Tag Archives: Back Street

Only Yesterday: Pangborn Pansies and Pre-Code Feminism


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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 14.03.12.png

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 popular history (not, Lawrence Napper informs me, a novel as is commonly assumed)  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


Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History (July 6, 2018, KCL)

I didn’t intend to write on the ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ one-day symposium held at King’s College London on the 6thof July 2018, so this will probably be a partial account; my notes were taken in the service of my own thinking rather than with the aim of writing  for others and is thus probably partial and incomplete. But it was such a great event –informed, instructive; a scholarly context taking into account the intellectual debates of the day on the subject at hand with the aim of creating dialogue through which to increase our knowledge, instruct us all, and point to areas where further research may be profitably undertaken – that I felt I needed to at least jot down some developments in my own thinking that resulted from the day.

The idea was structured as a combination of workshops and sets of curated and complimentary papers on particular areas. The day before the event two films were screened: John M. Stahl’s Back Street from 1932, a celebrated ‘Pre-Code’ film; and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, famous for making comedy of a young girl (Betty Hutton) getting drunk, getting pregnant, and not being able to remember who she slept with, thus getting around many of the taboos the code prohibited. Participants were asked to view the two films with the aim of contributing to the two workshops the following day, in which the two films would be the focus of case studies on the influence and deployment of the Production Code. So contrary to the usual assumption underpinning the standard academic conference, which is to showcase the state of one’s own research, this event was more along the lines of, ‘lets set some guidelines for discussions, have major figures in the field (Lea Jacobs, Doug Pye, Ed Gallafent) contextualise and set some parameters for it, let’s present some leading research, and let’s all collectively contribute to the discussion and see where it takes us to by the end of the day’. The developmental and pedagogic element was built into the structure of the day, with great success.

Tom Brown introduced the event with an account of what had led him and John Gibbs to pursue the subject. The goals of the day were contextualised within the landmark work in the area by Richard Maltby (“’Baby Face’ or How Joe Breen Made Barbara Stanwyck Atone for the Wall Street Crash’ in Screen). Thomas Doherty (Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-34); Hollywood Censors: Joseph I Breen and the Production Code Administration), Leonard Leff (The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code); and Lea Jacobs (The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942).

Brown also praised the new work on historiography such as The New Film History: Source, Methods, Approaches (James Chapman, Mark Glancy, and Sue Harper eds.) and how recent developments in the field on the uses of archival materials has transformed the study of film. However, great as this all is, Brown also drew on Dyer’s question of ‘Where is the ‘film’ in Film Studies’ to highlight how all this new work on film risked side-lining the films themselves. He mentioned recent accounts of Hollywood cinema that argue that the introduction of the Production Code led to no discernible difference in film style, and drew on Stanley Cavell’s discussion of the Jericho scene in It Happened One Nightin Pursuits of Happiness to argue differently. So the aim of the day was really to explore this difference that started off as intuited and felt and to bring considerations of film style back into a productive interplay with the fruits born from historiographical and archival work.

Adam Vaughn offers archival evidence

The day started off with Adam Vaughan presenting his paper ‘Queering the Code’ where he examined the influence of the Code on the work of queer filmmakers and performers in 1930s Hollywood. His case studies were two films by George Cukor, Our Betters(1933) and Sylvia Scarlett(1935) and he argued that the enforcement of the Code changed representation from the explicit to the allusive and connotative. Vaughan’s demonstration of the censors’ objections to the heavy make-up on one of the queer characters in Our Betters was very illuminating.  Olympia Kiriakou also drew on archival sources to demonstrate how MGM had to negotiate the presentation of adultery in MGM’s The Women ([1939], also directed by Cukor) focussing on the scene where Mary (Norma Shearer) discusses her husband’s infidelity with her mother. The paper traced the development of the scene from the original theatrical script through the cinematic adaptation, via all the discussion with Joseph Breen, and, finally, to the finished version of the film that we get to see today. One of the interesting things that came out of the workshop was that rather than debate which is the original version, the director’s cut, that which most people saw, etc., what’s important is to at least initially keep in play the whole process in its entirety, as that might result in different questions; or, the possibility that a look at the process in its entirety might result in different, richer, answers to the same question.


More archival evidence from Olympia Kiriakou’s presentation on The Women (1939)

This set of papers was followed by a workshop led by Lea Jacobs and Ed Gallafent on Back Street, part of the ‘Fallen Women’ cycle Jacobs  writes so brilliantly on in her magisterial The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. The workshop began with a discussion of the film as an adaptation of the Fannie Hurst best-seller, pointing out how the novel was more explicit on the issue of class and race keeping the lovers apart than Stahl’s movie (the character of  Walter Saxel played by John Boles in the film is Jewish in the novel). The discussion touched on the various film versions of the novel, not only Stahl’s but also the 1941 version directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan, as well as the 1961 version directed by David Miller starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin. Which scenes changed, how were they developed, and how were they visualised from the novel to the ‘Pre-Code’ version to the subsequent ones?

Ed Gallafent offered a lovely reading of the scene between Ray (Irene Dunne) and her sister (see clip below), highlighting the way it begins by Ray looking at herself confidently in the mirror before meeting Walter’s mother, deciding not to put her make-up on, moving her belongings from a black purse to a white purse in order to make a better impression. But the song she’s humming is ‘After the Ball’:

After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.


Gallafent underlined the importance of that song in Dunne’s career (she performed it earlier on stage in Show Boat and would perform it later still in James Whale’s 1936 film version) and also highlighted the significance of several elements in the scene: the way the sister enters the room, locks the door, and leans against it barring the way, something of a trope in ‘women’s’ films throughout the whole ‘Classic’ period; the way the sister asks questions without ending them, ‘he’s got to stay here and….’; ‘If mama were to find out anything she’d…’.;the way that Ray earlier tosses a coin about whether Walter’s mother will like her but, because of the sister’s interruption, never gets to find out which side the coin faced, and how this all underlines the element of chance in the scene.

Lea Jacobs noted how what was unspoken but clearly understood is that Ray’s sister is pregnant. The discussion teased out how the film had at the beginning set up a tension around virtue with Ray’s step-mother protecting her biological daughter’s but questioning Ray’s; how this scene demonstrates how the tables have now turned; how later on in the film the sister herself, with the husband, home and children Ray made possible, will stand in judgment of her sister, forgetting what had happened before. The discussion also indicated how the tracking shot at the end of the next sequence, where we see the band packed-up and walking down the bandstand with their instruments, rhymes with the Ray’s humming of ‘After the Ball’; and how all of this underlines chance, the ‘might-have-been’, the ‘it could happen to anyone’ which the film will underscore in its sad, final flashback. It was a very illuminating, inclusive and generative workshop.



In the afternoon papers, Kathrina Glitre in her ‘Sacred Intimacies: Sexual ambiguity and performance in My Favourite Wife(1940)’ explored the issues around performance and suggested meaning, comparing the PCA’s recommendations to key moments in the finished film. ‘How exactly’, she asked, ‘does screwball performance style enable the kind of ambiguity necessary to render sexual content appropriately ‘innocent’? The paper demonstrated how memos to and from the Breen office often remarked on something ‘as agreed’ though never putting on paper what exactly was agreed upon. Glitre also showed how the PCA’s correspondence directly addressed questions of performativity.

From Kathrina Glitre’s excellent presentation

In the same panel, Martha Shearer argued that the Busby Berkeley Warners musicals of the early 30s often appear in accounts of ‘pre-Code Hollywood’ usually contrasted with the Astaire and Rogers cycle, a contrast that seems dramatic. Shearer instead focuses on Warners’ own Dames(1934) to argue that the ‘the principal of deniability’ continues to operate but through a ‘more gradual, more complex and less melodramatic evolution of systems of convention in representation’. What Shearer brought out also is that many of these films were re-released so which ones were not allowed a re-release subsequent to the more stringent enforcement of the code, which ones were edited, and what was edited out and for which reasons, may also prove a useful way of illuminating the effects of the code on the style of later representations of that which was forbidden. Lastly, James McDowell offered a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Irony, Intention and the Production Code’ arguing for how the working through, against and in the shadow of, the Production Code, should lead us to re-think the question of intentionality in relation to film interpretation.



Martha Shearer, surrounded by Ruby Keeler and Dames


The afternoon workshop revolved around a discussion of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek led by Lea Jacobs, Kathrina Giltre and Douglas Pye. Lea Jacobs offered an absolutely brilliant reading of the scene where Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker goes to the dance, gets drunk (see clip below), and later gets married to God knows who and gets pregnant. As Kathrina Giltre demonstrated, none of it was allowed by Code. Jacobs not only showed how Sturges treated it as a game to get around the censors (you never see Trudy drinking anything other than what’s listed as lemonade, though her expression highlights its sourness due to sugar being conserved as part of the war effort, a ‘sourness’ that the audience understands as her drinking alcohol; later on in the country club, drinks are offered to each and everyone but Trudy’s out of sight, etc. etc.). However, what Jacobs so brilliantly underlined is that in all the games of not showing the drinking whilst communicating that Trudy’s getting drunk, what’s really being displaced is the sex; how because she dances with so many different men, some people have talked of her having multiple partners that night, or the even darker possibility that in spite of the sexual energy Hutton so convivially evokes, she might have been so drunk she was taken advantage of or worse.

Doug Pye, equally brilliantly, spoke of tone; and the discussion also highlighted how so much of the comedy edges on darkness. Pye offered a timeline on the film from the title, through the various scene drafts, the first day of shooting without completed script or PCA comments, Breen’s response, the granting of a seal approval, the Catholic Legion of Decency’s objections, the film’s release and comments on audience interpretation of the film. Immensely useful. Later in the workshop, the film’s particularly brilliant use of the long takes and how it focuses on the performance, and how the actors brilliantly evoke, and play for laughs that which cannot be said  was highlighted. The use of Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, intertextually referencing  Sturges’ previous The Great McGinty (1940) as a way of providing a deux ex-machina that resolves every impediment to marriage whilst breaking all the laws was also part of the intriguing discussion in the workshop.

The ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ symposium was a brilliant event. It made use of recent developments in theory, history, and the Archive and brought them productively into play with criticism – raising fascinating questions about the effects of the Production Code process, with an underlining of process in its entirety — on film style in a way that put back the film into ‘Film Studies’ as the central object of study it deserves to be.


José Arroyo


Back Street (John M. Stahl, USA, 1932)


Does John Boles make his leading ladies look good by being so boring or is he simply so dull they have to sparkle twice is brightly to keep a scene going? Enquiring minds want to know. Whatever appeal he had to Thirties audiences is now lost in the mist of time. Irene Dunne, however, interjects everything with life and good nature. Her voice alone makes one feel good. As Ray Schmidt, she shows how she can have a good time without giving travelling salesmen what they want. She knows about numbers and can do bookkeeping. When she moves to New York City, she becomes the highest paid women in her firm. She can turn her hand at ceramics and make money out of it if need be. She’s got a millionaire automobile entrepreneur begging for her hand in marriage, something he’s been doing since he was a teenager. But no, she loves John Boles’ Walter Saxel and is happy to give it all up – career, children, social position, respectability….. for him?


Nobody gets it. But you don’t have to. This is a handsomely mounted movie, with Dunne allowed to age from a teenage good-time girl to a back street woman to expensively dressed mistress to an old lady with a great death-bed scene. She gets to emote, sadness, longing, patience, understanding, all whilst wearing beautiful clothes and giving great veil. There is one great moment in the film, the one the film pivots on: if Ray Schmidt had arrived at the concert in time to meet Walter’s mother, she might have been the wife instead of the mistress. That ‘might-have-been’ moment is what justifies and feeds the masochism the film draws on and audiences revel in.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 16.49.40.png
Irene Dunne gives great veil

John Stahl directs it beautifully. Ray, happy at the prospect of the date is humming whilst getting herself ready. But the song she’s humming is ‘After the Ball’:

After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.

That’s when her step-sister come s in and asks for her help. At the beginning of the film her mother makes a distinction between what her own daughter is allowed to do and what Ray, who is not her real daughter and is not under her authority can get away with. The implication is that Ray might be loose with her virtue, though we know better. Now the tables are turned. Ray’s step-sister has threatened suicide if she doesn’t go talk to the man she loves and prevents him from leaving town. The implication is that she’s pregnant. Ray knows, and tells her sister, that being at the bandstand at three o’clock is the most important thing in her life.  However, she does right by her sister but arrives too late for her own date. The sister will end up with the husband, children, and home that Ray will long for to no avail for the rest of the film. Part of the appeal is that it’s all chance. There but for the grace of God…This could happen to anyone, even someone as smart, loving, and good as Ray.

When she arrives in the park, the crowd is already dispersing. As you can see in the clip above, we see the crowd before the carriage arrives, Ray dismounts, and starts searching for Walter and his mother, sometimes moving with the crowd, sometimes against. In the second shot the camera dollies back with her walking against the tide of the crowd, looking. There’s a cut to a closer shot, but it’s initially of her back, before she turns, surrounded a number of women all wearing hats as she continues looking. She moves towards the camera. Moves towards the camera some more, but in vain.

The last, and most important, most expressive shot of this scene, is the last one, which starts in close-up then dollies backward to reveal her full length, the bandstand in the background, the musicians packing up and going home, as she continues searching. The shot tracks back quite a distance and then holds for a quite a long time, underlining the importance of this moment for Ray, until the scene fades and we get a fade to an inter-title, telling us we’re now on Wall Street, New York. This shot rhymes and is a reply to her humming of ‘After the Ball’. It’s very expressive. She’s calm, but her inner anguish is shown by her movement through the crowd, and the feeling that she’s in a transformative moment in her life, one that she’s let pass her by, is beautifully conveyed by the backward tracking shot at the end.

Back Street is seen by many as Stahl’s masterpiece. ‘Stahl’s approach to the women’s film is as uniques a it is personal,’ writes George Morris in Film Comment, ‘In lieu of Borzage’s transcendetal romanticism and Sirk’s subversive irony, Stahl confronts his unlikely narratives with quiet directness. There are no undue frills or stylistic flourishes in a Stahl film.’ Morris compares Stahl to Dryer.

Christian Viviani in Positif called him, ‘without a doubt the American filmmaker most centrally and obstinately glued to melodrama: it is perhaps only with the Italian Raffaello Matarazzo that we observe so instransigent and exclusive a choice/ ”sans dout le cinéaste américain qui s’est le plus obstinément et frontalement colleté au mélodrame: ce n’est peut-être que chez l’Italien Raffaello Matarazzo qu’on observe un choix aussi intransigeant et exclusif’  (trans. my own).

According to Viviani, ‘The filmmaker focuses on an admirable task: how to make us admit that we live melodrama daily? How to reconcile the exceptional character of the melodramatic event with the banality of the credible? Stahl succeeds by  bringing together precision, sobriety and emotion/ Tâche admirable que le cinéaste s’est fixée: comment nous fair admetre que nous vivons quotidiennement dans le mélodrame? Comment concilier le caractère exceptionnel de l’événement mélodramatique avec la banalité du credible. Stahl y parvient en conciliant précision, sobriété et émotion’ (‘trans. my own’.

My own view is that there can be a great deal of skill and feeling in trash; or not quite the same thing, that when treated as soberly and skilfully as Stahl does here, trashy material can communicate complex structures of feeling audiences can identify with and connect to in direct but complex ways. It’s part of the picture’s triumph.


José Arroyo