Summary of Discussion on Female

Our discussion of Female ranged from its genre, its use of gender inversion, its star, Ruth Chatterton, comparison to other films and stars of the time such as Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, its studio – Warner Brothers –  the film’s set and its shot transitions. 

We began with debate about the film’s genre. The American Film Institute (AFI) categorises Female as ‘Comedy-drama’ ( and we certainly noted its, sometimes uneasy, mix of serious issues such as sexual equality (a major subject according to the AFI) and comedic moments. We particularly commented on the film’s heroine, automobile factory owner and manager Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton). Alison demonstrates her sexual liberation, and position of authority, by seducing young men in her employ and then arranging for them to be transferred to other parts of the world when they become clingy and troublesome.

Alison is a woman in charge of her own destiny, telling a female friend, Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson), that she uses men the way they have always used women. She is, therefore, very different to the suffering heroine of melodrama.  In fact, she seems more like the sexually predatory man a melodrama heroine is often running from.

Alison is frustrated, however, by the fact that despite her viewing herself as a sexual being, the men she attempts to seduce have differing ideas. Men either submit and then fall in love and wish to marry and domesticate her (and are hence transferred to Montreal), or seem resistant to her female charms, considering her to be made of marble, rather than flesh and blood (and are dispatched to Paris). Other marriage proposals she receives are similarly not based on how Alison sees her true self, but are couched in terms of a business merger.

The repetitive nature of Alison’s attempted seductions (and indeed her preparedness, in, we presume, providing male guests with bathing costumes for her swimming pool) become comic as the film proceeds. She invites men to her house for the evening; she is clad in a beautiful evening dress; we hear ‘Shanghai Li’ playing; Alison summons a butler, and vodka, at the right moment by pushing a button; Alison earnestly explains that she is not all about business, inviting her male visitor to sit next to her as she playfully throws a cushion on the floor.

The other comedy aspect the film brought to mind was the screwball subgenre. After becoming frustrated at the lack of men who see her as she truly is, Alison leaves her own party, dressing up in casual clothes to visit a local fair. While there, she takes aim with a rifle at the shooting gallery alongside an attractive man, Jim Thorne (George Brent). They alternate successful shots at targets until Alison’s last one misses, and Jim completes the task for her. This is a ‘meet-cute’ of romantic comedy, something which shows that the couple is meant to be together. Alison is, however, the pursuer rather than the pursued (despite the fact the man has won the so obviously male shooting competition) as she follows Jim as he purchases a drink at a nearby stall. Alison light-heartedly assumes an alternative identity as a former sharpshooter, and Jim plays along by saying that he did not recognise her without her horse. Significantly, Alison’s assumed identity is one of much lower class than her real status. This corresponds to some of the key aspects Tamar Jeffers McDonald cites as key to screwball – reverse class snobbery, a major inversion or subversion of characters’ normality, and role play (Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, 2007, pp. 23-24). It is worth noting, however that while Jim plays along, he does not assume an alternate identity or pretend to be anything he is not.

Perhaps predictably, Jim refuses to be ‘picked up’ by Alison, apparently she is ‘too fresh’. There must be some obstacles to their (we suppose) eventual union.  Furthermore, he spurns her advances when, coincidentally, he begins work at her company as an important engineer the next day. While her seduction routine has worked with others, Jim seems immune. When Alison is surprised that drinking has not loosened Jim up, he explains that he is used to vodka, after working for some time in Russia. This shows how much she has relied on alcohol in past seductions, and that Alison has to work much harder at her ‘vamping’ than usual.

 This inversion is not only important in terms of how it might comment on comedic conventions. It is also useful when we compare Alison to other characters in the film, and consider what changes in her representation may say about the film’s standpoint on sexual equality.

The main character we compared Alison to was her old schoolfriend Harriet. She unexpectedly visits Alison in her office, and we witness Alison swapping chat on Harriet’s life (her marriage and children) but being so distracted with work matters she gets several details wrong – Harriet’s husband’s name and the gender and number of her children. This indicates Alison’s lack of interest in ‘usual’ womanly concerns. It is also important that since this chat takes place at work, Alison is nonetheless interrupting her work with personal concerns. This may be less true of the way films choose to represent men in their workplaces.

We wondered whether the film had the purpose of showing Harriet, rather than Alison, in the more flattering light for both male and female viewers. While the film tones down Alison’s sexually free behaviour as she falls for Jim, though refuses to marry him at first, her enjoyment for most of the film and her wearing of stunning clothes, driving a sports car, and owning of a beautiful house. By contrast, Harriet is only seen in Alison’s environment, wearing smart but regular clothes, and her only interaction with her husband and children is a boring phone call about his health. We thought this did not encourage the promotion of Harriet’s more traditional lifestyle over Alison’s more modern one.

There is ambivalence though. In addition to times when Alison seems to be displaying herself for men’s attention, Alison is filmed in a rather sexual way at other points of the narrative. She is a powerless sexual object as she steps in and out of the shower, and receives massages.

The film is also ambivalent in its representation of Alison on her own terms. Her initial boast that she treats men the way they have always treated women, is tempered by her last minute conversion to domesticity. Despite Alison tracking down Jim at a shooting gallery and his support of her business plans, she decides to hand over the business to him while she plans to have 9 children. It is well worth considering whether the lasting memory of a film is a character’s behaviour for most of the story, or he final few minutes. Some commented that in this sense the film was two-faced. The ending is a sop to men (with Jim also specifically speaking against ‘free women’), and traditionalists, but others (including women) may choose not to believe Alison’s last exaggerated desire.

We also briefly mentioned the minor, and older, characters of Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) and Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly). They represent more traditional gender politics. While Pettigrew seems to approve of Alison’s treatment of men for most of the narrative, he is also relieved when she decided to settle down. Pettigrew teasingly asks Miss Frothingham if she lives with her ‘folks’ and she giggles in her response that she lives alone. While Miss Frothingham appears aware of Pettigrew’s attentions, and intentions, and both of them flirt, Pettigrew is the more obvious predating figure. He is even unoriginal in asking Miss Frothingham up to his apartment to see his paintings.

We also discussed the significance of Ruth Chatterton playing Alison, and whether this colours our view of her character’s liberation as positive or negative. Chatterton was a powerful woman, as in addition to being an actor and star she was an aviatrix, a fencer and owned her own production company. It would be interesting to see how much of this information was available to, and known by, audiences of the time. As Lies points out in her post on the NoRMMA blog, Chatterton’s 1932-1934 marriage to Female co-star George Brent was referenced in a portrait of Chatterton in February 1934’s Photoplay  ( This shows Chatterton’s acceptable off-screen domestic situation, but also the fact that she continued to work despite being married.

The context of the studio which produced Female was also considered. We were reminded throughout the film of its studio since Warner tunes like ‘You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me’ and ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ (both from 42nd Street, 1933) were hummed or whistled by characters. There was also mention of the Warner Brothers star James Cagney (at the studio from 1930-1935). Alison hires a private detective to follow Jim when she is not being as successful with him as she would like. It is said that he has been out the night before, at a movie called Picture Snatcher (1933, released 6 months before Female).  Some of us were also aware of Warner Brothers through costumes being recycled from earlier and into later films from the studio. Unlike the bigger MGM, Warner Brothers was less able to spend lavishly on both costumes and film tunes.

We also considered Female in relation to a screening from last term, Baby Face (see Both films were written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. But in addition to being based on a novel by a male author (Donald Henderson Clarke 1932), Female was notably different to Baby Face in the lack of a suffering and abused heroine. Interestingly though, according to Motion Picture, the star of Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck, was considered for the role before it was toned down and given to Chatterton. (See Lies’ post: It is interesting to consider what a different film Female  would have been if Stanwyck had played Alison. Stanwyck often played struggling everyday characters, with her ‘real’ background also apparently a poor one.  Chatterton, meanwhile, was the middle-class daughter of an architect and  prior to Hollywood had a successful career on the legitimate stage.

We also commented on the film’s impressive set. According to the AFI, some of this was filmed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis house in Los Angeles The house was also apparently used for later films including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Blade Runner (1982).

It was not just the exterior shots of the house or the swimming pool which were striking though. All the characters seemed dwarfed by the size of both the factory and house interiors which further emphasise Alison’s wealth. The way in which the working of the factory (smoking chimneys, cranes etc) are seen through the large window as Alison sits at her desk also comments on her wealth, but also her hard work and the heavy industry involved in the manufacturing the automobiles. It also reveals that Alison sis able to survey all of this from her desk – it is her domain.

Finally, there was some comment on the film’s editing. Some found the variety of shot transitions, especially on the factory floor, distracting and showy. Others, however, hardly noticed them.  We might compare the editing to the film’s use of startling 1920s architecture which makes it seem especially modern

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts.

Screening of La Belle et La Bete on 12th March, 3.30 pm, Canterbury Curzon

Exciting News!

Melodrama Research Group member Frances Kamm is introducing a screening of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette (1946). The French Classic stars Jean Marais as the lonely Beast, and Josette Day as Beauty, the object of his desires.

The Curzon in Canterbury will be showing the film of Sunday the 12th of March at 3.30 pm. You can find more information on the Curzon’s website here:

Summary of Discussion on The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters

We first listened to a copy of the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper. This included the original advertisements before, within, and after the show. We discussed this especially in relation to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story.

The unnamed heroine suggested connections to the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Because the radio dramatized action more than the short story – we ‘objectively’ heard conversations – the fact the narrator is not addressed by name by those around her is more evident. We especially noticed the terms used, like ‘pet’, ‘goose’ and ‘dope’.

The issue of the audience the narrator was addressing was also raised. While in the radio version we hear the scratching of her writing, her thoughts are of course conveyed by her speech. Significantly this is not a simple rendering on the short story – a kind of journal. The aural medium almost precludes the need for writing, and makes the narrator seem both less and more cut off: we feel more connected to than since we appear to be more directly addressed, but this reveals that we are all she has.

Indeed the speaker also seems more confined in terms of her activities (in the short story she goes riding) while the radio version foregrounds the house and the attic room. This is evident at the very beginning which opens with description of arriving at the house, which once more reminded us of both the novel and film versions of Rebecca. Significantly the narrator in the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper describes the atmosphere as pertaining to  ‘ghostliness’ and asks her husband if the house is ‘haunted’.

This nod to the gothic appeared far less subtle and ambiguous than the short story. It does, however, fit with the radio show Suspense’s focus on thrills and spills. (Well indicated by long-term Allred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s theme tune to the series.)  This also connects to the way in which the characters are portrayed. In the short story all is framed by being from the narrator’s point of view. The very fact we hear all characters in the radio version – and get seemingly ‘objective’ takes as to their attitude to the narrator – creates complexity. The husband and sister seem more reasonable in their tone. (Even though we found the husband’s declaration that ‘I’m a doctor and I know’ less than convincing, this could be attributed to concern and despair for his wife.)  This is especially highlighted by the narrator’s speaking over such comments as they happen to assert her family’s bad treatment of her. A potential disconnect is therefore evident.

This is furthermore connected to the decision to emphasise the narrator’s madness from earlier on than in the short story. It can be debated in both the short story and the radio version whether the narrator is already suffering from madness, is sent mad from being perfectly sane by her situation, or if a precondition is exacerbated by her family’s treatment of her. The short story is more open to interpretation, but the radio version has its own audience to consider.  Since it would be a departure from the short story to reveal that the narrator is not mad, but in fact in danger from her husband, the nature of the radio series perhaps demanded a more straightforward, and less ambiguous approach. This was largely conveyed by Agnes Moorehead’s powerful acting of the narrator’s  hysteria which fairly swiftly signals that she is unhinged. We found the scratching of writing on paper to the action of tearing the wallpaper, with her teeth, especially effective.

The narrator’s confinement in the attic and its possible effect on her mental state was a point of discussion. We spoke a lot about the significance of it being a former nursery, and later a gymnasium for children – this infantilised her. The mention of bars and rings, to which she might be chained, in both the short story and radio versions made her confinement more concrete.

We found the ending of both versions especially powerful. The narrator is creeping or crawling, possibly on all fours, like a small child or indeed an animal. The latter is further suggested as we are told of a line at a certain height which is present around the whole room. In some ways, this suggests the tethering of an animal which is then only permitted to exercise in a reduced area. It was also mentioned that it was possible that she was kept in effectively, or indeed actually, in a padded cell.

There were some jarring elements in the radio version, in addition to the heightened emotion. The tension is at times very heavily scored in a way which distances the listener from the intimate story. While they more closely mirrored the original listening experience of 1948, we found the appearance of advertisements throughout the drama disrespectful, disruptive and unsettling. While the break allowed for time to be moved on by 2 weeks (as mentioned by the narrator), we felt we had been taken too far away from the story by the insertion of dramatized advertisements;  two men met the advertising spokesman and not only commented on their products- Autolite Spark Plugs – but also the drama and performances. We pondered whether a few references to cars were not only used to create a more contemporary setting than the 1892 short story, but to provide a connection with the advertiser’s product. We found it especially disturbing, and ironic, that the spark plugs evoked thoughts of Electro Convulsive Therapy. ECT was an intense, and now deeply controversial, treatment which is likely to have been used at the time for similar cases as the narrator.

We also discussed The Yellow Wallpaper’s status as feminist tract. It was noted that the narrator’s exasperation that she was told to both exercise and rest (‘I can’t do both!’) reflected the double bind or the push/pull in many women’s lives.  Furthermore we debated whether the heightened hysteria in the radio adaptation furthered, or diminished, its feminist clout. Some thought that the focus on madness made it harder to argue for it as feminist. Others argued that the drama was not preaching to the converted; it was heard by a wide US audience who perhaps would not have experience of Perkins Gilman’s short story. They might well, however, have been familiar with the presence of psychoanalysis in 1940s cinema and other popular culture. We can also consider that the show was staged again nearly ten years later, again with Moorehead, on the 30th of June 1957. This potentially reached more people at a later date.

We also commented on Elaine R. Hedges Afterword in the 1981 Virago Modern Classics edition. This mentioned that, according to Perkins Gilman, her father had abandoned the family when she was very young, as it was thought having more children would put Perkins Gilman’s mother in danger. (p. 42, this is quoted from her 1935 autobiography, published after her self-inflicted death in the face of terminal cancer).  We spoke about the latitude it is likely that her father, but not her single parent mother, might have enjoyed; he could move away, and perhaps remarry bigamously and start another family. Such an option was not open to Perkins Gilman’s mother.

This led to discussion on the ways in which women are institutionalised when they do not conform to ‘norms’ while this is less true for men. A Spanish film in which a mother is sent to a lunatic asylum after the death of her child was mentioned. It was noted that now the woman was no longer fulfilling the mother role society had expected her to fill, she was classed insane. This was also related to Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. We extended this to consideration of single unmarried mothers and those in non-hetero normative relationships.

Finally associations of the colour yellow were spoken about. It was noted that in addition to having connections with sickness and disease, it was more closely linked to mental illness through the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from severe depression and eventually took his own life because of it.

Next we listened to and discussed The Diary of Sophronia Winters. This threw some of the issues from The Yellow Wallpaper into further relief and commented more directly on matters relating to the gothic.

The episode was written as original Suspense story by Lucille Fletcher – also of Sorry Wrong Number fame. The version we listened to had the advertisements cut, allowing us to engage more with it than with The Yellow Wallpaper.   It is set in 1932, as revealed by Sophronia mentioning that she is 40 and was born in 1892. Coincidentally, perhaps, this is the first publishing date of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Again we spoke about the heroine. We wondered about the unusual name Sophronia. It means sensible and prudent, but such connotations are undercut almost immediately. Sophronia’s introductory narration (in which she is speaking to her diary) prattles about her ‘gorgeous new permanent wave’ and she is conveyed as giddy and frivolous. (We especially commented on Moorehead’s versatility both throughout his episode, as her fear grows into madness, and in comparison to her performance in The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Sophronia views her life as beginning at 40 since she has spent the last ten years caring for her father before he died. This connects to the second Mrs de Winter’s situation in Rebecca – as indeed does her surname. Like the second Mrs de Winter, Sophronia is inexperienced – however she desperately wants to be experienced. This does not go as far as speaking to a gentleman first though. This shows 1930s Emily Post style decorum.

The evocation of St Petersburg, Florida, a playground with its beaches, bingo, alligator farms and sun and fun seekers, was deemed effective. One of the group commented on the accuracy as it was similar to her grandmother’s experience from around the time.

After the initial brisk opening, and the very hasty marriage of Sophronia to Hiram Johnson, the man she meets and who strikes up a relationship with her, events soon turn darker. This is especially seen as the newly married couple arrive at Hiram’s family home: a deserted 125 room gothic-style hotel a taxi driver has refused to take them to.  Sophronia’s initial recoiling from this Old Dark House is substantiated when Hiram angrily rejects her suggestion they stay in town and physically harms her.

It was noted that the US does not have old family piles (like Manderley in Rebecca) and that a large building is more likely to be a hotel than a mansion. The use of a hotel also signals the merging of the private and the public.  If Sophronia has initially had concerns about Hiram, at least the couple will be in the presence of others. This turns out not to be the case and it is after Sophronia is made aware of this that she suggests they find another hotel. We also spoke about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in terms of a hotel’s potentially malevolent effect on someone staying there– in this case Hiram or Sophronia, or them both.

Hiram emphasises the locking of the gate behind them: after all, no one will be visiting – or leaving. The reference to locked rooms later – and the fact Hiram has a pass key to all the rooms- also draws on the gothic. We were especially reminded of women who are in fact in charge of the house keys (chatelaines) in such films as Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946) and Crimson Peak (2015). In all of these the keys are controlled not by the heroine, but by her enemy: the housekeeper Danvers, her mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law. Sophronia does not have access to the keys, and therefore is not in charge of the space – Hiram is. This is especially well conveyed by Sophronia’s later pitiful reaction when she realises that on one occasion Hiram has left her room unlocked. He emphasises that there is still no way for her to escape since the front and back doors, all the fire escapes and most of the windows are locked. The very fact there are so many potential ways of escape, but that all of these are cut off to Sophronia, heightens the awfulness of her plight.

After they enter the house, Sophronia hears more about the namesake Hiram has earlier referred to – his sister-in-law, Sophronia Johnson. (We even wondered whether the assertion they share the same first name was an invention on his part.) Hiram reveals that Sophronia Johnson murdered his brother with a fire axe. Hiram’s earlier way of inveigling a relationship with Sophronia was to mention while they were collecting 9 pointed starfish that his sister-in-law too enjoyed that hobby too. Now he points to a further connection: he shows Sophronia a portrait of his sister-in-law and insists on a physical similarity. Since we cannot see this portrait, it is ambiguous whether there is a likeness, but Sophronia’s response suggests recognition of little more than a passing resemblance. The use of the gothic trope of the portrait, and Hiram’s increasingly demented behaviour, further bodes ill for our heroine.

Before long, Hiram is offering to show Sophronia his sister-in-law’s grave in the grounds in the middle of the suitably stormy night. Even more disturbingly, he tells of the graves of the other ‘Sophronias’ he has hunted down. Hiram replies to Sophronia’s question of whether Sophronia Johnson haunts the grounds, that the ‘she-devil’ is a ‘restless sleeper’ often found in ‘disguise’ in ‘warmer climes’ – like St Petersburg. The terror escalates as Hiram states he always has an open grave ready – for the next time he finds Sophronia…

Sophronia Winters is heard to be especially in peril as after her night time excursion her coughing is focused on. While the episode was unfolding, some wondered if this signalled to Hiram’s poisoning of his wife. He appears superficially solicitous, however, suggesting she stay warm and perhaps fetch Sophronia Johnson’s dressing gown from her wardrobe. These scenes in Sophronia’s bedroom (which used to belong to Sophronia Johnson) are especially unsettling. Hiram comments that Sophronia seems to be familiar with the room. She denies this, and puts her odd behaviour down to the fact that it just seems odd since the room has a sense of being lived in. Later, Hiram notes that Sophronia has the embroidery his sister-in-law enjoyed working on in her hand. This surprises Sophronia, and perhaps suggests to the audiences that the Sophronias are merging – or perhaps they have always been the one person. This is an especially interesting take on the concept of the double used in the Gothic.

Such merging of the Sophronias becomes more pronounced as Hiram asks Sophronia to sing a hymn for him while he plays the harmonium. This mirrors the situation when Sophronia Johnson killed Hiram’s brother, and indeed Hiram appears to almost be setting the stage for another such occurrence. Despite his seeming manipulation, Hiram still seems surprised when confronted by Sophronia and the fire axe.

We spoke further about Hiram’s character. We thought that he represented a Bluebeard character- but unusually one with a motive, at least in his own mind. We also commented on Hiram’s age – we thought he sounded about 50, which is similar to the stated age of his family hotel in Maine. This ties Hiram to the hotel space more closely, perhaps even making it complicit in his campaign of terror.

The epilogue of the episode elicited much discussion about whether Sophronia had been driven insane. Sophronia asks a nurse if her ‘dear brother-in-law Hiram’ is dead. This is confirmed, and Sophronia hysterically claims responsibility. While this may signal a medical professional simply indulging her patient, it also suggests that interpretations other than Hiram having sent Sophronia mad are possible. After all, she is Hiram’s widow, not his sister-in-law. Or is she in fact Sophronia Johnson, who Hiram claims he keeps finding? Or is the entire Diary a reflection of Sophronia Johnson’s fevered imagination (perhaps she killed both her husband and Hiram at the time) in which she invents a new role for herself as Sophronia Winters and creates the whole narrative we hear?

Taking the story at face value, and assuming that the women were separate people (or indeed that Sophronia Johnson perhaps never existed), we were pleased to hear that Sophronia was able to protect herself physically from Hiram. As with The Yellow Wallpaper, we also mentioned the way in which women were contained. While the deranged Hiram was allowed to roam the country, Sophronia is at the end institutionalised. We would have preferred to hear of her successfully running the hotel, or indeed for a twist to reveal that she was now searching for Hirams in Florida…

We also spoke of the effectiveness of some of the sound effects in establishing space and atmosphere. The hotel’s creaking doors and ticking clock spoke of age and the uncontrollable passage of time. The fog horn convincingly evoked dreary outside space and the harmonium was a suitably creepy musical instrument to employ. We compared it to the use of the Theremin in The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the episode was restaged on the 17th of August 1944 – once more with Moorehead and Ray Collins. On the 10th of August 1958 the roles were taken by Mercedes McCambridge and Jerry Hausner.

We concluded with comments drawing together our experiences of the twoi narratives. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters are tales told by women (played by Moorehead on the radio) who express themselves in writing. They are advised not to by male doctors. The narrator’s husband in The Yellow Wallpaper suggests she should not write, while at the end of The Diary of Sophronia Winters the nurse tells Sophronia the doctor does not approve of her doing so.

Both women are in peril – from their own madness. Whether this is deliberately or unthinkingly brought on, or made worse, by their husbands is a moot point. Fletcher’s episode takes the matter of Gothic further, as she provides a checklist of tropes: the hasty marriage, the tormenting husband, the creepy house, the locked rooms, the portrait and the notion of the Double.

Neither of these stories suggests that marriage is a good idea and the Gothic as a whole questions the rights and consequences of patriarchy. We thought it was especially significant that this wariness of marriage was present most strikingly in The Diary of Sophronia Winters, first broadcast in 1943. This was a time when hasty marriages were being entered into as men were called away to war. By the time of The Yellow Wallpaper radio version (in 1948) this was less pressing and suggest perhaps another reason, other than the format and the original story, for the heightened hysteria of the narrator from earlier in the narrative.

As ever, do log into comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.

Old Time Radio Links:

The Yellow Wallpaper:

29th of July 1948:

30th of June 1957:

The Diary of Sophronia Winters

27th of April 1943:

17th of August 1944:

10th of August 1958:

Call For Papers Deadline for Gothic Feminism Conference Extended

Good news!

Melodrama Research Group member Frances has revealed that the Call for Papers deadline for the next Gothic Feminism Conference has been extended to the 14th of February. If you’d like to submit a paper pertaining to ‘Women in Peril or Final Girls? Representing Women in Gothic and Horror Cinema’ you have a couple of weeks to do so.

The following, by Frances,  is available on the Gothic Feminism website:

Gothic blog untitled

At the request of colleagues, please note the extended deadline for abstracts is 14th February 2017 (for a truly bloody Valentine’s…)

Gothic Feminism presents:

Women-in-Peril or Final Girls? Representing Women in Gothic and Horror Cinema

25th – 26th May 2017

University of Kent

Keynote speaker: Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes (Manchester Metropolitan University)


The representation of female protagonists has been a central tenant in both Gothic and Horror cinema. In the Hollywood Gothic films of the 1940s, the heroine is the primary focus as she navigates key tropes of the genre, including the exploration of the old dark house and the investigating of sinister marital secrets. These melodramas and noir films, as they have also been called, re-work the Bluebeard story and establish a ‘woman-in-peril’ character archetype which features in films such as Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1944) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) (Waldman, 1983; Doane, 1987; Tartar, 2004). These Gothic conventions have been revived and reworked recently in contemporary cinema with the release of Crimson Peak (2015).

Horror cinema has also been characterised by the portrayal of its female protagonists. The 1930s Universal horror films typically feature the endangered woman who is terrorised by the monster or villain. Indeed, as Rhona J. Berenstein notes, the image of a woman whose ‘mouth is open as if in midscream’ with ‘fear chiselled into her features’ is so familiar that one can argue it ‘succinctly signifies the American horror film’ (Berenstein, 1996, 1). Later permutations of the genre sustain this focus on gender representations, as with the transgressive qualities of ‘postmodern horror’ (Pinedo, 1997) or, more specifically, the ‘slasher’ film which focuses on the brutal murder of several victims at the hands of a serial killer, with particular attention paid to the killing and/or survival of female character(s). Black Christmas (1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) exemplify these conventions and theorists have observed the centrality of the horror heroine within this genre: Carol Clover’s seminal work on the topic highlights the importance of the ‘female victim-hero’ and the complex gender representations inherent in this figure when she becomes the film’s sole survivor or ‘Final Girl’ (Clover, 1992).

When comparing these historic representations of female protagonists in Gothic and horror cinema, one can identify many similarities between the two genres or modes in respect to their portrayal of women. In the examples above, Gothic and horror both privilege the depiction of the woman’s experience within a narrative arc which exposes her to a danger emanating from an initially unknown or misunderstood threat. This risk – which is normally made against her life – comes from the villain or antagonist conventionally gendered as male. This correlation between Gothic and horror could be argued to stem from their shared heritage: it has been noted how the horror genre ‘has its roots in the English gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries’ (Penner and Schneider, 2012). This lineage is further evident by the way the terms ‘Gothic’ and ‘horror’ have been applied interchangeably as delineating categories. Horror has been labelled as Gothic: both David Pirie and Jonathan Rigby write of the ‘English Gothic Cinema’ which includes Hammer’s films, whilst Bernice M. Murphy studies US horror from the perspective of ‘Rural Gothic’ (Pirie, 2008; Murphy, 2013; Rigby, 2015). And Gothic has been called horror: Mark Jancovich points out how the 1940s Hollywood Gothics were also understood as horror films at their time of release (Jancovich, 2013). Both Gothic and horror have also attracted considerable attention concerning their depiction of women and whether such texts are ‘feminist’ (see, for example, Pinedo, 1997; Freeland, 2000).

Yet there are also significant differences between Gothic and horror. The two modes or genres can be distinguished by variations in how the central female protagonist is depicted. The Gothics of the 1940s focus on the representation of the heroine within the intimidating space of the ancestral mansion, but the 1970’s slasher horrors emphasise the ‘Terrible Place’ (Clover, 1992) where extreme violence is executed. Where the Gothic emphasises suspicion, suspense and mystery, the horror film showcases blood, torture and gore. Berenstein notes how the contrast between Gothic and horror is also present in ‘classic horror’ – pre-dating the slasher – where ‘[unlike] the Gothic novel, however, heroines are not confronted by the men closest to them … Instead, women are attacked or seduced by foreign male (and, sometimes, female) fiends’ (Berenstein, 1996, 12). Gothic and horror also differ in their presumed target audience. The Gothic – an integral part of melodrama and the ‘woman’s picture’ – has traditionally been analysed in terms of the Female Gothic and its appeal to female audiences (Waldman, 1983; Doane, 1987; Modleski, 2008). Conversely, the spectatorship for horror has been characterised as adolescent and male (Williams, 1984; Clover, 1992; Creed, 1993).

This conference seeks to re-engage with these discussions of gender within Gothic and horror cinema by directly comparing the two. What relationship does Gothic have to horror – or horror to the Gothic – in respect to female representation? What makes a Gothic heroine different from (or, indeed, similar to) female victims/protagonists in horror films? What can we say about the centrality given to female performance in both these genres/modes? Where does one draw the line between Gothic and horror in film? 2017 will mark 30 years since Mary Ann Doane published The Desire to Desire and 25 years since Carol Clover published Men, Women and Chainsaws. This conference will also reflect upon the impact of seminal works on Gothic, horror and gender such as these within film theory. What do these works tell us about the relationship between Gothic and horror in respect to female representation? How do theories of the ‘woman’s film’ and the ‘Final Girl’ relate to contemporary film theory and feminist criticism? Are these ideas still applicable to recent Gothic and horror films, and their heroines?

In addressing these questions this conference will underline the importance of female protagonists in Gothic and horror, within film history and contemporary cinema, and ask: are these characters women-in-peril or Final Girls, or both?

Topics can include but are not limited to:

– Comparisons between the genre conventions and tropes within Gothic and horror films and their representation of female protagonists

– Close textual analysis of a single film or series of films which blur the lines between Gothic and horror, or an analysis of film/s which reinforce the differences between the Gothic and horror traditions through the depiction of women characters

– The connection between the Gothic or horror heroine and other characters within the narrative, such as the love interest, male villain, other victims, etc.

– How the Gothic and horror heroine relate to archetypal roles, such as the victim, the mother or the monstrous-feminine

– Representations of space and how this impacts upon the portrayal of the Gothic or horror female characters

– Film theory and the distinction between Gothic and horror in cinema

– How Gothic and horror women characters engage with feminist discourse and theories of gender representation

– Female spectators of Gothic and horror and fandom

Please submit proposals of 500 words, along with a short biographical note (250 words) to by 14th February 2017 (please note the extended deadline).

We welcome 20-minute conference papers as well as submissions for creative work or practice-as-research including, but not limited to, short films and video essays.

Conference organisers: Frances A. Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald

This conference is the second annual event from the Gothic Feminism project, within the Melodrama Research Group in the Centre of Film and Media Research at the University of Kent. Gothic Feminism explores the representation of the Gothic heroine on-screen in her various incarnations. 


Berenstein, Rhona J. (1996). Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press.

Clover, Carol J. (1992). Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Creed, Barbara. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Oxon: Routledge.

Doane, Mary Ann. (1987). The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Freeland, Cynthia A. (2000). The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Colorado: Westview Press.

Grant, Barry Keith. (2015). The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Second edition. Texas: University of Texas Press.

Jancovich, Mark. (2013). ‘Bluebeard’s Wives: Horror, Quality and the Paranoid Woman’s Film in the 1940s’, The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies 12: 20-43.

Modleski, Tania. (2008). Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Second edition. Oxon: Routledge.

Murphy, Bernice M. (2013). The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Penner, Jonathan and Steven Jay Schneider. (2012). Horror Cinema. Los Angeles and Cologne: Taschen.

Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. (1997). Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. New York: State University of New York Press.

Pirie, David. (2008). A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.

Rigby, Jonathan. (2015). English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897 – 2015. Cambridge: Signum Books.

Tartar, Maria. (2004). Secrets Beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Waldman, Diane. (1983). ‘”At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine point of view and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, Cinema Journal 23: 29-40.

Williams, Linda. (1984). ‘When the Woman Looks.’ In: Doane, Mary Ann, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams (eds.). Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Los Angeles: American Film Institute.


Summary of Discussion on Barbe Bleue and Bluebeard

Watching these two very different films gave us much food for thought. In addition to tracing elements of the Gothic and Bluebeard fable across two texts, it afforded the opportunity to compare silent and sound films, as well as French and Hollywood productions.

Barbe Bleue’s treatment of the Bluebeard fable was fairly in keeping with Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the traditional folktale. At only 9 minutes long, we were surprised that some of the scenes were so lengthy. In particular, the long wedding banquet scene added little to the tension of the woman in peril. Neither did it match some of the comedy scenes in the film – notably the proposed wife’s clear disdain for Bluebeard in the opening scene, or the ‘below stairs’ hijinks of the servants.

The scenes where the latest wife was encouraged by the devil to enter the forbidden room and submitted to this temptation were more successfully realised. Both gave Melies an opportunity to show off his special effects. The discovery of the previous wives’ hanging bodies was suitably striking.


We were surprised by the fact this was undercut in the next few scenes as, after a short period of panic and struggle with her husband, the rescue occurred quickly and all Bluebeard’s wives were brought back to life.  While this last action fitted Melies’ reputation for screening the fantastical, it affects the film’s impact, especially as all the women are given a final scene happy ending in which they marry noblemen.


Despite this non-traditional ending to the story, Ulmer’s film was even less true the traditional Bluebeard tale than Melies’. The film focuses on puppet-maker and painter Gaston Morrell – a serial killer of women in Paris. In a warning poster the killer is referred to as a ‘Bluebeard’.  But Morrell is not married to these women, which made us ponder the use of the term – especially as the film’s title.  It certainly draws on the horror so important to the Bluebeard tale, however, potentially signalling that this was important to audiences of the time.

Ulmer’s film contained more horror than Melies’ – as befits the director of spine-chilling The Black Cat (1934) starring horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. There wasbluebeard-warning-poster little suspense in terms of the killer though.  After initial scenes of melodramatic moral panic, and the lengthy puppet opera, the confirmation of the identity of ‘Bluebeard’ was fairly swift.  This was first implied by Gaston Morrell’s (John Carradine) emergence from the fog to make acquaintance with the heroine of the story – Lucille (Jean Parker). As well as echoing similar scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), the detail of the framing was significant: the meeting occurred in front of the warning poster. Not long after, Morrell’s murder of his lover, Renee (Sonia Sorel), takes place on screen.

Ulmer was especially known for his talent for mise en scene – indeed American film critic Andrew Sarris assessed that this was the one notable aspect of his work (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 143).  We were struck by bluebeard-dangling-puppetssome of the backgrounds of Morrell’s paintings. We were also impressed by Ulmer’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasise the gothic spaces of Morrell’s apartment as well as the scenes in the sewers below. Despite the latter being somewhat derivative of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909), elsewhere another echo – this time of Melies’ film when the most recent wife discovered the previous ones– proved especially effective as dangling shadowy puppets eerily appear on the walls of Morrell’s apartment.  It is also notable that the film uses Killer point-of-view as bluebeard-killer-povshots of Morrell’s eyes spying through a hole prior to the puppet show as he searches for Lucille. We’ve previously discussed Killer POV in relation to The Spiral Staircase (1945, Robert Siodmak: see, and it is interesting that Ulmer’s use occurred first and that he had previously worked with Siodmak.

Our definition of the Gothic involving the Woman in Peril had obviously played an important part in Melies’ film though, as mentioned earlier, this was relatively short-lived in the silent. Here the tension is ratcheted up, as Lucille continually places herself in danger. Firstly, she declares herself not to be scared of Bluebeard, then she visits Morrell alone in his apartment, later confronting him here, again alone, even once she suspects the truth.

There is another Woman in Peril – Lucille’s sister Francine (Teala Loring) – who appears part-way through the film. It is suggested that she is an undercover agent, bluebeard-francine-and-lucilleworking with the police, though this is not made clear. She too places herself in danger (presumably often a part of her job), by luring Morrell into a trap – both are women who actively investigate. When Francine appeared it almost seemed she had usurped Lucille, but with former’s death at hands of Morrell, Lucille was once more the heroine.  While both women investigate, only Francine – who is actually employed as a detective (especially surprising in the 19th century) is punished by death though.

We noted that the film was rather odd tonally. This includes its shaky grasp of its historical and geographic setting – not all that unusual in Hollywood productions. While the costumes (women’s dresses with bustles) broadly suggest the 19th century, the amount of ankle on show was deemed inaccurate.  Although set in Paris, the only European accent was contributed by Swedish actor Nils Asther as Police Inspector Lefevre.

The uneven tone is especially notable in the film’s mix of comedy and horror. When in court trying to ascertain the painter of a particular picture, the questioning of artists’ models – one of whom replies in a thick Brooklyn accent – leads to responses of hilarity carry-on-screamingby those attending. Much of this revolved around suggestions of prostitution – references also found elsewhere in the film, including as Morrell’s justification of his crimes. In addition, the killing scenes, whether an eye-bulging arms-raised action or a protracted and ineffective fight, were a bit comical. We noted these comedy elements in a horror film contrasted to Carry on Screaming’s (1966, Gerald Thomas) mostly comic, but occasionally, frightening tone.

The pacing of the film was also patchy. We especially wondered why so much time was spent on the enacting of the puppet opera near the film’s beginning. This does, however, give the film audience time to ponder the significance of the fact that Morrell is playing (and singing) the part of Faust in the production, while an older man plays the film’s hero.  This disjuncture further helps suggest the fact Morrell is the serial killer at large. Non-diegetic music was also effectively used to punctuate melodramatic moments.

The extended musical scenes also caused us to further compare Ulmer’s sound and Melies’ silent films. In both, the killer got his comeuppance, with Morrell in the later film throwing himself into the Seine. Happy endings are also suggested in both.  This occurs more forcefully in the earlier production when all the previously dead wives come back to life and are married off. In Ulmer’s film the relationship between Lucille and the Police Inspector appears to grow.

You can find an English translation of Perrault’s tale here:

Both films are viewable on


Do log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.

Conference Programme for Gothic Feminism Conference

Exciting news! Frances and Tamar have finalised the Conference Programme for the Gothic Feminism Conference.


Joan Fontaine Rebecca
Gothic Feminism: The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema

26-27th May 2016

Keynes College, University of Kent


 Thursday 26th May

09:00 – 09:30              Registration & morning tea/coffee (Keynes Atrium, Keynes College)

09:30 – 11:00              Keynote Speech – Catherine Spooner (University of Lancaster): ‘Women in White: (Un)dressing the Gothic Heroine’ (Keynes Lecture Theatre 2, Keynes College)

11:00 – 11:30              Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)

11:30 – 13:00              Papers 1: Return to Manderley (KLT2)

‘Against Fate and Paranoia: The Risk Assessor Heroine in The Second Woman (1950)’ – Guy Barefoot (University of Leicester)

Rebecca and The Haunting: Comparisons of a Gothic Protagonist’ – Johanna Wagner (Høgskolen i Østfold)

‘Impossible Spaces: Gothic Special Effects and Female Subjectivity’ – Christina Petersen (Eckerd College)

13:00 – 14:00              Lunch (Keynes Atrium)

14:00 – 15:30              Papers 2: Unexpected Locations (KLT2)

‘New Films in Gothic Mode: Pale Imitations or Crimson Peaks of Achievement?’ – Tamar Jeffers McDonald (University of Kent)

‘Bluebeard in the Cities: Investigative Gothic Heroines in Two Early 21st Century Films’ – Lawrence Jackson (University of Kent)

‘The Gothic Heroine Out West: A Town Called Bastard (1971)’ – Lee Broughton (University of Leeds)

15:30 – 16:00              Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)

16:00 – 17:30              Videographic Work  (TBC) (KLT2)

17:30 – 18:30              Cake reception


Friday 27th May

09:00 – 09:30              Morning tea & coffee (Keynes Atrium)

09:30 – 11:00              Papers 3: Small Screens (KLT2)

‘There’s a secret behind the door? And that secret is me? The Gothic Reimagining of Agatha Christie’s And There Were None’ – Katerina Flint-Nicol (University of Kent)

‘Laughing at Periods: Gothic Parody in Julia Davis’ Hunderby – Sarah McClellan (Independent Researcher)

‘Bluebeard’s Women Fight Back’ – Gisèle M. Baxter (University of British Columbia)

11:00 – 11:30              Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)

11:30 – 13:00              Papers 4: Mothers (KLT2)

‘The Science-Fiction of Feminism: Ripley as a Gothic Heroine in the Alien Franchise’ – Frances A. Kamm (University of Kent)

The Babadook, Maternal Gothic and the ‘woman’s horror film’’ – Paula Quigley (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Good Evening, Good Night: Goodnight Mommy and the Gothic Woman’ – Lies Lanckman (University of Kent)

13:00 – 14:00              Lunch (Keynes Atrium)

14:00 – 15:30              Papers 5: Beyond Hollywood (KLT2)

‘‘Dammit’ Janet!!!! Celebrating Female Sexuality in The Rocky Horror Picture Show Live Experience’ – Sarah Cleary (Trinity College Dublin)

‘East German Gothic’ – Dana Weber (Florida State University/ Freie Universität Berlin)

‘Imperilled Chavs and Hoodie Heroines: (Under)Class, Gender and the Gothic’ – Hannah Priest (Manchester Metropolitan University/Swansea University)

15:30 – 16:00              Tea & coffee break (Keynes Atrium)

16:00 – 16:30              Final remarks (KLT2)


Also  remember to visit the  gothic feminism blog and twitter for the latest updates!

For any queries please contact:
Conference organisers: Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent
Melodrama Research Group
Centre for Film and Media Research
School of Arts
And don’t forget to register!  Registration closes on 18th of May:

Crimson Peak (2015) Screening and Discussion at the Gulbenkian Cinema 7th December

Exciting News!

Gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015) will be showing at the Gulbenkian Cinema on the Canterbury campus from Saturday 5th-Monday 7th of December. The last date includes a post-screening discussion with the Melodrama Research Group’s  Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald.

You can find more information and book tickets here:

Crimson Peak staircase

The Gulbenkian’s blurb:

Dir: Guillermo del Toro | USA | 2015 | Run time TBC
Cast | Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunman

From Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) comes the hotly awaited Crimson Peak, a gothic thriller with a top flight cast including Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunman. Hailed by horror writer Stephen King after an early screening as “gorgeous and just f***ing terrifying”, it’s set in Cumbria in the 19th century, in a crumbling mansion where young author Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) falls in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) but discovers, after marrying him, that her new husband is not who he seems. A ghost story and a gothic romance, del Toro is riffing on other haunted house films here in this very scary, brilliantly atmospheric horror.

FilmTalk: Post-screening discussion with Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent following Monday’s screening in the Gulbenkian Café.

Tickets: Full £8.30 / Concessions £7.30 / GulbCard Members £6.30 / Students £5.30 / GulbCard Students £4.30

Venue: Cinema

Rebecca (1940) and Joan Fontaine in Fan Magazines

Our screenings of Gothic films, many of which might be included in Hollywood’s Golden Age, afford us a great opportunity to collaborate with our lovely fellow Kent bloggers of NoRMMA (Network of Research: Movies, Magazines, Audiences).

Rebecca Mags

NoRMMA has posted some really interesting Fan Magazine materials from the 1940s regarding Rebecca – and its star Joan Fontaine. These include an Advertisement, Reviews and an article on Fontaine. Analysis of such texts is especially apt given the film’s referencing of Fashion Magazines through which the second Mrs de Winter finds sartorial inspiration.

You can see the post here:

After the screening of Uncle Silas on the 2nd of November check out for more fascinating Fan Magazine material relating to our Gothic season.

Waves of Horror Festival this Halloween Weekend

Hi all,

A reminder that Kat’s fabulously scary Waves of Horror Festival will take place over this Halloween weekend on the University of Kent Canterbury campus.

waves of horror

Here’s a link to a search on Waves of Horror on the Gulbenkian Cinema’s website for those feeling brave enough! :

Also see their facebook page:

And the twitter account: