John Stahl
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

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John Stahl

Back Street

Neither of the two protagonists of Imitation of Life (1934), from the Fanny Hurst novel, can be fully happy, despite being good, honest, loving and hard-working. Both have the same curse: their entire life is invested in their daughters, who will both disappoint them. They will both have to surrender their lives (one by dying and the other one by remaining single) in order to fulfill their mission towards their daughters. The story is not about two women starting a successful business, but about two women who become very close friends, almost sisters, and that share the destiny of being mothers.

A young white widow, Beatrice, with a baby girl, meets a black widow, Delilah, a good woman who is looking for a job as a maid. The two become very close friends, taking care of each other's daughter. Beatrice has kept the maple-syrup business of her husband aline, and Delilah is a master of pancakes. Beatrice decides to pool together their skills and open a store. The store is successful. Not only do they pay off their debts, but they also impress a stranger, Helmut, who tells them how to get rich: "box it". They start selling pancake dough by the millions, and become staples of the high society. When a gentleman, a friend of Helmut, who has now become a partner in the business, falls in love with Bea, love also enters the life of the woman. The good-hearted Delilah has one major problem: her daughter Piola is ashamed of being black, and, being a light-skinned mulatto, she tries to hide her race to the other children. Now a grown-up, she runs away. Delilah and Bea find her working in a restaurant: the girl is ashamed of her and pretends not to know her. Back home, she tells Delilah that she doesn't want to be found, that she wants to live her life as a white woman. At the same time, Bea's daughter has taken advantage of her mother's absence to seduce her mother's fiance. When her mother comes back, the fiance pretends nothing has happened while he is secretely meeting the daughter. Delilah dies of a heartbreak while Bea begins to have suspicions about her daughter and her fiance. At the (majestic) funeral, Piola comes to cry on her mother's coffin, and to finally accept her destiny as a black woman. Bea decides to call off the wedding with her fiance, knowing that this is the only way to regain confidence with her daughter.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is an adaptation of Ben Ames Williams' best-selling novel, a thriller with psychological overtones in which the deadly jealous protagonist has morbid affair with the memory of her dead father.

A boat carries Dick back to his home. He has been in prison two years. He is welcomed back by the attorney who defended him, Glen. The attorney tells his story. He invited the young promising writer Dick to his place. On the train Dick met a gorgeous exotic woman, Ellen (Gene Tierney), who was struck by his resemblance to her late father.
The flashback continues. Dick and Ellen get off at the same train station and are welcomed by the same Glen. It turns out that her mother is a friend of Glen's. Dick meets her mother and her cousin Ruth. It is obvious that Dick is pleased to continue the acquaintance with Ellen. Glen drives them to his ranch, located by a river in the middle of a remote lunar landscape. Dick is invited to a family dinner. Ellen's husband died far away and was cremated. The family plans to scatter his ashes in the dead man's favorite place, and that's where she spends many hours alone. Ellen is engaged to a politician, Russ. Dick is also fond of her cousin Ruth, and she is fond of him. But the story of the family is that Ellen always wins: she breaks up her engagement with Russ and announces her engagement with Dick, surprising Dick himself. Russ comes to tell Ellen that he still loves her. She scorns and mocks him. He threatens her. When Russ leaves, she smilingly hugs Dick and proposes to him.
They get married immediately. They move into their new house in Dick's favorite place, and she tells him that she will never allow anybody else to walk into the house and she will do everything herself for him. It sounds good, but a bit eerie. Dick has a much younger brother, Danny, who is disabled and is staying at a hospital. Dick wants to take Danny with them. Ellen talks to the doctor and obviously tries to discourage him from allowing this. She finds all sorts of excuses: the rugged and isolated place where they live, the intense lifestyle of Dick, and her own desire to be alone with Dick (the real truth, probably). She doesn't tell Dick that she doesn't want Danny: she wants the doctor to tell Dick that Danny should stay at the hospital. When Dick walks into the office, she puts on an angelic smile and welcomes the news that Danny will move in with them, as if nothing happened, leaving the doctor thunderstruck. Danny therefore travels with them to the remote paradisiac land.
One day Dick and his friend Leick surprise Ellen by inviting her mother and Ruth to visit: Ellen is far from excited and at dinner she insults her own mother. Her mother tells Ellen that Russ has been elected district attorney and may soon run for governor. Dick confronts Ellen about her hostile behavior, and Ellen reveals her jealousy towards Ruth, his brother Danny and his friend. Basically she's jealous of anybody who gets any attention from him.
Ellen takes Danny on a boat. He decides to swim and she follows him with the boat. She encourages him to swim farther and farther away until the kid gets a cramp and starts drowning. She watches coldly as the kid goes down. Then, when she is sure that he is dead, she pretends to jump to save his life, but it's too late. Dick is devastated. They try to cheer him up by restoring what used to be the laboratory of Ellen's father but Ellen is horrified.
Ellen finally gets pregnant. She is not happy. Ellen tells Ruth that she hates the baby who is coming to intrude in her married life. Ellen thinks that she and Dick do not need anyone else. Ellen is jealous even of her own baby. One day she wears high heels and trips on purpose on a carpet right at the top of the stairs. The fall kills the baby. She was willing to risk her life in order to get rid of the baby she was carrying.
Dick publishes a new novel. It is set in Mexico. Ellen is jealous that he dedicated the book to Ruth. Ellen finds out that Ruth is going away. Ruth admits she is going to Mexico. Ellen sees a conspiracy: while she was at the hospital, Ruth had Dick all for herself. Ruth explodes. Ruth accuses Ellen of having filled the house with hatred. Ellen tormented her as a child, and now Ruth is running away because she doesn't want to be tormented anymore. Dick overhears the conversation. He realizes that her love for him borders on madness. He pressures her and she confesses that she is responsible for the death of Danny and the fall from the stairs. She screams that she doesn't want anyone but him. At least she's telling him the truth. Dick tells her coldly that he is leaving her.
She cannot take it. She always wins, just like she won against Danny. Now her target is Ruth. Ellen architects a plan to make it look like she was poisoned by Ruth, and writes a letter to her former fiance Russ. Dick is about to board a plane when they call him back to the house. Ellen dies telling Dick that she will never let him go. Russ is the prosecutor for Ruth's trial. The evidence points to Ruth poisoning the sugar that Ellen used in her coffee. Russ calls Dick as a witness and asks him to read the last letter that Ellen wrote. In it Ellen tells Russ that Dick and Ruth are in love and are trying to get rid of her. Russ make Dick look like a guilty man. At the stand Ruth looks even guiltier: she asked for the body of Ellen to be cremated, as Ellen had wanted, but it turns out that Ellen wrote in her will that she wanted to be buried. The cremation sounds like an expedient to make sure there would be no autopsy. Worse: under pressure at the stand Ruth admits that she is in love with Dick. Russ calls Dick again and asks him whether he is in love with Ruth. Dick testifies that Ellen was a monster and claims that Ellen commits suicide. Dick tells Russ about Ellen's confession that she killed Danny and the unborn child. The jury acquits Ellen of the murder, but finds Dick guilty of not having reported Ellen's crime. Dick is sentenced to two years in prison. For the first time Ellen lost: she died to frame Ellen and instead she inadvertently framed Dick.
The flashback ends. After leaving Glen, Dick has been rowing the boat towards his home where a loving Ruth is waiting for him.
Now Ellen has really lost.
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