Famous Firsts: Only Yesterday (1933)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.

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The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.

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In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.

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Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).

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The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.

The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.

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The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)

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The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.

This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.

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Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture.

Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.

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  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    1st/12/2008 to 2:33 pm

    My first comment got eaten. Let’s try again.
    I haven’t seen this and in fact have only seen two of her films: The Shop Around the Corner and Back Street, only once and years ago. Shop I’ve seen multiple times and like her in it but I couldn’t really pin down any onscreen persona of hers based on that one film. I’d like to give this a look though, if for no other reason than it was made in 1933, an era of film I love watching.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/12/2008 to 2:42 pm

    Jonathan, I’ll have to make you a copy. This film is extremely unavailable. I saw it for the first time years ago in my “Forgotten Films of 1933″ film class (yes, that’s pretty specialized). When Rod started his Famous Firsts feature, I knew I wanted to write about this film. It’s taken me a long time to find a copy (and a not very good copy at that), but it was worth it.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    1st/12/2008 to 10:17 pm

    Imagine – a time when Hollywood films reflected the times, and not just in order to pat themselves on the back for delivering a message, but as a matter of course. Maybe it was the influx of newspapermen who arrived as scriptwriters with the coming of sound.
    I’ve been noticing lately how many 30s and 40s films use the great events of the time – World War, Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, Depression, another World War – as backdrops for their personal stories. I’d love to see American films do this again today, but most seem too lazy, feckless, and out-of-touch. Too bad.
    (Was this any relation to the book “Only Yesterday,” which was documented the 20s a few years after the fact? Sort of a dramatic version of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *but were afraid to ask – that is to say, a nonfiction book turned into screen fiction?)

  • bill r. spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 7:49 am

    I thought of something to say, but MovieMan stole my thunder! But I looked it up, and yes, this film is based on Frederick Allen Lewis’s book, which is non-fiction (and I own a copy, but haven’t read, of course), and which I’d always thought was about writers from the 1920s, but I’ve since gathered is a more general history of that decade.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 7:57 am

    And you’ve stolen a bit of my thunder, Bill.
    The book’s author, Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954), “was the editor of Harper’s Magazine and also notable as an American historian of the first half of the twentieth century. His specialty was writing about what was at the time recent and popular history.” People had an huge interest in this subject at the time, but popular writers filled the demand, not academics.
    I love films from the 1930s because they do reference the world around them, and the war they refer to is WWI. I’m so used to thinking in terms of WWII in the United States (Britain will always be the WWI place in my mind), that it’s enlightening for me to hear reference to the Great War.
    Only Yesterday‘s depiction of a lot of no-nos under the Production Code, which would go into full force the following year, is quite matter-of-fact. I imagine there were a lot of Marys around, knocked up by soldiers during one-night stands. The film ennobles Mary in much the same way other films would deal with “untoward” behavior by women by having her in love with her seducer. I’m thinking of Auntie Mame in particular, when Roz Russell accepts Beau Burnside’s proposal (and his enormous oil fortune) by saying “I happen to be in love with him.” Balderdash, I say.
    Nonetheless, Sullavan makes this love completely convincing, which it had to be for the story to work at all. Without it, we have a less violent version of Fatal Attraction.

  • bill r. spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 8:03 am

    Frederick Allen Lewis, Frederick Lewis Allen. Whatever.
    Anybody know if TCM has a habit of running this?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 8:32 am

    I’ve never seen it scheduled, but I don’t follow TCM’s programming religiously.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 9:58 am

    You all stole my thunder. I want it back. I left it here two days ago and I know one of you took it. Probably Bill.

  • Pat spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 12:30 pm

    Marilyn-
    Great, fascinating article about a film I’d never heard of (but that’s what this blog is all about, right?) Ir sounds a little bit like “Kitty Foyle,” but – marginally, at least – more honest. (Even though the out-of-wedlock child sounds like a minor character, it’s more realistic to me that he lives and has to be supported and cared for than Kitty’s baby who dies at childbirth and then never has to be reckoned with again.)
    I actually can’t recall ever seeing a Margaret Sullavan film, not even “Shop Around the Corner.” All my knowledge of her comes from her daughter, Brooke Hayward’s tell-all autobiography. And I last read that a good 20 years ago.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/12/2008 to 4:59 pm

    Jonathan – Your thunder is in the mail.
    Pat – This plot tracks with a lot of films of the time, which is why I suspect that unwed mothers were abundant in the 30s, for a variety of reasons. Only Yesterday does deal with it more realistically (and son Jimmy actually has a lot to do on screen as a young man home from military school – I’d even call Jimmy Butler, the actor who plays him, a supporting actor). The Kay Francis vehicle I reviewed here, Mary Stevens, MD, like Kitty Foyle, also kills off her illegitimate baby boy.
    Sullavan certainly did go through some high-profile men: Henry Fonda, William Wyler, Leland Hayward. I’ve never read Brooke’s book – those things don’t really hold my attention – but I’m sure she had a fair amount to tell.

  • Campaspe spoke:
    3rd/12/2008 to 8:15 pm

    Marilyn, my apologies for only now seeing this excellent, painstaking review. I need to overcome my fundamental Luddite nature and set up some sort of feed because I miss a lot lately, it seems.
    As it happens I’ve read Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday AND Since Yesterday, about the Depression, and they are excellent. They have the advantage of immediacy, as well as his writing style. (I think I even referred to his books once on my blog, can’t remember.) It’s an interesting conceit, to take the feeling everyone had in the early 30s of being rudely awakened from a dream, and transferring it to a woman’s awakening to the unworthy nature of a love object.
    I am a big fan of Sullavan, she was a unique presence. You remind that I have only seen five of her films myself. I was just sent So Red the Rose so at so point I will try to do a reciprocal post on that one; Dan made some interesting points about it.
    Sullavan did die almost as much as Shelly Winters, though, didn’t she?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/12/2008 to 10:35 pm

    Siren – I’m glad you dropped in, as I know this was one of the films on your wish list. I am also quite a fan of Ms. Sullavan and wish she were better known and her films were more available. Allen’s books sound interesting; it certainly is an important and vibrant period in American history.

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