Thursday, December 9, 2010

JOHN M. STAHL...a reappraisal and a reaffirmation

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven
by guest contributor doctor sabelotodo

Author's Disclaimer

Not until I started researching and reading did I realize the extent of the tremendous amount of heresay, recyled disinformation and vague references that exists in the written media about director John M. Stahl - both online and in book form. I prefer to write (cryptically) off the top of my head but felt lacking in sufficient details concerning the film legacy of Mr. Stahl. I love film but dislike film will not see mise en scene mentioned...

A Brief Biography

John Malcolm Stahl was born unceremoniuosly in New York City on January 21, 1886...attended public schools until 1901, when he left to become an actor...he worked in this vein on stage and film until joining Vitagraph Studios in 1914 and then the newly founded MGM/Meyer studios in 1917...throughout his tenure, he directed numerous films of little consequence (most have been lost or forgotten). He founded Tiffany-Stahl Pictures in 1927, but sold his interest in 1930. His "big break" came in 1930 when he joined Universal Studios and began making a number of successful and quality films.

Stahl married Roxana Wray in 1930 (his wife until death)..then came the disaster of Parnell (1937), which ended his work with Universal. He he continued on working for Fox Studios and free-lancing, his sole success being Leave Her to Heaven along with some minor films...he retired in 1949 and died the following year. John Stahl was one of the founders of AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for whatever that is worth)...


The first time that I heard a reference to John Stahl was in the 1970s. It was a direct quote claiming that "he had been out-Sirked by Douglas Sirk." I found this interesting (knowing the films of Douglas Sirk) but like most, I was not familiar with the name John Stahl, despite having seen his Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935). I became aware of the full impact of this statement over the years, i.e., in remaking three of John Stahl's films as a tribute, Douglas Sirk had unwittingly buried the former in the tomb of obscurity.

Prior to 1936, I think Stahl enjoyed a good reputation as a reliable, competent, focused studio director. Parnell was his undoing (as director and producer he was solely responsible), and the critics and wags began to pile up the negatives: "studio director,""unoriginal,""a woman's director," "a one medium director," director of "weepies," "tearjerkers" and "soapers." Negative criticism led to neglect which was in full force by the time he made Leave Her to Heaven (1945). To the above I say...

1. William Wyler was criticized for being a "studio director" (I would like anyone try to do a better job on Ben-Hur).
2. George Cukoor was also called a "woman's director" what? He was a good director period...
3. John Ford directed mostly westerns.
4. Being "maverick" and "original" does not guarantee quality or success...

I also think that part of the public and critical neglect of Stahl was due to his reputation - he was a real nice guy, not a womanizaer or a along well with the studio brass...actors and actresses loved him (especially Greer Garson)...he was pleasant to work with...productive...responsible.

Yes, he directed melodramas...yes, he addressed strong issues on the social and sexual mores of women...yes, he featured independent (sometimes driven) characters...but this hardly justifies criticism or neglect.

The following is a quote from Hal Erickson at All-Movie Guide: "it was during this time that Stahl developed his directorial "signature"; hot house melodramas and baroque romanticisims with emphasis on strong, self reliant female characters"..this was the kind of blather that I waded through.

1. Hot house...What does that mean? over-the-top...yes...sauna, no!
2. Baroque...I think that he is referring to Douglas Sirk!
3. Self reliant females...that smells of Ayn Rand...

Selected Films

1. Back Street (1932)...from the Fannie Hurstbest seller. The story of unrequited/star-crossed/ill-fated love, as Rae (Irene Dunne) chooses to be the mistress of Walter (John Boles) for 30 years. Good performances in a rather convoluted story. With ZaSu Pitts, cinematography by Karl Freund...remade poorly in 1941 and 1961...

2. Only Yesterday (1933)...again featuring John Boles and the screen debut of Margaret Sullavan. In 1929, a once wealthy businessman reflects on his past and an affair in 1917 that produced an illegimate child...he had ignored the woman who had his child and now feels remorse when he finds her dying. With a chilling montage of images of the Great Depression. As with Back Street, a definite pre-coder...featuring a strong supporting cast including Edna May Oliver and Billie Burke.

3. Imitation of Life (1933)... from Fannie Hurst once again...perfect cast with Claudette Colbert as Bea Pullman, Louise Beavers as Delilah Johnson, Warren William as Stephen Archer, and Rochelle Hudson and Fredi Washington as the daughters. Storyline...widow hires maid whose recipe becomes "Aunt Delilah" pancake formula = $$$ and disappointment. This film tackled real issues of segregation, the position of women, class structure, passing for white and the destructive power of wealth. Often described as dated, this version of Imitation of Life is superior to the flamboyant/unbelievable/vapid 1959 remake with Lana Turner...

4. Magnificent Obsession (1935)...Yes, I know...from the over-the-top novel of Lloyd C. playboy Bobby Merrick (Robert Taylor) causes death of the doctor husband of Helen Hudson (Irene Dunne). He feels bad, tries to apologize and as she leaves, she is struck by a car and is blinded. Merrick now feels really bad...tries to reform his ways...visits her...when she discovers his identity, she rebukes him once again...he mans up...becomes a physician and a renowned eye specialist and blah...blah...blah...I know it is hokey...Taylor is "stiff" as usual, but this film is so much better than the remake with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.

5. Parnell (1937)...the story of "the uncrowned king of Ireland"...a good pedigree...Myrna Loy and Clark Gable...cinematography by Karl Freund...screenplay by John Van Druten. Unfortunately, it was a giant flop with the public and critics...beautifully filmed but schizophrenic. Is it a bio-pic, a star vehicle or a costume drama? As producer/director, Stahl was completely responsible for this mess that led to his dismissal from NOT see this film!

6. When Tomorrow Comes (1939)...a minor comeback for Stahl, as Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne renew their screen chemistry from Love Affair (1939)...from a story by James M. Cain, of all people...good film...improbable plot...remade by Douglas Sirk as Interlude (1957).

7. The Keys of the Kingdom (1945)...from the A. J. Cronin novel...screenplay by Nunnally by Alfred Newman..and a great cast headed by Gregory Peck in his first starring role..we really see the screen presence of Peck in this film...from his visage...mannerisms...and speech...this was 18 years before To Kill a Mockingbird.

8. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)...flamboyant and morbid, to say the least...Gene Tierney is both stunning and creepy as Ellen Berent..Cornel Wilde is adequate as her hubby Richard Harland...with good support from Jeanne Crain and Vincent this movie got by the censors is beyond me: featuring a wrongful death (click below to view)...a deliberate fall to cause a miscarriage and suicide to implicate a rival in homicide is enough plot for three movies...this is one unique movie and represents the mastery of Stahl...famous quote: "there's nothing wrong with Ellen, it's just that she loves too much..."


Well, that is the best I can do...I have been a champion of John M. Stahl for 30 years...his fall from grace was multifactorial...the disaster of Parnell, benign neglect by critics...the ascendency of Douglas Sirk..and the unjust labelling as a studio director...I hope you will visit his films!


  1. Perhaps the best thing about "Parnell" is that it gave Carole Lombard the opportunity to play all sorts of good-natural practical jokes on Clark Gable, such as the time he and Myrna Loy had to "get in the mood" for a tragic scene and Carole made sure "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You" came over the stage sound system. (After the film was released, Lombard reportedly issued fliers humorously promoting it and handed them outside the MGM entrance, much to Louis B. Mayer's chagrin.)

  2. Thanks, Doc, for a very informative review! Heck, if John Stahl had only made one movie and it was LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, I'd be a fan. It was sheer genius to cast Gene Tierney as a possessive, subtly devious murderer. The swimming scene is a creepy classic!

  3. Doctor - Thanks for a great job in support of John M. Stahl. I must admit that, though I'd seen his versions of IMITATION OF LIFE and MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, I was not aware of him as the director. And tho I'm a fan of Douglas Sirk, I prefer Stahl's versions of those two films. Have seen LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN several times but until recently didn't associate it with John Stahl. The themes and Technicolor glory of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN do seem to foreshadow Sirk's classic melodramas of the '50s.

  4. Doc, I did not realize that I was such a huge fan of John M. Stahl. Thank you for a wonderful write up about his work. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, is one of my favorite films. I have also wondered how this movie got by the censors.

  5. I'm like Eve and Dawn -- I never really put together some of Stahl's films, some of my favorites, as his. Leave Her To Haaven, Imitation of Life, Keys of the Kingdom, Back Street -- I love those movies. It always irritates me that critics use the term "women's movies" as a denigrating criticism. It makes what women like seem to be second rate, thus implying that women have second rate tastes. Always made me mad to hear that. Really good article, Doc, about someone I never knew anything about. Enjoyed it a lot.

  6. Excellent article. You made excellent points about how the tags he was given easily apply to those directors lauded through the Golden Age to present. Yes, Parnell was poor but even Francis Ford Coppola laid an egg with Godfather 3 -- that doesn't detract from his other great films. Plus, 3 of his films became big hits for Ross Hunter when he remade them and Hunter was a savvy producer, so clearly Stahl made quality films. Again, great topic and well done!

  7. I must admit I am unfamiliar with your topic, and must do more research as time permits. I disagree with one comment, your suggestion to NOT see Parnell. Every movie has some redeeming value, even if it is about how not to make a movie.

    Thanks for the new project!

  8. Doctor, this is an interesting overview of the career of a director whose name I did not know. I have seen LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and the “ill-fated” PARNELL, but I never made the connection to John Stahl. I have also seen both versions of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and IMITATION OF LIFE, and while I preferred Stahl’s version of both films I remained ignorant of him as a director. I recently watched ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS with special features that included an interview with Douglas Sirk, and I found it interesting that he didn’t mention the original version of either of these films. I would disagree with you on one point; I actually enjoyed Robert Taylor as the reckless playboy opposite Irene Dunne. I have seen the 1941 version of BACKSTREET, but I would really like to see both films that feature John Boles. Thank you again for your excellent post.

  9. I know I am late to the game here but if you ever get a chance to see Stahl's silent film "Memory Lane" please don't miss it. It's rarely shown but it's truly wonderful. One of my absolute favorites.