John M. Stahl - Director

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 21 January 1886. Education: Educated in New York City public schools. Family: Married Roxana Wray, 1932. Career: Actor on stage and later in films, from 1901; hired by Vitagraph Studio, Brooklyn, as director, 1914; moved to Hollywood, worked for Louis B. Mayer in independent productions, then at MGM, 1917; vice president and directorial producer, Tiffany-Stahl Studios, 1928; sold interest in studio and joined Universal, 1930. Died: 12 January 1950.

Films as Director:

(incomplete listing prior to 1918)


The Boy and the Law


The Lincoln Cycle (14-reeler distributed in six chapters including My Mother, My Father, My Self, The Call to Arms )


Scandal Mongers ; Wives of Men (+ sc); Suspicion


Her Code of Honor ; A Woman under Oath


Greater than Love ; Women Men Forget ; The Woman in His House ; Sowing the Wind ; The Child Thou Gavest Me (+ pr)


The Song of Life ; One Clear Call (+ pr); Suspicious Wives


The Wanters (+ pr); The Dangerous Age (+ pr)


Why Men Leave Home ; Husbands and Lovers (+ pr)


Fine Clothes


Memory Lane (+ pr, co-sc); The Gay Deceiver


Lovers? (+ pr); In Old Kentucky (+ pr)


A Lady Surrenders


Seed ; Strictly Dishonorable


Back Street


Only Yesterday


Imitation of Life


Magnificent Obsession




Letter of Introduction (+ pr)


When Tomorrow Comes (+ pr)


Our Wife


The Immortal Sergeant


Holy Matrimony


The Eve of St. Mark ; The Keys of the Kingdom


Leave Her to Heaven


Forever Amber (replaced by Otto Preminger); The Foxes of Harrow


The Walls of Jericho


Father Was a Fullback ; Oh, You Beautiful Doll


By STAHL: article—

"Oh, the Good Old Days," in The Hollywood Reporter , 16 May 1932.

On STAHL: books—

Glèdhill, Christine, editor, Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film , London, 1987.

On STAHL: articles—

Obituary, in The New York Times , 14 January 1950.

Sarris, Andrew, "Esoterica," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.

Morris, G., "John M. Stahl: The Man Who Understood Women," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1977.

Pulleine, Tim, "Stahl into Sirk," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1981.

Renov, Michael, " Leave Her to Heaven : The Double Bind of Post-War Women," in Journal of the University Film and Video Association , Winter 1983.

* * *

John Stahl was a key figure in the development of the Hollywood "women's melodrama" during the 1930s and 1940s, and quite possibly in the 1910s and 1920s as well. Although he began directing in 1914, and apparently made as many films before sound as after, only two of his silents ( Her Code of Honor and Suspicious Wives ) seem to have survived. Yet this is hardly the only reason that the ultimate critical and historical significance of his work remains to be established. More pertinent is the critical disrepute of the "tearjerker" genre in which he worked almost exclusively—a genre which had to await the discovery of Douglas Sirk's melodramas and the reworking of the form by R.W. Fassbinder to attract serious critical attention.

Comparisons between Sirk's baroquely aestheticized and Stahl's straightforwardly unadorned treatments of equally improbable plots is somewhat useful, and virtually inevitable, given that Sirk remade three of Stahl's classic 1930s "weepies": Imitation of Life (1934/1959), Magnificent Obsession (1935/1954), and When Tomorrow Comes (1939), which became Interlude (1957). In a genre focusing on the problems presented by the social/sexual order for the individual (most frequently, the bourgeois female), Sirk tended to abstract dramatic conflicts in the direction of Brecht, while Stahl chose to emphasize the effects of social rigidities through the emotions of his characters.

Stahl's career seemed to flourish most at Universal in the 1930s with the production of the highly accomplished Back Street, Only Yesterday , and the three films Sirk remade, all of which present emotionally similar heroines buffeted by twists of fate which wreak havoc on their socially determined modes of behavior. In his version

John M. Stahl and Myrna Loy on the set of Parnell
John M. Stahl and Myrna Loy on the set of Parnell
of Fannie Hurst's Back Street (remade in 1941 and 1961), Stahl encourages sympathy for Irene Dunne, an independent working woman who gives up everything to be "kept" in isolation by the respectable married man she loves. Audacious contradictions emerge from the very simplicity with which Stahl presents outrageous plot twists. Dunne meets the "kept woman" next door to her back street apartment, for example, only when the woman literally catches on fire and must be rescued. Recognizing a sister in shame, Dunne counsels the injured woman against allowing herself to be exploited by the man she loves; yet what seems to be a dawning moment of self-awareness on the part of our heroine is instantly obscured by a romantic haze when her own lover walks through the door in the middle of her diatribe. Similarly powerful contradictions abound in Imitation of Life (based on another Hurst novel), where best friends Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers find themselves incapable, despite their best intentions, of breaking the social conventions which keep the black woman subservient to the white, even when the former is responsible for the latter's wealth and success.

Given material such as the Fannie Hurst novels, the "inspirational" message of Lloyd C. Douglas's Magnificent Obsession , and the hopelessly romantic Only Yesterday (virtually remade as Max OphĂĽls' Letter from an Unknown Woman ), and considering the period during which Stahl worked, the point of reference seems not to be Sirk so much as Stahl's better-appreciated contemporary Frank Borzage. It is Borzage's unrelenting romanticism which is usually assumed to characterize the "weepies" of the 1920s and 1930s; yet Stahl's work offers another perspective. While he clearly encourages emotional identification with his heroines, Stahl seems more interested in exposing their romantic illusions than in relishing them. In fact, his meditative restraint in such situations has prompted George Morris to suggest that "it is Carl Th. Dreyer whom Stahl resembles more than directors like Sirk or Borzage."

Yet ultimately, Stahl's visual style seems largely dependent upon studio and cinematographer, a fact most clearly demonstrated by Leave Her to Heaven , a preposterously plotted drama of a psychotically duplicitous woman shot in Technicolor by Leon Shamroy on the modernesque sets of 20th Century-Fox, where the director's mise-enscène emerges as florid and baroque as Sirk in his heyday—and a full decade earlier.

It seems that Stahl's films represent something of a missing link between Borzage's romanticism and Sirk. Certainly, an examination of his work expands an understanding of the variety of Hollywood's strategies in personalizing overtly ideological questions of sex, status, and money. In fact, if film scholars are serious about studying the melodrama in any depth, then the films of John Stahl remain a top and current priority.

—Ed Lowry

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: