Back Street (1961): Third Version of Fannie Hurst Popular Melodrama, Starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin

David Miller’s third version of Fannie Hurst’s best-selling novel Back Street is the most lavishly produced (by Ross Hunter), but also the weakest in terms of acting and feeling.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Oscar winner Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!), entering what would become the last decade of her long career, plays Rae Smith, the role previously essayed by Irene Dunne (in 1932) and Margaret Sullavan (in 1941).

Detailed Plot

Meeting by accident, Paul Saxon (John Gavin), a wealthy department-store heir, has a romantic fling with a Nebraska dress-shop owner, Rae Smith (Susan Hayward), who breaks it off when she discovers that he is married.

Rae moves to New York to become a fashion designer, then on to Rome to become partner in a salon. But unfazed, Paul continues to woo her, explaining that his unstable alcoholic wife Liz won’t grant him a divorce.

They become lovers, meeting secretly at his house near Paris. When Paul’s young son learns of the affair, he confronts Rae and demands that she stop seeing his father.

Meanwhile, Liz makes a public scene humiliating Rae at a charity fashion show featuring her designs, purchasing a wedding gown for $10,000 (and asking that it be delivered to Smith’s address).

One night, when the drunken Liz leaves the house to attend a party, Paul confronts her, and the two argue ferociously in the car.  Then fighting over the keys in the ignition, the car crashes, killing Liz and leaving Paul critically paralyzed. Paul dies from his injuries, but not before insisting that his son call Rae so he can tell her that he loves her. Rae, Paul Jr. and his sister Caroline are left alone with their grief.

In the last, sentimental scene, Rae sits by the window of the home Paul had bought for her, when a knock on the door announces the arrival of Paul’s son with his little sister.

Unlike her prdecessors, Hayward, a tough actress, plays Rae Smith as a fiercely independent fashion designer, whose affair with the married John Gavin doesn’t destroy conpletely her livelihood.

Problem is, Hayward is too old for the part by at least a decade (she was 40), and the gowns designed by Jean Louis can only help up to a point to glamorize her looks.  She certainly lacks the natural elegance of Lana Turner (Imitation of Life) and the depth of performance skills possessed by Irene Dunne or Margaret Sullavan, both brilliant actresses.

Vera Miles, then at the peak of her career, is cast in the supporting role of Gavin’s shrewish, alcoholic wife–the real villain of the piece.

Ace cinematographer Stanley Cortez tries to elevate the soap melodrama with his imagery.  Despite flaws, “Back Street” is a glitzy production from Ross Hunter (who oversaw Douglas Sirk’s glossy melodramas of the 1950s).

The movie, which was panned by critics, was not popular with viewers, suffering from inevitable comparisons to the first two versions of the material, which were superior in every way.

From that point on, Hayward’s career declined rapidly due to a succession of poorly chosen roles and commercial flops.  She gave a campy performance in one of her last features, the 1967 soap opera Valley of the Dolls, playing a role that was originally intended for Judy Garland.

 

Oscar Nominations: 1

Costume Design (color): Jean Louis

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner was vet designer Irene Sharaff for the musical movie “West Side Story,” which swept most of the Oscars in 1961.

Cast
Susan Hayward as Rae Smith
John Gavin as Paul Saxon
Vera Miles as Liz Saxon
Charles Drake as Curt Stanton
Virginia Grey as Janey
Reginald Gardiner as Dalian
Tammy Marihugh as Caroline
Robert Eyer as Paul Saxon Jr.

 

Credits:

Universal-International (Ross Hunter production)

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Release date: October 11, 1961.

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