Only Yesterday: Pangborn Pansies and Pre-Code Feminism

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On the 29th of October 1929, James Stanton Emerson loses everything in the Wall Street Crash. He returns to his Manhattan penthouse apartment to see his wife with her new lover throwing a party even as the husband of one of the guests has already committed suicide. He excuses himself to go to his study to do the same but discovers a thick letter. As he reads it, the film flashes back to the story of Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan), how she fell in love with him, had his child and said nothing. We also get to see how, though he’d forgotten who she was much less what he did with and to her, there were several instances where he was once more drawn to her, once more tried seducing her, even though he’d forgotten he’d done it before and forever altered her life. In the end, Mary dies, all too young. But James Stanton Emerson, played by John Boles with all the stuffiness the name suggests,  finds a new reason for living in recognising as his the son he never know he had.

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It’s melodrama, typical of the ‘Fallen Woman’ cycle of the early thirties. But it’s one of the better exemplars. Tom Milne compares director John M. Stahl’s filmmaking in Only Yesterday to Bresson. George Morris compares it in Back Street to Dryer. I can understand the comparisons but the three things that struck me most watching Only Yesterday were as follows:

1) whilst the film is ostensibly based on a novel by Frederick Lewis Allen, the plot is directly lifted from Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, the 1922 novella that Ophuls would turn into a masterpiece of a film in 1948 with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.

2) I was also very excited to see the clip I’ve extracted below, another Pangborn pansy, but this time accompanied by what is clearly coded as a boyfriend. I thought I was discovering something new but I see that in the imdb entry, under ‘Trivia’,  we’re told, ‘This movie, made shortly before the tightening of the Production Code is the only one in which “screen queen” Franklin Pangborn had a boyfriend’.

 

 

‘That heavenly blue against that mauve curtain. Doesn’t it excite you? It does something to me’.

3) The feminism of Aunt Julia played by Billie Burke. I’m often surprised to see it so clearly and problematically asserted in ‘Pre-Code’ cinema. Another example of this is Bette Davis in Ex-Lady. Here Aunt Julia tells her niece Mary (Margaret Sullavan) ‘Women have cut more than their hair. That’s just a symbol. We’ve cut a lot of the old silly nonsense. We can get good jobs now. We’re not dependent any longer. What’s more we’ve kicked the bottom out of that old bucket called the double standard’.

Tom Milne in the Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the feminism of Aunt Julia  ‘is considerably undercut by the fact that she is engaged in a dithery romance which follows the conventions it seemingly denies.’ I don’t agree. It’s true that she ends up marrying a much younger lover. But that he is much younger is in fact a defiance of the conventions of the period and an assertion of a particular kind of freedom.

Only Yesterday is a very good ‘fallen woman’ film of the period, shot in the style characteristic of Stahl in the 1930s: the long fluid takes; the going back in time to a moment that alters one’s life — that could have altered anyone’s life — the sobriety of the treatment, the self-sacrifice made less saccharine by stoicism, by it being embedded in a kind of American self-reliance; the minimalist elegance of the storytelling (see how a change of lights indicates the movement of the elevator in the penthouse scene at the beginning, and all that it opens up dramatically); the making legible, felt, and understood that which is socially prohibited. It’s a lovely film. But what struck me most is the three things listed above; with the last two still seeming as relevant and as modern today as ever.

 

José Arroyo

 

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