John M. Stahl is remembered as a master of the Hollywood melodrama, but this vague tribute has long stood in place of any precise understanding of the scope and qualities of his work. He has several strikes against him. The Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), probably his most widely seen film, is delicious but uncharacteristic in the coldness and cruelty lurking under its lushly stylized surface. The classic “woman’s pictures” Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935) have been eclipsed by Douglas Sirk’s remakes in the 1950s. Stahl’s superb, quietly radical early sound films Seed (1931), Back Street (1932), and Only Yesterday (1933) are frustratingly hard to see. And his silent movies, of which around a dozen titles are known to survive, are almost entirely unknown. Finally emerging from the archives, the silent films reveal Stahl’s development, in less than a decade, from melodramas such as Her Code of Honor (1919) and The Child Thou Gavest Me (1921) that lurch with wild coincidences, shocking revelations, and extreme plot twists—rape, incest, infant abandonment—to a mature blend of humor, heartache, and unforced tenderness, as in the bittersweet Memory Lane (1926). On the way, he produced several deft, sophisticated light comedies, of which the most sparkling is Husbands and Lovers.
Although Stahl always claimed he was a native of New York, after his death evidence emerged that he was born Jacob Morris Strelitzsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1886, and emigrated from there to the United States as a child. Facts about his early life and career remain elusive, but he got his start as an actor and, by his own testimony, began directing in 1914. His first official credit came in 1918 with Wives of Men, which also set a pattern for his focus on women’s stories. He was hired by the film’s producer, Grace Davison, one of several female star-producers with whom he worked in these early years. By 1920, he was well established and signed a seven-year contract with Louis B. Mayer and soon had his own production unit, releasing his films through First National.
In these prolific years, Stahl returned again and again to the subject of marriage and its discontents: jealousy, infidelity, the tedium and neglect that sets in when first love wears off, and women’s taken- for-granted domestic drudgery. In 1924 he took a somewhat lighter view in two back-to-back comedies of remarriage, Why Men Leave Home and Husbands and Lovers. Both star Lewis Stone as the once and future husband. Stahl made a total of six films with Stone and seems to have valued him for his ability to personify male selfishness and insensitivity without entirely repelling audience sympathy, as well as for his subtle expressiveness and light comic touch. He needs these gifts since James, his character in Husbands and Lovers, is a particularly scathing portrait of oblivious entitlement, revealed through sharply drawn details of everyday behavior. The film opens with a long scene that establishes the nature of the central couple’s marriage through their morning routine, which involves the wife, Grace (played by the lovely Florence Vidor), waiting on her husband hand and foot and cleaning up after him, only to be rewarded with smug, insulting criticisms of her appearance.
Grace responds by going out for a makeover and a fashionable new wardrobe, which earns her no points with her husband but does attract the amorous attention of their friend Rex (Lew Cody). Annoyed by his compliments, James nastily tells his wife that Rex “would tell a one-legged woman her crutch was becoming.” (The snappy, occasionally acid titles are by Madge Tyrone. The film’s story is credited to Stahl’s wife Frances Irene Reels, the last of their many collaborations before her death in 1926, and was adapted by another frequent collaborator, A.P. Younger.) Vidor is a perfect interpreter of Stahl’s restrained, elegant, dryly amused style, though this was the only time he directed her. A popular and admired leading lady in the late teens and twenties, she retired with the coming of sound and of her silent films only a few are still watched today—one being Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (1924), to which Husbands and Lovers was compared by several reviewers on its release.
The casting of Lew Cody was presumably intended to ensure that the audience would root for Stone. Cody specialized in playing smooth cads and lounge lizards; he has “Other Man” embroidered on him like a monogram, and a reptilian face that betrays little feeling. Still, his character hardly deserves the crushing humiliation to which he is subjected in the film’s climactic scene, which presents one of Stahl’s favorite tropes, that romantic comedy staple, the disrupted wedding. In his settings, 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—serves to heighten the effect when everything falls apart. This is the ultimate demonstration of Stahl’s ability to layer formal, classical framing and violent emotion, giving his films a placid surface that intensifies the feeling beneath, as a magnifying glass focuses sunlight to a burning point.
The centerpiece of Husbands and Lovers is a scene of mistaken identity, a twist that might be hard to swallow if it were not staged with such assured style. Vidor sits by a window, with bars of light falling through shutter-slats casting slanted shadows across her, a beautiful twilight image that distills the ambivalence of her character. Stone stands almost completely concealed by darkness, with just a crescent of light tracing one side of his face; he advances into the light and then retreats back into the shadow, like the moon waxing and waning, as he listens silently to his wife’s confession of love for another man. Cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who masterminded the extremely low lighting in this scene, went on to an illustrious career at Warner Brothers, shooting classics such as Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Letter, one of eleven pictures he photographed for the exacting Bette Davis. Stahl’s visual style stands out in the silent features: his use of extreme deep focus; his love of shots framed by windows, doors, and mirrors; his use of formally arranged compositions to express relationships, as when the love triangle in Husbands and Lovers becomes a literal triangle, the two men seated on either side of a chess board and the woman at the apex between them.
Gaining popularity at a time when divorce was only just becoming more socially acceptable, remarriage dramas seem driven by conflicting desires to critique and affirm marriage, to flirt with being “modern” about adultery and women’s autonomy, and yet to ensure a final retreat back into the romantic conventions of happily-ever-after. These films made comedy out of the battle of the sexes and at the same time tried to smooth over the very divisions they illustrated, resulting in stubborn but interesting ambiguities of tone.
Stahl’s own commitment to marital dramas seems to have wavered and, in November 1924, he apparently announced to the press that he would move away from these subjects, prompting The Philadelphia Inquirer to run the headline “Resolves To Stop Breaking Up Homes: John M. Stahl Has Wrecked His Last Home!” Like the husbands and wives in his films who toy with divorce only to reunite, Stahl would think twice, return to his first love, and continue to mine the dramatic possibilities of troubled marriages for many more years to come.
Expanded from the author’s essay originally published in Giornate del Cinema Muto’s 2018 program book.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Philip Carli