United States, 1932
Directed by John M. Stahl
With Irene Dunne (Ray Schmidt), John Boles (Walter Saxel), George Meeker (Kurt Shendler), William Bakewell (Richard Saxel), Arletta Duncan (Beth Saxel)
The story is a straightforward chronicle of a life-long and passionate adultery. At the turn of the 20th century, in Cincinnati, a feisty, flirtatious and free-spirited woman, Ray Schmidt, falls in love with a dashing young traveler in the banking business, Walter Saxel, who is courting her feverishly even as he is already engaged. But committed to help a relative, she misses an opportunity to meet her lover’s mother and to give their love a greater chance. The lovers bluntly part ways.
Five years later they meet again by chance in New York where both have successful careers. Walter presses Ray to start their relationship again and she yields. Ray has now a sentimental life lurking in the back street while the front street is held by Walter’s legitimate wife; this is a sad and unseemly arrangement, perhaps, but Ray and Walter enjoy the moments spent together and do not complain. However, as Walter’s job takes a greater part of his life and compels him to respect social rules and conventions, strains appear. When Walter rules out that they have a child, Ray decides to throw her lot with an entrepreneur that used to be a dear friend back in Cincinnati and has always loved her, Kurt Shendler.
But when Walter pleads again for his love and demands she gives him another chance, Ray cannot resist him. This is the start of a two-decade long secret life that turns Ray into a shadow of Walter’s wife. As they grow up, Walter’s legitimate children, Richard and Beth are no longer willing to condone their father’s behavior and reckon to get rid of Ray. Walter tries to thwart his son’s plan but suffers from a stroke and dies. Ray is left alone and distraught; Richard then finds out she has never been a gold digger as the Saxel children and others reckoned but a sincere and passionate lover who deserves to be helped; but Ray lets herself die, eager to be follow Walter.
“Back Street” is an unrepentant tearjerker, based on a popular and scandalous sentimental novel. The cast is well-chosen and offers nice performances, though in the case of the lead, Irene Dunne, that rises to truly awesome and emotional levels. The wholly sympathetic description of Ray’s fate seems bold given the social opinions and mores of the time but it may have pleased the audience of the melodrama genre. This is after all the story of a woman eager to be independent and to pursue her desire but still wanting to swear allegiance to a male lover and the notion of happy family; she ends up on the fringe of the society, with a personal life that cannot be legitimate and grant her motherhood and safety, but with her sentiments as strong as ever. Anyway, Hollywood is still uncontaminated by moralistic standards in 1932 (the Hays code begins to be implemented two years later). More than the topic, it is the narration that feels audacious.
Director John M. Stahl, who had already at this point some thirty directing credits on his name, moves from one part of the narrative to another with a stunningly abrupt audacity, cutting the passage of time short and highlighting the emotions stirring the characters. Ray arrives too late to the concert where she was due to be introduced to Walter’s mother; her anxiety is magnified by her inability to find her man in the crowd and the sunny afternoon shared by a merry group of music lovers becomes a depressing struggle to get out of a rush; and then the camera captures a New York street under the snow and catches Ray and Walter as they meet again by chance. Only a mustache on his face and a remark late in his lines suggest that times have changed; five years in fact have passed before they can be reunited among the crowd – though of a different sort. The move from the second to the third part is even more amazing: Ray moves to the right of the composition as Walter stands in the middle, despairing to convince her; however, this is not the door that appear but rails over which the camera speeds along, as if it was a train; and the place where the journey ends is actually the place where the final part begins, on the quay of a Europe-bound liner, where the final tragic part quickly begins (Ray is barely viewed but the camera lingers on a fateful chat between Richard Saxel and Beth Saxel). Two decades of life have been shunned by the narrative – or rather, have been summed up by the force of a locomotive.
Even inside the sections, key moments can be reduced to a symbolic scene or even image but what is on-screen is enough to suggest what follows while the camera tends to be still, avoiding daring shots. The dinner celebrating the reunion of Walter and Ray is a rather gloomy, basically composed business of a few seconds; but that is enough to explain the following scenes, demonstrating the urge of Walter to start it all over again. A look through the window and a few lines uttered in a deliberate and forceful way are enough to show that Ray chooses to marry Kurt. Indeed, when the camera takes time to shoot, it is to scrutinize Ray as her emotions blossom, a contemplative and tender portrait of a woman in love reaching a climax with the end, when sorrow turns passion into a heartbreaking and exhausting experience that makes Ray hope for death – and the definitive reunion with the wonderful lover. Stahl skillfully shows how a true, sincere passion can overlook the hurdles of time and society to keep the lovers united and happy forever.