Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on Monday the 13th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

We will be showing Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933, 75 mins). We recently referenced this pre-code Hollywood film in our discussion of Tamsin Flower’s developing stage play, TRANSFORMER:

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/09/19/tamsin-flowers-transformer/

The film’s heroine (the ‘Baby Face’ of the title, played by Barbara Stanwyck) improves her material wealth by turning the tables on men who have abused her since she was a child. In addition to its interest to the group due to its melodramatic narrative, Baby Face raises lots of issues regarding the representation of women on screen and comments on society in the US in the 1930s. Despite the fact the film is over 80 years old, screening it seems especially timely. There is currently much coverage of Hollywood’s treatment of those who are perceived to hold less power, and of the brave men and women who are reporting their experiences of abuse in the industry.

The film also allows us to explore film history in more detail. The film was released not long before Hollywood’s Production Code, which policed the content of films, was implemented. Indeed, it is credited by some as being one of the handful of films which prompted the clampdown on what types of  moral and sexual behaviour were acceptable on the screen. This led to the original version being edited, although both the censored and  uncensored versions are available today and will be discussed at the session.

Do join us, if you can, for this important film.

Tamsin Flower’s TRANSFORMER

We were very pleased to recently welcome back writer/director Tamsin Flower, about 6 weeks after her last visit. It was great to read the first draft of her play TRANSFORMER in full, after the excerpts we were treated to last time. This was especially useful due to the play’s complex and thought-provoking structure. The play’s main characters, overbearing mother Norma and the far less sure of herself and still-developing Eddie, each has a different relationship to the films referenced.

We particularly commented on the impactful nature of the first two scenes. In the first, Eddie’s tangle with an impresario comments on Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) with her success in winning the dual role in Swan Lake prompting Norma to celebrate and reminisce about her own related experience. This second scene also involves an impresario, though Norma is far more knowing, and pushy, than the heroine she references: that of the young female ballet dancer Vicky (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger). The fact that the both the obsessive female dancer and the figure of the impresario are archetypes – as demonstrated by the act The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s disturbing fairy tale (1845) – aids the audience’s recognition of both figures even if they are unfamiliar with the films. But the play delves far deeper than this as Norma and Eddie’s relationship to these related but diverging film texts, and of course to each other, are multi-layered.

While both The Red Shoes and Black Swan focus on a woman’s love/hate relationship with dancing and the control it exerts on her, these women and the contexts of the films are very different. In The Red Shoes the ballerina literally cannot escape her compulsion, dancing up until almost her last moment when she jumps in front of a moving train. In Andersen’s story this a punishment for the pleasure she takes in her beautiful new red slippers she insists on wearing to church, with her only stopping once her slipper-encased feet have gruesomely been chopped off. The more modern Black Swan couches Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) breakdown as the pressure between the oppositional good and bad characters she plays on stage, with the moral judgment of women seen in Andersen’s fairy tale replaced by recognition of the pressures women are under.

(For more on Black Swan see this earlier blog post: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/08/summary-of-discussion-on-black-swan/).

Norma and Eddie’s relationship is commented on by the tension existing between both characters and the film texts they are connected to. This is seen as despite the fact Norma, as befitting her age, is linked to The Red Shoes, and Eddie to Black Swan, it is in fact the older Norma who pushes boundaries. In her retelling of her meeting with an impresario, asides convey her calculated behaviour. This is similarly demonstrated as she is present in part of Eddie’s first scene, taking over to tell her story and also commenting on the complex mother/daughter relationship present in Black Swan.

While Norma changes little, Eddie develops, after a crisis of identity leads to a period of estrangement and meaning that Eddie following her own path. Here the recognisable film tropes of women empowering themselves through education (Erin Brockovich, 2000, Steven Soderbergh) and of films’ makeover scenes (Clueless, 1995, Amy Heckerling) shine a light on the way audiences in general respond to stars, including as an ego ideal inspiring self-development. Norma is also ‘made-over’ (references to the classic Now Voyager, 1942, Irving Rapper) but her empowerment comes through her manipulation of men (The Damned Don’t Cry, 1950, Vincent Sherman). Even for modern day theatre audiences who might not be familiar with these specific (though widely available and mostly Hollywood) film texts, the fact they reference themes disseminated in films and indeed these themselves reflect their presence in other art forms/discourses of entertainment widens their appeal, reach and relevance.  The script sets up the matter of how specific (though imaginary) audience members might appropriate material from well-known films with female stars whose characters undergo some sort of transformation. Furthermore, as film academics, many of us historians, this bridges the gap between historical audiences who can seem difficult to grasp, offering some insights into how texts are read, re-read and re-purposed including as part of people’ life narratives.

A particularly enjoyable and fruitful discussion revolved around the matter of pre-code films. This too relates to the matter of historically situated audiences as many today would be unaware that some films before the implementation of this heavier censorship in Hollywood (the Production or Hays Code in 1934) actually referenced matters like prostitution, child abuse and other weighty issues. We specifically discussed the pre-code Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green) – a film credited as partly responsible for more censorship being necessary. In this, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young woman who after years of abuse, including being prostituted by her own father, is encouraged (ironically enough by a man) to use men the way men have always used her – to employ sex for her own ends. Although Lily is in some ways ‘normalised’ – although she cold-heartedly climbs the ladder of executives at the company she is employed by she eventually marries her boss and realising her love for him she later sacrifices her hard-won jewellery – she still gains through using her sexual powers, although she may of course be given special justification due to the awful abuse she has suffered.

We contrasted this to The Damned Don’t Cry which is referenced in the play as Norma regales Eddie, and us, with how she used men to further her own financial standing. The Damned Don’t Cry is a somewhat uneven film, veering from severe sympathy for Edith Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford) after the loss of her child and perhaps some delight in her turning the tables on men, though she does not have such a damaged background as Lily in Baby Face. Furthermore in the post-code and more conservative early 1950s Ethel/Lorna is punished by the killing of the man she loves by the one she has betrayed.

We also commented on the variety of genres referenced – Norma’s melodrama to Eddie’s drama, adaptation, romantic comedy, and horror. This too makes it more recognisable to various audiences and widens the appeal of the piece. In addition, we thought that the humour derived from Norma’s high campery (itself also chiming well with some of the film heroines she references) provided lighter and enjoyable moments.

We look forward to seeing the next draft of Tamsin’s script (thanks so much for sharing, Tamsin!) and to seeing it staged.

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

Summary of Discussion on Christmas Holiday

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion focused on several areas:  suspense and the theme of concealment and revelation; matters of genre and cycles – especially film noir and melodrama; the main female character Jackie/Abigail; the star images of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly; costume; Somerset Maugham; a few specific scenes; other related films.

Christmas Holiday

We began by examining the film’s flashback structure. While the fractured approach to storytelling was not unusual for the time, especially in film noir, we found the way the film presented the narrative very odd. After the initial framing narrative of Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a Lieutenant on leave who ends up holidaying in New Orleans at Christmas, the main story begins. Jackie (formerly Abigail, played by Deanna Durbin) shares her life story with her new friend Lieutenant Mason.  She very quickly reveals the reason for her sadness, and her name change: her husband Robert Manette (played by Gene Kelly) is in prison, serving life for murder.

The fact that Jackie is explicit regarding her husband’s guilt and his crime (though not the motivation for it) so early in the film means that little suspense is created until the shoot-out at the film’s conclusion. Following the first flashback, which shows the consequences of Robert’s crime on family life, further flashbacks are provided. These detail Abigail and Robert’s first meeting, some of their subsequent dates, and Abigail’sChristmas Holiday guilt introduction to Robert’s omnipresent mother (played by Gale Sondergaard). Suspense would have been generated by just a slight reticence on Jackie’s part regarding the reason for her distressed state and a reordering of the flashbacks so that they occurred largely chronologically: the first date, subsequent dates, the revelation of Robert’s guilt etc.

While flashbacks and voice-over narration are key to film noir (whether we consider it to be a genre or a cycle) we noted that this lack of suspense did not relate to our experience of the genre/cycle. It also did not seem especially connected to melodrama’s often used theme of concealment and revelation. Of course, genre is often hybridised and any attempt to categorise a film as belonging to one genre or another based on whether certain elements are present is fairly restrictive. However we found it useful to relate other aspects of the film – mostly character – to genre.

It is fairly unusual for film noir to contain a female voice-over, to tell, and to show, the woman’s story. Jackie/Abigail is also treated sympathetically, partly because the rottenness of Robert is so evident. She is not a femme fatale. Robert’s mother is far more sinister. She is a malevolent presence throughout (even, or perhaps especially, whilst knitting in the background) despite welcoming Abigail as Robert’s last hope of salvation. However after the court case she provides one of the film’s most dramatic moments. She berates Abigail for her weakness, shouting ‘You killed him’ and Christmas Holiday knittingslapping her in the face. This is not just dramatic but inaccurate – Robert is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment, but not to death. It also seems unfair on Abigail when it is clear that Robert’s life has been heavily influenced by his unhealthily close relationship to his mother. This point is also stated in the voice-over when Jackie reveals that it was described by a psychiatrist as ‘pathological’.

The focus on Jackie/Abigail is highlighted by the trailer’s promotion of   Durbin playing ‘The Screen’s Greatest Woman’s Role’. This confuses some of the usual (admittedly binary) gender distinctions of noir as being  ‘male’ oriented   and melodrama as ‘female’ focused – both in terms of character and audience. The melodrama research group has, of course, seen the sheer variety of melodrama over the last year which shows that the narrow view of melodrama as ‘woman’s weepies’ is highly reductive and unproductive.

Another aspect of the film seemed unusual – Deannafor both noir and melodrama. The film’s ending is rather hopeful. The recently widowed Jackie/Abigail looks to a sky in which the clouds are parting and there is a suggestion that she might find love with the supportive Lieutenant.  We related this optimism to Durbin’s star image. Given her hitherto fairly uncomplicated star image of a happy young girl who likes to sing it is noteworthy that this film allowed her to play two roles: the generally happy young wife and the woman ground down by life’s disappointments. Due to the flashback structure these were juxtaposed throughout the film, allowing for the foregrounding of Durbin’s performance. This means that after our first introduction to Jackie we are continually reminded of her ‘earlier’ self and of Durbin’s ‘earlier’ screen self – a happy young girl in love.

Gene Kelly dancerGene Kelly’s star image was also discussed. While today we primarily associate him with song-and-dance roles, contemporary audiences saw him in a variety of roles before Christmas Holiday. These included musicals (Du Barry Was a Lady 1943) and dramas (For Me and My Girl 1942, Pilot #5 1943, The Cross of Lorraine 1943).  (This information on the films’ genres is courtesy of the American Film Institute Catalog and notes some films as ‘with songs’ rather than as musicals: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/)

We talked quite a lot about the Christmas Holiday Durbin's first appearancefilm’s costumes, especially Durbin’s wardrobe. She begins the film wearing a very glamorous and grown-up evening dress. This is striking as it is our first view of Jackie – and indeed of the ‘new’ Durbin. This is delayed, first by the framing narrative and then by the fact that Jackie/Durbin is first glimpsed with her back to the camera, making her way to the stage to perform a song.  Her next outfit was especially memorable. As Jackie and the Lieutenant sit talking in a café she is dressed in a light coloured trench coat and coordinating hat. Perhaps because of the film’s noirish elements, this reminded us of the detective figure in many 1940s films, and specifically of Humphrey Bogart. It is an especially interesting costume choice as this relation to the male star who played the protagonist of several noirs also Christmas Holiday trenchcoat and hatseems to place Jackie centrally. The wisecracking comments made by both Robert and Jackie were commented on. They reminded us of another film pair at times – Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though it was notable that they did not interact in this way with each other since only Jackie, and not Abigail, has been made cynical by her experience.

The extent of Jackie’s suffering – being forced to turn to prostitution – is unsurprisingly not made explicit in the film. Hollywood’s Production Code meant that reference to this would not have been allowed by the censors. Somerset Maugham’s novel provided more information and it would be interesting to know just how widely the novel circulated in the United States. The trailer certainly foregrounds Maugham’s involvement.  We found it fruitful to briefly compare the adaptation of Christmas Holiday with Of Human Bondage (1934) which we watched at the beginning Of Human Bondageof term. The earlier, pre-code film, was able to mention Mildred’s descent into prostitution.  There is a key similarity, however.  Both adaptations extract just a small part of the novel, notably the part which deals more with the couple – which often occupies a main position in Hollywood films during the Studio Era.

In terms of specific scenes we noted the connection between the lengthy scene detailing Jackie and Lieutenant Mason’s Christmas Holiday churchattendance at midnight mass and the Abigail’s earlier (though shown later in the film) first meeting with Robert in a cavernous concert hall. In the church Jackie is sobbing… we took this as a reference to her feelings of guilt. However she assures the Lieutenant that she is not crying for the reason that he (and perhaps we) think. The Concert hall scene later shows what Jackie had been crying about – her memory of Robert.

We also briefly discussed the director Robert Siodmak’s other films. Similarities in the plots of Christmas Holiday and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) were mentioned.

If you missed the screening, or would like to rewatch it, you can find it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UFSZay18go

After the discussion we watched a more festive Christmas film: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). Bunny Mattinson’s short film managed to squeeze Charles Dickens’ novel into 20 minutes, but also managed to explore the relation between melodrama and comedy.

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

Thanks to everyone – especially Tamar, Ann-Marie and Geoff – for this week’s entertainment and provisions. Many thanks also to the entire Group for such a productive and fun term. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!