Tamsin Flower’s TRANSFORMER

We were very pleased to recently welcome back writer/director Tamsin Flower, about 6 weeks after her last visit. It was great to read the first draft of her play TRANSFORMER in full, after the excerpts we were treated to last time. This was especially useful due to the play’s complex and thought-provoking structure. The play’s main characters, overbearing mother Norma and the far less sure of herself and still-developing Eddie, each has a different relationship to the films referenced.

We particularly commented on the impactful nature of the first two scenes. In the first, Eddie’s tangle with an impresario comments on Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) with her success in winning the dual role in Swan Lake prompting Norma to celebrate and reminisce about her own related experience. This second scene also involves an impresario, though Norma is far more knowing, and pushy, than the heroine she references: that of the young female ballet dancer Vicky (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger). The fact that the both the obsessive female dancer and the figure of the impresario are archetypes – as demonstrated by the act The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s disturbing fairy tale (1845) – aids the audience’s recognition of both figures even if they are unfamiliar with the films. But the play delves far deeper than this as Norma and Eddie’s relationship to these related but diverging film texts, and of course to each other, are multi-layered.

While both The Red Shoes and Black Swan focus on a woman’s love/hate relationship with dancing and the control it exerts on her, these women and the contexts of the films are very different. In The Red Shoes the ballerina literally cannot escape her compulsion, dancing up until almost her last moment when she jumps in front of a moving train. In Andersen’s story this a punishment for the pleasure she takes in her beautiful new red slippers she insists on wearing to church, with her only stopping once her slipper-encased feet have gruesomely been chopped off. The more modern Black Swan couches Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) breakdown as the pressure between the oppositional good and bad characters she plays on stage, with the moral judgment of women seen in Andersen’s fairy tale replaced by recognition of the pressures women are under.

(For more on Black Swan see this earlier blog post: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/08/summary-of-discussion-on-black-swan/).

Norma and Eddie’s relationship is commented on by the tension existing between both characters and the film texts they are connected to. This is seen as despite the fact Norma, as befitting her age, is linked to The Red Shoes, and Eddie to Black Swan, it is in fact the older Norma who pushes boundaries. In her retelling of her meeting with an impresario, asides convey her calculated behaviour. This is similarly demonstrated as she is present in part of Eddie’s first scene, taking over to tell her story and also commenting on the complex mother/daughter relationship present in Black Swan.

While Norma changes little, Eddie develops, after a crisis of identity leads to a period of estrangement and meaning that Eddie following her own path. Here the recognisable film tropes of women empowering themselves through education (Erin Brockovich, 2000, Steven Soderbergh) and of films’ makeover scenes (Clueless, 1995, Amy Heckerling) shine a light on the way audiences in general respond to stars, including as an ego ideal inspiring self-development. Norma is also ‘made-over’ (references to the classic Now Voyager, 1942, Irving Rapper) but her empowerment comes through her manipulation of men (The Damned Don’t Cry, 1950, Vincent Sherman). Even for modern day theatre audiences who might not be familiar with these specific (though widely available and mostly Hollywood) film texts, the fact they reference themes disseminated in films and indeed these themselves reflect their presence in other art forms/discourses of entertainment widens their appeal, reach and relevance.  The script sets up the matter of how specific (though imaginary) audience members might appropriate material from well-known films with female stars whose characters undergo some sort of transformation. Furthermore, as film academics, many of us historians, this bridges the gap between historical audiences who can seem difficult to grasp, offering some insights into how texts are read, re-read and re-purposed including as part of people’ life narratives.

A particularly enjoyable and fruitful discussion revolved around the matter of pre-code films. This too relates to the matter of historically situated audiences as many today would be unaware that some films before the implementation of this heavier censorship in Hollywood (the Production or Hays Code in 1934) actually referenced matters like prostitution, child abuse and other weighty issues. We specifically discussed the pre-code Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green) – a film credited as partly responsible for more censorship being necessary. In this, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young woman who after years of abuse, including being prostituted by her own father, is encouraged (ironically enough by a man) to use men the way men have always used her – to employ sex for her own ends. Although Lily is in some ways ‘normalised’ – although she cold-heartedly climbs the ladder of executives at the company she is employed by she eventually marries her boss and realising her love for him she later sacrifices her hard-won jewellery – she still gains through using her sexual powers, although she may of course be given special justification due to the awful abuse she has suffered.

We contrasted this to The Damned Don’t Cry which is referenced in the play as Norma regales Eddie, and us, with how she used men to further her own financial standing. The Damned Don’t Cry is a somewhat uneven film, veering from severe sympathy for Edith Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford) after the loss of her child and perhaps some delight in her turning the tables on men, though she does not have such a damaged background as Lily in Baby Face. Furthermore in the post-code and more conservative early 1950s Ethel/Lorna is punished by the killing of the man she loves by the one she has betrayed.

We also commented on the variety of genres referenced – Norma’s melodrama to Eddie’s drama, adaptation, romantic comedy, and horror. This too makes it more recognisable to various audiences and widens the appeal of the piece. In addition, we thought that the humour derived from Norma’s high campery (itself also chiming well with some of the film heroines she references) provided lighter and enjoyable moments.

We look forward to seeing the next draft of Tamsin’s script (thanks so much for sharing, Tamsin!) and to seeing it staged.

As ever, do 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.