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The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama (ed. Bruce Babington and Charles Barr) (a book)

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Cover image: John M. Stahl directs Claudette Colbert in Magnificent Obsession. The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama . Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr. East Barnet: John Libbey Publishing Ltd. Distributed worldwide by: Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2018. 276 p. John Libbey introduction: "The profusion of research on film history means that there are now few Hollywood filmmakers in the category of Neglected Master; John M Stahl (1886–1950) has been stuck in it for far too long. His strong association with melodrama and the womans film is a key to this neglect; those mainstays of popular cinema are no longer the object of critical scorn or indifference, but Stahl has until now hardly benefited from this welcome change in attitude." "His remarkable silent melodramas were either lost, or buried in archives, while his major sound films such as Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, equally successful in their time, have been overshadowed by the glamour of the 1950s remakes by Douglas Sirk. Sirk is a far from neglected figure; Stahl's much longer Hollywood career deserves attention and celebration in its own right, as this book definitively shows." "Drawing on a wide range of film and document archives, scholars from three continents come together to cover Stahls work, as director and also producer, from its beginnings during World War I to his death, as a still active filmmaker, in 1950. Between them they make a strong case for Stahl as an important figure in cinema history, and as author of many films that still have the power to move their audiences." "The book assembles comprehensive data on Stahl's career, and on the forty feature films he directed, half of them silent; of these silents, half have been found to survive, already inspiring film festival screenings and alerting scholars afresh to Stahl's historical importance. The editors supply a wealth of introductory and linking material, providing a context for essays on each of the surviving films by an international range of writers: Jeremy Arnold (US), Tim Cawkwell (UK), Ed Gallafent (UK), Adrian Garvey (UK), Pamela Hutchinson (UK), Lea Jacobs (US), Richard Koszarski (US), Lawrence Napper (UK), Tom Ryan (Australia), Neil Sinyard (UK), Imogen Sara Smith (US), Tony Tracy (Ireland), Michael Walker (UK) and Melanie Williams (UK)." "Bruce Babington is Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University, and has published widely on Hollywood, British and New Zealand cinema." "Charles Barr has taught in England, the U.S. and Ireland; his main publications are on Britisch cinema and on Alfred Hitchcock." (John Libbey introduction) AA: This year a revival of John M. Stahl has taken place in the double retrospective at Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato (the sound films) and Pordenone's Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the silent films). The new John M. Stahl monograph, published last week in Pordenone and edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr, makes sense of the career of the director-producer-screenwriter as a whole, including valuably about films of his believed lost. The book is of such a consistently outstanding quality that it's worth reading from cover to cover, not just picking essays on well-known titles. In a discussion of a little known film such as A Lady Surrenders (1930, the director's first film for Universal) one can discover a statement which amounts to a definition of the artist: "Stahl's greatest gifts as a director were the restraint and unforced sympathy he brought to melodramas, the tact and sincerity that allow nuance to emerge from formulaic or contrived plot twists. You can start to see this at work at moments in A Lady Surrenders, especially in the ending, with the germ of rueful self-knowledge Isabel shows in her exit, leaving her husband with the recovered Mary. There are also glimpses of the subtle beauty that marks his films, which eschew showy camera movements but contain moments of stirring loveliness. Here, there are effects of morning sunlight or heavy rain done with a naturalism and delicacy that freshen the settings, and long close-ups that are powerful precisely because they seem disinterested and manipulative. There is something in Stahl's straightforwardness that deepens even flimsy characters and plots, an eye always patiently on the lookout for what is real". (Imogen Sara Smith, p. 149). Before this year I had seen only five John M. Stahl films, and only after seeing his Back Street two years ago I started to realize that he is a master. Indeed, Stahl had seemed pale in comparison with Douglas Sirk. I initially saw Stahl's Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life in 16 mm prints, which may have contributed. Now in some essays of the book I find statements about Sirk which I find simplifying. Two years ago I revisited several Sirk films for the third time, and had to confess that each time his work seems different than I remembered. Sirk's films are mysterious onions with multiple layers. Perhaps after this year's John M. Stahl revival a fair comparison between Stahl and Sirk might be essayed. From the sober The Lincoln Cycle to the wild early melodramas to the sophisticated comedies of the 1920s, from the consistent Universal cycle of the 1930s to the diversity of the 20th Century-Fox productions of the 1940s, all Stahl's films are covered in chapters of their own, with well-researched introductions to the main periods of his career. Many new prints of the silent films were produced, and restoration and reconstruction was performed for the Pordenone tribute. The essays are based on pre-restoration versions of films. For instance Lea Jacobs in her superb essay on Memory Lane refers to missing intertitles in the ending. In the print we saw in Pordenone those intertitles had been reinstated. About the preceding surviving Stahl film, Husbands and Lovers, Imogen Sara Smith has reservations. She sees the account of male insensitivity "mostly played for laughs, and brushed away with an unconvincing happy ending". For me this film was one of the most rewarding of the silent Stahls. I see in it a film in which the wife Grace (Florence Vidor) is always portrayed with dignity, but both her husband (Lewis Stone) and her lover (Lew Cody) make fools of themselves. Her lover, a playboy, must transform into marriage material. The self-revelation of the husband is more painful and profound. He has to endure multiple humiliations before he can propose to Grace again. The emotion in the film for me is honest and deeply felt. One of the longest essays is by Michael Walker on Leave Her to Heaven, Stahl's best-known film, yet in many ways untypical for him. In his illuminating study Walker discovers a hidden affinity with Douglas Sirk's Written in the Wind. The editors Bruce Babington and Charles Barr have edited this book from the contributions of fourteen authors. The book is a page-turner, a smoothly moving anthology, a difficult feat, but evidently this John M. Stahl team was moved by a common spirit. Barr himself discusses Only Yesterday, the film whose ending was for him the moment of his Stahl revelation. Myself, I was not so impressed when I saw the film ten years ago, but now I realize I need to revisit it. This book makes me want to see all Stahl's films.

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