that she wishes the children were hers. This speech feels tacked on and inauthentic, though the movie ends with an image of sisterhood, as the two bond rather gloomily over cinnamon buns and a tacit understanding that both have lost; only a man like Bart gets to have it all.

Back Street

“You feel like he’s not doing anything, but then you find you’re crying,” a friend said of Stahl’s subtle direction after we watched Seed. Back Street, however, is visually richer and more lushly cinematic from the start, as the camera circles fluidly through a turn-of-the-century beer garden. The period setting – a German-American neighborhood in Cincinnati – is elaborate and atmospheric, the camera sidling through railway station crowds, weaving through dancers in ruffles and bustles, gliding past bicycle shops and horse-drawn carriages. Shopgirl Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) is a lively flirt who is looked at askance because she goes out drinking and dancing with traveling salesmen, but who is really a strong-minded, self-respecting woman. There is a hint of danger, though, when she says of love, “It’s all the way or zero with me.” She meets and falls for Walter Saxel (Boles), who woos her ardently even though he’s engaged to another woman, apparently because his mother favors the match. They makes plans for Ray to meet this mother at a concert in the park and win her over, but she’s delayed (her half-sister chooses this moment to reveal that she’s pregnant). When Ray gets to the park, there is a beautifully choreographed sequence as she fights her way through the departing crowd; then the camera slowly pulls back and back to reveal her alone in front of the empty bandstand, her big chance spoiled.

Boles and Dunne in Back Street

Dramatic images such as this appear like milestones throughout the story. After Ray bumps into Walter on the streets of New York five years later, a car’s headlamps catch them like a spotlight as they kiss in the falling snow. Ray is a well-paid career woman, but we see Walter leading her into an apartment he has rented, and in the next scene she is playing solitaire – having given up her job to accept the lot of a kept mistress. Alone while he spends the summer in Europe, she sits in her sweltering apartment painting china while the noise of jackhammers blasts through an open window. Walter, on his return, is unhappy to learn she has sold a few of her painted vases – he doesn’t like the idea, though it dawns on him that he forgot to make any “provision” for her while he was away. “I hope you weren’t inconvenienced,” he says. She tries to explain how empty and aimless her life is. (“Empty? When you have me?” he retorts, and for a second you think he must be joking, but he’s not.) She even asks him to “give her a child,” and he huffily talks about “the moral issue,” pointing out that she is after all not his wife – as though she needed to be reminded. Stahl trains his camera on Ray for an excruciatingly long take after Walter has departed, absorbing the realization of how little he understands or appreciates her feelings. She clearly recognizes how hopeless and unfair the situation is; she tells another married man’s mistress living in her building, “He’s not worth it. I wonder if any man is.” Yet when she has the chance to marry a kind, clever, and successful man who has always loved her, Ray lets Walter talk her out of it; with typical self-absorption, he talks about his needs and says, “If you wanted to make me suffer, you’ve succeeded.”

Zasu Pitts and Irene Dunne in Back Street

But when the film jumps ahead some twenty years, the emotional landscape has shifted, as it did in Seed. Ray is still the other woman, but the film now emphasizes how devoted Walter is to her, and that even after twenty-five years they are still in love. His children are outraged and ashamed by the open secret, and while they are portrayed as priggish and mean-spirited, Walter’s defense to his son of his right to have two lives shows yet another side of his selfishness. The film ends as a romantic tragedy, the tale of an undying love that has outlasted all obstacles, but while these scenes are well handled (Boles is even rather good after Walter has a stroke, and there is a nice moment when the remorseful son is shocked to learn his father’s mistress got only $200 a month), they cannot erase the middle section’s troubling depiction of a bright, talented woman whose life has been stunted by living for love alone. Irene Dunne, with her sharp yet sidelong intelligence, her mix of radiance and reserve, perfectly embodies the film’s ambivalence. While Boles can’t suggest the kind of passion that might perhaps justify his character’s behavior (as Charles Boyer does in the 1941 remake with Margaret Sullavan), Dunne is able to convey that true love might also be a raw deal.

Only Yesterday

A similar theme runs through Only Yesterday, the film in which Margaret Sullavan made her screen debut. The plot is quite obviously taken from Stefan Zweig’s short story Letter from an Unknown Woman, though this source is not credited, and the setting, mood, and meaning are entirely different from the achingly beautiful 1948 adaptation by Max Ophüls, starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. Ophüls captures the dark interiority of the novella and even enriches the meaning, creating a devastating anatomy of the illusions that lie at the heart of romantic love. Stahl’s version is at once more optimistic and more cynical, less about inner lives than about the public sphere of social mores and world events.

Indeed, the title and official credit for Only Yesterday come from Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1931 best-selling history of the 1920s. The film opens with a long and marvelously chaotic scene at a Park Avenue cocktail party on the day of the 1929 stock market crash. Well before any of the main characters are introduced, we see a banker shoot himself in a men’s room; women in clinging fur-trimmed gowns prattle foolishly about whether they will have to get jobs now (“My dear,” Franklin Pangborn assures one platinum blonde, “You were born with a job”); and a bespectacled young socialist rants about income inequality and economic justice. The party’s hosts, the Emersons, are a wealthy and fashionable couple, each cheating on the other. Jim Emerson (Boles again) is a stockbroker; cleaned out by the crash, he locks himself in his study and prepares to blow his brains out, until he is distracted by a letter that asks him to recall a girl he met more than ten years earlier.

The flashbacks begin with Jim and Mary (Sullavan) meeting at a dance for soldiers going off to the First World War. Unlike the sublime encounter in Letter, which the lovesick heroine almost seems to will into reality, this is a depressingly conventional scene of a soldier deflowering a naïve girl on the eve of sailing overseas. Taking advantage of her confession that she has harbored a crush on him, he launches into a heavy-handed string of clichés, talking about fate and the moonlight. Mary’s baby is born at the Armistice, and there is a clever cut from combat footage of the trenches to the aftermath of the birth, implying the painful battle of labor. She rushes out to meet Jim in a victory parade, only to find he doesn’t know her from Eve.

Margaret Sullavan and John Boles in Only Yesterday (1933)

A bracing injection of feminist principles saves the film – and Mary – from sliding into pathos. Too proud to ask her baby’s father for support, or to stay with her genteel Southern family, Mary comes to New York to live with her aunt and goes to work, becoming the owner of a dress shop. Billie Burke (best known as Glinda the Good Witch) gives a delightful and unexpected performance as Aunt Julia, managing even with her fluting voice and fluttering mannerisms to be convincing as a smart, funny, open-minded New Woman. Julia tells Mary that women no longer need to be dependent, that they can face life honestly and that the double standard is a thing of the past. An out-of-wedlock child is “just one of those biological events. It’s not tragedy, it’s not even good melodrama.” Indeed, no one ever seems to care that Jimmy Jr. is illegitimate. He grows into a happy, pudgy child, and there is tremendous warmth and charm in scenes of Mary’s life with Jimmy, Julia, and Julia’s boyfriend Bob, a sweet goofball played by comedian Reginald Denny. They make an eccentric, loving family; they all have plenty of money, Mary has a thriving career, and a nice if nerdy suitor who wants to marry her. Not a bad life, one would think – how could anyone prefer tragedy or bad melodrama to this?

Then, at a New Year’s Eve party ten years after their original meeting, Mary bumps into Jim again. When he picks her up, she at first thinks he’s recognized her, but soon learns the truth. “I couldn’t have forgotten anyone as lovely as you,” he coos in a taxicab. Mary is not shattered by the realization that the father of her child has no idea who she is; she accepts Jim’s memory lapse with a slightly bitter, shrugging resignation, even seeming to enjoy her private knowledge of his shallowness when he takes her to the apartment he maintains for trysts and goes into the same cheesy, sentimental seduction routine he used before. And she sleeps with him again, telling him nothing. It seems we are meant to see Mary here as a mature woman with sufficient confidence and control to indulge her desire for a man while accepting that he will never return or comprehend the depth of her feeling. But Jim is such a smarmy, superficial cad that we can only feel this woman is lowering herself.

Alas, the film does not take Aunt Julia’s words to heart; it veers into tragedy – out of nowhere, the 30-year-old Mary develops heart failure and dies – and the ending is not even good melodrama. While Louis Jourdan’s reaction to the letter that reveals what he has lost conveys such gut-punching regret that his tragedy seems almost greater than Fontaine’s, Jim’s reaction to Mary’s letter is delight at learning that he has a son. He rushes over to tell the bereaved Jimmy Jr. that he is his father, and a sticky scene of masculine bonding, as father admires son’s military school medals and promises to take him hunting, leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. Jim gets his own medal for bad conduct.

John Boles and Jimmy Butler in Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday is salvaged from soupiness by good dialogue, an appealing tone of frankness, and mostly fine acting. Sullavan was unhappy with her performance, but with her famously plaintive, husky voice and the flinty edge within her tiny slip of a figure, she has just the right balance of sensitivity, vulnerability, and backbone. Arguably, Sullavan’s dry underplaying makes Mary seem a bit too sane and spirited to let one romantic disappointment shadow her whole life. Stahl’s blend of emotion and restraint, intimacy and tactful distance do not lend themselves to soaring romance or three-hankie tragedy, but are perfectly suited to a transitional moment of changing ideas about morality, romance, and women’s roles. The heroines of these pre-Code films are caught between Victorian expectations that they should live for men and modern suggestions that they can live for themselves; between the past they keep bumping into and a future they can’t quite grasp.

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Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art and Photofest in New York City for the images seen here. Stahl’s films show May 26 and May 30.

  1. I expand on this argument here: http://reverseshot.org/symposiums/entry/2122/shamroy_leave_her_to_heaven []
  2. Irene Dunne, who made three films with Stahl, described him as “rough on his actors” and recalled how he “would throw things around the set.” Interview with James Harvey, in Harvey’s Romantic Comedy, pp. 689-90. []