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.


27 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Small Beer”

  1. Ah Back Street — the Brokeback Mountain of its day.

  2. But better lit.

    Just enjoyed Once in a Lifetime, in which moron movie mogul Jack Oakie’s blunder in shooting scenes without the lights on reminded me strongly of Ang Lee’s signature style: dark figures in a dark environment, with minimal lighting.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I’ve never seen BACK STREET. I remember reading Renoir mention liking it in his biography.

    “Let me call you Sweetheart?” was also used pretty stirringly in Leo McCarey’s
    Good Sam

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    Well, since we’re using superlatives and invoking Leo McCarey, in the LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART sweepstakes I’d cast my vote for MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW .

  5. Ah — the film I am afraid to watch.

    Masters of Cinema kindly sent me a BluRay and I’ve been waiting for the right moment.

  6. The WRONG moment would be when you’ve arrived at the “Senior Citizen” designation.

  7. Well, I have twenty years leeway (hey, that sounds like quite a bit!), but I don’t intend to procrastinate THAT long.

  8. colinr Says:

    Sorry off topic question but is spontaneous combustion a real phenomenon? Or did it turn all those ‘supernatural incidents’ turn out to be caused by a combination of dropped cigarette/cigar buts, flammable material and an unwise build up of friction in certain types of clothing?

  9. colinr Says:

    Gosh, I’m just imagining the wave of suicides that would result from playing Make Way For Tomorrow inside a retirement home.

    (Although likely those patients with Alzheimers wouldn’t remember the trauma)

  10. colinr Says:

    (or their ungrateful children) ;)

  11. La Faustin Says:

    A tonic corrective to MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW-induced depression: TATIE DANIELLE!

  12. colinr Says:

    Tatie Danielle is a great grumpy old person film!:

  13. Christopher Says:

    I didn’t find Make Way For Tomorrow the emotional experience I thought I would..Its more effective when these sort of things sneak up on you..

  14. As my octogenarian friend Lawrie would say after a nice movie: “Ah! Life is good.”

    The best explanation for spontaneous human combustion seems to be heart attack near a heat source (fireplace or cigarette) in a sealed room, so the fire uses up the human body like a candle (clothing as wick, body fat as wax) and stops as soon as the oxygen has gone, leaving whatever’s left: sometimes the legs are perfectly untouched, eerily enough.

  15. Randy Cook Says:

    My theory on Spontaneous Human Combustion: smoking while flatulent, so that the victim is cooked from the inside-out.

    You asked.

  16. As for the beer garden being an odd place to start the story … I believe that there was an expression at the time about stories that would have you “crying in your beer.” Perhaps this is being implied by director Stahl et alia? It also speaks, metaphorically, to the notion of emotional intoxication.

    I’ve not seen the film, myself. Nor have I seen the Robert Stevenson remake. All I remember, and that not particularly well, is the David Miller version, the one with Susan Hayward and Vera Miles — where, at least, Lilah Crane (i.e. Miles) had a chance to be dressy and bitchy.

  17. Haven’t seen the remakes, but I love those women. Irene must be the most remade star in history, and a lot of her films are unavailable due to better-known later versions.

    The beer hall is used to establish Irene as a nice girl who likes a dance but never goes any further. The movie wants to establish her virtue and prove how circuimstances conspire to turn her into a mistress. What seems odd is the broad, absurd comedy of that boozing family image.

  18. La Faustin Says:

    Prohibition films loved Gay Nineties beer halls. Aside from the almost pornographic revel in the sheer volume of the stuff — sloshing pails and overflowing heads of foam — there was the same kind of frisson, I think, to seeing respectable people en famille downing the stuff that today’s audiences get from contemporary films set in the 1950s and early 1960s where pregnant women smoke.

  19. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve only ever seen the 1941 Robert Stevenson remake of BACK STREET, with Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer.

    No masterpiece, but it does remind you that Stevenson was a small but genuine talent who kept getting overwhelmed by larger and more robust egoes. Orson Welles, Hedy Lamarr, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney…the list goes on.

  20. Christopher Says:

    one of the reasons why I love Irene Dunne!

  21. The death of Dunne available impacts very badly on John Stahl’s reputation, making Leave her to Heaven seem even more out-of-the-blue than it is. He seems to have made a good number of very interesting films.

    What illicit frissons will future audiences get from watching our films of today? The thrill of watching people burn fossil fuels?

  22. Randy Cook Says:

    Another reason to Love Irene Dunne… about to be divorced, Lucy Warriner fouls things up for her husband Jerry, in front of his ritzy prospective wife and in-laws

  23. I’m crazy about The Awful Truth. A shame that comedy Frenchman didn’t do more, he’s awfully good.

  24. La Faustin Says:

    Alexander d’Arcy seems to have appeared in A NOUS LA LIBERTE and KERMESSE HEROIQUE in France, before finding his feet as that comedy Frenchman (lots of headwaiters and barons!) in Hollywood.

    John Stahl makes for wonderful double bills — not just teaming him with Sirk for MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and IMITATION OF LIFE, but his ONLY YESTERDAY with LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Though ONLY YESTERDAY really deserves solo consideration — and remastering.

  25. Alex D’arcy also turns up in (of all things) Sam Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

  26. Which I keep meaning to watch. I actually started watching, and was enjoying it, but I got distracted by something bright and shiny.

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