Taking a Walk Down the BACK STREET

The definitive version of the Fannie Hurst novel is now on Blu-ray

I find it somewhat shameful that an author who was as prolific during her era as Fannie Hurst does not enjoy the same kind of following today given how many bestsellers she produced during her lifetime. The author, who specialized in novels dealing with humanity at its most conflicted is perhaps better known for the film adaptations of her works, rather than the books which bore her name. Both versions of Imitation of Life and Humoresque were classic Hurst tales that managed to be provocative as well as universal.

Among her various quintessential titles is Back Street. Like most Hurst works, the tale is utterly romantic, yet grounded in a reality that plays out almost like an opera. It’s a story that legions of fans embraced, leading to the novel being adapted to film three times. The reason for the novel’s multiple journeys to the screen can mostly be chalked up to its themes, which were sadly always in keeping with the times no matter what decade it was set in. But the other reason a movie like Back Street could exist could be found in its unashamedly passionate depiction of a doomed romance that still resonates all these years later.

In the early 1900s, a single shop girl named Ray (Margaret Sullivan) is enjoying her life as a single woman and has refused numerous proposals from the men in her Ohio town. When Ray meets Walter (Charles Boyer), a handsome banker who is in town for business, the two end up falling in love over a series of weeks as his departure keeps being pushed back. Eventually, Walter reveals he finally has to leave, revealing that he is engaged to be married. Despite an attempt by Walter to call off his wedding and marry Ray instead, the two find themselves torn apart until a chance meeting years later puts them back into each other’s lives.

I’m sure audiences, both past and present, would look at Ray and Walter with the kind of judgment society has always been ready to hand down. Others, however, will recognize Back Street as a prime example of the tragedy of eternal love. Even though the film is set at the turn of the century and was filmed in the 40s, it’s impossible not to connect with the plight of two lovers desperately battling fate for one another until they have no choice but to succumb to it and live their romance in secret.

Even though the audience knows full well the rules of society and what the seemingly right thing to do would be, it’s difficult not to pull for Ray and Walter with every passing scene since they’re their best selves together. This makes director Robert Stevenson’s film as incredibly romantic as it is excruciating. The obvious question that some may ask after watching this couple engage in their long-secret affair is: Why can’t they just let each other go? Sadly, Walter and Ray never had that option; theirs was a love that was both not destined to be and inevitable.

Back Street offers us a female protagonist who was certainly daring for her day. Ray is shown to be a woman of independent means, working in a shop with dreams of eventually making it as a designer. She refuses the advancements of the town’s eligible bachelors and presents herself as someone who is simply not concerned with romance. The instant that romance does find her in the form of Walter, Ray finds herself at her most free and alive, as does he. Following their encounter years later, Ray eventually decides to give up her career and live her life in the shadows as Walter’s “other woman.”

Ray’s journey certainly says a lot about what it meant to be an independent woman during a time when not many women were. As a woman, Ray dared to forge her own path and proceeds to spend the rest of her life paying for it. One could argue that the way she spent her life (following a married man because he was the only true love of her life) is a choice she made of her own free will. But there’s also a sense that that was the only choice a woman like Ray had in that day and age.

While I admit to never having seen the other versions of Hurst’s novel (although I’m very curious about the lush Jeffrey Hunter-produced 1960s version starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin, which updates the setting), from what I can see, they’ve all been well-received among audiences and have their respective admirers. However, it seems that Stevenson’s Back Street is the definitive version, despite being a virtual page-by-page copy of the original. This is easy to see. Back Street epitomizes so much of what audiences love about classic Hollywood. The film pushes boundaries and comments on society while managing to hang on to those dreamy and romantic sensibilities that would make anyone want to pull for Ray and Walter and the forbidden love they shared.

Back Street is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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