(PUSH THE RED AND WHITE BUTTON AN PLAY ME-FILM SCORE BY FRANK SKINNER)
Susan Hayward and Lana Turner battled it out on the screen in the early 1960’s for the heavy weight crown of tear stained mink queen of the movies. What was left for an actress over 40 in 1961 but the highly glamorous gloss of a Ross Hunter picture or the grand gargoyle glamour of something like “Baby Jane”? Not much. To be a female movie star of a certain age at that time in Hollywood and to some extent even today meant only one thing, you’re Over The Hill baby. Both actresses had done their best work during the preceding two decades. It was Lana of the tawdry emotions versus hard Hayward of the rat-a-tat Brooklyn delivery always punctuated with a Garlandesque gesture. With films like “Ada”, “Stolen Hours” and “Where Love Has Gone”, Hayward wins the crown.
“Back Street” is the jewel in this crown. The essential Hayward tearjerker with all the required elements, an impossibly beautiful mannequin of a leading man for her and the audience to project their dreams upon. A truly wicked wife for him to make it almost impossible to denounce Hayward for coming between them, and two throwaway children to soften the tragic end of the film in one final surge of violins and Kleenex. All of this played out in the glamour capitals of New York, Rome and Paris provided by Universal’s backlot (and a few lovely locations in Monterey County doubling for the Italian coast). Add to the mix the highly sophisticated costumes of the early 60’s and sets of stunning beauty, all strung together to one of the most lyrically beautiful scores ever written for this genre. The result is the glossiest most improbably romantic film of her career that can be taken today in one of two ways, high camp comedy or lush romance. It all depends upon your point of view.
In support of Miss Hayward there is Virginia Grey as her older (and I mean much older!) sister Janenee. She provides throughout the picture the image Rae “All small letters, very chic” Smith, carries of what an ideal marriage and family means. She hits all the right notes as the loving sister who pushes Rae out of her small mid-western life in Lincoln Nebraska and into the world of high fashion in New York.
Reginald Gardner is the perfect picture of the perfunctorily gay designer Dalian who helps her to make her name and sends her off to Europe, or at least around the corner to the “Rome” set. His is just an extension of the Franklin Pangborne harmless gay man of the early years of movie history. Elegant sophisticate always ready with a bon mot and a hanky. He is alarmingly memorable in the role.
John Gavin, more beautiful than Rock Hudson and with a better body, is Paul Saxon, the spineless Ken Doll upon which Rae drapes all her dreams as if he were a mannequin to dress for each love scene. But with such a man around she and the audience need nothing more than what appears. He is the perfect vessel to dream about, create a personality for, and waste a good twenty years loving while passing up the opportunities presented for a real life.
About a quarter of the way into the film and the fun arrives in the cool resplendent form of Vera Miles as Liz (perhaps the screenwriter chose that name to make a subliminal connection with the then scandalous Elizabeth Taylor) Saxon, wife to Paul. She is given all the attributes of a monster, alcoholic, unfaithful and a lousy mother. (Sounds like the tabloid “Liz” we all know and love.) She is perfectly designed to make us love Rae and her sad little back street affair. For there was just no other way to get around the taboo of infidelity in those days but to have a Liz on hand. Her confrontation with Rae is supremely bitchy and utterly wonderful.
As the beautiful Rae Susan Hayward plays one of her few completely sympathetic characters in her long and lustrous career. She approaches Rae as if this was a chance to win a second Oscar and in fact in the scene where she calls late one night from Rome back home on Thanksgiving she is magnificent. Her beautiful bourbon flavored voice is used to accentuate her loveliness in every scene. Her trademark gestures are at a minimum and only called into play when they are most needed. She carries the improbable picture on her perfect shoulders and gives a fine and detailed performance that is perfection in the soapy atmosphere of Europe. A few of the many highlights is the scene where she finds out that Paul is married, the phone call from the hospital and the race to the airport in Lincoln early on in the film. She is stunningly dressed in gowns by Jean Louis that are smart and very contemporary to what the ladies are wearing on the red carpet today. David Webs beautiful jewelery complements her and adds a feel of true richness to the picture. As I mentioned earlier the score by Frank Skinner is perfection and punctuates the drama in so many ways that are essential in this movie.
The direction by stalwart David Miller is right on target. He should know how to do it, after all he did the same for Joan Crawford in “The Story of Esther Costello” and “Sudden Fear”, as well as Doris Day in “Midnight Lace” and Lana Turner in “Diane”. This all was helmed by the master of the genre, Producer Ross Hunter who defined the genre with such hits as “Imitation of Life”, “Portrait in Black”, and “Madam X”.
“Back Street” remains to this day the shinning beacon of the last gasp of the woman’s picture where women were smart, strong, self-made in a mans world and all the while ever glamorous in tear stained mink.
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What perfume would Rae Smith wear? Je Reviens by Worth was an elegant floral aldehyde created in 1932 by Maurice Blanchet. The notes are Top notes are aldehydes, orange blossom, jasmine, ylang-ylang, bergamot and lemon; middle notes are narcissus, lilac, orris root, hiacynth, cloves, ylang-ylang and rose; base notes are sandalwood, tonka bean, amber, musk, violet, oakmoss, vetiver and incense. Je Reviens means I return and for rae and Paul they always returned to eachother.
Paul Saxon would wear Chanel Pour Monsieur. Just about the best men’s fragrance from the 1950’s I have a feeling Paul would stick to this perfume and that Rae adored it on him. The notes are Created by nose Henri Robert in 1955 the top notes are, verbena: lemon, verbena, neroli and orange. Mid notes of cardamom, coriander, basil and ginger, and base notes of oak moss and cedar.
For the wicked Liz Saxon there is only one perfume. Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew. Created by nose Josephine Catapano in 1953 this Spicy Oriental could comfort a bad hangover. The Top notes are aldehydes, orange, spices, peach, bergamot, narcissus and lavender; middle notes are cinnamon, cassia, orchid, jasmine, cloves, ylang-ylang, rose, lily-of-the-valley and spicy notes; base notes are tolu balsam, peru balsam, amber, patchouli, musk, vanilla, oakmoss, vetiver and incense.