July 08, 2016

Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 Blogathon - Back Street (1932)

Thanks to Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Theresa of CineMaven's Essays from the Couch for hosting the blogathon. Please visit their fine blogs. You'll be glad you did.

If you think the life of a kept woman is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, you're wrong, wrong, wrong, peeps. Fannie Hurst made it clear in 1931.

Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio, grew up in St. Louis and spent her adult life in New York City. She was the author of 17 novels and more than 250 short stories, as well as plays, screenplays, memoirs, essays and articles. Her best-remembered works are those turned into films, including: The Younger GenerationBack StreetImitation of LifeHumoresque, and Young at Heart. She was active in a variety of progressive Jewish, social justice, labor, peace and women's organizations. A lifelong philanthropist, Hurst willed her considerable estate to her alma mater Washington University and to Brandeis University.

Back Street (1931), Hurst's seventh novel, was hailed as her "magnum opus" and has been called her "best loved" work. Originally called Grand Passion, it was first published as a monthly serial in Cosmopolitan magazine. When the installments were compiled into a novel, the title changed to Back Street. Soon Hollywood came calling, and Universal Studios bought the book rights for $30,000 in 1931. Its main character, a confident, independent young Gentile woman, falls in love with a married Jewish banker and becomes his secret mistress, sacrificing her own life in the process and ultimately meeting a tragic end.

Back Street was the basis for three films of the same name in 1932, 1941, directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, and 1961, directed by David Miller and starring Susan Hayward, John Gavin, and Vera Miles. In addition, there's a fourth film written by Frank Capra, Forbidden (1932), which liberally borrowed elements from Hurst's novel without crediting her.

Since this is a blogathon featuring the films of 1932, I'll be focusing on the first movie version of Back Street. It was directed by John M. Stahl and stars John Boles and Irene Dunne.

Watch the Opening Credits of Back Street (1932)

Production and Distribution Company: Universal Pictures Corp.
Production Text: Carl Laemmle, President; A John M. Stahl Production
Director: John M. Stahl
Producers: Carl Laemmle, Jr. (producer), E. M. Asher (associate producer)
Writers: Gladys Lehman (screenplay), Gene Fowler (screenplay), Ben Hecht (screenplay), and Lynn Starling (dialogue) - Based on the novel Back Street by Fannie Hurst (New York, 1931).
Cinematographer: Karl Freund
Art Director: Charles D. Hall
Editor: Milton Carruth
Music: James Dietrich
Premiere: September 1, 1932
Release Date: December 30, 1932
Duration (in minutes): 93
Color: Black and white
Sound: Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording Sound System)

Carl Laemmle (born Karl Lämmle) was a pioneer in American film making and a founder of one of the original major Hollywood movie studios—Universal. Laemmle produced or was otherwise involved in over four hundred films.

Carl Laemmle, Jr. (born Julius Laemmle) was an American businessman and heir of Carl Laemmle, who had founded Universal Studios. He was head of production at the studio from 1928 to 1936.

E. M. Asher (born Ephriam Milton Asher) was the associate producer of a number of famous films, including: 1931's Dracula and Frankenstein, Back Street (1932), and Magnificent Obsession (1935). He was the father of director/producer/writer William Asher, and Betty Asher, publicist for Judy Garland and Lana Turner at M-G-M.

John Malcolm Stahl (born Jacob Morris Strelitsky) was an American film director and producer. Stahl was one of the thirty-six founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He famously directed Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

Gladys Lehman (born Gladys Collins) was an American screenwriter. Lehman was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild in 1933. She was also one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. As a screenwriter she shared an Oscar nomination with Richard Connell for Best Original Screenplay for Two Girls and a Sailor (1944).

Gene Fowler (born Eugene Devlan) was an American journalist, author and dramatist. He was a close friend of John Barrymore and W.C. Fields. A great quote by Gene Fowler: "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

Ben Hecht was an American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist and novelist. Film historian Richard Corliss called him "the Hollywood screenwriter," someone who "personified Hollywood itself." Movie columnist Pauline Kael added that "between them, Hecht and Jules Furthman wrote most of the best American talkies." Six of his movie screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards, with two winning: Underworld (1927) and The Scoundrel (1935).

Karl W. Freund was a cinematographer and film director best known for photographing Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931),  The Good Earth (1937), Key Largo (1948), and television's I Love Lucy (1951-1957).

Charles D. Hall was a British-American art director and production designer. He was art director for many of Universal Pictures's most famous productions: The Phantom of the Opera (1925), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Magnificent Obsession (1935), and the 1936 film version of Show Boat. Hall also worked on the 1929 part-talkie film version of Show Boat.

Irene Dunne (born Irene Marie Dunn) was an American film actress and singer. Dunne was nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performances in Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948). According to Francis Ford Coppola's audio commentary on Bram Stoker's Dracula, Columbia used Dunne's image on the familiar logo.

John Boles was an American film actor and singer. His big break came when Radio Pictures selected him to play the leading man in their extravagant production of Rio Rita, opposite Bebe Daniels.  In 1937, Boles starred alongside Barbara Stanwyck in the King Vidor classic Stella Dallas. During World War I, Boles was a U.S. spy in Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

George Meeker was an American character movie and Broadway actor. Tall, handsome, wavy-haired Meeker was never in the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom; off-camera, however, he was highly regarded and much sought after—as an expert polo player.

ZaSu Pitts (born Eliza Susan Pitts) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning successfully to mostly comedy films with the advent of sound films. The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu." She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. Pitts gave the correct pronunciation as "Zay Soo."

June Clyde (born Ina Parton) was an American actress, singer and dancer. While she had a pleasing personality and above-average dancing and singing skills, she was seldom seen to best advantage in her Hollywood films, usually playing second (or even third) fiddle.

William Bakewell, also known as Billy Bakewell, was an American actor, who achieved his greatest fame as one of the premiere juvenile performers of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1933, he contributed to the founding of the Screen Actors Guild, and was member 44 of the original 50. For four decades, Bakewell served on the board of Motion Picture and Television Fund.

Arletta Duncan was an American actress. She appeared in 11 films between 1931 and 1937.

Shirley Grey was an American actress. She appeared in 46 films between 1930 and 1935.

Doris Lloyd (born Hessy Doris Lloyd) was an English stage and screen actress. She appeared in over 150 films between 1925 and 1967. Her roles ranged from the sinister Russian spy Mrs. Travers in the biopic Disraeli (1929) to the meek housekeeper Mrs. Watchett in The Time Machine (1960).

Paul Weigel was a German-American actor. He appeared in 114 films between 1916 and 1945.

Jane Darwell (born Patti Woodard) was an American actress of stage, film, and television. She appeared in more than 100 motion pictures over a 50-year span. Darwell is perhaps best-remembered for her portrayal of the matriarch and leader of the Joad family in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and her role as the Bird Woman in Disney's Mary Poppins (1964).

James Donlan was an American actor. He appeared in 107 films between 1929 and 1939. His daughter was actress Yolande Donlan.

Walter Catlett was an American actor. He made a career of playing excitable, officious blowhards. Three of his most remembered roles are Morrow the Poet in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Constable Slocum in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and the Theatre Manager in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Robert McWade was an American stage and film actor. From 1903 to 1927, he appeared in at least 38 Broadway productions. McWade also appeared in 83 films between 1924 and 1938. His father was notable stage actor Robert McWade, Sr. and his older brother was character actor Edward McWade.

Maude Turner Gordon was an American stage and film actress. She appeared in 81 films between 1914 and 1938.

In the first film version of Back Street, which was the most faithful to the novel, the heroine was a Cincinnati minx named Ray Schmidt, whose father sold dry goods at the turn of the century. A good sport but never a bad girl, Ray kept company with traveling salesmen until one day she fell deeply in love with ambitious Walter Saxel. Walter loved her, too. But, after an agonizing mixup, he married a rich girl.

From then on it was a dog's life for Ray, who had a wonderful capacity for loyalty and love, but threw it all away on Walter. As he grew in international prominence, Ray followed him discreetly from New York to Paris. She accepted his $50 a week, lived in obscure little hotels, amused herself with china painting and brewing hot chocolate for him whenever he had time to pay her a furtive visit. Then Walter died of a stroke, and Ray was left alone, paying the ultimate price for her folly.

Back Street was considered a tad racy way back in 1932. What got everyone hot and bothered:
  • The main male and female characters were illicit lovers. Walter Saxel was a married man with two children and a mistress on the side. Ray Schmidt was his kept woman.
  • Ray asks Walter to give her a child. Obviously, their child would have been illegitimate.
  • When Ray is prevented from meeting Walter's mother, Ray's sister Freda is revealed to be pregnant out of wedlock.
  • Walter (gasp!) uses his own key to enter Ray's apartment.
  • The portrayal of Walter's wife as a "narrow, smug person"; and the portrayal of Walter's son as a "snob," which served to "[throw] sympathy violently to Ray's point of view."
  • Walter Saxel was Jewish and Ray Schmidt was not.

I ask WHY would Irene Dunne stay with John Boles? Other than good looks, he had nothing going for him. He was self-centered to the nth degree, mind-numbingly boring, and incredibly cheap. She needed to give him the gate. Gotta love this dialogue from the clip below:
Ray: "You don't know how empty my life is."
Walter: Rae, darling. Empty? When you have me?"

Also in the clip, Walter about has a kitten when Ray suggests they have a love child. It's no-go. Guess what? The reasons for not having a child all revolve around him. Check out Mr. Selfish.

In the 1941 version, I can understand why Margaret Sullavan would stay with Charles Boyer. There was a definite attraction there. Who wouldn't stay with Charles Boyer? It's the best adaptation of the three.

I can't be objective about Back Street '61 because watching John Gavin is one of my guilty pleasures. (Now that's a hunk of man! Makes me all hot and bothered.) The flick is worth watching for the Ross Hunter glitz alone. The clothes are great, too. Susan Hayward wearing Jean Louis.

Back Street on the Radio

"Back Street" on The Screen Guild Theater - June 21, 1943 - Charles Boyer, Martha Scott

"Back Street" on Screen Directors Playhouse - May 24, 1951 - Stars: Charles Boyer, Mercedes McCambridge - Director Robert Stevenson

Watch Back Street (1932)


Caftan Woman said...

My first viewing was the 1961 film. Oh, Ross Hunter knew how to bring this story to the top of the schmaltz mountain. Required accompaniment: one box of tissues and one box of chocolates.

After one viewing each of the other adaptations, I agree with your assessment that the 1941 version with Boyer and Sullavan captured something special between our lead. Watching the 1932 version is not without its charms, but you scream at Irene/Ray, "You're better than this!"

I was enthralled with the very interesting background on all involved. Thanks for that and for those radio links. I probably should stock up on tissue and chocolate.

Citizen Screen said...

FANTASTIC, INFORMATIVE AND FUN! Thanks so much for submitting this to our blogathon. I've never seen BACK STREET so it's on my MUST list now. I think I have it too. Great read.


Silver Screenings said...

Oh dear – I haven't seen any of these. They all sound interesting in their own way, and the book does, too!

Whenever I"m on your blog, both my movie and reading lists grow larger. :)