Summary of Discussion on The Dark Mirror

Unsurprisingly quite a lot of our discussion on The Dark Mirror (1946) focused on the Doubling aspect. This was commented on in several ways:  in terms of psychology, technology, Olivia de Havilland’s –performance(s), costume, doubling in terms of our comparing to other films/narratives about the Double, and finally the fact that despite the centrality of the Double in terms of the twin sisters de Havilland plays, the power in the narrative rests with two authoritarian male characters: the police detective (Thomas Mitchell) and the psychologist (Lew Ayres).

 We commented that the psychological theme of the film was established very early on – during the opening credits which played over a background of different Rorschach tests, or ink blot, pictures. This particular test, which is also present in the film’s narrative, especially commented on the theme of the double in terms of its owndark Mirror opening mirroring. It was noted that the particular pictures chosen also seemed to particularly relate to the twin theme central to the film’s narrative since some of the blots appeared to resemble wombs. The doubling theme is elaborated on in relation to the Rorschach test when both Ruth and Terry (both played by de Havilland) are seen to undergo this psychological test soon after one another, but with very different results.

The film’s use of technology while the two characters de Havilland plays appear simultaneously on the screen was praised, with only a few lighting differences obviously discernible. De Havilland’s performance(s) also aided the seamlessness. It was almost possible to forget that the actress played both parts, despite the fact the twins are identical.  Character differences were evident from the start – Ruth’s timidity was contrasted to Terry’s confidence. De Havilland’s playing of these early scenes was nuanced enough to indicate Ruth and Terry’s distinct personalities, without exaggerating them. As time progressed and Terry’s ‘evil’ nature was revealed de Havilland’s facial expressions in particular became more manic. It is impressive that de Havilland also managed to convey Ruth’s apparent descent into madness with a different touch. Terry was tricking her sister into believing she herself had gone insane. ruth going madDe Havilland’s performance as Ruth therefore included expressions of bewilderment and fear in contrast to Terry’s planned and controlled scheming.

Costume also played an interesting role in aiding the audience’s attempt to differentiate the twins. The fact that no-one in the narrative is meant to know that there is more than one twin (the twins share a job selling magazines at a stand) explains some of their identical outfits.  It seems unlikely, however, that they would necessarily need to wear identical clothes at the same time. We also wondered why the twins shared a job.  Perhaps this has a practical application since one twin has, after all, we presume,Ruth and Terry identical clothes but different characters committed murder and might need to be fairly closely observed by the other.  Perhaps it also comments on a deeper psychological attachment. It is also the case that the twins wore the same clothes outside of work, even donning identical nightgowns. The identical costumes tailed off as the film progressed and by end evil Terry is seen all in black and innocent Ruth in a white top.

It is telling that one of the few physical ways the twins can be differentiated is by the use of jewellery. Both own a necklace with their name featured prominently, as well as initial brooches. When Terry is impersonating Ruth, it is even seen that Ruth (and presumably Terry) owns a compact mirror with her initial engraved on it. This was particularly noticed by the group as Terry removed it from her handbag after the Doctor had started to make clear he knew her real identity.  This was a very suspenseful moment – signalled, as was the case throughout the film – with dramatic music. In fact some of us thought Terry was about to brandish a gun. The necklaces, brooches and compact mirrors are items which can all be grouped under the term ‘women’s accoutrements’. Such accessories are sometimes sold, at times in connection with film stars, as ways of individuating oneself. The fact that this ‘female’ item, particularly one used to reflect on one’s appearance, is very significant. This is in terms of commenting on the theme of the double, but also because it is a replacement for the expected item – the arguably ‘male’ gun.

We noted a couple of aspects which we have previously discussed in terms of melodrama. The film’s dramatic music – and the fact that Terry uses a concealed music box to convince Ruth that the latter is going mad with auditory hallucinations – was noted. We also expressed views on the comic elements present in the film. These, usually related to the detective, seemed to sit uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. They can be related to the presence of the comic subplot in some theatrical dramas – Gaslight UKas evidenced in our read-through of the Melville Brothers’  A Girl’s Cross Roads (1903). More specifically, a connection can be made between Mitchell’s detective and the one played by Frank Pettingell in Thorold Dickinson’s British film version of Gaslight (1940). Interestingly this is another narrative about a relative (a husband in this case) trying to send a woman mad.

Finally we discussed the fact that while the film provided a great showcase for de Havilland and her dual performances, the men in the narrative were afforded far more power. This is seen in the ‘active’ occupations of both the detective and the psychologist. Furthermore this is directed towards proving the guilt of the twin who has killed, Terry, the least passive of the twins. By the end of the film we presume Terry will be institutionalised, while Ruth has been safely domesticated in a romance with the psychologist.

Dark Mirror Mitchell Ayres

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

Summary of Discussion on In This Our Life

Our discussion on John Huston’s film In This Our Life Stanley and Williamnoted its focus on family. Sisters Stanley (Bette Davis) and Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) lives are closely intertwined, partly as the former steals the latter’s husband (Dennis Morgan). In addition, the women’s father previously co-owned a business now run by their invalid mother’s (Billie Burke) brother (Charles Coburn). This is further complicated by the suspiciously close, and highly disturbing, relationship between Stanley and her uncle. Such interconnectedness comments on the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) definition of melodrama, which notes family as an important aspect: The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm)

Davis and de Havilland in this Our Life first dressesFamily is further emphasised were by the constant contrasting of Stanley and Roy. This was done on several levels. Personality and behaviour are of course key, but costume also plays a significant role. While Olivia de Havilland is introduced wearing a muted blue outfit (her father helpfully comments on the colour of the dress suiting her since the film is shot in black and white) Stanley is often seen in flashier outfits of prints, plaid patterns and flouncy frills. Furthermore she is criticised by other members of her family for wearing skirts which are too short.

 Stanley and Roy’s reactions to tragedy also tellingly involve clothes. After learning that her husband has deserted her for her sister Stanley, Roy angrily asserts that ‘I’m not wearing black’ and resolves to buy a red hat with a feather.  We see her wearing the accessory soon after, but the film’s black and white photography downplays the colour’s vividness. Similarly, when Stanley is supposedly heartbroken after the suicide of her husband she soon casts aside black outfits. Instead she opts for a light plaid which shocks her bed-ridden mother. The reactions of both sisters therefore involve the dismissal of black costumes. However, differences in the degree of seriousness of theIn This Our Life Davis plaid dress situations they are responding to is significant. While both have lost a husband (the same husband) Stanley has driven Peter to suicide. Also while Roy speaks of behaving badly to get what she wants (as Stanley always does) she does not follow though on this. Instead she does what the narrative expects – she falls in love with Stanley’s discarded fiancé, Craig (George Brent).

De Havilland and Davis’ acting was also markedly different. While de Havilland was not necessarily always restrained, her main outburst is the one outlined above. By contrast Davis is constantly playing at fever pitch. Davis’ performance involved variation in terms of embodying coyness, girlishness (very much denoted by Davis’ higher than usual voice), anger, seduction, deviousness etc, but there were very few, if any, moments were Davis/Stanley was completely still. Even when Davis/Stanley is sat listening to a gramophone record she is performing a dance with her shoes. It is also very noticeable that Davis’ face is never at rest.  We particularly commented on Davis’ use of her eyes.

We also related Davis’s performance to her precious incarnation of Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell).  (You can see our earlier discussion of this film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/10/summary-of-discussion-on-of-human-bondage/) Stanley and Mildred are both irredeemable characters, devoid of any moral compass. The impact of Stanley’s selfishness is more far-reaching however. While in Of Human Bondage the main person who suffered was the film’s protagonist, Philip, in In This Our Life Stanley devastates Roy and Craig, other members of her family and significantly a young employee of colour, Parry Clay (Ernest In This Our Life de Havilland hatAnderson), who Stanley blames for a fatal car accident she caused while drunk. This is shown in opposition to Roy and Craig’s kind treatment of Parry. Roy works with Parry at an Interior Decorators and she finds him work at Craig’s law office (Craig is a Civil Rights lawyer) when Parry expresses his wish to train as a lawyer.

Max Steiner’s score was also discussed. This accompanies many of the film’s emotional moments and is also used to foreshadow bad news. During several telephone calls when we are only privy to one side of the conversation the film’s music heavily underscores a sense of impending doom also conveyed by dialogue and actors’ expressions.

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

Summary of Discussion on The Hours

Posted by Sarah

Rosa has very kindly summarised our recent discussion on The Hours (2002):

The topics that were discussed after the screening were the essential ones mentioned in the previous introduction: music, costume, narrative and performance in (domestic) melodrama.

The Hours Glass soundtrackThe original soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, shows the importance of music, both in this film and in melodrama in general, as an element that supports the narrative as well as being powerful enough to stand out independently. Stephen Daldry, the director, talked about it at length in an interview (DVD extras) and highlighted how the repetition of the same theme over and over again makes the tension stronger in important points of the movie and helps bringing together all three stories, by mainly using the same piano theme.

Clarissa Vaughan flowersIn melodrama, costume and décor are crucial, and this film is an extraordinary example of a magnificent use of such resources. It is impossible not to link the initial sentence of the book Mrs. Dalloway, “Mrs.Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”, with the multiple patterns, prints and real flowers that from the very beginning of the film flood the screen. They are in the outfits, accessories, robes and dressing gowns of the female protagonists, the ties of the male characters, the wall paper- mainly in the 50s section of the film, there are fresh flowers in every household, a flower shop and a few scenes shot on location in Richmond’s gardens and parks. Katerina pointed out the dual meaning of flowers, which is quite applicable in this film: the ephemeral quality of them is an allegory of life/love, main themes of the story.

In the The Hours Richard's robesame way as characters are connected by music, flowers and scenography, colours and prints in the outfits give away messages that we are able to read and understand as the film goes by, bringing all characters together once more. There is a hidden and less obvious case, very cleverly placed within the storyline: Richard (Ed Harris) wears a blue robe with some kind of solar system pattern which happens to be the same fabric as the covers in little Richie’s bed back in the 1950s. If you are able to uncover the meaning of this double use of the same material, you will then be able to predict the end before the film finishes. Jane Gaines (“Costume and Narrative: how dress tells the woman’s story.” Fabrications: costume and the female body (1990): 180-211.) asserts that the costume should not anticipate the narrative plot, but on this occasion dialogue and wardrobe do give us hints of what will happen in the scenes to follow. Clarissa Vaughan says she has a premonition and in the next seen we see her wearing black, which we then learn was an anticipation of the death by suicide of her friend and ex-lover Richard. She wears an orange scarf over her total-black outfit, which could be a visual recourse in order to add definition to the silhouette or, reading more into the symbolism in this film, could express change or mutation, a generally accepted meaning of the colour orange.

Ann-Marie pointed out that it would have not been necessary to indicate in which period and place each story takes place, as the set and costumes are so significant, different and remarkable of each of the three stories, we are perfectly able to identify them. We compared it with how the book is organized and how in a written piece, it is necessary to specify more. In classical melodrama, as mentioned above, costume plays a very important role and this film is able to take us back to the original concept because of its richness in meaning and very intelligent use of the wardrobe. The contemporary part of the film is supported by the other two and all of them work together in a great way.

Thank you all very much for your participation and your very interesting comments!

And many thanks to Rosa for choosing such a rich film for us all to enjoy.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 22nd of January, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 22nd of January in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Hours (2002, Stephen Daldry, 114 mins).

the hours

Rosa has very kindly provided the following introduction which includes some fantastic photographs of some of the costumes:

The Hours (2002) will probably be remembered by the general audience as the film where Nicole Kidman sported a prosthetic nose to play the role of Virginia Woolf –  and for which she gained an Oscar. Nevertheless, it is a truly moving domestic melodrama where feeling identified in some way seems inevitable. Directed by Stephen Daldry and cleverly based on the homonymous novel written by Michael Cunningham, it is the story of three different generations of women living in three different times and places (Richmond, 1923, Los Angeles, 1951 and New York, 2001), but who have many similarities that we can gather from the very first scene. A writer, a reader and a character- Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) – are connected by the book Mrs. Dalloway, written by Woolf in the 1920s. As we will learn as the plot unfolds, the link between them goes beyond the expected, surprising us with a narrative twist and showing that each story could not be without the others.

To learn more about Michael Cunningham, the novel and the adaptation of it to screen, I suggest this article written by Cunningham and published a year after the film was released.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/19/movies/my-novel-the-movie-my-baby-reborn-the-hours-brought-elation-but-also-doubt.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

It analyses the process of creating a character for a book and how, once this piece becomes a screenplay, actors have to bring the characters to life, using various devices: data extracted from the written works, their own instinct, inspiration that can come from a small costume prop or through the transformation after the hair and make-up team have done their job, thinking how the character would behave beyond the story, etc. I suggest paying attention to performance and those details that help us understand the personal drama each of the characters is going through, within the confined spaces of their homes and routines.

The  film  received  nine  Oscar nominations and excellent reviews but award-winning designer Ann Roth  did  not  get  the  statue  for  Best  Costume  Design  as  the competition that year  was very strong and far more spectacular. Chicago,  The  Pianist,  Frida  and  Gangs  of  New  York  had  some elements  that  The  Hours  did  not  have,  such  as  the  quantity, extravagance  and  luxuriance  of  costume. The wardrobe that Roth created was accurate and straightforward; the nature of the script WP_003209 (1)required a variety of styles and periods but with no apparent opulence, so it could seem simplistic at first sight. However, the costumes were full of symbolism and hidden messages, a perfect example of how the costume plot has an independent language and, in this particular case, a very abundant one. Giving each character a thorough look and jointly with the rest, the richness of meaning is impressive. If costume represents interiority, there is no better example than this  one,  where  each  outfit shouts  something in silence – as Virginia, Laura and Clarissa do.

I would like to draw your attention to the colours and patterns that we see within the life of each character, both in costume and in décor. Every single costume change and scenography in each of the stories has a twin in the others, so I challenge you to find the connections and possible meaning of these repetitions.

WP_003239 (1)Some of the costumes for Nicole Kidman were hired and made at Cosprop, one of the world´s leading costumiers for theatre and screen, based in London. As you will see from the pictures provided, the state of hat and clothes was not perfect, but this fits the mentally disturbed Virginia, who, despite following the trends, would not worry too much about her looks. We also do not perceive stains and repairs on screen, so the outfit worked perfectly well for actress, designer and spectator.

Finally, and probably most importantly for this group, we have to talk about melodrama in The Hours. I thought the article “The Times of The Hours: Queer Melodrama and the Dilemma of Marriage”, by Julianne Pidduck (http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/)  would explain this far better than I would, although it gives away a lot of information regarding the plot and could spoil the screening. Here is an abstract if you would like to avoid reading the article for this matter:

http://cameraobscura.dukejournals.org/content/28/1_82/37.abstract

As Stephen Daldry said in an interview “the (book) film celebrates life with all its complexities, life is the most powerful thing we have”. So I hope you enjoy watching The Hours as much as I do and come out of the screening full of hope and inspiration for life.

Always the love. Always the hours.

Do join us, if you can for the screening of a wonderful film and some great insider knowledge!

Summary of Discussion on The Skin I Live In

Posted by Sarah,

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our post-screening discussion on The Skin I Live In (2011):

skin i live in

This week’s discussion centred on the topics of sexual identity, motherhood and other representations of femininity, performance and the use of the male gaze as evoked by the screening of The Skin I Live In. The session began with an introduction from Keeley, as well as some notes on the film’s production from Rosa. Rosa explained how the shooting of the film was quite stressful for all involved and this seems to have affected the performance of the actors in the film which is particularly apt for the film’s troubling themes. A lot of the film was shot at night and on location and Almódovar was quite an excessive character to work with, demanding sets be re-built from scratch if they did not meet his exacting standards. Rosa also noted how the colour red is important for the film, and Spanish culture more widely, representing as it does passion, love, war, blood, fire and sexuality. Almódovar is particularly adept at skin i live in almodovar and redutilising the colour as red can be found in a lot of his films (especially on the posters) and red is also present somewhere in the frame in most of the shots in this film. Rosa also told us that the vintage shop seen in The Skin I Live In is a real shop belonging to costume designer Paco Delgado (who, more recently, has worked on and received an award nomination for Les Miserables).

Rosa remarked how these anecdotes of a difficult shoot are fascinating to consider, as they both reveal the unique workings of the director and how such a stressful production, combined with a difficult plot, can infect the crew and their modus operandi. Rosa commented that this production history translates into the viewing experience of the film, as The Skin I Live In draws audiences into its complicated tone and difficult story, as though making them a ‘prisoner’ of the film as well.

Keeley offered another thorough introduction to the film which focused on the main themes of the narrative. She mentioned how, in particular, maternal devotion, sexual identity, family relationships and the home are central to the film. Another recurring and important motif is that of the double: this is present on a narrative level with the physical transformation of Vicente to Vera, but it is also apparent elsewhere in the film, such as with the visual similarity of characters (Vera is made to look like Robert’s deceased wife) eyes withoutand through the comparable roles assigned to characters (there are three mothers which feature in the film). The double can also said to be present in the way The Skin I Live In relates to other melodramas, such as Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and Rebecca. Obsession and sexual identity also features in the narratives of these films, just as it does in The Skin I Live In.

Keeley found the following quote particularly helpful in thinking about this film. It reads:

“In its final scenes, The Skin I Live In takes a turn that is as unexpected as it is brilliant. It no longer tells a story or revenge, but rather the story of a conversion.” (Gustavo Martin Garzo in The Pedro Almodovar Archives, edited by Paul Duncan & Bárbara Peiró, 2011. p. 373).

The film, in this way, is about accepting (or not) the identity forced upon you and this has particular implications for the film’s ending: is this positive or not? Keeley stated she thought that it was as it signalled hope for Vera and this was a discussion point we returned to later. Keeley also noted that The Skin I Live In is an important film to think about Almódovar as an auteur and where it fits into his larger body of work. This film is, in many ways, Almódovar’s most polished film although skin i live in directionmelodrama runs throughout all of his films. The Skin I Live In is a denser and more emotionally complex film. It is also interesting that Antonio Banderas should appear in the film: this is his first film with Almódovar for a long time and also signals Banderas’ return to Spanish film. The Skin I Live In allowed Banderas to explore a deeply emotional character and our reaction to Robert was another discussion point we returned to later.

skin i live i  vera

After the screening of the film, comments opened with the thought that secrets are an incredibly important aspect to the film’s narrative and melodrama more widely. The secret as to the ‘true self’ occurred on several occasions in The Skin I Live In and is reflected by the film’s unusual structure: the crucial backstory explaining who Vera is – and how she became Vera – is delayed. Another delay occurs with Vera’s true intentions, which sees her murdering Robert at the end. There is some debate whether this was Vera’s plan all along or as a result of seeing Vicente’s image in the newspaper again after all those years. Vera’s actions at the end of the film are also complicated because the love making scene which takes place between her and Robert seems genuine and affectionate and therefore not does hint at Vera’s murderous intent moments later.

The relationship between Vera and Robert was discussed at length and we commented how the almost incestuous nature of their coupling is an important part of the film’s difficult narrative (by making love to Vera, Robert is having sex with the person who raped his daughter). We agreed that the most disturbing sex scene is the earlier one between Robert and Vera, following the latter’s rape by Zeca the ‘tiger man’. Although Robert clearly expresses his desire for Vera earlier on in the film (by watching her intently on the large TV screen), this sexual liaison Skin I live in screenappears to be for the purpose of Robert reclaiming Vera as his ‘property’ and ‘marking his territory’ after her defilement by the tiger man. The fact all of these scenes take place before the revelation of Vera’s original identity and early on in the narrative, makes the film an uncomfortable viewing experience from the start.

We discussed the film’s enigmatic ending and Keeley explained how she finds this conclusion quite hopeful for Vera: Vera’s return to the shop points to the cyclical nature of the narrative and emphasises how she is now free from her captivity. The shop assistant is important to this scene: we see earlier Vicente’s banter with his fellow employee and the emotional and physical attraction between them is evident again at the end, perhaps even more so with Vicente’s transformation into Vera. The shop also seems like a fitting and safe place for Vera to return to not only because this is home but because this is the only place where we see some humour in the film take place (the dubious customer service and buying of ‘fat’ clothes seen earlier in the film when we are first introduced to Vicente). Yet even in this seemingly light-hearted sequence, the film appears to prophesise Vicente’s demise, as there is a visual match between the skin i live in endingearly shot of the dress in the window (with Vicente on the inside of the shop), and the shot of the dress in the window again at the end (with Vera reflected from the outside). Keeley also noted how this latter shot features a background patterning in the shop which is similar to the drawings Vera makes on the walls of her locked room in Robert’s house, as though foreshadowing Vicente’s inevitable imprisonment as Vera.

Although there is a hopeful tone to the film’s concluding moments, the ending is not without its ambiguities and frustrations for the viewer either. Importantly, the film fades to black before Vicente’s mother can react to her son’s new appearance, which is also significant because the mother firmly told the police that she believed her son to still be alive. We expanded this point to comment how an integral part of the melodrama of the film is not just the suffering of Robert and Vera (and, by extension, Norma whose downfall is a combination of her mother’s death and Vicente’s actions), but the narrative also includes three suffering mothers. These are: Robert’s mother, who tells Vera her tragic life story and is also the mother of Zeca; Robert’s wife, who attempts to elope with Zeca but is left to burn in their crashed car and eventuallyskin i live in suffering mother commits suicide; and Vicente’s mother, whose child is pronounced dead by the authorities even though she believes he was kidnapped. Therefore The Skin I Live In features several personal melodramas occurring simultaneously and the complexity with which these stories relate poses a challenge for spectators and their engagement with these characters.

We also discussed how performance, identity, and costume become conflated in The Skin I Live In, with characters frequently embodying the roles of their outer appearance. For example, Zeca’s tiger ‘skin’ is an apt costume as he acts aggressively first towards his mother (who he ties up in the kitchen) and then towards Vera. Zeca’s depraved treatment of Vera begins by him licking the TV screen displaying Vera in her locked room and we then see several cuts of Zeca ‘stalking’ his prey before raping her. Vera also plays the role dictated to by her outward appearance. For example we see Vera perform domestic chores, cleaning her room and preparing breakfast for Robert. Robert skin i live in vera defends robertattempts to enforce a very specific definition of femininity onto Vera, by supplying her with dresses and make up. Yet Vera also uses her new ‘feminine wiles’ to trick Robert, as when she attacks him when wearing the black stocking she asked him to zip up, or later when Vera tries to convince Robert to give her freedom to roam the house by attempting to seduce him.

This rather stereotypical representation of the feminineSkin I live in mannequin is also emphasised by the exaggerated use of the male gaze in the film. This occurs with Zeca and his licking of the TV screen, but Vera is also subjected to Robert’s gaze. Robert watches Vera on the huge TV screen in his room and he fragments Vera’s body for his own gratification by zooming the camera in on Vera and again, quite literally, through the process he performs to transform Vicente into Vera and the other procedures he performs to reinforce her skin. Vera’s body is also juxtaposed with the paintings of figures in Robert’s house and the clay bodies Vera makes and decorates with her torn dresses. Yet Vera also subverts this male gaze by performing for it: she knows Robert watches her and Vera hopes this knowledge of Robert’s attraction towards her will help win her freedom. Vera also returns the gaze: she looks down the camera towards Robert forcing him to reflect upon his own act of looking. The male gaze is subverted again as it is Robert’s and Zeca’s mother who witnesses Vera’s rape on the TV screens.

We commented on the unusual structure of the house, where the majority of the film’s melodramatic moments takes place. The house’s geography is complicated and it remains unclear where the distinctive areas of the house exist in relation to each other (thus contributing to Vera’s hopelessness at achieving freedom on one occasion). There is also a strange mix of styles present in the home, with the cave-like place where Vicente is kept initially, combining with the traditional façade of the house (and rooms like the kitchen), which in turn contrast sharply with the clinical sight of the operating theatre. The film’s central debate of whether one is ‘at home’ in one’s own skin and ultimately defined by this outwardly appearance is thus mirrored by the house’s abnormal structure: it, too, is an ‘un-homely’ home.

skin i live in vicente and normaWe also discussed how the central event in the narrative – Norma’s rape – does not evoke the ‘melodramatic showdown’ one might expect from such a story. Indeed this part of the story is the most difficult to interpret, as Vicente expresses to Robert that “I don’t think I raped her [Norma]”. The scene depicting Vicente’s encounter with Norma is challenging: at first Norma seems to be engaged with Vicente’s attraction to her but, after the edit which takes us back into the house and to the wedding party, her participation in the liaison is no longer consensual. The scene is also difficult to evaluate because it is clearly portrayed as a subjective memory, as both Vera and Robert’s dreams take us into these flashbacks.skin i live in norma Leaving aside the question of whether such memories are to be considered reliable, the difficulty for interpretation and identification is pushed further as Vicente’s original role as the rapist and Robert as the doting and loving father is swiftly usurped by Vera’s depiction as the victim and Robert as the oppressor. The moral compass of the film is constantly misdirected and confused.

We concluded our discussion by talking about how successful and well received the film was on its release. This is in contrast to this week’s set reading from Film Quarterly, which was quite dismissive of the film’s representations of sex, sexuality, aesthetic qualities and apparent misogyny. We disagreed with these conclusions as we found the challenges posed by these questions an important part of the viewing experience for a film which does not offer any easy answers.

Many thanks to Kat, Keeley and Frances for jointly selecting such a fascinating film for us to view, and for providing the great introductions and summary. Thanks too to Rosa for the extra, inside, information on Almodovar.

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

Summary of Discussion on Coquette

Posted by Sarah

The discussion prompted by Coquette focused on several areas: the definition of melodrama, especially in relation to content vs form; the film’s old-fashioned feel; comparison of Norma’s punishment to other female characters at the time and earlier; Mary Pickford’s star entrance; Pickford’s star image – from the Girl with the Curls to the Woman Without Them; Hollywood’s focus on youth; modern actresses and image changes; Pickford’s performance.coquette poster

We began by relating the film to our previous experience of, and assumptions about, melodrama. The basic story has many melodramatic elements.  The central character is a young woman named Norma (played by Mary Pickford) whose reputation is at stake.  A misunderstanding leads to Norma’s lover Michael (played by Johnny Mack Brown) being shot by her father and a death-bed scene. This results in a murder trial where Norma attempts to save her father’s life by perjuring herself. She tries to convince the court that Michael raped her, therefore providing her father with a reason for his action.

Coquette generalHowever the storytelling is not very melodramatic. The film did not follow the theme of concealment and revelation we have noted in other melodramas. A key example of this is the fact that Norma told her brother, and the audience, of her intention to lie on the witness stand. This meant we were not left in suspense as to how she might react. In addition, while Norma and Michael’s separation is presumably meant to be very distressing to both of them, the film does not convey this strongly.  We also thought that Norma’s long-standing, and older, admirer Stanley (Matt Moore) might have played a larger part in the film, providing the third point of a melodramatic triangle. This was not the case.

The difference between the film’s content and its form (primarily its plotting–both overall and within scenes) is therefore important. Since the story has melodramatic elements but the plotting does not highlight this, might we consider the film to be intended as melodrama, but simply not very effective? Or does the lack of suspense in terms of concealment and revelation preclude us from considering it to be melodrama at all? Of course this assessment of ‘quality’ rests on our judgment today, and views at the time might well have been different.

Coquette was based on relatively recent (1927) play of the same name by George Abbot and Ann Preston Bridgers. The film’s contemporaneous (to its release) setting is foregrounded by long-held close-ups of invitations to dances in 1928. However, we thought the film seemed old-fashioned for its time. The ‘feel’ was compared to that of Pleasantville (1998) in which the two main characters from the 1990s find themselves inhabiting a chirpy 1950s America.

The film’s old-fashioned nature was especially seen in the treatment of the mainCoquette distress character. Norma’s ‘sins’ are small. She has spent the night, unchaperoned, with the man she loves in a cabin. Nothing happened between them. Yet she is severely punished: her lover is shot dead; she feels compelled to paint a very negative view of his character in order to help her father be acquitted of a murder charge; she witnesses her father’s suicide at his trial.

clara bowThe New Woman was already well established in Hollywood films by this time. Colleen Moore played the definitive flapper in Flaming Youth six years earlier, and Clara Bow appeared to have It in 1927. Compared to these, and others, and especially given the fact that Norma’s sins are fairly insignificant – she is a coquette, or a flirt after all, not a ‘bad’ woman or a prostitute – the film seems out of its time.

We connected this strongly to Mary Pickford’s star image. The film was presenting a ‘new’ Mary one who way ‘bobbed, audible and coquettish’ according to Photoplay in May 1929. We spoke at some length about Pickford’s star entrance. Norma is referred to, butCoquette dress not seen, for some time. Immediately before we see her she is being joshed by her brother Jimmy about spending too long in front of the mirror. We only hear her voice to begin with. This is frustrating on two counts – the quality of Pickford’s voice is less assured than those of the other actors (though there may also be some microphone issues) and our sight of her is delayed. When she does appear though, she is very striking. As well as the new hairstyle, Pickford is wearing a beautiful modern dress. While this is modest in some ways the flimsy material focuses attention on her legs.

 The way youth was used to ‘sell’ stars and films was seen in the Photoplay piece and has been the subject of academic work. (See Heather Addison. “” Must the Players Little MaryKeep Young?”: Early Hollywood’s Cult of Youth.” Cinema Journal 45.4 (2006): 3-25.) It was thought that this new image was not thoroughly modern as perhaps Pickford could not risk alienating her established fan base. Much of her previous appeal had been predicated upon recognition of her as ‘Little Mary’ or the ‘Girl with the Curls’.  This relies on a very different presentation of youth.  It is also at odds with the fact Pickford’s capability as a businesswoman (a co-founder of United Artists) and her private life – her happy marriage to Douglas Fairbanks – were continually dealt with in the press.

Gaylyn Studlar has written that Pickford appealed to the, in some ways already vanished, Victorian notion of childhood and its excessive sentimentality. (See Gaylyn  Studlar, “Oh,” Doll Divine”: Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze.” Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001): 196-227.) As Studlar pondered the audience for Pickford’s silent films we were also curious as to the intended and actual audience for Coquette. The appeal to the modern seen in Photoplay’s focus on consumption was severely compromised by the film itself. Although Pickford was indeed ‘bobbed, audible and coquettish’ she did not seem young: Norma/Pickford was not seen engaging in the frantic dancing of the other youths in the film. The moralistic tone of the play – there is no happy ending which is unusual for other melodramas of this, and an earlier, period – seemed unlikely to sit well with those who had seen It and Flaming Youth.

lillian gishWe broadened out the discussion to some others of Pickford’s contemporaries. While Moore and Bow symbolised the new, Lillian Gish, like Pickford, was of the past. However Lillian Gish’s appeal, while also based on innocence, was not dependant on her occupying a child’s role. The playing of child roles seemed very particular to Pickford.  Gish was far more often a child-woman. As early as 1920 she was playing single mother in Way Down East.

Some modern actresses who have noticeably had a ‘statement’ haircut in order to break free from their earlier star images were also mentioned: Harry Potter’s Emma Watson and Miley ‘Hannah Montana’ Cyrus.  We also cited several actresses who, like the 37 year-old Pickford in Coquette, have played, or continue to play, younger than their actual age. These included Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter and Natalie Portman.

Coquette Pickford and BeaversThe change in Pickford’s hairstyle was clearly significant, yet the nod to the modern was not extended to the film’s treatment of her character’s morality and behaviour or indeed Pickford’s acting style. At times Norma seemed very young. She climbed onto the lap of the maid (Louise Beavers) to be comforted. Pickford’s acting was occasionally heavy handed. The moment Norma feels an excessive pain in her chest which she takes to correspond to Michael being shot was particularly memorable since Pickford clutches her chest with such violence. Norma was also, unsurprisingly, hysterical on learning of her lover’s death.

Instances of the overtly dramatic sat uncomfortably with some of the film’s, few, lighter moments. One of these seems to in itself be mocking, or at the very least drawing attention to, melodramatic performance.  Michael reacts to one situation with a moody and long-held stare. Norma/Pickford waits a little while, and then looks to the audience. The gaze then turns back to Michael with Norma/Pickford seeming to wonder at how Michael has managed to keep the pose for so long. Pickford’s performance within a performance is referenced throughout by one of her repeated gestures. After saying the word ‘adorable’ (whether to her admirer Stanley or her lover Michael) she places Coquette lip pointher finger to her lip in a coquettish way, prompting others to kiss her.  It is noticeable that when Norma/Pickford utters the word ‘adorable’ for the last time in the film, it is not accompanied by the gesture. The events Norma has been through have perhaps finally broken her meaning that any coquettish behaviour would be out of place.

Many thanks to Tamar for suggesting a film which provoked so much discussion.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of November, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 13th of November in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Frances’ selection: episodes of Twin Peaks and The X Files.

Frances’ introduction:

Twin Peaks and The X-Files

x files 1

The aim of this week’s session is to continue the discussion inspired by Kat’s screening last week of American Horror Story. As highlighted last week, Kat and I are interested in exploring further the relationship between horror and melodrama, and how this has a particular relevance to television, where such productions are based on the serial format. This week I shall be showing episodes from Twin Peaks and The X-Files as further examples of popular TV shows combining horror and melodrama traditions. Both shows were created and first aired during the 1990s and, as such, represent the forerunners to American Horror Story and the commercialisation of horror as a successful, primetime television component we discussed last week. This week’s session shall therefore look at examples from both series and their spin-offs, including:

–          A clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (a 1992 film based on the TV series directed by David Lynch; this film was made as a prequel to the TV show).

–          Twin Peaks episode 29, season 2 (first aired in the USA on 10th June 1991; this episode is the final one of the series).

–          The X-Files episode 2, season 4 Home (first aired in the USA on 11th October 1996).

TP 1Twin Peaks was first aired in the USA on 8th April 1990 and ended on 10th June 1991, after running for two seasons. The series begins with the discovery of a girl’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on a riverbank in a quiet American town called Twin Peaks. The girl is revealed to a local named Laura Palmer, a high school student and the school’s prom queen. The news of Laura’s murder shakes the town, particularly as Laura was seen as the perfect, all-American teenage girl with a loving and respectable family. This event sets up the key question which drives the rest of the narrative: who killed Laura Palmer? Soon after the discovery of Laura’s body, another teenager named Ronnette Pulaski is found badly hurt and wandering confused just outside of town. The girl slips into a coma and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called to investigate Laura’s death and any connection this may have to Ronnette. On inspecting Laura’s corpse, Cooper finds a letter concealed underneath one of her fingernails which bears a striking resemblance to a murder case of another girl murdered a year earlier. Believing the cases to be connected, Cooper remains in Twin Peaks to investigate Laura’s death and expose the killer he thinks may be local or, at least, not very far away.

TP 2Cooper’s investigation into Laura’s demise is the core plot point which drives the narrative although the FBI agent’s investigations soon expose the corruption and crime which permeates the seemingly sleepy town. The series also follows the lives of all its inhabitants and thus the show features an extensive supporting cast and interweaving sub-plots. Throughout the course of the show, the picturesque Twin Peaks is found to be harbouring drug dealers, pimps, adultery, domestic violence, child abuse, incest, mental illness, blackmailers, corporate corruption, human trafficking, prostitution and, of course, murder. Laura is revealed to be at the heart of these crimes as Cooper discovers two sides to Laura’s life: on the one side, the happy high school girl who was the prom queen and dates a local boy Bobby; on the other side, Cooper discovers Laura’s darker life, where she is also seeing another teenage boy James, is addicted to cocaine and prostitutes herself to pay for her habit, and has been the victim of sexual abuse since childhood. The revelation of Laura’s suffering exposes the perpetrators of these criminals as Twin Peaks locals, as well as illuminating the family dramas of other residents, not directly responsible for Laura’s death. As such the series plays out like a soap opera, where the personal melodramas of the town’s inhabitants becomes public knowledge and the repercussions of this are great: Twin Peaks cannot return to its (however illusory) status as a normal, quiet American town.

TP 3Twin Peaks is therefore infused with melodramatic sub-plots and performance, and you will see examples of this in today’s screening. The series is indebted to the features of melodrama we have looked at in previous sessions: the detective story; use of delay and reticence; the threat of the domestic space; heightened emotion and exaggerated performance; and suffering women (there are many suffering women in this series which include but go beyond Laura). However Twin Peaks’s genre is difficult to pin-down precisely, particularly as the series features other surreal moments in true Lynchian fashion: Cooper has many dream sequences where he visits a mysterious red room which is not of this world. Cooper is convinced that this dream holds the clues to solving Laura’s murder and it reveals that the mystery hinges on deciphering who or what is BOB. As a result of this strange mixture – the show’s portrayal of intense family drama juxtaposed with dream sequences and suggestions of the supernatural or mystic which lack narrative or logical explanation – Lenora Ledwon suggests that Twin Peaks is a prime examples of the ‘Television Gothic’. Like the Gothic discussed previously in our sessions, this genre also places an emphasis upon the home, the family, the uncanny and the monstrous (either real or supernatural) but is particularly subversive because of the show’s domesticity as a television programme (Ledwon, 1993, 5). She writes:

This new Television Gothic utilizes familiar Gothic themes and devices such as incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences. But these elements undergo a sea change once they are immersed in the “currents” of television. What could have been a soothing repetition of formula instead becomes a disturbing process of transgression and uncertainty. (2)

The extracts from Twin Peaks chosen for you to watch today demonstrate this potent combination of family melodrama, Gothic tropes and horror sequences. Twin Peaks questions the stability and conception of American Dream and in particular the idea of small-town America and the nuclear family. In the clip from Fire Walk With Me this is particularly potent: the seedier sides of Laura’s life become increasingly apparent to the viewer and Laura becomes both a Gothic heroine in her own home – a victim of the evil forces surrounding her – but also an active (and enthusiastic) participant in the town’s sleazy underbelly. The show makes extensive use of horror iconography in these examples and helps to complicate the question: who killed Laura Palmer? On one level this is answered (the killer is revealed mid-way through season two) but the surreal and dreamlike sequences used in the show’s finale show that the answer is not so easy or complete. The series questions whether the evil in the town is inherent in the people who live in Twin Peaks or whether another force is responsible. The show’s final episode also extends this question of instability to another form of authority: the US government. Cooper’s status as an agent of the FBI is an important facet to the murder investigation and, along with other law enforcers like the town’s sheriff, they represent the (only) force of good. Yet the viability of sustaining such control and enforcing the law in Twin Peaks also comes under threat. The series thus ends on an ambiguous note: what is to become of institutions like law enforcement and the family? Does the ending offer any hope? These are questions to keep in mind for the screening.

x files 2The last episode I am showing is from The X-Files, a series which ran from 10th September 1993 to 19th May 2002, spanning nine seasons. Both The X-Files and Twin Peaks therefore began in the same decade, although the latter was cancelled much earlier. At first glance the two series seem very different: whereas Twin Peaks appears to adopt a soap opera format with an emphasis on the domestic and the family, The X-Files is commonly classified as a science-fiction series and follows the actions of two FBI agents – Mulder and Scully – who investigate a series of cases which feature paranormal occurrences. Mulder is keen prove the existence of aliens although his partner Scully – a scientist who is assigned to evaluate Mulder’s activities – is a hardened sceptic. Over the course of the show, the two agents become very close and learn from each other’s perspectives, as well as investigating cases which reveal criminal activity, paranormal activity and the corruption of the government. For Joe Bellon, the show’s combination of all these elements means that it should not be classified as just ‘science fiction’. (Bellon, 1999). In fact, the show’s strange mixture of not completely conforming to a pro-science perspective but also not being entirely irrational in its representations either, make for a difficult classification. It is for these reasons Bellon argues that The X-Files functions in the ‘ontological detective mode’, where ‘[t]he question to be answered is not “who done it?” but rather “what is it?”’ (7). This shift in emphasis thus widens The X-Files’s concerns beyond the question of the existence of aliens (although very important) and includes the exposure of corruption and evil which wears a very human face, such as the FBI. These larger issues are comparable to the issues raised by the Twin Peaks finale as well.

The X-Files’s resistance to conforming to the usual conventions of science-fiction does not mean that the show has no discernible genres, however. I would argue that melodrama is an important part of the show, motivating the narrative. Mulder’s preoccupation with all things paranormal is not without cause: he is convinced his sister was abducted by aliens as a child and he is determined to expose the truth. His detective work thus provides the catalyst for the revealing a number of hidden truths along the way, in a manner similar to Cooper’s work in Twin Peaks. Yet the key difference is that Mulder is motivated by his own family trauma: in The X-Files the detective work is a very personal affair. The melodramatic potential of this sub-plot also comes to the fore with another personal relationship, this time the relationship between Mulder and Scully. As the series continues, one of dominant reoccurring stories of the show is the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ question. Although the FBI agents’ relationship is platonic for the majority of the show, the two do become romantically involved.

The X-Files also makes extensive use of horror conventions in its narrative and iconography. The decision to bring horror onto the small screen was quite deliberate: the show’s creator, Chris Carter, mused that there seemed to be a lack of prime-time shows which included horror. He wrote: ‘You look at the TV schedule … and there’s nothing scary on television.’ (quoted in Hammond and Mazdon, 2005, 63). The show’s episodes are therefore littered with monsters, creepy occurrences and unexplained events intended to haunt and disturb. The importance of the horror format is also apparent by the ‘Monster-of-the-Week’ episodes: these are episodes which stand-alone from the main narrative and its concerns (such as Mulder’s sister) but help to develop the evil and horror infecting the larger X-Files universe. It is one of these episodes I have chosen to screen for this session: an episode called Home. In this instalment of the show, The X-Files follows a very similar narrative arc to Twin Peaks: a gruesome discovery in a small, quiet town in American necessitates an investigation by the FBI and Mulder and Scully are sent in. Their investigation leads them to the Peacock family, who live in an old, isolated house and have no contact with the other town’s inhabitants: in fact the family has managed to reproduce through incestuous liaisons. Mulder and Scully attempt to infiltrate this disturbing family home and solve the mystery of the murder.

x files 3Home became quite an infamous episode for the show, as its horrific content meant that the show was broadcast with a viewer’s warning for the first time in The X-Files’s history. Many reviewers criticised the series for going ‘too far’ in the episode and the network did not re-broadcast the show for many years afterwards. Home has also been rated number one out of the ‘Scariest Science Fiction and Fantasy TV Episode’ with the warning: ‘Once seen, this episode will never leave you.’ (see: http://io9.com/top-25-scariest-science-fiction-and-fantasy-tv-episodes-1450803057). Interestingly, the horror of this episode is unrelated to all of the paranormal investigations which feature elsewhere in the series, and a supernatural explanation for the events does not occur. Rather, like Twin Peaks, Home seeks to expose the horrific living in the domestic sphere, questioning the stability and safety of the traditional family unit. Home presents us with a radical re-definition of the American family which becomes unnatural, perverse and monstrous. One noticeable difference between Home and Twin Peaks is that the first’s family appears to function without any female presence or influence at all: it seems that only three of the Peacock ‘brothers’ live in the old house. However the episode soon subverts expectations again and presents us with extreme variations of the Gothic heroine, as the true nature of the situation comes to light and the investigation is solved. As such The X-Files creates a unique and horrific version of the traditional family melodrama.

As with Twin Peaks, this X-Files episode evokes the questions: what is the cause of the ‘evil’ here? How does this reflect upon the idea of family and the domestic home? Can these observations be extended to include the representation of authority, as with the FBI?

Enjoy the shows!

References:

Bellon, J. 1999. ‘The Strange Discourse of The X-Files: What It Is, What It Does, and What Is at Stake.’ Critical Studies in Mass Communication 16, 136-154.

Creeber, G. 2004. Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: British Film Institute.

Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) 2005. The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kowalski, D. (ed.) 2007. The Philosophy of The X-Files. Kentucky: The University of Kentucky.

Lavery, D., Hague, A. and Cartwright, M. (eds.) 1996. Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files. London: Faber and Faber. 

Ledwon, L. 1993. ‘Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic.’ Literature Film Quarterly,21:4, 260-270.

http://io9.com/top-25-scariest-science-fiction-and-fantasy-tv-episodes-1450803057

 

Do join us if you can, for more TV horror. Visit our additional blog for more information:http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/

Summary of Discussion on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Posted by Sarah

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

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

Baby Jane telephone BD

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 30th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich, 124 mins)

 Introduction

Baby Jane hall

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was adapted from Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel of the same name. The story takes place in a once-fashionable part of Hollywood where two sisters share a dilapidated gothic mansion. ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson was a child star in cinema’s very early days, while Blanche’s heyday was as a movie queen during the 1930s. The sisters are now forced to live together, partly due to a serious accident which has left Blanche wheelchair-bound, and their unhealthy and violent relationship forms the core of the film.

The casting of two of 1930s HollyBaby Jane posterwood’s greatest female stars –  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the roles of the Hudson sisters provoked comment at the time. For example, both the film’s trailer and Variety’s review find the teaming of the stars significant. The trailer touches on the matter of star image as it warns the potential audience that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  does not resemble the pair’s previous (separate) films. Meanwhile, Variety opines that the casting of Davis and Crawford in retrospect seems like a ‘veritable prerequisite to putting Henry Farrell’s slight tale of terror on the screen’. It certainly led to great returns at the box office: the relatively low budget (just over $1 million) film grossed $9 million.[1]

Baby Jane productionThe film’s production has earned its place in Hollywood folklore in the intervening years. This is primarily due to the assertion that this marked the culmination of Davis and Crawford’s long-running, and some might say melodramatic, feud. Like many Hollywood stories though, this is only partially true. Several sources note the one-upmanship that took place during filming. For example, Bob Thomas’ biography of Crawford details some of the ‘conflict’ between the stars (pp. 224-229). Charlotte Chandler’s ‘personal’ biography of Crawford concludes that the ‘legendary feud between the two may have been just that – a legend’ dreamed up by Baby Jane’s publicity people which the stars both ended up believing (p. 248). Whenever the feud started, and for whatever reason, Davis had very definite ideas about a sequel to the film: “I’ll tell you the first scene. It’ll be a scene of this one,’ pointing at herself, ‘putting flowers on that one’s grave” (p. 250). (A follow-up film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, was made in 1964 – but with Olivia de Havilland replacing an ill Crawford part-way through).That until Baby Jane Crawford was not really on Davis’  radar is supported by Davis’ autobiography The Lonely Life, published in 1962, which does not even mention Crawford. Davis rectifies this, with relish, in her 1987 post Baby Jane memoir This ‘n That.
Baby JaneRegardless of any melodramatic off-screen tales surrounding What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog categorises the film text as melodrama. The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. [2]

 

My analysis of the AFI Catalog shows that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  was one of 52 melodramas released in 1962. Interestingly, the 1960s showed an upsurge in the production of American produced melodramas. In the 1950s melodramas accounted for 147 films or 4.77% of all American films produced. In the 1960s this had risen to 529 and 22.60%. This does not quite hit the heights of the 1920s (a staggering 2230 or 33.16%) or the 1930s when 434 melodramas (constituting a fairly low 8.14%) were produced. But it is significantly more than in the 1940s (108 or 2.47%) or the 1950s figured quoted above. It might be especially fruitful for us to ponder why this might be the case. Especially as Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas are so often the focus of academic work on melodrama.

Recent scholarly work on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has focused on issues of aging, stardom and disability, matters we might well find it interesting to ponder. The articles/chapters include:

Jodi Brooks. “Performing Aging/Performance Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Figuring Age (1999): 232-47: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/john-cassavetes/cassavetes_aging/

Sally Chivers. “Baby Jane Grew Up: The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability.” Canadian Review of American Studies 36.2 (2006): 211-228. (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Anne Morey. “Grotesquerie as marker of success in aging female stars.” In the limelight and under the microscope: forms and functions of female celebrity (2011). (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Also visit the additional blog for more details of Variety’s review.

Access the (fairly non-spoilery) trailer on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/WhateverHappenedToBabyJane-Trailer

Do join us, if you can, for a classic 1960s melodrama with two superb performances from major 1930s female Hollywood stars.


[1] The budget for the film was $1,025,000 according to Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 256. Box Office Information for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? IMDb. The $9 million figure relates to worldwide grossed. Retrieved 22 October 2013.

[2] http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm

 

Bibliography and suggested further reading

The American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/

The Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com

Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.
Davis, Bette. The lonely life: an autobiography. Putnam’s, 1962.
Davis, Bette, and Michael Herskowitz. This’n that: A Memoir. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987.
Newquist, Roy. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Citadel Press, 1980.
Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995.
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: a biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Summary of Discussion on Rain

Posted by Sarah

Our post-screening discussion ranged widely and encompassed: analysis of Joan Crawford/Sadie’s first appearance; Sadie’s costume, especially compared to the other female characters; Crawford’s performance – in particular the many layers of performance; a comparison between Mildred in Of Human Bondage and Sadie in Rain;  noting of Crawford and Bette Davis’ contrasting acting styles; Sadie’s antagonistic relationship with the reformer Davidson; Walter Huston’s performance; the film’s happy ending.  Throughout discussion was illuminated by reference to Maugham’s short story and the 1928 silent version of the film which starred Gloria Swanson.

Rain first appWe began with discussion of one of the film’s most memorable moments: Joan Crawford’s first appearance.  It is especially significant in terms of female representation that Crawford/Sadie is introduced by shots of her body, which themselves are fragmented. (See Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ for more on the fragmented female body and the ‘male gaze’[i].) First Crawford/Sadie’s right, heavily bangled, hand almost thumps a door post. This is quickly followed by a shot of her left hand making a similar gesture towards the opposite door post. Then her right foot is planted heavily on the ground. A similar action shortly occurs with the left. This is more than the usual star entrance as it makes such a bold statement. Indeed the character/star punctuates the scene with the forceful movement of her limbs. In addition, the stance this pose would constitute if we were to see it in full looks incredibly ungainly, with Crawford/Sadie’s feet seemingly planted quite firmly apart. As such it appears less than ladylike. Finally a shot of Crawford/Sadie’s face gives us a view of her insolently sulky mouth which is accentuated by the heavily outlined lips. Through Crawford/Sadie’s dangling cigarette she utters her first word, a huskily intoned ‘Boys’. It is an astonishingly powerful, and not at all subtle, introduction of both the star (Crawford) and the character (the prostitute Sadie). It was mentioned that a similar scene does not occur in the 1928 silent film starring Gloria Swanson.

The costume was also commented upon at length. Crawford/Sadie wore a tight gingham dress, with a wide white belt further accentuating her curves, for much of the film. The accessories worn at this point, and a little further into the film, are of great significance. Despite the stifling heat of the island, Sadie has a fur draped around her neck and a hat which resembled swan feathers covering most of her head.  Sadie is clearly a woman who cares about appearances, and indeed her own performance in everyday life.

Crawford/Sadie’s first appearance is memorable not just due to the energy and the Rain transfromedsomewhat startlingly heavily made up face, but the fact a very similar scene occurs towards the film’s end. Before this happens though, Sadie undergoes a spiritual and physical transformation.  She is seen with minimal make-up, brushed-out hair and wearing darker, more modest clothes. When she reverts back to type this is reflected by the return to her previous outfit, make-up and hairstyle. This is a great example of Jane Gaines’ assertion that dress often tells the woman’s story.[ii] Crawford/Sadie is re-introduced by shots which once more fragment her body.  It was also noted that Crawford/Sadie’s costume marks her out from the other women in the film – the actresses Beulah Bondi and Kendall Lee playing the characters Mrs Davidson Crawfrd and the other female charactersand Mrs Macphail. The clothes of the latter pair are more modest than Sadie’s and tend to be in blocks of one colour in contrast to the gingham patterned dress.  Similar delineation between the female characters also occurred with Davis/Mildred in Of Human Bondage in relation the actresses Kay Johnson and Frances Dee who play Philip’s other love interests Norah and Sally.

Crawford’s performance also prompted much discussion. It was noted that physically Rain silent Swansonshe looked quite a bit like Gloria Swanson at certain points. Lies revealed that this might well have spilled over into performance too as Crawford had yet to find her style and imitated Swanson’s earlier portrayal. Indeed comparisons between Crawford and other female stars in melodramas (primarily Swanson and Davis) were found to be useful in examining Crawford’s performance.     This Bette_davis_of_human_bondageis made easier by the fact Of Human Bondage and Rain contain several parallels.  Both are based on Somerset Maugham stories and were produced at a similar time (1932 and 1934). In addition both the female characters are prostitutes for at least some of the narrative, and marked something of a departure for Davis and Crawford. There are, however, several big differences between the performances of Davis and Crawford, and the characters they play.

Crawford is required to perform on several levels. There is the bold front Sadie assumes as the prostitute joking with potential clients – brazenly drinking whisky straight out of the bottle in public and dancing with abandon. Sadie’s insincere acknowledgment of her sins is juxtaposed with her contrasting sincere repentance. When Sadie finally reverts to type, this bears similarities to her very first appearance also has significant differences. We particularly noted the transformation scene in which Sadie gains religious enlightenment.  Its importance is indicated through the staging on the main staircase (important to several melodramas) and the camerawork. Sadie’s adversary, the religious reformer Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) stands solidly at the top of the stairs while Sadie looks up from the bottom.  She climbs the stairs, ready to take him to task. There is little movement apart from the ascension of the stairs, though Crawford/Sadie’s worrying of the top banister indicates her distress. She descends the steps and appears ready to go.  Davidson is seen is close shot standing still and a cut to Sadie reveals that she is also riveted to the spot.  The moment in which Sadie is Rain stairstransformed occurs shortly after and is visible onscreen. The camera lingers on her beautifully lit, tear-stained face as a look of realisation starts in her eyes and then spreads across her features. The camera then moves out to give a better view of Sadie and Davidson, now pictured together in the shot. The scene ends with an attention-pulling crane shot which exits the building.

Crawford and GarganThere is further opportunity for Crawford to show her acting skills. When William Gargan’s character O’Hara (referred to as ‘Handsome’ by Sadie – another example of her playing the gallery) soon returns to take Sadie away to a new life Crawford plays the scene rather robotically to start with. She speaks in a monotone and refuses to look at O’Hara/Gargan. Total disengagement is not possible though as Handsome continues and Sadie briskly pushes him away, raising her voice as she does do. Crawford ably performs Sadie’s conflicting desires as she struggles to resist temptation.  The shift between the obvious exaggerated performance Sadie puts on for the surrounding men and the more quiet moments (which occur later on in the film when we first see her alone) help to create a complex and sympathetic character. It was mentioned that perhaps the shifts between different levels of performance by Crawford were what led to the negative contemporaneous critical reviews. Though, as Lies noted, Crawford’s performance has been viewed more favourably since. (Apparently there is still little written on Rain, and pre-code Joan, however.)

By contrast, while Davis’ performance in Of Human Bondage is by no means on one-level, we rarely get a glimpse of different aspects of what might be considered the ‘real’ Mildred. Of course the notion of a ‘real’ character is a very fraught and abstract concept, more so when star image is added to the mix. Here it is very noticeable though, since Mildred the character is always performing; she puts on an accent and gives herself airs to appear more refined and she manipulates Philip, and other men, by exaggerated dismissive gestures or flirtatious behaviour. In addition, Davis/Mildred is always moving – facially and bodily – a whole performance in itself. There are two main scenes in Of Human Bondage when Mildred is not performing. The first is the tirade she unleashes Of Human Bondage tiradeagainst Philip which is very physical and exaggerated. The second is the unglamorous scene in which she is seriously ill and escorted from her lodging to hospital. Here she is incapable of moving much. In both of these scenes Mildred’s real self is revealed as truly horrible: in the first her vindictive character is fully vented and in the second she is physically hideous.

We found it interesting that there was such a variance between Crawford’s, at times, fairly restrained playing with little movement and Davis’s constant movement and big gestures in these two melodramas. Especially because melodrama is a genre in which performance is often thought to be related to exaggeration.  Lies highlighted the difference between Crawford’s naturalistic and Davis’ theatrical approaches. In addition, it was thought that Crawford’s instinctive playing coincided with Sadie’s almost primitive awareness of danger.  As soon as, at first sight, Sadie sees Davidson looking intently at her she appears to recognise the danger, first returning the look and then glancing down.  The different types of performances are also related to the fact that while Davis is seen primarily as an actress, Crawford is largely remembered as a star with little range.

Of course part of the difference is due to the characters and the fact that while Mildred is not the central character in Of Human Bondage, Sadie is Rain’s protagonist.   There are many other Crawford and Davis performances in melodramas available for us to compare and contrast to get a better idea of trends. (This could be a very fruitful, and enjoyable, line for future screenings!) It reveals that as well as the infinite variety of melodrama which has been evident in our screenings (male melodrama, animation, theatrical adaptations, Honk Kong cinema etc), even this rather narrow subgenre of melodrama, the Woman’s Film, is diverse.

Rain HustonIn addition to the sympathy created by Crawford’s performance, it was noted that the film, like the short story, promoted Sadie’s position as the correct one. The Doctor, who is central in Maugham’s story, is seen to be sympathetic to her plight. But he is not the main male character in the film, neither is this role filled by Crawford/Sadie’s love interest Handsome: instead the reformer Davidson takes centre stage. His anguish in his moment of weakness is one of the film’s key moments. As well as being pictured (it was only ever implied in the story) this is heightened by the film’s wonderfully atmospheric use of sound.  The beating of rain which has been persistent for much of the film reaches its pitch and is accompanied by diegetic drumming.  Contrast is present between the changeability in Crawford/Sadie’s performance and situation and Davidson’s immovable morality. Huston conveys this formidably, with a stolidly still uprightness in which the framing colludes.

Rain BondiWe also observed the way Sadie was contrasted to other characters, especially the female ones. While the Doctor’s wife, like him, is low-key, Mrs Davidson is as aggressive as her husband in demanding Sadie’s salvation.  Mrs Davidson is shown to be vindictive, rather than Christian, in her attitude though. She exaggerates when telling her husband that Sadie spoke back to her. We also thought it was fascinating that Mrs Davidson is the subject of the film’s last shot. After Sadie walks off with Handsome (a happy ending not present in the story, but almost obligatory in Hollywood narratives) the camera stays with the newly-widowed Mrs Davidson clasping her hands to her face.

While Sadie does have a happy ending, which in some ways domesticates her, we thought it significant that she still appears in many ways similar to the Sadie we saw at the very start of the film.  We concluded our discussion by mentioning how unusual it was for a sinning Hollywood heroine to end a film unreformed, especially after the Stanwych miracle woman con artist evangeliststricter policing of the Hays Code in 1934. Two films starring Barbara Stanwyck are good examples of pre and post-code attitudes to female character and crime. In the pre-code The Miracle Woman (1931) we see Florence Fallon Stanwyck miracle woman salvation armymove from con artist evangelist to member of the Salvation Army. This clearly contrasts to Rain’s treatment of Sadie. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck’s character Lee Leander in a later film, Remember the Night (1940), is punished for her shoplifting crimes by being sent to prison.

Many thanks to Lies for providing such a wonderful introduction to Joan and Rain.


[i] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism (1975): 438-48.

[ii]Gaines, Jane. “Costume and Narrative: how dress tells the woman’s story.” Fabrications: costume and the female body (1990): 180-211.

Do, as always, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk