Pam Cook’s essay ‘Text, Paratext, Subtext’ in SEQUENCE

Frances has also mentioned the exciting news of the recent publication of Pam Cook’s essay ‘Text, Paratext and Subtext’ in the online journal SEQUENCE. We were very happy to welcome Pam to speak on this subject of Mildred Pierce in its many forms at our Maternal Melodrama Symposium last May.

MP TV seriesThe following invitation to read Pam’s essay was written by REFRAME editor Dr Catherine Grant of the University of Sussex:

‘Writer-director Todd Haynes has previously recounted how film scholar Pam Cook’s 1978 foundational article “Duplicity in MILDRED PIERCE” informed his 2011 HBO miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel (an effective remaking of Michael Curtiz’ 1945 film). Now, in her new essay for the open access serial SEQUENCE (a REFRAME publication), Cook turns her attention to Haynes’ miniseries and its intertextual chain of makings and remakings, and explores, in particular, how we come to read it (or any other audiovisual artefact) as “maternal melodrama.” Her essay is online here:’

Do log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts, including any other melodrama links you’d like to add to the blog.

Summary of Discussion on Mildred Pierce

Posted by Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

A clip of Crawford in It’s a Great Feeling:

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

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts.

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

Posted by Sarah

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

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

MP mother and daughter

Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mildred Pierce – film noir or melodrama?

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

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

MP double page ad Variety 1

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Maternal Melodrama Titles and Abstracts

Posted by Sarah

The titles and abstracts for our upcoming Maternal Melodrama on the 3rd of June:

Pam Cook, University of Southampton, Film Studies

“Paratext and Subtext: Reading Mildred Pierce as Maternal Melodrama”

Maternal melodrama has MP TV seriesgenerated an influential body of critical writing that examines the implications of its representations of motherhood for women. Ambivalence towards and desire for mothers continue to inspire stories of maternal suffering, self-sacrifice, guilt and blame that have a powerful emotional appeal. I’ll focus on Mildred Pierce to try to get to the heart of why this genre (cycle?) is so significant and how a diverse collection of films comes to be viewed as maternal melodrama. Using my videographic work, I’ll look at the role of paratexts (Genette) in producing the subtexts that point to the genre’s transgressive potential.


 Catherine Grant, University of Sussex, Film Studies

 “Studying Old and New Maternal Melodramas Videographically”

Joan Fontaine Rebecca

In my talk, I will screen a number of my short audiovisual essays on film melodramas which centrally feature mother-daughter relationships (including two cinematic adaptations of Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1922 novel Stella Dallas [1925 and 1937], The Railway Children [1970], and Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank).

I will also explore what “creative critical” videographic methods can bring to the study of old and new maternal melodramas. I will argue not only for the greater potential of audiovisual expression for richer and more precise engagements with the motifs and textures of film melodrama, but also for the benefits of methods which more evidently express, and at times productively foreground, the subjective and affective investments of the individual researcher.

For an example of Katie’s videographic essays on Melodrama please visit her fantastic Film Studies For Free blog, especially the post ‘Voluptuous Masochism: Gothic Melodrama Studies in Memory of Joan Fontaine’:


Keeley Saunders, University of Kent, Film Studies (

“Transitioning and the Maternal Melodrama: Parental Roles in Transamerica”

In the process of transitioning, many transgender individuals have to learn how to manage their new identity in society: dealing with other people’s perceptions of them, moving jobs or location, or significantly, ‘coming out’ to their family. Trans memoirs, such as Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan, detail the complex process of transitioning as a parent: for Boylan, moving from ‘father’ to ‘mother,’ with a period in between where the subject occupied neither – or both – positions. Documenting this issue draws attention to the traditional roles of gender and the social structures policing gendered parenting responsibilities or behaviours. Elsewhere this can be depicted through a parent’s response to their child coming out and their reaction (and the relationship developed) following such an announcement.

Family dynamics and the role of the parent is a recurring narrative trope within the fictional mode of ‘trans-cinema.’ Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) Maternal Melodrama Transamerica untitledpresents both of sides of the parental dynamic outlined above, following Bree, a pre-operative trans woman who is in the process of transitioning. This presentation will explore how Transamerica – and trans-cinema more broadly – adopts various melodramatic structures to portray its narratives. With particular reference to the characterisation and role of the mother, I will address how the film utilises the convention of parental roles, situating Bree as both the estranged parent and the estranged child attempting to (reluctantly) reconnect with her family before she undergoes her surgery.


 Lavinia Brydon, University of Kent, Film Studies

“The Suffering and Sacrifices of a Mother (Country): Examining the Scarred Irish Landscape in The Last September (1999)”

This paper seeks to investigate maternal Melodrama The Last Septemberand interpret the melodramatic tendencies of The Last September (Deborah Warner, 1999), an Anglo-Irish heritage film set just one year prior to the Ireland’s partition in 1921-1922. Taking John Hill’s comments on the melodramatic excess of the similarly concerned Fools of Fortune (Pat O’Connor, 1990) as a starting point, this paper will consider how the violence of the period complicates the restraint that typically marks the heritage film. Indeed, it will argue that the turbulent time frame permits the ‘astonishing twists and turns of fate, suspense, disaster and tragedy’ (Mercer and Shingler 2004: 7) for which early theatrical melodramas were famed. However, given the familiar nationalist allegory of Ireland as a poor old woman (otherwise known as Cathleen ni Houlihan), this paper will move on to consider how the violence inscribed on the Irish landscape allows the film to be framed specifically as a maternal melodrama. It will thus consider how the film depicts the suffering of and sacrifices made by Ireland as a mother (country).


Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All That Costume Allows: Does Dress Tell the Mother’s Story?”

As its title suggests, this short paper seeks to link two famous Film Studies texts: Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, and Jane Gaines’ 1991 article, “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story”. Gaines’ piece insists that, because of the gendered division of narrative agency inevitably operating in Classical Hollywood Cinema, character is conveyed in different ways; men, who are active in the narrative, making things happen, are summed up by those happenings, but women, who are passive and acted upon, cannot thus be known. Their characters need to be made apparent to the viewer through other means: Hollywood has traditionally used costume. As Gaines remarks, “a woman’s dress and demeanour, much more than a man’s, indexes psychology: if costume represents interiority, it is she who is turned inside out on screen.” (Gaines, 1991: 181)

Maternal Melodrama ATHA 3On first consideration, Sirk’s scenario – about a widow’s romance with a younger man seen, by her children and snobbish community, as her social inferior – appears ripe to contest Gaines’s assertions. The film is all about Cary Scott, the central female character, her feelings, motives, decisions. Her status as a mother surely endows her with agency, as she cares for her children and, true to the maternal melodrama formula, sacrifices her own happiness to ensure theirs? Does the film need to employ the ‘storytelling wardrobe’ for a character so at the heart of the story, even when she is female?  This presentation examines Cary’s costumes in detail to find out.


Gaines, Jane. 1991. “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story” in Gaines, Jane and Herzog, Charlotte, eds, Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. New York and London: Routledge.

Lies Lanckman, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All the melodramatics of my life are past!”: The Fan Magazine as a Melodramatic Medium

Although the topic of maternal melodrama inMaternal Melodrama Norma Shearer 3 film has received attention by a number of scholars, the focus appears to lie primarily on the study of particular emblematic films or, more broadly, on maternal melodrama on screen. This paper, however, will explore another connection between (Hollywood) film and melodrama; the way in which not just many films, but also the fan magazine and the star narratives contained within its pages can be seen to include a number of melodramatic elements.

By exploring fan magazine rhetoric produced between 1920 and 1940, I highlight a number of key themes and the way their treatment might be called melodramatic, ranging from the characterisation of particular stars, to the treatment of key life experiences, such as love, marriage and death. In this paper, however, I will particularly highlight the treatment of motherhood in the pages of publications suchMaternal Melodrama Stanwyck as Photoplay, focusing on two separate case studies. One is the treatment of Norma Shearer’s role as a tragic widow and single mother after the premature death of husband Irving Thalberg in September 1936. The other will focus on the rhetoric surrounding the divorce of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay in December 1935, which cast Stanwyck as an excessive/monstrous mother who essentially emasculated her (less successful) husband. Using these two case studies, I will attempt to draw comparisons between Hollywoodian (maternal) melodrama on and off screen.


Ann-Marie Fleming, University of Kent, Film Studies

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present”:  Exploring the melodramatic depictions of the women from Grey Gardens (1975 and 2009).

This paper seeks to explore how we understand mother-daughter tensions and acceptance through the use of the past in both Grey Gardens (1975) and the docudrama of the same name from 2009. Life at Maternal Melodrama Grey Gardens doc and filmGrey Gardens does not progress; instead the past is the present. Melodramatic moments, particularly the interactions between Edith and Edie, are caused by and centred on past grievances that are as much alive in 1976 as they were in 1952. In contrast, the docudrama’s past is shown as a tool to heighten the pain of the present, whilst stylistically appearing more significant.

Primarily the paper will focus on the films’ depiction of:

  • The unsaid, said and shown – An examination of the melodrama caused by the discussion of the past in contrast to the performance style of the docudrama.
  • Female urgency – The importance of the female body and its dominance of the frame at the peak of the melodramatic performance/reaction.
  • The rise and fall of tension – How each form manipulates time and remembrance to create melodramatic sympathy.
  • The melodrama of life itself – The re-creation of the past self and the character of the present.

Despite the differences in film form the paper hopes to expose one important factor: familial melodrama arises from the past’s collision with the present.


We hope you’ll be able to join us on the 3rd of June to hear the papers in full!

Update: the event is free, but booking is essential. Please email me on to secure your place.


Summary of Discussion on The Wicked Lady

Posted by Sarah

Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady:

Wicked Lady costumeAfter much expressed delight at this Gainsborough romp, the discussion began with reticence over the time period that the film was representing. Many of us thought the costume, especially the wigs represented differing time periods. Internet searches confirmed the film was set in the Jacobean period. Indeed, it was agreed that the film was not overly concerned with accuracy on period costume. There was a suggestion that Hollywood had requested certain scenes be redone as the line of costumes on the women were too low and showing too much flesh for the Hays Code to approve. As was pointed out in the introduction, both Pam Cook and Sue Thornhill have written extensively on costume, identity and nationality in Gainsborough melodramas. These topics were carried over to the discussion afterwards. Apart from noting the possibility of historical accuracy concerning costume, there was some focus on Margaret Lockwood. Thornhill speaks of how Lockwood’s hair is styled into a vulva shape, and that some of her costumes compliment this phallic design.

Following from observations of Lockwood’s costume, further discussion focused on Margaret Lockwood’s acting and her character. Lockwood’s haughtiness was decidedly apt and appeared to add to audience identification. There was general agreement between us we would prefer to be Lockwood’s character than Patricia Roc’s. There was vitality to Lockwood’s character which the group found appealing. There was a mention too of a possible reference to war time women, when Lockwood declares she deserves to “do things” as she’s attractive, capable and intelligent. The camera also, rather clumsily at times, focused on Lockwood’s expression whenever an opportunity to kill someone, or undertake an evil deed was presented to her. These shots did appear somewhat heavy handed and caused much laughter in the group. However, one extreme close up of her eyes was a compelling shot. This reference led to further talk two interesting scenes due to their camera work. The first discussed was the scene where Lockwood is kneeling in front of Hogarth seeking forgiveness, by a roaring Wicked Lady firefire. The camera switches to behind the flames, as if in the fireplace. The framing gives the impression of Lockwood already in hell, surrounded by flames. The other unusual shot was when Lockwood’s character is dying and the camera travels backwards, away from Lockwood and out through the window, focusing on the smaller and smaller body of Lockwood. These two shots were the most distinctive in the film.

Lockwood Mason

There was much (delighted) surprise at the bawdiness of the film and many felt that you could sense how The Carry On films came about, that there was a sense of a distinctive Britishness in this film. Many commented on the excessive use of innuendo in the dialogue and how this added to the viewing experience.  Innuendo was prevalent in the exchanges between Lockwood and Mason, who were electric together onscreen and oozed unbuttoned sexuality. All in all, it was universally agreed that this period romp was an excellent screening choice for the group.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing to show this wonderful film, and for the great introduction and summary of discussion.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 29th of January, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 29th of January in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Wicked Lady (1945, Leslie Arliss, 104 mins).

wicked Lady poster


Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Wicked Lady is a 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Known as one of the Gainsborough melodramas, it is reputed to have one of the largest audiences of its period, 18.4 million. The story itself was based on the novel, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, which in turn, was based upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers.


Margaret Lockwood stars as 17th century beauty, Barbara Worth, who steals and marries her best friend’s intended bridegroom, local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. At their wedding reception, Barbara meets Kit Locksby. For both, it is love at first sight, but too late as Barbara is now married. As Lady Skelton, she soon bores of rural life and seizes the opportunity to become a highwayman in order to win back her jewels from her sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere. Addicted to the excitement, Lady Skelton continues in her escapades and meets and joins forces (personally and professionally) with fellow highwayman, Capt Jackson. Through murder, robbery and betrayal, Lady Skelton’s double life catches her with her and she is mortally wounded by Kit Locksby. Dying, she confesses all to Kit and asks him to stay with her as she dies. However, appalled and repulsed by the truth, he withdraws, leaving her to die alone.

Lockwood Roc Wicked LadyIt is reported that due to issues with the American censors, extensive re-shooting was required before the film was released in the United States. The problems concerned the women’s dress bodices, which were considered low-cut and allowed too much cleavage to be displayed, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the Hays Code.


The Gainsborough Melodramas

Despite producing a variety of genre films throughout its twenty-five year existence, the Gainsborough studio became synonymous with melodramas, in much the same way as Ealing studios did with comedies. The Gainsborough melodramas were a sequence of films produced by the British film studio Gainsborough Pictures during the 1940s. This cycle of films often touched upon similar themes and frequently starred recurring actors who played similar characters in each film, such as Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

The first film of the cycle, The Man in Grey, appeared in 1943. Starring both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, it was based upon the novel of the same name. Its success led to a number of similar films being produced, often based upon on melodramatic period novels, such as, The Wicked Lady (1945), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and A Place of One’s Own (1945). The films dominated the British box office, grossing top Hollywood productions in the UK. It has been argued that much of their appeal was in their overt escapism at a time when the Second World War was still being fought. However, the popularity of the cycle peaked in the immediate post-war years and the production of the melodramas continued until 1950. At the height of the melodramas’ popularity, both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood were respectively voted the most popular British male and female actors.

Mason Lockwood Wicked Lady


Focusing on the handful of period costumes romances produced by Gainsborough at this time, Pam Cook argues that although these films were rediscovered in the 1980s by film historians, the films remain largely ‘marginalised, ignored or subsumed into the consensus in discussion of national identity in British cinema’ (Cook, 1996). Even at the time of its release, Cook notes derision in some quarters. Simon Harcourt-Smith writing in Tribune said of the film, ‘…if the future of the British film industry hangs…on the success of The Wicked Lady, then let us dispense with that future.’ (Aspinall and Murphy, 1983, p74). Cook suggests that this critical neglect is due to how the costume and visual style, the representation of history and their mobilization of national identity contravened official strictures and versions of femininity.  Furthermore, Cook argues that costume romances are at the less reputable end of the historical film genre. Where ‘heritage’ historical films would celebrate the past, costume romances such as the those produced by Gainsborough, mobilize a British past of promiscuity, injustice and inequality, ‘a locus of crisis and conflict as well as sensual pleasure’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook also extends the films’ questionable representation of the past extends to costume and mise-en-scene. Sue Harper points out that visual codes in the costume romances have their own language, which often works against the ‘moralistic trajectory of the script’, creating a tension between spectacle and narrative (Harper, 1983: 1994). For Harper, spectacle plays a positive role in costume drama as the carrier of coded meanings which express the powerful status of femininity, overriding the narrative drive to disempower transgressive female protagonists.

As Pam Cook states, ‘Audiences leaving a screening of The Wicked Lady were more likely to remember the stunning image of a fetishized Margaret Lockwood dressed in highwayman gear astride a stallion than to take on board the moral implications of her punishment by death’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook, P. (1996) Fashioning the Nation. London: BFI Publishing.

Harper, S. (1983) ‘Art Direction and Costume Design’, in S. Aspinall and R. Murphy (eds) BFI Dossier 18: Gainsborough Melodrama. London: BFI Publishing, p 40-52

Harper, S. (1994) Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: BFI Publishing.

Do join us, if you can, for some classic British melodrama.

Inspirations: A Celebration of Pam Cook’s Work in Film Studies

Posted by Sarah

Keeley sent me an email to draw the Group’s attention to an event taking place at the University of Southampton on the 9th of November. It is a celebration of renowned film scholar Pam Cook’s work. The speakers include Claire Hines, Richard Dyer, Sarah Street, Catherine Grant, Michael Williams, and of course Pam Cook.

Pam Cook

Pam Cook’s work on stardom is especially relevant to our work of the last couple of weeks. In addition, Catherine Grant (former of the University of Kent, now of the University of Sussex) is contributing a video essay entitled: Mirrors, Melodrama and Pam Cook: A Video Essay.

The all-important link:

It looks like a great opportunity, so many thanks to Keeley for mentioning it.