#8 Life fails to imitate art in Back Street (’32) [episode 11]
When it comes to female alienation, director John M. Stahl rivals Nathaniel Hawthorne in facility with piercing depictions of heroines made scapegoat for an affair that society codes illicit. In Back Street (’32), Irene Dunne’s character Ray Schmidt escapes the scarlet letter branding of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, but nonetheless endures a status of pilloried outcast. Furthermore, unlike Hester, Ray lacks a daughter to mitigate the wretched loneliness of her social oblivion. Both pariahs, Scarlet and Ray conduct a meagre living in the margins, as phantoms of their community.
Initially, Ray seems light years ahead of the stultifying Puritan customs which dictated Hester’s exile. She drinks beer, dances with multiple suitors and generally does what she pleases. She falls for Walter (John Boles), a married man, and doesn’t blink before agreeing to let him pay to keep her in a walk-up flat. Tucked away like a dirty secret, Ray’s supposed ‘love nest’ soon grows into a prison cage.
A central scene in Back Street highlights an incongruity between Ray’s romantic ideal and reality. Airless, dingy and hemmed in by cacophonous building works, Ray’s joyless hovel generates despair. Two portraits in the room magnify Ray’s counterfeit life as a kept woman. They’re not really portraits, they are—like everything else in the room—bargain derivatives of middle class décor. The tiny flat reeks of cheap reproductions and ramshackle furnishing, especially with prints mounted on the walls. In the background, on a wall next to the front door, a knockoff of a classical painting portrays an Arcadian idyll, with a couple posing on a fresh country road in a regency-era composition. The woman and man sport ornate apparel and exude devotion in what might easily represent the work of Edmund Blair Leighton, or another artist who traded upon saccharine themes of family life. Ray’s situation with a married man boasts no finery, easy walks in public or romantic display as rhapsodised in art. Ray’s civic life remains solitary and desolate. She’s relegated to the ‘back streets’ of Walter’s life.
On the wall behind the settee, a picture symbolises everything Ray might have expected from her position, yet never experiences. The framed print renders a cossetted woman, one whose dress creates such an enormous spread that it produces a cushioning or pillow effect. She looks pampered, spoilt, and well-heeled sitting on plush tiers of luxuriant fabric. Ray’s circumstances resemble no degree of affluence. After Ray learns that she’s not part of the ‘we’ Walter includes on a surprise holiday to Europe, her stricken face registers only an initial measure of indignity she knows as mistress. Later, Ray conceals hardship under a brave face when he eventually returns a month late, having made no arrangement for her subsistence during his absence. Desperate to pay bills, Ray scrapes by selling pottery she paints by hand. Walter just simply forgot about Ray’s basic needs for survival that he had pledged to provide after she gave up a lucrative job to be at his beck and call. Walter seems more horrified by the news that she took to something as tawdry as peddling ceramics, rather than the fact that she may have been homeless or starved to death because of his thoughtlessness.
When his son (William Bakewell) changes tact and refrains from berating Ray, he appears visibly astonished at the $200 a month pittance that his father settled on Ray, which illustrates how little Walter thought of the so-called love of his life. Even worse, he made no provision for her when he died. Cheap pictures on the wall remind viewers how handily romantic sentiment translates into shabby treatment for a mistress. Instead of regarding the ‘kept woman’ theme popular in the Pre-Code era as a means for social mobility, erotic adventure, proto-feminist message, or wiseacre hijinks, Stahl explores a more likely naturalistic angle of how women readily consign themselves to the void when they surrender everything in the name of love. Romantic motifs often become serviceable to women’s erasure in the public sphere, as Stahl’s bleak realism demonstrates.