Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 27th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on Monday the 27th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

We will be screening and discussing Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green, 75 mins) – postponed from the last session.

Please refer to recent posts for more information on the film and some interesting extra-textual material.

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.

Writer/Director Tamsin Flower’s visit to the Melodrama Research Group and NoRMMA

The Melodrama Research Group and its sister organisation Network of Research: Movies, Magazines, Audiences (NoRMMA) were delighted to welcome a guest on Wednesday the 26th of July.

Tamsin Flower, writer/director and founder of the company Stream-Lyric, has been supported by Arts Council England to develop new theatre work since 2014. Using intertextuality and ‘playful poetics’ to approach social themes, Stream-Lyric toured ‘MENTAL Play’ to five South East Venues in 2015, including Camden People’s Theatre and developed ‘TRANSFORMER’ for work-in-progress sharings at Cambridge Junction, Metal Culture and The Key Theatre/Vivacity Arts in 2016. Most recently she was commissioned by the Creative People and Places consortium/Peterborough Presents to create a verbatim play about gardeners and green-space volunteers in the Environment Capital, Peterborough. She draws on drama, contemporary poetry and multimedia presentation to provoke and entertain hybrid audiences.

Tamsin visited us to collaborate in a script development workshop for ‘TRANSFORMER’. Tamsin has described the play as “presenting a mother daughter relationship that transcends our ordinary conception of time in a play narrative. Each scene focuses on either the mother, Norma, or her daughter, Eddie, who experience moments from iconic films as integral parts of their lives. Norma is trapped in memory and reminiscence – her scenes are from 1930s/40s/50s film. Eddie’s scenes are from 80s film to the present day. They finally share a scene in the 1960s/Rosemary’s Baby sequence, as they anticipate a new arrival.” Other films referenced include  Now Voyager (1942), The Red Shoes (1948), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Clueless (1995), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and Black Swan (2010).

Prior to our session, Tamsin sent us excerpts of three scenes. There was much fruitful and enjoyable discussion about these, as well as the structure of the piece more generally. We were especially pleased to talk about female stars in popular films from 1935-2015, the relationship of audiences to films, the afterlife of films, moments of transformation in melodrama, and feminism in the 20th and 21st centuries. We look forward to welcoming back Tamsin in September, when we’ll be treated to the latest version of ‘TRANSFORMER’, and engage in another feedback session which will further foster connections between academics and practitioners.

Many thanks to Tamsin and all attendees for such an interesting discussion.

Tamsin’s posted a few of us giving a quick audio summary of some of our thoughts on the session on sound cloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-293309613/transkent1mp3

Why not join the discussion on favourite female stars on Stream-Lyric’s Facebook page? Nominees so far include Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Joan Greenwood, Juliette Binoche  and Guilietta Masina: https://www.facebook.com/StreamLyric/?fref=mentions

You can also find Stream-Lyric on other platforms:

streamlyric.co.uk

twitter.com/stream_lyric

 

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, 3rd of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the last of this term’s screening and discussion sessions. We will be showing The Mirror Crack’d (1980, Guy Hamilton, 105 mins).

This big-budget adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side stars Angela Lansbury as dogged detective Miss Marple. Hollywood’s ultimate star Elizabeth Taylor plays Hollywood diva Marina Gregg and Rock Hudson is her director husband Jason Rudd. While staying at an old mansion during filming in the UK, Marina finds herself threatened by anonymous letters, attempted poisonings and her own past…

Do join us, if you can, for some classic Christie.

Also, you can catch up with the recent ITV version, starring Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, until the 2nd of April here: http://www.itv.com/hub/miss-marple/1a5576a0009

 

Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

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

Melodrama Meeting 23rd of January, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the first Melodrama meeting of 2017.

We are going to discuss the BBC’s recent 2-part adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short story The Witness for the Prosecution. As the production is over 2 hours in length, we ask that you watch it beforehand.

You can find the episodes on iplayer, available until the 25th of January, here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b086z959?suggid=b086z959

witness-for-the-pros

Adapted by Sarah Phelps (who was also responsible for 2015’s Agatha Christie 3 parter And Then There Were None), the production centres on the trial of a young man accused of murdering an older, wealthy, widow for her money. It  opens out the story in very different ways to Billy Wilder’s 1957 film starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. Phelps updates the story for our modern times with a sexy older woman (Kim Catrall) catching young Leonard Vole’s (Billy Howle’s) eye. The adaptation is also firmly placed in its post World War I context with many of the characters still dealing with the aftermath of the conflict.

Do join us if you can for discussion on the adaptation and plans for the coming term.

Melodrama Meeting, 14th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the next Melodrama Meeting on Monday, 14th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7. We will be discussing the film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016, Osgood Perkins, 87 minutes).

pretty-thing

Released very recently (on Netflix the 28th of October) the film’s title appears to invoke Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Like Jackson’s work, the plot revolves around a large house and its unusual inhabitants.  Ruth Wilson appears as Lily, a live-in nurse who is contracted to care for the elderly Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) but who comes to suspect that her employer’s house may be haunted.

 

 

Summary of Discussion on Barbe Bleue and Bluebeard

Watching these two very different films gave us much food for thought. In addition to tracing elements of the Gothic and Bluebeard fable across two texts, it afforded the opportunity to compare silent and sound films, as well as French and Hollywood productions.

Barbe Bleue’s treatment of the Bluebeard fable was fairly in keeping with Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the traditional folktale. At only 9 minutes long, we were surprised that some of the scenes were so lengthy. In particular, the long wedding banquet scene added little to the tension of the woman in peril. Neither did it match some of the comedy scenes in the film – notably the proposed wife’s clear disdain for Bluebeard in the opening scene, or the ‘below stairs’ hijinks of the servants.

The scenes where the latest wife was encouraged by the devil to enter the forbidden room and submitted to this temptation were more successfully realised. Both gave Melies an opportunity to show off his special effects. The discovery of the previous wives’ hanging bodies was suitably striking.

bluebeard-wives

We were surprised by the fact this was undercut in the next few scenes as, after a short period of panic and struggle with her husband, the rescue occurred quickly and all Bluebeard’s wives were brought back to life.  While this last action fitted Melies’ reputation for screening the fantastical, it affects the film’s impact, especially as all the women are given a final scene happy ending in which they marry noblemen.

bluebeard-poster

Despite this non-traditional ending to the story, Ulmer’s film was even less true the traditional Bluebeard tale than Melies’. The film focuses on puppet-maker and painter Gaston Morrell – a serial killer of women in Paris. In a warning poster the killer is referred to as a ‘Bluebeard’.  But Morrell is not married to these women, which made us ponder the use of the term – especially as the film’s title.  It certainly draws on the horror so important to the Bluebeard tale, however, potentially signalling that this was important to audiences of the time.

Ulmer’s film contained more horror than Melies’ – as befits the director of spine-chilling The Black Cat (1934) starring horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. There wasbluebeard-warning-poster little suspense in terms of the killer though.  After initial scenes of melodramatic moral panic, and the lengthy puppet opera, the confirmation of the identity of ‘Bluebeard’ was fairly swift.  This was first implied by Gaston Morrell’s (John Carradine) emergence from the fog to make acquaintance with the heroine of the story – Lucille (Jean Parker). As well as echoing similar scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), the detail of the framing was significant: the meeting occurred in front of the warning poster. Not long after, Morrell’s murder of his lover, Renee (Sonia Sorel), takes place on screen.

Ulmer was especially known for his talent for mise en scene – indeed American film critic Andrew Sarris assessed that this was the one notable aspect of his work (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 143).  We were struck by bluebeard-dangling-puppetssome of the backgrounds of Morrell’s paintings. We were also impressed by Ulmer’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasise the gothic spaces of Morrell’s apartment as well as the scenes in the sewers below. Despite the latter being somewhat derivative of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909), elsewhere another echo – this time of Melies’ film when the most recent wife discovered the previous ones– proved especially effective as dangling shadowy puppets eerily appear on the walls of Morrell’s apartment.  It is also notable that the film uses Killer point-of-view as bluebeard-killer-povshots of Morrell’s eyes spying through a hole prior to the puppet show as he searches for Lucille. We’ve previously discussed Killer POV in relation to The Spiral Staircase (1945, Robert Siodmak: see https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/12/02/summary-of-discussion-on-the-spiral-staircase/), and it is interesting that Ulmer’s use occurred first and that he had previously worked with Siodmak.

Our definition of the Gothic involving the Woman in Peril had obviously played an important part in Melies’ film though, as mentioned earlier, this was relatively short-lived in the silent. Here the tension is ratcheted up, as Lucille continually places herself in danger. Firstly, she declares herself not to be scared of Bluebeard, then she visits Morrell alone in his apartment, later confronting him here, again alone, even once she suspects the truth.

There is another Woman in Peril – Lucille’s sister Francine (Teala Loring) – who appears part-way through the film. It is suggested that she is an undercover agent, bluebeard-francine-and-lucilleworking with the police, though this is not made clear. She too places herself in danger (presumably often a part of her job), by luring Morrell into a trap – both are women who actively investigate. When Francine appeared it almost seemed she had usurped Lucille, but with former’s death at hands of Morrell, Lucille was once more the heroine.  While both women investigate, only Francine – who is actually employed as a detective (especially surprising in the 19th century) is punished by death though.

We noted that the film was rather odd tonally. This includes its shaky grasp of its historical and geographic setting – not all that unusual in Hollywood productions. While the costumes (women’s dresses with bustles) broadly suggest the 19th century, the amount of ankle on show was deemed inaccurate.  Although set in Paris, the only European accent was contributed by Swedish actor Nils Asther as Police Inspector Lefevre.

The uneven tone is especially notable in the film’s mix of comedy and horror. When in court trying to ascertain the painter of a particular picture, the questioning of artists’ models – one of whom replies in a thick Brooklyn accent – leads to responses of hilarity carry-on-screamingby those attending. Much of this revolved around suggestions of prostitution – references also found elsewhere in the film, including as Morrell’s justification of his crimes. In addition, the killing scenes, whether an eye-bulging arms-raised action or a protracted and ineffective fight, were a bit comical. We noted these comedy elements in a horror film contrasted to Carry on Screaming’s (1966, Gerald Thomas) mostly comic, but occasionally, frightening tone.

The pacing of the film was also patchy. We especially wondered why so much time was spent on the enacting of the puppet opera near the film’s beginning. This does, however, give the film audience time to ponder the significance of the fact that Morrell is playing (and singing) the part of Faust in the production, while an older man plays the film’s hero.  This disjuncture further helps suggest the fact Morrell is the serial killer at large. Non-diegetic music was also effectively used to punctuate melodramatic moments.

The extended musical scenes also caused us to further compare Ulmer’s sound and Melies’ silent films. In both, the killer got his comeuppance, with Morrell in the later film throwing himself into the Seine. Happy endings are also suggested in both.  This occurs more forcefully in the earlier production when all the previously dead wives come back to life and are married off. In Ulmer’s film the relationship between Lucille and the Police Inspector appears to grow.

You can find an English translation of Perrault’s tale here:  http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html

Both films are viewable on archive.org:

https://archive.org/details/Barbe-bleue

https://archive.org/details/Bluebeard

 

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 3rd of October, 5-7pm, 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 3rd of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing the silent French short Barbe Bleue (1901, George Melies, 9 mins) and the Hollywood production Bluebeard (1944, Edgar G. Ulmer, 72 mins).

bluebeard-ad

Continuing our focus on the Gothic, we turn to the fundamental Bluebeard myth. Melies’ short tells the traditional tale, while in the later film John Carradine plays  Gaston Morrell, a  Parisian portrait artist and puppeteer, whose models are mysteriously murdered by the violent ‘Bluebeard’.

At the time,Trade magazine Motion Picture Herald’s review categorised Ulmer’s film as a ‘Class Melodrama’. It also opined that its return to the Bluebeard narrative (albeit an updated version) was a response to the ‘tawdry fripperies frothed up…under the guide of melodrama’ (by W.R.W, 14 October 1944, p. 2138). It therefore closely ties Melodrama, and not just the Gothic, to the Bluebeard folktale, placing this, favourably, within the context of contemporary Hollywood productions.

Do join us if you can for these two films, as well as discussion about the upcoming term’s events.