Complex, troubled – even doomed – relationships are a classic staple in melodrama. The difference between “good” and “bad” melodrama often lies in the effort to mount more than just a succession of empty tragedies, and the ability to probe philosophical considerations about the implications of its central conflicts. Eighty-five years after its release, John M. Stahl’s Back Street‘s clever insights and emotional honesty play with archaic notions, challenging just how much our ideals have changed, while offering probing observations about abuse.
Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) is a high-spirited, modern woman, living in Cincinnati at the turn of the century. She works hard for a living, rewarding her efforts by enjoying the night life, to the dismay of her stepmother (Jane Darwell) who would rather that she stay at home. And while her father Adolph (Paul Weigel) supports her right to have some fun, he would like to see her settle down. During the labour pains of an early automotive boom, Kurt Shendler (George Meeker), a straightforward, good-hearted believer in the future of the automobile, would like to marry Ray, but she repeatedly lets him down gingerly.
By chance, Ray meets and is charmed by Walter D. Saxel (John Boles), who she soon learns is already engaged to be married to an acquaintance of hers, Corinne, a “good match” that his mother “has her heart set on.” Still, she agrees to go on a few dates with him, and the two quickly become crazy about each other. With the looming prospect of his marriage hanging over their heads, Walter makes plans for Ray to meet his mother, in the hopes that she will be as taken by Ray as he is. They are to meet at a band concert in the park, but a set of unfortunate circumstances prevent Ray from being able to show up.
Five years later, again by chance, Ray and Walter run into each other on Wall Street. Since she “stood him up at Eaton Park in front of the bandstand,” Walter has been married and fathered two children, and is in line for junior partnership at his bank. While she is not “exactly in line for junior partnership,” she is the highest-paid woman in her firm. Eager to catch up, they arrange to have dinner together that evening, but it is soon clear that the sparks between them have not died, and the two agree to see each other again.
During their next visit, Walter takes her to a furnished apartment, telling her, “It’s for you, Ray. We couldn’t go on meeting on street corners, hiding in doorways. You don’t mind, do you?” With Walter paying her rent and giving her an allowance, Ray leaves her job in order to be available for the rare opportunities when Walter will be able to drop in and spend time with her. But without a job to occupy her time, and unable to make new friends, each minute drags on like an hour, and it seems to Ray that all that her life consists of is waiting: peering out her window, listening for the telephone to ring, straining to hear his key in the lock. Waiting, waiting for the fleeting, meagre moments of Walter’s affection that seem never to come, and are scarce enough once they do.
As though the moments spent with him were not already rare enough, Walter tells Ray that he must travel to Europe on business for several weeks. Those weeks extend to months, as Ray will discover, thanks to a postcard reading, “Have been delayed longer than expected. Miss you a lot. W.” In the meantime, Ray takes up painting china to occupy her endless free time, and makes friends with one of her neighbours, Francine (Shirley Grey). Also during Walter’s absence, Ray receives a surprise visit from Kurt Shendler, whose perseverance in the automobile industry has brought him success and wealth. Kurt has not stopped loving Ray, and he confirms that his offer of marriage still stands.
Returning from his trip, Walter surprises Ray when he describes a trip to Switzerland. “Didn’t I write you?” Walter gasps. “Darling, I’ve had three postcards from you, all summer!” “Now, Ray, I know I wrote you more often than that. Some of them must have gone astray,” Walter argues. When pressed about what she’s done all summer, Ray explains that she’s taken up painting vases and selling them, to his dismay. “A woman likes to have a few coins in her purse once in a while,” Ray explains. While Walter has been gallivanting across Europe for weeks on end, feeling no pressure to rush back to her, he has also forgotten to provide for her.
Once their brief reunion ends, Kurt pops in, telling Ray that business will be taking him back to Detroit. “I’m rich now, and I’m still goofy about you,” he tells her. “Will you marry me? Of course, if you’re not free…” In this moment, Ray has an epiphany: “I am. I wasn’t, Kurt, but I am now.” But as soon as Ray decides to marry Kurt, Walter makes a bid to keep Ray for himself. “If you wanted to make me suffer, you’ve succeeded. It’s been terrible. I never knew I could need any human being as I’ve needed you. I have no right to ask anything of you, Ray. I can’t offer you any of the things you ought to enjoy: home, respectability, children. I only know one thing: I need you; I love you. Come back to me, Ray. You’re trying to run away from something, Ray, but you can’t: we belong together.” “But, Walter, if I do go back, where would it all end?” Ray replies. Ultimately, Ray decides not to marry Kurt, and her life is bound to become a repetitive series of tagging along on trips where Walter is unable to see much of her, illicit breakfasts at “the usual” places, and constantly being hidden in the shadows of back streets.
There are a lot of ideas in Back Street that immediately play poorly to our modern, enlightened, feminist eyes. At first glance, Back Street appears to embrace the assumption that a woman’s significance is measured in her relationship to a man. But in key moments such as when Ray pours her heart out, telling Walter that he does not know how empty her life is, Back Street‘s tone is ironic and bitterly derisive of Walter as he protests, “Empty? When you have me?” It is more accurate to realize that Back Street is as contemptuous of this suggestion as we are. When we find ourselves rooting for Ray to put an end to her encounters with Walter, and go for Kurt, Back Street challenges and exposes how our own biases may be archaic: that we find ourselves wishing for Ray to marry a man who can provide material and social status is no better than the most dated notions of matchmaking that we pride ourselves on having outgrown. Ray’s pursuit of a fulfilling relationship with Walter may be futile, but Ray has the bravery not to fold to social pressure by marrying a man she does not love for the wrong reasons, instead trying to follow her heart.
Still, as it becomes increasingly clear that her relationship with Walter is unlikely to culminate in happiness, Ray is provided many outs and possibilities to turn her life around. During Walter’s trip to Europe, as her friendship with Francine continues to deepen, Ray learns that Francine is also caught up in a covert tryst with a married man. “Oh, Francine, I wish you’d stop,” Ray scolds her as Francine opens up about her loneliness, once her lover Jim has ended their affair. “He’s not worth it. I wonder if any man is.” Ray muses. “I know it’s pretty tough on you right now, but you’re so well out of it. You’re free, now: free to come and go and do as you like.” “But, Ray, I love him! I’d have starved for him. worked for him, anything. All I wanted was his love,” Francine protests. “Well that’s all you’ve got, all you’ll ever get,” Ray wistfully concludes. “You don’t get that for long. What can a man like that do for you? Can he take you out anyplace? Be seen with you in public? Introduce you to his friends? All he can do is tuck you away someplace in a side street, and let you wait: wait for the telephone to ring, wait for unsigned postal cards and typewritten letters. Take my advice: get out of it, before it’s too late. Find some nice boy, marry him, settle down, have kiddies: that’s the only way to be happy. There isn’t one woman in a million who’s found happiness in the back streets of any man’s life.” It would seem as though Ray is fired up by her own advice, and starting to consider how this applies to her own situation, but the moment Walter finally walks in the door, all of those doubts immediately vaporize. That is until she realizes that he has already been back in town for two days, and has not been able to even make a priority of calling her. “Ray, I’ve been so busy! I thought about it a dozen times, but I simply couldn’t get around to it. Please forgive me?” he pleads. “Of course,” she sadly agrees: it always seems that she is required to exert more and more patience, and deny the importance of her own feelings.
While Back Street is not afraid to portray Walter’s treatment of Ray with a thinly veiled level of disgust and contempt, it is wise enough to understand and suggest why Ray might be drawn into Walter’s spell. Ongoing abuse is complex, and relationships like hers with Walter are dangerous because the abuse is not so transparent. Back Street is careful to note Walter’s kindnesses and good qualities that feed the longevity of the relationship. Ray is a smart girl, and if Walter were unabashedly evil, there is no way she would tolerate what Walter puts her through. While he is certainly selfish, caring more about what Ray gives him than what he can give her in return, he wholeheartedly believes that he loves Ray and is looking out for her best interests, and this sincerity manages to convince her, too. In key moments, John Boles is careful not to portray Walter as a one-note villain, even showing the humanity that makes him a complex love interest, or just even a complex person. When Walter’s son Richard arrives to berate Ray for being the shadow that darkens his family’s lives, Walter is quick and bold in his defence of her. “Long before you were born, two months before I married your mother, I met Ray Schmidt. For twenty-five years, we’ve loved each other. What I’ve given her hasn’t been taken from my family: it was something they didn’t want, and she, for some reason or other, was happy to have. What she’s given me, no one else ever offered me. This is a corner of my life that belongs to me, alone.” This admission is delivered with the utmost passion and sincerity: Richard truly begins to understand how important Walter believes Ray is to him, and more importantly, it is the validation Ray has been longing to hear.
But Back Street also is aware, and eager to warn, that talk is cheap. “I’d gladly give up all I have, life itself, just for that little pink nose of yours,” Walter promises Ray after she expresses her appreciation for Walter’s defence of her to his son. When Richard enters Ray’s apartment and sees her for the first time since his father’s death from a paralytic stroke, he finds her sitting in lonely heartbreak next to a portrait of Walter. He immediately understands that this is not a woman who has been clinging to and using a man to get ahead; this is a woman who truly loved his father with all her being. “Mrs. Schmidt, my father would have wanted you provided for. Did he make any provision for you?” he asks her. “How much did my father… [provide you with]?” When she tells him it is two hundred dollars per month, Richard is taken aback. Even Walter’s own son, in spite of the conflict of interest and loyalty to his mother, is shocked by Walter’s shabby treatment of Ray. Even he thinks she is worth more, and deserves better than the life she has accepted. “Every first of the month, the money will be sent to your New York address. And if you ever need any help, please call on me,” Richard promises. “Walter. Your son is going to take care of me. He was so nice,” Ray gushes. Did Walter ever really take care of her? Would a stranger, even an enemy, have more compassion for her than Walter did?
Though frustrated by Ray’s repeated decisions not to flee this toxic relationship, and while refusing to endorse the abuse, Back Street is deeply respectful of Ray’s emotional right to pursue what she believes is best for her (even if cynical about where it will lead her). The film understands that the other option would simply mean trading the relationship she prefers for one that is also unlikely to meet her needs, and it does not pretend to suggest an answer for what will make Ray most happy. Back Street is deeply sympathetic to the view that even if her love for Walter may never lead to total emotional satisfaction, Ray is at least trying to be true to herself and her desires.
Back Street is aware of an audience’s need to pick sides, to discern a “right” avenue from a “wrong” one, but wisely is unwilling to gratify that hunger. The film is decidedly impartial, understanding that its role is to consciously and inclusively present all of the good and the bad that happen within a relationship. Rather than trying to pick between Ray’s options, Back Street is more inclined to sadly wonder if perfect happiness is ever even possible in either of these options that life has offered her. As such, Back Street appropriately is most eager to impose dialogue that will ask its audience to consider and gauge how one tells happiness from unhappiness, right from wrong, leaving that question unanswered, and forcing that onus on us.