Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Seed. Genevieve Tobin as Mildred the literary agent and John Boles as Bart Carter, the writer who has five reasons why he has stopped writing.

Rakastavia naisia / Mellan två kvinnor / Il richiamo dei figli.
    Director: John M. Stahl. Year: 1931. Country: USA.
    Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Charles G. Norris. Scen.: Gladys Lehman. F.: Jackson Rose. M.: Ted J. Kent, Arthur Tavares. Mus.: Heinz Roemheld. Int.: John Boles (Bart Carter), Lois Wilson (Peggy Carter), Genevieve Tobin (Mildred), Raymond Hackett (Junior Carter), ZaSu Pitts (Jennie), Bette Davis (Margaret Carter), Richard Tucker (Bliss), Frances Dade (Nancy), Jack Willis (Dicky Carter), Dick Winslow (Johnny Carter). Prod.: Universal Pictures. 35 mm. D.: 96’. Bn.
    Print from Library of Congress.
    Courtesy of Park Circus.
    Introduce Imogen Sara Smith, hosted by Ehsan Khoshbakht.
    Viewed at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato (Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl), 26 June 2018.

Imogen Sara Smith: "Seed marks a flowering in the career of John M. Stahl. Having established himself in the silent era as a critic of modern marriage and its discontents, with his second talkie he achieved a delicately unsparing, quietly radical drama worthy of Mikio Naruse. This launched a series of mature melodramas in which Stahl treats the subject of female devotion with ambivalence and unforced sympathy, accepting the great loves to which his heroines give their lives but looking with a cold, clear eye at how little they get in return."

"Based on a novel by social realist Charles G. Norris, Seed contrasts two types of womanhood: the chic, modern executive and the old-fashioned housewife and mother. As in Back Street (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933), further variations on the theme of independent working girls snared by love, the male lead is John Boles. A handsome, dead-eyed mannequin, Boles personifies oblivious masculine selfishness and entitlement. Here his character, a frustrated writer who resents the large family he has to support, abandons his wife and noisy brood of children for an old flame who believes in his talent. (In the film’s second half, one child is played with spring-water freshness by a very young Bette Davis.) At first, there is no contest between the witty, elegant career woman played by Genevieve Tobin and Lois Wilson’s smugly domestic wife. But there is a gradual, underground shift in the film’s sympathies, nudged by long, patient close-ups of Wilson. In the end, the rivals find common ground in a rueful acceptance of disappointment, facing the neglect and invisibility that is their lot as middle-aged women and taking the full bitter measure of the way men sentimentalize female self-sacrifice even as they take advantage of it. Stahl’s direction is self-effacing to the point of invisibility, and the film is all the more piercing for its simplicity, restraint, and bracing dryness." Imogen Sara Smith

AA: The screening began with the best introduction I heard during the festival. By Imogen Sara Smith. I wish I could quote it verbatim.

I have had trouble relating to John M. Stahl partly because of the cardboard quality of his leading men. For instance Only Yesterday left me cold, although Margaret Sullavan is wonderful in her debut role. We screened it ten years ago in our "four letters from an unknown woman" mini-series, and it was easily the weakest of all.

John Boles seems like a sleepwalker in his John M. Stahl roles. Regarding Only Yesterday perhaps there is an even stronger and stranger case of projection and transference than I had imagined. The radiation of the loving woman is so extraordinary that her reflection can make even John Boles shine and make him a plausible love partner. Love is sometimes an illusion, an affair of make-believe, yet so essential that even a John Boles style diluted substitute can pass. This is one possible relevant interpretation of Stefan Zweig's story. Love as an illusion which can become reality, overwhelmingly so.

Back Street which I saw two years ago in Bologna completely changed my view on Stahl. In Only Yesterday Margaret Sullavan dies of heartbreak. In Back Street both partners of the illicit love story die. In it the John Boles character is plausibly torn between the real passion of his secret love and the official facade of his happy family.

Seed is different again, a love drama seen first from the viewpoint of a man who sacrifices his talent as a writer to his family and then from the viewpoint of the wife who finds herself abruptly a single mother of five children for whom she sacrifices the best years of her life alone.

Tact and restraint are again the characteristics of Stahl's approach in Seed. The last section, "ten years after", is magisterial. The father's homecoming is covered in long takes in which Stahl dares to be slow, showing the reunion of the broken family in almost real time. The emotion rises to new heights as the father embraces his oldest daughter (Bette Davis). From this moment on Stahl's touch is breathtakingly assured. The performances of Lois Wilson as the mother and Genevieve Tobin as the woman of the world are honest and surprising.

One of my three favourite films at Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The visual quality of the print is mostly brilliant.

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