”In both the film and its source, the scandalously popular novel by Fanny Hurst, Ray has economic and social options other than life in the Back Street. It may be the devil’s bargain under the patriarchy, but it is a voluntary transaction. We can say that she is repeatedly forced into situations of disappointment, loss, anguish only if we acknowledge that the force comes from within her. She chooses sacrifice, deep loss, as the price for what she wants. Are there words to describe what she wants? “True love” is a paradox; it explains all while it explains nothing. Does Ray get what she wants? Was the price too high? The audience comes away racked with ambivalence. In her article “I Burn For Him” , Susan White offers a detailed and carefully argued interpretation of Back Street as a depiction of female masochism – in relation to psychoanalytic theory. …It must be a matter of speculation – it is too late for systematic research – whether the suburban mothers and mothers-to-be who wept silently at the matinee sessions before going home to the housework were consoled in their own submission by such films, or whether they were partially subverted by them, thereby indoctrinating their daughters (the generation who were to grow up with Friedan, Millett and Greer) with rather less conviction, a little more permissiveness, than ever they had been granted.” ( John Flaus )
The movie version of Fanny Hurst’s ”Back Street” with Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan dates from 1932,and as old as it is, there is much relevance to day. In one crucial scen, Margaret Suulivan is riding in an open carriage on her way to the Mississippi riverboat where he fiance is waiting for her. They will embark together and be married abroad. A former suitor, an unpleasant but hardly malicious character, happens to appear on the scene and delays her so long that she misses the boat. She misses that boat with utmost finality. Her young man, thinking she has stood him up, sails without her and marries someone else. Eventually, the two lovers meet again and the fantastic misunderstanding is cleared up. But it is too late. They spend the rest of their lives vainly trying to mend their broken romance.
Back Street is a classic example of Love thwarted by Matter; of romance, that is, stopped in its tracks, not by lack of response or emotion in people, but by an ironically trivial stumbling block thrown in its path by blind fate. The device of the missed rendez-vous; undelivered or intercepted letters, a telephone that stops ringing a second too soon, interruptions of all sorts at critical moments, has always been popular with novelists as well as movie makers, but its tragic consequences in Back Street were most unusual for a Hollywood picture. The drama of life’s timing in matters of love, the ”lost chance” , is rarely taken seriously in American movies, and for the good reason that American philosophy is against admitting the existence of such a thing as the lost chance.
Think of any American movie in which love,s consummation is prevented by the whims of time and space. Cannot fate be counted upon to present the couple in trouble with another chance, and yet another one? And even if it takes its own sweet time about it, won’t the hero and heroine, be it five years later, appear as young, as eager, and as desiring? But not only is fate seldom persistently unfriendly, it is actually mankind’s most dependable marriage counsellor. For if two people are ”meant for each other” , they will have another chance, and if they are just mistakenly carried away by a feeling of the moment, fate can be depended on to throw enough obstacles in their path to give them time to come to their senses; or at least to enable Mr. or Miss Right to make an appearance.
When things go awry in love’s obstacle course, it’s only seemingly bad luck . In the end, all turns out to have been for this best of all possible worlds. In the economics of love American movie makers have remained die-hard Adam Smith liberals. However, continental tradition is quite different. In French movies the tragedy of timing spells a missed chance that rarely if ever is presented again; second chances and surmounting obstacles slip away since it is always too late or the hesitation is achingly one second too long. French cinema generally underlines the ephemeral character of happiness in love. Fate is whimsical, cruel and misunderstood; and when the right moment is not grabbed, it slips by irredeemably.
A saxophone someplace far off played
walking on by the arcade
As the light bust through a-beat-up shade where he was waking up
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
He woke up the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate.
He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailers all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again how long must he wait
One more time for a simple twist of fate.
People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin but I lost the ring
She was born in spring but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate. ( Bob Dylan. Simple Twist of Fate )
The common plot of middle aged men and women married to others, yet in love is treated differently in America and Europe. The story line in both is that they reach a moment where they want to dismiss everything but the need to lie in each other’s arms; chances are created, but circumstances frustrate it. To Europeans the frustrated love spells tragedy, and in the American context, comedy. Comedy made the more pleasing by our knowledge that it is all for the best that a man and woman cannot have their way.
In a movie love-world, where opportunity is unlimited, where love is frustrated only if it is for everyone’s good, and where, moreover, there is always an attractive man or woman waiting in the background to console the jilted lady or suitor, it is hard to dramatize the real despair of love or jealousy. In the United States, society is romantic, but individuals are not. Thus the pursuit of love can have no tragic ending, for if people are meant for each other, society will in the end be on their side.
In the European tradition, the chips seem stacked quite differently. True love is rare, and the relationships and marriages of society have little to do with it. People are romantic, but society is not. Thus the European pursuit of love is a race against time and place, as desperate as the American pursuit of the bandits by the sheriff. Society is the enemy of true love and only sheer luck, great courage, and magnificent horsemanship on the obstacle course of life, can bring the star-crossed lovers together. At this point, the girl will not send her man out for coffee. She knows time is precious. Soon fate may knock on their door and interrupt the embrace.
The distinction between the two philosophies do not fit neatly into boxes and they have something in common that is very traditional; they both care, though about different things to be sure. Though there are plenty of films that try they hardest to combine the worst of both worlds; found and fulfilled love brings as little happiness as lost love; this school in its splendid films or its dreary ones will never give us a romantic film, for however romance may be treated, it is never bored with itself.