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 Baby Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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