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Back Street (1941)

"There isn't one woman in a million who's ever found happiness in the back streets of any man's life," Fannie Hurst wrote in her popular 1930 novel Back Street about the long-term affair between Rae, a lonely single woman, and Walter, the married man who keeps her in the shadows. Originally called Grand Passion, it was first published as a monthly serial in Cosmopolitan magazine. When the installments were compiled into a novel, the title changed to Back Street. Soon Hollywood came calling, and Universal Studios bought the book rights for $30,000 in 1931.

The story of Back Street was first filmed in 1932 with John Boles and Irene Dunne as the lovers who can never quite make it work. The 1941 version starred the debonair Charles Boyer and the soulful Margaret Sullavan as the illicit lovers with Robert Stevenson directing. This version, with Boyer and Sullavan, has remained the favorite of critics and moviegoers alike. Critic Bosley Crowther called it "the quintessence of what is known as the woman's picture," referring to its resonant core of melodrama and pathos.

Viewers were particularly impressed with Sullavan and Boyer; the latter especially because he brought a sympathetic quality to his part of the philandering Walter. However, the one person who did not like the choice of Boyer was author Fannie Hurst. She felt that the part of Walter was decidedly Midwestern, and the French-born Boyer was all wrong for the part. Hurst was also offended when the studio rejected her input and gave Bruce Manning the task of writing the screenplay. When Back Street later opened, Hurst was vocal about her dislike for the film despite its vast popularity with the public.

Another thorn in the side of the studio and screenwriter Manning was Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration. Breen was worried that Back Street would romanticize adultery, so he put a plethora of restrictions on the film to ensure that it conveyed the message that the lives of Walter and Rae were worse off because of their affair. For instance, Rae had to always be shown "in a state of total degeneration caused by poverty and loneliness," and there could be "no suggestion that Walter had any sort of official appointment" as his means of employment. Additionally, there could be no "intimate love scenes" between the two. In response, Manning assured Breen that the story would be written as a tragedy in which everyone involved with the affair paid a terrible price.

Back Street was remade once more in 1961 by director David Miller with John Gavin and Susan Hayward as the leads, but the 1941 version is still considered the best adaptation and it won an Oscar nomination for Best Dramatic Score (by Frank Skinner).

Producer: Frank Shaw
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Felix Jackson, Bruce Manning, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst
Art Direction: Jack Otterson, Richard H. Riedel
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Costume Design: Muriel King, Vera West
Film Editing: Ted Kent
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Charles Boyer (Walter Saxel), Margaret Sullavan (Ray Smith), Richard Carlson (Curt Stanton), Frank McHugh (Ed Porter), Tim Holt (Richard Saxel), Samuel S. Hinds (Felix Darren), Frank Jenks (Harry Niles), Esther Dale (Mrs. Smith).
BW-89m.

by Andrea Passafiume

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