Bologna discovery: the films of John Stahl

My annual visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – which specialises in rarities, restorations, forgotten fragments and other filmic arcana – usually turns up a few gems, and often provides a welcome opportunity to get better acquainted with the work of a director with whom I was hitherto barely familiar; last year, I especially appreciated the tribute to Helmut Kautner. This year’s festival offered the usual mixed bag, with Marcello Mastroianni, Yilmaz Güney, Soviet and Chinese film, and a whole lot more all getting a look in. Far too much for one person to sample, really, so I stuck mainly to investigating a few cherishable restorations (Jean Grémilon’s Daïnah la métisse was one such pleasure) and two Hollywood strands. The first, presented by critic and MOMA curator Dave Kehr, was a bunch of recent restorations from the Fox Film Corporation, which ranged from established classics (Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven) through superior rediscoveries (Now I’ll Tell and The Mad Game, both starring Spencer Tracy) and lightly likeable oddities (Alfred Werker’s Bachelor’s Affairs) to the frankly disappointing (John Ford’s The Brat) and the lamentably, idiotically dire (Raoul Walsh’s Women of All Nations). 

stahl pic
John M Stahl

My other focus of exploration was a brief retrospective dedicated to John M Stahl, which was mounted in collaboration with the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which in October will screen nine rarely seen titles from Stahl’s early years as a producer and director. With the exception of one silent film, the Cineteca Bologna selection curated by Ehsan Khoshbakht concentrated on Stahl’s work in the sound era, though it omitted two of his best known films – Back Street (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933) – because it had screened both two years ago. A regrettable omission, perhaps, especially as the only films I had seen by Stahl were Imitation of Life (1934), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1946); even so, what I did manage to see persuaded me that Stahl is a fascinating filmmaker well worth devoting some time to.

On the rare occasions when Stahl is mentioned, he’s usually described as a precursor of Douglas Sirk; besides the fact that they both made films of Fannie Hurst’s novel ‘Imitation of Life’ (Sirk’s version came in 1959), they had two other projects  in common: Magnificent Obsession (1935 for Stahl, 1954 for Sirk) and an adaptation of James M Cain’s ‘A Modern Cinderella’, filmed by Stahl as When Tomorrow Comes (1939, picture at top) and by Sirk as Interlude (1957). But there’s a clear difference between the two directors’ approaches to their material: where Sirk opted for a lavishly stylised heightening of the melodramatic mode (which many have seen as a kind of Brechtian distancing intended to focus attention on abstract social processes), Stahl tends to downplay both the melodrama and the visual stylisation, opting instead for a quieter, more naturalistic aesthetic which manifests itself in simple (yet unfailingly elegant) compositions and longer takes focused on deftly nuanced performances. It’s no accident that some of the more perceptive commentators have likened Stahl not only to Borzage (though Stahl steers clear of that director’s florid celebrations of transcendent romanticism) but – more provocatively and intriguingly – to the more restrained (yet no less affecting) tonal palette of Dreyer or even Ozu. 

Stahl first established himself as a dependable director during the silent era, during which time his sympathetic interest in the plight and emotional lives of women became very evident. Sadly, the one pre-sound era film in Bologna, The Woman Under Oath (1919), was not a good example of his work at that time, since its tale of a famous novelist sitting on an otherwise all-male jury in a murder trial (in reality women didn’t get to serve as jurors in New York until 1937) is clumsily and very implausibly contrived. Moreover, it never even attempts to answer the question (‘Is a woman temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case?’) which it poses in an opening intertitle. Happily, this was the only film I saw in the Stahl tribute which could be dismissed as tosh.


Despite the conspicuous limitations of lead actor John Boles, Seed (1931) is a sensitive and thought-provoking variation on the theme of a man torn between two very different women: the loving, homebody wife who has given him five children, and an old flame, a successful career woman who encourages his ambitions as a novelist. That Stahl is alert and sympathetic to the sacrifices made by both women for a man who’s clearly less emotionally generous than they is pretty much par for the course; he made a name for himself as a director of ‘women’s pictures’, and the tender yet muscular performances of Lois Wilson and Genevieve Tobin reflect that experience . More unusual, perhaps, is the acknowledgement of the upheaval children can bring to a marriage – and of their frequent insensitivity, bordering on outright ingratitude, to the needs of a devoted parent. (As it happens, the social realist novel by Charles G Norris – brother of Frank – on which the film was based bore the title ‘Seed: A Novel of Birth Control’.)

‘Imitation of Life’

Stahl’s Imitation of Life is an altogether less lurid account of Fannie Hurst’s novel than Sirk’s; in the Bologna catalogue, Jonathan Rosenbaum makes a good argument that the earlier version ‘comes across today as considerably more enlightened’, ‘much warmer and less cynical’ than the ‘scaredy-cat’ Brechtian subterfuge of the 50s film. Certainly, in its casting, the Stahl is superior: while Louise Beavers is the equal of Juanita Moore in playing the protagonist’s loyal friend, Claudette Colbert is far better than Lana Turner in the lead role, and Fredi Washington – a black actress – is considerably more effective and heart-rending than (the white ) Susan Kohner in playing the daughter desperate to pass for white in a society tainted by prejudice. 

‘Immortal Sergeant’

Though Immortal Sergeant (1943) was made as a propaganda picture, its account of a shy Canadian corporal (Henry Fonda) forced to behave as a leader when his sergeant (Thomas Mitchell) is fatally wounded during a seemingly doomed mission in the Libyan desert is notable for how Stahl depicts the moments of quiet intimacy between the soldiers: a scene when they slake their thirst with a tin of pineapple is beautifully handled. But the greatest revelation, for me at any rate, was When Tomorrow Comes, made four years earlier. It’s one of the director’s stirring tales of a woman sacrificing her happiness for the man she loves: a waitress (Irene Dunne) falls for a famous pianist (Charles Boyer), who is honest enough to reveal to her, after they’ve been forced by a hurricane to spend the night together in a church, that he is married to a woman so mentally and emotionally frail that he cannot leave her. What makes the film special, and prevents it sliding into lachrymose hyperbole, is the overall understatement of Stahl’s direction; rather than repeatedly tell us that these two people are made for each other, it simply allows us to watch them interact with one another, so that we can work it out for ourselves that they are falling in love. The use of humour in their early scenes together, and the handling of the mounting storm in the central section, are both eloquent in evoking the increasingly easy intimacy of the two characters; the long takes and the superb performances of the two leads also contribute to the film’s credibility. Thanks to its restraint, When Tomorrow Comes is, if anything, even more moving than Love Affair, the acclaimed weepie which Dunne and Boyer made together with Leo McCarey the very same year. 

Along with René Clair’s utterly delightful Le Silence est d’or (Silence Is Golden, 1947), When Tomorrow Comes was my most exhilarating new discovery in Bologna; the silent apart, his other films were also rewarding. If you find any Stahl films coming your way, you might check them out; he was clearly a very talented filmmaker and deserves to be better known. And finally, in alphabetical order, here’s a list of my top five films in Bologna this year.

Daïnah la Métisse (Jean Grémillon, France) 

Imitation of Life (John M Stahl, USA)

Now I’ll Tell (Edwin J Burke, USA)

Le Silence est d’or (René Clair, France)

When Tomorrow Comes (John M Stahl, USA)

when tomorrow lead
‘When Tomorrow Comes’

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