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 Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

SWN opening imagesSadly, due to technical difficulties, we were unable to screen the advertised film, Uncle Silas.  Instead, we watched another woman in peril film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Anatole Litvak, 88 mins). This starred Barbara Stanwyck as bedridden ‘cardiac neurotic’ Leona and Burt Lancaster as her husband, Henry Stevenson.  Superficially the film may not seem to have much in common with our focus on the Gothic theme other than it centring on a woman in peril.  However, our discussion noted the significance of several large shadowy houses/apartments and Leona and another female character turning into investigators.  We also spoke about how Leona was similar to, and different from, her fellow female Gothic investigators. There was discussion on the film’s radio play origins and the ways in which the film padded out two almost 3 times the radio play’s length and its extensive, and sometimes nested, use of Flashbacks.  The ways in which the film widened out the narrative from a prime focus on Leona and fleshes out is characters and their motivations were also commented on.  This allowed for us to usefully compare and contrast Sorry, Wrong Number’s central couple to the de Winters in Rebecca.  Finally we noted more traditionally filmic devices such as the Flashback and Montage, and the significance of the telephone in relation to cinema.

After the brief opening which combines dramatic text about the ‘horror’ of the telephone and shots of operators busily connecting people which establishes the importance of telephones to the film’s plot, we are afforded our first view of Stanwyck. Bedridden Leona is telephoning her husband’s office in an apartment which increasingly becomes full of shadows and suspense as she overhears a murder plot through a crossed wire. In addition to the large New York apartment Leona is confined to in the ‘present’ of the film we discussed other more Gothic spaces.  A large empty SWN shadows untitledbeach house is the focus of Leona’s husband’s criminal activities, while Leona’s childhood home, a Chicago mansion full of dark furniture, large hanging portraits, also appears. The latter is the setting for some of Leona’s moments of hysteria which comment on her odd relationship with her father, including accusations he wants to keep her all to himself.

SWN Leona and SallyDue to Leona’s restrictions, she relies on the telephone to access information for her investigations. These begin with her search for her husband which leads her to telephone her husband’s secretary. Leona is furnished with information about a woman who has visited her husband at his office. This is Sally Hunter – who it is revealed was Leona’s ‘friend’ and her husband’s girlfriend before Leona stole him away.  Significantly it is Sally who provides Leona with much of the information on the former’s husband’s investigation into the latter’s criminal activities.  We see Sally visiting the beach, though not entering the beach house so we are denied shots of her investigating the dark space.

In addition to acting as an enabler for Leona’s investigative interests (even though these are set in the past) Sally doubles Leona in other ways. She is her rival in love and both are interested in the investigation due to their concern for Henry. Sally also suffers in ways we can compare to Leona.  Although she is not physically restricted, the bonds of marriage and motherhood are clearly shown.  Sally’s husband assumes his wife is responsible for the fact their child is out of bed late and night and expects her to provide him and his friends with beers.  These restrictions even lead to her being tortured, likeSWN Sally phone Leona, by telephones – though to a lesser extent.  This is in terms of access as she chases around the city moving from her home to a drugstore so she can discuss the case with Leona openly, and when the drugstore closes to a telephone at a busy and noisy station.  This also succeeds in torturing Leona and the audience as we only find our information as Leona does and this is enacted in Flashbacks.

Notably not even Sally knows much about the investigation which furthers the suspense. Leona has to rely on a chance phone call from a man – a chemist at her father’s pharmaceutical business who reveals he was her husband’s partner in crime.  The calm Waldo Evans politely and slowly reveals the situation to Leona. Evans’ composure is effectively contrasted to Leona’s increasing hysteria – when it gradually becomes clear that she is the planned murder victim of the overheard telephone call.

early costumeLeona’s passive receiving of information prompted us to consider other ways in which she differs to more obviously Gothic heroines. While the second Mrs de Winter is hardly an active investigator, her questioning of various people and her physical movement through space sharply contrasts to Leona’s. They are also very different in terms of the sympathy they might elicit from the audience. The second Mrs de Winter is in many ways childlike in her innocence. Leona also exhibits childlike characteristics but these are of a spoilt child not one who needs protecting but one who tramples on others to get what she wants.  We might feel some sympathy for Leona in the desperate declaration of her love for her husband and her final fate, but she is fundamentally dislikeable – especially when compared to her double, Sally, whom she has treated very badly. It was noted that Leona is similar in some ways to the second Mrs de Winter’s vulgar employer Mrs Van Hopper. Both women are predatory towards the main male character in their respective films. This also extends to scenes set in each woman’s bedroom with both confined to bed by illness and wearing nightgowns.  While costume aligns Leona with Mrs Van Hopper it also separates her from the second Mrs de Winter and in Sorry, Wrong Number from Sally. Leona is always exquisitely dressed but the second Mrs de Winter and Sally are less expensively attired.

Furthermore both main female characters SWN Lancasterin Sorry, Wrong Number and Rebecca seem morally unambiguous.  Leona is dislikeable and plotting in nature. This was perhaps necessary to allow for her to be killed in the era of the Production Code, with the murder itself also a central part of the ‘famous’ radio play the film references in its credits.  The second Mrs de Winter is innocent and likeable. However the men in both films are morally murky.  Indeed both Henry and Maxim are painted fairly sympathetically as victims of either a demanding wife and threatening associates or a philandering wife.  The couple of Sorry, Wrong Number can be contrasted to Rebecca. While Maxim was a threat to his first wife it seems unlikely he will harm his second, while much of the threat to Leona stems from her husband’s inaction in not stopping his associates rather than deliberate plotting on his part.  We found it especially interesting that while part of Leona’s medical condition – her cardiac neurosis – is in effect hysteria causing her to think she has heart problems she is also facing a very real threat which her condition, and her behaviour, has made her vulnerable to.  By contrast, the second Mrs de Winter’s fears are shown to be entirely justified, though not in danger, when it is revealed her husband killed his late wife.

The fleshing out of characters, especially Henry, contrasts to the radio play. Also notably different is the use of extensive, at times nested, Flashbacks which certainly aids the rounding out of the characters. But it also breaks up the suspense to a large extent – rather than 30 minutes of mounting hysteria the back and forth and the pacing suggests a more rhythmic melodrama.  Rhythm was also seen in montages where it served a different purpose.  Most notably to this conveyed Leona and Henry’s progressing relationship as they visited several countries on their honeymoon and Leona increasingly treated Henry with cool disdain as she controlled his behaviour and kept a physical distance.

suspenseThe centrality of telephones to the narrative prompted comment as to its use as a device in the film as well as its wider significance. Even before we see any characters the evils of the telephone are described in terms of bringing ‘horror’ to some people.  We discussed the telephone’s ability to simultaneously bring people together in terms of audio and to emphasise geographical distance.  This is explicitly commented on when Henry (wrongly) reassures a frightened Leona that she is the middle of New York with a phone by her bed and therefore not in any danger. We noted that this served as a metaphor for cinema – while we can see and hear characters’ lives being played out we are unable to intervene. We mentioned earlier examples focusing on the telephone. These included a French one-handed play in which the only character has to listen on the phone as his wife is attacked, D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909), and Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) in which similar situations, but with happier outcomes, occur.

(You can see more on The Lonely Villa and Suspense from earlier blog discussions: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/12/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-15th-may-jarman-7-4-7pm/ and https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/16/summary-of-discussion-on-early-film-melodrama-shorts/)

Of course Sorry, Wrong Number contrasts to these in that the worried husband is, if only indirectly, responsible for the wife’s attack, further highlighting the ambiguity of the male character.

We also discussed Leona’s disability in terms of our next screening, The Spiral Staircase (1945).  Both women are also disabled in their passivity – being female appears to be another disability.

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

And do check out some fascinating Fan and Trade Magazine materials relating to the film on the wonderful Network of Research: Movies, Magazines, Audiences (NoRMMA) blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=249

 

Sorry, Wrong Number Links

Film Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LMZcFMRV5o

The original radio play: https://archive.org/details/Suspense430525SorryWrongNumberWestCoast

 The Stanwyck radio remake for Lux radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIbcJxQukO4

 Jack Benny’s take on the film:  

https://archive.org/details/JackBennyProgram481017SorryWrongNumber

 

Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

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

Mary Pickford Links

Posted by Sarah

Here is a link to Mary Pickford films on archive.org.

https://archive.org/search.php?query=%22mary%20pickford%22%20AND%20mediatype%3Amovies

Stella Maris

Some of the shorts include DW Griffith’s An Aracdian Maid (1910), The Narrow Road (1912) and A Beast at Bay (1912). These are all about 15 minutes long.

https://archive.org/details/TheNarrowRoad

https://archive.org/details/AnArcadianMaid_179

https://archive.org/details/ABeastAtBay

I’d especially recommend some of the longer films such as Stella Maris (1918) and Pollyanna (1919).

https://archive.org/details/StellaMaris_665

https://archive.org/details/Pollyanna_837

Serial Queen Melodramas

Posted by Sarah

I thought it might be interesting to return to our consideration of early film melodrama. While previously we focused on the suffering, passive, heroine (particularly evident in DW Griffith’s films starring Lillian Gish) there are alternative views of women in the teens. One of these is present in the Serial Queen Melodramas.

Lass of the lumberlands

The Serial Queen Melodramas are particularly noteworthy as their heroines challenge some assertions about the portrayal of women in American Cinema of the teens and twenties. There is a notion that prior to It girl Clara Bow’s appearance in the late 1920s female stars belonged in either the passive virgin or the threatening vamp camp. (Though Bow and other progressive female stars certainly encouraged a focus on positive female sexuality.) However, as can be seen from the above card advertising Helen Homes in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916), the serial queen, while imperilled on occasion, was often active. The fast pace of these serials also provides a useful comparison to the action-filled male melodramas of later Hollywood which Steve Neale wrote of.

Pearl WhiteWhile several different Serial Queen Melodramas were produced in the teens, few are widely available. Of these, The Perils of Pauline series retains public resonance. This series, from 1914, starred Pearl White (pictured left) in loosely connected adventures. Apparently 20 episodes were made, but only the 9 part European version survives. The chapters can be found on the internet archive using the links below. Chapter length varies from 9-29 mins, with the average about 20 mins. They total approximately 200 mins.

LINKS

Part 1: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.1PearlWhite

Part 2: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.2PearlWhite

Part 3: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.3PearlWhite

Part 4: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.4PearlWhite

Part 5: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.5PearlWhite

Part 6: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.6PearlWhite

Part 7: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.7PearlWhite

Part 8: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.8PearlWhite

Part 9: http://archive.org/details/THEPERILSOFPAULINE1914Ch.9PearlWhite

Perils of Pauline

Scholarly work in this area of melodrama includes Ben Singer’s excellent article “Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama: The Etiology of an Anomaly.” Camera Obscura 8.1 22 (1990): 90-129 and Jon Burrows’ fascinating examination of British action heroines: “‘Melodrama of the Dear Old Kind’: Sentimentalising British Action Heroines in the 1910s.” Film History: An International Journal 18.2 (2006): 163-173.

(Please see a post on our additional blog  http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/serial-queen-melodramas/ for more information on these.)

As always, enjoy the melodrama links, and log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add you thoughts or to propose a melodramatic area for us to discuss!