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.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 27th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of the Summer Term’s Maternal Melodrama themed Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 27th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

We are screening Ann-Marie’s choice The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939, 95 mins)

Old Maid 1

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Old Maid is the last film to be screened in the Melodrama Research Group’s series of maternal melodramas. The screening hopes to spark some interesting debates that will help inform our knowledge of maternal melodrama in preparation for our symposium on the 3rd of June.

Edmund Goulding’s film is loosely adapted from the 1935 play of the same name by Zoe Atkins. The play was also awarded a Pulitzer and is itself adapted from a novella by Edith Wharton. Like many of Bette Davis’ melodramas the film has a defined historical setting, and this time it is set during the American Civil War. The film hurries through events and twenty years before it reaches its finale, but this is a Davis film so there is a guarantee of intense female suffering along the way! Including but not limited to: an illegitimate daughter, lost lovers (yes, plural), and a cruel and yet seemingly caring cousin. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, it is the daughter’s treatment of ‘Aunt Charlotte’ that causes the character such anguish.

Old Maid 2

The film itself was not received well by the critics, most only praised the performance of Bette Davis and her co-star Miriam Hopkins (the only actress she seemed to dislike more than Crawford!). Despite the critics dislike for the static look of the film, The Old Maid was successful amongst audiences[1], which of course could lead to a discussion about the importance of maternal melodramas to the audiences of the 30s and 40s.

Other possible areas for discussion:

  • The role of female sacrifice.
  • The role of class, particularly the importance of the ‘good name’.
  • The good and bad mother figure.
  • Familial relations.
  • A woman’s place in society.
  • Aging and youth.
  • Female companionship.

 


 

[1]Over $1.6 million in ticket receipts and Davis’ biggest commercial success to that date, but would soon be beaten by various other films. See: James Spada (1993) More Than A Woman, London: Sphere. pp.219-222

 

Do join us, if you can, for the last of this term’s screenings.

Summary of Discussion on Mildred Pierce

Posted by Sarah

The group’s discussion on Mildred Pierce focused on the following areas: the film as melodrama and/or film noir; comparison of Michael Curtiz’ film to James M. Cain’s novel and the recent TV series starring Kate Winslet; the central mother daughter relationship and differences between Mildred’s daughters Veda and Kay; the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film; Joan Crawford’s star image.

The splitting of Mildred Pierce into melodrama and film noir has been commented on by several writers. In particular Pam Cook (1978) has noted the broad separation into the bulk of the narrative which is narrated by Mildred and largely melodramatic, and the film noir elements.  In fact film noirs often include such a use of flashback narration – Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) is a prime example. Such a clear separation is challenged by Steve Neale’s work on the way in which contemporaneous trade journals used the label ‘melodrama’. Neale asserts that the term was more often used in connection to films which contained ‘mystery, violence, chase’ (Neale 1993, p. 71). This relates closely to film noir. In addition, Linda Williams has proposed that melodrama is less a genre than a mode, and present in most Hollywood films (Williams, 2000). While it useful to further debate the various definitions of melodrama, it is clear that the film contains contrasting styles. We were particularly struck by the film’s opening. In this Wally Fay (Jack Carson) races around the beach house in which Mildred (Joan Crawford) has imprisoned him. We MP Wally on stairsespecially noted the nightmarish shot of a Carson staring up the spiral staircase. Elsewhere Max Steiner’s lush score emphasised the emotional drama (see Claudia Gorbman, 1982). The tagline from a Variety advertisement quoted in Tamar’s introduction that Mildred was ‘Kinda Hard, Kinda soft’ sums up Mildred Pierce’s dual nature well.

MP Ann Blyth cabaret 2Michael Curtiz’ film was also discussed in relation to James M. Cain’s novel. It was noted that Curtiz’ film kept a flavour of Cain’s punchy social commentary. We were a little surprised that under Hollywood’s Production Code fairly obvious references to extra-marital sex and pregnancy were included.  The film was still, as Variety noted in its review, fairly cleaned up from the novel. While in Cain’s novel Veda became a successful opera singer – and therefore profited from her hideous behaviour – in Curtiz’ film she ends up a low-rent cabaret act. A more significant difference is Mildred’s response to finding her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and Mildred’s second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) in a compromising position. In Cain’s novel Mildred is so enraged she attempts to strangle her daughter.  Such an understandable response is not present in Curtiz’ film, though.  Instead Mildred’s suffering sacrifice is played to the hilt. Mildred’s one refusal of Veda’s demands occurs when Veda has shot Monte dead. Mildred soon reconsiders, however, and is prepared to take responsibility for the crime herself.

Veda’s selfish behaviour can be usefully compared to that of Stella’s daughter Laurel in Stella Dallas (1937). In King Vidor’s film both mother and daughter make sacrifices. A telling scene takes place on the train. Stella and Laurel, lying in separate bunks, overhear the latter’s friends mocking Stella for her vulgarity. Each pretends they have not heard in order to protect the other. In Curtiz’ MP ungrateful Vedafilm Mildred alone overhears something significant: Veda’s ungrateful comment to her sister that she would not ‘be seen dead’ in the dress her mother has scrimped and saved to buy for her.  This is especially poignant as Mildred has sacrificed her marriage to Veda’s father in order to supply Veda with everything she desires rather than what she deserves.

MP Mildred slaps VedaWhile Mildred’s accepting sacrifice in the face of such an ungrateful daughter in Curtiz’ film is perhaps less then believable, it was agreed that Ann Blyth superbly portrayed Veda’s venal nature. The film ably contrasts Veda to her sweet little sister Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), whose death scene provides the film’s most distressing moment. We also noted the way in which the film managed to convey complex aspects of Mildred and Veda’s relationship. The repetition of a slap was commented on. The first time this occurs Mildred slaps Veda and, immediately overcome with guilt, profusely apologises. Towards the end of the film Veda slaps her mother. This second occurrence is far more shocking. Partly this is due to the heft of the slap and Mildred/Crawford’s fairly exaggerated physical recoil but it is also notable that Veda does not regret her action. This neatly comments on both the differences MP Mildred is slapped buy Vedabetween the characters and the change in the dynamics of their relationship. The actresses’ costuming, hair and make-up parallel this change. As Veda grows up and Mildred becomes more business-like their outfits and hairstyles echo one another, foreshadowing that they are ‘squaring up’ for the next round of the fight.  We might ponder whether this mirroring is a statement on how much Mildred is responsible for Veda’s spoilt nature.

MP TV seriesJoan Crawford’s performance was compared to Kate Winslet’s in the 2011 TV mini-series. Similarities were noted in the scenes where Mildred puts her children to bed.  In particular the tendency of both actresses to employ minimal mouth movement was commented on. However Crawford’s individuality was also a source of discussion. In addition to the seeming impossibility of her facial features – the severe cheekbones and large eyes and mouth – her wide shoulders were referenced.

 Mildred’s progression from domesticity to high-powered business woman was also commented on. This was compared to the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film – most often in comedy, and portrayed with distinct flair by Rosalind Russell. But we also related it to Crawford’s own star image. In particular her films They All Kissed the Bride (1942) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) were mentioned. It was noted that at the time real shop girls were thought to identify with the shop girls portrayed by Crawford in sound films – such as in The Bride Wore Red (1937). It is worth noting, however, that despite the shop girl playing an important part in Crawford’s 1930s star image she actually played a variety of roles. (See Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, 1993, pp. 171-173.) It was thought that perhaps the emphasis in fan magazines on how Crawford herself learned’ through films strengthened the connection.

In relation to Crawford’s star image It's a Great FeelingTamar suggested  watching It’s a Great Feeling (1949) starring  Doris Day, Jack Carson (Wally Fay) and Dennis Morgan. In the film various Warner Bros. contract stars play up to their star images. Crawford in seen knitting in the background (apparently a hobby of hers) and then angrily berates and slaps Carson for no reason. Afterwards she smiles sweetly and replies to his asking her why she did it that ‘I do that in all my movies’. As with the assumption that Crawford ‘always’ played shop girls, this action which’ does in all her movies’ is in fact very specific. Crawford does not perform such an action in all, or even most, of her films.  Indeed it is largely a reference to Mildred Pierce. It is significant that a few years after the film’s release another film from the same studio posits such an action as an essential part of her star image.

We rounded up discussion with a mention of Johnny Guitar (1954). Significantly in Nicholas Ray’s film Crawford starred with the actress Mercedes McCambridge – with whom she reportedly feuded. This of course prompted thoughts on Bette Davis.  Ann-Marie provided some great behind the scenes information on the next film we will screen – The Old Maid (1939- see the next post!) and Davis’ feud with an actress other than Crawford: Miriam Hopkins.

Works Cited

Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, New York: Knopf, 1993.

Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women In Film Noir, London: BFI 1978.

Claudia Gorbman, “The Drama’s Melos: Max Steiner and Mildred Pierce”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 19, 1982.

Steve Neale, “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 32, 1993.

Linda Williams “Melodrama Revised” in Nick Browne, ed, Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, University of California Press, 1998: 42-88.

A clip of Crawford in It’s a Great Feeling:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trGF6KrMAbA

Many thanks to Tamar for organising the screening and providing an excellent introduction.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 20th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of the Summer Term’s Maternal Melodrama themed Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 20th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

We are screening Tamar’s choice: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945, 111 mins)

MP mother and daughter

Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mildred Pierce – film noir or melodrama?

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is the next film to be screened in the Melodrama Research Group’s series of maternal melodramas, leading up to our symposium on this topic on 3 June. But if it is a maternal melodrama, why is so much written about it under the film noir label?

The film, adapted loosely from the James M. Cain novel of the same name, tells the story of Mildred Pierce and her journey to business success and personal failure. Much of the film’s moody opening seems as if it is trying to force Mildred into the role of noir’s usual femme fatale, but as the narrative succumbs to its flashbacks, her motherhood, as well as other factors, complicates this.

MP double page ad Variety 1

The movie poster’s tagline is in accord with this noir presentation: “The kind of woman most men want – and shouldn’t have! That’s…..Mildred Pierce”, though an earlier piece of publicity had more simply “Kinda Hard Kinda Soft”. Neither seems to do justice to the narrative exigencies to which Mildred is subjected. Perhaps the significant factor for our Melodrama Research Group to ponder is that the film does not easily fit any generic label, but rather exceeds several; furthermore, as theorists have shown, film noir was not an industrial category at the time and, as Steve Neale suggests, neither perhaps was melodrama. There will be much to consider and much to enjoy, then, as we watch Joan Crawford head a talented cast as Mildred and listen to Max Steiner’s supple and evocative score.

Further Reading

Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women In Film Noir, London: BFI 1978.

Claudia Gorbman, “The Drama’s Melos: Max Steiner and Mildred Pierce”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 19, 1982.

Steve Neale, “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 32, 1993.

 Do join us, if you can, for this Hollywood Classic.

Mary Pickford on Psychobitches

Posted by Sarah

Ahead of the screening of Coquette on Wednesday, I thought it might be interesting to consider the presentation of Mary Pickford on Psychobitches. In the Sky Arts comedy series Rebecca Front stars as a therapist helping famous, and infamous, women from history. Julia Davis as Pickford can be seen on youtbe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlMQ0UT9UaU

Davis as Pickford

The clips comment effectively on Pickford’s star image, genre expectation and silent films. All in 2 and a half minutes!

 

psychobitches

Apologies, for the delay, but this also seems a good opportunity to congratulate Tamar for guessing the right answer to the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Psychobitches Challenge. In the clip Mark Gatiss’ Crawford calls Frances Barber’s Davis by the single-syllabled ‘Bet’ rather than the double-syllabled ‘Bette’. Apparently, despite their feud, she would never have dreamed of doing this. Even to wind up Davis!

Well done too to Rosa for supllying another valid answer.

Many thanks to Lies and Ann-Marie for organising this and supplying the great prizes.

Summary of Discussion on American Horror Story

Posted by Sarah

After running the screening session on American Horror Story, Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion:

AHS house

Throughout the session, a constant discussion point was the house, and the importance to the narrative. Many of us commented on the fact it was presented as a gothic house. Also how there was a strange sense of space. The geography of the house did not appear logical – this was mentioned in relation to when Ben’s phoney patient went to leave the house. The front door did not appear where you thought it should be. However, the audience are more aware of the space and the size of the cellar. This use of space to confuse added an unreal aspect to the house – much like The Shining. It was noted how space was beginning to become associated with individual characters and how there was a lack of action outside the space of the house – even in the garden! Some of us who had seen it revealed that the narrative does move to the garden later in the series. Also noted was the lack of possessions in the house – we could see no photos or personal ornaments. Is this important? Maybe the lack of possessions was representational of Ben and Vivienne’s relationship? Empty? The lack of lighting was discussed – how dark the house was lit, adding to the Gothic ambience. Ann-Marie shared that the house was also used in an episode of Buffy entitled “Fear, Itself”. It was observed how the opening of the first episode cut from murders at the house to Vivienne at her gynaecological appointment – making the link with house, procreation and birth. One of the group mentioned how important children and birth are to the narrative, more so as the series goes on and how Constance said how important a “good line” is.

The concept of and use of ghosts was discussed. It was remarked that there is a split (evident later in the series) between those who are malicious and those who are good. The point was made how the character of the ghosts were forged and cemented at the point when they were killed. Although this did not seem to be true for Moira who appears to have a split personality. There is a certain morality in Moira as well as a form of archaic womanhood as she says, it’s women who always cleans up the mess (which she does at the end of episode 2). There was also a discussion on ghosts and the spaces they inhabit. Do they get to go outside? Again, those of us who have watched the series mentioned the episode of Halloween (without giving away any plot spoilers!).

AHS cupcakesThe style of the series was a point for discussion. It was suggested that the storyline involving the cupcake was very Hitchcockian – how the camera focused on the cake and its movement. It was reminiscent of the glass of milk in Notorious but also of Suspicion. The amount of male nakedness was a talking point! There appears to be much more of this than female nakedness. This appeared to be connected with Ben’s sadness and how his sadness is intertwined with his sexual desires. Notably in the scene where he masturbates and cries. The format of the series allowed for more risks in content and for more creativity in the horror/melodrama. The series could not just rely on horror, so there is an emphasis on the drama and melodrama. We invest in the family and, like a crime drama, we want to know what happens next. One of the group observed how revelatory each episode was – and that revelations were not just confined to episodes, but also in terms of ad breaks. You could tell where the ad breaks would occur and how the revelations would be formatted to allow for these breaks, which appeared very Dickensian, or reminiscent of how Dickens serialised his novels for weekly publication. The importance of editing was observed. There is a massive use of jump cuts, which adds to the unsettling nature of the series.

The violence of the series was noted. The excess of Vivienne’s attack on Ben when she finds him with the other woman – she strikes and cuts him with a knife. Also the replaying of Addie’s words “You’ll regret it” over this sequence. It provides a sense of foreboding. It appears as if a comment on modern relationships and how they are somewhat horrific and the split in the family which creates the horror. The focus on the family and the home and the idea of perfection and its attainment. The series appears to be providing commentary on the “all American dream” centred on the home (coded as gothic) and the family. Addie wants to look like a perfect girl and Tait was intended to be the perfect child.

AHS ConstanceJessica Lange’s Constance was a large focus of the discussion. She was discussed in terms of her allure, her power, her sexuality and as a mother. She appeared – through costume and how she spoke – as if a throwback from the 1950s. Constance is a melodramatic constructed woman as she could be from a Sirk film or a Bette Davis or Crawford vehicle. She has no qualms in calling Addie a mongoloid or a freak and locks her in the room of mirrors, which must be a horrific experience for Addie. But she is also very protective of Addie. Constance appears to be vested with some other worldly power which is part of her allure. She too was looking for the “perfect American life” in wanting to be an actress, which is how she came to be in LA.

Many thanks to Kat for organising a screening which led to much discussion, and for summarising it so well!

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

 

Summary of Discussion on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Posted by Sarah

Due to the length of the film, discussion was fairly short but it included: the theme of performance and imitation in melodrama and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s performances in the film; comparison to other Davis and Crawford films and performances; the intended Davis/Crawford follow-up film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte; some specific memorable scenes; the off-screen melodrama of Bette and Joan’s ‘feud’ and the daughters’ autobiographies.

Sunset BlvdThe centrality of performance to melodrama generally (which we have been focusing on particularly in the last few weeks), and to this film specifically, was noted. Of course, in part this is due to the fact both screen stars play characters who were once actresses. The film’s skilful use of old screen clips of Davis and Crawford’s films to demonstrate this  was striking, especially when juxtaposed to their current, older images. We noted that this also occurred with Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and was mentioned in some of this week’s readings (see Brooks, Morey etc) In both films it drives home their central Baby Jane spotlighttheme of performance. The older ‘Baby’ Jane (played by Davis) performs several times in the film by enacting her old song and dance routine.  The film highlights these moments by the staging: a ceiling light acts as a spotlight and Jane/Davis faces front.

Baby Jane telephone BD

The theme of Jane performing also plays out as she imitates her sister Blanche. Jane does so mockingly to begin with as she throws a phrase Blanche has just uttered back in her face, but later her imitation is used for the purpose of impersonation. The first time this occurs it is relatively innocent.  Alcoholic Jane is annoyed that Blanche has cancelled her account with the local off-license and she successfully fools them into believing they are talking to Blanche on the telephone. Not only does she uncannily imitate Blanche’s voice, but she also, arguably unnecessarily, uses similar facial Baby Jane telephone JCexpressions. The second occurrence is far more sinister. Wheelchair-bound Blanche has struggled downstairs and telephoned for help. Once more, Jane manages to convince the person she is talking to (a Doctor in this case) that she is in fact Blanche. Blanche is therefore denied the held she so desperately requires, and struggled so hard to gain access to.

We discussed the way in which Davis effectively portrayed Jane’s switch between the performance of childlikeness (her admittedly deluded, but still slightly detached, enactment of her old song and dance routine) and her regression to childhood. This appeared to be triggered by the cleaner Elvira finding that Jane was keeping Blanche tied up and locked in her room. After attacking and killing Elvira with a hammer, Jane pleads with Blanche to advise her. This is in stark contrast to the control she previously exercised over her sister. Later still, when Jane is concerned with escape, her first thought is to travel to the beach with Blanche.  It was noted that both Rain (1932) and Baby Jane end with deaths on beaches: in  Rain the reformer  Davidson (Walter Huston) commits suicide there, while in Baby Jane  Blanche dies due to her sister’s neglect and abuse.  We thought this was especially interesting since the beach has been written of as a place of safety, baby jane beach groupgiven its relation to childhood, and as a female space. Jane’s delight in obtaining (though significantly not purchasing) ice-creams for herself and Blanche and Davis’ uninhibited performance of Jane’s impromptu old song and dance routine on the beach underlines her regression.

 

Davis’ use of gestures was also baby jane kickcommented on. Many of these are in the service of revealing Jane’s true self – whether as unbalanced tormentor or a frightened child. We might particularly think of the most exaggerated: the relish with which she kicks the helpless Blanche. This was also true of the most exaggerated gestures Davis employed in Of Human Bondage (1934). These occurred during Mildred’s tirade against Philip (Leslie Howard) andOf Human Bondage tirade effectively revealed her violent and ugly character.  A difference between the characters – Mildred is always performing in some sense while Jane occasionally performs her old song and dance routine – is marked, however. It was also noted that the only way for Davis to successfully play a mentally unbalanced character regressing into childhood was to overplay her.

There is a further, more subtle level of character performance: the way we all display certain aspects of our character at different times and in varying situations in everyday life. This is less applicable to Davis’ Jane as on the whole she does not appear to be putting on an act: she mostly tells her neighbours, the cleaner Elvira and especially her sister Blanche, exactly what she thinks. Even the insidious way in which Jane causes Blanche to fear eating the meals Jane prepares is due to Jane’s previous grand gestures:  the serving up of Blanche’s pet budgerigar and later a rat for dinner.

Baby jane dinner screamCrawford has fewer opportunities than Davis to signal her performance. However, she must often placate the mentally unstable Jane by being less than truthful. Crawford does still have some moments which require extreme reaction. She becomes increasingly persecuted by Jane and fearful of the meals her sister serves.  A particularly noteworthy sequence involves both stars. Blanche/Crawford’s scream of horror as she uncovers the Baby Jane hysterical laughtergarnished dead rat is followed by Jane/Davis’ hysterical laugher. Jane has waited outside to hear Blanche’s reaction and the juxtaposition of shots and similar sounds effective unites the sisters and the stars.  Crawford’s shifting between restraint and a certain level of exaggeration (her fear) was compared to her earlier performance in Rain (1932).

The theme of performance extends to other characters in the film. Pianist Edwin Flag (played by Victor Buono) is first seen at home with his mother, Dehlia, (played by Marjorie Bennet) when she telephones Jane pretending to be her son’s secretary. When Edwin visits Jane he ‘performs’ literally since he accompanies Jane’s singing onbaby Jane Buono tea the piano. Performance is also present as he displays a particular side of himself to Jane in the hope that she will employ him.  He plays up his Englishness and emphasises his claims to refinement when the two take tea together.  Most notable is Edwin’s response to Jane’s routine. He does well to hide his horror at her attempts to sing. Edwin declares that Jane’s act is ‘wonderful’ when the camera’s privileged view of his face suggests he believes precisely the opposite. The audience must, of course, agree with this opinion. While Edwin is forced to listen and watch Jane through his need for paid employment, we find it hard to tear our eyes and ears away from the fascinating and grotesque spectacle: of both Jane and Davis.

We also briefly discussed the film’s style. The film often cross-cuts between Jane returning home in her car after running some errands and Blanche’s futile attempts at escape. In addition, Aldrich often signposts the particularly heightened moments of melodrama with an overtly dramatic use of shot choice (notably the zoom) and sound (often non-diegetic music).The scene in which an increasingly frustrated Blanche ineffectually wheels her chair around on the spot is a good example. In order to drive home Blanche’s feelings of confinement, Aldrich switches from a straight-on to an overhead camera angle which better reveals her inability to move far. Another very memorable shot is the one which prompts Jane to break down on the staircase. This depicts Edwin/Buono wheeling a wheelchair through the hall with a blanket over his head and a Baby Jane doll on his lap. In addition to causing Jane to react, it is puzzlingly bizarre in itself, and manages to be conspicuous in a film full of odd moments.

The intended Crawford and Davis follow-up to Baby Jane: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) also prompted some fruitful reflection. In this the roles of tormentor and tormented as played out in Baby Jane by Davis and Crawford respectively, were meant to be reversed. Before Crawford pulled out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, she was set to play Miriam – Charlotte’s (Davis) tormentor.  Interestingly the American Film Institute (AFI) defines Hush…Hush as horror rather than melodrama. Though it is certainly true that the boundary between the two is blurred and that Baby Jane itself has elements of horror. (We will be able to explore this more over the next two weeks as we focus on the horror genre.) Baby Jane and Hush…Hush contain other notable similarities. In addition to the planned reteaming of Davis and Crawford another star of Baby Jane appears:  Buono intriguingly plays Charlotte’s father in Hush….Hush’s hush hushflashbacks.  At the character level we observed the fate of the cleaner/housekeeper in both films. In Baby Jane Blanche’s ally, and cleaner, Elvira (Maidie Norman), is killed by Jane while Velma (Agnes Moorehead) Charlotte’s housekeeper and friend  in Hush…Hush… suffers a similar fate.

Of course the off-screen melodrama of Crawford and Davis’ ‘feud’ and their personal difficulties were also a point of discussion.  Both Crawford and Davis’ daughters (the latter’s offspring, BD Hyman, played the young neighbour in Baby Jane) wrote autobiographies which contained less than flattering portraits of their mothers.  Christina Crawford waited until her mother had died to publish her account, and therefore Joan could not put across her point of view.  Davis noted how unfair this was and when Davis’ own daughter published a similar volume Davis was able to retaliate to the accusations in her own memoir This ‘n That.

We ended the session with a brief reference to Davis and especially Crawford injohnny guitar relation to camp. The 60-something Crawford temporarily taking over her ill 20-something daughter’s role in a TV soap is a very good example, while Crawford’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar is notorious for its status as a camp classic. In Nicholas Ray’s film, Crawford feuded on and off-screen with another actress– this time Mercedes McCambridge. We thought it noteworthy that the clip from comedy series Psyhcobitches privileged the notion of camp.  It certainly seems that camp, specifically in relation to Baby Jane, is closely attached to Davis and Crawford’s star images in retrospect.

Many thanks to Lies and Ann-Marie for sharing their extensive Joan and Bette knowledge and providing some great competition prizes!

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

Melodrama Group Challenge: Bette and Joan on Psychobitches

Posted by Sarah
Ann-Marie and Lies have very kindly suggested a competition. It relates to the Sky Arts comedy Psychobitches which stars Rebecca Front as a therapist helping famous, and infamous, women from history. The first episode features an appearance from Bette Davis (Frances Barber) and Joan Crawford (Mark Gatiss) (both pictured below) engaged in a confrontation whilst wearing their What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? costumes.
psychobitches
The Competition
View a clip of Bette and Joan’s appearance on Psychobitches(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EBHCPNs_Zc) and SPOT THE MISTAKE!
At the screening on Wednesday a small prize will be handed to the person(s) with the correct answer.
Many thanks to Ann-Marie and Lies for suggesting this, especially as it will also provide a useful discussion point in terms of Bette and Joan’s star images.
Good Luck!

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.