Summary of Discussion on Baby Face

Our discussion after viewing the uncensored (discovered in 2004) version of Baby Face (1933, Alfred Green) focused on several areas. These included its heroine Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), comparison and contrasts to heroines (and female stars) of other pre-code films such as Red-Headed Woman and Rain, Lily’s relationships with men (especially Courtland Trenholm, played by George Brent), the film’s writers, and differences between the censored and uncensored versions of the films.

One of the first remarks when we finished viewing the film, concerned the efficiency of Lily’s (Barbara Stanwyck’s) rise to the top.  We commented on the effective visual way in which her speedy sexual conquest of all men she met was conveyed. This is notable in terms of Lily ascending the floors of the Gotham Trust Tower as she improves her career prospects by sleeping with the bosses of each department. Lily’s accommodation also progresses. She moves from the tacky bar in Pennsylvania in which she grew up to cheap rooms in New York. While Lily is working, she is shown incongruously living in more palatial apartment with a stunning staircase, maid (her friend Chico) and butler, and ends the film as a married woman living in the company penthouse.

Changes to Lily’s person also comment on her rise in social position. Her earlier fussy clothes and hairstyling give way to sleeker and more sophisticated fashions. Like Lily’s acquisition of a maid and butler, this can also be connected to her concern with ‘etiquette’ – the title of a book she is seen to be reading at her work desk. A poster for the film demonstrates Lily’s changing fashions, with the placement of an open book in the bottom of the left-hand corner suggesting such this has caused Lily’s transformations.

The fact that Lily’s progresses upwards, rather than spiralling downwards, comments on the fact she is a ‘bad girl’ trying to improve her situation, rather than a ‘fallen woman’. We particularly connected this to melodrama, as we compared Lily to the ‘classic’ suffering heroine in melodrama (for example, Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920)) who despairs at her fate after an often blameless fall from grace. Lily has certainly suffered – the film spends a reasonable amount of time documenting her early life as a justification for her later actions – as it is made clear that her father has prostituted her from a young age.  Yet her attitude is detached. In scenes near the beginning of the film, she calmly responds to an older man’s sexual advances with what seem to be well-worn behaviours: pouring scalding coffee over his legs, and smashing a bottle over his head.

Lily’s emotional detachment continues, even in the most melodramatic of situations. Her previous paramour Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) shoots dead her latest lover J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker) (coincidentally also until recently Stevens’ prospective father-in-law as well as his boss) before turning the gun on himself in her apartment. Initially Lily seems unsure what to do, but she soon turns pragmatic as she calmly telephones for the police to be called. Most of Lily’s responses which we can interpret as emotional – turning away, raising a handkerchief to her face and inserting a break into her voice –  occur when she is caught in a compromising situation with a man by another man. Lily is unconcerned by the fate of the man she accuses of being her seducer, as she is more concerned with hoodwinking the man who has discovered the pair, lining him up as her next lover.

These consistently faked emotional responses are perhaps partly what makes the end of the film less than convincing.  By this time, Lily has made it to the top of the ladder. She now occupies the company penthouse with her husband the company’s president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). After a while of living the high life and gathering money and jewels, the bank is in crisis, and Lily’s husband is threatened with indictment. After initially deserting her husband, Lily changes her mind not to provide the money necessary for his bail.  She returns to their penthouse, only to find him near to death after attempting to take his own life. Lily rushes to him, calls his name, and visible appears upset. Her frantic calling for an ambulance notably contrasts to her earlier emotionless request for the police to attend the murder and suicide at her apartment. Although the group did not find Lily’s change of heart credible, unlike the earlier situations in which Lily affects emotion, and we the audience is privy to Lily’s manipulation, it is signalled to be ‘real’. Not only has Lily already decided to return to her desperate husband, but her concern for him extends to her behaviour in the ambulance, when she does not care that she has dropped her case of jewels on the floor.

We thought that another reason we found Lily’s return to her husband unconvincing, was that we were not given much time to invest in their relationship. Trenholm enters the narrative quite late and his and Lily’s relationship does not gradually develop. This is because her climb up the ladder involves using many men to step up to the next level – and this leaves little time. We compared this to the situation in other contemporaneous ‘bad girl’ films. In Red Headed Woman (1932), Lillian (Jean Harlow) marries a man after wrecking his first marriage. She then cheats on him with a business associate and the business associate’s chauffeur, and finally shoots her estranged husband. She does not appear to be punished by the narrative as her husband refuses to press charges, and the fact that she is seen with an older man later in film suggests that she has found someone else to take care of her. This summary of the plot, though brief, illuminates some key difference between Lillian and Lily. While Lillian seduces and marries a man at the beginning of the film, Lily only marries towards the film’s end. This suggests that Lily develops, while Lillian does not, and that Lily is indeed more contained by the narrative which sees her living within social norms at the film’s close.

Neither Lily nor Lillian are straightforward with the men with whom they have relationships, and comparison to another film – Rain (1932) – provides further insight. In this adaption of Somerset Maugham’s short story, the costuming and acting of Joan Crawford depicts Sadie as a woman who does not hide the fact that she is working as a prostitute, and as such is more honest and less manipulative than Lily and Lillian. We briefly compared the growth of Lily and Sadie. Lily’s transformation is gradual in dress and hairstyling, and with an upwards trajectory, until the final realisation which the audience may or may not choose to believe. After some time, Sadie changes overnight from a brash, heavily jewelled and carefully coiffured woman to one dressing in drab dark clothes, with simply-styled hair, and quieter gestures. The fact this is presented with almost religious overtones and is a set-piece of the film, affords it more weight in terms of character development than Lily’s.  Like Lily, Sadie too is contained within an acceptable monogamous relationship at the film’s conclusion. (For more on Rain, please see our previous discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/20/summary-of-discussion-on-rain/)

 

We wondered whether Crawford would have been as successful as Stanwyck at depicting a heroine who manipulated many men, but also retained audience sympathy. It was thought unlikely that Crawford would have been able to convey the sense of feigned innocence as effectively as Stanwyck. Reference to some fan and trade magazines Lies has kindly posted on our sister blog, NoRMMA, suggest that Stanywck was thought especially suitable for the role. Picture Play’s September 1933 review of the film praises Stanwyck as ‘thoughtfully convincing’, eschewing ‘the histrionic splurge of a star on the rampage’ (p. 70). (You can find Lies’ posts here:  http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=614) It is notable that Crawford was not a critical success in Rain.

We also thought that Stanwyck was a particularly effective choice. During much of the film, Lily insists on carrying on with her career and this fitted well with Stanwyck’s star image as a hard-working and no-nonsense star. After breaking up Ned Stevens’ engagement, Lily refuses his offer to look after her, stating that she wants to continue working. This was hugely relevant to female stars of the day who, unlike their male counterparts, were asked if they would continue working after they married.

 

We focused a little more on the film’s male characters.  After manipulating so many stupid men, we initially thought that Lily had finally met her match (in both senses) with Trenholm. But he too disappoints us. He thwarts her attempt to extort money from the company by taking her at her dishonest word that she is not interested in money for her diaries (the publication of which would be explosive for the bank) but about having another chance. Lily takes up his offer of a job in their Paris office, succeeding in her new post and not turning to men for financial support. When Trenholm visits Paris, Lily contrives to take a ride with him in his car and they strike up conversation. She seemingly candidly admits that she only took the job and led a quiet life to prove him wrong. It takes just a few days, the ‘happiest’ of his life, and her clearly leading mention of marriage (she says she would like the title ‘Mrs’ on her tombstone), for him to propose. Following their marriage, Lily disappoints us too – she gives up the career she earlier insisted on keeping.

The only man who is not shown in a poor light is the cobbler, Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Athier) who recommends Lily follows Nietzsche’s philosophy. When he arrives at the bar, Lily seeks him out, telling him he is different to other men. Lily later visits him for advice after her father dies, and she continues to receive lessons in philosophy from him by post. It is notable that this lone positive view of a man is of the only non-American man playing a significant role. We could also argue that this gives an element of detachment to his advice. He is advocating cynical European philosophy rather than a more obviously optimistic ‘American’ way of life.

It was interesting to consider the source of the film – whether it was an adaptation of an existing text or an original screenplay. We especially connected this to the obvious way in which the film would have challenged censors of the day, even before the Production Code came into force in 1934. In some ways it seemed almost taunting in its almost conveyor belt style production line of men in Lily’s life. The story was provided, under a pseudonym, by Daryl F. Zanuck – head of Production at Warner Bros. Given that Zanuck would have had particular insight into the threat of industry censorship, this seemed a brave move when the industry was attempting to keep censorship a more ‘in-house’ matter. While Zanuck wrote the framework of the story (presumably the main plot line of Lily working her way up the ladder), some of the more nuanced aspects which intervene in the matter of career are perhaps attributable to the screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. The pair also worked together on the films Female and Midnight Mary, both released the same year as Baby Face.

Scola was one of several female screenwriters who worked on such films at the time. Others included Anita Loos (who began work on Midnight Mary before it was passed to Markey and Scola), and Ursula Parrot who wrote the novel The Divorcee (1930) is based on (you can see our discussion of the film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/02/28/a-summary-of-discussion-on-the-divorcee/) While we cannot presume that Scola was responsible for the aspects which seemed  especially progressive for women (such as Lily’s insistence on her career), it is also the case that while there is a certain applauding of Lily turning the tables on men who have abused her, this is not uncomplicated. We may see this as a form of feminism today, but it is difficult to know what the intent as at the time.

It is possible that the depiction of the friendship between Lily and the African-American Chico (Theresa Harris) is from a more female point of view. The film may not be seen to be very advanced in the roles it casts Chico in (we assume that, like Lily, she is used by men for sex, and later she becomes Lily’s maid). However, the relationship between Lily and Chico is more important. Early on, Lily protects Chico when her father threatens her, saying that if Chico she will too. Lily also looks after Chico as they travel to New York, and later when employing her as a maid she treats her kindly.

As noted earlier, we watched the uncensored version of the film. This was therefore closer to what the screenwriters originally intended. We commented on some of the differences between the censored and uncensored versions. Lily and her husband are punished in the uncensored version to some extent as his life hangs in the balance, and it is assumed they may lose some, or all, of their money fighting his criminal case. While the censored version makes a couple of other changes (a less lingering shot of Lily from the man she pours coffee over, a rewording of the justification by the cobbler of Nietzsche), the ending is the most significant. Neither Stanwyck nor Brent appear in this, instead the voice of morality is given to the banking board as they comment that the couple has returned to Lily’s home town, and are poor and miserable. Stanwyck and Brent’s absence may be due to scheduling conflicts, but it is significant that we do not actually see the couple in this situation. The fact that an all-male board of bankers passes judgement may be seen to relate to censors of the day. While we cannot be sure of the position bankers held in the view of ordinary people of the day, the film was released only a few years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression. Bankers then, as now, may not have been seen as moral arbiters.

We made a further connection to more traditional melodrama. We noted that characters in some stage melodramas, were also able to indulge in certain behaviour for much of the narrative before a swift and perhaps unconvincing turn around at the end. This was sometimes even supplied outside of the narrative, as a woman delivered a brief moral lecture after the play ended, warning the audience against such behaviour.

Such a disjuncture between the behaviour that goes on and that which is approved of is especially interesting at the time when the supposed ‘casting couch’ in Hollywood (female starlets enduing he attentions of more powerful men in order to advance their careers) is said to have operated. It also seems especially apt given the gulf between what is preached about Hollywood today, and the behaviour which actually occurs. This continuation in the inequality of power between the sexes, and the complexity of women’s advancement in terms of careers, makes Baby Face even more relevant than ever.  We hope to build on the discussion here with screenings of more pre-code films next term (stay tuned for more information!) and to further our engagement with materials from the time on the NoRMMA blog.

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

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on Monday the 13th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

We will be showing Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933, 75 mins). We recently referenced this pre-code Hollywood film in our discussion of Tamsin Flower’s developing stage play, TRANSFORMER:

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/09/19/tamsin-flowers-transformer/

The film’s heroine (the ‘Baby Face’ of the title, played by Barbara Stanwyck) improves her material wealth by turning the tables on men who have abused her since she was a child. In addition to its interest to the group due to its melodramatic narrative, Baby Face raises lots of issues regarding the representation of women on screen and comments on society in the US in the 1930s. Despite the fact the film is over 80 years old, screening it seems especially timely. There is currently much coverage of Hollywood’s treatment of those who are perceived to hold less power, and of the brave men and women who are reporting their experiences of abuse in the industry.

The film also allows us to explore film history in more detail. The film was released not long before Hollywood’s Production Code, which policed the content of films, was implemented. Indeed, it is credited by some as being one of the handful of films which prompted the clampdown on what types of  moral and sexual behaviour were acceptable on the screen. This led to the original version being edited, although both the censored and  uncensored versions are available today and will be discussed at the session.

Do join us, if you can, for this important film.

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 Crimson Field

Our discussion on The Crimson Field encompassed several areas: its three (or four) female heroines and some similarities to the heroines of melodrama and the gothic; other female characters; relationships between the other characters, including between the genders and within hierarchical structures; the suffering crying soldier and his connection to music; other films and TV series about women during war and pondering why the series was not recommissioned.

We began by noting that the hour was very action and character packed – despite the fact it all took place during the one day. This set up many interesting plot points and character relationships for upcoming episodes.

We thought that the first episode’s focus on three women’s journeys to, and first experience of, the field hospital echoed a similar Hollywood trope. In Hollywood films there are sometimes three main female characters with these separated from one another on the grounds of morality: one is a ‘good’ girl, one a ‘bad’ girl and the other sits somewhere in between. Each of these faces a different fate: one is usually punished (often by death), another triumphs and the third suffers but manages to go on. We commented that this links to US, and especially Hollywood films’, focus on melodrama.

In The Crimson Field, there are the posh clueless Flora (Alice St. Clair), the left on the shelf do-gooder spinster Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) and the spirited Kitty (Oona Chaplin) who is signalled as ‘bad’ through her modern habits of smoking and expressing forthright opinions. Kitty seems to be our main heroine as we are afforded some insight into her past as she throws away a ring on her boat journey. While Flora has to suffer the grim reality of bloody bandages and Rosalie is mocked for her spinster status, we are more invested in Kitty. She stands up to matron on behalf of the other women, and is later in danger as she is attacked by a patient. Her response to this is calm, forgiving, and her challenge to man to just kill her gives us some further awareness of her troubled past.

The three heroine focus is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a fourth. Joan (Suranne Jones), a self-sufficient qualified nurse, arrives late, dressed in a leather coat, sporting a short hairdo, and riding a motorcycle. We thought that the fact she is unmarried (such an option was not open to nurses at the time), her appearance and manner possible coded her as a lesbian. We were especially intrigued regarding the ring she wears around her neck, hidden by her clothes.

While the emphasis on suffering – of both genders – points to melodrama, we also saw a correlation with some of our recent work on the gothic. The three main female characters headed outside at night, dressed in white gowns and carrying lamps, to wish the troops luck as they left for the front.

Our attention was also drawn to the two other main female characters – Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox) and the recently promoted Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris). Their relationship was complex. Outwardly good colleagues, there appeared to be tensions under the surface since Grace became matron despite Margaret having more experience. We also found the difference in their approaches to the new volunteers telling. While Grace was tough on them, Margaret appeared more friendly. Margaret was revealed to be hypocritical and cruel however as she commandeers Flora’s cake and despite telling her she has shared it among the men, is seen eating it secretly. More disturbingly she deliberately withholds a medical exemption from a suffering soldier meaning that he is sent back to the front. Meanwhile Grace is revealed to be caring towards Kitty after her attack, despite Kitty’s earlier disobedience.

Despite the dramatic war backdrop, much of the episode is about such complex characters, their power plays ,and their battling relationships. We also commented on the kindness of Kevin Doyle’s captain Lt Colonel Roland Brett,  in contrast to Colonel Charles Purbright (Adam James) forcing an emotionally damaged soldier to return to the front. Even the admirable Brett warns Matron Carter to make sure she controls the potentially ‘silly’ new female volunteers, though. This attitude fits in with the misogynistic narrative the melodrama research group has recently uncovered while researching the World War I magazine The War Illustrated. In these issues girls can be plucky and brave, but they are still kept contained. The depiction of the main heroines and other women in The Crimson Field challenges this view. (See the NoRMMA website for more on the project: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=604.)

We were especially struck by the depiction of Corporal Lawrence Prentiss (Karl Davies) – particularly in contrast to the women. Prentiss appears to have PTSD, and is seen to be physically suffering from his war experiences. He is offered sanctuary by the colonel (who also explicitly defies an order from his superior not to reissue an exemption pass on health grounds) and is seen crying profusely as he listens to a gramophone record of Madame Butterfly. Such a depiction of the suffering male is unusual, and the understanding shown to Prentiss perhaps progressive for the time. It is possibly significant that the music has a restorative or recuperative effect because Prentiss’ emotions are displaced onto those of a woman – the suffering opera heroine.

Watching the episode also prompted some discussion of other films and TV series which covered a similar topic. We mentioned the British films The Gentle Sex (1943) and Millions Like Us (1943) whose points of view were affected by their time of production. The TV series Tenko (1981-1984) about female prisoners of war was also referenced for its unusual focus on women during wartime.

We ended by pondering why the series was not recommissioned. It would have been especially apt to have it run through the 100 year commemoration of World War I. Its complex characters, and its positive view of women, provide a different view of war to the one we are usually afforded. We connected this to the BBC now moving money into such massive budget programmes as The Night Manager as it competes with Netflix and other platforms. If you’d like to see the rest of the series, most episodes are available to University of Kent staff and students via Box Of Broadcasts: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/

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

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 26th of October, 4.30-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 26th of October, 4.30-7pm, in Jarman 7.

The first of our Gothic season is Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock, 130 mins).

Modern Screen May 1940 Rebecca ad modernscreen2021unse_0421

According to a review in the June 1940 issue of the Fan Magazine Hollywood, the film is the ‘story of a young bride who was haunted by the mystery and by the memory of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca’ (p. 16). Above is an advertisement for Rebecca from the May 1940 issue of the Fan Magazine Modern Screen (p. 12). The artwork and text of this advertisement keys us to several of the film’s melodramatic themes, adding to the information provided by the review. (You can find these, and other Fan Magazine treasures, on the wonderful Lantern search facility of the Media History Digital Library website: http://lantern.mediahist.org/)

The presence, and positon and size of the illustration of the two stars is instructive. The large head and shoulders portrait is placed centrally. The wide-eyed facial expression of the second Mrs De Winter is in keeping with the ‘woman in peril’ theme of the Gothic we are focusing on this term. Significantly, underneath the credits it is noted that this is the ‘sensational starring debut’ of Joan Fontaine. This chimes with her character’s naïve, unknowing initial state and her eagerness to uncover the truth.

Laurence Olivier is more straightforwardly billed as previously being the ‘hero’ of Wuthering Heights. Rebecca is also an adaptation, but of a more recent popular novel by Daphne Du Maurier. The illustration of Olivier is suitably moody given Maxim De Winter’s complex character and contrasts to Fontaine’s concerned expression.

A figure we might presume represents the first Mrs De Winter appears in the top right hand corner, and unlike the film’s stars she is afforded a full-length presence which shows off her evening gown, with a hand resting nonchalantly on her left hip. Her face is obscured into nothingness, however, heightening the sense of mystery. Our interest is further piqued by the tagline which focuses on the suffering of the couple: ‘The Shadow of this Woman DARKENED THEIR LOVE!’

The Manderley estate, the subject of Du Maurier’s novel’s famous opening line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’, is also prominently placed. This is seen just underneath the looming figure of Rebecca, indicating that she continues to ‘haunt’ the house.

Do join us if you can – the intersection of stardom, male and female relations, Gothic tropes and domestic space will provide lots of food for thought.

 

 

Additional resources

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

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

You can find more information on these articles on our additional blog (https://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/) or email me at  sp458@kent.ac.uk

Katie Grant’s fantastic audio-visual essay ‘Voluptuous Masochism: Gothic Melodrama Studies in Memory of Joan Fontaine’ is  on her Film Studies For Free blog:

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

 

 

Kathleen Loock’s Seminar on Sound remakes of Silent Film, 1st of April, 2-4pm, KSR 4

We are very pleased to welcome Kathleen Loock to Kent. Kathleen has very kindly provided the following contextual information about her work which she will speak to us about in more detail on the 1st of April, 2-4 pm, in Keynes Seminar Room 4:

Sound Memories: “Talker Remakes,” Paratexts, and Cinematic (Self-)Historicization

 MPN_19301907_Greta Garbo Cartoon (2)

(The above is from Motion Picture News, 19th of July, 1930, p. 41).

During the transition to sound and throughout the 1930s, Hollywood remade a great number of former silent hits as talkies. Remaking was an established practice by that time, but since the coming of sound, cinema attendance had decisively increased with between 80 and 90 million Americans going to see double features every week in theaters that remained open all year long. Until the early 1940s, studios produced from 400 to 800 films each year, and recycling old properties was both a way to meet the public demand for talkies when it was difficult to find fresh stories, and to encourage return visits to the cinemas with tried and proven material. Hollywood movies had a “short shelf-life” at the time. They were essentially ephemeral commodities—quickly outdated and forgotten unless they were remade. In this sense, “talker remakes” replaced predecessors from the days of silent cinema with updated sound versions, yet in doing so they also preserved popular narratives for future media generations. In fact, they constructed these media generations and prompted them to recognize themselves as such in the ways their versions differed from earlier renditions of the same story. “Talker remakes” and the various paratexts that surrounded them evoked the memory of silent films as something of the past and framed the transition to sound as a narrative of technological progress. Thus, they made the historic development of cinema as a technological medium visible, and ultimately helped to construct and communicate a cinematic past and archive.

For more information on Kathleen’s work visit her staff page at Freie Universitat Berlin: http://www.jfki.fu-berlin.de/en/faculty/culture/persons/team/Loock/

Research Talk by Patrick Pilkington, 15th of December, MLT2, 5-7pm

We are very pleased to welcome Patrick Pilkington of the University of Warwick’s Film and Television Department to the University of Kent. Patrick will present a talk entitled ‘Laws of Desire: The Courtroom Trial Sequence in Classical Hollywood Melodrama’ which will take place on the 15th of December, Marlowe  Lecture Theatre 2 (MLT2) , 5-7pm.

Inherit the Wind

Abstract:

The trial sequence is a longstanding feature of Hollywood cinema’s narratives, from the silent era through to today. Despite a rich and varied history, the cinematic trial is most often associated with what Francis M. Nevins (1984) terms the “Golden Age” trial film, a small number of Hollywood productions made in the 1950s and 1960s that believe in and reinforce notions of a working, just system of law (for example: 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird). I contrast this representational mode, focused on active, male protagonists – often in the role of the legal professional – with the depiction of the courtroom trial in a number of female-centred melodramas of the period that place a female protagonist on the stand. Paying special attention to films such as Written on the Wind (1956), Peyton Place (1957), and Madame X (1966), I locate a mode of representing the trial that is distinctly melodramatic in its emphases and conventions. The focus on the courtroom as a site of repression and revelation, and the designation of speech and silence during the trial, work alongside the employment of other conventions of melodrama including its hierarchical point-of-view and stylistic and narrative ‘excesses’. This produces a separate mode of representation that alternately works with and pushes against the conventions of trial depiction, giving voice to something other than a dominant, law-affirming point of view.

More information about Patrick:

http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/current/postgrads/graduate_research/patrickpilkington/

All are welcome to attend!

The Women Screening at the Gulbenkian 13th of October, 7pm

Posted by Sarah

Following the launch of NoRMMA, outlined in the below post, the Gulbenkian is screening the Hollywood classic The Women (1939, George Cukor). This film stars numerous Divine Divas, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, who were the subjects of many a Fan Magazine article. The film will be introduced with an illustrated talk by Lies Lanckman.

The Women

For more information and to book your tickets please go to: http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/October/2014-10-the-women.html

Gone With the Wind (1939) screening at the Gulbenkian Cinema on Sunday 12th of January

Posted by Sarah

The Gulbenkian Cinema, located on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus, is screening the classic Hollywood melodrama Gone With the Wind (1939) on Sunday the 12th of January from 1.30 pm – 5.30 pm.

gone with the wind

The following is from the Gulbenkian Cinema’s website http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/January/2014-01-gone-with-the-wind.html where you can also book your ticket.

Victor Fleming | USA | 1939/2013 | 233mins | Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell

Often considered the greatest films of all time – the pinnacle of polished Hollywood storytelling – this truly epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s seminal work of American literature bristles with energy and passion and demands to be seen on the big screen following a 4K digital restoration.

It is 1861 on a palatial Southern estate, where Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) hears that her casual beau Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) plans to marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Despite warnings from her father (Thomas Mitchell) and her faithful servant Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett intends to throw herself at Ashley at an upcoming social event. Alone with Ashley, she goes into a fit of histrionics, all of which is witnessed by roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the black sheep of a wealthy Charleston family, who is instantly fascinated by the feisty, thoroughly self-centred Scarlett…

“It’s impossible not to be carried away by the rich arterial force of this storytelling.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Tickets: Full £7.50 / Concessions £6.50/ GulbCard Members £5.50 / Students £4.50 / GulbCard Students £4

This will be a great opportunity to see a beautifully restored version of the film on the big screen.

 

Summary of Discussion on Christmas Holiday

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion focused on several areas:  suspense and the theme of concealment and revelation; matters of genre and cycles – especially film noir and melodrama; the main female character Jackie/Abigail; the star images of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly; costume; Somerset Maugham; a few specific scenes; other related films.

Christmas Holiday

We began by examining the film’s flashback structure. While the fractured approach to storytelling was not unusual for the time, especially in film noir, we found the way the film presented the narrative very odd. After the initial framing narrative of Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a Lieutenant on leave who ends up holidaying in New Orleans at Christmas, the main story begins. Jackie (formerly Abigail, played by Deanna Durbin) shares her life story with her new friend Lieutenant Mason.  She very quickly reveals the reason for her sadness, and her name change: her husband Robert Manette (played by Gene Kelly) is in prison, serving life for murder.

The fact that Jackie is explicit regarding her husband’s guilt and his crime (though not the motivation for it) so early in the film means that little suspense is created until the shoot-out at the film’s conclusion. Following the first flashback, which shows the consequences of Robert’s crime on family life, further flashbacks are provided. These detail Abigail and Robert’s first meeting, some of their subsequent dates, and Abigail’sChristmas Holiday guilt introduction to Robert’s omnipresent mother (played by Gale Sondergaard). Suspense would have been generated by just a slight reticence on Jackie’s part regarding the reason for her distressed state and a reordering of the flashbacks so that they occurred largely chronologically: the first date, subsequent dates, the revelation of Robert’s guilt etc.

While flashbacks and voice-over narration are key to film noir (whether we consider it to be a genre or a cycle) we noted that this lack of suspense did not relate to our experience of the genre/cycle. It also did not seem especially connected to melodrama’s often used theme of concealment and revelation. Of course, genre is often hybridised and any attempt to categorise a film as belonging to one genre or another based on whether certain elements are present is fairly restrictive. However we found it useful to relate other aspects of the film – mostly character – to genre.

It is fairly unusual for film noir to contain a female voice-over, to tell, and to show, the woman’s story. Jackie/Abigail is also treated sympathetically, partly because the rottenness of Robert is so evident. She is not a femme fatale. Robert’s mother is far more sinister. She is a malevolent presence throughout (even, or perhaps especially, whilst knitting in the background) despite welcoming Abigail as Robert’s last hope of salvation. However after the court case she provides one of the film’s most dramatic moments. She berates Abigail for her weakness, shouting ‘You killed him’ and Christmas Holiday knittingslapping her in the face. This is not just dramatic but inaccurate – Robert is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment, but not to death. It also seems unfair on Abigail when it is clear that Robert’s life has been heavily influenced by his unhealthily close relationship to his mother. This point is also stated in the voice-over when Jackie reveals that it was described by a psychiatrist as ‘pathological’.

The focus on Jackie/Abigail is highlighted by the trailer’s promotion of   Durbin playing ‘The Screen’s Greatest Woman’s Role’. This confuses some of the usual (admittedly binary) gender distinctions of noir as being  ‘male’ oriented   and melodrama as ‘female’ focused – both in terms of character and audience. The melodrama research group has, of course, seen the sheer variety of melodrama over the last year which shows that the narrow view of melodrama as ‘woman’s weepies’ is highly reductive and unproductive.

Another aspect of the film seemed unusual – Deannafor both noir and melodrama. The film’s ending is rather hopeful. The recently widowed Jackie/Abigail looks to a sky in which the clouds are parting and there is a suggestion that she might find love with the supportive Lieutenant.  We related this optimism to Durbin’s star image. Given her hitherto fairly uncomplicated star image of a happy young girl who likes to sing it is noteworthy that this film allowed her to play two roles: the generally happy young wife and the woman ground down by life’s disappointments. Due to the flashback structure these were juxtaposed throughout the film, allowing for the foregrounding of Durbin’s performance. This means that after our first introduction to Jackie we are continually reminded of her ‘earlier’ self and of Durbin’s ‘earlier’ screen self – a happy young girl in love.

Gene Kelly dancerGene Kelly’s star image was also discussed. While today we primarily associate him with song-and-dance roles, contemporary audiences saw him in a variety of roles before Christmas Holiday. These included musicals (Du Barry Was a Lady 1943) and dramas (For Me and My Girl 1942, Pilot #5 1943, The Cross of Lorraine 1943).  (This information on the films’ genres is courtesy of the American Film Institute Catalog and notes some films as ‘with songs’ rather than as musicals: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/)

We talked quite a lot about the Christmas Holiday Durbin's first appearancefilm’s costumes, especially Durbin’s wardrobe. She begins the film wearing a very glamorous and grown-up evening dress. This is striking as it is our first view of Jackie – and indeed of the ‘new’ Durbin. This is delayed, first by the framing narrative and then by the fact that Jackie/Durbin is first glimpsed with her back to the camera, making her way to the stage to perform a song.  Her next outfit was especially memorable. As Jackie and the Lieutenant sit talking in a café she is dressed in a light coloured trench coat and coordinating hat. Perhaps because of the film’s noirish elements, this reminded us of the detective figure in many 1940s films, and specifically of Humphrey Bogart. It is an especially interesting costume choice as this relation to the male star who played the protagonist of several noirs also Christmas Holiday trenchcoat and hatseems to place Jackie centrally. The wisecracking comments made by both Robert and Jackie were commented on. They reminded us of another film pair at times – Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though it was notable that they did not interact in this way with each other since only Jackie, and not Abigail, has been made cynical by her experience.

The extent of Jackie’s suffering – being forced to turn to prostitution – is unsurprisingly not made explicit in the film. Hollywood’s Production Code meant that reference to this would not have been allowed by the censors. Somerset Maugham’s novel provided more information and it would be interesting to know just how widely the novel circulated in the United States. The trailer certainly foregrounds Maugham’s involvement.  We found it fruitful to briefly compare the adaptation of Christmas Holiday with Of Human Bondage (1934) which we watched at the beginning Of Human Bondageof term. The earlier, pre-code film, was able to mention Mildred’s descent into prostitution.  There is a key similarity, however.  Both adaptations extract just a small part of the novel, notably the part which deals more with the couple – which often occupies a main position in Hollywood films during the Studio Era.

In terms of specific scenes we noted the connection between the lengthy scene detailing Jackie and Lieutenant Mason’s Christmas Holiday churchattendance at midnight mass and the Abigail’s earlier (though shown later in the film) first meeting with Robert in a cavernous concert hall. In the church Jackie is sobbing… we took this as a reference to her feelings of guilt. However she assures the Lieutenant that she is not crying for the reason that he (and perhaps we) think. The Concert hall scene later shows what Jackie had been crying about – her memory of Robert.

We also briefly discussed the director Robert Siodmak’s other films. Similarities in the plots of Christmas Holiday and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) were mentioned.

If you missed the screening, or would like to rewatch it, you can find it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UFSZay18go

After the discussion we watched a more festive Christmas film: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). Bunny Mattinson’s short film managed to squeeze Charles Dickens’ novel into 20 minutes, but also managed to explore the relation between melodrama and comedy.

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

Thanks to everyone – especially Tamar, Ann-Marie and Geoff – for this week’s entertainment and provisions. Many thanks also to the entire Group for such a productive and fun term. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!