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“Running since 2012, The University of Kent’s Melodrama Research Group is pleased to be interdisciplinary, as well as open and welcoming to all with our regular screening and discussion sessions. We also maintain links across the University, the UK, and Beyond, attending and organising events such as symposia and conferences.

Currently we are enjoying working with writer/director Tamsin Flower on her play TRANSFORMER.

Our sister blog Network of Research: Movies, Magazines and Audiences (NoRMMA) focuses on fan magazines, but at the moment is also running projects on other magazines from World War I. In addition to using some material from fan magazines to illustrate and investigate melodrama, we have also been considering the related matter of Gothic, within Kent’s Gothic Feminism project.  As part of our work on the Gothic we produced a 20 minute video essay, Passages of Gothic, in 2016.

For more information, please visit the Links and Media & Publications pages using the above tabs, or the blog’s search function. Return often for announcements of upcoming screening and discussion sessions, summaries of our discussions, and other relevant blog posts below.”

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 12th November, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us as we return to screening melodramas starring Dirk Bogarde. We will be showing Libel (1959, Anthony Asquith, 100 mins) on Monday the 12th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.


The screenplay was adapted by Anatole de Grunwald and Karl Tunberg from the 1935 play of the same name by Edward Wooll. It stars Bogarde as Baronet Sir Mark Sebastien Loddon, a man who launches a libel action after he is accused of being an imposter. It was described as a ‘courtroom melodrama’  on its release in the United States by the trade journals Harrison’s Reports (24th October 1959, p. 170) and the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin (26th of October 1959, p. 21).

Do join us, if you can, for a film which also stars Olivia de Havilland (as Loddon’s wife), Paul Massie (as Loddon’s accuser), Robert Morley (acting for the prosecution) and Wilfrid Hyde-White (as the defence counsel).

Summary of Discussion on The Bat Whispers

Our discussion of The Bat Whispers covered: its melodramatic elements, which included the Mystery, Violence, Chase of male melodrama; the film’s origins in literature, stage and cinema; consideration of the narrative’s use of stereotypes and connections to the gothic; the relationship between Cornelia Van Gorder and Lizzie Allen; the film’s style, especially its camerawork, in terms of influence; the film’s epilogue.

We began with discussion of elements relating to the ‘male’ melodrama: Mystery, Violence and Chase. These, especially the latter, were very much to the fore in our previous screening – Hunted (1952) starring Dirk Bogarde as a man on the run. This time, the criminal was the mysterious ‘Bat’, an inventive thief intent on terrorising the country. His unknown identity forms the film’s central mystery and means that we do not have access to his motives. The matter of disguise was also raised by another character. We noted how one of the film’s lesser character’s appearance, and poor attempt at passing for someone else, reminded us of a trope of the Superhero film. Dale Van Gorder (Una Merkel), niece of the elderly and indomitable Cornelia (Grayce Hampton) who is renting a country house for the summer, is anxious to hide her fiancé Brook (William Bakewell) in plain view as a gardener. In order to make sure he goes unrecognised (he is the missing clerk from a bank which has recently been robbed) Dale slightly ruffles Brook’s hair and gives him some spectacles. This made us think of the later depictions of Superman when he is passing for reporter Clark Kent. Other mystery elements arose as the film unfolded: who is responsible for the attacks on the characters?, who stole the money from the bank?, is the missing money in the house’s ‘hidden’ room?

The film contains several instances of violence. The Bat is reported by the newspapers to be a dangerous criminal, and we see him committing some violent acts. He murders a man he is robbing near the beginning of the film’s narrative, and we presume that he is also responsible for the onscreen shooting of Dick Fleming (Hugh Huntley) as well as other incidents. He is not the only violent character though. Fleming was threatening Dale with a gun at the time he was shot; Dr Venrees (Gustav von Seyffertitz) hits Detective Anderson (Chester Morris) over the head with a telephone; the caretaker (Spencer Charters) drops an urn from a height on a visitor when he appears on the doorstep. Some of this violence is, however, undercut by the film’s often comic tone. This mostly exists in the characters, especially those coded as of the lower classes. Specifically, these are Cornelia’s maid Lizzie (Maude Eburne) and the caretaker. The former’s responses to the violence, and indeed any mild instances of terror, are always exaggerated while the latter is demonstrably fearful of all strangers.

The film’s central narrative line is the search for the Bat. But the dynamic and suspenseful chase sequences which open the film – police cars race down city streets – are replaced by comic ones in the house. The most extended of these involves the caretaker being pursued though the house by the police. As well as involving one of the film’s demonstrably ‘comic’ characters, the footage also appears to be sped up. There are also scenes during which the Bat dashes through the house, making an exit through centrally placed chute. This has a comic effect, but this is increased when it the action is repeated, with comical noises and gestures, by Lizzie. The chase sequences also effectively establish the onscreen space, giving us insight into the house’s architecture. (We noted, for example, the connecting doors between Cornelia and Lizzie’s rooms.) The house’s construction becomes especially important as the location of a ‘hidden’ room, potentially the place where the missing money is being stashed, is sought. This therefore links both the mystery and chase elements present in the film.

While these specific melodramatic elements are more connected to the ‘male’ melodrama, we also commented on the film’s use of more ‘traditional’ melodrama stereotypes. These are worth considering in relation to the film’s stage origins, and its early sound cinema production context. The film is based on the play, The Bat, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood in 1920. It enjoyed popularity, closing after over 800 performances in New York, and more than 300 in London. The play was also praised by leading American theatre critic Alexander Wollcott in the New York Times. It had previously been filmed, by The Bat Whispers director Roland West, as a silent in 1926. That version starred Emily Fitzroy as Cornelia, Louise Fazenda as Lizzie and Eddie Gribbon as Detective Anderson.

It is notable that both the 1926 and 1930 films draw on the play, rather than Roberts Rinehart’s original 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. This had been directed by Edward le Saint as a feature-length silent in 1915. The novel and the 1915 film notably differ to the 1920 play and subsequent film adaptations. Many of the characters’ names are altered, but more significant changes are the exclusion of Cornelia’s nephew, and the addition of the titular criminal. The latter complicates the still-present bank robbery narrative. Although these divergences are important, it is perhaps because of the earlier film, and the question of rights, that the relationship between The Circular Staircase and The Bat was denied by Roberts Rinehart. It was also able to draw more directly on the play’s commercial success.

Furthermore, we can relate some changes to the difference in media. While the novel is told from Cornelia’s point of view, and in retrospect, the play and the 1926 and 1930 films are more action-based. This helps to explain the fact that the characters are not psychologically rounded, but mostly stock types. These generally either propel the plot (commit a crime, investigate it) or provide comic relief – especially the servants. We partly related the exaggerated style of some of the acting to the genre (comic mystery melodrama) especially with the comic characters. The timing of the film, and the long history of the story are also important. The Bat Whispers appeared at the start of the sound era. Its very title announces this fact, and the Bat does indeed whisper his threats to those he wishes to intimidate. While not all previous silent film acting is of the exaggerated type, theatrical gestures and overstatement were used in earlier film. Such a claim is reinforced when we also consider the long history of the narrative (the novel was published in 1908) – even in 1930 it may well have seemed dated to audiences.

There is some nuance however. This is mostly due to the fact that the Bat’s real identity, he is posing as Detective Anderson, is unknown for most of the film and only revealed in the last few minutes. It is important that the character we might think of as the hero – top billed Chester Morris (arguably the only real ‘star’) – turns out to be the villain. This is encouraged by some of the extratextual materials, in particular a lobby card which privileges Morris and Merkel, even suggesting a romance which does not materialise. The supporting cast is present, but with smaller pictures of the elderly retainers such as Lizzie. This prompted some reflection on the relationship between stars and ageing. The conflation of the hero and villain was accompanied by a blurring as to the identity of the victim. Perhaps a legacy of its stage origin and, as outlined above, the addition of the Bat character, the film’s focus is somewhat diffuse. Those characters who are subjected to deadly violence are exclusively men, although those behaving like victims (portraying fear etc) do not necessarily split along gender lines. Instead, the division between the brave and the cowardly is along class lines since the servants Lizzie and the caretaker are the most scared. These are also elderly, though its is certainly the case that the aged Cornelia is dignified and unflappable throughout.

Despite our consideration of the mystery, violence and chase of male melodrama, we discussed the female characters, and their relationship to the gothic, at length. The old dark house in which the action takes place encourages a consideration of the film as gothic. However, the film’s diffuse focus affected the male persecutor/female persecuted dynamic of its women in peril. Significantly, all three women fulfilled the role of active investigator. Cornelia calls in a professional investigator, and Dale is anxious to prove her fiancé’s innocence, searching the house with a lit candle. Lizzie does so to a lesser extent but sets a ‘bear trap’ attached to her bed which means she will be alerted if the trap is engaged. This provides one of the film’s best comic moments as Lizzie is indeed later propelled through her bedroom window in her onesie as the Bat is caught in her trap and drags her bed towards the window. Cornelia is certainly not a suffering heroine, but Lizzie is constantly scared, and Dale is distressed when she is trapped in the hidden room.

Unlike the usual gothic heroine, these women are not menaced by a husband. Cornelia and Lizzie are unmarried and even Dale’s fiancé only plays a small role. We were especially intrigued by the relationship between Cornelia and Lizzie. While the latter dresses as a maid and is treated in some ways like a servant by Cornelia, who gives her orders, there are mentions that the servants have fled. Perhaps Lizzie is excepted from consideration as staff since she is such an old retainer. More telling however, is the way Lizzie responses to Cornelia addressing her like an idiot child. Being told by Cornelia that she doesn’t have a mind, Lizzie sharply retorts that if she had one her employer would not let her use it. She also lists some of the ‘fads’ she has remained loyal to Cornelia through: theosophy, suffragism, and, as implied by Lizzie’s tone, most appallingly of all, socialism. They bicker like a couple.

The film certainly has its stagey moments, and there are some dialogue-heavy scenes. We were, however, impressed with some of the camerawork which was possible during scenes which were less dependent on bulky sound equipment for synchronous sound recording. The opening scenes are action-filled and employ miniature vehicles convincingly. We also noted some of the swooping, bat-like, movements of the camera in relation to the miniature used to represent the house. The film’s lighting and shadow-work were praised. The revelation that ‘Detective Anderson’ is the Bat is prefigured by a change in the way his face is lit. While earlier his exaggerated and somewhat comical facial gestures are lit in a straightforward manner, after his return from his altercation with the telephone, he appears to be far more menacing. Many of the images of the Bat in silhouette reminded us of German film director’s Lotte Reiniger’s work. The uncanny turning of bat from shadows into a moving figure was also deemed effective.

We also noticed the generic nature of the buildings portrayed. Some of these especially emphasised its function – e.g. a BANK. This brought to mind comic books. Such a connection is furthered by Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) who mentioned in his autobiography the influence The Bat Whispers had on his creation of the superhero. The film’s sets and style were also compared to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). More straightforwardly, the film was remade in 1959 (by Crane Wilbur) and for television in various countries.

Appropriately we closed our discussion by commenting on the film’s epilogue. This has Chester Morris, in evening dress, in front of a curtain which mimics that of a theatre stage of film theatre He speaks on behalf of his ‘friend’ the Bat and asking that his identity is not divulged by members of the audience. This seems especially appropriate for a sound film, and the keeping of the secret was also referenced in advertising for the 1959 film version. Significantly in The Bat Whispers this is done through the person of the star, and the one who plays the Bat, reminding us that the Bat indeed just a role Morris has played. This doubles the melodramatic element of disguise, pointing us once more to the conventions of the genre and its suitability for the medium of film.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like to add your thoughts to the blog.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 29th October, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us as we take a brief break from Dirk to screen something suitably Halloweeny. We will be showing The Bat Whispers (1930, Roland West, 83 mins) on Monday the 29th of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bat Whispers tells the tale of an infamous criminal (the bat of the title) who has supposedly retired. A bank robbery near Cornelia Van Gorder’s (Grayce Hampton) home suggests otherwise, however.  As the house is filled with unexplained noises and spooky occurrences, Detective Anderson (Chester Morris) arrives on the scene to investigate…

Like last time’s offering, Hunted, the film was categorised as a ‘melodrama’ by the trade press. In a double-page advertisement for the film in Film Daily (11th December, 1930) the film is hailed as the ‘Best Mystery Melo Screen Has Had For Decade’.

Do join us if you can, to watch a film which allows us to focus on the first element of the mystery violence chase of male melodrama.

Summary of Discussion on Hunted

Our discussion on Hunted touched on: genre (including melodrama and noir); the male melodrama and its reliance on mystery, violence, and chase; the main character Christopher Lloyd (Dirk Bogarde) as both villain and victim; Bogarde’s screen and star images; the relationship between Christopher and the boy Robbie (Jon Whitely) and other films with similar adult/child relationships; the way Christopher’s interaction with, or comparison to, other characters further illuminated his own personality; the film’s social commentary on the harsh realities of life in Britain post WWII.

We first noted a few moments in the film which seemed especially melodramatic in terms of heightened emotion. These included the tense moment at the film’s opening as 6-year-old Robbie (Jon Whiteley) stumbles across Christopher (Dirk Bogarde) after the latter has committed murder in a bombed out cellar; a courting couple’s discovery of the body of Christopher’s victim in the same location; Christopher’s display of emotion when he breaks into his flat and confronts his wife. Most of these were underscored by intense music.

The film’s use of real locations and its stark black and white photography were also commented on. These spoke to the film’s function as social commentary, and its film noir overtones. We discussed at length the ‘male melodrama’ Steve Neale has written about in his work on the term ‘melodrama’ in contemporaneous trade material.

We noticed that there was little of the first of the three elements considered important to the male melodrama – Mystery. The film was clear from the start that Christopher was guilty, with the audience in a far more privileged position of knowledge than the police, although it was unclear what the fate of the characters would be. Given Christopher’s crime, especially in the context of 1950s films, it seemed unlikely that he would escape unpunished.

The second of the important ingredient for male melodrama, violence, was more present – and in a few interesting ways. The most extreme of this occurred before the narrative began, taking place off screen. We do not see Christopher’s deadly attack on his rival, nor the abuse directed at Robbie by his father. The violence shown is fairly muted. Christopher is a little rough with Robbie at first – not wary of physically moving him. Christopher also strikes his faithless wife and gets into a tangle on a staircase with a policeman who is on the lookout for him at his block of flats.  Later, Christopher unceremoniously thrusts the well-meaning Mrs Sykes (Kay Walsh), who is concerned about Robbie, into a garden shed. While the fact we never see Christopher land a punch may be due to censorship or norms of the time as to what was depicted, we can also perhaps connect it to Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images. He may have been less likely to engage in on-screen violence in comparison to other male stars of the time.

Chase (the third aspect of the male melodrama) was the most present. Indeed, this was commented on in reviews of the time in relating to melodrama. This included the observation that some of the chase (the action stretches for several days across London, the North of England, Scotland and an attempt to reach Scandinavia) was less then credible (Variety, 5th March 1952, p. 6). It is important to note that while Christopher is a man on the run with a child, they start out on the run separately – multiplying the ‘chase’ element of the film.  The chase moments when Christopher and Robbie were together were the most effective, however. After being discovered by Mrs Sykes, Christopher jumped from a railway bridge onto a moving train and Robbie followed, providing a particularly tense moment.

Unsurprisingly, much of our discussion centred on Christopher. He is both villain and victim. His villainy is established very early on (he has, after all killed a man) and it is significant that the film does not seek to overturn this assumption – for example by revealing that while Christopher may have believed he killed the man, in fact the deed was committed by another. Christopher’s actions cause him to be a victim – he is relentlessly, if somewhat incompetently, pursued by the police. We also commented on the fact that because we spend so much time with Christopher, as well as see his growing friendship with the vulnerable Robbie, he is a rounded and sympathetic character.

Christopher’s small acts of kindness are evident from near the start.  He asks a man for a cigarette but hesitates when the man generously offers him his last one. While Christopher plans to use Robbie to retrieve money from his flat and is angry with the boy when he fails, he still prioritises Robbie’s meal over his own at a café. As their relationship develops, Christopher’s thoughtfulness towards Robbie becomes more frequent. This culminates in Christopher’s final act: he turns back the boat he has stolen, and in which he and Robbie are attempting to escape to Scandinavia, when he realises that Robbie is seriously ill. The death penalty was still in force in the United Kingdom at the time and Christopher could not plead a crime of passion as a defence. He is almost certainly sacrificing his own life for Robbie’s and in so doing claiming a form of redemption.

Bogarde’s acting effectively conveys Christopher’s dilemma. The man’s concern for the child is at first just solicitous, but when Christopher realises the extent of Robbie’s illness, he becomes more deeply affected. Christopher’s decision is not one taken lightly, or quickly, since, for all its inevitability, Bogarde shows that it has been pondered. Bogarde is also afforded opportunities to play Christopher’s sensitivity at earlier moments in the film. This is perhaps most notable when in reluctantly obliging Robbie’s request for a bedtime story, he inadvertently tells the story of his failed marriage. At first this seems a fairly traditional ‘Once Upon a Time’ tale about a giant who leaves home. As the story progresses, Christopher introduces a princess who clearly is meant to represent his wife. Christopher’s story-telling register slips from third (‘he’) to first (‘I’) person and he becomes upset when he relates that the lovers have parted. Christopher’s sensitivity is therefore displayed in two significant ways: he is shown to be able to relate to a child, and to be in touch with his sadness. It is also more effective than a flashback would have been since it allows us to see how Christopher has narrativized his past so that it makes sense to him.  This is also reinforced by Robbie’s response. It is clear that the boy is disturbed that the fairy tale has turned dark so quickly and concerned about Christopher’s display of emotion.

The complexity of Christopher’s character reminded us of the nuance and ambiguity of the one he played in Esther Waters four years previously. However, fan magazine material from the time of Hunted’s production highlighted the film as the third in which he starred as a ‘fugitive from justice’  (David Marlowe, ‘Bogarde Takes to the Boats’, Picturegoer 25th August 1951, p.8). There are significant differences between the films cited in the article– The Blue Lamp (1950) and Blackmailed (1951) – and Hunted. While Bogarde plays a man of dubious character in all three, it is only the last that ends in his redemption and allows Bogarde the opportunity to display a conflicted character who is sensitive.

We can consider how the film employs Bogarde in more detail. Of course, the star still gets to display his dashing good looks, but these are at times obscured by a growth of stubble. Furthermore, in terms of the ‘real’ Bogarde, I have previously noted (in the introduction to Esther Waters: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/09/27/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-1st-of-october-5-7pm-jarman-6/ ) that fan magazines discussed his sensitivity. I also commented that this was tempered by the material also mentioning Bogarde’s heroic war record. We can see these two tensions played out in his screen image in Hunted. Christopher’s kindness towards Robbie is balanced by his (pre-narrative off-screen) killing of his wife’s lover. This is reinforced by Christopher’s ‘manly’ job: he is a sailor, a profession almost exclusive to men at the time.  His sailing experience is necessary in terms of the film’s plot – it both explains the prolonged absences which have led to his wife’s infidelity and gives him the skills required to sail the trawler at the film’s end. In truth we did not think that scenes of Bogarde as a sailor would have been especially convincing – he was perhaps a bit too refined.

As implied by our focus on the behaviour Christopher displays towards Robbie in order to showcase the former’s sensitivity, the relationship between the adult man and the boy is central to the film.  As a child, Robbie judges Christopher on the way Christopher treats him (Robbie) and is understandably not as aware of what is happening as an adult would be. We discussed related films such as David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and Bryan Forbes’ Whistle down the Wind (1961).  It was mentioned that Jon Whiteley’s blond-haired innocence was reminiscent of John Howard Davies in the former film, before he meets the criminal Fagin (Alec Guinness). In the later film, Kathy (Hayley Mills) is prepared to accept Alan Bates on her own terms – she mistakes the stranger for Christ. Differences between these films and Hunted were also important. Christopher and Robbie’s dependence on one another turns into mutual affection. This, and especially the images of the adult carrying the child, reminded us of the recent version of True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Cohen).

We also spoke about how the fact this all unfolds on screen obviates a more suspect interpretation of Christopher’s intentions. The police try to second-guess Christopher’s motives for ‘abducting’ Robbie, speculating that he will use him as a bargaining chip to ensure his own release. However, our view is more privileged. We know that Christopher has not lured Robbie away, and in fact several times tells him to leave. We also see the initial roughness Christopher displays towards Robbie (physically manhandling him) slowly turn to more domestic scenes. During their time on the run, Christopher allows Robbie to keep a woodlouse as a pet, does not admonish the boy for accidentally spilling his milk, and agrees to tell him a bedtime story. While they are chasing across the countryside, Robbie’s grumbles (‘I’m tired’, ‘my legs are sore’, I’m hungry) and Christopher’s grumpy responses have the feel of a parent’s somewhat trying day out with his child.

The only real light moments in the film occur once the pair has arrived at Christopher’s brother’s Jack’s (Julian Somers) in Scotland. After having endured several days of hunger, the pair laughs as Robbie enthusiastically tucks in to a mound of food. The scenes here also show the difference between the two brothers. While Christopher is a murderer, he nonetheless has humanity. By contrast, Jack refuses to allow even just Robbie to stay, unwilling to be ill-thought of by his neighbours.

(It is worth noting that Bogarde and Whiteley again starred together – in The Spanish Gardener (1956, Philip Leacock) when Dirk plays the titular role of a man a boy (Whitlely) turns to when neglected by his own father.)

We also briefly discussed the film’s two main female characters, although they play small roles. It is understandable that we would partly judge Christopher by his wife Magda (Elizabeth Sellars) – the woman with whom he has fallen in love and chosen to spend his life. Magda does not receive much screen time, her infidelity mostly providing the reason for Christopher’s actions. The greater focus given to the film’s other characters is even shown in her introduction. Her first appearance is obscured when she is seen from Robbie’s point of view as he hides under her and Christopher’s bed.

Although Magda admits she has been unfaithful to Christopher, she remains loyal in her own way. When Christopher breaks into the flat at night and clamps his hand over her mouth, and strikes her in anger, she soon recovers. She also does not seem to have been affected by the death of her lover. In fact, she tries to seduce Christopher. Even after she has been rejected by Christopher (he dismisses her offer of jewellery to him) she is unhelpful to the police.

Mrs Sykes (Kay Walsh), the landlady of the B & B in the North of England at which Christopher and Robbie stay, contrasts to Magda. Magda’s expensive clothes provoke comment from the sharp-eyed police as to her fidelity (it is assumed she has received money or gifts from her lover, providing Christopher with a motive for the murder) and she is wearing a glamorous nightgown when Christopher breaks into the flat. Mrs Sykes is coded as working class through her garments – she wears a floral apron to protect her clothes as she does her housework. Mrs Sykes’ concern for Robbie, and her brave defence of him (she is worried that Christopher will harm the boy) is also an antidote to Robbie’s parents, the Campbells (Jack Stewart and Jane Aird), who appear to hold a similar social status. Mrs Sykes insists that Robbie takes a bath, and this leads to the revelation of his abuse at the hands of his parents – he bears the marks of a severe lashing.

The police’s interaction with the parents is also telling. The parents insist that they are not Robbie’s ‘real’ parents since he is adopted. Through the police’s questioning it soon becomes clear that he has few toys. The fact that the police have such insight (despite their bungling pursuit of Christopher) suggests that they often come into contact with such cases of abuse. The film’s establishing of its post war setting through its lingering of bombed-out buildings implies that in post-war Britain society’s most vulnerable victims are being overlooked.

 

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know if you’d like me to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 15th of October, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next melodrama screening, on Monday the 15th of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6. We will be showing Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton, 84 mins).

This film, also known as The Stranger In Between, stars Dirk Bogarde as Chris Lloyd, a desperate man who has killed his wife’s (Elizabeth Sellars’) lover. After being discovered in a bombed out house by a boy, Robbie (Jon Whitely), Chris has to take the young witness with him as he goes on the run…

In contrast to Esther Waters’ focus on the suffering, though resilient, heroine, Hunted focuses on Bogarde’s tortured male criminal. The film contains aspects of the male melodrama, which Steve Neale relates to the Hollywood director Raoul Walsh’s use of ‘mystery, violence, chase’ (Genre and Hollywood, 2000).

To reinforce such a categorisation, trade paper Variety’s review called the film a ‘man-hunt meller’ (i.e. melodrama) (5th March, 1952, p. 6). Furthermore, fan magazine Picturegoer’s review commented on the last of the three aspect Walsh favoured: it describes the film as an ‘exciting chase’ (15 March, 1952, p. 16).

Do join us, if you can, for the second in our season of Dirk Bogarde melodramas.

Summary of Discussion on Esther Waters

Our discussion of Esther Waters focused on several areas: melodrama and its character stereotypes of (female) victim and (male) villain; the main characters Esther and her lover William Latch; the rhythms of melodrama; the film’s social commentary.

We initially noted that the film was subtler than anticipated, including in relation to expectations raised by extra-filmic fan and trade magazines. While many, though not all, Victorian melodramas seem to function at the level of both fate and character, Esther Waters’ melodrama mostly stemmed from the former. The characters, especially the main couple – Esther (Kathleen Ryan) and William (Dirk Bogarde) – were nuanced rather than stereotypical.

To provide some context, the source material – George Moore’s 1894 novel – was published towards the end of a cycle of ‘Fallen Woman’ novels. These include those written by British women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861) – as well as the male British novelists Wilkie Collins’ The New Magdalen (1873) and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Three years after Moore’s novel appeared the perhaps archetypal US melodrama – Charlotte Blair Parker’s play Way Down East – was first staged.  D.W. Griffiths’ 1920 silent film version starring Lillian Gish as Anna Moore is one of the most cited silent melodramas.  Like many other of the female protagonists in the cycle, Anna is betrayed by the man she loves, gives birth to an illegitimate baby, and is subsequently cast out by society. By contrast, we commented that Esther was a strong heroine who knowingly took decisions to direct her own life and was not the self-sacrificing suffering woman completely at the mercy of others. Similarly, we thought that William was not what some might consider to be the moustache-twirling villain of the piece. (While Bogarde does sport an ill-advised moustache for a fair proportion of the film this appears to be incidental.)

Considering the two main characters in more detail, we especially noted Esther’s resilience and determination. Some of Esther’s strong opinions are connected to her faith – she is one of the Plymouth Brethren. Her very religion therefore goes against the prevailing church of England doctrine dominant at the time– she is a nonconformist. Esther is also notably anti-gambling, in opposition to other members of the house, Woodview, in which she goes to work as a kitchen maid, since the estate keeps racing horses.  She also does not approve of the penny dreadfuls the other staff read aloud. Esther’s firm stance is reinforced by other characters within the diegesis. Mrs Latch (Mary Clare) is the cook at Woodview, and William’s mother. She states that Esther is a ‘strong’ woman’ – the type her son needs.

It is not just Esther’s or other characters’ comments, which reveal her strength, but also her actions. Perhaps surprisingly given Esther’s strong faith, she is seduced by William. Her response to her consequent pregnancy is typically stoic. She decides to keep her baby after William leaves, even though this means she has to quit her current situation, and have her child looked after by others while she finds employment in London. In one of the film’s most melodramatic, and disturbing, scenes, Esther visits her sick baby who is being ‘looked after’ by a woman, Mrs Spires (Beryl Measor), who has multiple children in her care. The woman implies that Esther, and her baby, would be better off if the baby quietly died. Instead of consenting to this outrageous suggestion, or pretending that she has not understood, Esther confronts the woman. She just manages to flee, clutching her baby, only to almost suffer another melodramatic fate: being run over by a horse and carriage. Esther is brave enough to mention the woman’s intentions to the policeman who saves her. His incredulous response (‘it’s 1875!’) further underlines the melodramatic nature of the previous scene, suggesting that such happenings do not occur in modern times.

Such principled honesty is also seen with Esther’s dealings with other characters. When Fred Parsons (Cyril Cusack), a part-time preacher who has taken a shine to her proposes, she immediately tells him that she has a son. Esther’s truthfulness is rewarded when he apologises for initially being shocked and offers to take on both her and her child. Esther is also honest in front of others. Several years after William’s initial disappearance, he and Esther unexpectedly meet on a crowded train.  In response to Williams’ question of where she has been, Esther sharply retorts that she has been looking after his son.  She appears to have little regard for what conclusions those around her might draw about her son’s illegitimacy.

This opposes the usual ‘fallen woman’ narrative of maternal melodrama in which the mother loses her self-respect due to her disgrace. In fact, Esther is posited as a ‘New Woman’ not just in the decisions she makes, but the way she is honest about her sexual desires.  (For more on the novel’s presentation of Esther Waters as New Woman rather than Fallen Woman, see Dr Andrzej Diniejko’s article on the Victorian Web:  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/mooreg/estherwaters.html) Esther’s answer to Fred’s proposal is that she is not just a ‘soul’ to be saved, but a woman too.  Choosing to marry William is therefore not masochistic self-sacrifice, since her son could have Fred as a father. Also, in opposition to other ‘fallen woman’ narratives, while Esther suffers to a fair extent, she finds happy employment (back at Woodview) at the film’s end and is the proud mother to a now grown up sailor son.

We also commented a little on the matter of class in relation to the actor playing Esther – Kathleen Ryan. Esther’s kitchen maid job clearly signals that Esther belongs to the working classes.  We were a little bemused by Esther’s often genteel quality – though we might perhaps connect this to her religion.  This was especially in relation to her accent, which at times had an Irish lilt (like Ryan’s own) and in any case was not signally working class. We noted that this was also the case in other British films from the time.

 

Given this term’s focus on Dirk, we also discussed his character at length. While some thought William an irredeemable cad, scoundrel and bounder, others were more sympathetic. His back story explains that the family was previously important in the county and gives him this reason to better himself. His ambitions are to go into bookmaking, partially because he insists that his nickname is ‘Lucky’ Latch.  This assertion, made to Esther on the hillside, is immediately undercut, however.  We hear thunderclaps and a storm commences – predicting that in fact William will not enjoy good fortune.

We also spent some time discussing how William’s actions comment on his character. William and Esther’s relationship seems to be based on mutual attraction. They enjoy spending time together, and he only pursues another woman once Esther regrets their intimacy and avoids him. His departure from the house is involuntary, and he is at the time unaware of Esther’s pregnancy.  William is absent for a fair proportion of the narrative, reappearing 6 years later. Despite the length of time that has passed it is clear that William has fond memories of his time at Woodview.  The back room of the pub he runs, and invites Esther to visit after they are unexpectedly reunited, is full of photographs of him with fellow staff from Woodview. He has also employed one of their former colleagues. William’s sentimental streak is particularly evident in the fact that he has kept the silhouette of himself and Esther, presented to them at the ball many years earlier. He seems genuinely to wish to make amends to Esther, soon proposing and proving to be a good husband and father. He is also demonstrably an honest bookmaker – even getting into a fight with his assistant when William insists they pay customers the money they are owed.

Some especially interesting matters in relation to the film’s gender politics were commented upon. William is dismissed from Woodview because of his relationship with the lady of the house’s niece, Peggy. If William were the heroine, it is likely that we would view such a relationship between socially unequal participants as exploitative.  Similarly, William is criticised for spending his wife’s money while if the genders were reversed, this might not have been mentioned. Spending a woman’s money is therefore not seen as a particularly manly thing to do – he, after all, should be the provider.

We noted that in some ways William suffers the fallen woman’s fate: he is diagnosed with a lung condition and is granted a deathbed scene. This especially brought to mind the several film versions of Alexandre Dumas’ consumptive La Dame Aux Camelias (1848). Despite William’s illness, Dirk Bogarde is lit well, looking almost pretty, in this scene, further underlining his taking of the place of heroine. It also fits in with the sensitivity of Bogarde – both as described off screen (his star image – as mentioned in his first fan magazine article considered to be different from the character he plays – though as I have noted there is sensitivity there) and progressively onscreen. We can link this to the sexual ambiguity scholars have said that Bogarde embodies. (For example, see Robert Shail’s 2001 article ‘Masculinity and Visual Representation: A Butlerian Approach to Dirk Bogarde’ in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Vol 6, Nos 1/2 and Glyn Davis’ 2008 chapter ‘Trans-Europe Success: Dirk Bogarde’s International Queer Stardom’ in Robin Griffiths’ edited study Queer Cinema in Europe.) It is difficult to know how much this may be related to the fact Dirk Bogarde is the male star – whether it was tailored to fit him as an introduction, or if this would have happened regardless.

William’s death-bed scene is intercut with scenes from the race on which his, Esther and their son’s futures, depend.  Such rhythm is important to melodrama, the lows of slow-moving action contrasting to the highs of unexpected, and at times, unbelievable, action. In the film, activity is especially notable during the scenes of the ball, the bustling crowds attending the races, and especially the derby day scenes. These aspects were especially singled out by reviewers to be of interest to the audience. Trade paper Variety especially commented on these as well as the death bed scene (6th October 1948, p. 11), while fan magazine Film Illustrated Monthly directly contrasted these with the film’s ‘stodgy’ melodrama (November 1948, p. 13). The former even perceptively notes that we are presented with a point-of-view of the race courtesy of William’s ‘imagination’. As such, the film comments not just on the fact that Bogarde is privileged here, since he is granted the heroine’s death, but on cinema itself. While during the setting of the film, the 1870s, cinema was not yet invented, its many predecessors such as magic lanterns were popular. Furthermore, by the date of the film’s production, 1948 audiences were, of course, well used to cinematic devices. For example, we especially noted the effectiveness of William Powell Frith’s ‘Derby Day’ engraving coming to life. The derby scenes also connect more specifically to melodrama. Esther bumps into Fred who expresses pleasure, though surprise, that William married Esther.  It seems that he expected the melodrama to end differently – as indeed might the film audience.

The significance of Derby Day as a social mixer – a ground where those from various classes mingled – was also mentioned. This led to more consideration of the film’s social commentary. We noted that while the film provided an indictment of the class system, it was even-handed in ascribing good and bad characteristics to those from the lower and the upper classes. As already noted, Esther and William are subtly drawn, although it is significant that the most reprehensible of the characters – baby farmer Mrs Spires – is also working class. The upper class Mrs Barfield (Fay Compton) of Woodview is very sympathetic, although the same cannot be said of some of Esther’s other employers.  It is more often the institutions, or lack of them, which are criticised. Esther’s illiteracy reflects on the lack of educational establishments, and the scenes of  her in the workhouse just after she has given birth underlines her impersonal treatment.

 

Much of this stems from Moore’s novel.  The film understandably, however, elides some events.  In the novel, Esther returns to her mother and violent step-father’s in London and her mother later dies. In the film, Esther visits London and is shocked to learn the news of her mother’s death.  The number of Esther’s employers and the suffering she goes through is also telescoped in the film.  This is effectively shown by a montage of Esther engaged in drudgery at different houses, as the years are flashed up on screen.  Significantly this is prefigured by the title page of a book on ‘household hints’ and accompanied by narration as to how servants should be treated. This etiquette includes only conversing with servants when necessary, or to pass a greeting. The light tone might be thought to detract from the film’s social message, but it effectively reveals the disparity between the onscreen reality (Esther’s drudgery) and the omniscient, distant, advice-giver who thinks such advice serves Esther’s, and society’s, best interests.

While some of these omissions are no doubt partly for space, it is also notable that this results in the character of William playing a relatively larger part. Furthermore, we must consider what aspects the film was allowed to show – in terms both of what it was thought audiences would tolerate and official censorship. Anthony Slide has briefly written about the treatment of the film by US censors. The process apparently began early, with the novel sent to Joseph I Breen. Breen suggested that certain elements  of the novel (sexual references including seduction, adultery and passionate kisses as well as Esther’s employment as a wet nurse) had to be removed, while others (the suggestion that the Spires would be punished by the law) should be added, and the moral consequences for Esther retained  (‘Banned in the USA’: British Films in the United State and their Censorship, 1933-1960 (1998, pp. 61-2). Slide notes that the film was eventually given a certificate on the 28th of July 1949 and released in 1951. Tellingly this was under the title The Sin of Esther Waters. No doubt this, raised incorrect expectations in US audiences, erasing the nuance present in the film’s depictions that are discussion uncovered.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 1st of October, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s melodrama screening and discussion sessions. We are screening Esther Waters (Ian Dalrymple and Peter Proud, 108 mins) on Monday the 1st of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

 

As explained in a previous post, the BFI has very kindly recently allowed me access to its collection of Dirk Bogarde journals. This collection of magazines and other ephemera featuring Dirk was donated to the BFI by the late star’s estate. This led me to think about how focusing on one star, and especially a male one, for a term, may begin to show some of the many facets of melodrama.

We are taking a chronological approach, and start with Dirk’s third film, and first credited and starring role. The Victorian melodrama Esther Waters is adapted from the 1894 novel by Irish writer, George Moore. It sees Dirk playing a groom who seduces the heroine, kitchen-maid Esther (Kathleen Ryan), abandons her, is reunited with her, and, predictably, causes her further heartache.

Dirk’s earliest appearance in a film fan magazine in the BFI’s journal collection is the feature article ‘Dirk Takes His First Chance’, in the UK’s Picturegoer, on the 23rd October 1948 p. 5 (for the accompanying portrait and caption, please see picture above).  This would have been available to readers by the date of Esther Waters’ release (22nd September 1948). The article is strangely ambivalent about the quality of the film (though please don’t let that put you off!) Its subheading observes that ‘[t]he picture itself was given only a mixed reception from the critics and judgment on the young man has to some extent been suspended until his next can be seen. All the same, his work in “Esther Waters” shows promise and imagination. Dirk is convinced he can do it’.

While this is less gushing than we might expect from a fan magazine, the very presence of the feature article, and its contents, suggests that Dirk is being built up as a star by the studio he is contracted to, J Arthur Rank. This includes ‘factual’ comments on Dirk’s family and theatre background, and also an insight into his person.  He is reported to have artistic tendencies, to be sensitive and shy, although this is balanced by a focus on the bravery he displayed during his war service.

We can compare this to later fan magazine coverage of Dirk as we address several of his other films in detail. It will also be worth focusing on the gap between the supposed ‘real’ Dirk and the ‘screen’ Dirk. The article mentions Esther Waters is a ‘good test’ of his talent since he plays a character ‘entirely unlike himself’. We can consider if as time goes on the ‘real’ Dirk, at least the one presented by fan magazines, alters and/or whether his screen image adapts to reflect his star image. For example, the caption to the above picture (from the article) ponders ‘[w]here does he go from there’ and notes that Dirk’s next role will be a ‘modern’ one – the case for much of his career.

You can also see more on my work on the BFI collection of Dirk Bogarde journals on the NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/

Do join us, if you can, for the first in our Dirk season.

The BFI’s Dirk Bogarde Collection of Journals

As noted in the last post, the melodrama research group will be screening several of Dirk Bogarde’s films from the 1st of October. This is because I was recently lucky enough to access the British Film Institute’s Dirk Bogarde Collection of journals. These magazines were gifted to the BFI by the late actor’s estate and provide a fascinating insight into the reach of the star across different types of publications and countries.

Over the next few weeks, Lies is very kindly posting 8 blog posts I’ve written about my work on the collection, and Dirk, on the NoRMMA blog. You can find the first here: http://www.normmanetwork.com/introduction-the-dirk-bogarde-collection-project/ 

I’ll also be sharing some film-specific material from the collection in advance of each screening.

Screening Schedule for the Autumn Term

We now have a provisional list of films we’re screening in the Autumn Term. We’re focusing on several films of the British star Dirk Bogarde. (Apart from our Halloween offering on the 29th of October which dates from 1930 and stars Chester Morris.)


 

1st October Esther Waters (1948, Ian Dalrymple and Peter Proud, 108 mins)

15th October Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton, 84 mins)

29th October The Bat Whispers (1930, Roland West, 83 mins)

12th November EITHER A Tale of Two Cities (1958, Ralph Thomas, 117 mins)

                                 OR Libel (1959, Anthony Asquith, 100 mins)

26th November The Singer Not the Song (1961, Roy Ward Baker, 132 mins)

10th December I Could Go On Singing (1963, Ronald Neame, 99 mins)

 

More detail on each film will be posted in advance of its screening.

 

All are very welcome to join us on these dates, from 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

Timetable for Autumn Term 2018

We are very pleased to announce that melodrama screening and discussion sessions will resume in the Autumn Term.

All are welcome to join us when we meet from 5-7pm, on alternate Mondays, in Jarman 6.

 

The dates:

1st of October

15th of October

29th of October

12th of November

26th of November

10th of December

 

Details of films and other events will be posted here in due course.