Summary of discussion on The Witness for The Prosecution

Our discussion about The Witness for the Prosecution in its various forms focused on: differences between the mediums (radio, short story, TV, 1957 film) including of the plot’s key revelation; whether and how various characters received their comeuppance; the characters of Leonard, Romaine, Mayherne (Mayhew in the BBC TV version) and Emily French; matters of gender, class and World War I; general comments on Sarah Phelps’ TV adaptation, especially its pacing and cinematography.

witness-agatha

Starting the session by listening to the BBC’s half hour 2004 radio version meant that we were able to compare and contrast the ways in which Agatha Christie’s 1933 short story was adapted to different mediums. Unlike the short story which reported the meeting between Leonard and Emily French and the latter’s murder in retrospect, the radio version utilised flashbacks which directly reported Leonard and Emily’s interaction; this meant that we were not relying on Leonard’s rather doubtful word (also true of the BBC TV version).

witness-georgeThe quick pace of the radio version, with the fairly rapid switching between its micro scenes, often marked by bursts of Django Reinhardt, was especially commented on. We also noted how the main expansion of the radio version from the short story was its preface. This featured Leonard’s garrulous club-owning friend George (whom we compared to George Sanders’ character in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca (1940) which provided Leonard with some colour by association.  References to the club also helped to establish the metropolitan London setting. Shifts within this were well evoked by sound effects: Romaine asked to speak to Mayherne outside in private and the subsequent scene was punctuated by birdsong. The time setting was established by both references to the date of the crime (in the year 1947) and by the wail of sirens.

witness-margolyesDiscussion also focused on the ways in which the radio medium in its lack of the visual differed to the TV adaptation. This mostly involved our recognition that one of the radio actors played 2 key roles: Miriam Margolyes was recognisably Romaine as well as the part she plays to deceive Mayherne (Mrs Mogdon). While different accents and markers of class were used (we especially noted the newly named maid ‘Flora’ McKenzie’s Scottish brogue) we witness-bennettalso recognised some of the actors by their voices: this meant that our knowledge of the age and appearance of some of the actors gave us particular views of the characters played. We thought Hywel Bennett as Leonard sounded older and more confident than in the TV version – as indeed did Romaine. This meant that the TV version’s revelation of Leonard and Romaine’s crimes, and the level of manipulation employed, were perhaps more surprising.

We also noted how the revelation of Romaine’s performance as Mrs Mogdon occurred in different ways: in the short story Mayherne realises it due to Romaine and the part she plays sharing the same ‘foreign gesture’. Since radio has the audio advantage, it chooses to damn Romaine by her own words: ‘a tree is a tree is a tree’. She utters this both while playing Mrs Mogdon and in court giving evidence. Since the TV version affords Mayhew a larger place in the narrative, and also significantly differs in its characterisation of Romaine, it is framed as something Mayhew finds out only after his success in the defence of Leonard leads to him taking a holiday in Le Touquet. Seeing Leonard and his new bride outside a hotel, Mayhew pays them a visit: Romaine calmly tells him what they had done. This underlined the less calculating Romaine in the radiowitness-dietrich adaptation as the warmth of her voice and her talk of love contrasts to the TV Romaine’s coldness and the impression she is more intent on survival. In Wilder’s 1957 film Marlene Dietrich as ‘Christine’ re-enacts her earlier performance as the scarred woman for the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, played by Charles Laughton. While Christine seems to revel in her talent, Andrea Riseborough in the TV adaptation is more subdued and matter-of-fact.

Another significant difference between the original and its several adaptations are whether characters get their comeuppance. While the short story and radio version end with the revelation of the deception, and the impression no justice will be served, the film and TV versions tackle the matter in alternative ways. In the film, Leonard and Christine do not ‘get away with it’ since the existence of Leonard’s girlfriend is revealed in the court room and Christine takes her revenge by stabbing him. It was mentioned that the filming of this is especially instructive as the light from Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, which he spins on the desk, highlights the presence of the knife. In effect, this means that Sir Wilfrid, by now fully cognizant of Leonard’s crime and Christine’s lies, somehow directs Christine towards committing her crime.

In the TV version Leonard and Romaine do appear to have escaped justice – instead Janet McKenzie is wrongly convicted and hanged for their crime. Furthermore, Mayhew was instrumental in Janet’s arrest, causing him much distress when the truth is revealed by Leonard and Romaine. Mayhew is unable to bear the guilt and walks into the sea at the end. Some in the group did not like the fact that Mayhew is the only one to fully accept his guilt for his actions, this seeming to let Leonard and Romaine off the hook. However a note of caution is also sounded for the ‘happy’ couple: Leonard asks whether Romaine will need him much longer, to which she replies that she will – as long as he’s not boring. In addition to suggesting Leonard may yet be punished for him crime, this gives further insight into Leonard and Romaine’s relationship as it shows her very much in control.

witness-showgirlWe spoke further on the matter of gender and especially Romaine. We commented on her emotionless rendering of her signature tune ‘Let me Call You Sweetheart’ at the theatre throughout the TV adaptation. Although her skimpy costume and centre stage placement suggest objectification, she is in fact very closed. This was also true of her seeming breakdown in court: she is confronted by the letters to her non-existent lover she has in fact planted in order to keep her husband out of prison. Although she performs anger at having been discovered, allowing those who accuse her to feel especially smug in the face of her abjectness, she is in fact more opaque than ever – and a willing victim, sacrificing herself for a higher purpose. She is one of the few women who actually get to speak in court and have their words believed – even though ironically they are not the truth. Janet’s evidence is (accurately) put down to havingwitness-mrs-mahyew been coached by the prosecution team.  We compared Romaine’s largely subdued character to a similar quality in Mayhew’s wife (a newly invented character for the TV adaption). The very presence of Mrs Mayhew increased the number of women playing an important part in the narrative, and showed one side of sexual politics as she endured her husband’s attentions.

witness-catrallUnsurprisingly, the TV version was also more modern in its approach to sexual politics. Emily’s maid Janet appears to have a passion for her employer, the cougar-ish Emily, played by Kim Catrall. Emily was not just stunningly attractive, but open about her desire for Leonard. Despite the more modern production context, this made the force used in killing her seem more like a punishment; this was especially evident when we re-watched the scenes in which Emily and Leonard first met and she invited him back to her house. Rather than Leonard helping a little old lady who’d dropped her parcels in the street, it is Leonard who is clumsy as the tray of drinks he is carrying at his place of work crashes to the ground. The fact that this happens just after Emily has passed him on the stairs seems to afford her a certain power of the gaze (heightened later as she watches him in the bath, objectifying his body and feeding him scraps of food from a plate as though he were a pet). Leonard is shown to be her prey, unable to escape her attentions.

witness-maidThat Leonard was unable to escape Emily is also seen in the dynamic between him, Janet and Emily. At the beginning, Leonard is clearly marked as having less agency than Janet. Janet directly tells him to leave within seconds of first meeting him. Emily’s desire, however, trumps her employee’s reservations, with Leonard becoming increasingly forthright (even vindictive) with Janet, and taking advantage of his opportunity. In the end this means that it is Emily and Janet who are punished – both for their desires. Leonard takes Emily’s life in a particularly savage and bloody way, and the fact Janet is wrongly executed for murdering her beloved mistress makes her punishment especially cruel.

witness-wilfridWhile in the cases of Janet and Emily the punishment meted out in linked to gender, the matter of Class comes in to play in different versions. In the film, Sir Wilfrid is higher class and, as noted above, can be seen to have directed justice for his own ends. By contrast, Mayhew in the TV version is clearly shown to be middle class- he has awitness-mayhew comfortable home; but occupies a dank and leaky office and has to bribe police officers for access to potential cases. His punishment comes due to his own error, made partly due to his grief over the loss of his son, killed when Mayhew lied about his son’s age so that they could go to war together. Leonard is clearly a surrogate son he is determined to save.

The TV version’s post World War I setting was especially important. This tied Leonard and Romaine closer together in their desperation – including their first meeting at the very start of the adaptation. We noted that this scene could be interpreted in several ways: as a fairly direct telling of a soldier and a young woman (possibly a prisoner, kept near the front to service the soldiers) meeting, a dream of either Leonard or Romaine, or a metaphorical representation of their relationship to each other and the world.

witness-crimson-fieldWe further pondered the decision to set the adaptation just post World War I. While Christie’s short story was published in 1933, there was little mention of the conflict of twenty years earlier. The radio adaptation, by contrast, chose to place the action post-World War II. We commented on the fact that adapter Sarah Phelps had also created and written the 6 part BBC drama series The Crimson Field. Taking place during World War I, this focused on strong women working as nurses near the front. The post-World War I setting also seems especially timely given the continuing centenary commemorations today. We thought it gave more cause (if not justification) to the characters of Leonard and Romaine. They attempt to excuse themselves to Mayhew by arguing that the murder of Emily is just one more death – what is to be expected when we put the young through the horrifying experience of fighting a war. In relation to Romaine, we additionally considered that a post-World War II setting might unnecessarily complicate her Austrian heritage, and hammer home too forcefully any suggestion of Nazism in Phelps’ expanded narrative.

The legacy of World War I is also seen in the relationship of the Mayhews. Indeed it underpins Mayhew’s relationship with Leonard and Romaine. The former is the surrogate for the son lost at war, and his sympathy for the latter initially comes from a sentimentalised romantic desire which is not reciprocated at home: his wife blames him for their son’s death.  Significantly while experiences during the War have desensitised Leonard and Romaine, Mayhew is still capable of wanting love, and of feeling guilt. It was also mentioned that in the introduction to the BBC’s new tie-in version of the short story, Phelps highlighted the matter of characters performing – which we specially connected to the female characters. This adds another level when considering the performative nature of the mediums of TV, film and radio.

witness-and-thenIn more general terms we also commented on the pacing of the TV production and its  cinematography. Extending to two hours, even allowing for the extra twist Phelps had added of Mayhew ‘discovering’ Janet’s guilt as the Mayhews holidayed in Le Touquet, was a stretch. This is hardly surprising when we note that Phelps’ 2015 3 part TV adaptation of Christie’s novel And Then There Were None had far more characters, and murders, to dramatize. While the revelation that Romaine was going to be a witness for the prosecution rather than the defence acted as a useful pivot between episodes 1 and 2, some of the scenes and shots seemed overlong. We wondered if sometimes the shots lasted so long to allow us to try and discern what was happening in the murkier scenes.  (There was a pervading yellowy green atmosphere to some of the scenes of Mayhew in London – perhaps an ongoing reminder of the mustard gas poisoning he is suffering from.)  Extended shots and scenes on occasion hammered home aspects a little too forcefully, with the images of Emily’s hitherto gleamingly white cat padding in her recently murdered mistress’s blood especially gratuitous.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 8th of February, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the second  of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 8th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Uncle Silas, also known as The Inheritance, (1947, Charles Frank , 103 mins). We had previously scheduled this for November but technical difficulties meant we were unable to screen the film on that occasion.

uncle silas trade ad 6489211181_e0ccda9b07

Like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Uncle Silas is adapted from a novel which places a woman in peril at its heart. Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu’s work has been far less adapted for film and television than Daphne Du Maurier’s, however. Most adaptations focus on his novella Carmilla – notably Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) and Roy Ward Baker’s Hammer Horror The Vampire Lovers (1970).  Subsequent to the 1947 film version we are showing, Uncle Silas also appeared as a 2 part German TV series (Onkel Silas) in 1977 and a British TV 3 parter renamed The Dark Angel in 1989 starring Peter O’Toole, Beatie Edney and Jane Lapotaire.

Perhaps the reluctance to adapt Le Fanu is connected to earlier unsuccessful adaptions. ‘Cane’ reviewed the 1947 film for Variety (22nd October, 1947) when it was released in London. The review’s opening line opined that the ‘[o]nly excuse for this blood-and-thunder meller appears to have been the desire to screen what is alleged to be one of the first thrillers’. This therefore pejoratively implies that melodrama (‘meller’) has little merit in and of itself – especially if it is of the ‘blood-and-thunder’ variety.

The review continues in an even more negative vein as it opines that the fact ‘Le Fanu’s novel is still in public demand probably explains why over $1,000,000 was spent on a yarn that should have been allowed to stay on the shelf.’ It outlines the story and rates it ‘hopeless’. The acting comes in for further criticism as Derrick de Marney ‘hams all over the place’ and surprise is expressed at the casting Jean Simmons and Katina Paxinou in the main female roles. The film is ‘labored hokum’ which ‘can add little to British prestige. It’s not for export.’

We can interestingly contrast this reception of a UK product based on a classic novel to Variety’s earlier view on an US production based on a contemporary work. Rebecca was positively received by Variety (26th March, 1940) with both the film and the source novel praised: “Rebecca’ is an artistic success… noteworthy in its literal translation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel to the screen, presenting all of the sombreness and dramatic tragedy of the book in its unfolding’.

While Variety’s Uncle Silas review is not  especially complimentary, the review’s closing line perhaps suggests an attitude we can adopt during the screening if the film’s gothic thrills and spills are less than satisfactory:  the ‘‘[b]est hope for this is to exhibit it as a comic interpretation of a past era’.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

SWN opening imagesSadly, due to technical difficulties, we were unable to screen the advertised film, Uncle Silas.  Instead, we watched another woman in peril film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Anatole Litvak, 88 mins). This starred Barbara Stanwyck as bedridden ‘cardiac neurotic’ Leona and Burt Lancaster as her husband, Henry Stevenson.  Superficially the film may not seem to have much in common with our focus on the Gothic theme other than it centring on a woman in peril.  However, our discussion noted the significance of several large shadowy houses/apartments and Leona and another female character turning into investigators.  We also spoke about how Leona was similar to, and different from, her fellow female Gothic investigators. There was discussion on the film’s radio play origins and the ways in which the film padded out two almost 3 times the radio play’s length and its extensive, and sometimes nested, use of Flashbacks.  The ways in which the film widened out the narrative from a prime focus on Leona and fleshes out is characters and their motivations were also commented on.  This allowed for us to usefully compare and contrast Sorry, Wrong Number’s central couple to the de Winters in Rebecca.  Finally we noted more traditionally filmic devices such as the Flashback and Montage, and the significance of the telephone in relation to cinema.

After the brief opening which combines dramatic text about the ‘horror’ of the telephone and shots of operators busily connecting people which establishes the importance of telephones to the film’s plot, we are afforded our first view of Stanwyck. Bedridden Leona is telephoning her husband’s office in an apartment which increasingly becomes full of shadows and suspense as she overhears a murder plot through a crossed wire. In addition to the large New York apartment Leona is confined to in the ‘present’ of the film we discussed other more Gothic spaces.  A large empty SWN shadows untitledbeach house is the focus of Leona’s husband’s criminal activities, while Leona’s childhood home, a Chicago mansion full of dark furniture, large hanging portraits, also appears. The latter is the setting for some of Leona’s moments of hysteria which comment on her odd relationship with her father, including accusations he wants to keep her all to himself.

SWN Leona and SallyDue to Leona’s restrictions, she relies on the telephone to access information for her investigations. These begin with her search for her husband which leads her to telephone her husband’s secretary. Leona is furnished with information about a woman who has visited her husband at his office. This is Sally Hunter – who it is revealed was Leona’s ‘friend’ and her husband’s girlfriend before Leona stole him away.  Significantly it is Sally who provides Leona with much of the information on the former’s husband’s investigation into the latter’s criminal activities.  We see Sally visiting the beach, though not entering the beach house so we are denied shots of her investigating the dark space.

In addition to acting as an enabler for Leona’s investigative interests (even though these are set in the past) Sally doubles Leona in other ways. She is her rival in love and both are interested in the investigation due to their concern for Henry. Sally also suffers in ways we can compare to Leona.  Although she is not physically restricted, the bonds of marriage and motherhood are clearly shown.  Sally’s husband assumes his wife is responsible for the fact their child is out of bed late and night and expects her to provide him and his friends with beers.  These restrictions even lead to her being tortured, likeSWN Sally phone Leona, by telephones – though to a lesser extent.  This is in terms of access as she chases around the city moving from her home to a drugstore so she can discuss the case with Leona openly, and when the drugstore closes to a telephone at a busy and noisy station.  This also succeeds in torturing Leona and the audience as we only find our information as Leona does and this is enacted in Flashbacks.

Notably not even Sally knows much about the investigation which furthers the suspense. Leona has to rely on a chance phone call from a man – a chemist at her father’s pharmaceutical business who reveals he was her husband’s partner in crime.  The calm Waldo Evans politely and slowly reveals the situation to Leona. Evans’ composure is effectively contrasted to Leona’s increasing hysteria – when it gradually becomes clear that she is the planned murder victim of the overheard telephone call.

early costumeLeona’s passive receiving of information prompted us to consider other ways in which she differs to more obviously Gothic heroines. While the second Mrs de Winter is hardly an active investigator, her questioning of various people and her physical movement through space sharply contrasts to Leona’s. They are also very different in terms of the sympathy they might elicit from the audience. The second Mrs de Winter is in many ways childlike in her innocence. Leona also exhibits childlike characteristics but these are of a spoilt child not one who needs protecting but one who tramples on others to get what she wants.  We might feel some sympathy for Leona in the desperate declaration of her love for her husband and her final fate, but she is fundamentally dislikeable – especially when compared to her double, Sally, whom she has treated very badly. It was noted that Leona is similar in some ways to the second Mrs de Winter’s vulgar employer Mrs Van Hopper. Both women are predatory towards the main male character in their respective films. This also extends to scenes set in each woman’s bedroom with both confined to bed by illness and wearing nightgowns.  While costume aligns Leona with Mrs Van Hopper it also separates her from the second Mrs de Winter and in Sorry, Wrong Number from Sally. Leona is always exquisitely dressed but the second Mrs de Winter and Sally are less expensively attired.

Furthermore both main female characters SWN Lancasterin Sorry, Wrong Number and Rebecca seem morally unambiguous.  Leona is dislikeable and plotting in nature. This was perhaps necessary to allow for her to be killed in the era of the Production Code, with the murder itself also a central part of the ‘famous’ radio play the film references in its credits.  The second Mrs de Winter is innocent and likeable. However the men in both films are morally murky.  Indeed both Henry and Maxim are painted fairly sympathetically as victims of either a demanding wife and threatening associates or a philandering wife.  The couple of Sorry, Wrong Number can be contrasted to Rebecca. While Maxim was a threat to his first wife it seems unlikely he will harm his second, while much of the threat to Leona stems from her husband’s inaction in not stopping his associates rather than deliberate plotting on his part.  We found it especially interesting that while part of Leona’s medical condition – her cardiac neurosis – is in effect hysteria causing her to think she has heart problems she is also facing a very real threat which her condition, and her behaviour, has made her vulnerable to.  By contrast, the second Mrs de Winter’s fears are shown to be entirely justified, though not in danger, when it is revealed her husband killed his late wife.

The fleshing out of characters, especially Henry, contrasts to the radio play. Also notably different is the use of extensive, at times nested, Flashbacks which certainly aids the rounding out of the characters. But it also breaks up the suspense to a large extent – rather than 30 minutes of mounting hysteria the back and forth and the pacing suggests a more rhythmic melodrama.  Rhythm was also seen in montages where it served a different purpose.  Most notably to this conveyed Leona and Henry’s progressing relationship as they visited several countries on their honeymoon and Leona increasingly treated Henry with cool disdain as she controlled his behaviour and kept a physical distance.

suspenseThe centrality of telephones to the narrative prompted comment as to its use as a device in the film as well as its wider significance. Even before we see any characters the evils of the telephone are described in terms of bringing ‘horror’ to some people.  We discussed the telephone’s ability to simultaneously bring people together in terms of audio and to emphasise geographical distance.  This is explicitly commented on when Henry (wrongly) reassures a frightened Leona that she is the middle of New York with a phone by her bed and therefore not in any danger. We noted that this served as a metaphor for cinema – while we can see and hear characters’ lives being played out we are unable to intervene. We mentioned earlier examples focusing on the telephone. These included a French one-handed play in which the only character has to listen on the phone as his wife is attacked, D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909), and Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) in which similar situations, but with happier outcomes, occur.

(You can see more on The Lonely Villa and Suspense from earlier blog discussions: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/12/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-15th-may-jarman-7-4-7pm/ and https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/16/summary-of-discussion-on-early-film-melodrama-shorts/)

Of course Sorry, Wrong Number contrasts to these in that the worried husband is, if only indirectly, responsible for the wife’s attack, further highlighting the ambiguity of the male character.

We also discussed Leona’s disability in terms of our next screening, The Spiral Staircase (1945).  Both women are also disabled in their passivity – being female appears to be another disability.

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

And do check out some fascinating Fan and Trade Magazine materials relating to the film on the wonderful Network of Research: Movies, Magazines, Audiences (NoRMMA) blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=249

 

Sorry, Wrong Number Links

Film Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LMZcFMRV5o

The original radio play: https://archive.org/details/Suspense430525SorryWrongNumberWestCoast

 The Stanwyck radio remake for Lux radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIbcJxQukO4

 Jack Benny’s take on the film:  

https://archive.org/details/JackBennyProgram481017SorryWrongNumber

 

BFI Event on Female Stardom on 7th of March

Frances has very kindly drawn the Melodrama Research Group’s attention to an event taking place at the BFI on the 7th of March.

BFI Female Stardom event

The BFI invitation: ‘Join us for this special one-day course looking at the political and cultural questions raised by the dynamic careers of various female screen stars. Featuring illustrated presentations, film clips and extended discussions, we’ll assess stars of the 20s and 30s such as Marlene Dietrich, through to contemporary icons such as Jennifer Lawrence. As we study their performances and public personas, the ideas of leading thinkers in film studies and gender theory such as Laura Mulvey and Jacqueline Rose will also be considered. At the heart of our discussions will be Katharine Hepburn’s own fascinating career and how it helped shape notions of stardom and gender today.’

For more information, including a schedule of the BFI’s season of Katharine Hepburn films  and a link to buy tickets, please visit the BFI website:

https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=herpoliticsoffemalestardom

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts, including any other melodrama links you’d like to add to the blog.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 30th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich, 124 mins)

 Introduction

Baby Jane hall

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was adapted from Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel of the same name. The story takes place in a once-fashionable part of Hollywood where two sisters share a dilapidated gothic mansion. ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson was a child star in cinema’s very early days, while Blanche’s heyday was as a movie queen during the 1930s. The sisters are now forced to live together, partly due to a serious accident which has left Blanche wheelchair-bound, and their unhealthy and violent relationship forms the core of the film.

The casting of two of 1930s HollyBaby Jane posterwood’s greatest female stars –  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the roles of the Hudson sisters provoked comment at the time. For example, both the film’s trailer and Variety’s review find the teaming of the stars significant. The trailer touches on the matter of star image as it warns the potential audience that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  does not resemble the pair’s previous (separate) films. Meanwhile, Variety opines that the casting of Davis and Crawford in retrospect seems like a ‘veritable prerequisite to putting Henry Farrell’s slight tale of terror on the screen’. It certainly led to great returns at the box office: the relatively low budget (just over $1 million) film grossed $9 million.[1]

Baby Jane productionThe film’s production has earned its place in Hollywood folklore in the intervening years. This is primarily due to the assertion that this marked the culmination of Davis and Crawford’s long-running, and some might say melodramatic, feud. Like many Hollywood stories though, this is only partially true. Several sources note the one-upmanship that took place during filming. For example, Bob Thomas’ biography of Crawford details some of the ‘conflict’ between the stars (pp. 224-229). Charlotte Chandler’s ‘personal’ biography of Crawford concludes that the ‘legendary feud between the two may have been just that – a legend’ dreamed up by Baby Jane’s publicity people which the stars both ended up believing (p. 248). Whenever the feud started, and for whatever reason, Davis had very definite ideas about a sequel to the film: “I’ll tell you the first scene. It’ll be a scene of this one,’ pointing at herself, ‘putting flowers on that one’s grave” (p. 250). (A follow-up film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, was made in 1964 – but with Olivia de Havilland replacing an ill Crawford part-way through).That until Baby Jane Crawford was not really on Davis’  radar is supported by Davis’ autobiography The Lonely Life, published in 1962, which does not even mention Crawford. Davis rectifies this, with relish, in her 1987 post Baby Jane memoir This ‘n That.
Baby JaneRegardless of any melodramatic off-screen tales surrounding What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog categorises the film text as melodrama. 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’. [2]

 

My analysis of the AFI Catalog shows that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  was one of 52 melodramas released in 1962. Interestingly, the 1960s showed an upsurge in the production of American produced melodramas. In the 1950s melodramas accounted for 147 films or 4.77% of all American films produced. In the 1960s this had risen to 529 and 22.60%. This does not quite hit the heights of the 1920s (a staggering 2230 or 33.16%) or the 1930s when 434 melodramas (constituting a fairly low 8.14%) were produced. But it is significantly more than in the 1940s (108 or 2.47%) or the 1950s figured quoted above. It might be especially fruitful for us to ponder why this might be the case. Especially as Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas are so often the focus of academic work on melodrama.

Recent scholarly work on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has focused on issues of aging, stardom and disability, matters we might well find it interesting to ponder. The articles/chapters include:

Jodi Brooks. “Performing Aging/Performance Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Figuring Age (1999): 232-47: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/john-cassavetes/cassavetes_aging/

Sally Chivers. “Baby Jane Grew Up: The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability.” Canadian Review of American Studies 36.2 (2006): 211-228. (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Anne Morey. “Grotesquerie as marker of success in aging female stars.” In the limelight and under the microscope: forms and functions of female celebrity (2011). (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Also visit the additional blog for more details of Variety’s review.

Access the (fairly non-spoilery) trailer on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/WhateverHappenedToBabyJane-Trailer

Do join us, if you can, for a classic 1960s melodrama with two superb performances from major 1930s female Hollywood stars.


[1] The budget for the film was $1,025,000 according to Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 256. Box Office Information for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? IMDb. The $9 million figure relates to worldwide grossed. Retrieved 22 October 2013.

[2] http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm

 

Bibliography and suggested further reading

The American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/

The Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com

Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.
Davis, Bette. The lonely life: an autobiography. Putnam’s, 1962.
Davis, Bette, and Michael Herskowitz. This’n that: A Memoir. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987.
Newquist, Roy. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Citadel Press, 1980.
Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995.
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: a biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Summary of Discussion on Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

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

 

Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

A reminder that the following exciting melodrama events are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on the 29th of September.

The first focuses on Douglas Sirk’s film Magnificent Obsession (1954).

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

John is co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama : Genre, Style, Sensibility. London ; New York : Wallflower, 2004

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

The Gulbenkian website description of the film: “Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ spiritual novel of the same title, churlish playboy Bob Merrick becomes indirectly responsible for the death of a much loved local doctor when he foolishly wrecks his speed boat. In trying to make amends, he falls in love with the doctor’s widow and must remake his life in order to win her love.”

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

The Gulbenkian website’s description of the film:  “A family vacationing in Morocco accidentally stumble on to an assassination plot and the conspirators are determined to prevent them from interfering. Includes a 5-10 minute introduction”

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

Doris Day Confidential

To see more details of Tamar’s book Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood, Sex and Stardom go to: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doris-Day-Confidential-Hollywood-Stardom/dp/1848855826/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378711364&sr=8-1&keywords=doris+day+confidential

 

Serial Queen Melodramas

Posted by Sarah

I thought it might be interesting to return to our consideration of early film melodrama. While previously we focused on the suffering, passive, heroine (particularly evident in DW Griffith’s films starring Lillian Gish) there are alternative views of women in the teens. One of these is present in the Serial Queen Melodramas.

Lass of the lumberlands

The Serial Queen Melodramas are particularly noteworthy as their heroines challenge some assertions about the portrayal of women in American Cinema of the teens and twenties. There is a notion that prior to It girl Clara Bow’s appearance in the late 1920s female stars belonged in either the passive virgin or the threatening vamp camp. (Though Bow and other progressive female stars certainly encouraged a focus on positive female sexuality.) However, as can be seen from the above card advertising Helen Homes in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916), the serial queen, while imperilled on occasion, was often active. The fast pace of these serials also provides a useful comparison to the action-filled male melodramas of later Hollywood which Steve Neale wrote of.

Pearl WhiteWhile several different Serial Queen Melodramas were produced in the teens, few are widely available. Of these, The Perils of Pauline series retains public resonance. This series, from 1914, starred Pearl White (pictured left) in loosely connected adventures. Apparently 20 episodes were made, but only the 9 part European version survives. The chapters can be found on the internet archive using the links below. Chapter length varies from 9-29 mins, with the average about 20 mins. They total approximately 200 mins.

LINKS

Part 1: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.1PearlWhite

Part 2: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.2PearlWhite

Part 3: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.3PearlWhite

Part 4: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.4PearlWhite

Part 5: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.5PearlWhite

Part 6: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.6PearlWhite

Part 7: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.7PearlWhite

Part 8: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.8PearlWhite

Part 9: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.9PearlWhite

Perils of Pauline

Scholarly work in this area of melodrama includes Ben Singer’s excellent article “Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama: The Etiology of an Anomaly.” Camera Obscura 8.1 22 (1990): 90-129 and Jon Burrows’ fascinating examination of British action heroines: “‘Melodrama of the Dear Old Kind’: Sentimentalising British Action Heroines in the 1910s.” Film History: An International Journal 18.2 (2006): 163-173.

(Please see a post on our additional blog  http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/serial-queen-melodramas/ for more information on these.)

As always, enjoy the melodrama links, and log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add you thoughts or to propose a melodramatic area for us to discuss!

BFI’s Gothic Film Season

Posted by Sarah

I thought it would be worth drawing attention to an upcoming melodrama-related event. This especially ties into the Gothic strand of melodrama the Melodrama Research Group has recently been investigating.

The British Film Institute has announced its season of Gothic Films. This is scheduled to run from October 2013 to January 2014 and involve indoor and outdoor events across the country.

BFI gothic

Visit the website http://www.bfi.org.uk/gothic for more details, including a spooky video trailer.