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Even in 1961, this had to be taken as a parody of the plush, woman's picture genre. The story had already been filmed in 1932 and 1941, and was creaky by any standard. All the deluxe Ross Hunter trappings (gowns by Jean Louis, jewels by Alexandre) are even more inflated here, with Hayward's gowns designed to match the drapes in the background. The overblown extravagance of the whole production makes Hunter's epics with Lana Turner look like second-string, double feature fare. Oscar-winner Hayward began her descent into strictly camp territory with this warhorse of a soaper; 1963's "Stolen Hours" (a remake of the Bette Davis classic, "Dark Victory") and 1964's "Where Love Has Gone" (co-starring Davis!) continued the trend, until it culminated in Hayward's (indeed, the world's) pinnacle of trash, "Valley of the Dolls" (1967). But back to "Back Street." The well-worn story concerns Hayward, an impossibly chic fashion designer, who is in love with the impossibly handsome (and improbably wooden) John Gavin, a married department store heir. Gavin's wife happens to be rip-roaring alcoholic Vera Miles, who is prone to falling down drunk at parties and threatening suicide. Hayward is nobly self-sacrificing, content to be the "back street" woman for the sake of Gavin's children (who are played by utterly resistible tots). That is, until Miles becomes one of Hayward's couture clients! This is the kind of loopy film where Hayward goes from being a scrappy little dressmaker to world famous couturier in, oh, ten minutes; where elaborate scenes are set up solely to showcase Jean Louis' scrumptious creations (they have no plot bearing whatsoever); and where John Gavin is somehow allowed to play his Really! Big! Scene! as if he's had a full frontal lobotomy (of course, he's so damned gorgeous, you really don't care). Oddly enough, Miles walks off with the film--her teeth are so firmly set into the scenery, you couldn't remove her if you tried, unless you wanted to pull back a bloody stump. (Lana Turner would never have let a supporting player upstage her show!) Hayward clearly took note to never let that happen again, and would give nothing but nostril-flaring, eye-bugging performances for the balance of her career. Look also for Natalie "Lovey Howell" Moorehead in a small but hilarious role as one of Hayward's gossipy clients. As swoony as all this is, "Back Street" is perfect lowbrow entertainment with highbrow trappings, and a sad reminder that, once upon a time, Hollywood DID make stuff like this--when even "bad" movies at least had a healthy shot of glamour to make them enjoyable.
Watching this film is like having only cookies and ice cream for dinner. One feels guilt-ridden and knows he shouldn't have done it, but it was so good he's almost ready to do it again...and probably will! Producer Ross Hunter was at the helm so there aren't going to be any grey settings, uncombed hair or even a dirt smudge throughout. The film is a masterwork of overproduction and color coordination...the type of film that credits the furs and the oil paintings (!) in the titles. Hayward plays a single career woman in the mid-1940's who dreams of being a successful clothing designer. These early scenes have all the period detail of the 1940's as say...1958. On one eventful meeting with a potential backer, she collides with and instantaneously falls in love with Gavin, a marine just home from WWII. Who can blame her? He's a hunky dream come true and, for a certain amount of the film, he even has facial expression. His mating ritual includes bullying Hayward across a park lawn until she falls face first into a flower patch. From then on, she's hooked. Unfortunately, they are separated by a misunderstanding or two. Cut to years later (where Hayward, 11 years older than Gavin, looks younger and he now has grey in his hair!) which sees Hayward as a designer of dresses with "line" and style. Amusing support is provided by acerbic Gardiner as her mentor and Schafer (Mrs. Howell of "Gilligan's Island") as a gossipy client. The film globe trots to Paris, London, Rome (though, for some reason, a horrific Hayward body double does all the real travelling.) In one of the films many, MANY clichés and contrivances (Hayward even states at one point that, "All the clichés are true."), the former lovebirds are reunited over the fallen-down body of Gavin's wife Miles. Here, the film takes a powerful turn into the camp stratosphere as shrewy, boozy, slutty Miles (in a stunningly vivid performance) makes the pair's lives miserable. Miles is so intensely evil and vengeful that she becomes a sort of hilarious supervillain when compared with the rather saintly, drab lovers. Her histrionics are like manna from Heaven, no more so than when she makes a triumphant and highly memorable appearance at one of Hayward's fashion shows. Gavin also has two kids. One (Marihugh) is a pretty silent Shirley Temple wannabee. The other (Eyer) is a snotty, annoying child who was scarcely ever heard from again, he so irritated filmgoers. The "Back Street" of the title is SUPPOSED to refer to a secretive, undesirable place for the mistress to be kept away on. In Hunter's version, it's a completely charming cottage in the country! Gavin provides Hayward with the cottage's first piece of decor, but note how she moves it from it's original spot so that we can have a special fade out at the end. The comic book-level melodramatics of the film are emphasized right away by titles that show Lichtenstein-esque pictures of the star trio accompanied by a typically heart-tugging Frank Skinner score. In a spiteful move against the audience, Gavin is shown in clingy swim trunks, but only briefly, from the waist up and in a dimly lit scene! Hayward shows a lot of energy and conviction in her role. Her best scenes involve several pivotal telephone calls. Another note: Grey (a charming actress who plays Hayward's sister) is the same age in real life, yet looks like she could play Hayward's mother! Did she live hard or was she denied the star lighting that Hayward got?? Hunter considered her his good luck charm and cast her in nearly everything until "Lost Horizon". Big mistake to leave her out! That was a notorious flop.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie has it all: fabulous clothes; beautiful cars (those awesome
Chryslers and Rae's smart little Mercedes convertible!); romantic
locations; posh hotels; and the cutest little French country cottage.
I first saw this on TV at about age 12, and I must say that it contributed much to my sense of melodrama. I've been a big Susan Hayward fan ever since. "Stolen Hours" and "I Want to Live!" are other favorites.
With Hayward and Vera Miles at their scenery-chewing best, and the handsomest male lead for miles around, it's a great escapist trip. The deathbed phone call is way too much! I always cry when the kids go out to Rae's country house after their parents have died.
Many of the past reviewers of BACK STREET make good points in their comments on the film, stressing its clichés, its contrivances, its lack of real sincerity and emotion. Although I can see these points here and there, I have been hooked to this film ever since I saw it as a teenager, in the early sixties. Does this attraction have to do with the story itself? For me it does, no matter how rehashed it may be. Does it have to do with the characters? Yes, no matter how trite and unoriginal they may be. Does it have to do with the actors? CERTAINLY, especially Susan Hayward, an actress I admire profoundly, who is capable of keeping my attention as few others can, and who always dazzles with with her technique and capacity to be true, no matter how trashy the material originally is. Of course, BACK STREET owes a lot to its production values, the cinematography, the sets and gowns, but the motive of my attraction lies somewhere else, and it must be deep in myself, an area that was already sensitive to the film's values when I first saw it as a boy of 13.
When first released some forty years ago, critics rightly complained about the soap-opera plot, the melodramatic dialog, the stock characters, and the excessive showcasing of sets and costumes. These complaints are still valid, but over the course of four decades, a realization has emerged that despite or even because of these failings, "Back Street" is a gloriously entertaining work that plays just as well now as it did back in 1961. How many other movies can claim this sort of durability? I would, however, like to point out five faults in the production. (1) Susan Hayward is a good ten or even fifteen years too old for this part. (2) The film's supposed message about the emptiness of being the "other woman" is blunted by the opulent success in which Hayward lives. (3) Vera Miles' character is so selfish and shrewish that one can't imagine why John Gavin ever married her. There should have been a line about how he'd been forced into an "arranged" marriage in order to save the family business. (4) When Gavin and Hayward meet for the first time in New York, after their initial encounter in Nebraska, he seems surprised to learn that she's now the famous fashion-designer who signs her creations "rae" -- all small letters, very chic -- even though she'd specifically told him of her plans at their first meeting. How many fashion-designers named "rae" did he think there were in the world? (5) One must wait more than forty minutes before Gavin takes his shirt off, and then he just has a dimly-lit scene where he and Hayward run out of the ocean in modest swim-wear before reclining on a beach towel. Gavin's physique deserved much more exposure than this.
Try to understand that 1961 was the dawn of the sexual revolution
predicated on the birth control pill; therefore everything in this
movie reflects the pre-1961 era when people were often locked into
marriages -- good or bad.
This glamorized version opens the story up from simple people in the 1932 and 1941 versions and makes them self-assured, very good-looking, and easy-street rich. This allows the cameras to give us beautiful vistas of Rome, Paris and London --- as they were before the Great Tourist Invasion which began in 1965 when Pan American World Airways broke with the IATA cartel and slashed fares to Europe, allowing folks like us to join the rich and go there. Now I can tell you that Susan Hayward's Paris hotel was definitely the RITZ -- the Rue Cambon entrance -- the back street entrance near the Ritz Bar where Hemingway evicted a rich woman's pet lion by throwing said lion out on the sidewalk.
Under David Miller's able direction, the narrative is kept solid; even though it's hard to find sympathy for the romantic problems of two persons who otherwise have it all.
Not available on DVD, you can find a VHS on eBay; but it won't be cheap.
Wow....this is Susan Hayward and John Gavin at their best! If you must have an extra-marital affair...they show us how it's done!!! Real class, however, not without it's drawbacks, when children are involved. This will have you grabbing for the giant Kleenex box at the end. This version is a must have for you classic collectors,because it's much better than the old 1941 black & white. Fannie Hurst sure could write these teary classics, and it's too bad there aren't writers around like her anymore. You knew there was plenty of sex in this movie but it wasn't thrown in your face, and absolutely no profanity!!! Thank God, you don't even miss it... which makes it all the more intriguing!!
Susan Hayward was surprised when Ross Hunter wanted her for one of his
soap-opera movies. "I'm no chiffon gal!" she reportedly
But for reasons we'll probably never know, she finally agreed.
Now, frankly, I admire Ross Hunter as a producer. His movies can sum up how studios could bring great talent groups together and make good work: "the genius of the system" as critic Andre Bazin said.
Even without having Douglas Sirk directing, he still maintained a certain level of predicting what would suck an audience into the movie and of pulling out the stops at exactly the right time. Both "Midnight Lace" and "Portrait in Black" (the two he produced after "Imitation of Life" and before "Back Street") are cool movies. But "Back Street" seems to be the first movie he produced where he knew his system and just wound it up ("Get Jean Louis and Frank Skinner and Virginia Grey on the phone...") and let it go. And in winding it up and letting it go, "Back Street" careens like Vera Miles' last drunken ride through rear-projected France.
Perhaps it's the fact that the original message and source material has been so castrated (unlike the racial message in "Imitation of Life" or the conformist society message of "All That Heaven Allows"). In the original novel "Back Street", Rae never develops a career; she allows herself to be a kept woman. So when her lover dies of old age, she finds herself a penniless senior citizen...and eventually she starves to death.
Perhaps it's the fact that Susan Hayward puts her guts into so many of her performances, that her intensity makes the sets and script laughable. Also, she doesn't seem to be comfortable being viewed as a sexy glamour girl in this movie (she's no chiffon gal...), unlike Lana Turner who knew that was her key to fortune and could meld seemlessly with the gloss of the sets and Jean Louis creations.
So seeing Ross Hunter's work in "Back Street" after "Imitation of Life" and other jewels is like seeing how Mark Robson declined when he suddenly had a steady gig directing film adaptations of risque' novels: the craft and attention Robson put into "Peyton Place" is nowhere visible a decade later when he lensed "Valley of the Dolls."
Still, Ross Hunter produced some great work. I suppose he's better known today for the revelation in Douglas Sirk's posthumously printed interviews: Rock Hudson was confused and ambivalent about his sexuality until Hunter introduced him to the gay-boy-party lifestyle. Basically Ross Hunter blew the door off Rock Hudson's closet.
That old romantic chestnut Back Street gets its third filming and a big
Ross Hunter type budget with Ross Hunter type gloss. But the story is
still the same.
Stepping into the shoes of Irene Dunne and Margaret Sullavan is another one of the greats and a personal favorite of mine. Susan Hayward is perfectly cast as the ultimate 'other' woman.
The original story was written in the twenties and it has been updated to the fifties and given fabulous European locations in Rome and Paris. But the story begins when Susan who is an aspiring clothing designer meets Marine John Gavin who is awaiting his discharge. It's as it always is, the guy's married as she learns on their next meeting.
One thing leads to another and pretty soon Hayward who is by now a very successful dress designer is working out of Paris where Gavin has also relocated. He's the heir to a department store chain and takes his wife and kids over there to oversee European operations.
In order for us to feel sympathy for Hayward and Gavin in their predicament you have to make the wife the world's biggest shrew. That's what Hunter did, but he cast Vera Miles totally against type. Usually Vera was a good girl on screen. But when she turned bad she was something to see. She really steals the film from Hayward not an easy thing to do against an actress who certainly played her share of bad girls. I'm surprised Miles was overlooked at Oscar time for this performance. In fact traditional casting would have had Hayward the drunk and slutty wife and Miles the understanding mistress.
I can only imagine that Rock Hudson had other commitments because the role of the husband is perfect for him. John Gavin however does a very good job in the part.
Look for a nice performance from Reginald Gardiner as the fashion designer who makes Hayward a protégé. Had this been done at 20th Century Fox instead of Universal, the part would have been Clifton Webb's.
This is a nice version of Fannie Hurst's story of a woman who sacrifices her legal happiness for her man. Maybe Back Street is due for another remake. I can see Meryl Streep now as the either the wife or the mistress.
The two things you can always count on with a Ross Hunter film are big stars and lavish set pieces, and "Back Street" does not disappoint. Susan Hayward and John Gavin are here, in their glossed-up best, as doomed lovers thrown together and then torn apart by circumstance. Their longing glances, surrounded lovingly by Hunter's fetish for color and music, are uber-dramatic and unconvincing. Gavin, while aesthetically-stunning, is as stiff as a board. So, is Hayward, although she tends to be able to emote a little bit more. The real "star" of this film is Vera Miles. She livens up the proceedings as Gavin's psychotic, alcoholic wife. She is the only one here who's emotions really come across as legitimate. Nonetheless, "Back Street" does accomplish what it sets out to do - it wraps up a neat, tidy story into 2 hours of lush soap opera with big names who go through all the sudsy motions. This movie wants to be a Douglas Sirk film, but comes across as something much less. Ross Hunter scores big here with his awesome production values, though. And Frank Skinner, as usual, provides a solid, thunderous score. For fans of classic melodrama only.
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