Monday, April 29, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Only Yesterday at UCLA (1933)

At Friday evening's pre-Code double bill at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) was followed with ONLY YESTERDAY (1933).

ONLY YESTERDAY was directed by John M. Stahl, who among other films directed the original versions of IMITATION OF LIFE (1934) and MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935).

ONLY YESTERDAY is a melodrama in the same vein as those later Stahl films, with our heroine Mary (Margaret Sullavan) facing many trials and tribulations. Though the storyline was on the depressing side, I actually enjoyed it pretty well thanks to the fine cast.

It's the evening of the big stock market crash in 1929, and having lost everything -- including his wife (Benita Hume) -- Jim (John Boles) locks himself in his office and prepares to end it all. And then his eye catches sight of an envelope containing a very long letter addressed to him from someone named Mary...

From here most of the story is told in flashback, as impressionable young Mary foolishly leaves a dance and has a one-night stand with Jim, who's about to ship out to Europe to fight in WWI. Mary is left behind, pregnant and alone, and her embarrassed parents (Jane Darwell and Oscar Apfel) ship Mary off to stay with her free-thinking Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York.

Julia, a suffragette, views Mary's situation as simply "something that happened," and over the coming years Julia and her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) provide Mary and her little boy Jimmy (Jimmy Butler) with the love and support of family. Which is all the more important as when Jim returns from the war and Mary goes to see him, he doesn't recognize her.

Even more incredibly, years later the married Jim, having no memory of Mary, tries to seduce her all over again! He's really rather a heel, disguised under a nice exterior.

From here things become even more dramatic, but in the end Mary's letter might just be the saving of Jim.

The movie could have stood a bit of trimming, as it goes on a bit long at 105 minutes, but for the most part this is an absorbing story. Sullavan is a compelling actress, and her journey as Mary is interesting despite some poor choices along the way; she manages to pull herself together for her little boy's sake and become a very successful businesswoman.

Burke has one of her best parts as Mary's kind aunt. Julia's courtship by the younger Bob is charming; together Burke and Denny keep the film from being too weighted down with sadness. Young Jimmy Butler also does a fine job as Sullavan's son; I was sad to read he died fighting in WWII in 1945.

Boles manages to simultaneously be sleazy and sympathetic; he's a jerk much of the time, yet we're hopeful -- most of all for Jimmy's sake -- that by the end of the film he's turned over a new leaf and will dedicate himself to his son.

The cast also includes Edna May Oliver, George Meeker, and Noel Francis; Leon Ames has a bit role. Familiar faces such as Franklin Pangborn, Louise Beavers, Walter Catlett, Sam McDaniel, Natalie Moorhead, Joyce Compton, Grady Sutton, and Marie Prevost are sprinkled throughout the movie; recognizing actors as they come and go is part of the fun with this one. For instance, this is one of many films in which both Bill Elliott and Dennis O'Keefe are bit players; in this case they are New Year's Eve party-goers.

ONLY YESTERDAY was filmed by Merritt B. Gerstad. The script by a trio of writers was inspired by a novel by Stefan Zweig; years later, a fairly different version was filmed as LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948).



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