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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Bologna Diary (9) - John M Stahl retrieved, Paul Fejos at sea.

Noted cinephile, author and critic Barrett Hodsdon has long championed the notion that somewhere one of our festivals should devote time to a retrospective of the work of the largely overlooked American master John M Stahl.

Well, the first public opportunity I've known came about a day or so ago at Bologna when two of Stahl's films, both produced at Universal Pictures by Carl Laemmle Jr, produced overflow crowds in the big and hot Jolly Cinema. Stahl's work was a hit and retrieved the series somewhat after the previous disappointment of King of Jazz. Back Street, probably the auteur's best known film, was screened in yet another superb digital restoration and flooded the room with a romantic sensibility as a woman (Irene Dunne) (and remember this is in that glorious early sound/pre-code moment) forgoes the love of a solid and reliable man, he destined for riches, in favour of an entire life as the 'other woman' to a slippery and fast-talking businessman (John Boles). It's a life of back street encounters and accumulating small humiliations and the agony is palpable.

Only Yesterday  (USA, 1933) has Margaret Sullivan in the lead, a part also slated for Dunne, in a variation of Letter from an Unknown Woman. A Chance encounter with an off duty soldier leads to a child being born and sets up the search for and reconciliation with the father (John Boles again). Stahl, like his successor and even occasional remaker Douglas Sirk, made these films with relentless sensitivity to the situation. THere's no camp, no subversive humour. They are brilliant artefacts of world's contrived to allow audiences to sink into the lives of those who live in the finest surroundings, even if the doom laden story is set around the the moments of the crash of '29 when many such personal worlds of wealth and ease were wiped out. Another superb digital restoration.

Barrett Hodsdon's dream remains alive...

The next day's Laemmle Jr offering slipped back a little, especially with Paul Fejos's Broadway, a clunking crime story set in some huge cabaret joint where we see far too much plot fiddling backstage and far too little song and dance on stage. At one point as what seemed to be a lavish production number, starting with yet another giant crane shot, got going the film cut to yet another piece of skullduggery out the back. The audience groaned.... Why Fejos was the designated driver on this one may perhaps only be explained by Laemmle's Murnau envy.

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