Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


BACK STREET (1941). Director: Robert Stevenson.

"There's one half of Walter Saxel's life -- and here comes the other half." 

In old Cincinnati Ray Smith (Margaret Sullavan) meets a visitor named Walter Saxel (Charles Boyer), and the two fall madly in love. Unfortunately it turns out Walter already has a fiancee. In spite of this he determines to marry Ray, only fate conspires to keep them apart at the fateful moment. Years later the two meet in New York, and begin a life-long affair. The best screen version of Fannie Hurst's famous novel transcends soap opera via its superior script, direction, and acting from the leads and indeed the entire cast. Ray Smith's tragedy is that she is clearly an independent-minded woman of strength and character who is undone by her love for a man who needs to keep up appearances and is somewhat selfish in his all-consuming need for her. Boyer doesn't always play up the vulnerability in his character -- Ray fell in love with more than a businessman, after all -- but he is still quite good, and Sullavan is, as ever, simply marvelous for the most part. Richard Carlson [White Cargo, Creature from the Black Lagoon], Frank McHugh, Esther Dale, and young Tim Holt all score in supporting roles. Excellent score by Frank Skinner. The book was filmed earlier in 1932, and much later in 1961.

[Fannie Hurst's novel has a different, much grimmer ending than any of its film versions. In the 1932 and 1941 versions Ray simply expires a few days after the death of her lover. (The 1961 version has Susan Hayward bravely moving forward in relative splendor.) In both of these versions, as in the novel, Walter's oldest son Richard offers to take care of Ray with monthly stipends. In the novel, Richard is killed, and the stipends cut off. An aging Ray descends into poverty, and takes to gambling (and occasional prostitution) to survive. At the end of the novel she ironically and accidentally has a five hundred franc note thrown into her grasping hands by Walter's surviving younger son. She sees this, in a sense, as Walter still looking after her. When she's found dead of starvation in her room, she's still -- to the amazement of the landlord -- clutching the note ... ]

Verdict: A romantic gem if ever there were one. ****.

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