|Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven|
Not until I started researching and reading did I realize the extent of the tremendous amount of heresay, recyled disinformation and vague references that exists in the written media about director John M. Stahl - both online and in book form. I prefer to write (cryptically) off the top of my head but felt lacking in sufficient details concerning the film legacy of Mr. Stahl. I love film but dislike film criticism...trust me...you will not see mise en scene mentioned...
John Malcolm Stahl was born unceremoniuosly in New York City on January 21, 1886...attended public schools until 1901, when he left to become an actor...he worked in this vein on stage and film until joining Vitagraph Studios in 1914 and then the newly founded MGM/Meyer studios in 1917...throughout his tenure, he directed numerous films of little consequence (most have been lost or forgotten). He founded Tiffany-Stahl Pictures in 1927, but sold his interest in 1930. His "big break" came in 1930 when he joined Universal Studios and began making a number of successful and quality films.
Stahl married Roxana Wray in 1930 (his wife until death)..then came the disaster of Parnell (1937), which ended his work with Universal. He he continued on working for Fox Studios and free-lancing, his sole success being Leave Her to Heaven along with some minor films...he retired in 1949 and died the following year. John Stahl was one of the founders of AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for whatever that is worth)...
Prior to 1936, I think Stahl enjoyed a good reputation as a reliable, competent, focused studio director. Parnell was his undoing (as director and producer he was solely responsible), and the critics and wags began to pile up the negatives: "studio director,""unoriginal,""a woman's director," "a one medium director," director of "weepies," "tearjerkers" and "soapers." Negative criticism led to neglect which was in full force by the time he made Leave Her to Heaven (1945). To the above I say...
1. William Wyler was criticized for being a "studio director" (I would like anyone try to do a better job on Ben-Hur).
2. George Cukoor was also called a "woman's director"...so what? He was a good director period...
3. John Ford directed mostly westerns.
4. Being "maverick" and "original" does not guarantee quality or success...
I also think that part of the public and critical neglect of Stahl was due to his reputation - he was a real nice guy, not a womanizaer or a drunk...got along well with the studio brass...actors and actresses loved him (especially Greer Garson)...he was pleasant to work with...productive...responsible.
Yes, he directed melodramas...yes, he addressed strong issues on the social and sexual mores of women...yes, he featured independent (sometimes driven) characters...but this hardly justifies criticism or neglect.
The following is a quote from Hal Erickson at All-Movie Guide: "it was during this time that Stahl developed his directorial "signature"; hot house melodramas and baroque romanticisims with emphasis on strong, self reliant female characters"..this was the kind of blather that I waded through.
1. Hot house...What does that mean? over-the-top...yes...sauna, no!
2. Baroque...I think that he is referring to Douglas Sirk!
3. Self reliant females...that smells of Ayn Rand...
2. Only Yesterday (1933)...again featuring John Boles and the screen debut of Margaret Sullavan. In 1929, a once wealthy businessman reflects on his past and an affair in 1917 that produced an illegimate child...he had ignored the woman who had his child and now feels remorse when he finds her dying. With a chilling montage of images of the Great Depression. As with Back Street, a definite pre-coder...featuring a strong supporting cast including Edna May Oliver and Billie Burke.
3. Imitation of Life (1933)... from Fannie Hurst once again...perfect cast with Claudette Colbert as Bea Pullman, Louise Beavers as Delilah Johnson, Warren William as Stephen Archer, and Rochelle Hudson and Fredi Washington as the daughters. Storyline...widow hires maid whose recipe becomes "Aunt Delilah" pancake formula = $$$ and disappointment. This film tackled real issues of segregation, the position of women, class structure, passing for white and the destructive power of wealth. Often described as dated, this version of Imitation of Life is superior to the flamboyant/unbelievable/vapid 1959 remake with Lana Turner...
5. Parnell (1937)...the story of "the uncrowned king of Ireland"...a good pedigree...Myrna Loy and Clark Gable...cinematography by Karl Freund...screenplay by John Van Druten. Unfortunately, it was a giant flop with the public and critics...beautifully filmed but schizophrenic. Is it a bio-pic, a star vehicle or a costume drama? As producer/director, Stahl was completely responsible for this mess that led to his dismissal from MGM...please...do NOT see this film!
6. When Tomorrow Comes (1939)...a minor comeback for Stahl, as Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne renew their screen chemistry from Love Affair (1939)...from a story by James M. Cain, of all people...good film...improbable plot...remade by Douglas Sirk as Interlude (1957).
7. The Keys of the Kingdom (1945)...from the A. J. Cronin novel...screenplay by Nunnally Johnson...music by Alfred Newman..and a great cast headed by Gregory Peck in his first starring role..we really see the screen presence of Peck in this film...from his visage...mannerisms...and speech...this was 18 years before To Kill a Mockingbird.
8. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)...flamboyant and morbid, to say the least...Gene Tierney is both stunning and creepy as Ellen Berent..Cornel Wilde is adequate as her hubby Richard Harland...with good support from Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price...how this movie got by the censors is beyond me: featuring a wrongful death (click below to view)...a deliberate fall to cause a miscarriage and suicide to implicate a rival in homicide is enough plot for three movies...this is one unique movie and represents the mastery of Stahl...famous quote: "there's nothing wrong with Ellen, it's just that she loves too much..."
Well, that is the best I can do...I have been a champion of John M. Stahl for 30 years...his fall from grace was multifactorial...the disaster of Parnell, benign neglect by critics...the ascendency of Douglas Sirk..and the unjust labelling as a studio director...I hope you will visit his films!