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.

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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.

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.

Summary of Discussion on Three on a Match

Our discussion on the film covered various aspects including: its genre; its appeal to female audiences; its ‘Take Three Girls’ approach; its three heroines as role models; male characters; the character of Vivian; the film’s stars; its pace; contemporaneous materials like trade magazines; Warner Brothers studio; the 1938 remake and matters of censorship.

We began with comments on the film’s appeal to female audiences. This was established partly by the film’s genre. Best described broadly as a drama – as the American Film Institute (AFI) categorises it – it moves from melodramatic ups and downs to a more straightforward crime drama. It nonetheless remains focused on its female characters. The film demonstrates a ‘Take Three Girls’ approach, in which we follow the fortunes of three young girls at school into adulthood when they meet again.  This allows the film more flexibility than a single heroine, since it can follow three women’s stories.

This approach also allows for comparison of the film’s characters to one another, thus commenting on those considered the best ‘role models’. This is more complex than we might at first assume from the women’s early days at school. In the opening segment, Mary (Virginia Davis) is portrayed as a fun-loving, knicker-showing girl who gets into trouble for smoking. While Vivian (Dawn O’Day, later known as Ann Shirley) is voted the most popular girl in her class, this is superficial. In fact, since she disapproves of Mary’s free-and-easy attitude she sneakily reports her to teachers. Ruth (Betty Carse) wins an award for academic achievement. Mary is true to herself but not one of life’s conformers, Vivian is snooty and privileged, and Ruth hard-working. These characteristics point to their futures.  Rich Vivian reveals that she will attend a boarding school, while the less socially advantaged Ruth says she will train for a business career. Neither of them knows what will happen to Mary….

In fact, Mary’s trajectory ranges considerably. She is next seen in reform school (now played by Joan Blondell), but is soon a steadily-working actress. This is established as she chats about her current show to a hairdresser in the most female of social spaces: the beauty parlour. Coincidentally, Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is occupying the next booth, allowing for them to stage a brief reunion and organise to meet, along with Ruth (Bette Davis), for lunch.  At the lunch, it is clear that while Mary and Ruth seem happy enough, Vivian, though she is rich, and married with a young son, is unhappy. This spirals out of control as the film progresses, with her leaving her husband and committing adultery, becoming an absent mother, descending into drugs and poverty, and only at the film’s end partially redeeming her earlier behaviour by sacrificing her life to save her kidnapped son. Meanwhile, Mary finds happiness with Vivian’s husband Bob, and Ruth career fulfilment as governess to Bob and Vivian’s son. The character of a person is placed above their social standing. Nice people who have made a few wrong turns can be happy – especially if they enter the acting profession (!) (Mary), cheats and those unhappy with their privileged lot don’t prosper, though they can make amends (Vivian), and those who calmly get on with things can be quietly happy, if overlooked (Ruth).

 

 

We also briefly compared the film’s two main adult male characters. This is encouraged since Vivian leaves the steady and kind, though seemingly unexciting, Bob (Warren William) for the new and apparently charming Michael (Lyle Talbot). We also commented on the way the film directly juxtaposes Bob and Michael.  After his son is kidnapped there is a close-up of a desperate Bob, wringing his hands. This is immediately followed by a close-up of Michael’s hands.  While at first both men seem to be performing a similar action, it is in fact revealed that he is merely vigorously shaking a cocktail. The only other men involved in the film’s narrative are gangsters. Most notably Harve (Humphrey Bogart) threatens Michael when he is in debt, delivering him to his shady boss, Ace (Edward Arnold). The latter is coolly calculating, threatening violence while treating Michael with contempt – he will not even halt his macho act of plucking his nose hair without wincing or tearing up. This subtly implies that Michael will be subject so slow and painful torture.

Despite the fact that the film has three heroines, these do not have equal billing, screen time, dramatic impact or interest for the audience. Mary is top-billed, with her introduction as an adult character privileged over the other two women, and she ends the film happily after a successful romance. We spent more time discussing Vivian, however. It is far too simplistic to suggest that she is a bad mother who rightly sacrifices herself for her son (in the style of the maternal melodrama). Her situation is more complex. We see her struggle with her relationship with her child who while he is affectionate towards her, seems to prefer his nanny and father. Vivian tells Bob she thinks that having sole charge of her on will be good for her – giving her something to focus on. This does not turn out to be the case though, as when she runs off with Michael she is unable to perform even simple tasks like making sure her son is fed and clean. Other than this, she seems happy to be enjoying Michael’s attentions.

We commented on Dvorak’s realistic portrayal of Vivian. Her drug addiction and its consequences of poverty are well shown by Dvorak’s convincing acting, and the diminishing of her personal appearance and costume.  Vivian’s sacrifice was in some ways inevitable, though surprising in its violence. Earlier we have heard her being hit off-screen. Her final act is far more visible. She throws herself out of a window to draw attention to the whereabouts of her son: she has scrawled this information on her nightgown in lipstick. The film cuts from inside the hotel room to outside, showing Vivian hurtling towards the awning below and hitting the street with a thump.

We also discussed the film’s stars. Despite the film’s short running time, it is not a budget film, but one packed with characters played by stars. Although there are three heroines, a main focus is the star triangle of Mary and Vivian and Bob as Ruth plays a smaller part. Since this was early in Davis’ career, it is not surprising that she played a smaller role, and that the film did not make best use of her talents. We thought the small role Bogart played was more in tune with some of his previous parts, and that Arnold was effective.

Although there is a romantic triangle, the film’s pace means we do not witness Vivian and Bob’s courtship, and that Mary and Bob’s romance takes place at breakneck speed. They are very briefly shown to be attracted to one another as each separately boards the cruise ship to wish friends and family bon voyage. They only spend time together one Vivian has left Bob, with his beach proposal (swiftly following on from offering Ruth a position as governess) coming as a bit of a shock. The newspapers report on this as they note that Bob has divorced and remarried on the same day. The film sustains a rapid pace throughout. In addition to short scenes which establish the time frame (popular songs, historical newspaper headlines) these involve the characters too. After his son’s disappearance Bob, accompanied by Mary and Ruth, begs a judge to intervene in a scene which lasts just a few seconds. We thought the only time the film dragged was the discussion between male workers outside the beauty parlour. These men comment on how Mary has replaced Vivian as Bob’s wife and notice the reappearance of Vivian across the street. This merely recounts the plot and identifies the relationship between the two women who soon meet again. This may have been thought helpful at the time when cinema-goers were more likely to join a screening part-way through.

We discussed some contemporaneous extra-filmic material. Trade magazine Motion Picture Herald included a piece on Buster Phelps (who played the son) on the 8th of October.  This rightly complimented Phelps on his portrayal, but also noted that he was apparently being paid more than Dvorak. A review of the film had appeared in the same publication a week earlier. This understandably expressed distaste at screening the kidnapping of a child while the tragic Lindberg baby story was still in the headlines. It also asked that the gangsters are seen to be punished.

This comments on Warner Brothers’ preferred approach of presenting films which were inspired by real-life stories. We also saw Warner Brothers touches in the use of headlines and popular songs to establish time, and the fact it is bang up to date – the date 1932 appears. We noted references to other Warner Brothers films. A magazine article seen in the film which explains that the ‘Three on a Match’ superstition (that if soldiers in the trenches kept a match going long enough to light three cigarettes they would be seen by the enemy and at least one of them killed) was in fact advertising by a Swedish match manufacturer to expand his market. Warner Brothers released a film called The Match King (William Keighley, Howard Bretherton) this same year – which starred Warren William as the title character.  Some us also noted footage which was had been recycled from an earlier production (like Public Enemy 1931, William A. Wellman) and the presence of gowns also seen in other films.

Finally, we spoke about the 1938 remake of the film, Broadway Musketeers (John Farrow). This starred Margaret Lindsay as Isabel (Vivian in the earlier film), Ann Sheridan as Fay (previously Mary), and Marie Wilson as Connie (the Ruth character).  In addition to the name changes, and the shifted focus to the ‘Vivian’ character, there are other differences. For instance, they grow up in an orphanage, the son is now a daughter and the ‘match’ superstition is now about smashing glasses. The original and the update appeared six years apart, and significantly range from two years before, to four years after censorship was more strongly implemented via Hollywood’s Production Code. The later version did not include the characters’ childhoods, and therefore avoided altogether showing them as sexualised at an early age. The use of censorship seemed to not serve its intended purpose, however. The remake contains innuendo (and the Mary character is now stripper rather than an actress) and the differences are superficial and not necessarily the aspects audiences focus on. Isabel does not commit adultery since she divorces her husband before she found a new man. Her addiction appears to be legal alcohol rather than drugs which the 1932 film references openly via paraphernalia, intimation of Vivian suffering due to withdrawal, and Harve’s nose-sniffing gesture. Nonetheless she suffers the same fate as in the earlier film, unable to halt the progression of the melodramatic narrative.

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

Summary of Discussion on Female

Our discussion of Female ranged from its genre, its use of gender inversion, its star, Ruth Chatterton, comparison to other films and stars of the time such as Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, its studio – Warner Brothers –  the film’s set and its shot transitions. 

We began with debate about the film’s genre. The American Film Institute (AFI) categorises Female as ‘Comedy-drama’ (https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/MovieDetails/3957?cxt=filmography) and we certainly noted its, sometimes uneasy, mix of serious issues such as sexual equality (a major subject according to the AFI) and comedic moments. We particularly commented on the film’s heroine, automobile factory owner and manager Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton). Alison demonstrates her sexual liberation, and position of authority, by seducing young men in her employ and then arranging for them to be transferred to other parts of the world when they become clingy and troublesome.

Alison is a woman in charge of her own destiny, telling a female friend, Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson), that she uses men the way they have always used women. She is, therefore, very different to the suffering heroine of melodrama.  In fact, she seems more like the sexually predatory man a melodrama heroine is often running from.

Alison is frustrated, however, by the fact that despite her viewing herself as a sexual being, the men she attempts to seduce have differing ideas. Men either submit and then fall in love and wish to marry and domesticate her (and are hence transferred to Montreal), or seem resistant to her female charms, considering her to be made of marble, rather than flesh and blood (and are dispatched to Paris). Other marriage proposals she receives are similarly not based on how Alison sees her true self, but are couched in terms of a business merger.

The repetitive nature of Alison’s attempted seductions (and indeed her preparedness, in, we presume, providing male guests with bathing costumes for her swimming pool) become comic as the film proceeds. She invites men to her house for the evening; she is clad in a beautiful evening dress; we hear ‘Shanghai Li’ playing; Alison summons a butler, and vodka, at the right moment by pushing a button; Alison earnestly explains that she is not all about business, inviting her male visitor to sit next to her as she playfully throws a cushion on the floor.

The other comedy aspect the film brought to mind was the screwball subgenre. After becoming frustrated at the lack of men who see her as she truly is, Alison leaves her own party, dressing up in casual clothes to visit a local fair. While there, she takes aim with a rifle at the shooting gallery alongside an attractive man, Jim Thorne (George Brent). They alternate successful shots at targets until Alison’s last one misses, and Jim completes the task for her. This is a ‘meet-cute’ of romantic comedy, something which shows that the couple is meant to be together. Alison is, however, the pursuer rather than the pursued (despite the fact the man has won the so obviously male shooting competition) as she follows Jim as he purchases a drink at a nearby stall. Alison light-heartedly assumes an alternative identity as a former sharpshooter, and Jim plays along by saying that he did not recognise her without her horse. Significantly, Alison’s assumed identity is one of much lower class than her real status. This corresponds to some of the key aspects Tamar Jeffers McDonald cites as key to screwball – reverse class snobbery, a major inversion or subversion of characters’ normality, and role play (Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, 2007, pp. 23-24). It is worth noting, however that while Jim plays along, he does not assume an alternate identity or pretend to be anything he is not.

Perhaps predictably, Jim refuses to be ‘picked up’ by Alison, apparently she is ‘too fresh’. There must be some obstacles to their (we suppose) eventual union.  Furthermore, he spurns her advances when, coincidentally, he begins work at her company as an important engineer the next day. While her seduction routine has worked with others, Jim seems immune. When Alison is surprised that drinking has not loosened Jim up, he explains that he is used to vodka, after working for some time in Russia. This shows how much she has relied on alcohol in past seductions, and that Alison has to work much harder at her ‘vamping’ than usual.

 This inversion is not only important in terms of how it might comment on comedic conventions. It is also useful when we compare Alison to other characters in the film, and consider what changes in her representation may say about the film’s standpoint on sexual equality.

The main character we compared Alison to was her old schoolfriend Harriet. She unexpectedly visits Alison in her office, and we witness Alison swapping chat on Harriet’s life (her marriage and children) but being so distracted with work matters she gets several details wrong – Harriet’s husband’s name and the gender and number of her children. This indicates Alison’s lack of interest in ‘usual’ womanly concerns. It is also important that since this chat takes place at work, Alison is nonetheless interrupting her work with personal concerns. This may be less true of the way films choose to represent men in their workplaces.

We wondered whether the film had the purpose of showing Harriet, rather than Alison, in the more flattering light for both male and female viewers. While the film tones down Alison’s sexually free behaviour as she falls for Jim, though refuses to marry him at first, her enjoyment for most of the film and her wearing of stunning clothes, driving a sports car, and owning of a beautiful house. By contrast, Harriet is only seen in Alison’s environment, wearing smart but regular clothes, and her only interaction with her husband and children is a boring phone call about his health. We thought this did not encourage the promotion of Harriet’s more traditional lifestyle over Alison’s more modern one.

There is ambivalence though. In addition to times when Alison seems to be displaying herself for men’s attention, Alison is filmed in a rather sexual way at other points of the narrative. She is a powerless sexual object as she steps in and out of the shower, and receives massages.

The film is also ambivalent in its representation of Alison on her own terms. Her initial boast that she treats men the way they have always treated women, is tempered by her last minute conversion to domesticity. Despite Alison tracking down Jim at a shooting gallery and his support of her business plans, she decides to hand over the business to him while she plans to have 9 children. It is well worth considering whether the lasting memory of a film is a character’s behaviour for most of the story, or he final few minutes. Some commented that in this sense the film was two-faced. The ending is a sop to men (with Jim also specifically speaking against ‘free women’), and traditionalists, but others (including women) may choose not to believe Alison’s last exaggerated desire.

We also briefly mentioned the minor, and older, characters of Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) and Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly). They represent more traditional gender politics. While Pettigrew seems to approve of Alison’s treatment of men for most of the narrative, he is also relieved when she decided to settle down. Pettigrew teasingly asks Miss Frothingham if she lives with her ‘folks’ and she giggles in her response that she lives alone. While Miss Frothingham appears aware of Pettigrew’s attentions, and intentions, and both of them flirt, Pettigrew is the more obvious predating figure. He is even unoriginal in asking Miss Frothingham up to his apartment to see his paintings.

We also discussed the significance of Ruth Chatterton playing Alison, and whether this colours our view of her character’s liberation as positive or negative. Chatterton was a powerful woman, as in addition to being an actor and star she was an aviatrix, a fencer and owned her own production company. It would be interesting to see how much of this information was available to, and known by, audiences of the time. As Lies points out in her post on the NoRMMA blog, Chatterton’s 1932-1934 marriage to Female co-star George Brent was referenced in a portrait of Chatterton in February 1934’s Photoplay  (www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) This shows Chatterton’s acceptable off-screen domestic situation, but also the fact that she continued to work despite being married.

The context of the studio which produced Female was also considered. We were reminded throughout the film of its studio since Warner tunes like ‘You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me’ and ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ (both from 42nd Street, 1933) were hummed or whistled by characters. There was also mention of the Warner Brothers star James Cagney (at the studio from 1930-1935). Alison hires a private detective to follow Jim when she is not being as successful with him as she would like. It is said that he has been out the night before, at a movie called Picture Snatcher (1933, released 6 months before Female).  Some of us were also aware of Warner Brothers through costumes being recycled from earlier and into later films from the studio. Unlike the bigger MGM, Warner Brothers was less able to spend lavishly on both costumes and film tunes.

We also considered Female in relation to a screening from last term, Baby Face (see blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/12/04/summary-of-discussion-on-baby-face/) Both films were written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. But in addition to being based on a novel by a male author (Donald Henderson Clarke 1932), Female was notably different to Baby Face in the lack of a suffering and abused heroine. Interestingly though, according to Motion Picture, the star of Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck, was considered for the role before it was toned down and given to Chatterton. (See Lies’ post: www.normmanetwork.com/you-wouldnt-have-these-problems-if-you-were-a-fallen-woman-female-curtiz-1933/) It is interesting to consider what a different film Female  would have been if Stanwyck had played Alison. Stanwyck often played struggling everyday characters, with her ‘real’ background also apparently a poor one.  Chatterton, meanwhile, was the middle-class daughter of an architect and  prior to Hollywood had a successful career on the legitimate stage.

We also commented on the film’s impressive set. According to the AFI, some of this was filmed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis house in Los Angeles https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/3957 The house was also apparently used for later films including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Blade Runner (1982).

It was not just the exterior shots of the house or the swimming pool which were striking though. All the characters seemed dwarfed by the size of both the factory and house interiors which further emphasise Alison’s wealth. The way in which the working of the factory (smoking chimneys, cranes etc) are seen through the large window as Alison sits at her desk also comments on her wealth, but also her hard work and the heavy industry involved in the manufacturing the automobiles. It also reveals that Alison sis able to survey all of this from her desk – it is her domain.

Finally, there was some comment on the film’s editing. Some found the variety of shot transitions, especially on the factory floor, distracting and showy. Others, however, hardly noticed them.  We might compare the editing to the film’s use of startling 1920s architecture which makes it seem especially modern

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

Summary of Discussion on Number 13

Our discussion of Number 13 ranged from the character of the protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), his standing in society and how the episode tackled the issue of class, the MR James original short story, both texts’ effectiveness as examples of the ghost story, the male and female gothic, and related texts.

Some of our first comments concerned the initial pomposity of Professor Anderson (Greg Wise). We noted his insistence that his proper title be used, especially when introducing himself at the city hotel in which he stays while researching some old manuscripts. Anderson would have been privileged compared to many in society, most likely attending public school if he later went to an Oxbridge college. It is significant that the only title he has is an academic – and indeed professional – one. He has earned this, rather than inherited it from previous generations.

The fact that when strange occurrences start to happen to him Anderson accuses others of playing tricks also raises the matter of class. He is sure of himself and, rather than doubting his sanity, assumes that others are persecuting him. We thought this spoke to class anxiety – the worry that those of the new middle classes did not know their place. The theorists Anthony Vidler and Terry Castle’s ideas on the uncanniness of the middle classes were discussed by the group.

Indeed, class played a large part in the adaptation, with Anderson compared to some of the other characters. Anderson is clearly higher status than the hotel landlord, Gunton (David Burke), since he is a customer. He is also distrustful of the silent porter, Thomas (Anton Saunders), appearing rude to him on occasion. The character of Jenkins (Tom Burke), a lawyer, was especially drawn in class terms. We hear and then see him slurping his soup and his easy manner with one of the female guests, Alice (Charlotte Comer) causes Anderson jealousy – especially when we have the impression that Anderson is unhappy that such an inferior male has proved popular with a woman he seems to have romantic interest in.

Anderson’s desire is further expressed through a brief dream sequence. Alice is seen lingering near Anderson’s bed chamber, intercut shots of the bed hangings and paintings depicting naked men and women and various flora and fauna. We thought this conveyed Anderson’s repression well. The very brief appearance of Alice in his dream is probably the most interaction he has with her during the episode. In addition, he lacks the imagination to picture her in a nightgown – she wears the dress and earrings she appeared in earlier in the night when her flirting between with Jenkins seemed so distasteful to Anderson.  But there is another possible reading. The two men wake up together in a double bed, apparently for safety’s sake, after they and the landlord experience terrifying happenings. We wondered if this was a queering of the text, since Anderson has gained not just homosocial knowledge (the next morning he seems more human, his pomposity punctured he is able to joke with Jenkins), but also perhaps experienced and been the object of homosexual desire. Perhaps Anderson’s earlier jealousy was directed towards Jenkins and not Alice. Both Anderson and Jenkins were inordinately interested in what they thought was going on in the other’s room.

The presence of female characters in the TV version (though it removed mention of Jenkins’ wife and family) was a departure from MR James’ original short story. In addition to this expansion, moving the setting of the story from Denmark to a class-conscious English city seems to draw out this issue far more. The character in the episode seems far more pompous than in MR James’ short story, and has indeed been gifted the title of Professor, so that he can insist on others using it. There were also some particularly visual elements which conveyed Anderson’s class which were less obvious on the page. Anderson was often seen in his professorial pince nez, and we especially noted his impeccable dinner suit.

There was much discussion about the character of the cathedral archivist, Mr Harrington (Paul Freeman). While he is a minor character in the short story, his role is expanded in the TV version. In this, Anderson researches the ‘Bishop’s House’ at which witchcraft was said to have been committed by a man called Nicolas Francken, and which is revealed to be the hotel in which Anderson is staying. We thought that Harrington had far more knowledge of the Bishop’s House and Francken than he revealed to Anderson. We remembered that Anderson had told Harrington that he was staying in a hotel which was so superstitious it did not include a room 13. However, when Anderson met Harrington in town and discovered from Harrington that the Bishop’s House was still standing, Harrington did not tell him that it was the hotel in which Anderson was staying. It is suspicious that Anderson finds a sealed letter in the archive which he steals, but later replaces, only to not find it again. We also thought there was possibly a portal between the hotel and the library. Furthermore, we saw a resemblance between Harrington, the shadowy figure who appears on the wall of Anderson’s room, and the ghostly figure of room 13. The latter was especially effectively conveyed, with flickering of the sound and the image recalling older technology (the pre-digital ‘snowy’ reception of some televisions). This poor signal transmission also prompted us to think of spiritualist séances.

We commented on the effectiveness of the TV episode. We thought it (and especially the shadowy figure and the flickering ghost in room 13) was good and scary. We were especially impressed by David Burke’s moving performance when he learned of the horrible fate suffered by an earlier ‘Cambridge man’ he believed had skipped out on his bill. However, the foreshadowing of this ‘revelation’ and the over-explanation on finding the man’s belongings seemed a little heavy-handed. This is far less the case in the short story. Conversely, we found that the changing of room 13’s physical dimensions was, surprisingly, subtler in the TV version, with the explanation for Anderson’s disappearing case (it had been subsumed into the newly appearing room 13) not obvious.

We pondered more the fact that Anderson never questions his own sanity in the face of such happenings, and especially contrasted this to the ‘usual’ doubting gothic heroines. Number 13 is comparable in some ways to Miss Christina (2013, Alexandru Mafeti). In our discussion of this film (which you can find here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/10/04/summary-of-discussion-on-miss-christina/) we noted that film’s couple, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor) and Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), both occupied the position of heroine at various points in the narrative. Despite Number 13’s introduction of a female character, she remains minor, and the focus is on one character, Anderson. Anderson is very different to Egor in Miss Christina. While the former is a prissy and inexperienced scholar, the latter is a passionate, engaged painter. However, similarities to Miss Christina also occur. Anderson’s experiencing of the supernatural is shared by two other men – the landlord Gunton and the lawyer Jenkins. In Miss Christina, the painter Egor is also validated by two men, in his case a medical doctor and a professor of archaeology.

We commented that the equivalent of such fraternal confirmation is usually unavailable to a gothic heroine, since there are often fewer other women in gothic narratives.  Furthermore, women in gothic-set narratives (often taking place in the past) rarely have professions. The exceptions are the domestic roles of governess (The Innocents, 1961, Jack Clayton), housekeeper or companion (The Spiral Staircase, 1946, Robert Siodmak). Instead, heroines often enter the space of the gothic house through marriage, as new brides – in Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock), Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson, 1944 George Cukor) etc.  Anderson, however, enters the gothic space of the hotel temporarily, as a man on academic business, which is less likely to be open to a woman travelling alone. Such a situation also occurs in The Woman in Black (2012, James Watkins), in which a lawyer (male, obviously, but also like Professor Anderson, middle-class), gains access to the gothic house for a short period because he is working on legal issues.

This clearly shows the separation existing between the male and female gothics. While the former centres on a man and uses horror and explanations for what occurs, the latter focuses on a woman and employs terror to invoke and convey a supposedly hysterical response to a woman’s situation.   Both Miss Christina and Number 13, focusing more on men, over-explain the cause of the supernatural. We weren’t sure if we approved of a man being the centre of a gothic story, as it is one of the few areas women occupy. While some may view them as passive heroines, it is significant that in our discussion of various films we have focused on the ways in which they take action.

Other texts we mentioned in relation to Number 13 were Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland) (where the man is also the heroine). Aspects of film style were also referenced as we noted the whispering behind the walls reminded us of The Innocents, and the shadow on the wall of Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer).  Although we discussed class at length, we also picked up on the opposition between city and rural evinced in Number 13. Anderson is not only dismissive of the local superstition against the number 13, but seems to feel at risk when walking in the country, seeing local people gathered around burning bins. This particularly reminded us of  the sacrifice of the virgin outsider in The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy),  and of Shirley Jackson’s unsettling 1948 short story The Lottery.

If you would like to see some more MR James adaptations, and learn more about the man himself, BBC 4 is devoting Christmas Eve night to the author and his works. You can (re)view Number 13 at 10.40pm.

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

Summary of Discussion on Baby Face

Our discussion after viewing the uncensored (discovered in 2004) version of Baby Face (1933, Alfred Green) focused on several areas. These included its heroine Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), comparison and contrasts to heroines (and female stars) of other pre-code films such as Red-Headed Woman and Rain, Lily’s relationships with men (especially Courtland Trenholm, played by George Brent), the film’s writers, and differences between the censored and uncensored versions of the films.

One of the first remarks when we finished viewing the film, concerned the efficiency of Lily’s (Barbara Stanwyck’s) rise to the top.  We commented on the effective visual way in which her speedy sexual conquest of all men she met was conveyed. This is notable in terms of Lily ascending the floors of the Gotham Trust Tower as she improves her career prospects by sleeping with the bosses of each department. Lily’s accommodation also progresses. She moves from the tacky bar in Pennsylvania in which she grew up to cheap rooms in New York. While Lily is working, she is shown incongruously living in more palatial apartment with a stunning staircase, maid (her friend Chico) and butler, and ends the film as a married woman living in the company penthouse.

Changes to Lily’s person also comment on her rise in social position. Her earlier fussy clothes and hairstyling give way to sleeker and more sophisticated fashions. Like Lily’s acquisition of a maid and butler, this can also be connected to her concern with ‘etiquette’ – the title of a book she is seen to be reading at her work desk. A poster for the film demonstrates Lily’s changing fashions, with the placement of an open book in the bottom of the left-hand corner suggesting such this has caused Lily’s transformations.

The fact that Lily’s progresses upwards, rather than spiralling downwards, comments on the fact she is a ‘bad girl’ trying to improve her situation, rather than a ‘fallen woman’. We particularly connected this to melodrama, as we compared Lily to the ‘classic’ suffering heroine in melodrama (for example, Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920)) who despairs at her fate after an often blameless fall from grace. Lily has certainly suffered – the film spends a reasonable amount of time documenting her early life as a justification for her later actions – as it is made clear that her father has prostituted her from a young age.  Yet her attitude is detached. In scenes near the beginning of the film, she calmly responds to an older man’s sexual advances with what seem to be well-worn behaviours: pouring scalding coffee over his legs, and smashing a bottle over his head.

Lily’s emotional detachment continues, even in the most melodramatic of situations. Her previous paramour Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) shoots dead her latest lover J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker) (coincidentally also until recently Stevens’ prospective father-in-law as well as his boss) before turning the gun on himself in her apartment. Initially Lily seems unsure what to do, but she soon turns pragmatic as she calmly telephones for the police to be called. Most of Lily’s responses which we can interpret as emotional – turning away, raising a handkerchief to her face and inserting a break into her voice –  occur when she is caught in a compromising situation with a man by another man. Lily is unconcerned by the fate of the man she accuses of being her seducer, as she is more concerned with hoodwinking the man who has discovered the pair, lining him up as her next lover.

These consistently faked emotional responses are perhaps partly what makes the end of the film less than convincing.  By this time, Lily has made it to the top of the ladder. She now occupies the company penthouse with her husband the company’s president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). After a while of living the high life and gathering money and jewels, the bank is in crisis, and Lily’s husband is threatened with indictment. After initially deserting her husband, Lily changes her mind not to provide the money necessary for his bail.  She returns to their penthouse, only to find him near to death after attempting to take his own life. Lily rushes to him, calls his name, and visible appears upset. Her frantic calling for an ambulance notably contrasts to her earlier emotionless request for the police to attend the murder and suicide at her apartment. Although the group did not find Lily’s change of heart credible, unlike the earlier situations in which Lily affects emotion, and we the audience is privy to Lily’s manipulation, it is signalled to be ‘real’. Not only has Lily already decided to return to her desperate husband, but her concern for him extends to her behaviour in the ambulance, when she does not care that she has dropped her case of jewels on the floor.

We thought that another reason we found Lily’s return to her husband unconvincing, was that we were not given much time to invest in their relationship. Trenholm enters the narrative quite late and his and Lily’s relationship does not gradually develop. This is because her climb up the ladder involves using many men to step up to the next level – and this leaves little time. We compared this to the situation in other contemporaneous ‘bad girl’ films. In Red Headed Woman (1932), Lillian (Jean Harlow) marries a man after wrecking his first marriage. She then cheats on him with a business associate and the business associate’s chauffeur, and finally shoots her estranged husband. She does not appear to be punished by the narrative as her husband refuses to press charges, and the fact that she is seen with an older man later in film suggests that she has found someone else to take care of her. This summary of the plot, though brief, illuminates some key difference between Lillian and Lily. While Lillian seduces and marries a man at the beginning of the film, Lily only marries towards the film’s end. This suggests that Lily develops, while Lillian does not, and that Lily is indeed more contained by the narrative which sees her living within social norms at the film’s close.

Neither Lily nor Lillian are straightforward with the men with whom they have relationships, and comparison to another film – Rain (1932) – provides further insight. In this adaption of Somerset Maugham’s short story, the costuming and acting of Joan Crawford depicts Sadie as a woman who does not hide the fact that she is working as a prostitute, and as such is more honest and less manipulative than Lily and Lillian. We briefly compared the growth of Lily and Sadie. Lily’s transformation is gradual in dress and hairstyling, and with an upwards trajectory, until the final realisation which the audience may or may not choose to believe. After some time, Sadie changes overnight from a brash, heavily jewelled and carefully coiffured woman to one dressing in drab dark clothes, with simply-styled hair, and quieter gestures. The fact this is presented with almost religious overtones and is a set-piece of the film, affords it more weight in terms of character development than Lily’s.  Like Lily, Sadie too is contained within an acceptable monogamous relationship at the film’s conclusion. (For more on Rain, please see our previous discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/20/summary-of-discussion-on-rain/)

 

We wondered whether Crawford would have been as successful as Stanwyck at depicting a heroine who manipulated many men, but also retained audience sympathy. It was thought unlikely that Crawford would have been able to convey the sense of feigned innocence as effectively as Stanwyck. Reference to some fan and trade magazines Lies has kindly posted on our sister blog, NoRMMA, suggest that Stanywck was thought especially suitable for the role. Picture Play’s September 1933 review of the film praises Stanwyck as ‘thoughtfully convincing’, eschewing ‘the histrionic splurge of a star on the rampage’ (p. 70). (You can find Lies’ posts here:  http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=614) It is notable that Crawford was not a critical success in Rain.

We also thought that Stanwyck was a particularly effective choice. During much of the film, Lily insists on carrying on with her career and this fitted well with Stanwyck’s star image as a hard-working and no-nonsense star. After breaking up Ned Stevens’ engagement, Lily refuses his offer to look after her, stating that she wants to continue working. This was hugely relevant to female stars of the day who, unlike their male counterparts, were asked if they would continue working after they married.

 

We focused a little more on the film’s male characters.  After manipulating so many stupid men, we initially thought that Lily had finally met her match (in both senses) with Trenholm. But he too disappoints us. He thwarts her attempt to extort money from the company by taking her at her dishonest word that she is not interested in money for her diaries (the publication of which would be explosive for the bank) but about having another chance. Lily takes up his offer of a job in their Paris office, succeeding in her new post and not turning to men for financial support. When Trenholm visits Paris, Lily contrives to take a ride with him in his car and they strike up conversation. She seemingly candidly admits that she only took the job and led a quiet life to prove him wrong. It takes just a few days, the ‘happiest’ of his life, and her clearly leading mention of marriage (she says she would like the title ‘Mrs’ on her tombstone), for him to propose. Following their marriage, Lily disappoints us too – she gives up the career she earlier insisted on keeping.

The only man who is not shown in a poor light is the cobbler, Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Athier) who recommends Lily follows Nietzsche’s philosophy. When he arrives at the bar, Lily seeks him out, telling him he is different to other men. Lily later visits him for advice after her father dies, and she continues to receive lessons in philosophy from him by post. It is notable that this lone positive view of a man is of the only non-American man playing a significant role. We could also argue that this gives an element of detachment to his advice. He is advocating cynical European philosophy rather than a more obviously optimistic ‘American’ way of life.

It was interesting to consider the source of the film – whether it was an adaptation of an existing text or an original screenplay. We especially connected this to the obvious way in which the film would have challenged censors of the day, even before the Production Code came into force in 1934. In some ways it seemed almost taunting in its almost conveyor belt style production line of men in Lily’s life. The story was provided, under a pseudonym, by Daryl F. Zanuck – head of Production at Warner Bros. Given that Zanuck would have had particular insight into the threat of industry censorship, this seemed a brave move when the industry was attempting to keep censorship a more ‘in-house’ matter. While Zanuck wrote the framework of the story (presumably the main plot line of Lily working her way up the ladder), some of the more nuanced aspects which intervene in the matter of career are perhaps attributable to the screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. The pair also worked together on the films Female and Midnight Mary, both released the same year as Baby Face.

Scola was one of several female screenwriters who worked on such films at the time. Others included Anita Loos (who began work on Midnight Mary before it was passed to Markey and Scola), and Ursula Parrot who wrote the novel The Divorcee (1930) is based on (you can see our discussion of the film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/02/28/a-summary-of-discussion-on-the-divorcee/) While we cannot presume that Scola was responsible for the aspects which seemed  especially progressive for women (such as Lily’s insistence on her career), it is also the case that while there is a certain applauding of Lily turning the tables on men who have abused her, this is not uncomplicated. We may see this as a form of feminism today, but it is difficult to know what the intent as at the time.

It is possible that the depiction of the friendship between Lily and the African-American Chico (Theresa Harris) is from a more female point of view. The film may not be seen to be very advanced in the roles it casts Chico in (we assume that, like Lily, she is used by men for sex, and later she becomes Lily’s maid). However, the relationship between Lily and Chico is more important. Early on, Lily protects Chico when her father threatens her, saying that if Chico she will too. Lily also looks after Chico as they travel to New York, and later when employing her as a maid she treats her kindly.

As noted earlier, we watched the uncensored version of the film. This was therefore closer to what the screenwriters originally intended. We commented on some of the differences between the censored and uncensored versions. Lily and her husband are punished in the uncensored version to some extent as his life hangs in the balance, and it is assumed they may lose some, or all, of their money fighting his criminal case. While the censored version makes a couple of other changes (a less lingering shot of Lily from the man she pours coffee over, a rewording of the justification by the cobbler of Nietzsche), the ending is the most significant. Neither Stanwyck nor Brent appear in this, instead the voice of morality is given to the banking board as they comment that the couple has returned to Lily’s home town, and are poor and miserable. Stanwyck and Brent’s absence may be due to scheduling conflicts, but it is significant that we do not actually see the couple in this situation. The fact that an all-male board of bankers passes judgement may be seen to relate to censors of the day. While we cannot be sure of the position bankers held in the view of ordinary people of the day, the film was released only a few years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression. Bankers then, as now, may not have been seen as moral arbiters.

We made a further connection to more traditional melodrama. We noted that characters in some stage melodramas, were also able to indulge in certain behaviour for much of the narrative before a swift and perhaps unconvincing turn around at the end. This was sometimes even supplied outside of the narrative, as a woman delivered a brief moral lecture after the play ended, warning the audience against such behaviour.

Such a disjuncture between the behaviour that goes on and that which is approved of is especially interesting at the time when the supposed ‘casting couch’ in Hollywood (female starlets enduing he attentions of more powerful men in order to advance their careers) is said to have operated. It also seems especially apt given the gulf between what is preached about Hollywood today, and the behaviour which actually occurs. This continuation in the inequality of power between the sexes, and the complexity of women’s advancement in terms of careers, makes Baby Face even more relevant than ever.  We hope to build on the discussion here with screenings of more pre-code films next term (stay tuned for more information!) and to further our engagement with materials from the time on the NoRMMA blog.

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

 

Summary of Discussion on Miss Christina

Our discussion of Alexandru Maftei’s Miss Christina (2013) ranged across various matters such as how the film related to both the gothic and horror genres. This included our recognition of some staples of the gothic (the old dark house, a portrait, keys and locks) but also interesting innovations in terms of the gothic heroine. We commented on the fact these genres sat uneasily with one another and ways in which the film was marketed. Other areas of interest were the adaptability of the author whose novella the film was based on, and gothic films certain aspects reminded us of.

The opening of the film establishes the large, deserted, gothic house, in the depth of a harsh winter and creates mystery around the dishevelled man looking at and chalking portraits of a faceless woman. Portraits become more important to the film later, as we see this man when he first becomes enraptured by the beautiful woman (the eponymous Miss Christina) he is attempting to capture in her original portrait. Indeed, she seems to step forward from this as she enters the man’s dreams. We particularly noted the significance of the portrait, and the haunting presence of a woman, to Rebecca (1940).

After the long opening scene, the action shifts to a young couple, sat next to one another, as they journey on a train. Despite the very different colour schemes of these scenes (from bright whites to red and yellow tones) it soon becomes clear that the well-dressed and happy young man, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor), is a slightly younger version of the man in the dilapidated house. It is mentioned that Egor is a painter. More significantly, further elements of the gothic are introduced, as the young woman, Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), tells Egor that in her family home ‘guests can lose their way’.

Soon after their arrival at the isolated house, with its few inhabitants, odd happenings occur at dinner. Sanda’s mother, Mrs Moscu (Maia Morgenstern), and Sanda’s young precocious and sinister sister Simina (Ioana Sandu) look at a figure unseen to some of the other characters and to the audience. Furthermore, Sanda’s mother eats bloody meat with an undisguised appetite. Mention is made of a relative, Miss Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu), who is Sanda and Simina’s aunt – their mother’s sister. Other characters provide information on the fact Christina is long dead and comment on her unsavoury character. The presence of a professor of archaeology (Nazarie, played by Ovidiu Ghinita), coincidentally excavating a nearby necropolis, further adds to the sense of the macabre.

We discussed Sanda’s character, and her problematic gothic heroine status. Sanda is seen weakened by anaemia, unable to get out of bed, while her mother seemingly summons mosquitoes. She might therefore be identified as a gothic woman in peril, at the mercy of blood-sucking insects. Egor manfully undertakes to protect her, asking for her hand in marriage so that he has justification in separating her from her family. The fact he then locks himself and Sanda in her bedroom, still causes eyebrows to be raised. While Sanda is in some ways a victim, her seeming willingness to collude with what we presume to be Christina’s vampiric tendencies, complicates the matter. Worried that Sanda is losing her fight for life, Egor briefly leaves his post and, on his return, sees that Sanda’s family has gathered around to ‘help’ her. The family portrait of the three women suggests Sanda’s complicity in whatever process has revived her.

We thought it was especially interesting that the film inverts some gender expectations as in addition to playing the male defender, Egor takes on the active investigator role of a gothic heroine. He prowls around the house at night, lantern in hand, trying to find the answer to the odd goings on. Like Sanda, Egor is also threatened by, and compelled towards, Christina. We realise in retrospect that Egor has in fact been broken by her as she foretold

A significant departure from the gothic narrative is that it is not just one character, and the woman, who feels something is wrong. The archaeology professor, who is already resident when Sanda and Egor arrive, wants reassurance from Egor that he too can hear the light footsteps which pass by their bedrooms. They are later joined by another man – a medical doctor with a penchant for hunting – who also needs to be ensured the other men are experiencing these strange occurrences. It is important to note that we are therefore offered three men’s points of view, two of whom are scientists, rather than the more usual potentially hysterical female protagonist.

The four women share an interesting connection beyond their shared genes and gender. When Egor finally realises that Christina is a vampire and attempts to drive a stake through her grave and into her heart, Sanda and Simina also die. While their mother does not suffer the same fate, she chooses to run into the now-blazing house, ensuring her own death

We found the blazing house itself recalled earlier gothic films. In Rebecca the fire is set by a vengeful Mrs Danvers who hates the current Mrs deWinter (Joan Fontaine). Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1943) burns to the ground due to the lack of care of the nurse responsible for Jane’s (again played by Fontaine) fiancé’s mad first wife. The fire in Miss Christina is notably different. It is started deliberately by Egor (either as, or in protection of, the film’s gothic heroine) as he first attempts to rid himself of Christina.

Despite the film’s many gothic elements (the house, the portrait, keys and locks, the innovative gothic hero/heroine) it unconvincingly lurches towards horror in its final half hour. What was previously heavily implied – Miss Christina’s vampire status – is confirmed as Egor goes on a melodramatic rampage. The pacing of the film seems odd. From a slow build up in the more gothic two thirds of the film, the ‘revelation’ of Christina’s vampirism is rapid. In addition, it is not really a revelation at all for an audience immersed in film and folk lore. The rather heavy hints of bloody meat and anaemia, are joined by embodied items which suggest Egor is not dreaming when he sees Christina – she leaves behind one of her pink gloves as well as her scent of violets.

Maria gave us information about the film’s production, marketing and exhibition (see also the previous post) which shed light on the way it drew on the gothic and horror genres. Despite the film’s high production values (seen in the lavish costumes, settings, and CGI) and its obvious nod to the Hollywood blockbuster in its turn to horror towards the end, the film was released on the festival circuit. This satisfied neither the horror junkie, since the film has no jump cuts or gore, nor those, perhaps more discerning smaller audiences, hoping for a more psychological film with developed characters where we are unsure as to what is real and what is not. Maria also mentioned that Mircea Eliade’s novella apparently gave Christina a more nuanced character, acknowledging that many of the tales of her promiscuity and insistence on having peasants whipped were not true. The film represents these more straightforwardly, with Eliade’s social commentary on the crumbling of the Romanian nobility also missing. It was noted that another adaptation of the author’s work – Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) – was similarly problematic.

In addition to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, we also commented on other films we were reminded of. The scene in which Sanda is at her window waiting for Christina brought Nosferatu (1922) to mind. The claustrophobic and enclosing atmosphere of the film (we are mostly confined to the house and its grounds) caused us to discuss The Others (2001) since its characters are also bound to the main house and its environs. Crimson Peak (2015) was also compared to Miss Christina. Both films mixed gothic and horror elements with varying degrees of success, with the later film more strongly appealing to horror.

Many thanks to Maria for introducing us to such an interesting film which allowed for useful examination of both the gothic and horror genres, and the background information on  the film’s production, marketing and exhibition.

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

Summary of Discussion on The Others

Our thoughts about the film ranged over several topics: the film’s setting, including time, space and place; the gothic heroine; her husband; their children; the plot twist(s); other gothic films.

We began with discussion of the film’s setting. A title identifies the action as occurring in Jersey in 1945. The Channel Island location mostly seems significant in terms of its isolation and the unusual liminal position it held during World War II: it was British territory, but occupied by the Germans. This allows the film a connection to gothic of Britain past. The link to past gothic films is heightened by the 1945 date – a time at which many gothic films were popular in Britain and the US.

Discussion also centred on just what aspect of the film the 1945 date setting referred to. While there are no flashbacks, the film’s structuring of time is complex as it is revealed that most of the characters are no longer living, with their deaths having taken place at various points in the past. The main family appears to have died some time between the beginning and the end of World War II, with the heroine Grace (Nicole Kidman) mentioning that the staff has left in the last week. In retrospect, we can see this as relating to the time of her and the children’s (Ann and Nicholas’) deaths. The ghostly staff replacements’ date of death is more concretely asserted – Grace finds a photograph dated 1891 of housekeeper Bertha Mills, gardener Mr Tuttle, and housemaid Lydia posed after death from tuberculosis.

 

The gulf in time between these sets of characters was especially interesting. We noticed that the film gave good reason for the lack of technology, the presence of which might have confused the older staff. Grace says that they have got used to not having electricity since the occupation, while the children’s supposed photosensitivity means they cannot be subjected to more than dull candlelight. The lack of a telephone and automobile also makes the fact that nobody calls more understandable – it both makes smoothes over the fact that the main family is only recognised by the three older ghostly staff and increases the whole household’s isolation.

 Space is especially important to the film, not just in terms of its isolated Jersey manor house setting, but the specific way in which Grace, Ann and Nicholas, as well as Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia are all bound to the area of the house. The suitably gothic fog is complicit in this. While the ghostly staff is tied to the house by their duties, the children by their photosensitivity and Grace to a large extent by her status as mother, on the one occasion she leaves the house she is hemmed in by oppressive fog. Mrs Mills is signals that this is a deliberate instrument to prevent Grace from reaching the outside world. This is unsettling, as it causes us to question what is going on, and this is reinforced by the film’s camerawork on the two occasions characters attempt to leave. When Grace sets out in the fog she appears to both leave the house and happen upon it without changing direction- almost making it seem that the building on screen is a neighbouring manor house. The children leave in the dark and they too end up looping around the house. The camerawork suggests they are getting away from the house, but they return to it, and the gravestones revealing the deaths of Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia.

This lack of mobility, or the sense of characters trapped in space, led us to discuss this matter more. We thought it was especially significant that while the ghostly staff, Grace and the children are limited to their place of death – the house and its environs – Grace’s husband Charles (Christopher Ecclestone) manages to escape the front where he has been killed to meet Grace in the fog on his return home. He states that this is what he has been looking for. While the gardener Mr Tuttle also has more mobility than his female counterparts Mrs Mills and Lydia, like them he is afforded no class mobility. All three are not only confined to the area of the manor house they previously worked, but to working for the new lady of the house– they do not get to rise above their class situation.

We especially focused on Grace’s status as gothic heroine. While the mother is fairly unusual in terms of gothic film (it does not occur in Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940 and 1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), or Secret Beyond the Door (1947)) other aspects connect Grace to the genre. She is a woman in peril, seemingly beset by ghostly intruders (actually the new owners of the house) against whom she actively takes up arms – a shotgun. It is also feared, by her, and us, that she is going mad. It later turns out this had indeed previously happened as the children died after she smothered them with pillows and she consequently committed suicide with a shotgun. There also seem to be specific nods to the gothic film of the 1940s with an especially striking scene in which Grace in dressed in a white nightgown, lamp in hand, as she investigates the goings on. (See previous posts on gothic films we’ve watched for discussion of similar scenes, as well as the 20 minute video essay Passages of Gothic which you can view here https://vimeo.com/170080190)

Grace’s relationship with her husband is also unusual in comparison to the 1940s gothic film. While in Rebecca, Secret Beyond the Door, and others, the heroine is in danger from her husband, in The Others he is absent for a large part of the narrative. When he returns this appears, as indeed it is, unlikely, seemingly summoned by Grace’s desire. We wondered what the point of Charles’ return was. While he does reunite with his family and they are overjoyed to see him, he is distressed, spending much time unable to get out of bed. We were unsure whether this related to post traumatic stress due to the war or if he had an inkling as to his own death, and perhaps those of his family members. It was noted that he confronts Grace about her slapping the children in the past, after Ann relates this to him, and it was raised that perhaps this signalled his knowledge of Grace’s killing of the children. We also discussed Charles’ swift departure. Perhaps this signalled some kind of resolution for him, or Grace, though it seemed a little hurried.

 

The children were another interesting departure from gothic films. While they seemed grounded and modern in some ways (we especially appreciated Ann’s logic in arguing for her interpretation of the bible) there were moments they appeared more like the creepy of films such as The Innocents (1961). There are times it seems that Ann might be ‘gaslighting’ her mother since she tells her of the intruders only visible to her – and not the audience. An especially disturbing scene occurs when Ann, dressed in her first holy communion dress, is possessed by the medium attempting to make contact with the family. The time Ann is supposedly possessed  by new resident Victor is more complex. In retrospect it seems unlikely that the young boy would have the same skillset as the medium – and since we only hear Ann with Victor’s voice while she faces away from her brother Nicholas we can suppose that, as in other parts of the film, she is tricking Nicholas in order to scare him. While not a very sisterly action, this has the feel of a childish prank rather than a truly creepy occurrence.

 We also debated the children’s alleged photosensitivity. In addition to the fact any previous exposure does not appear to have affected them (there are no sores on either child’s skin) we wondered just how aware people would have been of the condition in the 1940s. It serves the narrative, however, to keep the children in the house without having to explain why they cannot leave the grounds. It also keeps them close to Grace. We instead considered the light Grace wanted to keep herself and her children from was metaphorical – the awful truth of their non-living status and Grace’s responsibility for this.

It is especially interesting that the truth should be revealed when the curtains supposedly protecting the children from the sunlight disappear. This is a moment of horror for Grace, and this is indeed played with panic by Kidman. The connection of the curtains to the matter of domestic setting, and arguably female furnishings, is significant. Taking the line ‘Where are the curtains?’ out of its context strips it of its intensity, reducing it to a possibly trivial household inquiry. Spoken with urgency, but without knowledge of Grace’s fears, we thought it would well suit a parodic melodrama.

 While this whole summary has included spoilers (sorry!) some of us who had not already seen the film were aware of the twist that the family and the servants were ghosts; furthermore we suspected that they were the intruders with the supposed intruders actually the new living owners. The manner of the Grace and the children’s deaths was a surprise though. They clearly all perished at the same time, but the fact that Grace killed her children and then herself was shocking. An attack by the Nazis seemed more likely. This revelation turns Grace’s whole gothic woman-in-peril status on its head. While we might feel sympathy for her, presumably she was unbalanced and distraught at her husband not returning from the war, it is she and not her husband, the intruders or the medium, who is the danger.

 While we noted some differences from the 1940s gothic – the presence of the mother, the mostly absent husband, the fact Grace is not a woman in peril in the end, there are clearly aspects of the gothic the film knowingly draws on. In addition to the isolated manor house, Grace’s possible gaslighting, there is an emphasis on containment. Grace is obsessed with locked rooms, and keys, which speak to the fact she is keeping herself and the children from the ultimate secret – her actions. There is also the unusual fact that the supposedly ghostly goings on are indeed ghostly goings on –though the ghosts are not necessarily the people we suspect.  They are not the result of Grace’s imagination or her persecution by her husband. We also thought the scene in which Grace is dressed in a white nightgown, lighting her way with a lamp during her active investigation, was a nod to the 1940s films and The Innocents. We contemplated that the mute Lydia was perhaps a reference to the heroine in The Spiral Staircase.

We were also reminded of more recent gothic films. Grace’s response to a suggestion that she has left a door unlocked, leading to the possible exposure of her children to damaging sunlight, ‘Do you think I’d do such a thing?’ is an important turning point. When we learn of just what Grace has done, it seems less like gaslighting and more that she is beginning to realise what she has done. Our knowledge then reframes the early scene of Grace waking up screaming and her response to the panicked breathing of her children. Grace’s screaming is especially intense, but she does not reflect on this. Other aspects appear to seep through, however. Grace admonishes Ann for her quick shallow breathing at the dinner table, and later Ann similarly tells off Nicholas for comparable behaviour. It is possible this is linked to how Grace killed them – their hastened breathing in response to her smothering of them with pillows. We connected this return of the repressed to the film The Awakening (2011) in which the heroine is walked through her childhood home, and the passages of her mind, in order to remember her past and move on. In fact, perhaps all of this is occurring in Grace’s mind. Such a view is supported by the fact Grace finds so many veiled items in the junk room of the mansion a surprise. While she has presumably lived there for a while, she has only just stumbled across the books of the dead- photographs of posed dead people. She is understandably shocked by these macabre pictures, and later finally recognises the truth of the ghostly servants when she discovers their photograph hidden under Mrs Mills’ mattress. The notion that this is taking place in Grace’s mind may seem to undermine the earlier assertion that Grace is not imagining the goings on. But it simply points to the complexity of the film, its relation to the gothic and its conscious referencing of earlier gothic films.

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

Summary of Discussion on The Crimson Field

Our discussion on The Crimson Field encompassed several areas: its three (or four) female heroines and some similarities to the heroines of melodrama and the gothic; other female characters; relationships between the other characters, including between the genders and within hierarchical structures; the suffering crying soldier and his connection to music; other films and TV series about women during war and pondering why the series was not recommissioned.

We began by noting that the hour was very action and character packed – despite the fact it all took place during the one day. This set up many interesting plot points and character relationships for upcoming episodes.

We thought that the first episode’s focus on three women’s journeys to, and first experience of, the field hospital echoed a similar Hollywood trope. In Hollywood films there are sometimes three main female characters with these separated from one another on the grounds of morality: one is a ‘good’ girl, one a ‘bad’ girl and the other sits somewhere in between. Each of these faces a different fate: one is usually punished (often by death), another triumphs and the third suffers but manages to go on. We commented that this links to US, and especially Hollywood films’, focus on melodrama.

In The Crimson Field, there are the posh clueless Flora (Alice St. Clair), the left on the shelf do-gooder spinster Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) and the spirited Kitty (Oona Chaplin) who is signalled as ‘bad’ through her modern habits of smoking and expressing forthright opinions. Kitty seems to be our main heroine as we are afforded some insight into her past as she throws away a ring on her boat journey. While Flora has to suffer the grim reality of bloody bandages and Rosalie is mocked for her spinster status, we are more invested in Kitty. She stands up to matron on behalf of the other women, and is later in danger as she is attacked by a patient. Her response to this is calm, forgiving, and her challenge to man to just kill her gives us some further awareness of her troubled past.

The three heroine focus is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a fourth. Joan (Suranne Jones), a self-sufficient qualified nurse, arrives late, dressed in a leather coat, sporting a short hairdo, and riding a motorcycle. We thought that the fact she is unmarried (such an option was not open to nurses at the time), her appearance and manner possible coded her as a lesbian. We were especially intrigued regarding the ring she wears around her neck, hidden by her clothes.

While the emphasis on suffering – of both genders – points to melodrama, we also saw a correlation with some of our recent work on the gothic. The three main female characters headed outside at night, dressed in white gowns and carrying lamps, to wish the troops luck as they left for the front.

Our attention was also drawn to the two other main female characters – Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox) and the recently promoted Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris). Their relationship was complex. Outwardly good colleagues, there appeared to be tensions under the surface since Grace became matron despite Margaret having more experience. We also found the difference in their approaches to the new volunteers telling. While Grace was tough on them, Margaret appeared more friendly. Margaret was revealed to be hypocritical and cruel however as she commandeers Flora’s cake and despite telling her she has shared it among the men, is seen eating it secretly. More disturbingly she deliberately withholds a medical exemption from a suffering soldier meaning that he is sent back to the front. Meanwhile Grace is revealed to be caring towards Kitty after her attack, despite Kitty’s earlier disobedience.

Despite the dramatic war backdrop, much of the episode is about such complex characters, their power plays ,and their battling relationships. We also commented on the kindness of Kevin Doyle’s captain Lt Colonel Roland Brett,  in contrast to Colonel Charles Purbright (Adam James) forcing an emotionally damaged soldier to return to the front. Even the admirable Brett warns Matron Carter to make sure she controls the potentially ‘silly’ new female volunteers, though. This attitude fits in with the misogynistic narrative the melodrama research group has recently uncovered while researching the World War I magazine The War Illustrated. In these issues girls can be plucky and brave, but they are still kept contained. The depiction of the main heroines and other women in The Crimson Field challenges this view. (See the NoRMMA website for more on the project: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=604.)

We were especially struck by the depiction of Corporal Lawrence Prentiss (Karl Davies) – particularly in contrast to the women. Prentiss appears to have PTSD, and is seen to be physically suffering from his war experiences. He is offered sanctuary by the colonel (who also explicitly defies an order from his superior not to reissue an exemption pass on health grounds) and is seen crying profusely as he listens to a gramophone record of Madame Butterfly. Such a depiction of the suffering male is unusual, and the understanding shown to Prentiss perhaps progressive for the time. It is possibly significant that the music has a restorative or recuperative effect because Prentiss’ emotions are displaced onto those of a woman – the suffering opera heroine.

Watching the episode also prompted some discussion of other films and TV series which covered a similar topic. We mentioned the British films The Gentle Sex (1943) and Millions Like Us (1943) whose points of view were affected by their time of production. The TV series Tenko (1981-1984) about female prisoners of war was also referenced for its unusual focus on women during wartime.

We ended by pondering why the series was not recommissioned. It would have been especially apt to have it run through the 100 year commemoration of World War I. Its complex characters, and its positive view of women, provide a different view of war to the one we are usually afforded. We connected this to the BBC now moving money into such massive budget programmes as The Night Manager as it competes with Netflix and other platforms. If you’d like to see the rest of the series, most episodes are available to University of Kent staff and students via Box Of Broadcasts: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/

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