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 Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

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