The World As It Is
By Nicolas Rapold
John M. Stahl
Halfway through John M. Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933), there’s a line of dialogue you might not be expecting to hear. Young Mary Lane, pregnant after a night’s adventure with a dashing soldier, has been sent to New York to stay with her Aunt Julia, a suffragette with a roomy apartment. With her military man now off to Europe, Mary is feeling hopeless, but Julia talks her down: “This sort of thing is no longer a tragedy. It is not even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened.”
Rest assured that Stahl does take full advantage of the coincidences, burning secrets, and crushing tragedy that power melodrama. You can read it in the titles of his silent films, among them Greater Than Love (1919), Women Men Forget (1920) and The Child Thou Gavest Me (1921). But Aunt Julia’s phrase (“just something that happened”) captures the particular clear-eyed gaze that Stahl brings to his best-known stories of forbearance. In the selection of 1930s and ’40s Stahl highlights showing at Metrograph, people face up to the agonies of abandonment and regret, whether at the mercy of lovers or prey to their own gnawing memories. They don’t just wallow for our delectation, they push ahead and, above all, deal with the world as it is.
Stahl grew up on the Lower East Side in New York, pushing ahead himself after his family emigrated in 1893 from his birthplace in Baku, Azerbaijan (then part of the Russian Empire). He began as an actor, then directed silents, becoming established enough to be one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Quickly making his mark in the sound era as well, he made three films centering on adultery: Back Street (1932), Only Yesterday (1933) and Seed (1931), the hardest of these films to track down. Each feels grounded in the lived experience of their scandalized women in a plainspoken way that is downright disarming.
Despite all that’s thrown at them, Stahl’s women are forces of nature that elicit admiration rather than pity as victims of fate. In Only Yesterday, we first see Mary (Margaret Sullavan, making one of cinema’s great debuts) as an incandescent partygoer who finagles a dance with handsome Jim Everson (Stahl stalwart John Boles). That leads to a romantic night by the lake, with, afterwards, a pre-Code quip about the sash on her dress hanging untied on the walk back. Mary doesn’t see Jim again till after Armistice Day, which is also the birthday of their baby son, and after tracking him down at a parade, she is mortified by the conquering hero’s total lack of recognition. In the time leaps that follow, she raises a decent kid (always seen, poignantly, in uniform for military school) and runs a dress shop, and to outward appearances enjoys the boisterous company of her aunt and a circle of friends.
Despite all that’s thrown at them, Stahl’s women are forces of nature that elicit admiration rather than pity as victims of fate.
Mary is one of Stahl’s many independent, resourceful women, her story drawn (though uncredited) from Stefan Zweig’s novella Letter from an Unknown Woman, which had been recently translated into English. Only Yesterday sets the story just as the 1929 crash is happening, and within the first few minutes, someone commits suicide in the bathroom, news of which Stahl disconcertedly lets hang in the air while a racily dialogued party takes place at Jim’s (complete with Frank Pangborn flinging one-liners). Jim reads the anonymous letter of the Zweig title—Mary’s, of course—just as he is sitting at his desk to stare down the barrel of his own pistol. He and Mary do meet again after Armistice Day, but still he does not recognize her, even as he takes her to his second apartment, spouting romantic pap.
Stahl grasps that feelings are facts and he places them alongside other facts of existence, instead of settling into the grooves one might have learned from other woman’s pictures. Made just a year earlier, Back Street (1932, from the 1931 novel by Fannie Hurst) features Irene Dunne as Ray, the kept woman of a married banker, Walter (Boles as well); they miss their chance at a connection in Ohio, but remain tethered across the decades. For years, she lives in the shadows, discouraged from pursuing her own livelihood, and declining the chance of a safe marriage to an old friend. And yet Ray’s love for Walter is not portrayed as a life wasted—even Walter’s snippy son eventually fathoms the profundity of her bond with his father—exemplifying the core Stahl philosophy that “both things can be true.”
The epitome of this outlook could be Magnificent Obsession (1935), adapted from the book by Lloyd C. Douglas (aka 12th Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Akron, turned writer). Helen Hudson (Dunne) loses her husband when life-saving medical equipment is deployed to aid a drunken “good for nothing boy” named Robert Merrick (Robert Taylor). Yet Merrick ends up devoting himself to becoming Helen’s savior after she is blinded, his youthful recklessness alchemized into an ethos of selflessness.
Magnificent Obsession is often overshadowed by Douglas Sirk’s ripe 1954 retelling, but Stahl’s original encapsulates a reflection ongoing in his oeuvre—on the roads not taken, and the ways we do or do not resign ourselves to our paths. He has often been treated as the straight arrow to Sirk’s knowing irony—possibly out of a lingering disrespect for melodrama generally—but even Stahl’s lesser-known works find some intriguing effects resulting from his style, favoring longer takes of people together over glam close-ups. In When Tomorrow Comes (1939), Stahl’s plainspoken approach transforms what seems at first a romantic comedy, pairing the ever-insouciant Charles Boyer and Dunne, as they were in Love Affair earlier that same year. They meet in a restaurant—Helen, an affable waitress (Dunne); Philip, an idle concert pianist who turns out to own a Long Island mansion (Boyer)—and pass gradually into a will-they-or-won’t-they limbo. The film does not ignite the way one might expect after they spend a night together in a church during a hurricane. Instead, Stahl lets their tentative connection drift right smack into the reality of Boyer’s wife, Madeleine (Barbara O’Neil): a woman suffering severe mental distress after the death of her baby.
Instead of the usual do-si-do of guilty passion, we’re confronted with Madeleine showing up at Helen’s door. In a scene fascinatingly staged in a straightforward two-shot, one actress facing the other, Madeleine explains her helplessness and why Helen should step away. The film’s romantic dreams evaporate in the moment, and one can almost see Helen figuring out how to react. Dunne’s treatment of ambivalence and hard-won wisdom throughout her Stahl roles has a legible interiority that truly feels as if it comes from within rather than from the romantic projections of the genre. It’s also worth mentioning how When Tomorrow Comes begins, which tends to get written out of some summaries: Helen works at a restaurant chain that drives its employees too hard. She attends a union solidarity meeting (where Philip sneaks in) and becomes a hero for a speech rallying her fellow workers, without the whole episode turning hokey-jokey.
Imitation of Life (1934)
Stahl’s routine portrayal of the strike makes it feel like an ordinary part of their lives, even as it serves its purpose in the plot. The same straightforward approach to social circumstances can be found at work in Imitation of Life (1934), where the lives of Delilah (Louise Beavers), a Black housekeeper, and her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) are constrained and determined by a racist social order. That is the case even as Delilah works for Bea (Claudette Colbert), a fair-minded and caring white businesswoman who treats her and Peola as friends and family. Yet the smallest decision in the movie is affected by this national fact; when Bea first offers to pay for Delilah’s streetcar fare home, Delilah politely declines (“We has to walk”). Stahl presents this societal reality without real comment, viewing the lighter-skinned Peola’s anger over her situation (“I want to be white, like I look”) through Delilah’s maternal protectiveness and Bea’s concern as a friend. Bea makes a fortune off Delilah’s family pancake recipe, but their attachment remains unshakable, even as they end up living at the same tony New York address.
When Bea’s own daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), is in town from school, Bea leaves her at home while she helps Delilah track down Peola who has fled out of continuing frustration with the inequality she cannot entirely escape. Stahl’s steady hand juggles the very different stakes for these two mother-daughter pairs with compassion, while Beavers navigates a tricky characterization with a clarity of focus, emphasizing a love and groundedness in such devastating moments as when she tracks down Peola working as a restaurant hostess and her daughter refuses to acknowledge her. The matter-of-factness of her performance and Stahl’s direction capture the iniquity of the situation, in a way that feels more immediate in conveying the commonness of the experience than playing up the injustice might have. Ultimately the film safely settles on maternal love as its lodestar, at once transcendent and mundane, ending on a goofy detail from Jessie’s childhood.
The 1940s films in the program find Stahl’s clear-eyed view of the world somewhat complicated by the demands of burgeoning Hollywood archetypes. Both Holy Matrimony (1943) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) center on a recurring figure in Hollywood—the oddball/outsider idealist—but in two divergent personalities and actors. In Holy Matrimony, Monty Woolley (a year after laying waste to a Midwestern family in The Man Who Came to Dinner as sardonic radio personality Sheridan Whiteside) plays “England’s greatest painter,” Priam Farll. The great man makes a split-second decision to fake his own death by assuming the identity of his freshly deceased valet. No one in England is the wiser since artist and valet had for several years been living on a tropical island, and the film becomes a comedic study of a stubborn man of principle, when Priam is found out and embroiled in a court trial. Stahl also leans into the predicament of Priam’s humble partner, Alice, who finds herself saddled with the role of “wife of a great man,” though remarkably here the marital dynamics feel somehow more retrograde than in Stahl’s 1930s works. (In Seed, for example, see how Stahl treats its story of a writer, his long-suffering wife and many children, and an old flame.)
In The Keys of the Kingdom, Gregory Peck embodies an upstanding Scottish priest who builds a congregation in the Chinese province to which he’s been sent, earning respect even from the squad of nuns who eventually join him. Peck’s Francis is a humble man, down to earth in his dealings, averse to any pretension whatsoever—a marked contrast to Vincent Price’s visiting priest, Angus, who glad-hands and speaks fluently the language of subtle power-brokering. Written, like Magnificent Obsession, by a religious leader turned novelist (A.J. Cronin), it can have the air of an exemplary fable, though Stahl’s faith in an essential human decency anchors the film (and, in the realm of “the world as it is,” he can downplay Francis’s action-hero involvement in a guerrilla sneak attack on imperialist Chinese forces).
A wrenching course correction in mood, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) has long stood alone as a mesmerizing and chilling classic. Often treated as an outlier in his work, this is a Technicolor portrait of a maleficent obsession. Placidly gorgeous Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) quite literally wants novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) all to herself, to the extent of having a deadly jealousy of his physically disabled brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), and her own doting cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain). First the Harland lakeside house in Maine becomes a fortress of solitude, and then the Harland family homestead is stifled by Ellen’s raging neurosis. Leave Her to Heaven is routinely called a noir, but in Stahl’s hands becomes something even stranger and more unnerving—it’s tempting to read the film as a skeptic’s gloss on the genre’s seductive bad vibes.
Any one of Ellen’s audacious actions would be sufficient for an entire film, but each is treated coolly as an object of morbid fascination for the hurt caused. Even the couple’s first meet-cute or meet-risqué on a train quietly becomes more like a meet-demonic as Ellen simply stares at Richard for an unnervingly length of time. Yet Stahl stays true to individual perspectives, holding both that Ellen’s positively Medean possessiveness can’t be ignored and that Ruth might indeed harbor affection for Richard. Where do Ellen’s actions leave them, and us? Not to heaven, perhaps, but with the sense that in life, sometimes survival itself is—must be—enough.
Nicolas Rapold is a writer and editor. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw.
When Tomorrow Comes (1939)