The Sunday Intertitle: Small Beer
OK, not technically an intertitle — it’s the start of the film, and we’re still looking at the handsome leather-bound folio which is supposed, somehow, to contain the movie. The reference is to prohibition, the film is BACK STREET.
And this is what we get almost immediately after.
It’s an odd way to start a melodrama, but they were agreeably easy-osey about tonal consistency in them days. The film, starring Irene Dunne and the giant stone head of John Boles, is pretty uneven to begin with — it has a great third act, but doesn’t seem sure how to get there. So the movie throws in Jane Darwell (sitting in the rocking chair which was actually part of her body) and the development of the early automobile, and spontaneous human combustion ~
In fairness, some of this stuff turns out to have plot or character or thematic significance, but little of it seems able to perform more than one function at a time, accounting for the bitty feeling. But it’s all worth it for the devastating ending, which is pre-code in a very nice way — the movie wants us to know that unconventional relationships can, under certain circumstances, be as meaningful, or more meaningful, that church-sanctioned marriages. And that’s precisely the sort of talk the Code stamped out. Because censorship is always political.
The most emotional use of “Let me call you Sweetheart” in any film? After the tragedy, the false happy ending, an imaginary sequence which ends things on a more bittersweet note — because the audience can enjoy the moment of lightness, while still knowing that it’s not real. Apart from making this a prototype of the SOURCE CODE style quantum narrative, this brings on the bittersweet Bokononism of the intelligent Hollywood ending — the comforting lie that is recognised as such, so it stings even as it soothes.