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!"
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...
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!
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!
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!