Secrets from the past are always surfacing in melodramas, altering or illuminating the landscape of the present. So it seems fitting that director John M. Stahl, one of Hollywood’s great masters of melodrama, had a past that is only now coming to light; new biographical information complicates the picture of his life, while the re-emergence of his early films confirms his essential qualities as an artist. Best known for his 1930s women’s pictures made at Universal (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession) and his Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Stahl was a major filmmaker in the silent era, but until recently it was assumed that his pre-sound films were nearly all lost or unavailable. In fact, many were sitting quietly in archives like the Library of Congress: more than half of the director’s twenty-two silent features are now known to survive, and all but two of these were screened in 2018 at festivals in Pordenone and Bologna. The sense of excitement and discovery, of pieces falling into place, was worthy of a recognition scene Stahl himself might have directed. These early works reveal that the director’s unsentimental humanism and radical empathy for women were there from the start, and they show him swiftly developing his control of tone and plot mechanics, while exhibiting enough trademark motifs and elements of style—disrupted weddings, deep focus compositions—to satisfy the most exacting auteurist.
John Malcolm Stahl was a handsome, energetic-looking man whose face often appeared on advertisements for his movies in the 1920s. His name and crown of silver hair seem vaguely patrician; he always claimed to have been born in New York in 1886. In fact, it is almost certain that he was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, as Jacob Morris Strelitzsky, and that he emigrated to the United States as a child. When he died in 1950, a lawsuit filed by his only child, from the first of three marriages, challenged his will, claiming that Stahl’s third wife had coerced him into leaving his entire estate to her by threatening to expose his real background—as well as the fact that in his youth he had been jailed for unspecified crimes under various aliases. Beyond these tantalizing fragments, almost nothing is known about Stahl’s early life, his family, when he came to America, or how he wound up on the stage, and then in films, as an actor. (Bruce Babington presents his invaluable research on Stahl’s life and on his still-missing silent films in The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, a new collection of writing on the director that he edited with Charles Barr and to which I contributed.)
Even Stahl’s first directing credit is uncertain. He claimed it was a now-lost 1914 film called The Boy and the Law, which resonates with his mysterious biography. It follows a Jewish boy who escapes anti-Semitic persecution in Russia, becomes a poolroom delinquent in America, and is set on the right course by Judge Willis Brown—a self-promoting social reformer who wrote and starred as himself in the film. Stahl was uncredited on his first surviving work, The Lincoln Cycle, a series of ten related short films, but he publicly declared himself the director when the cycle was first released in 1917, and continued to do so throughout his career without being contradicted. The eight surviving episodes were the earliest films shown in a Stahl retrospective at the thirty-seventh edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, this past October.
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