Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”)
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.
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.