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Melodrama Master: John M. Stahl

Sunday, July 5, 2015
6:30 p.m. Back Street
John M. Stahl (US, 1932)

Stahl adapts Fannie Hurst’s bestselling novel into a surprisingly clear-eyed and devastating story about what happens when a woman has nothing but a man, and not much of him. Bright, sought-after Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne), “the toniest girl in Cincinnati,” falls for Walter (John Boles), but chance prevents them from pursuing their romance—until years later, after he’s married someone else. The ironies in Ray’s decades-long loyalty to her lost-and-found lover are keenly evident, as when she advises a neighbor against carrying on with a married man, then runs right back into Walter’s arms. Yet, unlike many of the characters, Stahl seems to withhold judgment in favor of calm observation. As Tom Milne wrote in Time Out, “Stahl counters the danger of sentimentality by maintaining an even, beautifully controlled monotone (very moving in its quietude) that establishes a discreet distance between his camera and the excesses of the plot. One thinks, oddly, of Ozu and Dreyer.”

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Gladys Lehman, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. Photographed by Karl Freund. With Irene Dunne, John Boles, George Meeker, ZaSu Pitts. (93 mins, B&W, 35mm, From Universal)