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BACK STREET (Universal, 1932), directed by John M. Stahl, from the popular novel by Fannie Hurst, is not so much a story about a certain street in a certain town, but a love story of two people who have each other but are unable to unite as husband and wife. While such a theme might have been a product for a Ruth Chatterton or Kay Francis, the heroine in question was awarded to Irene Dunne, on loan from RKO Radio, based on the strength of her Academy Award nominated performance in 1931's Best Picture winner, CIMARRON. John Boles, a likable actor and fine singer of screen musicals who made his way through dramas, assumes the sort of role suited for prospects as Ronald Colman or Ricardo Cortez. Under Stahl's direction, BACK STREET turned out to be a money maker for the studio, career advancement for Dunne, and further roles in the "soap opera school" for Boles, including another opposite Dunne in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (RKO, 1934).
The story begins at the turn of the century, "Cincinnati, in the good old days before the Eighteenth Amendment." Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) is introduced as a carefree girl living at home with her father (Paul Weigel), whom she works at his store; stepmother (Jane Darwell); and half-sister, Freda (June Clyde). Popular with the men, she's loved by the ambitious Kurt Shendler (George Meeker), who hopes to marry her after investing in the profitable automobile business. Fate steps in when Ray's friend, Mr. Bakeless (Walter Catlett), a traveling salesman, introduces her to visiting businessman, Walter D. Saxel (John Boles), at the train station. Their one day courtship turns to love. Although engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart, Walter hopes to change all that by arranging Ray to meet with him and his mother (Maude Turner Gordon)the following afternoon at Eden Park by the band stand. Delayed due to Freda's personal troubles, Ray's late arrival finds her watching the crowd gathering away. Five years later, Walter, a junior partner in the banking business, and Ray, employed at a Wall Street firm, meet again on the streets of New York. In spite of Walter's marriage to Corinne (Doris Lloyd) and father of two, he finds he cannot live without Ray. Leaving both her job and apartment, Walter arranges for Ray to take up residence elsewhere so they can meet secretly and resume their relationship. Posing as a married woman, Ray keeps very much to herself during Walter's business or family trips, corresponding only with her friendly landlady, Mrs. Dole (ZaSu Pitts). As Ray befriends a troubled girl named Francine (Shirley Grey), whose life parallels hers, advising her to break off her relationship with a married man, Ray continues living her "back street" existence with Walter for the next 25 years, leading to complications when confronted by Walter's now grown children (William Bakewell and Arletta Duncan).
The success of BACK STREET produced many imitations, along with two remakes for Universal: 1941 starring Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan (the best and most revived version), and 1961 featuring Susan Hayward and John Gavin (the least inspired in spite of Technicolor and up-to-date story). While remakes usually fail to compare with the original, the 1941 version is an exception to the rule. Boyer and Sullavan's enactment of Walter and Ray improve over Boles and Dunne, each more satisfying playing loyal or long suffering spouses than unfaithful husband and his mistress. Boyer's acting is more direct, especially during a scene when confronted by his son about his illicit affair, to then order him to "mind his own business" as compared to Boles' more polite manner in the same situation. The only time Boles breaks away from his gentle manner is when Ray asks him to "give her a baby," but even his outrage as to how this could ruin him is more controlled than forceful. Dunne's handling of Ray, too, is gentle and soft-spoken throughout, except during the opening in a couple of unrelated scenes where she speaks and acts in the manner of actress Barbara Stanwyck. The underscore that sets the tone for plot and characters, used to great advantage in the remakes, is sadly lacking in this "back street" of classic love stories. For Irene Dunne, greater movie roles, I REMEMBER MAMA (RKO, 1948) included, were ahead of her.
Out of circulation possibly due to the latter remake(s), the original BACK STREET sufficed again at revival movie houses in the 1970s, public television by 1982, and then on American Movie Classics cable channel in 1991, where it sometimes played on a double bill with the 1941 version, before returning to the land of obscurity. Of the three adaptations, only the 1961 carnation had further exposure with its distribution on home video in the 1990s. (**1/2)
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