Director: Robert Stevenson
It isn't his fault. It isn't my fault.
For more than four decades, from the 1920s to the mid-1960s, Fannie Hurst wrote popular novels and short stories about women and their problems, with the emphasis on their romantic lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously predicted that nothing she wrote would be remembered ten years later. Not surprisingly, a number of her works were adapted for the screen during the heyday of the woman's picture in the studio years, and it is these movies that in a way have proved Fitzgerald wrong. Among the movies adapted from her work are Four Daughters (1938) and its two sequels and musical remake, Young at Heart (1954), the Joan Crawford-John Garfield picture Humoresque (1946), two versions of her novel Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), and three versions of her novel Back Street (1932, 1941, and 1961). The 1941 and 1961 versions of Back Street have recently been released on DVD as part of the TCM Vault Collection.
The 1941 version from Universal stars Charles Boyer as Walter Saxel and Margaret Sullavan as Ray Smith, the woman who has a three decade-long affair with him. The two first meet in Cincinnati around the turn of the twentieth century. Ray is a young woman working in a dress shop with her spoiled stepsister and overbearing stepmother and Walter a businessman traveling through town when the two meet and fall in love. Their plans to get married are derailed by a melodramatic contrivance typical of this kind of picture, and each moves on. Five years later they run across each other by chance during a snowstorm in New York, where Ray is working as a fashion designer and Walter, now married and a father, is working in the investment bank of his wife's uncle. Finding that their feelings for each other have not cooled, they soon begin an affair that lasts nearly thirty years. During this time Ray voluntarily sacrifices her life, career, and chance to marry another man to be Walter's mistress, his kept "back street" woman.
The plot may be pure soap opera, but the resulting film is a splendid example of its genre, avoiding obvious sentimentality in favor of a light and subtle touch. Everything about the movie is restrained. The direction by Robert Stevenson (the very good 1943 version of Jane Eyre and a slew of Disney movies in the 1960s, including Mary Poppins) is professional and unobtrusive, the marvelous set decoration and costumes create a flavorful period atmosphere without being overdone, and the photography by the great William Daniels is first-rate. Even the music is subdued. What really makes this movie special, though, is its star, Margaret Sullavan.
I've been a fan of Margaret Sullavan since first seeing her many years ago in Ernst Lubtisch's The Shop Around the Corner (1941). Sullavan, who died in 1960, was a trained stage actress who made only seventeen movies in her brief screen career, all but one in the ten years between 1933 and 1943. I've seen about half of these, and of the ones I've seen, her performance in Back Street is among her very best, right up there with her Klara Novak in that Lubitsch masterpiece and her tragic Patricia in Frank Borzage's Three Comrades (1938), a performance that earned her the New York Film Critics Circle award and an Oscar nomination as best actress.
Sullavan had a screen presence that was unique among the actresses of her generation. With her unusual voice, both throaty and breathy, no one else sounded quite like her. Her ability to register fine emotional shifts with that voice and with her subtle facial expressions made her an ideal film actress. She was not a conventionally beautiful woman and in fact could at times look quite plain. But in Back Street she looks as lovely as I've ever seen her, helped by the high-necked gowns and pinned-up hairstyles and by cinematographer William Daniels's sympathetic lighting. (A master at making actresses look beautiful, he was Garbo's favorite cinematographer, working with her on twenty-one pictures.)
But it was above all the personal qualities Sullavan projected—an unusual and very appealing combination of strength and delicacy—that made her unlike any other screen actress of her time. I can't think of any of her contemporaries who could simultaneously express these exact qualities as consistently and with so little apparent effort as Sullavan did, with such a finely calibrated sense of balance that they seem to coexist naturally in every character I've seen her play. In Back Street she dominates the movie not only because her character is the most important in the film, but because of the way she infuses that character so completely with her unique personality. Her distinctive screen presence is the thing that holds the movie together and elevates it above standard tearjerker fare.
At the beginning of the picture, Ray is criticized by her stepmother for being so friendly with the traveling salesmen who visit their shop. There's a wonderful scene early in the film where Ray is playing cards with a group of these salesmen, the only woman at the table. It's clear that she is completely at ease with these men and that they are thrilled to be socializing with such an attractive and personable young woman. Sullavan manages to convey an easy camaraderie with the men without losing any of her femininity or seeming in any way loose or flirtatious. She's naturally intelligent and unselfconscious, and it's easy to see why Walter would be attracted to her as soon as he meets her. Ray is also an independent woman, someone who feels stifled by the limitations of her circumstances and yearns for a more meaningful life. You can sense this in the wistfulness Sullavan was so good at projecting, the same wistfulness that motivated her Klara in The Shop Around the Corner.
When Ray meets Walter again in New York, she has realized her aspirations and is living as a single career woman. When she forgoes her career and eventually sacrifices her independence to become his mistress, it's presented as a measure of the strength of her love for Walter that she is willing to give up things which plainly mean so much to her. This idea of sacrifice for love was at the heart of the woman's pictures that were so popular from the 1930s through the 1950s, sacrifice for a child or for a lover. It may seem a strange attitude to modern sensibilities, but keep in mind that the story takes place in the early 1900s and reflects the mores of its time. These are mores and a social milieu that were explored with a more probing and feminist slant by writers like Edith Wharton, and in some ways Back Street resembles a less socially aware and more melodramatic version of Wharton's novels like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. It may be difficult for modern viewers to understand Ray's decisions, but there is one constant in her situation, which is that people in love have always behaved foolishly and often in ways that are not in their own interest, and they still do.
Charles Boyer's Walter is a more difficult person to understand. He seems to expect to have both a family and a mistress as a privilege of his sex and social standing. He loves Ray but seems insensitive to the sacrifices she makes for him, a man concerned only with his own happiness and not above exploiting her feelings for him in order to keep her. The film maintains a neutral attitude to Walter, but neither does it or Boyer do anything to make him overtly sympathetic. That makes it easy for modern viewers to condemn him for his selfishness. But again, I think we need to remind ourselves of the mores of the time, when such expectations as Walter's were not uncommon and privileged men like Walter tended not to feel guilty about the emotional demands they made of women like Ray.
At the end of the film, after a quarter-century as Walter's mistress, how does Ray really feel about the personal sacrifices she has made for him? The conventions of this kind of movie idealize such sacrifices, portraying them as either noble or tragic. Back Street doesn't romanticize her situation, though, again taking a surprisingly neutral view of her actions. In the end, we don't know for sure if she was happy or unhappy about her decisions and the course of her life. We just know this was the way it happened, and that tone of emotional understatement—a rarity in films of this type—coupled with Margaret Sullavan's graceful and touching performance has made Back Street age uncommonly well.
You might also be interested in:
• Three Comrades (1938)
• Fairy Tales Can Come True: The Good Fairy (1935)
• Have Yourself a Merry Lubitsch Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner (1941)