Summary of Discussion on Doctor in the House

(Apologies for the couple of months delay in posting this. I’ve backdated it so that it fits with the ‘timeline’ of our Bogarde screenings and does not interrupt more recent news about The War Illustrated workshops etc.)

As noted in the introduction to the screening of Doctor in the House, the comedy can hardly be described as a melodrama. We showed it due to the important place it has in Dirk Bogarde’s screen image. The film was hugely popular in the UK in the year of its release (1954). It  also had an afterlife as Bogarde continued to play the role of Simon Sparrow in later films in the series (all directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box): Doctor at Sea (1955), Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Distress (1963) and a cameo as Simon Sparrow in Wendy Toye’s non-Doctor film We Joined the Navy (1962). This was significantly the only screen character Bogarde played more than once, though he did not appear in the films Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Clover (1966) or Doctor in Trouble (1970). It is likely that audiences from the time would have especially connected Bogarde to Simon Sparrow. In the text below, I therefore go into some detail on Simon Sparrow’s personality and Bogarde’s interpretation of the role. This is aided by some consideration of the film’s other characters.  Our post-film discussion also touched on how we as modern audience members viewed the film today. For many of us, this was shaped by our knowledge of the film’s sequels and its similarity to the humour exhibited in the ‘Carry On’ series of films (1958-1992). This brought up the matter of sexism, as well as differences in generational and national perspectives.  I briefly discuss some of these matters in relation to the film’s reception on its 1955 US release.

 

Doctor in the House was based on Doctor Richard Gordon’s 1952 novel of the same name. The series of 18 novels (the final, Doctor in the Soup, was published in 1986) drew on Gordon’s own experiences as a medical student and later a qualified doctor. This was emphasised in the novels by the use of Gordon’s own name for the main character. This character was re-christened Simon Sparrow in the film, with Bogarde later revealing that he chose the name (in Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 69). It is an especially appropriate moniker: the Hebrew meaning of the name Simon is ‘listen’, while Sparrow conveys the image of a sweet and non-threatening garden bird.  Simon is a good-natured man, trying his best to deal with the attentions of women while completing his medical studies at St Swithin’s hospital.

Simon’s experiences with women take place at home and at work. He receives the attentions of his stern landlady Mrs Groaker’s (Joan Hickson) beautiful daughter Milly (Shirley Eaton) when she engineers an opportunity for him to examine her ankle. His unworldliness and embarrassment mean that he promptly leaves his lodgings to move in with some fellow male medical students. Simon’s housemates gently tease him about his lack of success with women, even asking ‘Don’t you want a girlfriend? Or have you a mother complex?’ In order to persuade his friends that he is keen to be in a couple, Simon agrees to be set up with ‘Rigor Mortis’ (Joan Sims). The film’s sexism is evident as the men only refer to this nurse by her unflattering nickname. The technical term refers to the first stages of decomposition post-death, but presumably it has been bestowed upon the nurse to imply that she is not the most scintillating company. ‘Rigor Mortis’ is also referred to as a ‘trial’ girlfriend – i.e. only worthy as a temporary distraction until Simon finds someone better. The scene in which Simon and ‘Rigor Mortis’ spend time alone together pokes fun at them both, though. Her appetites, and perhaps her wish not to get involved with Simon, are referenced by her continuously munching on an apple. Simon seems to be making more of an effort with their date. He is dressed in a smoking jacket and some of his gestures imply that he is playing a part – that of a prospective seducer. Any spell is quickly broken as Simon realises that his date is not enthusiastic about him. His offer to make her a cocoa is readily accepted and the mood changes from a possible hot date to a staid night in. Simon Sparrow’s behaviour here suits his name.  He listens to his date’s aural and visual cues that she is not interested in him and rather than being angry or upset he is gentle and considerate.

Simon’s interaction with another woman is also telling. He first meets model Isobel (Kay Kendall) just outside the hospital.  She responds positively to his moderate attentions and their subsequent date can be usefully compared to his with ‘Rigor Mortis’. The two women are very different characters with Isobel’s job (and the fact she is played by Kendall) partly explaining her glamour and poise. Their date at an expensive club reveals the gulf between Isobel and Simon’s incomes and expectations.  After seeing some of the prices on the menu, Simon arranges to be interrupted by an urgent phone-call. Unfortunately this backfires as he is then unable to stay when some friends of Isobel’s arrive and offer to pay for their meal. While Simon would have enjoyed a free meal, he seems intimated by Isobel’s forthright nature.

The woman who plays the largest part in the film is nurse Joy Gibson (Muriel Pavlow). Simon and Joy’s relationship gets off to a rocky start when they meet on his first day at the hospital amidst his suitcase embarrassingly spilling open. There are also misunderstandings as when they take a walk in the park each thinks the other is there under duress. This is overcome relatively quickly, but Simon then gets into trouble for returning Joy late to her nurse’s quarters which leads him to scale the building and unexpectedly drop in on another resident. The film ends with Simon and Joy together. We might expect the couple to again appear in the film’s immediate sequel Doctor at Sea (1955), but in this Bogarde’s love interest is played by Brigitte Bardot.  Joy returns in Doctor at Large (1957) and significantly this time is training to be a doctor. The relationship has ended by the time of Doctor in Distress (1963) in which Simon is involved with model and actress Delia Mallory (Samantha Eggar). Bogarde’s last ‘Doctor’ film therefore seems to backtrack on the advancement of the third in which his love interest is also a doctor. Overall in Doctor in the House, Simon’s interactions with women show him to be nervous and inexperienced, though a good listener when he picks up on ‘Rigor Mortis’’ lack of interest and finally realises that he and Joy have a lot in common.  While Simon is less enthusiastic (and sexist) than some of his friends, he is clearly heterosexual.  This is unsurprising given the time, though some of Bogarde’s later roles (including Victim, 1961, and Death in Venice 1971) as well as knowledge of his personal life may cause us to revisit and reinterpret the admittedly throwaway comment about Simon’s ‘mother complex’.

Simon’s lack of confidence which is displayed in relation to women can also be seen in his approach to his medical studies. He is conscientious and kind with patients, but not always sure of himself.  This is especially highlighted in scenes with (the admittedly very intimidating) Sir Lancelot Spratt (James Robertson Justice). Robertson Justice loomed large in the series, appearing in all 7 films, though not always as Sir Lancelot. His Captain Hogg in Doctor at Sea nonetheless also combines abrasiveness with a weighty physical and vocal presence – the films well utilise Robertson Justice’s booming voice. In one of Doctor in the House’s most well-known gags, Sir Lancelot pounces on Simon for his inattention during the medical examination of a patient who may need surgery. While Sir Lancelot’s ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ is asking about testing the length of time for a patient’s platelets to function, Simon assumes he is being gruff and responds that ‘It’s ten past ten, Sir’. (The phrase ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ has become so iconic it even provides the title of James Hogg’s 2008 biography of Robertson Justice.) Simon gains medical experience and his delivery of a baby in the middle of winter is especially effective. Simon’s first attendance at a childbirth does not start well (he has bicycle trouble on the way), but he treats the expectant mother (Maureen Pryor) calmly and kindly, so impressing her that she names her new-born after him. We had thought that the scene would be played for laughs, but it is actually very touching.

Ralph Thomas agreed with Brian McFarlane’s opinion that Pryor’s performance was affecting (McFarlane 1997, pp. 557-558). Bogarde also played the scene with sincerity: he retrospectively commented that he insisted on playing a ‘real doctor’ who never instigated anything funny (McFarlane, 1997, p. 69). Thomas reflected further on this as he claimed that the cast as a whole ‘played it within a very strict, tight limit of believability’ (McFarlane, 1997, p. 557). While this seems true of Bogarde, and indeed Pryor, we were less convinced that this was the case for Donald Sinden (playing Tony Benskin) and to a lesser extent Kenneth More (playing Richard Grimsdyke). It is worth considering Simon in relation to his fellow medical students particularly in terms of the way each approaches his love life and career. Richard is settled with his girlfriend, Stella (Suzanne Cloutier) but incredibly lax about his studies.  He has a legacy from his grandmother which offers him a generous stipend while he studies medicine – it is not in his interest to pass his exams and graduate.  In fact at the end of the film Stella decides she will study medicine and Richard is thrilled that he will be a ‘kept man’. Tony is not at all settled romantically and sees all nurses as potential targets of his extremely overt attentions. When he inadvertently proposes May (Gudrun Ure), who readily accepts him, he quickly makes sure he is not tied to her by swiftly proposing marriage to all the other nurses as well. Tony’s exam preparation is also ill-organised. The non-subtly named Taffy Evans (played by Welshman Donald Houston) seems nice enough, though his focus on Welsh sport is at the expense of his medical studies. Simon is clearly the main character. As well as having more screen time, he has the most sympathetic personality, which develops in confidence in relation to both women and his studies.

On the surface, the film’s approach to women is reductive. The women are mostly either threatening (Milly and Mrs Groakes for different reasons, Isobel, and the stern Sister Virtue (Jean Taylor-Smith)), arrogant (the only female medical student, Jane, played by Lisa Gastoni) or considered to be unattractive (‘Rigor Mortis’). This is reinforced by some of the male characters’ sexist attitudes towards women, especially Tony’s. The women also exhibit strength, however. The two older women both have authoritative manners and a certain amount of agency:  Mrs Groakes manages property, and Sister Virtue is in charge at the hospital. Sexual attractiveness is limited to the younger women, with both Milly and Isobel acting on their desires (even if they frighten Simon in the process) while sister Virtue is revealed to have had a racy past dressing as Lady Godiva. Isobel’s career as a model may objectify her, but she earns a good living from it, and other women characters also have careers, such as the nurses. Despite the notion that ‘Rigor Mortis’ is unattractive, she still fails to fall at Simon’s feet. The two most rounded female characters are Stella and Joy. Like ‘Rigor Mortis’ Joy does not just submit to Simon’s charms, and Stella’s relationship with Richard seems quite equable with her deciding to become a doctor near the film’s close. Significantly, Joy re-emerges as a trainee doctor in Doctor at Large.

It is tempting to attribute some of this more progressive approach to women to the film’s female producer, Betty E. Box. While this would be reductive, as well as difficult to prove, it is worth considering Box’s role a little more. She began producing films in the late 1940s and had taken charge of more than 15 films by the time of Doctor in the House. Her very presence as a powerful woman off screen was unusual at the time. Box’s status as a woman in a man’s world is directly commented on by Justine Ashby’s 2001 PhD thesis ‘Odd Women Out’ which examines the careers of Box and her sister-in-law the director Muriel Box. Betty E. Box played an important role in making sure the first Doctor film made it to the screen. Box relates how she read Gordon’s novel on a train and thought it would work well on the big screen (McFarlane, 1997, p. 87). She also commented on the large role she played in casting. After finding out that her first choice, Robert Morley, was far too expensive, Box secured Robertson Justice as he ‘doesn’t have to do very much except be himself’ (McFarlane, 1997, p. 87). Box noted that the downside of the film’s huge success meant that she became trapped into producing the sequels (McFarlane, 1997, p 86). Box still negotiated opportunities to produce other projects. She often collaborated with Doctor director Ralph Thomas, and at several of their films starred Bogarde – for example A Tale of Two Cities (1958). (For more on Box, see Ashby’s chapter on Betty E. Box in Ashby and Andrew Higson’s 2000 edited volume British Cinema, Past and Present.)

 House and Doctor at Large starring Richard Briers. The first of several UK television series started the next year, this again beginning with Doctor in the House, which ran until 1970. The series did not share characters with the film series, or involve Box and Thomas,  but had constancy with its own characters and actors in the sequels, at Large (1971), in Charge (1972-3), at Sea (1974), on the Go (1975-77), Down Under (1979) and the much later at the Top (1991).

We also commented on the fact that the comedy in the Doctor series of films pre-dated similar humour in some of the Carry On Series. The Carry On series began with Carry on Sergeant in 1958 and ended with the last official film Carry on Columbus (1992), though there were also TV shows and there is continued talk of a revival. All the Carry Ons were produced by Peter Rogers, Doctor producer Betty Box’s husband, and directed by Gerald Thomas – the brother of Doctor director Ralph. (The Thomas brothers co-directed Regardless in 1961 and Cruising in 62). This signals significant overlap. Saucy Carry On humour (largely characterised by innuendo and commentary on gender relations) can be traced back to music hall, seaside postcards and the like. But the fact that the series had several medical instalments is worth further comment. They comprise the films Nurse (1959), Doctor (1967), Again Doctor (1969) and Matron (1972). The Carry On medical cycle therefore started after the first 3 Doctor films had been released, and after Bogarde left the series (though he chose to return once for Doctor in Distress in 1963). Ralph Thomas asserted that the Doctor films were the first to poke fun at the medical profession (McFarlane, 1997, p. 557) and perhaps paved the way for medical humour in the Carry Ons. The large (8 year) gap between the first and second medical Carry On, and the fact that there was only 1 Doctor film after this, suggests that the medical Carry Ons briefly took the place previously occupied by the Doctor films. The medical Carry Ons only returned for one instalment after the Doctor series ended, though, with medical humour more evident in the various Doctor series on television throughout most of the 1970s.  

 The Doctor and Carry On series therefore share humour in medical situations as well as connections with their behind-the-scenes personnel. Links are also evident to audiences since some cast members appear in films from both series. Doctor in the House’s ‘Rigor Mortis’ actress, Joan Sims, appeared in a further 4 films in the Doctor series (Sea, Love, Clover, and Trouble, essaying different characters each time). She was also a stalwart of the Carry On series, starring in 24 of the total 31 films, including all 4 of the medical instalments.  Joan Hickson appeared in the Doctor films House, Sea and Love and was a ward sister in Carry on Nurse. Shirley Eaton was in two Doctor films (House and Large) and, like Hickson, played a nurse in the first Carry on medical film.

Some male actors were also seen in both series. Leslie Phillips took on a main role as in the Doctor series during Bogarde’s absence, starring in Love, Clover and Trouble. His 4 Carry Ons included Carry on Nurse, in which his character’s name, Jack Bell, helped to provide one of his catchphrases ‘Ding Dong!’ when glimpsing an attractive woman. Connections between the two series are furthered by a portrait of James Robertson Justice (presumably as Sir Lancelot Spratt) appearing in Carry on Doctor. He impressively manages to somehow cross the boundary between the two film series’ worlds.

 

One of our group was from the US and found some the situations present and accents used in Doctor in the House mystifying. (We offered to turn on the subtitles, but were not sure if some of the vocalisations, especially by Sinden, could be accurately conveyed in language!) This caused us to consider not just the film’s place in British culture (and it does seem very much based in British culture) but how it was seen in US on its release on the 2nd of February 1955. Nearly a year before this date, at the time of the film’s release in the UK, US trade paper Variety’s London reviewer opined that the film’s ‘marquee appeal may be restricted across the Atlantic’ (7th April 1954, p. 6). US trade papers on the film’s US release were generally positive, with Motion Picture Daily noting that while the cast may not be well-known to American audiences, it was likely to do better than other UK imports (18th February 1955, p. 6). The Independent Film Journal (19th February 1955, p. 29) and the Independent Film Bulletin (21st February 1955, p. 14) similarly commenting on the unfamiliarity of the cast. They both downplay Bogarde’s role by noting the presence of Kenneth More and Kay Kendall who were in Henry Cornelius’ 1953 film Genevieve which was successful in the US on its release. The Independent Film Bulletin considers that Doctor in the House ‘lacks the universal humor of the popular Genevieve’ but ‘has plenty to amuse fanciers of British humor’. This suggests that its humour is peculiarly British, and that this was not the case with Genevieve.

The two trade papers also interestingly comment on the specific exhibition circumstances: it is thought that Doctor in the House would do well in ‘art house’ cinemas (perhaps because of its very British flavour) but if correctly exploited could also succeed in the ‘general market’. The Chicago Daily Tribune (21st March 1955, p. B15) reinforces the view that the film would be well-received by the general public (‘I think you’ll have fun with this import’) as the newspaper’s readership was likely to be general rather than specialist. Another newspaper, the New York Times (18th February 1955, p. 18), implies that part of this appeal is due to the film’s innovative stance in poking fun at the medical profession, an opinion also advanced by the April 1955 issue of fan magazine Photoplay (p. 30). This recalls the director Ralph Thomas’s comment referred to in the section considering the film’s relationship to the Carry On series. While medical humour may have crossed the Atlantic at the time (despite the notion that Doctor in the House’s humour was less universal than Genevieve’s), the fact that our research group member from the US was puzzled suggests that the temporal boundary was more difficult to traverse. We wondered if her lack of exposure to Carry On-style humour was partly related to the change in television viewing habits. 15 years ago, live TV was perhaps the main way of seeing films, even though films were available to view on DVD. The rise in On Demand means that more recently viewers have had far more content to choose from and in many ways film-viewing has become less communal. We especially appreciate that the melodrama research group screenings give us an opportunity to gather together to watch films and share our diverse points of view.

 

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp761@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Wednesday 3rd of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the last melodrama screening session of the term. We will be screening Doctor in the House (1954, Ralph Thomas, 92 mins) and/or Doctor at Sea (1955, Ralph Thomas, 93 mins) on Wednesday the 3rd of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 6.

Including films from the popular ‘Doctor’ comedy series in our season of Dirk Bogarde melodramas may seem an odd choice. While it would be a stretch to describe the films as melodrama, they are hugely significant to Bogarde’s screen image. Bogarde appears as Simon Sparrow, a medical student in the first instalment, but then a qualified doctor who develops and climbs the career leader as the series progresses – he appears in 4 of the 5 films made between 1954 and 1963 (in 1954, 1955, 1957 and 1963).

As well as the cumulative effect of Bogarde appearing in several films, the series, especially the first film, was hugely popular. The BFI’s list of the top 100 films at the UK box office (adjusted for inflation) places Doctor in the House at no. 36, with an estimated audience of 12.2 million, roughly a quarter of the UK population at the time. Bogarde had previously been listed on the trade paper Motion Picture Herald’s survey of the stars which exhibitors through brought in audiences at no.5 (in 1953). But Bogarde ranked higher during the 50s each year he appeared in a Doctor film: no. 2 in 1954, no. 1 in 1955, before dipping to no. 3 in a non-Doctor year, back up to no. 1 in 1957.

The ‘Doctor’ films therefore provided audiences with an alternative to some of Bogarde’s darker or more challenging roles which we have screened – such as Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), Libel (1959), Victim (1961), The Singer Not the Song (1961). While the Doctor films have garnered less critical attention, they are arguably more central to Bogarde’s screen image, and especially worthy of our attention.

Do join us for these enjoyable films if you can.

Summary of Discussion on Death in Venice

(Apologies for the few months delay in posting this summary. I’ve backdated it so that it fits in with the flow of discussion on the blog, allowing the focus to be on our more recent events such as The War Illustrated project.)

Our discussion on the film covered: its relation to melodrama; its music; its setting in time and place; films it reminded us of; the film’s place in Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images; material in magazines.

We discussed melodrama in terms of the suffering of the film’s main character, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde). The film unfolds at a leisurely pace with the seriousness of Von Aschenbach’s purpose for staying at a hotel in Venice, an illness, revealed as time progresses. This is compounded by Von Aschenbach contracting cholera after witnessing those around him undergoing the awful effects of the disease. The film ends with dying on a beach. Furthermore, Von Aschenbach undergoes emotional distress as he feels unrequited, and inappropriate, desire for an adolescent boy, the Polish Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen).

The film’s flashbacks also convey Von Aschenbach’s previous suffering. This is mostly emotional, rather than physical. Von Aschenbach has an extreme reaction to the poor reception of one of his musical works, and subsequently collapses. The inclusion of these scenes suggests that Von Aschenbach is still feeling their effects. Not all the flashbacks are unhappy. Some show Von Aschenbach happily spending time with his wife and daughter. This fits in with the rhythm of melodrama, since it shows both the highs (happy moments with his wife and child) and the lows (his extreme grief at their loss). We thought it interesting that Von Aschenbach’s wife and child, and indeed the happiness, was included given the film’s main focus on Von Aschenbach’s controversial desire for young Tadzio. Von Aschenbach is a complex character with a backstory which is revealed in a piecemeal fashion.

We also commented on Death in Venice’s relation to the mystery, violence and chase elements of melodrama. Only the last of these was present in the film. As Von Aschenbach becomes increasingly ill, he worries about Tadzio’s health, and pursues him through Venice’s streets. This ends with him collapsing in the street with exhaustion. Unusually for a pursuer in the chase, then, Von Aschenbach action causes him suffering, heightening this aspect of melodrama.

Death in Venice’s musical score, later released by EMI, was also discussed by the group in terms of melodrama. The opening shots of the film are languid long takes accompanied by the music of Gustav Mahler. Music also punctuates other significant moments in the film. Von Aschenbach feels embarrassed by his desire for Tadzio and decides to leave Venice. As he embarks on a long boat journey leisurely music accompanies the close-up shots of his sad face. After a mix up with Von Aschenbach’s luggage, he chooses to return to his hotel, and to Tadzio. Again, close-ups of Von Aschenbach are provided, though he is now smiling, and the mood of the music also seems to have lifted. Other points at which music is used especially effectively include the chase sequence referenced above, as well as the moving end of the film where Von Aschenbach falls ill on a beach and passes away.

The film’s extra-diegetic music seems especially appropriate because the occupation of Von Aschenbach is altered from a writer in Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, to a composer. Such a change also suits the medium of sound film. Von Achenbach’s musical background affords opportunities for music to be present within the diegesis. The flashback to the failure of Von Aschenbach’s concert includes music. We also see Von Achenbach’s responses to others playing music. Tadzio briefly picks out a few notes, badly, on the piano at the hotel. This does not seem to dampen Von Aschenbach’s desire. But he appears to be more judgmental about local musicians who are playing several instruments to try and inject some jollity into the cholera-stricken district.

The film’s European Edwardian-era setting as a backdrop for Von Aschenbach’s suffering was also commented on. This is undoubtedly connected to the date and location of the original setting of Mann’s, novella. But we thought that Death in Venice’s title, as well as its depiction of disease, foreshadowed the upcoming first world war which would decimate Europe. Tadzio’s family also reminded us of the Russian royals the Romanovs who were killed following the Russian Revolution which began in 1917. Much of this was connected to the film’s mise en scene. The hotel is large and ornately furnished, denoting its expensive nature. The people who can afford to stay there are generally of the upper classes – such as Tadzio’s family. The clothing worn by Tadzio’s family, especially the exquisite dresses, also suggest wealth. Tadzio’s sailor suit costume reminded us of some of the photographs of the Romanovs. His costume therefore effectively reflects the time period in which the film is set, and his status as a member of the upper class. It also significantly emphasises his youth in comparison to Von Aschenbach. (We thought that Tadzio’s hair style reproduced the 1970s of the film’s era of production, however!) We also briefly mentioned other films set in Italy’s iconic landscape, such as Don’t Look (1973, Nicolas Roeg) and A Room with a View (1985, Merchant and Ivory).

Since we have been screening several Bogarde films, we compared the melodrama in Death in Venice to other Bogarde films we’ve discussed. The suffering of Von Aschenbach raised thoughts about Esther Waters (1948, Ian Dalrymple), especially William Latch’s death-bed scene. We thought that the beautifully lit last moments of Bogarde’s character recalled similar deaths of heroines in film melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/06/summary-of-discussion-on-esther-waters/) The fact that some aspects of chase were involved in Death in Venice reminded us of our discussion of Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton), which depicts killer Chris Lloyd’s attempt to escape pursuing police (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/18/summary-of-discussion-on-hunted/).

 

Like Hunted, Victim (1961, Basil Dearden) combined suffering with mystery, violence, and chase. Death in Venice has significant differences from the UK-set Victim which had a crusading agenda tied to its time. Von Aschenbach’s desire for a young boy is of course not the same as the gay theme of Victim, and he is a more tragic character than Melville Farr in Victim. In Victim, Farr lost a close friend and was a closeted homosexual who the film suggested would continue to live with his wife in what might be seen as a compromise at a time when gay sex was illegal. Von Aschenbach’s sexual desire for a child places him further on the outskirts of society. His wish to be desirable to Tadzio means that Von Aschenbach undergoes a makeover. At the start of the film, Von Aschenbach visibly recoils from an older man whose hair looks suspiciously colourful and who is acting in a jaunty manner. After he becomes increasingly ill with cholera, Von Aschenbach visits a barber. The barber not only dyes Von Aschenbach’s hair to remove the grey but applies heavy make-up to his face. This sad visual demonstration that Von Achenbach is trying to recapture his youth is made even more poignant when he collapses sobbing in the street after losing sight of Tadzio. With his hair dye and make-up running, Von Aschenbach is a pitiful figure.

 

Bogarde did not exclusively portray provocative characters like Von Aschenbach after Victim. For example, in 1963 prior to playing the sinister titular character in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde starred in I Could Go on Singing (Ronald Neame – see blog post here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2019/01/15/summary-of-discussion-on-i-could-go-on-singing/ ) as well as the last Doctor film, Doctor in Distress (Ralph Thomas). The move to comedy was even briefly seen in Bogarde’s work with Losey, as he appeared in the spy parody Modesty Blaise (1966) before the pair returned to more serious fare with Accident (1967). Bogarde’s work with other European directors included Visconti. Just before Death in Venice, Bogarde starred as a man with links to the Nazi party in Visconti’s The Damned (1969).

 

Bogarde’s more controversial roles – especially in The Damned and Death in Venice – seem to occur in films which in some way foreground artifice. The makeover scene in Death in Venice emphasises that while Von Aschenbach is trying to present himself in a certain way to Tadzio, as an actor, Bogarde, is also casting himself in a certain light. The hair dye and make-up in fact cover the greying hair and subtler make-up Bogarde is already sporting as Von Aschenbach. We also considered the Bogarde’s star image – the way his ‘real self’ appears to us. We primarily thought about this in relation to the changing of the novella’s character from a novelist (and perhaps a stand in for Thomas Mann) to another type of artist – a composer. Classical music could still have been heavily used in film whose main character was a novelist, so the change perhaps has further significance. Bogarde’s main writing career occurred well after Death in Venice’s 1971 release. His first memoir, Snakes and Ladders, appeared in 1978, with his first novel, A Gentle Occupation, following two years later. Bogarde had, however, previously written articles for magazines (perhaps most notably a series of 5 for Woman magazine in 1961). The fact that he writes essay and poems is even mentioned in coverage about Death in Venice from the time. In Gordon Gow’s interview with Bogarde in Films and Filming, he self-deprecatingly comments that he doubts anyone will want to publish him (May 1971, p. 49): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/films-and-filming-may-1971/ Although it was unlikely to have happened, it would have been unfortunate if audiences mistakenly conflated the character of Von Aschenbach with the ‘real’ Bogarde.

Such a view is of course retrospective, and heavily Bogarde-centric. Other magazine coverage from the time instead emphasised the similarity of Von Aschenbach to composer Gustav Mahler. Gordon Gow’s review of Death in Venice comments that Von Aschenbach’s hairstyling and spectacles make him resemble Mahler (Films and Filming, May 1971, p. 87). Furthermore, Gow claims that the director Visconti thought Mann’s novella was responding to Mahler’s 1911 death. By changing Von Aschenbach to a composer, Visconti believed he was able to draw out Mann’s original intent. A similar opinion is expressed in Philip Strick’s review in the Spring issue of Sight and Sound (pp. 103-4): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/sight-and-sound-spring-1971/. Analysis of contemporary publicity and promotion therefore reveals that rather than distancing Von Aschenbach from Bogarde, changing him to a composer made him closer to Mahler.

If you’re interested in reading more about Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images, I’ve written several posts about the British Film Institute’s (BFI’s) collection of magazines bequeathed to them by his estate. You can find these on the NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/tag/dirk-bogarde/

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp761@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the melodrama blog.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Wednesday 6th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next melodrama screening and discussion session. We will be showing Victim (1961, Basil Dearden, 96 mins) on Wednesday the 6th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 6.

Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as barrister Melville Farr, a man whose apparently happy marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms) and professional reputation are jeopardised when a compromising photograph of him comforting a young man is exploited for criminal purposes.

The film’s concern with male homosexuality at a time when this was illegal in the UK made it controversial with contemporary audiences (including the British Board of Film Censors) and its bravery for tackling the subject is still recognised today.

US trade paper Variety described the film as both ‘thriller-drama’ and ‘social probe’ (6th September 1961, p. 6 ). It also applauds the fact that the film lacks ‘sensationalisation of the homosexual problem’. It will be useful to assess whether we concur with this assessment in the current day, and how this fits with a view of melodrama privileging exaggeration and excess.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on A Tale of Two Cities

Our discussion about the film included: consideration of its melodramatic elements; its relation to Charles Dickens and other film adaptations of Dickens’ novels; its placing in Dirk Bogarde’s filmography and screen and star images.

It was noted that a certain suspension of belief was necessary when faced with the twists, turns and coincidences of the plot as well as the suffering, sacrifice, hidden secrets and lost memories of the characters. The film opens with the carriage in which banker Jarvis Lorry (Cecil Parker), lawyer Sydney Carton and Basard (Donald Pleasance) being stopped dramatically. This is not the high-jacking the occupants and the audience initially fear, and instead the enigmatic message ‘recalled to life’ is delivered to Lorry. We discover that this relates to the news that Frenchman Doctor Alexandre Manette (Stephen Murray) has been rediscovered, after spending 18 years in the French Bastille prison. The reunion of Doctor Manette with his daughter Lucie (Dorothy Tutin) is prefigured by her expressing extreme emotion and this is furthered when the pair meets since it is clear that her father has lost his memory as well as his wits. With Lucie’s help, Doctor Manette is soon on the road to recovery, but the entrance of two men into the story – attractive Frenchman Charles Darnay (Paul Guers) and handsome English lawyer Sydney Carton (Dirk Bogarde) soon complicates Lucie’s life. After Lucie briefly mistakes Carton for Darnay, the former, now of course in love with Lucie, soon coincidentally helps to represent his love rival in an English court. Darnay is facing trumped up charges of treason which have been instigated by his cousin the Marquis St Evremonde (Christopher Lee) and Basard. Carton succeeds in achieving Darnay’s acquittal by pointing out his own and Darnay’s resemblance to one another in order to undermine a witness’ testimony.

The situation in Paris is also eventful. The Marquis St Evremonde stands in for the entire aristocracy who are so despised by the ‘common’ French people. His family has previously traumatised Madame Defarge (Rosalie Crutchley), the wife of Manette’s servant (Duncan Lamont), by killing her siblings and parents. The Marquis St Evremonde continues this awful behaviour by sexually abusing his female servants and callously dismissing the peasant Gaspard’s grief as his young son is killed under the wheels of St Evremonde’s carriage. Gaspard exacts his revenge by stabbing the cruel aristocrat to death, and the French revolution is soon fully in flow and the and the Bastille violently breached.

Following the Marquis St Evremonde’s death Darnay (now married to Lucie, though keeping his family identity secret) travels to Paris, only to be caught up in the anti-aristocratic feeling. He is put on trial again, this time as an enemy of the French people. Tense scenes see him acquitted after Lucie, her father, and Carton travel to Paris to speak on his behalf. This is then overturned by the understandably vengeful Madame Defarge denouncing Darnay with evidence found in Manette’s old cell. Darnay is sentenced to the guillotine and the now-pregnant Lucie faces danger as the baby she is carrying means continuation of the despised St Evremonde line. Carton steps in when he recognises the Marquis St Evremonde’s former partner-in-crime Basard who is now a jailer at the Bastille. (Basard has, somewhat incredibly, earlier escaped justice in England by faking his own death.) The doubling of Carton and Darnay which has first been seen in Lucie’s misidentification and put to use by Carton in defending Darnay in court comes to the fore once more. Carton arrives at the Bastille, apparently drunk, to visit Darnay. He overpowers Darnay and takes his place, having persuaded Basard to accompany the now insensible Darnay out of the building into the care of Darnay’s wife, father-in-law and Lucie’s faithful companion the elderly  Miss Pross (Athene Seyler). The seemingly drunken Darnay is mistaken for Carton as he travels with his family to the check-point, since Carton had previously discussed his own love of French wine with the guards on his journey into the country. Finally, in perhaps the most famous instance of self-sacrifice in English literature, Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of plot to rattle though and the revelations of various characters to be uncovered, there is a notable variety of rhythm in the film. Generally, the more staid and slower scenes are set in London, with those in Paris more rapidly paced. Time is also found for Dickensian comic relief provided by the lower-class English characters, especially Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher (Alfie Bass). We also noted a hierarchy since the lower-class English characters are in the main depicted as better than the lower-class French characters. This is most obviously expressed when proud Briton Miss Pross (in her first, and she hopes only, visit abroad) is pitched against embittered French revolutionary Madame Defarge: Miss Pross is victorious.

Despite the fact that the French are portrayed as unnecessarily vengeful, we commented on similarities to some scenes from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s films which celebrated that county’s revolution. The relation of this to rhythm of A Tale of Two Cities’ editing was noted, especially its occasional use of montage (with the drumming revolutionaries centre stage) as well as its employment of unexpected camera angles. We also remarked upon the symbolism of peacocks. These birds are seen strutting around on St Evremonde’s lawn to demonstrate the Marquis’ arrogance and sense of entitlement. This brought to mind the way revolutionary leader Alexander Kerensky’s importance was punctured by comparing him to a mechanical version of the bird in in Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927). Interestingly, the film was apparently popular with Russian audiences according to its director Ralph Thomas (Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 559). He attributed this to the non-commercial decision to film in black and white rather than colour, though it is also perhaps helped by the revolutionary subject matter, notwithstanding its negative portrayal of those involved.

The film interestingly does not open with the novel’s famous narration ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ but dives straight into the action of the possibly hijacked coach. Unlike other British films of Dickens’ work – such as Henry Edwards’ Scrooge (1935) and David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – A Tale of Two Cities (1958) does not start with a shot of the novel. It consequently pushes Dickens somewhat into the background. This is especially noticeable when it is compared to Jack Conway’s 1935 Hollywood interpretation A Tale of Two Cities starring Ronald Colman. This not only starts with the page of the book pictured on screen but voices the famous opening lines. Perhaps then, the 1958 film points to changes in whether, and how, films claimed fidelity to their source texts.

The adding of Carton to the opening of the 1958 adaptation strains credibility in terms of coincidence but allows star Bogarde to appear earlier in the narrative. The film also diverges from Dickens’ novel with a rather disjunctive flashback as Lorry explains to Lucie her father’s history. Scenes depicting members of St Evremonde’s family abusing those of the lower classes explains the motivations of those rising up against the aristocracy, especially Madame Defarge. For much of the film some of us even forgot that we were watching a Dickens adaptation, our memories only being jolted by Dickens’ characteristic inclusion of unusual names – such as Mr Cruncher. Like Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1841) (set in England during the religious Gordon riots of 1780) A Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel. The society being criticised is therefore not the one that was contemporaneous to Dickens. This shows onscreen as the film’s events and costumes set it decades ahead of most of his works. While the Bogarde version distances itself from Dickens by not including the famous opening lines, changing when Carton enters the narrative and inserting a flashback early on, it does include the novel’s famous closing lines. We found the ending when Bogarde voices Carton’s thoughts ‘it is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’ profoundly moving. This was aided by Bogarde’s performance and his interaction with Marie Gabelle (Marie Versini) erstwhile maid of the St Evremondes who realises the sacrifice Carton is making, and with whom he shares his final moments.

Since the film does diverge from Dickens it is helpful to briefly consider the writer who adapted it for the screen. T.E.B. Clarke was a writer better known for his Ealing comedies including Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). He also wrote dramas, notably The Blue Lamp (1950) – a semi documentary style film in which Bogarde starred as a young villain. While initially his comedy background makes Clarke seem an unusual choice, he was nonetheless connected to Bogarde. Indeed, Bogarde later praised Clarke’s adaption of Dickens’ novel as ‘excellent’ and capturing the ‘essence’ of Dickens’ original (McFarlane, 1997, p. 69), though production designer Carmen Dillon was less complementary, describing it as not being Clarke’s ‘cup of tea’ (p. 178).

It is useful to comment on where A Tale of Two Cities sits in Bogarde’s filmography. It was released three years after the last Bogarde film we screened, Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which he played a wife killer with no redeeming features. In A Tale of Two Cities, Bogarde’s Carton is to start with a little unsympathetic, though his drunkenness is self-destructive rather than harmful to others, and he has charm despite his occasional moroseness. Carton finds purpose by sacrificing himself for the woman he loves, and this in turn saves him.

 

These two sides of Carton’s character are not as divergent as some of Bogarde’s earlier roles in films we have screened – most notably in Esther Waters (1948) and Hunted (1952). But it contrasts to the less complex roles Bogarde played after Cast a Dark ShadowThe Spanish Gardener (1956), Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and, most significantly, the third in the popular series of Doctor films: Doctor at Large (1957). The films in this series were helmed by A Tale of Two Cities director Ralph Thomas. In case audiences at the time were concerned that this would simply transplant Simon Sparrow to revolutionary Paris, Bogarde apparently commented on this according to British fan magazine Picturegoer. He states that this was why he was keen for Thomas to direct – he would be able to recognise any appearance of his Doctor character and this could then be removed (31st August, 1957, p. 10).

There is, unsurprisingly, a difference between the film’s reception in popular fan magazines and film periodicals. Picturegoer’s review places Bogarde centrally. It considers it his most original performance since he started paying Simon Sparrow, and questioning whether another Dickens adaptation of the novel was necessary (1st of March 1958). Fellow British fan magazine Picture Show’s premiere also mentions Bogarde, though it is more respectful of Dickens and his relevance (8th of February 1958). The March issue of film periodical Films and Filming’s review by Rupert Butler deals with Dickens the most. It praises Jack Conway’s 1935 version and provides more comparison of the source text and the 1958 adaptation than is present in the fan magazines (p. 25). Significantly, the periodical criticises the film for its lack of melodrama: it regrets that Miss Pross’ vanquishing of Madame Defarge (which it describes as ‘one of the most ridiculously splendid bits of Dickens melodrama’) occurs offscreen.  The periodical’s understanding of melodrama is further articulated as it complains that the film has a ‘desire to understate the action, to avoid even the slightest risk of excess.’.

None of this material touches on the doubling aspect or the relationship between Carton and Darnay. This is, however, key to John Style’s chapter “Dirk Bogarde’s Sidney Carton—More Faithful to the Character than Dickens Himself?” in Books in Motion, Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005): 69-86. Style reads the performance of Bogarde as a queer one (p. 69), commenting that he employs the ‘queenish gestures of a diva’ (p. 79). While Style usefully contrasts Bogarde’s performance to that of the ‘wooden’ Guers (p. 72), this use of gendered terms and those relating to sexuality are subjective. This is especially evident in Style’s close analysis of the ‘mirror’ scene in novel and film (pp. 80-81) focuses on its homosexual overtones. It is understandable that these were not commented on at the time, but we thought they were little present in the film text too.

It is perhaps valuable to acknowledge that these aspects appeared more clearly in Bogarde’s later films, and after information about his star image (the revelations of his personal life) came to light. The doubling aspect of A Tale of Two Cities is seen to greater effect in Libel. In our discussion of Libel, we considered that the doubling which saw Bogarde play two roles and how this connected to ideas of homosexuality. (See the discussion and the brief consideration of doubling in A Tale of Two Cities here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/) Homosexual elements were even more pushed to the fore in Basil Dean’s Victim (1961) which was the first British film to use the term ‘homosexual’. (By happy coincidence, we’ll be screening Victim next time!)

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

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Wednesday 20th of February, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us as we return to screening Dirk Bogarde films with links to melodrama. We will be showing A Tale of Two Cities (1958, Ralph Thomas, 118 mins) on Wednesday the 20th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

This British adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel sees Bogarde playing the initially dissolute, but ultimately self-sacrificing, lawyer Sydney Carton. We have previously screened Bogarde films which adapted modern texts (Libel, The Singer Not the Song and Cast a Dark Shadow) and one from the late 19th century (Esther Waters). Through discussing A Tale of Two Cities we can tackle one of English literature’s most adapted authors, whose connections to, and influence on, melodrama, bear further examination.

 

Do join us if you can.

 

Summary of Discussion on Cast a Dark Shadow

Our discussion on the film covered: its melodramatic aspects and the horror genre; related matters of the gothic: the house and the film’s women in peril; Margaret Lockwood’s screen image; Dirk Bogarde’s screen image; Bogarde’s wider role in the film’s production.

We began by considering Cast a Dark Shadow’s relationship to melodrama, a label it was assigned in some contemporary reviews. It is the only genre mentioned in British fan magazine Picture Show’s brief review (8th October 1955, p. 10). Picturegoer magazine provided more detail, assessing that the film had ‘little mystery, some suspense, but plenty of spirited melodrama’ (17th September 1955, p. 21). We agreed that the fact that Teddy Bare’s (Dirk Bogarde’s) villainy was evident from almost the outset meant that mystery and suspense were subjugated to melodrama. This melodrama mostly takes the form of changing rhythm: less exciting scenes are punctuated by moments of action. Confounding expectations of horror also occurs.  The film opens with a piercing scream from, and a look of terror on the face of, Molly Bare (Mona Washbourne). This is soon revealed to be in response to a ghost train ride, rather than a real terror threat, and is followed by Molly and Teddy’s quiet discussion in a quaint seaside tea room.

We noticed that the film did not rely on coincidence to the same extent as many melodramas we’ve screened. In fact, melodrama was supplied in the realistic and psychologically well-motivated relationships between the characters. Our consideration of characters led us to contrast Teddy (the irredeemable villain) to his wives, and other women, in the film (his potential victims).  Viewing these women as women in peril connects it to the Gothic – a matter the melodrama research group has an interest in (see the blog’s gothic tag: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/tag/gothic/ ).

This was supported by another key theme of the Gothic – the old dark house – being present. Much of the action takes place in the Bares’ large isolated house. This is perhaps unsurprising as the film is Janet Green’s adaptation her own stage play which ran in London from 1952-1953. The filming adds other important details. The house’s location is visually connected to peril by a sign noting the ‘dangerous’ hill which foreshadows the film’s later action. Furthermore, Bare’s first wife, Molly, is killed by her husband in this house, and he makes use of a domestic appliance (a gas fire) to this end. The cinematography of this scene is particularly atmospheric.  Molly is pictured drunkenly dozing in a chair in the foreground of the shot while Teddy enters through the patio doors in the shadowy background.

It is also revealed that the house was the reason Molly and Teddy first met. He worked for the estate agent who came to value the house, and indeed the house the only item Molly left him in her first will. Teddy also acts as his own letting agent. He uses the house as a reason for the woman he has lined up to be the next Mrs Bare, Freda (Margaret Lockwood), to visit. When Molly’s sister Dora arrives, incognito as Charlotte Young (Kay Walsh), Teddy takes it upon himself to show her local houses she may be interested in buying.  The extended scene of Teddy being confronted by ‘Charlotte’ also occurs in the house. ‘Charlotte’ realises that counter-intuitively she is safer in the house: because of what happened to her sister, Teddy would find it very difficult to explain away another dead woman in his house.

A direct reference to Bluebeard’s chamber reinforces the film’s gothic connections. Freda (Margaret Lockwood) persuades the housemaid Emmie (Kathleen Harrison) to give her access to Molly’s bedroom which has been kept locked since her death. As she enters the room, Freda says it’s a ‘regular Bluebeard’s chamber’, and quips that if Teddy had ‘any more wives I’d have had to sleep in the bathroom’. This points to Freda as surprisingly well-informed about the gothic for a gothic heroine. We also noted that there was no real reason for Teddy to keep Molly’s bedroom locked; unlike the original Bluebeard he was not hiding his late wife’s body there. This led us to ponder whether it was through guilt or regret. Teddy seemed fond of Molly, but the fact that he still blamed her for misleading him about her will – for thinking the change would benefit Dora and not him – suggests that the room is perhaps sealed precisely so that connection to the gothic Bluebeard tale can be remarked upon.

It is significant, however, that Freda does not suspect her husband of killing his first wife or of plotting to kill her. This is unusual when compared to most gothic film narratives. For example, in both versions of Gaslight (1940, UK, Thorold Dickinson and 1944, US, George Cukor) as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) the heroine increasingly comes to suspect her husband. Cast a Dark Shadow diverges from Rebecca and Suspicion since Teddy’s murderous intentions are clear to the audience from nearly the beginning.

It is also worth considering the age-gap couples of the older Maxim and the young second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Teddy and Molly in Cast a Dark Shadow. Teddy is by many years Molly’s junior, and at first we thought that perhaps he was her doting son or nephew. As often happens with older husbands in gothic films, Molly takes on a teaching role in regard to the younger Teddy.  Teddy’s speech and lack of social graces are corrected by his wife. ‘‘Ome’ should be ‘home’, Teddy should not speak with his mouth full or lounge on the sofa with his feet up, and he ought to get up when a visitor departs. Furthermore, in contrast to other gothic narratives, it is Molly’s resistance rather than her acquiescence that causes her to be killed. Teddy is unaware that Molly made a will after their marriage. He therefore mistakenly believes that the new will she insists on drawing up cuts him out in favour of her sister, Dora.

Teddy’s second wife, Freda, even more so than Molly, is not the unsuspecting innocent heroine of most gothic narratives. Not only has she worked (as a barmaid) but she has sexual experience: she has been married and widowed. Freda’s prompt quashing of Teddy’s suggestion of separate bedrooms (‘I didn’t marry you for companionship’) reinforces this. Teddy himself describes her as ‘vulgar’ in one of the several conversations he holds with his late wife. (His speaking to Molly’s empty chair, and her role as teacher/mother to Teddy reminded us of Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) – both Teddy and Norman Bates are unhinged killers.)

Freda has a firm grip on the reason for men’s interest in her: in the past they have cared more about her ‘moneybags’ than the ‘old bag’. She also wishes to keep a firm grip on her finances as she insists that she and Teddy are equal in terms of partnership – they must match each other ‘pound for pound’. Freda fails to check Molly’s will deposited at Somerset House, however, and is subsequently pestered by Teddy to invest in a business deal. This scene takes place next to a quarry with a prominent ‘danger’ sign. Teddy has ostensibly encouraged Freda to climb over the safety fence in order to pick flowers. In addition to the location, Freda seems further to be in peril as he raises his hand to her when she refuses to go along with his plan. She threatens that ‘I’ll hit you back’, and the authority with which Lockwood invests the line makes Teddy, and the audience, believe her.

Freda is therefore aware of Teddy’s faults. As well as witnessing his threatening behaviour, she was unsurprised much earlier on when she learned that he had tricked Emmie working for him for free by ‘paying’ her with the £200 legacy Molly left her. Later, when complaining about ‘Charlotte’ and Teddy’s closeness, Freda says she would support Teddy in fleecing her. In some ways they are kindred spirits: she also married above her class, to a publican, and gives the impression of having cared little for her husband. (While Teddy does profess to have cared for Molly, he still killed her.) Nonetheless, Freda disbelieves ‘Charlotte’s’ accusation against Teddy, insisting that: ‘he’s a bad boy but he’s not that bad’. Freda’s blinkered attitude is perhaps explained by her earlier response to Teddy’s admission that he has no money: rather than railing against him she tells him ‘So help me I love you’.  This is reinforced by Freda’s acknowledgment at the film’s close that this was ‘the one time I let my heart rule my head’.

Emmie and ‘Charlotte’ are also women in peril. Of all the women in the film, Emmie is the most vulnerable to Teddy’s manipulation. Teddy is well aware of the type of woman he can target. When Teddy tells ‘Charlotte’ that he knew she was not keen on him, he explains that ‘I know who I appeal to and who I don’t’. He says that Freda was susceptible as they belong to the same class, and Molly because of her advanced age. Emmie qualifies on both counts. She is shown to occupy a lower class than even the ‘vulgar’ Freda. When they are introduced, Emmie seems unsure of how to address Freda, advising her to ‘come this way, lady’. Furthermore, as an employee, she is dependent on the Bares for the roof over her head. When Teddy learns he has not been left money in Molly’s will he tells Emmie she will have to find another home. Her reply ‘but this is my home’ touchingly underlines her helpless situation.

Teddy proceeds to further outline Emmie’s difficulties: she is too old to find another job. Despite her advanced age, Emmie has a childlike innocence.  Both Molly and Teddy when asking her to leave the room, or to get on with a job she has been given, tell her to ‘toddle’.  She is not only easily manipulated by Teddy in terms of her legacy, but is persuaded by him to tell Freda of his and Molly’s previous happiness – to give the recent widow hope.  Both Freda and Molly’s lawyer Phillip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng) comment on the fact that Emmie seems ‘simple’. Emmie’s trusting nature means that she is a risk to Teddy since while she is loyal to him, she may give away information without realising it. She has already guilelessly praised Teddy in Phillip’s presence for helping her to practice the evidence she later gave at Molly’s inquest.  Indeed, Phillip says that he hopes he will get the truth about Teddy’s guilt through Emmie since she has lived in the Bares’ house throughout. In turn this places Emmie at risk from Teddy.

In fact, it is another woman who causes for the truth to be revealed. Towards the end of the film ‘Charlotte’ unwittingly places herself in danger when she visits what she thinks is the Bares’ empty house in her quest for evidence. She enters the shadowy hall as the clock strikes. This invokes a sense that ‘Charlotte’ has come to mete out justice and it is a time of reckoning for Teddy. She is certainly a determined woman. When Teddy reveals that he knows ‘Charlotte’s’ true identity (partly because she was familiar with the house’s layout and idiosyncrasies), and admits to murdering her sister, her concern is for Freda. She stands up to Teddy, refusing to leave, and only departing when Freda returns and asks her to go.  ‘Charlotte’ even risks her life again, coming back to the house to make sure others know of his guilt. From here, ‘Charlotte’ witnesses Teddy’s escape and hears him crash her car: his tampering with her brakes has backfired.

We also briefly considered the film in relation to Margaret Lockwood’s screen image. Her appearances in Gainsborough melodramas in the 1940s (such as the aristocratic and adventurous Barbara in Leslie Arliss’ 1945 film The Wicked Lady) helped to ensure her status as a top box office draw during the decade. (You can see a summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/02/03/summary-of-discussion-on-the-wicked-lady/) Lockwood’s 1950s films were less successful, as Cast a Dark Shadow director Lewis Gilbert commented in later years (Brian McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 221). Lockwood is still afforded a star entrance in Cast a Dark Shadow, however. She enters the film about a third of the way in, sweeping down the stairs at the tearoom in which Teddy is lying in wait. Post-production publicity downplayed Lockwood’s involvement though.  Bogarde later noted that he was initially placed under Lockwood in the film’s billing, until it was realised that ‘her name had killed it’ (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70). Gilbert echoes these sentiments, noting that the attachment of Lockwood’s name was ‘counter-productive’ (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Both Bogarde and Gilbert opined it a shame that Lockwood’s ‘great’ performance was not appreciated by audiences (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Lockwood did not appear in another feature film for over twenty years, though she stated in a 1973 interview that she was ‘glad’ to have played the role. (McFarlane, p. 374, quoting from Eric Braun ‘The Indestructibles’, Films and Filming, September 1973, p. 38.) This is supported by the fact that the next year Lockwood repeated her role in a now-believed lost TV version, co-starring Derek Farr the originator of the role of Teddy on stage.

Due to our Bogarde-focus we also discussed Bogarde’s role in the film – both on and off.  As noted in previous blog posts on the films we have screened, Bogarde’s character in Cast a Dark Shadow is repulsive and also coded as of the working classes (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/_) Chronologically the film can be placed between previously screened films Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton) and Libel (1959, Anthony Asquith). Both of these films afforded Bogarde the opportunity to be simultaneously villainous and vulnerable. Cast a Dark Shadow in fact returns him to his smaller earlier role as a low-class criminal who kills George Dixon (of Dock Green fame) in The Blue Lamp (1950, Basil Dearden).

The film should also be placed in the context of Bogarde’s other films released in 1955. Simba (Brian Desmond Hurst) was an adventure story, and Doctor at Sea (Ralph Thomas) the second in a comedy series. The latter is an especially important part of Bogarde’s screen image which the melodrama research group has had little chance to explore. The significance of the series to Bogarde’s screen image at the time is implied by a letter from a member of the public published in the 24th September 1955 issue of UK fan magazine Picturegoer. Miss E Smyth asked ‘Can’t Dirk Bogarde have a really dramatic role to prove himself an actor as well as a much-admired star?’ (p. 30). While we cannot be sure this was from a real person, it comments on an awareness of Bogarde’s increasingly frequent appearances in comedies and ties kudos for acting to dramatic performances. Picturegoer’s response is also instructive: ‘But picturegoers used to complain that Bogarde had too many dramatic, hunted-by-police roles…’  Cast a Dark Shadow therefore supplies a useful contrast to both comedies (the Doctor series) and man-on-the run films like Hunted.

We also noted that Bogarde’s later screen image (his role in Basil Dearden’s Victim, 1961), as well as his star image (knowledge of his personal life) influenced a specific aspect our reading of his character in Cast a Dark Shadow. When Teddy is waiting for Freda at the seaside tearoom he is reading a men’s health magazine which has a semi-naked man on its cover. Perusing such a publication might be thought to indicate a preference for men. Given Teddy’s first marriage to a woman much older than himself, his somewhat camp eyebrow-raising, and revelations later in the film about some of his earlier behaviour, we contemplated his sexuality. This is not clear-cut. Teddy’s pursuit of Freda is for business rather than pleasure, though he seems gratified when she refuses separate bedrooms and points out that she has not married him for companionship. His narcissism leaves little room for anyone other than himself.

As well as considering where Cast a Dark Shadow fits with Bogarde’s screen and star images we pondered how much he contributed to the role.  Bogarde was apparently approached by Janet Green to appear in her original play (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). This suggests that the character was written with Bogarde in mind for both stage and screen. He has stated that the ‘unwholesomeness’ of the character was appealed to him and made it fun (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70) even though we might think it allowed for less nuance. Lockwood was persuaded to undertake her role by Bogarde (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70; McFarlane, p. 374, quoting Lockwood in Braun, ‘The Indestructibles’, p. 38). This therefore reveals Bogarde’s wider influence in the production of the film, cautioning us not to assume passivity on the part of a star and to acknowledge the many people are involved in realising a director’s vision.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 21st January, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions. We’ll be showing Cast a Dark Shadow (1955, Lewis Gilbert, 82 mins) on Monday the 21st of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

The film continues our focus on Dirk Bogarde. In Cast a Dark Shadow he stars as Teddy, a man who having disposed of one wealthy wife (Mona Washbourne) is lining up Margaret Lockwood as the next Mrs Bare… Consideration of these as women in peril allows us to examine another facet of melodrama, since it returns the group to the subject of the Gothic.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on I Could Go On Singing

Our discussion on I Could Go On Singing included consideration of melodramatic aspects such as  Jenny Bowman (Judy Garland)  as a suffering woman and the genre of maternal melodrama; Judy Garland’s star entrance and moments of spectacle which privilege her; the film’s music: especially the way the songs commented, or neglected to comment, on the film’s action and themes; the relationship between the character Jenny Bowman and Garland’s own screen and star images; Dirk Bogarde’s character David Donne; Bogarde as a supporting star to Garland both on and off the screen.

The film was screened as part of our exploration of the many different facets of melodrama in films starring Dirk Bogarde. While Bogarde retains above-the-title billing, much of our discussion unsurprisingly focused on Judy Garland’s character, Jenny Bowman. We especially noted that the suffering which is central to many melodramas is evident in three parts of Jenny’s identity: as a performer, as a woman, and as a mother.

Revealingly, the original title for I Could Go On Singing was The Lonely Stage. The pressure on a performer in a one man or woman musical show is immense: he or she must be in the right place (often far from home) at the right time, fully rehearsed, and note-perfect. He or she also has to match the audience’s expectations of him or her as existing just for them in that moment. Jenny experiences problems towards the end of the film when she becomes drunk due to emotional distress and does not want to perform. Nonetheless, the show cannot go on without her, and she does not only appear as promised, but maintains an on-stage façade of being bright and fun.

The well-worn trope of a performer suffering behind the scenes has perhaps be shown to its best effect in the several versions of A Star is Born. The narrative sees a young female performer falling in love with an established star, and then eclipsing him. This leads to suffering for them both. Following William A. Wellman’s first iteration (in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) emphasis moved to musical versions. George Cukor directed Judy Garland herself alongside James Mason in 1954. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson were next in Frank Pierson’s 1976 film, and just recently Lady Gaga appeared opposite Bradley Cooper in his 2018 production.

Jenny’s suffering as a woman is expressed in terms of her romantic and familial relationships. She tells ex-lover David that she has been lonely since their relationship ended, even (in fact especially) during her two failed marriages. This is what partly fuels her desire to see Matt (Gregory Phillips), the son she left his father, David, to bring up 12 years ago. It also gives Jenny an excuse to see David again. Although David agrees to mother and son meeting once – under his supervision during Matt’s rugby match at boarding school – Jenny craves further contact. Predictably, Jenny’s precarious life as a performer (rehearsals, late performances, a focus on what is essential for her career success – herself) leaves little room for Matt.  When they spend time together at her hotel in London she sleeps late, and they miss sight-seeing opportunities.  Jenny, and David, also selfishly argue within Matt’s hearing, leading to him discovering the truth about his parentage – that David is his real, and not adoptive father, and Jenny his mother. Jenny’s sadness that she cannot be the mother she wants to be leads to her going on the drinking binge which jeopardises her career at the end of the film, revealing the impact of the personal on the professional.

I Could Go on Singing therefore comments on a woman not being able to have both a family and a career. Such notions still exist today, though they were even more prevalent at the time of the film’s production. Significantly, we thought that the film demonstrated that David’s relationship with Matt has also suffered due to his being away for long periods due to his work as an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. David has a warm and jokey relationship with Matt and he is clearly protective of him. But father and son do not spend much time together – not only is Matt away at boarding school (presented on screen by King’s School in Canterbury) during term time, but it is mentioned that he will also be spending some of his holidays with his Aunt in Kent. We should be wary, however, of viewing the father/son relationship through a modern lens. David certainly has a closer relationship with Matt than Jenny does, and one which was probably viewed as typical of the time.

Jenny’s relationship with Matt is similar to, but also different from, other maternal melodramas the group has previously screened. In both Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor) and The Old Maid (1939, Edmund Golding) the mother loves her child deeply but considers that she would be better off without her as a mother. In the former case this is due to the mother’s low-class status, and in the latter to the fact she is unmarried. (You can find more information on our responses to these films by searching the blog for the film titles.) I Could Go On Singing is a less extreme maternal melodrama in terms of Jenny’s suffering and sacrifice. Similarly, her child’s suffering is not brought about by parental cruelty or malice: Jenny and David could both handle their relationships with their son better, but this is not deliberate.

Our discussion of Garland also commented on her introduction. She is treated to a star entrance. Her figure, at first not especially recognisable, alights from a car and she proceeds to walk, with her back to camera, to a front door. This delays our first proper glimpse of Garland. The scene cuts to the well-lit interior of the house as a woman descend the stairs to answer the door and greet the visitor.  Garland is framed by an internal window, soon proceeding into the house and becoming recognisable to the audience. She then mounts the stairs to meet the advancing David.

Other moments which privilege Garland are more striking. Many of these relate to the staging of her songs. Garland’s rendition of I Could Go On Singing plays over the opening credits which are superimposed on abstract blurred coloured spotlights. I am the Monarch of the Sea is sung by Garland, and others, after Matt and his school classmates’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Later on, Jenny performs Hello Bluebird, It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go on Singing on stage.

We commented on the placement of these three songs in the narrative and how the lyrics related to the actions and emotions present in the film. The joyous Hello Bluebird appropriately occurs just after Jenny has learned, in contrast to a telegram she has just received, that her son Matt can in fact attend her concert. The lyrics of It Never Was You concern a disappointed woman who has searched for, but not yet found, a lost lover. While this may be seen to relate to Jenny’s relationship with David, the parallels in the next two songs are more conspicuous. By Myself is also about suffering connected to expectations of love not being met. But its highs and lows seem more extreme, more melodramatic.  Its lyrics declare that ‘this is the end of romance’ and reject the notion of love as ‘an overrated past time’; it is ‘only a dance’. While it is clearly not meant to be a song about recent or current events (Jenny is not improvising the song on the spot) its timing is significant:  it occurs just after Jenny’s heated argument with David when Matt finds out the truth about his parentage. There is also defiance in By Myself’s lyrics, despite the emphasis on being alone. The singer vows to ‘face the unknown, build a world of my own’ and is ‘sure that I am old enough to fly alone’. This suits Jenny’s action at the song’s completion: she strides off the stage and startles her manager, George (Jack Klugman) by demanding answers about the possibility of her gaining parental access to Matt.

I Could Go on Singing is arguably the film’s most important song. It not only frames the film – it is present over the opening credits, and on screen at the end after Jenny has been propped up by David – but is the only one expressly written for the film. It connects Jenny’s desire to sing (which is of course necessary to her career success) to being in love. The song’s claim that ‘When I see your eyes I go all out, I must vocalise till you shout “enough already”’ certainly supports its statement that ‘love does funny things when it hits you this way’. Memorably it avows that the singer could carry on until the ‘cows come home’, reinforcing this with an expression about an even less likely occurrence: the moon turning pink. It is worth considering a matter central to the film: who is the object of Jenny’s affections?  Is it David, Matt, herself, or possibly even her audience?

 

Differences between the way these songs were filmed (and especially how these emphasised Jenny’s status as a performer) were also commented on. The Monarch of the Sea fittingly includes no obvious means of amplification since it is an informal gathering around a piano. By contrast, the technology Jenny needs to deliver Hello Bluebird to a theatre full of people is not just visible, but made noticeable.   Jenny takes the microphone off its stand as she sings ‘I’m back home today’. This visually underlines the importance of her statement (the stage is her home) but also allows her to demonstrate this by actively moving around the space. The microphone lead trails with Jenny as the camera follows her walking across the stage. The other half of the performing equation – the audience – is also depicted. As well as crowd shots at the beginning and end of the song, cutting away to the audience during it means that Jenny can be re-framed in a longer shot which further conveys her status as performer.

It was noted that the obvious use of technology contrasts with It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go On Singing. These are more in keeping with the traditional film musical which erases the amplification apparatus, despite often pretending that songs are performed ‘live’. Such invisible technology shifts the film from stage to cinema spectacle. They are also noticeably unlike footage of Garland’s concert and TV performances which show her with a microphone in her hand.

These songs also show the audience, and Jenny’s status as performer, to differing degrees. Garland’s performance of It Never Was You (which was apparently sung live on stage) appears to have been achieved in one take. This focuses entirely on Garland, closing in on her from a straight ahead shot until it moves to show her in profile. The filming of By Myself also does not emphasise the audience’s presence. However, unmotivated cuts seem to comment directly on how the stage and film audiences should view Jenny.  The camera switches to a longer shot as the song’s lyric emphasise that the singer is ‘alone’. Jenny is seen as a small figure on a dark stage lit by only a spotlight.

I Could Go On Singing, like It Never Was You and By Myself, suggests that Jenny is not using unnatural means to deliver the necessary amplification. However, in common with the staging of Hello Bluebird, it focuses on the on-screen audience. Furthermore, it places Jenny (and Garland) in the context of her audience; several shots seem to be taken from the wings, depicting Jenny and the audience in the same frame and supporting interpretations of this being where Jenny (and Garland) belongs.

This important relationship between Jenny and her theatre audience is mirrored in that of Garland and the film audience. US trade magazine Box Office’s review and exploitips note that I Could Go on Singing is the first opportunity in nearly a decade to see Garland singing in character. A behind-the-scenes piece on the film in the May 1963 issue of US magazine Screen Stories compares her role as Jenny to those Garland played in earlier films. It is claimed that this is the first time Garland has smoked on the big screen or seemed the worse for drink; meanwhile Garland herself supposedly comments that this is her first ‘really adult love affair’ (p. 53). Implications that her recent roles were somehow child-like are not wholly accurate.  Following Garland’s role in A Star is Born, Garland appeared in the hard-hitting film dramas Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer) and A Child is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes). But such statements importantly reposition expectations about Garland’s current screen image. While Garland will once again be singing, she will not be playing the less adult roles of her early musicals. This was perhaps necessary since other than these earlier film musicals, Garland’s more regular concert performances were occasionally televised, meaning that audiences would have been more familiar with her singing ‘as herself’.

We can never know the ‘real’ person of the star, only what is said to be true about them (his or her star image). A star’s star image is often similar his or her screen image (the characters he or she plays), but this is especially true in Garland talking on the role of world-famous concert singer Jenny Bowman. The close relationship between Jenny and Judy was commented on by the March 1963 issue of UK film magazine Films and Filming.  Richard Whitehall opines that the film is a ‘demonstration of the ultimate in star quality with an artist moulding the material to her talents’ and that Garland ‘is the film’ (p. 34).

Some in the melodrama group thought that the film’s mining of Garland’s star image was exploitative.  It is, however, common practice, and we should be wary of denying her agency in choosing to make the film. Such views are of course coloured by our knowledge that this was Garland’s last film and that she died young, 6 years after its release. Contemporary audiences would not have been aware of these facts. Extratextual material at the time drew parallels between Judy and Jenny as singers, but also emphasised Garland’s good relationship with her children. The aforementioned March 1963 Screen Stories article displays a prominent photograph of Garland celebrating her birthday with a cake, alongside her 3 children, as well as her co-stars Bogarde and Phillips. The text of the piece also quotes Garland on the ridiculousness of this film constituting her first adult love affair, when she has ‘3 wonderful children in real life’. She has brought them to London for filming (Lorna and Joey were even extras in the film) and the article closes with an anecdote about the family sight-seeing (p. 53).

Of course we also discussed Bogarde’s role supporting Garland – both on screen and off. The film does not afford Bogarde the opportunities to show both the sensitive and villainous qualities we have noted in previous screenings (Esther Waters, Hunted, Libel, and The Singer not the Song). Our knowledge of David does develop from his first appearance on screen to his last, however. The way the pair first interacted was especially praised. There was formality and doctorly concern in his manner, while it was only slowly revealed that they have previously known one another and indeed have a son together.  Warmth between David and Matt allow for Bogarde to play the nice guy, who is protective of his son, but still willing to give Jenny a chance to share their son. Bogarde is especially effective in the scene in which he and Jenny clash over her desire to tell Matt the truth. His initial outburst of anger is followed by crestfallen regret when he sees Matt and realises that he has heard the truth.

 

The final scenes show yet more dimensions as David tends to Jenny’s wounds and promises to stay with her as long as she needs him. There was debate about the fact that David disappears while Jenny is singing I Could Go On Singing on stage at the end of the film. Some thought that his previous words had therefore meant nothing and that he had never intended to stay with Jenny. Others were of the opinion that the defiant way in which Garland performs this final song – which after all is about someone who can keep singing until the moon turns pink – showed that she had sufficiently recovered. This view is supported by the end of the fiction-version of the story which appeared in the May 1963 issue of US fan magazine Screen Stories:

   ” “I’ll stay,” he said.

“How long?”

“Until you can stand by yourself again,” he said….

She limped onto the great empty stage in her street clothes, late, but willing to sing. The audience yelled out, “We love you, Jenny,” as the lights came up; and Jenny yelled back, “I love you, too.” The spotlight on her face grew brighter, and the orchestra began to play. Jenny Bowman was home again, back where she belonged.”

 

THE END

(accessed via the official Dirk Bogarde website: http://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/screen-stories-may-1963/)

Following Judy’s return to the stage David’s absence is not noted in the text. Neither is his presence – it almost seems as though he is irrelevant. Jenny’s need for love is fulfilled by her adoring audience and it is stated that she is ‘home again, back where she belonged’

This led us to briefly consider Bogarde’s off screen role. While Bogarde’s support  is partially seen in his not competing with Garland for the emotional scenes, information he purportedly provided about the production gives further insight. He claimed that, sanctioned by Garland, he rewrote some of Jenny’s dialogue (John Coldstream, Dirk Bogarde, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2004, p. 287) This potentially gave Garland more agency, a matter about which the melodrama group had earlier expressed concerns.  It also highlights Bogarde’s many talents – he had a successful career as a writer as well as an actor. Furthermore, in addition to reminding us of the importance of production and reception contexts, it highlights the fact that such contexts place stars among other stars, both on and off the screen.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 10th of December, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the last meeting of the term. We will be screening I Could Go On Singing (1963, Ronald Neame, 99 mins) on Monday the 10th of December, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

The film was not assigned the label ‘melodrama’ by the American industry magazine Box Office, but is referred to as a ‘drama with songs’ (18th March, 1963). This allows us  to consider an important element of melodrama we have not yet considered in relation to Dirk Bogarde melodramas – music.

It is unsurprising that Box Office’s main focus in advice to cinemas as to how to advertise the film in the US (and probably the UK) is its female lead – singing mega-star Judy Garland – rather than Bogarde, who plays her British ex-husband. The magazine’s ‘exploitips’ says that the big selling angle is indeed the music, with Garland performing songs in a film for the first time since A Star is Born (1954).

Catchlines (short sentences which Box Office suggests can be used) refer to the music, but also outline a melodramatic performance style and plot: ‘Judy Garland, Singing, Laughing and Tearing Your Heart Out In a Great Drama with Songs Galore…She Had to Let Love Pass Her By as She Sang to her Public From the Lonely Stage.’

Do join us, if you can, for what is likely to be an emotional viewing!