Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Back Street (1932)

Back Street: Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) and Walter Saxel (John Boles)

La donna proibita. US 1932. D: John M. Stahl. Based on: dal romanzo omonimo (1931) di Fannie Hurst. SC: Gladys Lehman. Cinematography: Karl Freund. ED: Milton Carruth, Maurice Pivar. AD: Charles D. Hall. C: Irene Dunne (Ray Schmidt), John Boles (Walter Saxel), George Meeker (Kurt Shendler), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs. Dole), June Clyde (Freda Schmidt). P: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. [The film was not released in Finland]. 35 mm. 92′. B&w.
    US © 1932 Universal Pictures
    Print from Universal Pictures
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna
    Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years
    E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra
    Cinema Jolly, 28 June 2016

Dave Kehr (Bologna catalog): "John Stahl’s 1932 film was the first of three adaptations of Fannie Hurst’s bestselling novel produced by Universal, and remains by far the most graceful and moving. As Jacques Lourcelles noted in his Dictionnaire du cinéma, “Just as the characters are trapped in a single situation they will never escape during their lifetime, so is the spectator slowly overtaken by a melancholy that becomes sadness, a sadness that becomes hopelessness, emerging from the melodic uniformity of the style”. Irene Dunne, still in the ingénue phase of her career, stars as a young woman in the Midwestern city of Cincinnati in 1890, who declines the proposal of a promising young businessman (a Henry Ford figure played by Universal regular George Meeker) because of her hopeless love for a married financier (John Boles). Because divorce is unthinkable in 19th century America, she agrees to become his mistress, leading to a lifetime of ‘back street’ meetings and unfulfilled yearnings. For Stahl, this was the middle panel in a trilogy (between Seed and Only Yesterday) about the moral hypocrisy of American divorce laws, a subject that did not sit well with the censors. When Universal attempted to reissue the film in 1938, after the establishment of the Production Code, censor-in-chief Joseph Breen refused approval, noting the film “has become a symbol of the wrong kind of picture”." – Dave Kehr

AA: I saw for the first time Back Street, John M. Stahl's masterpiece based on Fannie Hurst's bestselling novel whose impact at the time was so overwhelming that it coined the expression "back street" to mean the situation of "the other woman". Back Street is now my favourite John M. Stahl film, and I prefer it to his Only Yesterday, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession.

I have not seen the other, reportedly much tamer, film adaptations of Back Street, but I know Frank Capra's unofficial interpretation of the same basic story, Forbidden, made in the same year, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and gaining intensity from the fact of being also a film à clef about the profound Capra-Stanwyck relationship.

Stahl's Back Street is a Pre-Code film. It was withdrawn from circulation after 1934 due to the rigorous enforcement of the Production Code. It has never been shown in Finland which had its own stern self-control office of the film industry enforcing a set of standards perhaps inspired by the Production Code.

I have not read the novel Back Street nor other works by Fannie Hurst, one of the most popular authors of the 20th century. She has never been translated into Finnish. I'm aware of the fact that "Fannie Hurst" is almost a symbol for literature which is supposedly not very distinguished, but personally I respect the unconventional writer who was ahead of her time in many ways, championing women's rights, modern marriage (even known as "a Fannie Hurst marriage" before Sartre & de Beauvoir), equal opportunity, the working people, racial justice and freedom in sexual orientation. In a popular song she appears as anti-Tolstoy, but I believe that Tolstoy would have admired her.

Before Back Street there had already been many Fannie Hurst film adaptations, most prominently Humoresque (1920), which, directed by Frank Borzage, launched the great wave of films relevant to the American Jewish experience in the 1920s, culminating in The Jazz Singer. Even Frank Capra had directed one of those films, The Younger Generation, also based on a Fannie Hurst story.

The great wave of Jewish themes in American cinema ended with the silent era. In Back Street the novel the male protagonist is a Jewish businessman, and the secret love affair takes place between the rich Jew and a poor Gentile woman, but in the film adaptation there is no Jewish aspect.

Another essential change to the novel (based on what I have read about it) is the conclusion. Reportedly the most powerful part of the novel is the account of the woman's downfall after the death of the businessman for whom she has sacrificed everything. In the film the woman dies of heartbreak soon after the man's death.

Back Street is known as a romance novel, and the film adaptation may sometimes be classified as melodrama, but I would hesitate to use that term. I would called Back Street simply a tragic love story. The story is certainly heartbreaking, but the approach of John M. Stahl is based on tenderness and tact. There were tears in my eyes when the film ended, yet not due to melodramatic excess but good taste and discretion. Less is more in Stahl's approach.

Back Street is a film of constant surprises, of which the consistent display of restraint instead of emphasis is the greatest. The story itself is always unpredictable. Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) could in several turning-points choose otherwise. In the middle of the film she is finally about to marry the businessman Kurt Shendler (George Meeker), who in the beginning seemed a clumsy and idealistic automobile wizard, but is now successful in the rapidly booming industry. Then Walter Saxel (John Boles) comes along once again to fetch her.

Ray is a bright and reasonable woman. In the beginning she remarks that "many think they can have me without marrying" but "it's all the way or zero with me". In a memorable scene with a girlfriend at a later stage Ray advises her that "there is no happiness on a back street in anyone's life". Yet she proceeds to do exactly what she has warned against. Back Street is a story of un amour fou. What happens between Ray and Walter is absolutely crazy, with the crucial difference that Walter is also able to conduct a fully normal public life, a main street life with a career, family, children, and a social network. For Ray there remains only the secret life, the back street, a solitude when Walter is away.

One of the final surprises takes place during the final trip to Paris. Walter's children have grown up and they see through Walter's arrangement with the strange woman who always accompanies him at a distance. Walter's son Dick meets Ray in private to condemn her but Walter appears too, defending Ray and their love affair as the best thing in their lives, and he asks his son to "mind his own business and get out". At night Walter dies of a stroke, and his last wish is to hear Ray's voice on the telephone. Dick now realizes how much his father had loved Ray. Dick had believed Ray to be a gold-digger, and he is appalled to learn how measly the sum was that Walter had given Ray to support her.

The film is carried by Irene Dunne's extraordinary performance. Her film career had started but two years ago, but in this performance she has already a mature approach of great charm, sophistication, and complexity. It occurred to me also that Love Affair (1939) can be seen as a virtual sequel to Back Street, the story of two people living on their respective back streets meeting each other by chance at an ocean liner, with a chance of mutual love transcending and saving their lives.

A brilliant print.

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