“It gave me the jitters.”

Anyone interested in the life of Robert E. Howard is probably already aware of the “Scholar Tools” section of the REHupa website. I’m a frequent visitor there for two reasons: The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf and REH Goes to the Movies. These two web pages (compiled by Rusty Burke) list just about everything that Howard mentions reading or watching on the big screen.

Acquiring the books and magazines that Howard read has been one of my little obsessions for almost as long as I’ve been connected to the internet; seeing the movies that Howard saw is a new compulsion. Thanks to television networks like Turner Classic Movies and services like Netflix, websites like Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Greenbriar Picture Shows, it’s easier than ever to find information about the films Howard mentions; with a little diligence, it’s sometimes possible to find the film itself, out there in cyber space. Watching the movie, and then reading Howard’s comments about that movie, can be pretty interesting.

Take for example Back Street (Universal, 1932). In a circa September 1932 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard describes his reaction to the film:

Back Street was powerful, to my mind, and most damnably harrowing. I wept bitterly. That’s no lie. While weeping some yegg in front of me turned around and gave me an incredulous look, and thinking he was about to make a smart crack, I gave him a murderous glare, wiped away my tears and drew back my right to mash him for the insect he was, but he made no comment and turned around again. Maybe he was weeping too. I wish I hadn’t seen that show. It really tore me up. The thought of an intelligent and talented woman wasting all her years on a low-lifed son-of-a-bitch and sacrificing herself and living in the shadows, it gave me the jitters. I felt like taking a club and wading through the populace like Samson through the Philadelphians.

Wow, that must be one heck of a movie—the REHupa site has the following information:

A woman falls in love with a married man and consents to be his mistress, remaining faithful through the years. Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. Director: John M. Stahl. Cast: Irene Dunn (Ray Schmidt); John Boles (Walter Saxel); June Clyde (Freda Schmidt); George Meeker (Kurt Shendler); Zasu Pitts (Mrs. Dole); Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Saxel); etc. Black & white. Sound.

IMDB provides a bit more, like who the writers were, the release date, and the following tagline:

Waiting—always waiting—in the shadows of the back streets . . . longing for the man she loves . . . asking nothing, receiving nothing—yet content to sacrifice all for him. Why?

Why, indeed, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The above is all well and good, of course, but nothing beats the actual movie. Thank goodness for You Tube. Head on over there and do a search for “Back Street (Irene Dunne)”—the next screen should contain the links to all nine pieces of the film. It’s a “talkie” in English, though the subtitles are in Spanish.

SPOILER ALERT

So, we’ve got your typical 1920’s flapper, Ray Schmidt (played by Dunne), who all the boys want to date. She is high-spirited and easily outmaneuvers her ardent companions. She meets Walter Saxel (played by John Boles), and the two hit it off. A whirlwind romance ensues and the two fall in love, despite the fact that Saxel is supposed to be marrying another girl. He just knows that if his mother were to meet Ray, she’d concede to letting him marry her, instead. Of course, through no fault of her own Ray misses the meeting with mom and Walter marries the original girl. Then things get weird.

Several years later, Ray and Walter bump into each other and get caught up. The old feelings emerge and the two begin an illicit affair; Walter even sets Ray up in a cozy apartment, all expenses paid. But when he has to leave town on business, Ray discovers just how lonely her life is: she can’t be seen in public, she can’t make dinner plans, etc.

While Walter is away, an old rival for Ray’s affections sees her in the city and the two hit it off. Ray realizes that she can’t have a normal life with Walter and so concedes to marrying her new suitor, but Walter tracks her down and wins her back, saying only that he loves her.

We then jump forward in time. Walter has had a couple of children with his wife, has, in fact, become a very successful guy. He boards a steamship with his family and the onlookers wait for the mysterious other woman who follows Walter everywhere to make her appearance. Ray, of course. It seems that everyone knows about her except for Walter’s wife. Even his children know, and they’re not happy about it.

Walter’s college-age son confronts Ray and tells her to leave the family alone. Walter reveals the depth of his feelings for Ray to his son (above), then suffers a stroke, or something, and dies. The son, realizing it is what his father would have wanted, offers to keep Ray set up in the manner she is accustomed. But she dies too, I guess, of a broken heart. The end—roll credits.

Now, I suppose that I had trouble getting into that 1920s frame of mind. The idea of a woman being content to wait around for the few moments her married boyfriend can give her every once in a while must seem farcical to modern audiences. And Ray’s dramatic shift from the life of the party to a depressed shut-in is pretty unbelievable to me. In fact, while she’s with Walter, she seems miserable. Are we supposed to believe that it was all worth it for her because they loved each other? Or are we supposed to see how pathetic, empty and lonely a mistress’ life is? What?

And while I didn’t weep, I’ll agree with Howard that the “thought of an intelligent and talented woman wasting all her years on a low-lifed son-of-a-bitch and sacrificing herself and living in the shadows” gave me “the jitters.”