Repost: Maternal Melodrama

Posted by Sarah

Following discussion about this yesterday, please find below information on, and a link to, the online journal Sequence. Of special interest to us in the focus on Maternal Melodrama.

‘We Need to Talk about Maternal Melodrama’, a new publication atSEQUENCE Serial Studies in Media, Film and Music (part of the open accessREFRAME platform in Media, Film and Music), as well as a Call for Papers in response to, or in connection with, the topics raised by the lead article, an essay bySue Thornham. The title of Thornham’s essay is ‘”A HATRED SO INTENSE…”:We Need to Talk about Kevin, Postfeminism and Women’s Cinema’.

If you work on film or media representations of motherhood, or melodrama, and you think you’d like to respond to, bounce off of, or otherwise fruitfully interact with Thornham’s work, or with its topics more broadly,SEQUENCE would be very excited to hear from you. You can read more about respondinghere. Thank you. Best wishes

DrCatherine Grant REFRAME Editor, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies School of Media, Film and Music University of Sussex Silverstone Building Falmer BN1 9RG T: +44 1273 678876 Editor: Film Studies For Free Guest Editor: Frames, Issue 1, July 2012: Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital?


As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.


Of Human Bondage Introduction

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided an extended introduction to Of Human Bondage (1934) which will be screened on Wednesday 9th of October at 4pm-7pm in Keynes Seminar Room 6. The introduction includes reflection on a ‘Bette Davis’ performance; why Davis suits melodrama; Of Human Bondage and Davis; and some matters to consider whilst watching the film.

What makes a Bette Davis performance?

  • Eyes – Notice the shifts, the way they flair in moments of high emotion, and the hood of the eyelids in moments of reflection.
  • Nervousness and sudden gestures
  • Clipped voice
  • Striding walk
  • Quick shifts in mood
  • Empathetic
  • Constant movement – Places attention on the body and makes gestures such as the clenching of the fists vivid.
  • High emotion
  • Often anti-glamour
  • Calls attention to its own skill

of human bondage 2

Davis always knew what came before and after each scene to help give a performance continuity. Her dedication to her craft developed a star status that relied on the knowledge of Davis the actress, and not the glamour aspects of stardom. Davis was so revered during her time that she was asked to contribute to the 1937 book We Make the Movies, in which she wrote an article on acting.


Why does Davis suit Melodrama?

‘Natural! That isn’t the point of acting.’ (Davis 1962, p. 141)

     Both in The Lonely Life and subsequent interviews with Davis she has claimed that acting should be removed from life. Davis disliked the method, preferring escapism and theatrics as a way to entertain an audience. The theatrical style of Davis lends itself to high emotion and exaggeration that complements the melodramatic form. There is a ‘certain hysteria or hysterical energy’ (Cavell 1996, p. 127) that exudes from Davis on film and enhances a situation. When Mildred rushes through Philip’s apartment she is like a storm. Mildred destroys everything in her path with an intensity that could only be performed by Davis.

Bette is best when she is being bad, and ‘lying proved to be one of the most dominant themes of the Bette Davis film’ (Shingler and Gledhill 2008, p.74). However, lying is not restricted to her cruel roles, it is also the case when she is the sympathetic heroine, see Dark Victory. Academics have noted that her over-acting is acceptable because ‘her characters were supposed to be performing, hence behaving unnaturally’ (Shingler and Gledhill 2008, p.74). Davis plays the woman with a secret or a hidden agenda, and is often a type of enigma to the other characters in her fictional world. It is the combination of Davis not being as she seems and her elaborate gestures that enhance the melodrama on screen.


Of Human Bondage and Davis.

      Bette Davis was warned against this role, but she felt she needed a part that would push and showcase her acting abilities. The gamble paid off and Davis was rewarded with critical praise. Many Davis enthusiasts, particularly biographers, class this role as an unofficial Academy Award nomination. Voters were appalled that Davis was left out of the nominations and a write-in ensued. However, it would not take Davis long to gain two Academy Awards in that same decade.

Like many Davis characters ‘“acting” [is] the core of the character’ (Shingler and Gledhill 2008, p.72). Mildred’s performance extends to multiple levels, for instance: The manipulation of Philip and her voice. The manipulation of Philip is for her benefit, particularly in a place to stay and for money. However, her voice is a performance for everyone in the fictional world. Her strange cockney accent was an attempt by Davis to show Mildred’s real background and her fight to make herself sound refined. Shingler also comments on this, stating that Davis attempts to ‘reflect the natural cadences of the dialect […whilst] betray[ing] her as “fake”’ (Shingler 1999, p.52). In melodrama people are often not how they seem, and this is often exemplified by the multi-faceted Davis, especially as Mildred.

Perhaps the most noted part of her performance can be found in the tirade on Philip. It is a ‘display of hysteria, fury, and bitterness, edged with vulnerability’ (Shingler 1999, p.47). Note the build of emotion, not just in her voice but through the repetition of actions
and the slow increase of her performance tics. It is this scene combined with the importance of her eyes that Shingler notes in his article ‘Bette Davis: Malevolence in Motion’. However, it seems that Davis’ slow build-up of the true nature of Mildred is vital to her performance. Through Davis we learn the character’s true self because her over-acting makes it clear that Mildred is a fake, and thus, Mildred’s tirade is electric because it is the release of the ‘real’ Mildred, a moment that justifiably needs to be heightened over the ‘controlled’ persona.

Things to consider whilst watching the film.

  • How the failure of manipulation breaks Mildred’s “acting” and how this serves the melodramatic performance.
  • How the Davis performance tics enhance melodrama.
  • The Davis eyes as tool to truth – consider the presentation before and during the death scene.
  • Costume and the unglamorous Bette.


Questions from the last post that could also be considered

  • What are the components of a melodramatic performance?
  • How much of an influence does performance have on establishing a genre?
  • Or, perhaps, do stars carry a performance type that will affect the categorizing of a film?
  • Davis admitted that her performance style was theatrical rather than realistic. Is it this style that we find in most melodramas?
  • How does performance differ between radio and film? How does this affect melodrama?


Note: This film has less than perfect sound. Sadly, the film in that aspect has not aged well.



Cavell, S. (1996). Contesting Tears, The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Davis, B. (1962) The Lonely Life. New York: G.P Putnam & Sons.

McNally, P (2008). Bette Davis, The Performances That Made Her Great. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers.

Shingler, M. and Gledhill, C. (2008). ‘Bette Davis: Actor/Star’. Screen. 49 (1), p67-76.

Shingler, M. (1999). ‘Bette Davis: Malevolence in Motion’. In: Lovell, A. and Kramer, P. eds. Screen Acting. London: Routledge.


Melodrama Meet on 9th of October

Posted by Sarah

As we are meeting in Keynes (seminar room 6) rather than Jarman this term, some of us are planning to first gather in Jarman lobby around 3.45 pm on the 9th of October.
For those unable to make it that early, here’s a link to directions for our  intended destination:
All are welcome.

REMINDER: Autumn Term Screening and Discussion Schedule

Posted by Sarah

A quick reminder of the place, time and dates for this term’s events.


All are welcome to attend our screening and discussion sessions in the Autumn Term.



These are due to take place in KS6 (Keynes, Seminar Room 6) from 4-7pm on:


9th of October (Week 2) Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell,83 mins)

16th of October (Week 3) Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone, 94 mins)

30th of October (Week 5) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich, 134 mins)

6th of November (Week 6) TBA

13th of November (Week 7) TBA

27th of November (Week 9) TBA

11th of December (Week 11)TBA

18th of December (Week 12) TBA

More details of the first 3 films, and confirmation of those due to screen later in the term, will be posted shortly.

For information on our new meeting place (including a handy map!), visit:

Bette Davis and Of Human Bondage Links

Posted by Sarah

Please find below the picture of Bette Davis, some links which relate to the Hollywood star and to Of Human Bondage.


Ann-Marie has very kindly provided links to audio material which features some of Bette’s radio performances:


Of Human Bondage (1934) on

A 1949 Studio One TV version on

Maugham’s novel on


Do also visit our other blog for more information:


Log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts and suggestions for other links.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 9th October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 9th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Ann-Marie’s choice: Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell, 83 minutes)

Of Human Bondage

Ann-Marie’s introduction to the film:
Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage is a story of a man and his infatuation with a cruel, illiterate waitress. Bette Davis stars as a cockney girl that manipulates and almost destroys Philip Carey (Leslie Howard). In this role Davis plays her first real ‘bitch’, and it is here that we can see the beginning of the performance style that reoccurs throughout her career. There are few characters as cruel and as damaged as Mildred Rogers, and Davis took a risk in fighting for this role. It is said that Warner warned her that playing such an unsympathetic character will ruin her popularity before she had the chance to earn it. Warner was wrong. Instead, Davis received critical success for her performance, including an Academy Award nomination.
This film was chosen to consider performance and its relation to the definition of melodrama. Questions to consider before the viewing the film:
  • What are the components of a melodramatic performance?
  • How much of an influence does performance have on establishing a genre?
  • Or, perhaps, do stars carry a performance type that will affect the categorizing of a film?
  • Davis admitted that her performance style was theatrical rather than realistic. Is it this style that we find in most melodramas?
  • How does performance differ between radio and film? How does this affect melodrama? (Please see a forthcoming post on Bette Davis links for more information.)

Do join us if you can for the first of 3 films which focus on performance.

Melodrama and Performance

Posted by Sarah

The first 3 of this term’s screening and discussion sessions focus on performance. After appreciating melodrama’s infinite variety, this allows for us to deal with a specific aspect in more detail. Performance is vital to the definition of melodrama, one of the group’s constant concerns, and should provide lots of material for discussion.

Please see our additional blog for more information on melodrama and performance, which will be especially relevant for the next few weeks:

John Mercer’s Magnificent Obsession talk

Posted by Sarah

We were fortunate on the 29th of September to host another fascinating talk by Dr John Mercer of Birmingham City University (

Prior to a screening of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), John spoke about the fact that the orthodox version of Hollywood history often depends on gossip and rumour.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionJohn subsequently challenged some misconceptions relating to Magnificent Obsession. These range from matters of reception to production. It has been claimed that it was populist trash primarily targeted at female audiences. It has also been the view that the 1935 film  the 1954 version was a remake of was obscure. Meanwhile it is often assumed that Producer Ross Hunter was more interested in the project than Sirk.

mag ob novel

The 1929 source novel by Lloyd C Douglas (see book cover, left) was one of that biggest selling of the  year. In  addition, a previous 1935 film adaptation featured the established and incredibly popular star Irene Dunne and the up and coming Robert Taylor and reaped enormous box office rewards. These three facts reveal that the narrative was in fact highly significant since it was very familiar to audiences.


It was pointed out that Hollywood had not abandoned the Magnificent Obsession  magnificent-obsessionnarrative in the almost twenty years between the first and second film versions. It was adapted for Lux radio in 1936 (with Dunne and Taylor), in 1940 (staring Claudette Colbert) and 1942 (starring Dunne). In addition, the sequel to the source novel was adapted for TV as a popular soap opera in the early 1950s.

John also noted the different ways in which stars are treated in the Film Studies. There are those who have always been present both in popular memory and film scholarship; those largely forgotten by the masses but who are in some ways recovered by film scholarship; those who are simply ignored. While Hudson might be said to belong to the first category, Jane Wyman, sadly, belongs to the last.

John provided a useful summary of Wyman’s career. Although beginning as a fairly light jane wymansecond lead she progressed to challenging roles. Significantly Wyman received a Best Actress Oscar in 1948 and was nominated a further 3 times (including for Magnificent Obsession). Wyman was clearly well thought of at the time despite Film Studies’ subsequent lack of interest in her. In relation to melodrama Wyman specialised in ‘dignified suffering’ and was a ‘model of femininity’.Wyman’s status as a star, and her importance to Magnificent Obsession, was highlighted by John’s discussion of the film’s finances. Wyman received a large proportion ($150,000) of the film’s ($780, 000) budget.

Rock Hudson

Hudson’s career was also outlined by John. Interestingly, while today many assume that the contemporaneous opinion of Hudson’s acting was less than complimentary, John’s research in fact reveals that this is not the case.


Discussion of Sirk focused on the prevalent view of him in Film Studies as a cynical intellectual auteur and the ruthless efficiency with which he manages the audience’s emotional responses.  The sheer lavishness of the costumes and the cinematography was also mentioned.

Foster Hirsch’s description of the actors’ performances in Magnificent Obsession as ‘hushed’ was also referenced. This seems particularly at odds with the general view of ‘melodramatic’ acting and will be of special interest to the group for the first 3 screening and discussion sessions of term  which focus on performance.

Many thanks to John for another insightful and enjoyable talk which has inspired us to consider screening not only Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) which also starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson but the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession….

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