Summary of Discussion on Three on a Match

Our discussion on the film covered various aspects including: its genre; its appeal to female audiences; its ‘Take Three Girls’ approach; its three heroines as role models; male characters; the character of Vivian; the film’s stars; its pace; contemporaneous materials like trade magazines; Warner Brothers studio; the 1938 remake and matters of censorship.

We began with comments on the film’s appeal to female audiences. This was established partly by the film’s genre. Best described broadly as a drama – as the American Film Institute (AFI) categorises it – it moves from melodramatic ups and downs to a more straightforward crime drama. It nonetheless remains focused on its female characters. The film demonstrates a ‘Take Three Girls’ approach, in which we follow the fortunes of three young girls at school into adulthood when they meet again.  This allows the film more flexibility than a single heroine, since it can follow three women’s stories.

This approach also allows for comparison of the film’s characters to one another, thus commenting on those considered the best ‘role models’. This is more complex than we might at first assume from the women’s early days at school. In the opening segment, Mary (Virginia Davis) is portrayed as a fun-loving, knicker-showing girl who gets into trouble for smoking. While Vivian (Dawn O’Day, later known as Ann Shirley) is voted the most popular girl in her class, this is superficial. In fact, since she disapproves of Mary’s free-and-easy attitude she sneakily reports her to teachers. Ruth (Betty Carse) wins an award for academic achievement. Mary is true to herself but not one of life’s conformers, Vivian is snooty and privileged, and Ruth hard-working. These characteristics point to their futures.  Rich Vivian reveals that she will attend a boarding school, while the less socially advantaged Ruth says she will train for a business career. Neither of them knows what will happen to Mary….

In fact, Mary’s trajectory ranges considerably. She is next seen in reform school (now played by Joan Blondell), but is soon a steadily-working actress. This is established as she chats about her current show to a hairdresser in the most female of social spaces: the beauty parlour. Coincidentally, Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is occupying the next booth, allowing for them to stage a brief reunion and organise to meet, along with Ruth (Bette Davis), for lunch.  At the lunch, it is clear that while Mary and Ruth seem happy enough, Vivian, though she is rich, and married with a young son, is unhappy. This spirals out of control as the film progresses, with her leaving her husband and committing adultery, becoming an absent mother, descending into drugs and poverty, and only at the film’s end partially redeeming her earlier behaviour by sacrificing her life to save her kidnapped son. Meanwhile, Mary finds happiness with Vivian’s husband Bob, and Ruth career fulfilment as governess to Bob and Vivian’s son. The character of a person is placed above their social standing. Nice people who have made a few wrong turns can be happy – especially if they enter the acting profession (!) (Mary), cheats and those unhappy with their privileged lot don’t prosper, though they can make amends (Vivian), and those who calmly get on with things can be quietly happy, if overlooked (Ruth).

 

 

We also briefly compared the film’s two main adult male characters. This is encouraged since Vivian leaves the steady and kind, though seemingly unexciting, Bob (Warren William) for the new and apparently charming Michael (Lyle Talbot). We also commented on the way the film directly juxtaposes Bob and Michael.  After his son is kidnapped there is a close-up of a desperate Bob, wringing his hands. This is immediately followed by a close-up of Michael’s hands.  While at first both men seem to be performing a similar action, it is in fact revealed that he is merely vigorously shaking a cocktail. The only other men involved in the film’s narrative are gangsters. Most notably Harve (Humphrey Bogart) threatens Michael when he is in debt, delivering him to his shady boss, Ace (Edward Arnold). The latter is coolly calculating, threatening violence while treating Michael with contempt – he will not even halt his macho act of plucking his nose hair without wincing or tearing up. This subtly implies that Michael will be subject so slow and painful torture.

Despite the fact that the film has three heroines, these do not have equal billing, screen time, dramatic impact or interest for the audience. Mary is top-billed, with her introduction as an adult character privileged over the other two women, and she ends the film happily after a successful romance. We spent more time discussing Vivian, however. It is far too simplistic to suggest that she is a bad mother who rightly sacrifices herself for her son (in the style of the maternal melodrama). Her situation is more complex. We see her struggle with her relationship with her child who while he is affectionate towards her, seems to prefer his nanny and father. Vivian tells Bob she thinks that having sole charge of her on will be good for her – giving her something to focus on. This does not turn out to be the case though, as when she runs off with Michael she is unable to perform even simple tasks like making sure her son is fed and clean. Other than this, she seems happy to be enjoying Michael’s attentions.

We commented on Dvorak’s realistic portrayal of Vivian. Her drug addiction and its consequences of poverty are well shown by Dvorak’s convincing acting, and the diminishing of her personal appearance and costume.  Vivian’s sacrifice was in some ways inevitable, though surprising in its violence. Earlier we have heard her being hit off-screen. Her final act is far more visible. She throws herself out of a window to draw attention to the whereabouts of her son: she has scrawled this information on her nightgown in lipstick. The film cuts from inside the hotel room to outside, showing Vivian hurtling towards the awning below and hitting the street with a thump.

We also discussed the film’s stars. Despite the film’s short running time, it is not a budget film, but one packed with characters played by stars. Although there are three heroines, a main focus is the star triangle of Mary and Vivian and Bob as Ruth plays a smaller part. Since this was early in Davis’ career, it is not surprising that she played a smaller role, and that the film did not make best use of her talents. We thought the small role Bogart played was more in tune with some of his previous parts, and that Arnold was effective.

Although there is a romantic triangle, the film’s pace means we do not witness Vivian and Bob’s courtship, and that Mary and Bob’s romance takes place at breakneck speed. They are very briefly shown to be attracted to one another as each separately boards the cruise ship to wish friends and family bon voyage. They only spend time together one Vivian has left Bob, with his beach proposal (swiftly following on from offering Ruth a position as governess) coming as a bit of a shock. The newspapers report on this as they note that Bob has divorced and remarried on the same day. The film sustains a rapid pace throughout. In addition to short scenes which establish the time frame (popular songs, historical newspaper headlines) these involve the characters too. After his son’s disappearance Bob, accompanied by Mary and Ruth, begs a judge to intervene in a scene which lasts just a few seconds. We thought the only time the film dragged was the discussion between male workers outside the beauty parlour. These men comment on how Mary has replaced Vivian as Bob’s wife and notice the reappearance of Vivian across the street. This merely recounts the plot and identifies the relationship between the two women who soon meet again. This may have been thought helpful at the time when cinema-goers were more likely to join a screening part-way through.

We discussed some contemporaneous extra-filmic material. Trade magazine Motion Picture Herald included a piece on Buster Phelps (who played the son) on the 8th of October.  This rightly complimented Phelps on his portrayal, but also noted that he was apparently being paid more than Dvorak. A review of the film had appeared in the same publication a week earlier. This understandably expressed distaste at screening the kidnapping of a child while the tragic Lindberg baby story was still in the headlines. It also asked that the gangsters are seen to be punished.

This comments on Warner Brothers’ preferred approach of presenting films which were inspired by real-life stories. We also saw Warner Brothers touches in the use of headlines and popular songs to establish time, and the fact it is bang up to date – the date 1932 appears. We noted references to other Warner Brothers films. A magazine article seen in the film which explains that the ‘Three on a Match’ superstition (that if soldiers in the trenches kept a match going long enough to light three cigarettes they would be seen by the enemy and at least one of them killed) was in fact advertising by a Swedish match manufacturer to expand his market. Warner Brothers released a film called The Match King (William Keighley, Howard Bretherton) this same year – which starred Warren William as the title character.  Some us also noted footage which was had been recycled from an earlier production (like Public Enemy 1931, William A. Wellman) and the presence of gowns also seen in other films.

Finally, we spoke about the 1938 remake of the film, Broadway Musketeers (John Farrow). This starred Margaret Lindsay as Isabel (Vivian in the earlier film), Ann Sheridan as Fay (previously Mary), and Marie Wilson as Connie (the Ruth character).  In addition to the name changes, and the shifted focus to the ‘Vivian’ character, there are other differences. For instance, they grow up in an orphanage, the son is now a daughter and the ‘match’ superstition is now about smashing glasses. The original and the update appeared six years apart, and significantly range from two years before, to four years after censorship was more strongly implemented via Hollywood’s Production Code. The later version did not include the characters’ childhoods, and therefore avoided altogether showing them as sexualised at an early age. The use of censorship seemed to not serve its intended purpose, however. The remake contains innuendo (and the Mary character is now stripper rather than an actress) and the differences are superficial and not necessarily the aspects audiences focus on. Isabel does not commit adultery since she divorces her husband before she found a new man. Her addiction appears to be legal alcohol rather than drugs which the 1932 film references openly via paraphernalia, intimation of Vivian suffering due to withdrawal, and Harve’s nose-sniffing gesture. Nonetheless she suffers the same fate as in the earlier film, unable to halt the progression of the melodramatic narrative.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of January, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening. We’ll be showing Three on a Match (1932, Mervyn LeRoy, 63 mins), on Tuesday 30th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

Three on a Match continues the melodrama research group’s interest in pre-code Hollywood and, like both of our recent screenings Female and Baby Face, is a Warner Brothers production. It too is especially concerned with women. But it provides us with three heroines instead of one. Friends Mary (Joan Blondell), Vivian (Ann Dvorak) and Ruth (Bette Davis) meet again a decade after leaving school.  Their lives widely diverge: crime is followed by redemption through acting for Mary, a stable marriage to a wealthy lawyer is ruined by a messy break up for Vivian, while Ruth embarks on a career as a secretary. All three face challenges, with Vivian’s life taking a particularly melodramatic turn.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on Female

Our discussion of Female ranged from its genre, its use of gender inversion, its star, Ruth Chatterton, comparison to other films and stars of the time such as Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, its studio – Warner Brothers –  the film’s set and its shot transitions. 

We began with debate about the film’s genre. The American Film Institute (AFI) categorises Female as ‘Comedy-drama’ (https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/MovieDetails/3957?cxt=filmography) and we certainly noted its, sometimes uneasy, mix of serious issues such as sexual equality (a major subject according to the AFI) and comedic moments. We particularly commented on the film’s heroine, automobile factory owner and manager Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton). Alison demonstrates her sexual liberation, and position of authority, by seducing young men in her employ and then arranging for them to be transferred to other parts of the world when they become clingy and troublesome.

Alison is a woman in charge of her own destiny, telling a female friend, Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson), that she uses men the way they have always used women. She is, therefore, very different to the suffering heroine of melodrama.  In fact, she seems more like the sexually predatory man a melodrama heroine is often running from.

Alison is frustrated, however, by the fact that despite her viewing herself as a sexual being, the men she attempts to seduce have differing ideas. Men either submit and then fall in love and wish to marry and domesticate her (and are hence transferred to Montreal), or seem resistant to her female charms, considering her to be made of marble, rather than flesh and blood (and are dispatched to Paris). Other marriage proposals she receives are similarly not based on how Alison sees her true self, but are couched in terms of a business merger.

The repetitive nature of Alison’s attempted seductions (and indeed her preparedness, in, we presume, providing male guests with bathing costumes for her swimming pool) become comic as the film proceeds. She invites men to her house for the evening; she is clad in a beautiful evening dress; we hear ‘Shanghai Li’ playing; Alison summons a butler, and vodka, at the right moment by pushing a button; Alison earnestly explains that she is not all about business, inviting her male visitor to sit next to her as she playfully throws a cushion on the floor.

The other comedy aspect the film brought to mind was the screwball subgenre. After becoming frustrated at the lack of men who see her as she truly is, Alison leaves her own party, dressing up in casual clothes to visit a local fair. While there, she takes aim with a rifle at the shooting gallery alongside an attractive man, Jim Thorne (George Brent). They alternate successful shots at targets until Alison’s last one misses, and Jim completes the task for her. This is a ‘meet-cute’ of romantic comedy, something which shows that the couple is meant to be together. Alison is, however, the pursuer rather than the pursued (despite the fact the man has won the so obviously male shooting competition) as she follows Jim as he purchases a drink at a nearby stall. Alison light-heartedly assumes an alternative identity as a former sharpshooter, and Jim plays along by saying that he did not recognise her without her horse. Significantly, Alison’s assumed identity is one of much lower class than her real status. This corresponds to some of the key aspects Tamar Jeffers McDonald cites as key to screwball – reverse class snobbery, a major inversion or subversion of characters’ normality, and role play (Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, 2007, pp. 23-24). It is worth noting, however that while Jim plays along, he does not assume an alternate identity or pretend to be anything he is not.

Perhaps predictably, Jim refuses to be ‘picked up’ by Alison, apparently she is ‘too fresh’. There must be some obstacles to their (we suppose) eventual union.  Furthermore, he spurns her advances when, coincidentally, he begins work at her company as an important engineer the next day. While her seduction routine has worked with others, Jim seems immune. When Alison is surprised that drinking has not loosened Jim up, he explains that he is used to vodka, after working for some time in Russia. This shows how much she has relied on alcohol in past seductions, and that Alison has to work much harder at her ‘vamping’ than usual.

 This inversion is not only important in terms of how it might comment on comedic conventions. It is also useful when we compare Alison to other characters in the film, and consider what changes in her representation may say about the film’s standpoint on sexual equality.

The main character we compared Alison to was her old schoolfriend Harriet. She unexpectedly visits Alison in her office, and we witness Alison swapping chat on Harriet’s life (her marriage and children) but being so distracted with work matters she gets several details wrong – Harriet’s husband’s name and the gender and number of her children. This indicates Alison’s lack of interest in ‘usual’ womanly concerns. It is also important that since this chat takes place at work, Alison is nonetheless interrupting her work with personal concerns. This may be less true of the way films choose to represent men in their workplaces.

We wondered whether the film had the purpose of showing Harriet, rather than Alison, in the more flattering light for both male and female viewers. While the film tones down Alison’s sexually free behaviour as she falls for Jim, though refuses to marry him at first, her enjoyment for most of the film and her wearing of stunning clothes, driving a sports car, and owning of a beautiful house. By contrast, Harriet is only seen in Alison’s environment, wearing smart but regular clothes, and her only interaction with her husband and children is a boring phone call about his health. We thought this did not encourage the promotion of Harriet’s more traditional lifestyle over Alison’s more modern one.

There is ambivalence though. In addition to times when Alison seems to be displaying herself for men’s attention, Alison is filmed in a rather sexual way at other points of the narrative. She is a powerless sexual object as she steps in and out of the shower, and receives massages.

The film is also ambivalent in its representation of Alison on her own terms. Her initial boast that she treats men the way they have always treated women, is tempered by her last minute conversion to domesticity. Despite Alison tracking down Jim at a shooting gallery and his support of her business plans, she decides to hand over the business to him while she plans to have 9 children. It is well worth considering whether the lasting memory of a film is a character’s behaviour for most of the story, or he final few minutes. Some commented that in this sense the film was two-faced. The ending is a sop to men (with Jim also specifically speaking against ‘free women’), and traditionalists, but others (including women) may choose not to believe Alison’s last exaggerated desire.

We also briefly mentioned the minor, and older, characters of Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) and Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly). They represent more traditional gender politics. While Pettigrew seems to approve of Alison’s treatment of men for most of the narrative, he is also relieved when she decided to settle down. Pettigrew teasingly asks Miss Frothingham if she lives with her ‘folks’ and she giggles in her response that she lives alone. While Miss Frothingham appears aware of Pettigrew’s attentions, and intentions, and both of them flirt, Pettigrew is the more obvious predating figure. He is even unoriginal in asking Miss Frothingham up to his apartment to see his paintings.

We also discussed the significance of Ruth Chatterton playing Alison, and whether this colours our view of her character’s liberation as positive or negative. Chatterton was a powerful woman, as in addition to being an actor and star she was an aviatrix, a fencer and owned her own production company. It would be interesting to see how much of this information was available to, and known by, audiences of the time. As Lies points out in her post on the NoRMMA blog, Chatterton’s 1932-1934 marriage to Female co-star George Brent was referenced in a portrait of Chatterton in February 1934’s Photoplay  (www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) This shows Chatterton’s acceptable off-screen domestic situation, but also the fact that she continued to work despite being married.

The context of the studio which produced Female was also considered. We were reminded throughout the film of its studio since Warner tunes like ‘You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me’ and ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ (both from 42nd Street, 1933) were hummed or whistled by characters. There was also mention of the Warner Brothers star James Cagney (at the studio from 1930-1935). Alison hires a private detective to follow Jim when she is not being as successful with him as she would like. It is said that he has been out the night before, at a movie called Picture Snatcher (1933, released 6 months before Female).  Some of us were also aware of Warner Brothers through costumes being recycled from earlier and into later films from the studio. Unlike the bigger MGM, Warner Brothers was less able to spend lavishly on both costumes and film tunes.

We also considered Female in relation to a screening from last term, Baby Face (see blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/12/04/summary-of-discussion-on-baby-face/) Both films were written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. But in addition to being based on a novel by a male author (Donald Henderson Clarke 1932), Female was notably different to Baby Face in the lack of a suffering and abused heroine. Interestingly though, according to Motion Picture, the star of Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck, was considered for the role before it was toned down and given to Chatterton. (See Lies’ post: www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) It is interesting to consider what a different film Female  would have been if Stanwyck had played Alison. Stanwyck often played struggling everyday characters, with her ‘real’ background also apparently a poor one.  Chatterton, meanwhile, was the middle-class daughter of an architect and  prior to Hollywood had a successful career on the legitimate stage.

We also commented on the film’s impressive set. According to the AFI, some of this was filmed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis house in Los Angeles https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/3957 The house was also apparently used for later films including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Blade Runner (1982).

It was not just the exterior shots of the house or the swimming pool which were striking though. All the characters seemed dwarfed by the size of both the factory and house interiors which further emphasise Alison’s wealth. The way in which the working of the factory (smoking chimneys, cranes etc) are seen through the large window as Alison sits at her desk also comments on her wealth, but also her hard work and the heavy industry involved in the manufacturing the automobiles. It also reveals that Alison sis able to survey all of this from her desk – it is her domain.

Finally, there was some comment on the film’s editing. Some found the variety of shot transitions, especially on the factory floor, distracting and showy. Others, however, hardly noticed them.  We might compare the editing to the film’s use of startling 1920s architecture which makes it seem especially modern

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

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, 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.

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