Tag Archives: Weepies

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

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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?

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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.

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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

Dark Victory (Edmond Goulding, USA, 1939)

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Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).

Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.

An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.

The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others —  she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.

She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.

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Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:

 

Reckless

Provocative

Defiant

Loving

Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)

 

 

 

I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.

I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.

 

José Arroyo

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