Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back Street

Release date August 28.  1932

"What can a man like that do for you?...all he can do is tug you away some place in a side street and let you wait..."

In the good old days before the 18.Amendment we encounter Ray Schmidt (Irene) with one of the salesmen she meets at her father´s shop in a beer garden. Very flirtatious and pleasure-loving Ray seems to be one of
"those girls", but as so often the first impression is wrong. Though being popular with men and enjoying male company Ray is decent and waiting for "the one": "It´s all the way or zero for me. And heaven helps the man I do fall in love with!"

                publicity for "Back Street" - as young Ray Schmidt

Soon this man enters the screen in the person of Walter Saxel (John Boles) who seems to look for a last fling before he marries his childhood sweetheart Corinne. Whereas things grow serious between Ray and Walter, he doesn´t cancel his wedding but arranges for an "accidental" meeting at a band concert between Ray and his mother - hoping that this would change matters. This encounter never happens...years later Ray and Walter run into each other in New York. He is married now, with two kids and successfully working as banker, Ray has a good job in a shop. The sparks are still there and soon Ray lets herself be installed as Walter´s mistress - waiting for him in a humble apartment, thus starting her life in the backstreets of Walter´s existence...

first encounter...                                              

                                            and fate strikes again...

I´m really twisted about this film: what a painfully to watch story - and I don´t mean the delightful sort of pain which makes a weepie so enjoyable from time to time. But one and a half hour watching female, self-imposed enslavement is rather emotionally exhausting. It´s a story about a woman completely disintegrating in a relationship and a caddish man grabbing the best out of two worlds - all of which is called love. Long talk short - a rather annoying soap opera!

Walter´s shadow...
And here comes the BUT and the second part of my twisted feelings: it´s a darn well made film - thanks to Irene and director John M. Stahl. That very first scene - we only hear Irene´s laughter, we see her hands and than a smooth move upwards to her face, she laughs, takes a sip of beer...but we don´t stay long there moving on to the next table in the beer garden. Such a clever slipping into the scenery and inventing of Irene´s character! But the person who makes the whole thing work is definitely Miss Dunne - it´s a superb performance from young, frivolous Ray to the mature woman with a light layer of sadness about her. Absolutely on the spot and as believable as such a wobbly character can be. Looking at Irene I know why I´m around, watched that film several times, read the novel and consumed both remakes of "Back Street" - all on the search for some kind of enlightenment about the content - but in vain. I still can´t stand that story!
But I´m in best company: according to James R.Parish (The RKO Gals) though enjoying the work with Stahl Irene called the film´s message "trash" - good to know!

Irene at the premiere of "Back Street"

John Boles - certainly handsome to look at - gives a pale impression and is completely overshadowed by Irene´s performance. This doesn´t make it easier to understand why he is THE guy, but Walter in the novel is similar unimpressive - anyhow love is where you find it!
Nonetheless this Fannie Hurst filmization was an important film for Irene´s career. Being very successful and earning Universal a lot of money "Back Street" manifested Irene as star - and as suffering heroine (at least for the time being). And in a way - considering screen time and concentration on her character - it´s the first "real" Dunne film which makes it a must see for in Irene interested folks. Soapy, wobbly, trashy - but 100 percent Dunne!

                   there is always time for a little music...

Last not least: I got an extra again! No, Irene doesn´t sing but she does hum/whistle while dressing for that never taking place meeting. And what does she hum? "After The Ball" which was a popular song in the 1890s (that´s when the novel starts, the film begins around 1917) and that song is performed in "Show Boat". Who came to Hollywood because of "Show Boat"? Irene! And what are the lyrics of "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"

Just perfect for that scene...these are the kind of details I love! Thanks, Irene for humming this tune - no coincidence, I´m sure!


  1. I watched Back Street last night and you are SO right about it! I found it infuriating:the guy was so uninteresting,so wooden,that the movie didn't really make sense to me, and either way, WHY should she sit around waiting for anyone? And when he forgot to send her "allowance"-I just wanted to push him out a window!
    I've seen the 1961 version w/Susan Hayward (an actress I like but she's truly terrible in it)and I have to say, the only reason this one works is because of Irene-how funny to think she had such a low opinion of the film, even while convincing us in her role!
    I too have a soft spot for weepy melodramas, but when they get THIS masochistic, I really lose patience--if it weren't for Ms. Dunne's presence (she has such a smooth, level, not self-pitying touch even amidst all the misery) and some nice directorial touches) this one would be long forgotten. Still, I'm glad to have finally seen it!

  2. Rob, I´m really glad that we have the same point of view - my feministic heart really started to palpitate watching this...but the book is even worse: she starves to death! And the financial situtation is a constant topic in the book - really a nightmare of a relationship!
    The remake of 1941 has the great asset of Charles Boyer as Walter. An actor for whom I developed quite a liking the last couple of months partly because of the films he made with Irene. He and Cary Grant were Irene´s favorite leading men - Miss Dunne and I agree about this! And I still wonder who on earth had the idea to remake "Back Street" in 1961 - not to mention that this is really the most inferior film of the trio...
    Irene´s "presence" - you described it so perfectly - is really special: one can´t help but to have some respect for Ray, something which is not given in the novel. That Irene did make it work though having a low opinion of the message of the film is simply a prove of her acting abilities - it´s all about pretending and not about being! But her method of preparing for a role -sitting down and writing, writing about the character to detail scenes, motivations and reactions - was probably rather exhausting for this role.
    Well, still watching you, Miss Dunne!

  3. I uploaded Back Street on YouTube, I'm glad that you've checked out my channel!!!

    I looved this film, it's been one of my favorites and I really cried at the end, I must confess =)

  4. Gee, leewileyandfriends2 that´s you?? Thanks for all the great uploads you are doing there -and not only for Irene. I just love that kind of music you are uploading...Thank you again!
    I already had the idea to contact you - and there you are! :) That´s great!!

  5. I also cried my heart out when I watched this, especially in the end. I suppose I am too emotional when it comes to tearjerkers.
    Irene was such a professional actress that even though she didn't think highly about the movie, it didn't show in the final result and she was as convincing and touching as always!
    Johnny Boles is usually playing good guys, so it was very weird for me to see him in a role of not just a bad guy, but a real emotional sadist.