Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Seed. Posters from Ehsan Khoshbakht's Twitter account.

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. She reads while we others spell. (NB 7 September 2018: her beautiful essay on Seed has now been published by Film Comment, September / October 2018).

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.



The plot is based on a studio script. While the title of Charles G. Norris's novel implies the story was about birth control, no discussion of the subject was included in the script. According to a modern source, director John M. Stahl held a prolonged search to cast the role of "Margaret Carter." He finally hired Bette Davis for the role after seeing her in the studio commissary.


Bart Carter has given up his dreams of writing to work for a publishing company, so he can support his wife Peggy and their five children.

Bart's old flame, Mildred Bronson, returns to New York, and he discovers she has been his publisher's foreign agent in Paris for the past ten years. They become reacquainted, and Mildred learns how he has sacrificed his writing for his family. During a visit to the Carter home, Mildred notices that Peggy neglects her husband in favor of her children. Soon after, Bart is instructed to report to Mildred for work, and she informs him that his boss, Bliss, has approved an arrangement by which Bart can write his novel, Seed, under Mildred's supervision, while retaining a regular salary.

As the bustle of his home life is incompatible with his work as a writer, Bart writes at Mildred's apartment during the day, and often stays for dinner. Mildred and Bart soon fall in love again. One day, Mildred goes to Bart's house to announce the acceptance of his novel for publication, and while Bart is absent, Peggy warns Mildred that she cannot take Bart away from her. To encourage Bart to work at home, Peggy transforms the attic into an office and warns the children to stay quiet. The noise level is unchanged, however, and Bart loses his patience, telling Peggy that the children have cost him his ambition, hopes, youth and their love.

After Bart leaves for Mildred's apartment, Peggy writes him a note, and packs up and leaves with the children, intent upon driving to a relative. She gets lost in the rain, however, and finds she has been driving in circles, finally returning home in the morning. Bart, meanwhile, finds Peggy's note and returns to Mildred, and upon professing their love for each other, they decide to go to Paris together. Bart returns home to pack a few things and is surprised to find Peggy there. Peggy tries to make light of her note, but then realizes that Mildred is waiting for Bart in the car. She informs Bart that she wants nothing from him, and he leaves. Peggy opens a shop and lives over the store with the children.

Ten years later, Bart has become a renowned author, and he and Mildred return to the United States as a married couple. His children, now grown, are thrilled to receive their famous father for a visit, and he is shocked to discover their humble home, as Peggy has kept their address a secret from him until recently. Bart offers to send the children away to school, and all are delighted with the prospect except for Peggy, who feels he is taking away from her the only thing she has worked for in life. The children convince her that school is in their best interests, however, and she reluctantly watches them leave with Bart the very next day. She is left with only Mildred to console her. Mildred assures her that while she has lost her children, they will return to her, whereas Mildred, who has no children, has lost Bart to the children and has no one.

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