Under Carl Laemmle Jr.’s steady leadership, Universal in the 1930s produced a slew of social-issue dramas that were pitched slightly quieter than their major-studio rivals. John M. Stahl, one of Universal’s finest filmmakers of the period, had made the jump from MGM and independently produced silents to be a crown jewel of the studio. With 1932’s Back Street, he strongly hinted at the shimmering quality of later masterpieces Imitation of Life and Leave Her to Heaven. The film could not have been made a mere two years later, as it deals with the extended love affair between the married Walter (John Boles) and his long-suffering mistress Ray (a radiant and spellbinding Irene Dunne), who gives up a chance at happiness for this once-in-a-lifetime doomed love. Yet Ray was once a carefree woman-about-town with options in life, making Back Street a quiet tragedy of great emotional magnitude.
Other Films by John M. Stahl
Stahl, a master of the melodrama often situated as the proto-Douglas Sirk, made his second picture of 1931 with the quietly shocking Seed, which like 1932’s Back Street dealt openly with infidelity. Co-produced with Universal head Carl Laemmle Jr., Stahl’s vision of the complexity of American family life during the Depression simmers behind the story …