Gothic Feminism Conference Closing Remarks

Frances Kamm has very kindly provided the following Final Remarks relating to the fabulous recent Gothic Feminism Conference:

 

crimson peak

A huge thank you to everyone who presented and participated at the Gothic Feminism conference on the 26th-27th May 2016. We have had a great two days discussing and debating the diversity of topics raised by considering the Gothic heroine on film. We are particularly pleased with the way the papers related to each other within their respective panels, and are grateful to our speakers and audience members for engaging in lively conversations in every session.

There are several points arising out of the conference which should be noted as a record of the event and as a way of inspiring future projects. First, the conference emphasised again the importance of the heroine protagonist to the Gothic mode and how this form of storytelling intersects with wider historical and social discourses, particularly in relation to feminism. This theme was illuminated by the fascinating keynote delivered by Catherine Spooner, which reflected upon the representation and significance of the white dress; a central emblem present in several Gothic texts, including the recent Crimson Peak (2015). Catherine’s talk skilfully encapsulated the underlying tone and themes of the other papers: taken together, the papers acknowledged the long and diverse traditions of the Gothic and the Gothic heroine, and reflected upon the renewed possibilities of furthering such traditions on the cinema screen. The papers all, in one form or another, raised the central questions of: why does the Gothic heroine continue to be such an important and distinctive component to these stories? And how has cinema translated these Gothic traits for the filmic medium?

Opening the conference, Catherine’s paper reflected upon how the Gothic heroine’s white dress does not stay white over the course of the tale and instead becomes marked and stained, with this tainting becoming a trace for the heroine’s narrative exploits. Such physical markings can also be, Catherine argued, read metaphorically within a narrative’s historical contexts. Now the conference has closed we can see how these opening remarks can, in a way, be read as a metatextual commentary on the subsequent papers. The white dress becomes an allegory for the Gothic itself which also does not remain the same: just like the progressive soiling of the white garment, the Gothic has changed or been transformed by external factors, such as differing narrative arcs, political or historical contexts, alternative exhibition practices and the adaptation of unusual genres. The centrality of the Gothic heroine, however, remains the constant. Catherine remarked how the white dress becomes the metaphoric page upon which the heroine’s story is ‘written’. There is an analogy here with the definition of the Gothic widely supported by all the papers at the conference: the Gothic becomes the means through which the heroine’s story is told and the implications of this trend were highlighted in a variety of ways across the presentations.

If Crimson Peak was heralded in several papers as an important contemporary example of the cinematic Gothic, then Rebecca (1940) was widely cited as its starting point. As our first panel ‘Return to Manderley’ aptly demonstrated, discussions of the Gothic heroine in cinema return constantly to Hitchcock’s film and the new Mrs de Winter (or, as Johanna Wagner referred to her, Nameless). There were two major significances arising from the continued reference to the Daphne du Maurier adaptation. First, the film functions as a historical marker which indicates how the Gothic became an important mode of storytelling for cinema but – importantly – to relate such discussion back to this point is not to ignore the wider traditions influencing this form. Indeed, several papers cited how this particular strand of the Gothic originates from the Bluebeard tale and thus this tradition of the Gothic focuses upon the heroine’s relationship to her mysterious and dangerous husband, a reading which can be extended to reflect upon wider societal patriarchal structures. It is interesting that this conference, much like the previous scholarship on the Gothic in film has argued, also observed how such a narrative was adapted and repeated by Hollywood in the period leading up to the USA’s involvement in the Second World War. Maxim’s stately house therefore becomes the metaphoric home for Bluebeard’s translation onto the big screen and into film history.

Second, it is poignant that Rebecca denies its central heroine a name as this conference demonstrated the shifting parameters of identity afforded to the Gothic’s female protagonist. Many factors may impact the representation and reception of the heroine’s identity. For example, as the panel on ‘Mothers’ highlighted, transforming the Gothic heroine from the childlike naivety of Nameless in the 1940s into the role of mother central to the films later in the century (and into the 21st Century) radically reforms the power dynamics between the heroine and the structures of oppression highlighted by the Bluebeard tale. In this instance, the heroine may not fear her husband but, instead, her motherhood becomes a potential tool of oppression, with the child (or children) embodying the physical danger present in these films.

The heroine’s identity may also be effected by the story’s context and relationship to space. This was a consistent theme which ran through the remaining panels. The interpretation of the Gothic heroine is inextricably linked to the context of the narrative’s setting and time of production, and these factors may vary quite considerably. In fact, the conference demonstrated how the Gothic may be adopted by a broad range of genres, from the western to science-fiction to 21st Century urban dramas. The Gothic may continue to be relevant to US context but is also present in film texts emerging from Britain, Germany and Australia. The physical dimensions of the archetypal old dark house may alter in these instances but its function remains the same: the Gothic heroine explores these physical spaces and the course of her investigation will expose how such locations can be both repressive and liberating. Interestingly, the conference also highlighted how it is not just the space on-screen which is important: the implicit off-screen space – in the form of alternative sites of exhibition – are also relevant. The conference revealed how the more recent articulations of the Gothic heroine have been adapted for the television drama, comedy series and film festival circuits. The mutability of the Gothic form in film was underlined again by the videographic works which showed how the Gothic narrative may be subsumed into the short film format, or extrapolated for the purposes of a film essay.

The Passages of Gothic work is, in a sense, emblematic of the research which inspired the organisation of this event. As I mentioned in my opening address, Gothic Feminism is the culmination of years of work researching, teaching and studying the trends and tropes of the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema by Tamar and myself, as well as other researchers in the Film department at the University of Kent. This conference is our first major event to communicate this research with an external audience, and begin a wider conservation about this topic. As Tamar noted at the end of the conference, these thoughts do not constitute concluding remarks so much as indicate the beginnings of new avenues of research and the inspiration for future events. Gothic Feminism is not a one-off event but rather an ongoing project we will continue to explore here on the blog and in the future conferences we are now planning. We hope the delegates who were present last week, and other Gothic scholars, will be able to join us again for events which explore the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema.

Watch this (Gothic) space…

 

Text by: Frances Kamm

Image: based on Crimson Peak (2015); logo by Frances Kamm

https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/03/conference-closing-remarks/

Those attending this stimulating and fun conference would also like to send huge thanks to Frances and Tamar. Thank you!

You can find pictures Frances posted on the Gothic Feminism blog here: https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/09/conference-pictures/

Summary of Discussion on Uncle Silas

We immediately noticed a markedGaslight UK difference between this UK production and the US gothic films we have recently screened. While Rebecca and Notorious were polished, Uncle Silas’ theatricality reminded us of the ‘blood and thunder’ present in the UK version of Gaslight. (See our previous discussion of the latter here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/summary-of-discussion-on-gaslight/)

Katina PaxinouIt was also noticeable that neither film really integrated its comedic aspects. In Gaslight much of the comedy was provided by Frank Pettingell’s slightly bumbling policeman. By contrast, Uncle Silas’ criminals – especially the French governess so vividly played by Katina Paxinou – were the main comedy figures. This undercut much of the potential suspense as nefarious plans were threatened by the criminals’ own incompetence.

Comedy was not restricted to the film’s criminals though, since the set piece of Kathryn’s Cousin Monica’s Christmas party poked fun at the upper classes. This was especially jarring as a key section centred on the difficulty of getting a message to Kathryn about her Uncle Silas’ illness. We might have expected this to provide some suspense. There was only confusion, however, with the communication difficulty resting on the fact party-goers were unable to spread messages without the help of their servants.

uncle silas avant gardeFurther confusion for the audience occurred in an extended sequence in which Kathryn was drugged and seemingly accompanied to Dover by her French governess. This too combined drama and comedy. The speed of the train travel well conveyed the high stakes of the situation, but the danger was dismissed by repeated instances of comedy. All the characters were suddenly jolted into action, spoke incessantly, and then fell asleep on at least two occasions. Some of the experimental avant-garde techniques used to convey Kathryn’s drugged state (fuzzy focus etc) were also incongruous when compared to the film as a whole.

kathrynThe heroine Kathryn also caused concern. Unlike the criminals she was not a comic figure. But her extreme naivety led to her displaying incompetence similar to that of the other characters. Although it was clear to the audience that her Uncle had a financial motive to want her dead, Kathryn refused to believe this of him. This was even the case after she accidently stumbled across the evidence of his attempts to forge her signature, which led to his subsequent violent relapse of illness. Kathryn was not a courageous spy like Alicia in Notorious, nor was she the quieter but still curious second Mrs de Winter of Rebecca. As a heroine we found her difficult to invest in. While this may be connected to an attempt to display the character’s British reserve, it became less than credible as the film progressed.

A point of similarity across UK (Uncle Silas) and US productions (e.g. Rebecca,Uncle silas house Notorious) was the presence of gothic houses. Uncle Silas began in the large mansion she shared with her father. The action, and Kathryn, soon moved to the dilapidated estate of her Uncle Silas. The distressed state of the latter’s abode was conveyed by direct contrast with another house – Cousin Monica’s provides the backdrop for a lavish Christmas party.

simmons dressThis comparison in the state of residences formed part of the reason for Kathryn’s visit to her cousin. While Kathryn was certainly at liberty to travel to her cousin’s (she had no suspicion of her Uncle’s intentions and was unlikely to pass on a message) the purpose of her visit within the narrative was unclear. It seemed to slow down the action. We also thought the reason might be linked to romance: the visit allowed her to renew acquaintance with a young man she was fond of. It also provided viewers with a sort of ‘makeover scene’ which frequently occurs in romantic films; Kathryn stood in front of a mirror wearing an old dress before twirling and magically donning a beautiful new one. This concern with romance also links the UK and US gothic films we have screened – and indeed to film more generally.

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Notorious

Our discussion on Notorious ranged across various aspects relating to melodrama and the gothic, also touching on production and reception issues and the recent film Crimson Peak.

An initial comment related to the film’s music. This was expressive throughout – including at moments when emphasis has already been provided visually. Several quick camera zooms into characters’ faces, poisoned cups of coffee, and vitallyNotorious ending important keys were also punctuated by music. We thought it was interesting that the most suspenseful scene of the film was not heavily scored. The final scene in which Devlin (Cary Grant) has finally come to Alicia’s (Ingrid Bergman’s) rescue and has to face down her Nazi husband Alexis (Claude Rains) and his mother (Madame Konstantin) uses the characters’ looks to convey the tension.

notorious beginningThe film’s opening is also intriguing. In this, Alicia is seen flirting with an unknown and silent man who only appears from behind, sat in a chair. This is especially sinister since Alicia seems to be so open with her smiles. While this functions to build up to Grant’s star entrance, it also foreshadows the danger he (as Devlin) encourages her to place herself in. As an American Intelligence agent he is involved in recruiting her and remains her contact throughout. He even enables the Alicia and her target –Alexis – to be reacquainted by placing her in physical danger. He gives her horse a surreptitious kick to necessitate the nearby Alexis to ride to her rescue.

The woman-in-peril aspect is complicated however by the fact Alicia willingly placesnotorious drink driving herself in extreme danger from the very start. This is especially seen in her drink-driving which conveys that following her father’s imprisonment for treason she does not care if she lives or dies. This places Devlin in danger for one of the few times in the film.  Alicia faces far more danger and heartache – marrying a man she knows to be a Nazi when she is in love with Devlin.

1 Welcome GaslightSuch a tense marriage can be related to other gothic heroines in films we have recently screened. In In Gaslight (1944) (another film in which Bergman starred) her character’s husband meant her harm. We can contrast this to Rebecca (1940) in which the heroine also marries for love, and rightly grows suspicious of her husband, Maxim. This is proved to be unfounded in relation to the second Mrs de Winter’s own safety, however.

There are also useful comparisons in terms of Rebecca’s heroine as an ‘almostRebecca investigator’.  Alicia is far more active than the second Mrs de Winter, fulfilling the role of spy. She also differs to the second Mrs de Winter (and several other gothic heroines) in her drunkenness.  The fairly blatant communication of her apparent sexual promiscuity contrasts even more sharply to chaste, innocent heroines. By Alicia’s own admission to Devlin that she is a ‘crook’ as well as a ‘tramp’.

notorious riding gear The fact Alicia appears in modern fashionable clothes contrasts to several other gothic heroines. Many of the other films we have screened are set in earlier periods (the late 1800s Gaslight, the early 20th century in The Spiral Staircase (1945)). Even the contemporary second Mrs de Winter only becomes comfortable in fashionable clothes as the film progresses. Alicia’s riding gear which is not only formal but includes a mannish tie contrasts to the second Mrs de Winter’s soft femininity.

A more specific aspect of setting often associated withspiral-staircase-dorothy-mcguire the gothic, the mansion house, is also present in Notorious. Alicia moves to Alexis’ house following their marriage and scenes of the lavish party they throw convey  a sense of space. It is significant that Alicia is not allowed access to all areas of her new home. Notably the key to the wine cellar, highlighted in the previous post’s advertisement for the film, is kept by Alexis. The wine cellar’s role as dangerous space also compares to The Spiral Staircase. A  staircase also plays an important part in Notorious. It conveys Alexis’ mother’s sense of ownership as she sweeps down them to meet Alicia for the first time and is the setting for the film’s climax. Devlin’s tense rescue of Alicia involves him carrying her down the staircase.

notorious fanThe smaller trope of the candle-carrying which we have noticed in other gothic films was also noticeable – though given a twist. Instead of carrying a candle or torch to aid with her investigations, Alicia holds a fan throughout the hosting of the party. This signals the deceit she is practicing on her husband and also nods to the film’s romantic moments – the film’s beginning  brings to mind a romantic comedy.  Significantly candles are most obviously present as a mood-setter for Alicia and Devlin’s outdoor picnic before their romance turns sour and she marries Alexis. The fact Devlin remains Alicia’s contact throughout the film also comments on the film’s romantic, rather than realistic, point of view as it allows for their relationship to play out.

We also discussed some of the film’s other characters. Joan Fontaine RebeccaWe found Alexis’ mother especially compelling. Dorothy Kilgallen’s November 1946 Modern Screen piece on the film (cited in the previous post) compared Madame Konstantin’s performance to that of Judith Anderson, as Mrs Danvers, in Rebecca (p. 138). We also spoke a little about Madame Konstantin’s earlier stage career and roles in European films. This was her main Hollywood role and like other emigres who had fled the Nazis, it is ironic that she played a Nazi in Notorious.

It was also mentioned that several aspects of the film relate to a recent release which drew on the gothic. In Crimson Peak (2015), like Notorious, the heroine is poisoned by a drink and carried out of the house at the film’s end. This reveals the continued relevance of melodramatic and gothic tropes.

notorious kissConsideration of Crimson Peak also flagged up Notorious’ very different production and reception contexts. While the later film is very sexually explicit, sexual references made in Notorious were rather explicit for their time – especially given the censorship of Hollywood films operating. In addition to general comments about Alicia’s sexual behaviour, it is heavily hinted that she has pre-marital sex with Alexis. The lengthy kiss between Devlin and Alicia was censored, however, with constant distractions and discussion about dinner technically meaning it did not last long enough to be considered objectionable. We also noted that alcohol was very freely enjoyed by Alicia – a contrast to a decade earlier when films such as The Thin Man (1934) were criticised for such scenes.

It was said that the key which played such an important role in the film also had an interesting afterlife. Apparently Grant took it from the set and sent it to Bergman when she was in disgrace for her adulterous affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Later still, Bergman returned it to Hitchcock.

We also spoke about Bergman’s star image. She was half-German as well as half-Swedish but unsurprisingly the latter was far more foregrounded in information circulated about her in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. Bergman’s international heritage was also utilised in her screen image as she often played characters who were not native to the countries in which her films were made. These extended to not just the United States, but Germany and Italy.

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Rebecca

After recovering from the experience of watching all the dramatic happenings, our discussion of the film included: the second Mrs de Winter as ‘gothic heroine’ in terms of her being an ‘almost investigator’ as well as her naivety and youth; the way ‘dress tells the woman’s story’; Mrs Danvers’ literal and metaphorical hand in running the house; Hitchcockian set-pieces; the eternal mystery of Rebecca.

We began by noting some differences between the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) and other Gothic film heroines. Comparison to Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) elucidates this matter. Some of our recent focus has been on Gothic heroine as explorer – often in the dark, with a candlestick, and that this, in opposition to someRebecca candle expectations, reveals the woman actively exploring space.  In Rebecca only Mrs Danvers receives this attention. This occurs toward the film’s end, just prior to her setting light to Manderley. We are afforded a shot of Danvers, with the candle light playing wickedly on her face, and it is soon revealed she is creeping towards a sleeping, innocent and endangered second Mrs de Winter.

Grand-Staircase-at-Manderley-in-RebeccaThe second Mrs de Winter does, nonetheless, get to explore the space of the house to an extent. She is what Lisa M. Dresner terms as ‘almost investigator’ (pp. 163-4)[i]. Indeed most of the second Mrs de Winter’s movement around the house is somewhat blundering.  Understandably she is unfamiliar with where certain rooms are situated. Notably she also manages to trip over her own feet, rather like a puppy, in front of the servants as she exits the dining room following her first hurried breakfast.

early costumeSuch clumsiness links to the character’s youth. Her naivety and innocence prized by Maxim (Laurence Oliver) who states that he wants her to say a ‘child’ and a ‘girl’. The film is a ‘growing-up’ narrative, however, with the second Mrs de Winter gaining confidence as time progresses.  This is especially shown by costume.  The pale twinset and tweed skirt and unadorned or Alice-banded hair which characterise her early in the film gives way to her wearing a sophisticated black evening gown and pearls. Her excitement at her new dress is soon quelled by Maxim. After his unenthusiastic reaction – he reminds her that he stated at the beginning of their romance that he never wanted to see her wearing a black gown and a string of pearls – she looks uncomfortable, tugging at her dress. Maxim is made even angrier when his new wife dons a copy of Lady Caroline de Winter’s dress.  She finds her level in the dark tailored skirt suit and hat she wears at the inquest into Rebecca’s death. Rebecca inquestThis comments on, as Jane Gaines expresses, ‘how dress tells the woman’s story’[ii]. We also commented that Maxim comes to appreciate his second wife’s newly-found strength, with the film also focusing on how he comes to terms with her evolution.

Rebecca’s costumes also play an important part in the film. In addition to the second Mrs de Winter unwittingly copying the last dress her predecessor wore at a ball, Mrsrebecca negligee Danvers’s treatment of Rebecca’s clothes is revealing. She has kept Rebecca’s bedroom just as it was and insists on showing it to her previous mistress’ replacement. Danvers’ handling of Rebecca’s fur coat and especially her sheer underwear are significant  – she tellingly states that ‘you can see my hand’ thought the flimsy fabric of the negligee.

This literal hand also directs our attention to Danvers’ more metaphorical hand in directing the second Mrs de Winter around the space of Rebecca’s bedroom, motioning to her to sit whilst she pretends to brush the substitute Rebecca’s hair. Danvers’ control extends to the rest of the house. She has also kept the morning room just as it was – complete with Rebecca’s address book, menus, and compromising letters. Danvers’ domination of the house, and arguably the film, is seen in the even more public space of the entrance hall. This is especially evident when we compare the second Mrs de Winter’s return to Manderley (at the opening of the film) to her initial entrance. In the former she is in charge of the voice over narration, framing our understanding, while in the latter.  Danvers has stamped her authority by lining up her battalion of staff to intimidate her new mistress.  The blurring between the drawing of battle lines between the two women and the possibility of the second Mrs de Winter replacing Rebecca in Rebecca-movie-Manderleys-Great-HallDanvers’ affections is shown in one simple but effective gesture in this scene.  It is revealed that the second Mrs de Winter has dropped her gloves and both women bend to retrieve them. While this shows the second Mrs de Winter’s unease around servants it might also be interpreted as either her unwittingly throwing down the gauntlet to Danvers or indeed as a courtship ritual.

Judith Anderson’s intriguing and creepily effective performance also prompted thought about the way her part was written compared to the final film product. Furthermore we noted some Hitchcockian set-pieces. The audience’s watching of the newly-weddedRebecca home movie couple screening their honeymoon home movies masterfully contrasts the carefree happenings on screen to the now stilted relationship of the pair.  This occurs just after Maxim’s unenthusiastic response to his wife’s new dress and he starts to behave in an even more threatening manner, at times moving in front of the projector and blocking his wife (and our) access to the home movies.  (See Mary Ann Doane for a great analysis of this scene – pp. 163-169.)[iii]

rebecca-phoneSound was more dominant elsewhere as close ups of a ringing phone appeared on two notable occasions. In the first, at the Monte Carlo hotel, the soon-to-be second Mrs de Winter leaves her room due to the orders of her employer, the ghastly Mrs Van Hopper, just as Maxim returns her call.  The second at the cottage on the beach is more dramatic, interrupting Maxim’s confession to his new wife.  The set is especially atmospheric, if perhaps unbelievable with its still connected telephone, stubbed out cigarettes and cobwebs.  We also compared Rebecca to some of Hitchcock’s other works. Rear Window (1954) also includes a tense phone call scene though we thought the tone of Rebecca better matched The Lady Vanishes (1939) – partly due to the Britishness (or affected Britishness) of the actors in both.

We ended by commenting that in the end we knew little about either Mrs de Winter. Speculation about Rebecca’s ‘unspeakable’ behaviour dominated. Despite the Hays Code, the film is explicit that Rebecca has been indulging in an adulterous affair with her cousin Favell (George Sanders) which may have resulted in a pregnancy.  But what previous medical ailments meant she needed to visit the backstreet doctor several times under the alias of Mrs Danvers?  And what was the nature of the relation between Rebecca and ‘Danny’?  Tamar mentioned that at around the time of writing Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier wrote a short story also focused on a character named Rebecca. This Rebecca’s aberrant behaviour is elucidated – she behaves coldly to the story’s male narrator as she finds her sexual fulfilment with a wooden doll.

Apologies for the spoiler, but you can find the story in full here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/30/the-doll-daphne-du-maurier

In addition, here are some posts about Rebecca on The Toast’s website Lies mentioned:

http://the-toast.net/2015/07/13/the-sequel-to-rebecca-the-second-mrs-de-winter-deserves/

http://the-toast.net/2015/10/08/in-1937-daphne-du-maurier-wrote-a-horror-story-about-sex-toys/

 

[i] Lisa M. Dresner,  “A Case Study of Rebecca”.  The Female Investigator in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture (2006): 154-182.

[ii] Gaines, Jane. 1991. “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story” in Gaines, Jane and Herzog, Charlotte, eds, Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. New York and London: Routledge.

[iii] Mary Anne Doane, “Female Spectatorship and the Machines of Projection: Caught and Rebecca.” The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987): 155-175.

Do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Dark Mirror

Unsurprisingly quite a lot of our discussion on The Dark Mirror (1946) focused on the Doubling aspect. This was commented on in several ways:  in terms of psychology, technology, Olivia de Havilland’s –performance(s), costume, doubling in terms of our comparing to other films/narratives about the Double, and finally the fact that despite the centrality of the Double in terms of the twin sisters de Havilland plays, the power in the narrative rests with two authoritarian male characters: the police detective (Thomas Mitchell) and the psychologist (Lew Ayres).

 We commented that the psychological theme of the film was established very early on – during the opening credits which played over a background of different Rorschach tests, or ink blot, pictures. This particular test, which is also present in the film’s narrative, especially commented on the theme of the double in terms of its owndark Mirror opening mirroring. It was noted that the particular pictures chosen also seemed to particularly relate to the twin theme central to the film’s narrative since some of the blots appeared to resemble wombs. The doubling theme is elaborated on in relation to the Rorschach test when both Ruth and Terry (both played by de Havilland) are seen to undergo this psychological test soon after one another, but with very different results.

The film’s use of technology while the two characters de Havilland plays appear simultaneously on the screen was praised, with only a few lighting differences obviously discernible. De Havilland’s performance(s) also aided the seamlessness. It was almost possible to forget that the actress played both parts, despite the fact the twins are identical.  Character differences were evident from the start – Ruth’s timidity was contrasted to Terry’s confidence. De Havilland’s playing of these early scenes was nuanced enough to indicate Ruth and Terry’s distinct personalities, without exaggerating them. As time progressed and Terry’s ‘evil’ nature was revealed de Havilland’s facial expressions in particular became more manic. It is impressive that de Havilland also managed to convey Ruth’s apparent descent into madness with a different touch. Terry was tricking her sister into believing she herself had gone insane. ruth going madDe Havilland’s performance as Ruth therefore included expressions of bewilderment and fear in contrast to Terry’s planned and controlled scheming.

Costume also played an interesting role in aiding the audience’s attempt to differentiate the twins. The fact that no-one in the narrative is meant to know that there is more than one twin (the twins share a job selling magazines at a stand) explains some of their identical outfits.  It seems unlikely, however, that they would necessarily need to wear identical clothes at the same time. We also wondered why the twins shared a job.  Perhaps this has a practical application since one twin has, after all, we presume,Ruth and Terry identical clothes but different characters committed murder and might need to be fairly closely observed by the other.  Perhaps it also comments on a deeper psychological attachment. It is also the case that the twins wore the same clothes outside of work, even donning identical nightgowns. The identical costumes tailed off as the film progressed and by end evil Terry is seen all in black and innocent Ruth in a white top.

It is telling that one of the few physical ways the twins can be differentiated is by the use of jewellery. Both own a necklace with their name featured prominently, as well as initial brooches. When Terry is impersonating Ruth, it is even seen that Ruth (and presumably Terry) owns a compact mirror with her initial engraved on it. This was particularly noticed by the group as Terry removed it from her handbag after the Doctor had started to make clear he knew her real identity.  This was a very suspenseful moment – signalled, as was the case throughout the film – with dramatic music. In fact some of us thought Terry was about to brandish a gun. The necklaces, brooches and compact mirrors are items which can all be grouped under the term ‘women’s accoutrements’. Such accessories are sometimes sold, at times in connection with film stars, as ways of individuating oneself. The fact that this ‘female’ item, particularly one used to reflect on one’s appearance, is very significant. This is in terms of commenting on the theme of the double, but also because it is a replacement for the expected item – the arguably ‘male’ gun.

We noted a couple of aspects which we have previously discussed in terms of melodrama. The film’s dramatic music – and the fact that Terry uses a concealed music box to convince Ruth that the latter is going mad with auditory hallucinations – was noted. We also expressed views on the comic elements present in the film. These, usually related to the detective, seemed to sit uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. They can be related to the presence of the comic subplot in some theatrical dramas – Gaslight UKas evidenced in our read-through of the Melville Brothers’  A Girl’s Cross Roads (1903). More specifically, a connection can be made between Mitchell’s detective and the one played by Frank Pettingell in Thorold Dickinson’s British film version of Gaslight (1940). Interestingly this is another narrative about a relative (a husband in this case) trying to send a woman mad.

Finally we discussed the fact that while the film provided a great showcase for de Havilland and her dual performances, the men in the narrative were afforded far more power. This is seen in the ‘active’ occupations of both the detective and the psychologist. Furthermore this is directed towards proving the guilt of the twin who has killed, Terry, the least passive of the twins. By the end of the film we presume Terry will be institutionalised, while Ruth has been safely domesticated in a romance with the psychologist.

Dark Mirror Mitchell Ayres

Do, as ever,  log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk, to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on In This Our Life

Our discussion on John Huston’s film In This Our Life Stanley and Williamnoted its focus on family. Sisters Stanley (Bette Davis) and Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) lives are closely intertwined, partly as the former steals the latter’s husband (Dennis Morgan). In addition, the women’s father previously co-owned a business now run by their invalid mother’s (Billie Burke) brother (Charles Coburn). This is further complicated by the suspiciously close, and highly disturbing, relationship between Stanley and her uncle. Such interconnectedness comments on the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) definition of melodrama, which notes family as an important aspect: The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm)

Davis and de Havilland in this Our Life first dressesFamily is further emphasised were by the constant contrasting of Stanley and Roy. This was done on several levels. Personality and behaviour are of course key, but costume also plays a significant role. While Olivia de Havilland is introduced wearing a muted blue outfit (her father helpfully comments on the colour of the dress suiting her since the film is shot in black and white) Stanley is often seen in flashier outfits of prints, plaid patterns and flouncy frills. Furthermore she is criticised by other members of her family for wearing skirts which are too short.

 Stanley and Roy’s reactions to tragedy also tellingly involve clothes. After learning that her husband has deserted her for her sister Stanley, Roy angrily asserts that ‘I’m not wearing black’ and resolves to buy a red hat with a feather.  We see her wearing the accessory soon after, but the film’s black and white photography downplays the colour’s vividness. Similarly, when Stanley is supposedly heartbroken after the suicide of her husband she soon casts aside black outfits. Instead she opts for a light plaid which shocks her bed-ridden mother. The reactions of both sisters therefore involve the dismissal of black costumes. However, differences in the degree of seriousness of theIn This Our Life Davis plaid dress situations they are responding to is significant. While both have lost a husband (the same husband) Stanley has driven Peter to suicide. Also while Roy speaks of behaving badly to get what she wants (as Stanley always does) she does not follow though on this. Instead she does what the narrative expects – she falls in love with Stanley’s discarded fiancé, Craig (George Brent).

De Havilland and Davis’ acting was also markedly different. While de Havilland was not necessarily always restrained, her main outburst is the one outlined above. By contrast Davis is constantly playing at fever pitch. Davis’ performance involved variation in terms of embodying coyness, girlishness (very much denoted by Davis’ higher than usual voice), anger, seduction, deviousness etc, but there were very few, if any, moments were Davis/Stanley was completely still. Even when Davis/Stanley is sat listening to a gramophone record she is performing a dance with her shoes. It is also very noticeable that Davis’ face is never at rest.  We particularly commented on Davis’ use of her eyes.

We also related Davis’s performance to her precious incarnation of Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell).  (You can see our earlier discussion of this film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/10/summary-of-discussion-on-of-human-bondage/) Stanley and Mildred are both irredeemable characters, devoid of any moral compass. The impact of Stanley’s selfishness is more far-reaching however. While in Of Human Bondage the main person who suffered was the film’s protagonist, Philip, in In This Our Life Stanley devastates Roy and Craig, other members of her family and significantly a young employee of colour, Parry Clay (Ernest In This Our Life de Havilland hatAnderson), who Stanley blames for a fatal car accident she caused while drunk. This is shown in opposition to Roy and Craig’s kind treatment of Parry. Roy works with Parry at an Interior Decorators and she finds him work at Craig’s law office (Craig is a Civil Rights lawyer) when Parry expresses his wish to train as a lawyer.

Max Steiner’s score was also discussed. This accompanies many of the film’s emotional moments and is also used to foreshadow bad news. During several telephone calls when we are only privy to one side of the conversation the film’s music heavily underscores a sense of impending doom also conveyed by dialogue and actors’ expressions.

Do, as ever, log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Maternal Melodrama Titles and Abstracts

Posted by Sarah

The titles and abstracts for our upcoming Maternal Melodrama on the 3rd of June:

Pam Cook, University of Southampton, Film Studies

“Paratext and Subtext: Reading Mildred Pierce as Maternal Melodrama”

Maternal melodrama has MP TV seriesgenerated an influential body of critical writing that examines the implications of its representations of motherhood for women. Ambivalence towards and desire for mothers continue to inspire stories of maternal suffering, self-sacrifice, guilt and blame that have a powerful emotional appeal. I’ll focus on Mildred Pierce to try to get to the heart of why this genre (cycle?) is so significant and how a diverse collection of films comes to be viewed as maternal melodrama. Using my videographic work, I’ll look at the role of paratexts (Genette) in producing the subtexts that point to the genre’s transgressive potential.

 

 Catherine Grant, University of Sussex, Film Studies

 “Studying Old and New Maternal Melodramas Videographically”

Joan Fontaine Rebecca

In my talk, I will screen a number of my short audiovisual essays on film melodramas which centrally feature mother-daughter relationships (including two cinematic adaptations of Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1922 novel Stella Dallas [1925 and 1937], The Railway Children [1970], and Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank).

I will also explore what “creative critical” videographic methods can bring to the study of old and new maternal melodramas. I will argue not only for the greater potential of audiovisual expression for richer and more precise engagements with the motifs and textures of film melodrama, but also for the benefits of methods which more evidently express, and at times productively foreground, the subjective and affective investments of the individual researcher.

For an example of Katie’s videographic essays on Melodrama please visit her fantastic Film Studies For Free blog, especially the post ‘Voluptuous Masochism: Gothic Melodrama Studies in Memory of Joan Fontaine’:

http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/voluptuous-masochism-gothic-melodrama.html

 

Keeley Saunders, University of Kent, Film Studies (ks424@kent.ac.uk)

“Transitioning and the Maternal Melodrama: Parental Roles in Transamerica”

In the process of transitioning, many transgender individuals have to learn how to manage their new identity in society: dealing with other people’s perceptions of them, moving jobs or location, or significantly, ‘coming out’ to their family. Trans memoirs, such as Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan, detail the complex process of transitioning as a parent: for Boylan, moving from ‘father’ to ‘mother,’ with a period in between where the subject occupied neither – or both – positions. Documenting this issue draws attention to the traditional roles of gender and the social structures policing gendered parenting responsibilities or behaviours. Elsewhere this can be depicted through a parent’s response to their child coming out and their reaction (and the relationship developed) following such an announcement.

Family dynamics and the role of the parent is a recurring narrative trope within the fictional mode of ‘trans-cinema.’ Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) Maternal Melodrama Transamerica untitledpresents both of sides of the parental dynamic outlined above, following Bree, a pre-operative trans woman who is in the process of transitioning. This presentation will explore how Transamerica – and trans-cinema more broadly – adopts various melodramatic structures to portray its narratives. With particular reference to the characterisation and role of the mother, I will address how the film utilises the convention of parental roles, situating Bree as both the estranged parent and the estranged child attempting to (reluctantly) reconnect with her family before she undergoes her surgery.

 

 Lavinia Brydon, University of Kent, Film Studies

“The Suffering and Sacrifices of a Mother (Country): Examining the Scarred Irish Landscape in The Last September (1999)”

This paper seeks to investigate maternal Melodrama The Last Septemberand interpret the melodramatic tendencies of The Last September (Deborah Warner, 1999), an Anglo-Irish heritage film set just one year prior to the Ireland’s partition in 1921-1922. Taking John Hill’s comments on the melodramatic excess of the similarly concerned Fools of Fortune (Pat O’Connor, 1990) as a starting point, this paper will consider how the violence of the period complicates the restraint that typically marks the heritage film. Indeed, it will argue that the turbulent time frame permits the ‘astonishing twists and turns of fate, suspense, disaster and tragedy’ (Mercer and Shingler 2004: 7) for which early theatrical melodramas were famed. However, given the familiar nationalist allegory of Ireland as a poor old woman (otherwise known as Cathleen ni Houlihan), this paper will move on to consider how the violence inscribed on the Irish landscape allows the film to be framed specifically as a maternal melodrama. It will thus consider how the film depicts the suffering of and sacrifices made by Ireland as a mother (country).

 

Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All That Costume Allows: Does Dress Tell the Mother’s Story?”

As its title suggests, this short paper seeks to link two famous Film Studies texts: Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, and Jane Gaines’ 1991 article, “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story”. Gaines’ piece insists that, because of the gendered division of narrative agency inevitably operating in Classical Hollywood Cinema, character is conveyed in different ways; men, who are active in the narrative, making things happen, are summed up by those happenings, but women, who are passive and acted upon, cannot thus be known. Their characters need to be made apparent to the viewer through other means: Hollywood has traditionally used costume. As Gaines remarks, “a woman’s dress and demeanour, much more than a man’s, indexes psychology: if costume represents interiority, it is she who is turned inside out on screen.” (Gaines, 1991: 181)

Maternal Melodrama ATHA 3On first consideration, Sirk’s scenario – about a widow’s romance with a younger man seen, by her children and snobbish community, as her social inferior – appears ripe to contest Gaines’s assertions. The film is all about Cary Scott, the central female character, her feelings, motives, decisions. Her status as a mother surely endows her with agency, as she cares for her children and, true to the maternal melodrama formula, sacrifices her own happiness to ensure theirs? Does the film need to employ the ‘storytelling wardrobe’ for a character so at the heart of the story, even when she is female?  This presentation examines Cary’s costumes in detail to find out.

Reference

Gaines, Jane. 1991. “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story” in Gaines, Jane and Herzog, Charlotte, eds, Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. New York and London: Routledge.

Lies Lanckman, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All the melodramatics of my life are past!”: The Fan Magazine as a Melodramatic Medium

Although the topic of maternal melodrama inMaternal Melodrama Norma Shearer 3 film has received attention by a number of scholars, the focus appears to lie primarily on the study of particular emblematic films or, more broadly, on maternal melodrama on screen. This paper, however, will explore another connection between (Hollywood) film and melodrama; the way in which not just many films, but also the fan magazine and the star narratives contained within its pages can be seen to include a number of melodramatic elements.

By exploring fan magazine rhetoric produced between 1920 and 1940, I highlight a number of key themes and the way their treatment might be called melodramatic, ranging from the characterisation of particular stars, to the treatment of key life experiences, such as love, marriage and death. In this paper, however, I will particularly highlight the treatment of motherhood in the pages of publications suchMaternal Melodrama Stanwyck as Photoplay, focusing on two separate case studies. One is the treatment of Norma Shearer’s role as a tragic widow and single mother after the premature death of husband Irving Thalberg in September 1936. The other will focus on the rhetoric surrounding the divorce of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay in December 1935, which cast Stanwyck as an excessive/monstrous mother who essentially emasculated her (less successful) husband. Using these two case studies, I will attempt to draw comparisons between Hollywoodian (maternal) melodrama on and off screen.

 

Ann-Marie Fleming, University of Kent, Film Studies

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present”:  Exploring the melodramatic depictions of the women from Grey Gardens (1975 and 2009).

This paper seeks to explore how we understand mother-daughter tensions and acceptance through the use of the past in both Grey Gardens (1975) and the docudrama of the same name from 2009. Life at Maternal Melodrama Grey Gardens doc and filmGrey Gardens does not progress; instead the past is the present. Melodramatic moments, particularly the interactions between Edith and Edie, are caused by and centred on past grievances that are as much alive in 1976 as they were in 1952. In contrast, the docudrama’s past is shown as a tool to heighten the pain of the present, whilst stylistically appearing more significant.

Primarily the paper will focus on the films’ depiction of:

  • The unsaid, said and shown – An examination of the melodrama caused by the discussion of the past in contrast to the performance style of the docudrama.
  • Female urgency – The importance of the female body and its dominance of the frame at the peak of the melodramatic performance/reaction.
  • The rise and fall of tension – How each form manipulates time and remembrance to create melodramatic sympathy.
  • The melodrama of life itself – The re-creation of the past self and the character of the present.

Despite the differences in film form the paper hopes to expose one important factor: familial melodrama arises from the past’s collision with the present.

 

We hope you’ll be able to join us on the 3rd of June to hear the papers in full!

Update: the event is free, but booking is essential. Please email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to secure your place.

 

Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts

Summary of Discussion on The Wicked Lady

Posted by Sarah

Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady:

Wicked Lady costumeAfter much expressed delight at this Gainsborough romp, the discussion began with reticence over the time period that the film was representing. Many of us thought the costume, especially the wigs represented differing time periods. Internet searches confirmed the film was set in the Jacobean period. Indeed, it was agreed that the film was not overly concerned with accuracy on period costume. There was a suggestion that Hollywood had requested certain scenes be redone as the line of costumes on the women were too low and showing too much flesh for the Hays Code to approve. As was pointed out in the introduction, both Pam Cook and Sue Thornhill have written extensively on costume, identity and nationality in Gainsborough melodramas. These topics were carried over to the discussion afterwards. Apart from noting the possibility of historical accuracy concerning costume, there was some focus on Margaret Lockwood. Thornhill speaks of how Lockwood’s hair is styled into a vulva shape, and that some of her costumes compliment this phallic design.

Following from observations of Lockwood’s costume, further discussion focused on Margaret Lockwood’s acting and her character. Lockwood’s haughtiness was decidedly apt and appeared to add to audience identification. There was general agreement between us we would prefer to be Lockwood’s character than Patricia Roc’s. There was vitality to Lockwood’s character which the group found appealing. There was a mention too of a possible reference to war time women, when Lockwood declares she deserves to “do things” as she’s attractive, capable and intelligent. The camera also, rather clumsily at times, focused on Lockwood’s expression whenever an opportunity to kill someone, or undertake an evil deed was presented to her. These shots did appear somewhat heavy handed and caused much laughter in the group. However, one extreme close up of her eyes was a compelling shot. This reference led to further talk two interesting scenes due to their camera work. The first discussed was the scene where Lockwood is kneeling in front of Hogarth seeking forgiveness, by a roaring Wicked Lady firefire. The camera switches to behind the flames, as if in the fireplace. The framing gives the impression of Lockwood already in hell, surrounded by flames. The other unusual shot was when Lockwood’s character is dying and the camera travels backwards, away from Lockwood and out through the window, focusing on the smaller and smaller body of Lockwood. These two shots were the most distinctive in the film.

Lockwood Mason

There was much (delighted) surprise at the bawdiness of the film and many felt that you could sense how The Carry On films came about, that there was a sense of a distinctive Britishness in this film. Many commented on the excessive use of innuendo in the dialogue and how this added to the viewing experience.  Innuendo was prevalent in the exchanges between Lockwood and Mason, who were electric together onscreen and oozed unbuttoned sexuality. All in all, it was universally agreed that this period romp was an excellent screening choice for the group.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing to show this wonderful film, and for the great introduction and summary of discussion.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 29th of January, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 29th of January in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Wicked Lady (1945, Leslie Arliss, 104 mins).

wicked Lady poster

 

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Wicked Lady is a 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Known as one of the Gainsborough melodramas, it is reputed to have one of the largest audiences of its period, 18.4 million. The story itself was based on the novel, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, which in turn, was based upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers.

Synopsis

Margaret Lockwood stars as 17th century beauty, Barbara Worth, who steals and marries her best friend’s intended bridegroom, local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. At their wedding reception, Barbara meets Kit Locksby. For both, it is love at first sight, but too late as Barbara is now married. As Lady Skelton, she soon bores of rural life and seizes the opportunity to become a highwayman in order to win back her jewels from her sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere. Addicted to the excitement, Lady Skelton continues in her escapades and meets and joins forces (personally and professionally) with fellow highwayman, Capt Jackson. Through murder, robbery and betrayal, Lady Skelton’s double life catches her with her and she is mortally wounded by Kit Locksby. Dying, she confesses all to Kit and asks him to stay with her as she dies. However, appalled and repulsed by the truth, he withdraws, leaving her to die alone.

Lockwood Roc Wicked LadyIt is reported that due to issues with the American censors, extensive re-shooting was required before the film was released in the United States. The problems concerned the women’s dress bodices, which were considered low-cut and allowed too much cleavage to be displayed, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the Hays Code.

 

The Gainsborough Melodramas

Despite producing a variety of genre films throughout its twenty-five year existence, the Gainsborough studio became synonymous with melodramas, in much the same way as Ealing studios did with comedies. The Gainsborough melodramas were a sequence of films produced by the British film studio Gainsborough Pictures during the 1940s. This cycle of films often touched upon similar themes and frequently starred recurring actors who played similar characters in each film, such as Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

The first film of the cycle, The Man in Grey, appeared in 1943. Starring both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, it was based upon the novel of the same name. Its success led to a number of similar films being produced, often based upon on melodramatic period novels, such as, The Wicked Lady (1945), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and A Place of One’s Own (1945). The films dominated the British box office, grossing top Hollywood productions in the UK. It has been argued that much of their appeal was in their overt escapism at a time when the Second World War was still being fought. However, the popularity of the cycle peaked in the immediate post-war years and the production of the melodramas continued until 1950. At the height of the melodramas’ popularity, both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood were respectively voted the most popular British male and female actors.

Mason Lockwood Wicked Lady

 

Focusing on the handful of period costumes romances produced by Gainsborough at this time, Pam Cook argues that although these films were rediscovered in the 1980s by film historians, the films remain largely ‘marginalised, ignored or subsumed into the consensus in discussion of national identity in British cinema’ (Cook, 1996). Even at the time of its release, Cook notes derision in some quarters. Simon Harcourt-Smith writing in Tribune said of the film, ‘…if the future of the British film industry hangs…on the success of The Wicked Lady, then let us dispense with that future.’ (Aspinall and Murphy, 1983, p74). Cook suggests that this critical neglect is due to how the costume and visual style, the representation of history and their mobilization of national identity contravened official strictures and versions of femininity.  Furthermore, Cook argues that costume romances are at the less reputable end of the historical film genre. Where ‘heritage’ historical films would celebrate the past, costume romances such as the those produced by Gainsborough, mobilize a British past of promiscuity, injustice and inequality, ‘a locus of crisis and conflict as well as sensual pleasure’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook also extends the films’ questionable representation of the past extends to costume and mise-en-scene. Sue Harper points out that visual codes in the costume romances have their own language, which often works against the ‘moralistic trajectory of the script’, creating a tension between spectacle and narrative (Harper, 1983: 1994). For Harper, spectacle plays a positive role in costume drama as the carrier of coded meanings which express the powerful status of femininity, overriding the narrative drive to disempower transgressive female protagonists.

As Pam Cook states, ‘Audiences leaving a screening of The Wicked Lady were more likely to remember the stunning image of a fetishized Margaret Lockwood dressed in highwayman gear astride a stallion than to take on board the moral implications of her punishment by death’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook, P. (1996) Fashioning the Nation. London: BFI Publishing.

Harper, S. (1983) ‘Art Direction and Costume Design’, in S. Aspinall and R. Murphy (eds) BFI Dossier 18: Gainsborough Melodrama. London: BFI Publishing, p 40-52

Harper, S. (1994) Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: BFI Publishing.

Do join us, if you can, for some classic British melodrama.