Summary of Discussion on Mildred Pierce

Posted by Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

A clip of Crawford in It’s a Great Feeling:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trGF6KrMAbA

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

Do, as ever, 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!

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 18th of December, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the eighth, and last, of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 18th of December in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Christmas Holiday (1944, Robert Siodmak, 93 mins).

Christmas Holiday 1944

The Hollywood adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel stars musical legends Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. The casting is misleading, however, as Universal studios was deliberately trying to insert some variation into Durbin’s hitherto relatively simple star image of a happy young girl who loved to sing. In Christmas Holiday Durbin plays a woman with a past (enough of one to need a new name), now working as a nightclub ‘hostess’.  We might compare Durbin’s change in role to the refreshing of Mary Pickford’s star image in Coquette (1929) which we screened a couple of weeks ago.

The film’s dark tone can be fruitfully related to its director as well as its stars.  Robert Siodmak later helmed the gothic-influenced The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Dark Mirror (1946).

Christmas Holiday’s original trailer is available on youtube.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOzpu5lMuU

The trailer’s central placement of the change in Durbin’s star image as well as the highlighting of the film’s noirish tone  are also seen in the print advertising. Below are some pages from the June issue of trade-oriented Box Office Magazine. (The date of the magazine also points to the fact the film might be somewhat misnamed-who releases a festive film in July?!)

To see the pages below in context please visit http://www.boxoffice.com/the_vault/issue_page?issue_id=1944-6-17&page_no=19#page_start

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 1 boxoffice_061744_19

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 2 boxoffice_061744_20

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 3 boxoffice_061744_21

Christmas Holiday Box Office Mag page 4 boxoffice_061744_22

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 5 boxoffice_061744_23

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 6 boxoffice_061744_24

The above pages (and lots of other useful material) can be found on the Box Office Magazine’s vault: http://www.boxoffice.com/the_vault

Do join us, if you can, for what promises to be an interesting discussion on the intersection of melodrama and noir. We also plan to screen a short bonus Christmas film (yet to be decided) afterwards, which will hopefully be more cheery!

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, 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.