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.
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.