The Love Light (1921) and Only Yesterday (1933)

Love Light (8)     Only Yesterday (7)
The Love Light (1921) and Only Yesterday (1933)

THE LOVE LIGHT (1921)

When I was watching this film a few weeks ago, I recognized a sequence in the film. It’s the scene where the priest is saying grace over the meal and comedic shenanigans ensue amongst the siblings and their livestock. I thought I had seen this in a film where Mary plays a child. But this is a film where Mary plays a grown woman and it’s much rarer for me to have seen her in this guise. So maybe I have seen this film before after all, or maybe by chance the scene was recreated in another of her films.

I’ve been reading the book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp and find it full of information that I really knew little about. It’s always exciting to discover that there’s still so much more about the history of Hollywood to learn.

Frances Marion was born Marion Benson Owens on November 18, 1888. She was 33 when she wrote The Love Light, the first of the three films she directed and co-directed. Even though she tried her hand at acting, directing and producing, she found her true passion was screenwriting. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to take on any more responsibilities in filmdom, especially after she married her second husband and love of her life, Fred Thomson.

I had never heard of Fred Thomson until reading this book or seeing him in this role, his first, in tonight’s film, although he went on to become a famous cowboy film star in the vein of Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson.

Mary Pickford and Frances had become best friends, their professional collaboration beginning with Frances adapting, along with James Kirkwood, Mary’s 1915 film Fanchon, the Cricket, based on the novel by George Sand, which some of us were fortunate enough to see at Cinefest in 2014.

It was Mary who first spotted the good-looking Fred Thomson and made sure she positioned herself next to him for a team picture at Camp Kearney of the 143rd Field Artillery football game in 1918. She was still married to Owen Moore but at this point was involved and in love with Douglas Fairbanks. So a few weeks later she brought Marion with her to the Camp to meet this handsome man. Fred Thomson was the son of a minister and himself a chaplain of the 143rd along with being a world champion athlete. Not only that, but he was well read, a musician and mathematician by avocation, and all of this by the age of 28. Marion, at the age of 30, had no chance but to fall madly in love with him. Sadly, he died of tetanus poisoning nine years into their marriage. At the time, he was also highly stressed due to the fact that Joe Kennedy, his producer, was freezing him out the film-making business. He was under contract to Kennedy, and caught in a catch-22. Kennedy wouldn’t cancel the contract nor loan him out to anyone else which left him with no personal income.

When Mary finally divorced Moore to marry Doug, for their honeymoon they joined Frances and Fred who were already travelling through Europe on holiday. It was during this time that Frances told Mary about a story she was working on as a result of her and Fred’s visit to a small village in Italy. The Love Light is based on true events that she had been told about by their Italian guide. And her immediate thought when she saw in person the woman who was considered a heroine for giving up a German spy, with her small daughter in her arms, was that it would “make quite a movie”. Twenty-nine year old Mary insisted this would be her next film. She was quite tired of playing children and especially now that the world was quite aware that she was a married woman, she felt it was time to move on to do more adult roles.

Being based on a true story, there are differences and additions to making the story fuller and even more dramatic. I won’t tell you what they are at this point as I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but there are some thoughts I had that I would like to comment on. I thought Mary played a stereotypical Italian quite well, with the hand gestures and look as she was always a natural when it came to mimicking. I think the budget for the production would have been substantial, and it shows in many instances, but then sometimes there seems to be some faltering, especially in the scene where the villagers are chasing Thomson’s character. There is comedy-relief, especially at the beginning of the film but it doesn’t really blend well with the seriousness of the story that follows. However, my main thought was, knowing that Frances was married to Fred and that Mary was married to an apparently very obsessive and possessive Doug, I couldn’t help but notice the “love” scenes, or lack of them, in the film. I think this is one of the failings although the audience of the day may have had a hard time seeing Mary in a grown-up romantic situation. However, it would have added spice to the story especially because of what occurs between the two characters.

The film was not a huge success and with the next film that Mary made, she returned to playing a child in Through the Back Door which again some of us saw at Toronto Film Society’s GEH 2014 film festival.

If this is not a great film, it’s also not a bad film, but even if you don’t love it, it’s certainly an interesting look at early, sophisticated Hollywood in 1921 with a story still influenced by the First World War, written and directed by and starring two of Tinsel Town’s most contemporarily important and powerful females. I do hope you enjoy it. Caren

October 3, 2015
United Artists Corporation: Mary Pickford Company. Directed by Frances Marion. Story by Frances Marion.   Produced by Mary Pickford. Cinematography by Charles Rosher and Henry Cronjager. Film Editing by Stuart Heisler. Art Direction by Stephen Goosson. Released: January 9, 1921. 89 minutes.

Mary Pickford…………………………………………………… Angela Carlotti
Evelyn Dumo………………………………………………………………… Maria
Raymond Bloomer…………………………………………………….. Giovanni
Fred Thomson…………………………………………………………….. Joseph
Albert Prisco………………………………………………………………… Pietro
George Regas……………………………………………………………….. Tony
Eddie Phillips……………………………………………………… Mario Carlotti
Jean De Briac………………………………………………….. Antonio Carlotti

They (Mary and Doug) returned from their honeymoon supercharged by their reception. Mary was especially eager to get back to work. She had spent several days in Italy discussing a story with Frances Marion (neither considered it an usual way to spend a honeymoon), a new project which had a special appeal for Mary. The whole world now knew she was twenty-six years old and married, and she now thought of herself as a sophisticated traveler, a citizen of the world. She would play a fitting role, a mature woman caught in the tragedy of the Great War. At the first press reception for Doug and Mary on their return to New York, Doug talked about their travels in Europe, but Mary announced her plans for The Love Light, to be written and directed by Frances Marion.

Frances was neither the first nor the last woman to direct a major film, and she acquitted herself well in The Love Light, with one qualification: she devoted more attention to the leading man in the film than to the star, Mary Pickford. Perhaps the unbalanced attention was necessary, for the young man in question, Fred Thomson, who would later be a cowboy star, was making the unusual transition from army chaplain to film actor. And he also happened to be France’s new husband.

Actually the film was not a box-office disappointment, but neither was it the huge success Mary had hoped for. Perhaps audiences were tired of the war, or perhaps they simply wanted Little Mary to stay Little Mary.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Known by Booton Herndon (1977)

Mary and Frances

Mary and Frances

Mary and Doug arrived home from Europe at the end of July 1920, to be greeted by huge crowds at the West 19th Street pier. The welcoming committee included Jack Dempsey, William Brady, and several busloads of friends from the Friars Club. Six motorcycle policemen led Mary and Doug to their hotel in a long open car bedecked with American flags, and the flurry of publicity surrounding their return rivaled their extraordinary reception throughout Europe.

Over the next two days, Doug and Mary held court in their suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. He performed gymnastic feats on the hotel roof for photographers and talked about their European trip. Mary very matter-of-factly spoke only about business and took the occasion to announce, “Frances Marion is going to direct my next picture.” When she was asked if it was going to be anything like Pollyanna, she replied, “No. Every once in a while I want to do a picture that’s a little different.”

The response they received alleviated any questions left in Mary’s mind about the acceptance of her marriage and she was determined to play not only a more mature role on the screen but one that would call on her to have a child. Frances had finished her fictionalized script of the Italian war story and this time she felt free to focus all her attention on directing without slighting Fred because he was cast as the German spy that Mary’s character rescues and weds.

With her own profits at stake, Mary must have had few doubts about Fred’s abilities. She rarely had the same leading man more than once and while the spy was a pivotal character, he was only in about a quarter of the film. Mary herself told Fred how much she wanted him for the part.

“We must have an actor big and strong enough to handle those storm scenes,” she explained. “Also handsome enough so the audience will understand why I fall in love with this spy.”

“I’ve seen a hundred handsome leading men around Hollywood,” Fred said dismissively. “I’m interested only in producing westerns, not acting.”

Fred Thomson and Mary

Fred Thomson and Mary

Frances kept quiet even though she was convinced that “there was never a confirmed preacher who wasn’t a confirmed actor” and others joined in the crusade. Raymond Bloomet, cast to play Mary’s Italian boyfriend, told Fred he was “a natural” and encouraged him to take the part. A week later, Doug, Mary, Fred, and Frances were all heading to the Cyprus-tree-lined coast of Carmel and Monterey that would masquerade as the Italian shore.

Frances felt strongly that realistic exteriors were vital, particularly for the critical scene of the shipwreck, where Mary rescues her baby from a dead woman’s arms just as the boat is driven into the rocky coast. Frances kept her eyes o the horizon and finally strong winds and dark clouds promised the storm they were waiting for. Bedecked in rain gear, everyone headed to the boat, which was already being whipped by the waves. Frances was exhilarated as the scene looked even more ominous than she had hoped, but the cameras proved difficult to anchor and the winds reached such a velocity that the men urged Frances and Mary to return to the hotel. Not about to “show a white feather,” Frances was only concerned that the boat, tied to one of the large rocks, would be destroyed before the rain actually fell.

Her assistant director Nat Deverich decided the only cinematic solution was to untie the ship and record it riding the thrashing ocean, with or without a downpour, but as soon as he managed to get onto the ship and sever the cable, the sky opened. As the storm almost pushed the boat on its side, Nat jumped overboard into the roaring waves and disappeared, Doug and Fred rushed down the rocks and jumped in after him and though they were both experienced swimmers, their wives watched in terror until all three men were dragged up onto dry land. They were taken back to the hotel for new clothes and hot drinks and Frances stayed with the cameramen to finish filming the ship’s destruction,

Most of the time, work and play blended together and the crew gathered mussels and made pasta sauce for everyone. Yet there were reports that Frances spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on Fred, and the film’s editor, Stuart Heisler, was quoted as saying, “There were quite a number of retakes that had to be made. Then there were quite a few places in the picture where I, as a film editor, had to play off somebody else when Fred couldn’t do something.” There is no question that Frances was ambitious for Fred, but there may well have been some discomfort among the male crew and technicians in working for a woman director. Having Doug on the scene added to the complications. Not only did he have problems with anyone but himself being an authority figure for his wife, he thought Mary’s meaningful looks at Fred went beyond acting.

Hedda Hopper paraphrased Mary as saying that she was “in favor of women directors, especially when one was her best friend, but that at times during the shooting of the film, she felt neglected because Frances spent so much of her time making sure her husband was properly directed and well presented on the screen.”

Yet a viewing of the film shows that the light never leaves Mary. Though there are shots of Mary and Fred in profile, most of the time it is a full-face, well-lit Mary who commands the screen, performing self-deprecating slap-stick routines, pantomimes of various moods, and moments of angst that showcase her dramatic talents. She is the one and only star of The Love Light.

Love Light (9)

Frances had been a loyal and, when she thought it necessary, deferential confidante for over five years, and switching to a director-actor relationship complicated their friendship. They were now two married women with new loyalties and the late nights of reading and setting hair and mornings of arriving together early on the set were behind them. Though their intense loyalty to each other remained intact, their friendship was never again to have the unbridled closeness that marked those early years. Mary would always turn first to Frances in times of personal trouble, but it would be more than a decade until they worked together on another film.

Mary was obviously confident of her ability to direct herself because for her next movie she gave the job to her brother, Jack, who had not worked since his wife, Olive (Thomas), had died under mysterious circumstances in Paris six months earlier. Alfred Green was brought in as codirector and they turned to Marion Fairfax for the story. With the exception of her cinematographer, Charles Rosher, her entire crew was new to her. Through the Back Door did not break any box office records.

And The Love Light was France’s last film as sole director. She had the experience and technical ability, but not the strong desire and personal ambition required. She was never comfortable exerting more than quiet authority for an extended period of time, and the inherent tensions of directing her husband and her best friend had taken their toll.

She was also a very private person, and though most of the reviews were positive, the negative ones stung her to the core.

Mary had insisted on playing the role, yet Variety acted as if she had been victimized. “Mary Pickford as an Italian girl in a fisher village is an anomaly; as convincing as would be Fatty Arbuckle in Hamlet….Mary in motherhood is not Mary as the millions know—and want—her.” And when all supporting players were called “colorless,” Frances feared she had ruined Fred’s chances of success as well.

Still, she was furious when the reviews called attention to her sex. After Just Around the Corner was released, most critics agreed with Photoplay that “Frances Marion once again proves herself an outstanding figure in our films.” Yet she took it very personally when another reviewer wrote, “I have a suspicion that the female director of this picture is a descendent of General Francis (sic) Marion, the Swamp Fox; the audience had to wade through a morass of gooey sentiment before it finally arrived at the usual unbearable happy ending.” Frances consoled herself by noting that the reproach came from a rival publication of Hearst’s and there was plenty of praise for the actors’ performances. And she always claimed that she appreciated criticism that “intelligently pointed out mistakes which we would rectify in future scripts.”

But when the shipwreck scene that had almost claimed the life of her assistant director was condescendingly criticized by a reviewer writing, “Only a woman director would use such an obvious miniature in that phony storm,” she was more than resentful. Fifty years later, Frances could still repeat that review and wondered how it might have been different “if only women’s lib had been active in those days.”

Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp (1997)

Love Light (10)

Any artist must experiment to keep his talent fresh. And Pickford’s ingenues in the 1920s, though never less than fine, seem a touch too easy. The tilt of the head, the pout, eyes snapping with fury, the hands on hips hint ever so faintly at automatic pilot. And she rankled at the trademark of her hair. “A Wild impulse would seize he,” she remembered, “to reach for the nearest shears and remove that blond chain around my neck.” To viewers, Mary’s hair was a psychic connection to her film adolescence. And the vulnerable state of United Artists demanded that she trade on its adoration.

Unfortunately, the years in which Pickford could play such roles were dwindling; the actress turned twenty-eight in 1920. And apparently Mary fell prey to an age-old prejudice: that art involving childhood, comedy, or fantasy is neither as challenging nor as deep as work in an adult—especially a tragic adult—vein.

Tom Geraghty, one of Fairbanks’s writers, often saw Mary entertain at Pickfair. “[He] said he never knew what character would appear on the steps,” said Mary proudly. “He said I was haunted. He thought I was at least twenty women in one, a whole harem.” And she wished to show these women on the screen, to tap the “serious, reserved, even morbid” in her nature. Perhaps Pickford dreamed of being Norma Talmadge, whose onscreen women wore fashionable dresses as they wept becoming tears, or the tragic Nazimova, “an exquisite Russian type, the midnight hair brushed back and coiled in a simple knot at her neck, with wonderful, slender, caressing hands.” Nazimova struck doomed and defiant poses. She was also canonized by critics.

In 1921 Pickford made The Love Light, in which she played Angela, a poor Italian who, in the course of World War I, discovers that her husband is a German spy. Not only that, she has unwittingly allowed him to help the enemy—even, indirectly, to kill her brother. Finally Angela’s husband kills himself rather than be murdered by a village lynch mob. And Angela, who bears his child, goes mad.

Love Light (7)

It all seems rushed and undeveloped. Frances Marion, who not only wrote but directed, cast her husband, Fred Thomson, as the spy. She “was very ambitious for Fred,” recalled Pickford, “and very much in love with him—and I think that explains everything.” It doesn’t.

Mary’s work throughout The Love Light is fully felt. But she uses histrionic signals: hand to forehead, fists clenched, heaving breast—all lingering trademarks of melodrama. Most film actresses did the same; the style was the norm in tragic silents. Although Pickford uses these semaphores with restraint, with the notable exception of a mad scene, her work in this mood is less distinctive than her comedy. In the end, The Love Light failed to prove that her viewers would accept her as a tragic swan. Films about the war, which were all the rage when Pickford read Marion’s scenario, were box office poison by the time this one was finished. Accordingly, the movie did middling business, and Pickford’s fans soon seemed to forget she’d made it.

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (1997)

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The Love Light was a radical departure from Pickford’s lighthearted comedies, Angela (Pickford) tends the lighthouse in an Italian fishing village. When war comes, her elder brother volunteers and is killed. Her younger brother, Mario, and her fiancé, Giovanni, depart for the front. She finds a sailor washed up on the rocks. He says his name is Joseph (Fred Thomson), that he is an American deserter. Will she hide him until he can return to the safety of his ship?

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A woman concealing a man in her house was an extremely daring situation for a film of the time, and perhaps only Mary Pickford could have gotten away with it. In the first Tess of the Storm Country, {screened in March of this year at Cinefest in Syracuse} she was shown innocently asleep with a man in the next bed, but this was far more risqué. A secret marriage is referred to in a title, but not shown—as though dropped in to placate the censors. At the height of their affair, Joseph persuades Angela to send a “love signal” to him at the village on the stroke of midnight. The “love light” serves to alert a U-boat; Joseph is a German spy. He convinces her that it is dangerous for him to stay. To supply provisions for his escape she steals chocolate from a neighbor. The theft is quickly discovered, and although Angela reaches home, a group of men have set out in pursuit, a dog following her scent.

Love Light (6)

The above photograph shows the moment when Angela’s innocence is snuffed out. Leaning over the sleeping Joseph, she hears a murmur, “Gott…mit…uns.” Her horrified reaction wakens him. “You—a German!”

“Angela, I am an enemy of your country, but not a traitor to you. You can’t hate me for serving my own country. It is every man’s duty.”

Angela hides him from the mob, but when the villagers tell her that a ship was sunk the previous night and that Mario was among the dead, she hands Joseph over. After a brief struggle, he leaps over a cliff and dies on the very rocks on which he was found.

Love Light (1)

Angela gives birth to the child of the German spy—the situation must have caused near heart failure for some of Pickford’s fans. The baby is stolen by Maria, a neighbor who has recently lost both her husband and her child. Maria manages to keep the child by telling the nuns at the convent that Angela is insane. When Angela goes to the convent, seeking the baby, her desperate expression and wildly waving hands merely seem to confirm that allegation.

As Angela gazes at her baby clothes at home, utterly distraught, her old fiancé Giovanni returns from the war—blind. Giovanni moves in with Angela, who becomes his eyes. Oddly, there is no reaction from the villagers. However, a title tells us, “An outcast from the village, Angela devoted her life to the mothering of Giovanni.” When she encounters Maria with her baby, she assumes it is Maria’s own child. Back in her kitchen, the memory hits her—Maria’s child is dead! Maria, terrified that Angela will want the baby back, accepts the offer of a boat trip to Genoa. A storm is rising, and all Angela can do is to operate her lighthouse. But its light is failing. In extremis, with the boat being pounded on the rocks, she sets her house on fire. Angela’s home, as a title tells us, “becomes a beacon light to save her child.”

Raymond Bloomer and Mary

Raymond Bloomer and Mary

By now the film has gone so far over the top that all credibility has vanished. She clambers over the rocks and through the boiling surf to rescue her baby—and to establish that Maria has died.

“After Angela’s marriage to Giovanni, they sought the harbor of his home.” And the film ends with a tableau of the couple playing with the baby, in the welcome company of Father Lorenzo.

This was hardly the sort of story people wanted to see from Mary Pickford. But Frances Marion, who directed, had returned from the war determined to avoid “filmic fluff.” In Italy, she and Fred Thomson had been told of this incident: a German spy had infiltrated himself into an Italian village and married the girl whose father kept a lighthouse. When he took over this duty, she began to grow suspicious; Italian ships were wrecked off the coast, torpedoed by German submarines. She faced him with the truth, and he didn’t deny it, but she was carrying his child. She kept quiet until another ship was wrecked—a ship carrying her two brothers. Frantic with grief, she turned him over to the police, and he was shot the day her baby was born. Had Marion filmed the story in realistic style, it might have been a moving tragedy. Admittedly, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but the picture is Melodrama with a capital M.

Robert Cushman finds most of the film riveting, and a courageous experiment, considering what Pickford fans generally expected. Indeed, one critic remarked, “catastrophe and the theft of her child shatter her reason; for in one reel she plays a sort of peasant Ophelia…. [I]n many of the scenes there is a new quality about her, a wistful Botticelli quality never before displayed. She is working against all the Pickford traditions.”

The role of religion in The Love Light is both fascinating and curious. Apart from the secret marriage, the priest is characterized as being unusually liberal. Yet he remains merely a comforting presence, never intervening in the drama, and once is even used as comic relief when his blessing is so long it delays the hungry brothers from getting to the food. When Angela’s baby is stolen, it is the convent that adjudicates ownership, not a magistrate.

Religious symbols proliferate; when Angela learns the truth about Joseph, she knocks over a religious statue, which shatters on the floor. Pickford was Catholic, and her religion became more important to her as she got older. But one senses that the film’s writer-director must have been a convinced atheist. Or was it just a plot contrivance that showed the nuns to be so irredeemably cruel? Was it just convenience to show both sets of lovers living together with the apparent connivance of the priest? I checked with Frances Marion’s biographer, Cari Beauchamp, and she confirmed this, even though her husband, Fred Thomson, had been an army chaplain. “Frances was adamant in her lack of religion, and grew more and more resentful of organized religion as she aged.”

There are two versions of The Love Light in existence. In one, a title says “To Angela a child was born and they named it Dolora—which means sorrow.” In the other, “In the shelter of the convent a child was born to Angela, but the little mother’s mind lay sleeping—stunned by successive shocks of sorrow.” In the original cut of the film the religious order seized the baby, but scenes were reshot to show Maria stealing it.

All the evidence shows that Pickford had a hard time editing the film. She apparently employed no fewer than three title writers. The editor, Stuart Heisler, recalled many retakes to compensate for Fred Thomson’s inexperience. But despite rumors to the contrary, he is not the star of the film and never could have been. In any case, his character is killed just over halfway through. So the stories of Mary objecting to Frances Marion giving too much screen time to Thomson fail to stand up. (She is supposed to have reminded Frances repeatedly that they were making a Mary Pickford picture and not a Fred Thomson one.)

Photographically the film is ravishing. Marion displayed the influence of Maurice Tourneur. She not only had Charles Rosher to guide her, but also Henry Cronjager, a pioneer who would be her cameraman again on the only other film she would direct, Just Around the Corner (1922).

Reviewers objected to the morbid story, but the picture turned a healthy profit, despite the general postwar slump into which it was released. The Love Light stands today as a worthy experiment—intensely felt, beautifully staged, but ultimately closer to grand opera than to reality.

Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend by Kevin Brownlow (1999)

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Mary Pickford at her worst—and least accessible for modern audiences—can be seen in Love Light, her first release of 1921. There’s way too much of her in the movie—she appears in a series of incidents that stoop the plot dead as she caters to her audience. Without a fresh conception in either script or direction, these incidents become nothing more than shtick, and in performing them, Mary both loses our interest and destroys the pace. For instance, a bunch of chickens get drunk (don’t ask) and reel around the yard, so “little Mary” can coyly chase them, to put them in her stew. This tiresome event goes on and on, yet it in no way reflects the tone of the rest of the film, which turns into a tragedy. Later, Mary, grown up and married, gives birth and goes temporarily mad, and as if that weren’t enough, her husband turns out to be a German spy. Nothing seems to matter except providing moments for Mary to the little tomboy (beating up her brother) or to show her dramatic skills (stealing a neighbor’s baby after her own child dies). In Love Light we get a definite sense that Mary Pickford may be shoving what audiences wanted from her down their throats.

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger (1999)

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Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Spellbound Cinema by Allex Crumbley, May 4, 2011
Une Cinéphile, February 12, 2012

ONLY YESTERDAY (1933)

The first time I saw Only Yesterday was many years ago at a Toronto Film Society May seminar. The film stuck with me because I was so surprised at how modern it appeared. To begin with, I always enjoyed the subtleties of sexual misconduct (as well as the obvious) in pre-Code movies and this film was no exception. Just the tying of a dress ribbon speaks volumes of what just transpired between Mary and Jim. When Mary is sent to live with her Aunt Julia, I was thrilled by her supportive, sensible and totally modernistic ideas which comforted her niece. I always wanted to see this film again and then thought I would like to share it with any of you who haven’t had the opportunity to see it before.

After re-viewing Only Yesterday recently, it reminded me of the story in the film Letter from an Unknown Woman. I was talking with a friend and he also thought the same thing. So starting to do the research on this film, lo and behold, Stefan Zweig, the author of the 1922 novella, is credited as the writer. I think people in general are much more familiar with the 1948 film directed by Max Ophuls and so I watched it the other night just to make myself familiar with the similarities and differences. Neither are completely true to the written story. For instance, the endings are all similar for the heroine, but come around by three different causes. There is a young boy in the story, and in tonight’s version, things end differently for him—and rather abruptly at that. I don’t know how the heroine was perceived by the reader, but to me she’s more understandable in Only Yesterday, whereas in Letter from an Unknown Woman, she’s much odder, acting and thinking more like a stalker as portrayed by Joan Fontaine, who’s good at quirky as well as, like Mary Pickford, playing children. In the novella the main male character is a well-known writer, while in the 1948 film, he’s a concert pianist played by Louis Jourdan. In tonight’s film, John Boles is a solider fighting in WWI who later becomes a very well-to-do stockbroker until the inevitable happens.

And speaking of John Boles, after recently watching Child of Manhattan (1933), also starring Nancy Carroll, I felt as though he was typecast in a number of his films as a man who wants his cake and eats it too. He began in silent films but I believe preferred being on stage as he felt he was primarily a singer. But Gloria Swanson had laid eyes on him (I’m sure there’s a pun there somewhere) and Gloria usually got what Gloria wanted and that was Boles to star opposite her in the 1927 film The Love of Sunya. This certainly would have boosted his career, and being relatively good looking, most probably got a fair amount of female fan mail. But what I noticed most about the roles he was given were that he played a mature man who sometimes was married, whether in a loveless marriage he couldn’t extricate himself from, or just a man who didn’t want to marry beneath him, but managed to keep the worship and love of a mistress. Just to name a few, there’s Back Street (1932) also directed by John Stahl, Child of Manhattan as mentioned above, The Age of Innocence (1934) and one of his more well-known films, Stella Dallas (1937). Mind you, he did make a number of films with Shirley Temple. And in his private life, he was unusual in that he remained married to his wife for 52 years until his death in 1969, along with raising two children.

With regard to the title Only Yesterday, it’s taken from a non-fiction book “Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s” by Frederick L. Allen published in 1931.

There are a few glimpses of famous faces to look out for, such as Noel Francis, Louise Beavers, Mary Doran, Dennis O’Keefe (who had over one hundred uncredited bit parts in films between 1930 and 1938), Franklin Pangborn and Marie Prevost (from The Godless Girl).

Enough said. Hope you enjoy! Caren

Universal Pictures. Directed by John M. Stahl. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. From the novel “Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. Cinematography by Merritt B. Gerstad. Costume Design by Vera West. Production Design by Charles D. Hall. Film Editing by Milton Carruth. Music by C. Bakaleinikoff and Walter Donaldson. Released: November 1, 1933. 105 minutes.

Margaret Sullavan……………………………………………………. Mary Lane
John Boles…………………………………… James Stanton ‘Jim’ Emerson
Edna May Oliver……………………………………………………………. Leona
Billie Burke…………………………………………………………… Julia Warren
Benita Hume……………………………………………………. Phyllis Emerson
Reginald Denny………………………………………………………………. Bob
George Meeker…………………………………………………. Dave Reynolds
Jimmy Butler……………………………………………………………….. Jim Jr.
Noel Francis…………………………………………………………………. Letitia
Bramwell Fletcher………………………………………………… Scott Hughes
June Clyde………………………………………………………………. Deborah
Jane Darwell……………………………………………………………. Mrs. Lane
Oscar Apfel………………………………………………………………. Mr. Lane
Robert McWade…………………………………………………… Harvey Miles
Onslow Stevens………………………………………… Barnard, Party Guest
Astrid Allwyn…………………………………………………………… Uncredited
Louise Beavers…………………………………….. Abby, the Emerson’s Maid
Betty Blythe…………………………………………………………. Mrs. Vincent
Mary Doran……………………………………………………………. Uncredited
Natalie Moorhead……………………………………………………………. Lucy
Dennis O’Keefe……………………………………… New Year’s Eve Reveler
Franklin Pangborn……………………………………………………………. Tom
Marie Prevost…………………………………………………………………. Amy

Vulnerable though it is in the matter of psychology, “Only Yesterday,” a picture which is now at the Radio City Music Hall, possesses undeniable compensating virtues, among them being John M. Stahl’s painstaking direction, and Margaret Sullavan’s sterling performance, which happens to be her first for the screen. This romantic drama is also imbued with genuinely affecting sentiment and occasional interludes of gentle humor.

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According to the producers, the film narrative was “suggested by” Frederick Lewis Allen’s book, an informal history of the Nineteen Twenties, which was also called “Only Yesterday.” The screen story is told by means of a flashback, beginning with the stock débâcle of 1929, then slipping to some twelve years in the past and progressing until it returns to its early scenes.

It is a case of a Lieutenant Emerson betraying Mary Lane just before he leaves for France. She becomes a mother, and although she is deeply concerned because she does not receive any letters from him, her devotion still persists. When the war is over, she is in the cheering throng that welcomes the victorious troops, and coincidently standing near her are relatives and friends of Emerson’s. When the officer darts from the roadway into the crowds to greet his relatives, Mary stands dumb-founded, for he fails to recognize her. When she asks him if he does not know her, he says that he does not remember ever having seen her. They met only one evening in Virginia and Emerson is supposed really to have forgotten her completely.

Mary is not one of those unfortunate unmarried mothers who have to beg or sell their favors. She has made a success of a business venture and therefore is able to keep herself and her child in virtual luxury. Her pride does not permit her to go to see Emerson, and recall to him that evening they met. Later when see might have done so she learns of his marriage.

Except for the unbelievable idea that Emerson could forget her face completely after their meeting and also that a girl—a mother—would not insist on recalling herself to the father of her child, the narrative is quite provocative and it is linked eventually with the opening sequence in a most adroit fashion. Its scenes are distinguished and possibly all those who view it will wish that, being as good a film as it is, they could believe that there could be or have been two such persons as Emerson and Mary.

It is a picture with charm, one that holds one’s attention throughout its length. It has its tragedy and its hope. Miss Sullavan is very thorough in her acting. Her grief is restrained and she succeeds in impressing one with Mary’s love for her child and her great courage. John Boles portrays Emerson, a rôle which suits his acting possibly better than any other in which he has appeared. He is not the personification of spontaneity even here, but he does succeed in enlisting sympathy and the last scene in which he appears with Mary’s young son, is really moving.

Billie Burke casts her magic over her scenes as Mary’s broad-minded and cheerful aunt, who is quite willing to receive the girl when Mary is about to become a mother. Another of the numerous persons in the uniformly capable cast who is thoroughly deserving of praise is Reginald Denny. Benita Hume does well as Emerson’s wife and George Meeker, for once in a sympathetic rôle, is welcome as an individual who proposes time and again to Mary. Master Jimmy Butler gives a clever interpretation as Mary’s little son.

New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, November 10, 1933

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HOW A STAR WAS CREATED
…It took tact, time and bitter argument to overcome the amazing Margaret Sullavan’s perfectly sincere dread of Hollywood stardom

Charles Beahan is responsible for Margaret Sullavan’s entrance into the stars’ ranks as the result of her hit in Only Yesterday, with John Boles. He knows Miss Sullavan well-so well that he knew how to overcome her fear of Hollywood’s habits with artists—“typing,” poor pictures, fabulous salaries paid for indifferent work. Mr. Beahan is the co-author of “Jarnegan” and “Society Girl,” and author of “Night for a Lady,” and many other works. You will remember that, about a year ago, he married Sidney Fox, with whom, it might be added, he is ecstatically happy.

Trumpets sound in Hollywood, brilliant lights sweep heavenward, producers, directors, supervisors, cameramen, even office boys, are colliding with each other in the rush to take bows—for a new star has been born. With tinsel banners waving, broad grins beaming, a bright red feather for each everybody’s cap—the studio officials at Universal are patting themselves on their tummies in anticipation of a long, comfortable winter, and perhaps other winters to follow.

And why?

Because Margaret Sullavan, an unknown stage player, free, white and twenty-odd, not a raving beauty but a swell actress, came to Uncle Carl’s sprawling studio carelessly tucked away in the California foothills, and gave such a performance in Only Yesterday as has not been seen in these parts since Garbo startled the natives in The Torrent. Fairly bursting with pride, Universal feels that it has in Margaret Sullavan what is described in Hollywoodese as “the sensation of sensations,” the makings of a household word and the runner-up for the uncrowned queen of the cinema.

And what does Margaret Sullavan think?

That blue-eyed, Southern Irish miss believes that she is a total flop in pictures, that she photographs like a Pekinese (this is her own description) and that she had better stick to the stage if she wants her career to last. A courageous reaction from an actress, and yet Margaret Sullavan is sincere in her beliefs and she left the projection room at Universal after seeing a preview of Only Yesterday with the firm conviction that as a screen actress she would never make a go of it. On the other hand the entire screen world is proclaiming her performance and calling her the biggest discovery since Hepburn.

But Margaret Sullavan has always felt this way about herself in pictures. I recall our first meeting last spring. She had come to my office at Universal’s New York office at my request, for I felt that she was the most promising young actress on the New York stage and potentially a great screen bet. It was my job to find personalities that would click at the box-office.

I recall her saying, “Listen, Charlie Beahan, why do you want to bother with me? I’ll never make the grade in pictures. I’m not pretty enough.”

“Nonsense,” I told her, “you may not be a glittering Hollywood Christmas tree, but you are something infinitely more worthwhile, a fine actress—and that is what we want.”

Margaret reached for a cigarette and spoke in that thrilling, husky voice of hers. “Perhaps some day I will be a fine actress if I work hard enough, but my chance will come on the stage, not in the pictures.”

“Your chance will come more quickly in pictures if you get the right break—the right part.”

“How can I count on that?” she asked. “You know I wouldn’t sign any of those fool long-term contracts where a studio can put you in anything that comes along.”

I tried to explain to her that this was impossible, that, on occasions when a studio had been lenient with its stars and given them the privilege of selecting their vehicles, much grief had resulted.

Margaret cocked her pert little head with its mass of wavy brown hair and eyed me suspiciously. “Now you’re making a noise like a motion picture executive,” she said, “and we know each other much too well to hand out lines.”

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I knew that no amount of persuasion would alter her attitude. I knew that she had already turned down offers from Paramount and Columbia because of the long-term contract bugaboo. She would rather remain on the stage for one-tenth of the salary she would earn in pictures than be handed parts for which she was unsuited. Naturally I was aware of the fact that Junior Laemmle would never agree to such an arrangement as the adamant Miss Sullavan was demanding, especially from an unknown player, but so convinced was I that this girl had the stuff of which great screen stars are made that I decided to spend some of the company’s money in testing her.

“What’s the use of wasting the money?” she said. “They won’t take me and, besides, if they do want me, they will have to accept me at my terms and I’ll have to know what part I’m going to play first.”

I ceased arguing and began to tell her what I had up my sleeve. I told her about a part as big in emotional scope as Madelon Claudet—the part of the heroine in Only Yesterday. I began to tell her the story and as I went on describing scene after scene she dropped her casual air and became intensely interested. When I was finished she was on her feet, enthusiastically asking if she could play the part. I told her I was not sure, but it was my fondest hope that she would play it; that aside from Helen Hayes (whom the studio could not obtain), she was the one person who could do it.

Like the good little trooper that she is, Margaret took home scenes from Only Yesterday and studied them day and night. Finally the test was made and it was truly magnificent, because Margaret had put her heart and soul into it. I wired Laemmle, Jr. A few days later, after the test had been sent out to the studio, Junior wired me to start negotiations with Miss Sullavan. However, John Stahl, the famous director of a number of pictures, Back Street among them, was not thoroughly convinced that Margaret was the right heroine for Only Yesterday. He would not agree to her as a final selection until she had come to the coast for additional tests. So eager was Margaret to do the picture and so imbued was she with my confidence that she would secure the part, that—wonder of wonders—she left for Universal City.

It was no surprise to me when two weeks later I heard from the studio that Margaret had come through her additional tests with flying colors and was set for the leading role in Only Yesterday. Her contract provided that she was to do that film and one other picture, the story of which she must approve. The contract contained additional options, but in every instance she had partial approval of her stories and furthermore, it contained a clause giving her the privilege of returning to New York and appearing in one Broadway play each season. Quite an unusual contract for a totally unknown stage player, yet it was the only one Margaret Sullavan would sign and Universal needed her so much that they quickly acceded to her demands. If they had not come to terms Margaret would have just as readily kept on playing in the theatre and possibly gone into some stock company for the summer, as she had done in seasons past, at a weekly salary of twenty-five or thirty dollars a week. She worked fourteen weeks in Only Yesterday and earned $25,000.

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Her attitude is difficult for the layman to understand. It is totally impossible for picture executives to comprehend. They do not seem to realize that an actress, if she is truly an artist and sincere about her work and her career, must have the satisfaction of appearing in roles which give her pleasure and an opportunity to develop. Margaret means to get to the very top of the acting profession. Money itself holds no lure for her and in her efforts to acquire the place she already has in the theatre she has undergone struggle and privation—and would cheerfully do so again.

The daughter of Cornelius Hancock Sullavan, a broker, and Garland Councill, a lovely Southern belle, Margaret made her first appearance in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 16, 1911.

Even in her early days at the Walter Taylor grammar school, the redoubtable Peggy had determined upon becoming an actress. She kept her ambition pretty much of a secret because her parents had a holy horror of stage folks.

They spent money lavishly on her education and fondly hoped that when she was “finished” she would marry one of the nice young men who beaued her about. To this end they sent her successively to St. Georges private school, Chatham Episcopal Institute and finally to Sullin College at Bristol, Va., where Margaret majored in art, dramatics and studied dancing.

After she had finished at Sullin’s, Margaret calmly announced that she was going on the stage. Her father and mother stormed and protested to no avail. They found they could not break down her determination.

Finally, they effected a sort of compromise and Margaret was permitted to go to the Copley Theatrical School in Boston. She was an exceptional pupil and worked industriously day and night to learn all she could about the technique of acting. E.E. Clive, the director, was so pleased with her sincere efforts that he helped her secure a job with the University Theatre at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

About this time, her father and mother worried themselves sick over the idea of their daughter prancing about on a stage, and they decided to take drastic action. They appeared in Cape Cod and practically forced her to come home.

Without funds, as she had earned practically nothing from the Cape Cod engagement, and without further support from her folks, a strangely silent Margaret Sullavan returned to Norfolk and spent one solid year as a dutiful daughter.

It took that year for Margaret to convince her parents that her place was in the theatre. Rather hopelessly, they finally recapitulated in the face of her continued and persistent pleadings and soon thereafter Margaret was on her way to rejoin the University players in New York. Later on in the season she was engaged by Brock Pemberton to go on a tour of the South as Isobel Parry in “Strictly Dishonorable.”

To retrace our steps a bit…. While she was at Cape Cod, there was young actor in the company by the name of Henry Fonda who fell madly in love with her. He was tall, dark, slender and he more than appealed to Margaret.

Because their interests were the same, because they felt that together they could rise to the heights, they made the mistake of believing they were ideally mated. They were married. Now they are divorced. No one quite knows why.

Margaret’s eyes grow soft and misty when she speaks of Henry and she always praises him in the highest terms and he speaks tenderly of her and is deeply sorry that they could not make a success of it. Neither will say more than that. No ne will ever know whether it was just another case of a youthful romance gone on the rocks, or if it was the age-old problem in the theatre—that of two artists unable to remain married because of professional jealousies in their work.

And now Margaret Sullavan has put all thought of marriage aside until her career has reached the lofty heights to which she is gravitating. Romance thrills her and there is another man at the present who holds her admiration and respect and possible love. But her career comes first.

While she was in Hollywood during the making of Only Yesterday, she did not engage a swanky mansion in Beverly Hills with a series of hot and cold running servants, marble swimming pools and cooks imported from Paris. Instead, she lived very modestly and quietly in an apartment in the Garden of Allah, which in spite of its name, is really a very sedate hotel with community swimming pool and tennis court.

Intensely disliking the manner of picture making because of the long tedious “takes” and “retakes,” the dreary and uncomfortable business of trying to emote under hot lights, Margaret was, however, resigned to her fate and because she liked her part she put her whole heart and soul into it and tried hard not to complain. However, one day she and John Stahl, the director, had a fierce argument and Margaret determined to leave the place and the picture flat. She walked off the set, leaped into her battered old Ford, drove to the Garden of Allah, packed her belongings, drew her money out of the bank and was engaging passage on an airplane to fly East when a perspiring Universal official caught up with her and literally, on his bended knees, begged her to return.

The upshot of it all was that Margaret did return. And won her point, apparently, because after this incident she and Stahl worked together amicably.

In spite of Margaret Sullavan’s firm conviction that she will never make a popular screen star, it is my opinion that Only Yesterday will bring an immense public to her feet. In spite of what Margaret has to say against herself, a new star has been born to sit in the starry firmament beside such foremost and outstanding luminaries as Garbo, Hepburn, Hayes and other glittering goddesses of the cinema whose astounding salaries you help to pay.

We predict that the little Southern girl who fought so hard to become an actress, and whose ancestors way back in Ireland turned Episcopalian and changed the family name to Sullavan in defiance of the banshees or something, will not stand for long in bewilderment and wonder at the thing which has happened to her. After she has carefully thought it out with her good sound reasoning, she will, like her ancestors, defy the banshees of doubt and take her rightful place on the screen.

Modern Screen by Charles Beahan (Dec 1933-Oct 1934)

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Universal brought Margaret Sullavan, a Broadway leading woman, to Hollywood to play the lead in Only Yesterday. Tales of her temperamental outbursts leaked out. Finally she packed her clothes and drove to the station to return to New York. A committee from Universal intercepted her. She agreed, after much argument, to be a good girl and resume work on the picture, but her explanation for leaving was: “I made fifty-four takes for one scene and no one can work that hard.” We do not know who was to blame, the star or the studio heads, but be that as it may, to shoot scenes over and over again fifty-four times is enough to drive anyone into a fit of temperament.

Silver Screen: The Last of the Temperaments! By Bert Allen (Nov 1933-Apr 1934)

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LITTLE GIRL, WHAT NOW?
…Producers think Miss Sullavan is the perfect actress, but they would like to muzzle her because she isn’t tactful—her opinions are as honest as her acting. Margaret Sullavan, hailed as the most important discovery of the year, faces the problem of an uncertain future. But there’s no doubt of her independence.

“They’re crazy!” Margaret Sullavan objected incredulously when I told her that theatre managers who previewed Only Yesterday said that she’s good.

As a matter of fact, they say they’ve never seen anything so sensitive and so grapping as her playing of young love scenes, that she is the best news since Hepburn, and that in a few weeks the whole country will be raving about her.

“Just wait until the picture opens and you’ll see that I’m terrible,” she went on, and if ever I’ve encountered absolute sincerity it was in her eyes and voice. She was not tragic about it, however; she gave her verdict as dispassionately as if she had said that the sky was cloudy.

She curled up on the couch miraculously disposing arms, legs, and body into a heap in one effortless movement.

“In the first scenes of Only Yesterday I look just like a Pekingese. Later on I improve and actually look like a Scotty. But I never succeed in looking quite human.

“Look at this face,” she insisted, jumping up and striding across the room. “Even my best friends can’t say it was meant to be in front of a camera.”

I don’t know why not. To me it’s a superior face. In fact, quite the nicest one I’ve seen in some time. It isn’t conventionally beautiful, but it’s piquant and individual. It has delicacy and radiance, and is a marvelous mirror of moods. It crinkles up with smiles one moment and is poignantly serious in repose. I would take it any day in preference to the standardized blank perfection that seems to be the studio make-up men’s ideal.

“See this black eye?”

She pointed to a slight purplish bruise with great amusement. “Some one got annoyed at me and hit me. As long as I tell you that, you won’t believe me. If I told you I bumped against something, you’d be sure to think some one hit me. So now maybe you’re puzzled.”

All right, let the black eye remain a mystery, except for her own comments on it. A man who works for her company said that whether or not any one had hit her, some one should do so every little while to batter down her independence.

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She has the arrogance of youth and the assurance of a cultivated background, and it is, perhaps, an error on her part that she has treated picture producers as civilized human beings instead of primitive brutes who like women to be coy and adoring. I feel sure that no one could be more beguiling than she if she chose to wear the mask of a wistful little girl who wanted big, strong men to advise and protect her.

She happens to belong to that dashing young generation who value personal integrity more than success gained by sly trickery.

While in New York for a long vacation between pictures, she is the house guest of Mrs. Thomas Kurtz, with whose daughter she went to school. She intended to go to a hotel or take an apartment after a day or two, but on seeing how weary Margaret was after five months of strenuous work in Hollywood, the gracious Mrs. Kurtz decided that she needed mothering. So she insists that she stay. She forestalls phone calls, encourages her to sleep until noon, and makes her life merrier with her crisp comments. While you are envying the little Sullavan her charm and success, you might as well envy her for having such a friend as Mrs. Kurtz, who is one of my favorite human beings.

Mrs. Kurtz sat by and chuckled as I tried vainly to drag from Margaret her ten rules for success, what she learned from her early struggles, or what her ideal man is like. They both grow quite hilarious about interviewers. One had recently asked Miss Sullavan whom she loves. “I love Jesus,” she had replied in the devout manner of a little girl reciting her catechism. “Cheeses?” the interviewer asked, mystified but ready to compromise on data for the household hints department if she could not get anywhere on the romance angle. And that’s the way an interview with Margaret Sullavan goes.

The people she most admired in Hollywood were the cameramen, particularly the Chinese Jimmy Howe, and the electricians. A notable event of her visit in New York was buying the first really grand wardrobe trunk she has ever owned. She had just been reading Robert Nathan’s “One More Spring” and was so delighted with it she wanted to drop the subject of Sullavan and talk about the book.

A faint suspicion that she did not spring from a family that lived on the wrong side of the tracks or trouped in small-time vaudeville assailed me when I saw her months ago on the stage in “Dinner at Eight.” She had an air of quality about her.

She comes by it naturally. Her family live in Norfolk, Virginia, and they still hope that she will get over this absurd idea of being an actress and come back home where a girl belongs. She went to Chatham Hall prep school, where her main interests were the dramatic club, drawing, and dancing. Next she went to Sullins College because of the good art courses, but by the end of her first year stage ambitions were so definitely fixed in her mind that she determined to go to New York.

It had to be by a circuitous route because she was under age—she is still in her very early twenties. She persuaded her parents to send her to Boston to study art. Once she got there, she took more interest in dancing lessons and by the end of the school year she had found kindred spirits who were organizing the University Players at West Falmouth on Cape Cod.

When she speaks of those days, she glows with pleasure. The “U” players built their own theater and had a thoroughly democratic organization. One week Margaret would play the lead in “The Constant Nymph” or “A Kiss for Cinderella” and the next she would take tickets, wait on table in the tea room, or play a bit. It was grand experience, and she felt all ready for Broadway when fall came.

Broadway was ready for her, too, in a small way. She was engaged to be a voice offstage for a Theater Guild play. When the family got news of that she was ordered home.

She stayed until the following summer, but by her own admission made life so miserable for every one around her that they were willing, even relieved, to let her go back to the “U” players. Then came another foray on Broadway and she landed the job of understudy in the troupe that played “Strictly Dishonorable” through the South.

When she arrived in Norfolk, the family greeted her with open arms, thinking she had repented of her foolish ambitions. The afternoon paper quickly disabused their minds. To make matters worse, the leading woman chose that day to become ill and to send the young understudy on for her first performance—before a home-town audience.

To this day she is paralyzed with fear when the curtain goes up and she has to walk out on the stage. She feels a wave of antagonism surge up from the audience. That night was even worse because she could imagine her mother out in the audience gripping her father by the arms to keep him from rising to object when the undressing scene came.

Over all protests she went on with the company, playing one-night stands and loving it all, though ordinarily she hates trains. She was making seventy-five dollars a week and saving fifty of it as a nest egg to tide her over if Broadway proved obdurate about offering another engagement. She got other parts, and in New York productions, too, but the plays were short-lived until “Dinner at Eight,” in which she replaced Marguerite Churchill.

When Universal sought her for pictures, she cannily signed to work in Hollywood only a few months a year. She wants to do something she considers really good on the stage. She is slated to go back to Hollywood soon to appear in Little Man, What Now? Under the direction of Frank Borzage. She is delighted by all that she has heard of him. “It will be so nice to work for a director whose judgment I respect,” she said candidly, implying whatever caustic criticism you would like to supply for those she has met so far.

“You can’t say things like that,” is the attitude of Universal executives to almost every word the little Sullavan says. On the screen they think she is perfect; off, they would like to muzzle her.

Now it is up to the fans to decide whether she or every one else is right about her performance in Only Yesterday. And it is up to you, too, to urge her to go on being frank and fearless, genuine to the point of being completely baffling.

Picture Play Magazine by Helen Klumph (1934)

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THE SCREEN IN REVIEW

The director of Back Street gives us a companion piece in the same tearful mood. Superior of its kind though the picture is, it is given importance beyond its calculated box-office returns by the presence of Margaret Sullavan, the stage actress who makes her screen debut an exciting success. Her dignity, skill, and charm unit in an arresting individuality which includes a voice, husky and vibrant, which recalls none so much as Ethel Barrymore’s. That’s all, there isn’t any more, except to keep an eye open for Miss Sullavan’s future appearances. Pending which I suggest that you read more about her on page 32. (The article above)

Her picture is elaborately staged and lavishly cast, well-known players appearing in mere bits, but even with all the fine acting on view Miss Sullavan shines as a star should. She has a role such as any actress would be lucky to get. It is one of those parts that runs, as the saying is, the gamut until the tragic end, a death scene which is among the most touching ever seen.

It begins when Miss Sullavan, as a young girl in Virginia, falls in love with a dashing lieutenant during the War only to lose him unexpectedly when he is sent overseas. She goes to New York for the birth of her child and is taken care of by her modern, understanding aunt. Face to face with her lover during the Armistice parade, she discovers that he doesn’t even remember her. So she becomes a successful business woman, her affections centered on her son. Again her lover wins her when she visits his apartment and once more he doesn’t remember having met her before. Dying, she writes him a letter which brings him to his son.

John Boles, as the lover, gives the best and most mature performance of his career and on every count the picture should not be missed.

Picture Play Magazine: The Screen in Review by Norbert Lusk (1934)

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Dinner at Eight was Mother’s first real success. Suddenly Universal wanted her for a movie, Only Yesterday. Even then she was hard to get. In 1931, she’d signed up with the American Play Company. She was quoted at the time as saying, “I didn’t want a manager, but I signed up with a fellow just so I could tell the others I had somebody.” The fellow who talked her into signing the agency contract was Father. By the time Universal was interested in her, she had already directed him to turn down offers from Paramount and Columbia for five-year contracts. It took all of Father’s skills to negotiate, on behalf of his recalcitrant client, a deal satisfactory to both her and the studio.

She wrote her brother, Sonny, whose college education in Virginia she was proudly financing with her various short-lived theatre salaries:

Dearest Son: Here’s a secret—for God’s sake treatit as such—I think I’m really going to Hollywood. It means discarding what might be termed youthful ideals about Art—but when ideals get tangled around your feet they’re not much good. Would you like a Stutz Bear Cat Roadster, model 1925?? If so, we left one in Baltimore, two-toned blue, lots of chromium, and very ritzy—probably has to have a new battery, but swell tires. Write me immediately…..

And, leaving behind her youthful ideals, her car, and her marriage to Hank (Fonda), she arrived in Hollywood on May 16, 1933—her twenty-fourth birthday.

The Universal make-up department and Mother went to war immediately. Make-up wanted to remove a wart and to extract a snaggletooth; also, in line with prevailing fashion, to thin her eyebrows and bleach her hair. Make-up won on the eyebrows and wart, Mother on the tooth and hair. The studio heads conceded that a girl with brown hair might be a novelty. They took test after test, all of them disappointing. They changed the lights and took some more. The strain wilted the subject and frustrated the experts. They ran off the film with its monotonous close-ups of Mother’s face.

Suddenly John Stahl, the top director at Universal, in whose hands the movie rested, called out, “That’s it! Stop the projector! That’s the way we want her!”

It was a profile. For that split second she looked marvelous. Eight different cameramen tried to recapture that second and failed. The ninth got it.

Mother wrote of the incident: It seems that the trouble was my shallow chin. It wasn’t long enough, and threw my face out of balance. The ninth cameraman set lights higher than my head and put others down low, directed at my chin, and there I was at last, a beautiful girl with a nice long chin, so the experts said.

“You’ll be a star when this picture is over,” predicted John Stahl one day, after shooting sixty-seve takes of a tiny scene.

“Stop kidding me,” replied Mother.

But he was right. “THIS GIRL’S NAME will be as famous as any star’s on the screen when she makes her debut in JOHN M. STAHL’S ‘ONLY YESTERDAY,’” blurbed a full-page advertisement. “A NEW STAR WILL ARRIVE!” proclaimed another. ‘BOW-GAYNOR-DIETRICH-GARBO-HEPBURN-NOW IT’S MARGARET SULLAVAN.”

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Much more interesting to Bridget and me were some of the magazine articles:

Colliers, March 17, 1934: What will eventually drive the press department of the Universal Film Corporation of Universal City, California, entirely insane is the news that Margaret Sullavan, on the eve of the opening of her new Super-Super-Super Special, has been discovered acting the lead in a stock company [with Henry Fonda, as it happened] playing the American Legion Hall at South Amboy, New Jersey. Upon the opening of her first picture, Only Yesterday, at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, an honor of some importance in the amusement world, she was home trying to finish a jag-saw puzzle. She won’t make personal appearances, she won’t show up on opening nights when the flashlights are booming, and when she is in New York, she spends most of her evenings barging up and down on a Third Avenue streetcar, dressed in something which looks as if it had been discarded by the Salvation Army…. Just now she is back in Hollywood acting in Little Man, Now What?

Radie Harris: ORIGINAL! One-word description of the new screen sensation, Margaret Sullavan. Here’s the only interview she has granted since her smash hit in Only Yesterday…. I had already been warned that this littlest rebel hated Hollywood… “They call this picture Only Yesterday, but it’s insane!” she exclaimed. “We’ve been on it for almost four months now and I’ve had exactly one day’s vacation—and that I spent in jail for smoking a cigarette in a forest region.” As she sat opposite me in a pair of blue slacks, looking for all the world like Huck Finn’s younger sister, it was hard to realize that this pert infant was a brilliant actress, who in her very first screen effort was being “supported: by such luminaries as John Boles and Billie Burke. Orchidaceous. Glamorous. Sextacular. None of the usual Hollywood labels catalogue her. In a land of carbons, she is as original as the “a” in the spelling of her last name….

Haywire: A Stunning Confession. The Story of a Magical Hollywood Family. They Were Beautiful, Rich, Famous, and Damned by Brooke Hayward (1977)

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Late 1933 also saw Only Yesterday, which, though obviously meant to cash in on the popularity of Frederick Lewis Allen’s best-selling social history, contains no ‘20s atmosphere whatever. (An opening credit stating that it is “based on the novel by Frederick Lewis Allen” indicates that the writers were ignorant of even the nature of the book, much less its contents.) From the first scene, supposedly in 1929, through the end a few days later, with the past, 1917-28, recalled in a long flashback that makes up most of the picture, the dresses, hats, furniture and every other visible detail are relentlessly 1933—a total anachronism that even in that year must have disappointed many viewers expecting some fictional equivalent of Allen’s book.

But if the writers knew nothing of the book whose title they were using, they were certainly familiar enough with Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (beautifully filmed by Max Ophuls in 1948). Except for the ending, the screenplay of Only Yesterday is a total, unacknowledged use of Zweig’s exact plot, including the framework, the long flashback, even the letter itself.

On the day of the 1929 market crash, a prosperous New Yorker (John Boles), married to an indifferent, if not faithless, woman (Benita Hume), receives a long letter that reminds him how as an army officer in 1917 he casually seduced a Southern girl (Margaret Sullavan, in an auspicious screen debut). Never letting him know, she moved to New York, bore his son and with aid of kindly relatives (Billie Burke and Reginal Denny) made a life of her own, running a dress shop.

Twice when they met, once even when they spent a night together, he failed to recognize her; now it is too late, as she is dying of heart disease. But, unlike the ending of the Zweig novel, the man does acknowledge and claim his son. Despite Sullavan’s glowing performance, Only Yesterday remains a peculiarly unsatisfactory film.

From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s by Roger Dooley (1979)

Only Yesterday (4)

The movies were taking place with the public. As Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in Only Yesterday (1931-sic), his snapshot social history of the 1920s:

One began to hear of young girls, intelligent and well-born, who had spent week-ends with men before marriage and had told their prospective husbands everything and had been not merely forgiven, but told there was nothing to forgive; a little “experience,” these men felt, was all to the good for any girl…. There was an unmistakable and rapid trend away from the old American code toward a philosophy of sex relations and of marriage wholly new to the country, toward a feeling that the virtues of chastity and fidelity had been rated too highly….

Dangerous Men by Mick LaSalle (2002)

Only Yesterday (6)

Through fortuitous timing, 1933, became Franklin Pangborn’s annus mirabilis. The greater prominence he began to get onscreen coincided with the retreat of flamboyant gays on and off the screen. The winding down of the pansy craze was ongoing and, in many places, forcible—New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia issued an edict forbidding drag queens anywhere between Fourteenth and Seventy-second streets, and the Los Angeles Police Commission announced a crackdown on entertainment featuring “female impersonators and their ilk.” By the summer there were clear threats of film censorship in the air, and when all the portents were assembled, it was clear that gayness onscreen was heading toward more circumspect portrayals. The flamers from Palmy Days and Stage Mother would soon be as passé as they were persona non grata, and in their place would be the marvelous Mr. Pangborn. Generally, his sexuality onscreen was felt to be somewhat of a moot point, although in Design of Living and Only Yesterday (1933) he was given a young male companion. Pangborn’s manner was such that he could pass unthreateningly in the straight world and serve such necessary functionary roles as manager, floorwalker, reporter, or executive, yet even in the straightest of settings could still amplify an attitude of goodhearted (if harried) gayness to those who could see. Early on, the studios feared his aura cast him too close to the edge of acceptability. Just as he was coming into his own as a character actor in Professional Sweetheart (1933), fearful studio publicists tried to play up, yes indeed, his offscreen machismo by noting that his sissyism was an onscreen-only entity. “Call [him] a sissy offstage,” RKO’s Press Department averred, “and he’ll plant five hard knuckles on your proboscis.” (For whatever reason, RKO did decline to provide any proof of Pangborn punching out anyone who dared to question his preferences. Perhaps it’s fortunate that Pangborn worked, during his peak years, primarily as a freelancer. A long-term studio contract might have meant one of those cosmetic marriages that even now still turn up.)

Franklin Pangborn and Edna May Oliver

Franklin Pangborn and Edna May Oliver

Pangborn’s appearance in Only Yesterday has drawn special retrospective attention. He was cast as an interior decorator, a stock gay role that would seem automatically and pointedly irrelevant in the movie’s Depression setting. While the stock market crashes and lives shatter, he gushes to his boyfriend Thomas (Barry Norton) about “that heavenly blue against that mauve curtain…. That kind of blue just does something to me!” For Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, here is the most negative of Pangborns, his very presence a graphic indictment of the mindless indolence of decadent gays in the face of national catastrophe. Yes, it can be seen that way—gayness equated with mindless upper-class folly. It can also be seen as a less judgmental portrayal of a certain class (urban aesthete) at a certain place and time. Jerry and Thomas apparently have a positive and perhaps loving relationship, and their particular world is one of design and beauty. Madame Lucy, Eric Barrymaine, Paisley, and Mr. Sterling lived in similar worlds, and all of them were respected and accepted, not simply tolerated for their abilities. To some, such lives seem ghettoized and marginalized, implying judgment and criticism. Others may find them living life as openly on their own terms as it was possible to do at the time. Finding a milieu in which to thrive and be accepted is no small achievement, and film portrayed these characters and their world with some degree of probity and without extreme judgment. Only Yesterday did draw some moralistic fire for gay content that did not involve Pangborn and Norton. In an opening party sequence, a conversation to mannishly dressed women was felt to be too explicitly lesbian in tone, and was cut from the film prior to its premiere.

Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall by Richard Barrios (2003)

Only Yesterday (15)

Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Ferdy on Films by Marilyn Ferdinand, December 1, 2008
Silver Screen Oasis by Jezebel38, September 15, 2012
She Blogged by Night by Stacia, February 18, 2013

Joining me for the evening were Adam, Andrea, Betsy, Christiane, Jillian, Lee, Peggy, Rolf, Ronda, Scott and Susan.

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