The Birth of a Quiet Radical: John M. Stahl’s Silent Films

The Birth of a Quiet Radical: John M. Stahl’s Silent Films

On Film / Features — Dec 17, 2018

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.

Top of post: James Murray, John M. Stahl, and Helene Costello on the set of In Old Kentucky, courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
This picture: The Lincoln Cycle, courtesy of the Library of Congress

On paper, The Lincoln Cycle does not sound very promising. The films were conceived by Benjamin Chapin, an actor who had made a theatrical career of impersonating Abraham Lincoln, and who was such a towering egotist that he refused to give screen credit to any of his fellow actors or his director. (“Chapin won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated,” quipped John Barrymore.) In the 1920s, the films were reissued for the educational market under the title “The Son of Democracy.” These facts suggest a vanity project, and perhaps a stodgy historical tableau, so the delicacy, freshness, and sophistication of the films came as a pleasant surprise at Pordenone—rewarding those jet-lagged North American attendees who dragged themselves to the 9 a.m. screenings. 

It is tempting, though speculative, to see some of Stahl’s signature virtues in these films—the restraint and tenderness with which he handles emotional moments, his ability to balance drama and light humor, and his interest in the way the past shapes and overshadows the present. Flashbacks are the structuring mechanism of these films, and like John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), they suggest that our greatest president’s character was honed and revealed in seemingly minor vignettes and anecdotes of his life. The Lincoln Cycle is also a lyrical meditation on the power of memory. In each thirty-minute film, the wartime president faces some challenge or dilemma that sparks the recollection of an episode in his earlier life, or the lives of his forbears. Several of the best episodes (My Mother and Tender Memories) dwell on Lincoln’s relationship with his adored mother (Madelyn Clare) and his inconsolable grief at her death. The films’ locations add a striking naturalism and solemnity: bleak, wintry woods and fields represent the rough-hewn surroundings of Lincoln’s childhood and the battlefields of the Civil War, strewn with dead soldiers as in a Mathew Brady photograph. These landscapes are far removed from the affluent urban settings of Stahl’s later women’s pictures, but the clear-eyed, warm-hearted depictions of family relationships and children’s emotional lives look forward to films such as Seed (1931) and Imitation of Life (1934).  

Sowing the Wind, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

The eight Stahl features in the Pordenone retrospective were shown in chronological order, making it easy to trace his path from heavy, operatic melodrama to the deft blending of comedy and heartache. (Another silent, The Woman Under Oath [1919], was shown earlier this year at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna as part of a series that sampled the director’s entire career.) The early films are rife with lurid plot elements and violent, traumatic revelations. In Her Code of Honor (1919), a woman is horrified to realize that her fiancé is, apparently, her brother, the son of the cad who abandoned her pregnant mother. In The Child Thou Gavest Me (1921), the heroine first discovers—on her wedding day, no less—that the illegitimate child she believed died at birth is still alive, and later faces the realization that the man who raped her in a wartime field hospital is . . . but I won’t spoil it. In Sowing the Wind (1921), a man determined to break up his foster son’s romance with the daughter of a notorious demimondaine finds out that she is really . . . I won’t spoil that either, though you can probably guess. It’s little wonder that suicide often seems like the best way out for these people. But the stories don’t follow their premises to the bitter end; instead they tamp down emotional eruptions with glib explanations, gestures of forgiveness, and turn-on-a-dime character transformations. 

The Song of Life, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Wild coincidences abound. A woman abandons her baby in a moment of desperation, and decades later winds up living above her now grown son in a Lower East Side tenement (The Song of Life, 1922). In Suspicious Wives (a.k.a. Greater Than Love, 1921), the coincidences become so improbable, and the plot machinery so labored, that the intertitles comment on it with the introduction of a “demon” representing fate, laughing as it plays with its victims. (Many of the films, including this one, feature beautifully illustrated and lettered art titles.) As critic Pamela Hutchinson has pointed out, these ludicrous plot twists also present well-crafted narrative and thematic symmetries. Like some of Shakespeare’s most far-fetched plots, they belong to a tradition of narratives in which reality bends to emotional and moral imperatives: the need for resolution, for the truth to emerge, for justice to be served. Is this not, at least in part, what stories—and melodramas in particular—are for?

All of these films, even the less successful ones, have some of the Stahlian qualities, the emotional clarity and force, that would emerge fully in his masterworks, for instance the trio starring Irene Dunne—Back Street (1932), Magnificent Obsession (1935), and When Tomorrow Comes (1939)—whose influence would spread throughout the family tree of melodrama, from Douglas Sirk’s remakes to the work of directors, from Fassbinder to Todd Haynes, inspired by Sirk.

The Child Thou Gavest Me, courtesy of the Library of Congress

High among Stahl’s virtues is a commitment to exploring women’s experience. With his very first official credit, Wives of Men (1918, presumed lost), Stahl began partnering with strong female stars, including several (Grace Davison, Anita Stewart) who acted as their own producers. Though forgotten today, they, like Stahl regulars Florence Reed and Mollie King, were highly regarded, and there is often something of the New Woman in their characters: Reed plays a famous novelist who becomes the first woman ever to sit on a criminal jury in The Woman Under Oath (something that did not actually happen in New York until decades later). Anita Stewart makes a ringing denunciation of sexual double standards in Sowing the Wind, telling the hypocritical man who objects to her marrying his son (but encourages the boy to sow his wild oats) that she will fight him, “sex against sex!” The Song of Life becomes a somewhat maudlin mother-love story, but it opens with a stark depiction of a woman breaking down under the strain of domestic drudgery.

Stahl’s silents are caught somewhere between Victorian values of womanhood and the critique of female self-sacrifice in his pre-Code dramas such as Seed, Back Street, and Only Yesterday—still-modern films that are ambivalent but empathetic in their treatment of women’s devotion, and unsparing in their portrayal of men’s entitlement. In the silent era, Stahl’s favorite male actor was Lewis Stone, whom he directed six times and seems to have valued for Stone’s ability to portray varieties of masculine selfishness and insensitivity while still retaining some audience sympathy—a gift John Boles did not bring to the early sound melodramas. A former actor himself, Stahl usually drew natural and deeply felt performances from his players, including children. He had a keen eye for child and infant behavior, like the lonely little boy in The Child Thou Gavest Me imitating kids he sees the street outside by shooting craps with sugar cubes against his teddy bear, or the one-year-old who climbs on the table at his birthday party and falls asleep with his face in the cake in Memory Lane (1926). 

Memory Lane, courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A stubborn perfectionist, Stahl was known for shooting far more footage than he wound up using—a habit deplored by Louis B. Mayer, under whom the director had his own unit beginning in 1921—and for his skill as an editor. His visual style stands out in the silent features: his use of extreme deep focus; his love of window, door, and mirror frames; his use of blocking to express relationships, as when the love triangle in Husbands and Lovers (1924) becomes a literal triangle, the two men seated on either side of a chess board and the woman at the apex between them. There is a shot in The Child Thou Gavest Me where Lewis Stone stands in the foreground, outside a doorway that frames, very far back, at the foot of a staircase, his wife (Barbara Castleton), her child, and the man he jealously fears may be the child’s father. Such moments are not showy, but occasionally Stahl produces a bolder cinematic flourish, like the scene in The Song of Life where a downtrodden housewife looks out of her shack and sees a train passing, the windows like small movie screens showing fashionable women drinking champagne—a device Clarence Brown would recreate in Possessed (1931). In Husbands and Lovers, a scene of mistaken identity in a darkened room works because of the virtuosic low lighting, which also evokes the somber mood of this pivotal moment.

Husbands and Lovers, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

The juxtaposition of formal, elegant framing and explosive emotion comes out in a signature motif of Stahl’s silents: the disrupted wedding. The chocolate-box perfection of these elaborate ceremonies—the garlands of flowers, the legions of bridesmaids and groomsmen and tiny ring-bearers and flower girls, the solemn step-together-step-together rhythm of the procession—serve to intensify the effect when everything falls apart. Sometimes the disruption is played for laughs (establishing what would become a convention in romantic comedy), sometimes for shock (a fatal gun-shot at a wedding banquet, a long-lost child’s reappearance), sometimes for the yearning regret of a rejected lover who watches the spectacle from outside a window. While fancy weddings are rarer in Stahl’s sound films, he would reuse some of these motifs: scenes of Lois Wilson, as the mother in Seed, looking through windows at her children and her estranged husband emphasize her isolation; in Only Yesterday, Margaret Sullavan’s shattering realization that the father of her child doesn’t recognize her comes amid a thronged military victory parade. Throughout his career, Stahl would use simple, classical framing to contain and counterpoint the violent emotions in his stories, giving his films a placid surface that focuses and deepens the feeling beneath. 

As Stahl developed, big declamatory scenes that play to the balconies gave way to a focus on detail and small but telling bits of business. This style takes hold fully in the comedies of remarriage Why Men Leave Home (1924) and Husbands and Lovers, which patiently depict the everyday lives of their characters. In Stahl’s early films, his efforts to inject comic relief are sometimes jarringly abrupt, but by Memory Lane he has fully mastered tonal shifts, so that the film moves easily back and forth between witty humor and bittersweet melancholy. Gone are the plot turns that loom on the horizon; the story is unpredictable in the best way, the characters consistently surprising yet always convincing in their behavior. Eleanor Boardman stars as a woman who gets engaged to a dull but dependable man (Conrad Nagel) when her first love (William Haines) leaves town, only to have him reappear on the eve of her wedding, tormenting her with second thoughts and casting a shadow over the start of her marriage. It is a simple story without dramatic twists of fate, but it is daring in the way it forces us to like and feel for both men, and to accept that life rarely supplies resolution, truth, and justice. Here Stahl has matured into a filmmaker who ranks with Mikio Naruse as an artist of tender irony and heartbreaking reserve.