Summary of Discussion on Libel

Discussion on Libel included: its melodramatic elements in terms of its main narrative line of imposture, the villain/victim dynamic, coincidence, the courtroom setting and the rhythm of the plot which contains multiple flashbacks, especially emotional moments, and the film’s use of music; the matter of trauma caused by war and the attempted recovery of repressed memory; doubling in the source text and adaptations;  doubling in films; the doubling of Mark and Frank – both played by Dirk Bogarde; narcissism and homosexual desire; how the fact Bogarde plays both posh Mark and lower-class Frank related to his screen and star images; scandal magazines.

Our discussion began with comments on films which had similar narratives. The plot where a man commits, or is accused of committing, identity theft recalled The Captive Heart (1946, Basil Dearden). In this, Michael Redgrave starred as a Czechoslovakian prisoner of war posing as (Redgrave’s real-life wife) Rachel Kempson’s RAF husband through letters to her. We also spoke about the French film The Return of Martin Guerre (1982, France, Daniel Vigne), with Gerard Depardieu as the titular character and Nathalie Baye as Bertrande, his wife. Although this was based on a historical case from 16th century France, Hollywood later updated and relocated it to Civil War America in Somersby (1993, Jon Amiel) starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

In addition to Libel’s central melodramatic plot-line, which not only needs the audience to suspend its disbelief to some degree but also promises a revelation of the truth, we considered whether the film employed stock characters thought to be typical to melodrama. Because of the confusion over the main character’s identity, the matter was very blurred. This is well illustrated by a contemporary poster for the film which poses the question of whether Baronet Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde) is ‘Victim or Murderer?’ Furthermore, the next line, ‘not even his wife knew which’ points to Margaret Loddon (Olivia de Havilland) as the real victim if ‘Mark’ is in fact ‘Frank’ playing a role. The matter turns out to be even more nuanced when ‘Number 15’ (a severely injured man, and like Mark and Frank also played by Bogarde, and therefore either the ‘real’ Mark or the ‘real’ Frank) appears in court. Towards the end of the film the recovery of Mark’s previously repressed memory further complicates any view of him being wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The film’s many melodramatic twists on turns depended to a large extent on coincidences. The central one – that of two men who look nearly exactly alike (both are played by Dirk Bogarde, after all) apart from hair colour and the matter of a few missing fingers – being interned in the same prisoner of war camp – took a fair suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part. Some of the explanations for the physical changes which have occurred to the present-day (and possibly ‘fake’) Mark also stretched credence, especially since they made him resemble Frank. The turning of Mark’s hair from dark to silver (like Frank’s) could be explained by age and the trauma of war. (It was in any case helpful for distinguishing between the dark-haired Mark and the silver-haired Frank in the flashbacks.) However, the chance that Mark lost fingers during his escape which exactly matched Frank’s disability seemed slim.

Coincidence also led to the Canadian Jeffrey Buckenham (Paul Massie) seeing the live television broadcast of the present-day Mark showing Richard Dimbleby around his stately home. Buckenham states that he is only in the UK for a couple of days. His presence in a pub which happens to boast a television which is tuned into the correct channel at just the right time (especially since in the 1950s television programmes often aired just once) is, however, superseded by another coincidence. The other pub customers object to viewing the programme, and Buckenham persuades fellow customer Maisie (Millicent Martin), whom he has only just met, to let him view her television in her nearby flat. The choice of the TV medium almost seems to deliberately underline the unlikeliness of the situation. Buckenham could have been exposed to photographs of Mark in a newspaper or a newsreel, which would have relied less on the precise timing of Buckenham’s reception. Furthermore, it is in an incredible twist of fate that Buckenham is the only person to have known both Mark and Frank well – the three escaped the prisoner of war camp together.

More believable were aspects which weighed for the likelihood of the present-day Mark being an imposter.  Frank’s profession as a ‘provincial actor’, meaning that he could conceivably imitate Mark’s voice and gestures. The flashbacks show this convincingly since Buckenham remarks that he could ‘understudy’ the ‘star’ part of Mark Loddon. The prisoner of war scenes also reveal that Frank was present while Mark described some of his past, and his fiancée. Frank could therefore make use of such information.

We pondered the flashbacks a little more.  While some of these recounted the same events, such as the misdelivering of one of Mark’s letters to Frank, the details differed depending on who was giving evidence.  Buckenham’s included more of an emphasis on Frank’s violence. They are not necessarily contradictory, however, unlike the lying flashback in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) for example). In this film they add further nuance, and indeed more evidence for Buckenham’s claims Mark is an imposter.

We also discussed how coincidence played a part in action which occurred prior to the film. The fact that Mark was engaged, but not yet married, was significant. It meant that the chance of an imposter being able to fool his family, and specifically his fiancée, was more likely. This was aided by the present-day Mark’s amnesia which helpfully provides an excuse for why he cannot remember certain details of what happened before the war.

Two important courtroom revelations also relied on coincidence. A physically and, more importantly, severely mentally damaged man – known only as Number 15 – is produced in the court by the defence team. Recognisably played by Bogarde, this means that somehow Frank (or Mark!) survived the injuries sustained abroad and has at last been identified. The final coincidence which in fact clinches the fact of Mark’s innocence also occurs in the court room. He has finally remembered the medallion charm his fiancée gave to him, and more significantly recalls that it is hidden in the coat Number 15 was found wearing. Conveniently this coat has been kept, and indeed is present in court.

The fact that much of the film’s action, and the framing of flashbacks, take place in court, is significant. In this formal setting, elderly, privileged, white men in traditional robes follow procedures which have been established for centuries. Its staid atmosphere contrasts to the action in the flashbacks and the intensity of the revelations which are divulged, providing a rhythm of lows and highs. Even the brilliant British actors Robert Morley, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Richard Wattis, who are not exactly underplaying their roles as legal stalwarts, seem surprised by the level of revelation.  This was also reflected by the audible gasps of those in the public gallery, which were in turn echoed by members of the melodrama research group!

We also paid attention to moments when characters displayed extreme emotion. Mark’s struggling with his memory, and his being seemingly haunted by his own reflection, led to outbursts both at home and in court. His wife is more emotionally stable, providing Mark with solid support. But after she has denounced him in court as a fraud, the enormity of his presumed deception distresses her and she verbally attacks Mark. Following this, she leans against the hotel door, exhausted, and calls out his name.

Much of this emotion is underscored by the film’s music. We especially noted the use of a particular refrain – the whistling of the English folk song ‘Early One Morning’ – in the narrative. As well as further suggesting that Mark is an imposter (we see Frank whistling the tune in the flashbacks and it is part of what makes Buckenham suspicious of him) the lyrics of the chorus seem to reinforce Mark’s wife’s view that she has been lied to:

Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?

The theme of deception works on several levels in the film, including that of self-deception. Mark claims to have lost his memory due to the trauma of war. While some in the film think that this is a convenient way for Frank to explain any gaps in his knowledge of a life he has after all not lived, it turns out to in fact be the case. He is in fact the real Mark, though is unaware of who he is for most of the film. A flashback reveals the memory Mark has repressed. He is shown to viciously attack Frank after Frank decided to put Buckenham’s suggestion of taking over the ‘star’ part into practice. This explains his distress when seeing his own reflection in a mirror – it is a reminder of the man with his face who turned against him. It is also significantly suggestive of a fear of himself. Though Mark acts in self-defence, his sustained attack is unjustifiable. The effects of his actions are seen as Number 15 shuffles into court, physically but even more overwhelmingly mentally and emotionally damaged. This speaks to a more universal fear of what the self is capable of.

The recovery of repressed memory reminded us of when the melodrama research group screened The Awakening (2011, Nick Murphy). The Awakening is especially tied to time and place as the film’s protagonist, Florence (Rebecca Hall), unknowingly returns to her childhood home after the first world war in order for her to remember her past. (You can see a summary of the group’s  previous discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/01/summary-of-discussion-on-the-awakening/).

A film which had more direct comparisons to Libel, and indeed was released more than a decade previously, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Like Mark, the character Gregory Peck plays – Dr Anthony Edwardes – is thought to be an imposter. He is suspected by Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), who nonetheless does not believe his admission that he has killed the real Dr Edwardes. While in fact he is not who he claims to be, Peck’s character, like Mark, is suffering from amnesia.  Because of the profession Dr Petersen and Dr Edwardes share (they are psychoanalysts) this aspect is especially well-worked through. It is explained that he is suffering from a guilt complex. He was present there when the real Dr Edwardes accidentally fell to his death, which recalled a childhood accident in which his brother died.

We also especially focused on the relation of the doubling not just to the self, and to psychology, but to the medium of film. In relation to this, it is worth contemplating the original source text and other adaptations. Edward Wooll’s play, on which the film was based, was first staged in 1934. The 1930-1939 volume of J.P. Wearing’s incredibly helpful The London Stage: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel (1990) contains the cast list and this suggests that the character of Frank does not appear in the original production. This is unsurprising, since the doubling would be extremely difficult to achieve on stage. It is however, possible that it took place in the novelised version Wooll wrote in 1935.

Several radio and television versions were made between 1934 and the 1970s. According to my research on the internet movie database (https://www.imdb.com/) and the BBC’s excellent genome project (https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/), which gives access to all the BBC’s radio and TV listings from 1923 to 2009, these productions also do not include Frank. Doubling would have been possible on radio, but certainly more impactful on screen. The fact that much TV of the time was shown live or ‘as live’ making manipulation of the image difficult, or indeed consisted of excerpts of stage plays, perhaps partially explains why the doubling remains a peculiarly cinematic phenomenon.

Such a view is supported when we consider that other instances of doubling are especially linked to film. We’ve viewed and discussed some examples in the melodrama research group. In addition to instances of doubling which are related to the split self (The Student of Prague (1913, Stella Rye), Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky), The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)) we’ve also seen stars playing dual roles: Mary Pickford in Stella Maris (1918, Marshall Neilan) and Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night (1925, Monta Bell). You can also see summaries of our discussion on Olivia de Havilland playing twins in The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak) here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/01/31/summary-of-discussion-on-the-dark-mirror/. Jeremy Irons also undertook such a feat in Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg), a summary of our discussion appearing here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/03/26/summary-of-discussion-on-dead-ringers/.

Not only is the film audience afforded the opportunity of seeing both Mark and Frank, importantly these characters are able to see one another. There was an undercurrent of narcissism present in the relationship between the two men.  Frank admired Mark so much as his ego ideal (the self he wanted to be) that he tried to take Mark’s life – both literally and figuratively. In addition, there was the suggestion of homosexual desire. Buckenham’s defending counsel, Hubert Foxley (Hyde-White) states that Mark has kept many things from his wife. While ostensibly this refers to the accusation that Mark has stolen another man’s identity, we might also consider that this refers to other parts of his private life. Such a reading seems especially indicated by the tone of Foxley’s probing. He asks what happened between the two men when they were left alone on one occasion at the prisoner of war camp, repeating ‘and then….?’ in such a way as to imply that more has occurred.

We can connect such readings more closely to the fact that Mark and Frank were played by Bogarde. Our view of a star’s screen image is of course informed by the other roles he or she plays, including in terms of character and class, as well as any knowledge we have of a star’s ‘real’ self (star image). We noted how in Esther Waters Bogarde played a gambler of the lower classes, and while he is the cause of the heroine’s downfall his character is nuanced. Bogarde’s ability to play two extremes was seen to even greater effect in Hunted as a murderer on the run who nonetheless cares for a neglected little boy.  In the seven years between Hunted and Libel, Bogarde appeared in a variety of films, and began to be listed by the trade magazine Motion Picture Herald as a draw at the British box office.

Soon after Hunted, Bogarde played another man-on-the-run, though this time an innocent one, in Desperate Moment (1953, Compton Bennett). Other roles saw Bogarde breaking the law. In The Gentle Gunman (1952, Basil Dearden) he was a member of the IRA and in The Sleeping Tiger (1954, Joseph Losey) a man who hold a psychiatrist at gunpoint. In Cast a Dark Shadow (1955, Lewis Gilbert) Bogarde’s repulsive wife-killer is specifically coded as a member of the lower classes (despite having married into wealth). Similarly, the feckless and petty thief he portrays in Anthony Asquith’s 1958 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma is poor. Bogarde also played non-criminal types, in both light comedies (most notably in 3 of the Doctor series of films– 1954, 1955 and 1957 – and action or adventure narratives like Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), all directed by Ralph Thomas. Thomas was also at the helm when Bogarde starred as Sydney Carton in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities and in the war picture The Wind Cannot Read (both 1958). Like other stars of the time, Bogarde appeared in several war films in the 1950s, beginning with Appointment in London (Philip Leacock) in 1953. In these films Bogarde mostly played members of the middle or the upper classes. His status as a star at the British box office at this time was impressive, 5th in both 1953 and 1959, and in between rose higher: 2nd (1954), 1st (1955), 3rd (1956), 1st (1957) and 2nd (1958).

Bogarde’s appearance as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is particularly worth singling out in comparison to Libel. The narrative turns on the uncanny physical similarity between drunken English lawyer Carton and French aristocrat Charles Darnay. Carton famously nobly sacrifices his own life for Darnay’s, substituting himself for the Frenchman at the guillotine.  While Bogarde does not play both parts in the film (Paul Guers is Darnay), this has occasionally been the case. William Farnum starred in both roles in Frank Lloyd’s 1917 silent film and Desmond Llewelyn in a 1952 television adaptation.  The two 1980 TV versions also used this device – Paul Shelley appearing as Carton and Darnay in the mini-series and Charles Sarandon doing so in the TV movie.  Libel therefore addresses the matter of the double more directly. It also problematizes the matter due to the fact neither the audience, nor Mark, is sure of Mark’s identity.

Libel also adds aspects which connect more specifically to Bogarde’s star image. John Style’s chapter “Dirk Bogarde’s Sidney Carton—More Faithful to the Character than Dickens Himself?” (from Books in Motion, Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005)), wrote about Bogarde’s theatricality in this film in relation to camp. Libel’s references to camp are more overt. Frank is after all, an actor, and excuses his impersonation of Mark by claiming that he is practicing for the ‘camp’ concert. Many films set in prisoner of war camps show its inmates spending what might seem like an inordinate amount of time on such entertainments, including quite often female impersonation; for us though, the use of the word ‘camp’ had an obvious double meaning.

Frank has less depth than the character of Mark – Mark is after all not sure who he is – but the relation to Bogarde’s real life is intriguing. Bogarde too started as a provincial actor (in repertory at Amersham – see one of my posts on the NORMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/pre-search-dirk-bogardes-life-and-career/). It is also important to consider our reading of Libel in relation to revelations made after his death about his private life. The reading of some of the aspects in Libel as elating to homosexuality is also strengthened by Bogarde’s later screen image – especially his appearance as a gay man in Victim (1961, Basil Dearden).

We concluded our discussion by pondering the film’s own raising of the matter of scandal – it is for this reason that Mark launches the libel action against a ‘sensationalist’ newspaper. While this type of publication is distinct from the celebrity scandal magazines which especially proliferated in the 1950s, we spoke about the tricky line stars sometimes had to negotiate. Stars relied on print to sustain the public’s interest in them, but also had to be careful in case revelations about their private lives harmed their careers. We commented that in Libel the scandal was connected to class. Class runs through the film. We are introduced to Mark, by Richard Dimbleby, as a Baronet with a long family history, and a palatial stately home (in fact Longleat House). It is because of his family name that he is a prominent person – one readers may be interested to learn more about.

We also spoke about how the film commented on publicity as a particularly American phenomenon.  Although she claims she only wants to protect their son’s future, his wife is criticised by those attending the local church for the fact the libel action goes ahead – it is said that Americans love publicity. Significantly, Mark’s American wife is played by the American star de Havilland. British fan magazine Picturegoer noted that Libel continued Bogarde’s run of American sponsored films which would also be shown in the United States (29th August 1959). These included the already-made The Doctor’s Dilemma, and the upcoming The Franz Liszt Story – later renamed Song Without End (1960, Charles Vidor; George Cukor).

It was also remarked upon that it is somewhat ironic that de Havilland recently launched an unsuccessful libel action against the makers of the 2017 mini-series Feud. The TV production, about the relationship between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), includes a characterisation of de Havilland (Davis’ co star and friend) by Catherine Zeta-Jones. De Havilland criticised the series for claiming she was a gossip and for its less than flattering depiction of her own relationship with her sister, fellow film star Joan Fontaine.  This shows the importance of the matter of personal reputation to stars, as well as the mingling of screen and star images.

 

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.

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.

 

Tamsin Flower’s TRANSFORMER

We were very pleased to recently welcome back writer/director Tamsin Flower, about 6 weeks after her last visit. It was great to read the first draft of her play TRANSFORMER in full, after the excerpts we were treated to last time. This was especially useful due to the play’s complex and thought-provoking structure. The play’s main characters, overbearing mother Norma and the far less sure of herself and still-developing Eddie, each has a different relationship to the films referenced.

We particularly commented on the impactful nature of the first two scenes. In the first, Eddie’s tangle with an impresario comments on Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) with her success in winning the dual role in Swan Lake prompting Norma to celebrate and reminisce about her own related experience. This second scene also involves an impresario, though Norma is far more knowing, and pushy, than the heroine she references: that of the young female ballet dancer Vicky (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger). The fact that the both the obsessive female dancer and the figure of the impresario are archetypes – as demonstrated by the act The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s disturbing fairy tale (1845) – aids the audience’s recognition of both figures even if they are unfamiliar with the films. But the play delves far deeper than this as Norma and Eddie’s relationship to these related but diverging film texts, and of course to each other, are multi-layered.

While both The Red Shoes and Black Swan focus on a woman’s love/hate relationship with dancing and the control it exerts on her, these women and the contexts of the films are very different. In The Red Shoes the ballerina literally cannot escape her compulsion, dancing up until almost her last moment when she jumps in front of a moving train. In Andersen’s story this a punishment for the pleasure she takes in her beautiful new red slippers she insists on wearing to church, with her only stopping once her slipper-encased feet have gruesomely been chopped off. The more modern Black Swan couches Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) breakdown as the pressure between the oppositional good and bad characters she plays on stage, with the moral judgment of women seen in Andersen’s fairy tale replaced by recognition of the pressures women are under.

(For more on Black Swan see this earlier blog post: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/08/summary-of-discussion-on-black-swan/).

Norma and Eddie’s relationship is commented on by the tension existing between both characters and the film texts they are connected to. This is seen as despite the fact Norma, as befitting her age, is linked to The Red Shoes, and Eddie to Black Swan, it is in fact the older Norma who pushes boundaries. In her retelling of her meeting with an impresario, asides convey her calculated behaviour. This is similarly demonstrated as she is present in part of Eddie’s first scene, taking over to tell her story and also commenting on the complex mother/daughter relationship present in Black Swan.

While Norma changes little, Eddie develops, after a crisis of identity leads to a period of estrangement and meaning that Eddie following her own path. Here the recognisable film tropes of women empowering themselves through education (Erin Brockovich, 2000, Steven Soderbergh) and of films’ makeover scenes (Clueless, 1995, Amy Heckerling) shine a light on the way audiences in general respond to stars, including as an ego ideal inspiring self-development. Norma is also ‘made-over’ (references to the classic Now Voyager, 1942, Irving Rapper) but her empowerment comes through her manipulation of men (The Damned Don’t Cry, 1950, Vincent Sherman). Even for modern day theatre audiences who might not be familiar with these specific (though widely available and mostly Hollywood) film texts, the fact they reference themes disseminated in films and indeed these themselves reflect their presence in other art forms/discourses of entertainment widens their appeal, reach and relevance.  The script sets up the matter of how specific (though imaginary) audience members might appropriate material from well-known films with female stars whose characters undergo some sort of transformation. Furthermore, as film academics, many of us historians, this bridges the gap between historical audiences who can seem difficult to grasp, offering some insights into how texts are read, re-read and re-purposed including as part of people’ life narratives.

A particularly enjoyable and fruitful discussion revolved around the matter of pre-code films. This too relates to the matter of historically situated audiences as many today would be unaware that some films before the implementation of this heavier censorship in Hollywood (the Production or Hays Code in 1934) actually referenced matters like prostitution, child abuse and other weighty issues. We specifically discussed the pre-code Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green) – a film credited as partly responsible for more censorship being necessary. In this, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young woman who after years of abuse, including being prostituted by her own father, is encouraged (ironically enough by a man) to use men the way men have always used her – to employ sex for her own ends. Although Lily is in some ways ‘normalised’ – although she cold-heartedly climbs the ladder of executives at the company she is employed by she eventually marries her boss and realising her love for him she later sacrifices her hard-won jewellery – she still gains through using her sexual powers, although she may of course be given special justification due to the awful abuse she has suffered.

We contrasted this to The Damned Don’t Cry which is referenced in the play as Norma regales Eddie, and us, with how she used men to further her own financial standing. The Damned Don’t Cry is a somewhat uneven film, veering from severe sympathy for Edith Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford) after the loss of her child and perhaps some delight in her turning the tables on men, though she does not have such a damaged background as Lily in Baby Face. Furthermore in the post-code and more conservative early 1950s Ethel/Lorna is punished by the killing of the man she loves by the one she has betrayed.

We also commented on the variety of genres referenced – Norma’s melodrama to Eddie’s drama, adaptation, romantic comedy, and horror. This too makes it more recognisable to various audiences and widens the appeal of the piece. In addition, we thought that the humour derived from Norma’s high campery (itself also chiming well with some of the film heroines she references) provided lighter and enjoyable moments.

We look forward to seeing the next draft of Tamsin’s script (thanks so much for sharing, Tamsin!) and to seeing it staged.

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

The Women Screening at the Gulbenkian 13th of October, 7pm

Posted by Sarah

Following the launch of NoRMMA, outlined in the below post, the Gulbenkian is screening the Hollywood classic The Women (1939, George Cukor). This film stars numerous Divine Divas, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, who were the subjects of many a Fan Magazine article. The film will be introduced with an illustrated talk by Lies Lanckman.

The Women

For more information and to book your tickets please go to: http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/October/2014-10-the-women.html

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 27th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of the Summer Term’s Maternal Melodrama themed Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 27th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

We are screening Ann-Marie’s choice The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939, 95 mins)

Old Maid 1

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Old Maid is the last film to be screened in the Melodrama Research Group’s series of maternal melodramas. The screening hopes to spark some interesting debates that will help inform our knowledge of maternal melodrama in preparation for our symposium on the 3rd of June.

Edmund Goulding’s film is loosely adapted from the 1935 play of the same name by Zoe Atkins. The play was also awarded a Pulitzer and is itself adapted from a novella by Edith Wharton. Like many of Bette Davis’ melodramas the film has a defined historical setting, and this time it is set during the American Civil War. The film hurries through events and twenty years before it reaches its finale, but this is a Davis film so there is a guarantee of intense female suffering along the way! Including but not limited to: an illegitimate daughter, lost lovers (yes, plural), and a cruel and yet seemingly caring cousin. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, it is the daughter’s treatment of ‘Aunt Charlotte’ that causes the character such anguish.

Old Maid 2

The film itself was not received well by the critics, most only praised the performance of Bette Davis and her co-star Miriam Hopkins (the only actress she seemed to dislike more than Crawford!). Despite the critics dislike for the static look of the film, The Old Maid was successful amongst audiences[1], which of course could lead to a discussion about the importance of maternal melodramas to the audiences of the 30s and 40s.

Other possible areas for discussion:

  • The role of female sacrifice.
  • The role of class, particularly the importance of the ‘good name’.
  • The good and bad mother figure.
  • Familial relations.
  • A woman’s place in society.
  • Aging and youth.
  • Female companionship.

 


 

[1]Over $1.6 million in ticket receipts and Davis’ biggest commercial success to that date, but would soon be beaten by various other films. See: James Spada (1993) More Than A Woman, London: Sphere. pp.219-222

 

Do join us, if you can, for the last of this term’s screenings.

Summary of Discussion on Mildred Pierce

Posted by Sarah

The group’s discussion on Mildred Pierce focused on the following areas: the film as melodrama and/or film noir; comparison of Michael Curtiz’ film to James M. Cain’s novel and the recent TV series starring Kate Winslet; the central mother daughter relationship and differences between Mildred’s daughters Veda and Kay; the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film; Joan Crawford’s star image.

The splitting of Mildred Pierce into melodrama and film noir has been commented on by several writers. In particular Pam Cook (1978) has noted the broad separation into the bulk of the narrative which is narrated by Mildred and largely melodramatic, and the film noir elements.  In fact film noirs often include such a use of flashback narration – Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) is a prime example. Such a clear separation is challenged by Steve Neale’s work on the way in which contemporaneous trade journals used the label ‘melodrama’. Neale asserts that the term was more often used in connection to films which contained ‘mystery, violence, chase’ (Neale 1993, p. 71). This relates closely to film noir. In addition, Linda Williams has proposed that melodrama is less a genre than a mode, and present in most Hollywood films (Williams, 2000). While it useful to further debate the various definitions of melodrama, it is clear that the film contains contrasting styles. We were particularly struck by the film’s opening. In this Wally Fay (Jack Carson) races around the beach house in which Mildred (Joan Crawford) has imprisoned him. We MP Wally on stairsespecially noted the nightmarish shot of a Carson staring up the spiral staircase. Elsewhere Max Steiner’s lush score emphasised the emotional drama (see Claudia Gorbman, 1982). The tagline from a Variety advertisement quoted in Tamar’s introduction that Mildred was ‘Kinda Hard, Kinda soft’ sums up Mildred Pierce’s dual nature well.

MP Ann Blyth cabaret 2Michael Curtiz’ film was also discussed in relation to James M. Cain’s novel. It was noted that Curtiz’ film kept a flavour of Cain’s punchy social commentary. We were a little surprised that under Hollywood’s Production Code fairly obvious references to extra-marital sex and pregnancy were included.  The film was still, as Variety noted in its review, fairly cleaned up from the novel. While in Cain’s novel Veda became a successful opera singer – and therefore profited from her hideous behaviour – in Curtiz’ film she ends up a low-rent cabaret act. A more significant difference is Mildred’s response to finding her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and Mildred’s second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) in a compromising position. In Cain’s novel Mildred is so enraged she attempts to strangle her daughter.  Such an understandable response is not present in Curtiz’ film, though.  Instead Mildred’s suffering sacrifice is played to the hilt. Mildred’s one refusal of Veda’s demands occurs when Veda has shot Monte dead. Mildred soon reconsiders, however, and is prepared to take responsibility for the crime herself.

Veda’s selfish behaviour can be usefully compared to that of Stella’s daughter Laurel in Stella Dallas (1937). In King Vidor’s film both mother and daughter make sacrifices. A telling scene takes place on the train. Stella and Laurel, lying in separate bunks, overhear the latter’s friends mocking Stella for her vulgarity. Each pretends they have not heard in order to protect the other. In Curtiz’ MP ungrateful Vedafilm Mildred alone overhears something significant: Veda’s ungrateful comment to her sister that she would not ‘be seen dead’ in the dress her mother has scrimped and saved to buy for her.  This is especially poignant as Mildred has sacrificed her marriage to Veda’s father in order to supply Veda with everything she desires rather than what she deserves.

MP Mildred slaps VedaWhile Mildred’s accepting sacrifice in the face of such an ungrateful daughter in Curtiz’ film is perhaps less then believable, it was agreed that Ann Blyth superbly portrayed Veda’s venal nature. The film ably contrasts Veda to her sweet little sister Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), whose death scene provides the film’s most distressing moment. We also noted the way in which the film managed to convey complex aspects of Mildred and Veda’s relationship. The repetition of a slap was commented on. The first time this occurs Mildred slaps Veda and, immediately overcome with guilt, profusely apologises. Towards the end of the film Veda slaps her mother. This second occurrence is far more shocking. Partly this is due to the heft of the slap and Mildred/Crawford’s fairly exaggerated physical recoil but it is also notable that Veda does not regret her action. This neatly comments on both the differences MP Mildred is slapped buy Vedabetween the characters and the change in the dynamics of their relationship. The actresses’ costuming, hair and make-up parallel this change. As Veda grows up and Mildred becomes more business-like their outfits and hairstyles echo one another, foreshadowing that they are ‘squaring up’ for the next round of the fight.  We might ponder whether this mirroring is a statement on how much Mildred is responsible for Veda’s spoilt nature.

MP TV seriesJoan Crawford’s performance was compared to Kate Winslet’s in the 2011 TV mini-series. Similarities were noted in the scenes where Mildred puts her children to bed.  In particular the tendency of both actresses to employ minimal mouth movement was commented on. However Crawford’s individuality was also a source of discussion. In addition to the seeming impossibility of her facial features – the severe cheekbones and large eyes and mouth – her wide shoulders were referenced.

 Mildred’s progression from domesticity to high-powered business woman was also commented on. This was compared to the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film – most often in comedy, and portrayed with distinct flair by Rosalind Russell. But we also related it to Crawford’s own star image. In particular her films They All Kissed the Bride (1942) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) were mentioned. It was noted that at the time real shop girls were thought to identify with the shop girls portrayed by Crawford in sound films – such as in The Bride Wore Red (1937). It is worth noting, however, that despite the shop girl playing an important part in Crawford’s 1930s star image she actually played a variety of roles. (See Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, 1993, pp. 171-173.) It was thought that perhaps the emphasis in fan magazines on how Crawford herself learned’ through films strengthened the connection.

In relation to Crawford’s star image It's a Great FeelingTamar suggested  watching It’s a Great Feeling (1949) starring  Doris Day, Jack Carson (Wally Fay) and Dennis Morgan. In the film various Warner Bros. contract stars play up to their star images. Crawford in seen knitting in the background (apparently a hobby of hers) and then angrily berates and slaps Carson for no reason. Afterwards she smiles sweetly and replies to his asking her why she did it that ‘I do that in all my movies’. As with the assumption that Crawford ‘always’ played shop girls, this action which’ does in all her movies’ is in fact very specific. Crawford does not perform such an action in all, or even most, of her films.  Indeed it is largely a reference to Mildred Pierce. It is significant that a few years after the film’s release another film from the same studio posits such an action as an essential part of her star image.

We rounded up discussion with a mention of Johnny Guitar (1954). Significantly in Nicholas Ray’s film Crawford starred with the actress Mercedes McCambridge – with whom she reportedly feuded. This of course prompted thoughts on Bette Davis.  Ann-Marie provided some great behind the scenes information on the next film we will screen – The Old Maid (1939- see the next post!) and Davis’ feud with an actress other than Crawford: Miriam Hopkins.

Works Cited

Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, New York: Knopf, 1993.

Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women In Film Noir, London: BFI 1978.

Claudia Gorbman, “The Drama’s Melos: Max Steiner and Mildred Pierce”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 19, 1982.

Steve Neale, “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 32, 1993.

Linda Williams “Melodrama Revised” in Nick Browne, ed, Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, University of California Press, 1998: 42-88.

A clip of Crawford in It’s a Great Feeling:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trGF6KrMAbA

Many thanks to Tamar for organising the screening and providing an excellent introduction.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 20th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of the Summer Term’s Maternal Melodrama themed Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 20th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

We are screening Tamar’s choice: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945, 111 mins)

MP mother and daughter

Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mildred Pierce – film noir or melodrama?

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is the next film to be screened in the Melodrama Research Group’s series of maternal melodramas, leading up to our symposium on this topic on 3 June. But if it is a maternal melodrama, why is so much written about it under the film noir label?

The film, adapted loosely from the James M. Cain novel of the same name, tells the story of Mildred Pierce and her journey to business success and personal failure. Much of the film’s moody opening seems as if it is trying to force Mildred into the role of noir’s usual femme fatale, but as the narrative succumbs to its flashbacks, her motherhood, as well as other factors, complicates this.

MP double page ad Variety 1

The movie poster’s tagline is in accord with this noir presentation: “The kind of woman most men want – and shouldn’t have! That’s…..Mildred Pierce”, though an earlier piece of publicity had more simply “Kinda Hard Kinda Soft”. Neither seems to do justice to the narrative exigencies to which Mildred is subjected. Perhaps the significant factor for our Melodrama Research Group to ponder is that the film does not easily fit any generic label, but rather exceeds several; furthermore, as theorists have shown, film noir was not an industrial category at the time and, as Steve Neale suggests, neither perhaps was melodrama. There will be much to consider and much to enjoy, then, as we watch Joan Crawford head a talented cast as Mildred and listen to Max Steiner’s supple and evocative score.

Further Reading

Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women In Film Noir, London: BFI 1978.

Claudia Gorbman, “The Drama’s Melos: Max Steiner and Mildred Pierce”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 19, 1982.

Steve Neale, “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 32, 1993.

 Do join us, if you can, for this Hollywood Classic.

Mary Pickford on Psychobitches

Posted by Sarah

Ahead of the screening of Coquette on Wednesday, I thought it might be interesting to consider the presentation of Mary Pickford on Psychobitches. In the Sky Arts comedy series Rebecca Front stars as a therapist helping famous, and infamous, women from history. Julia Davis as Pickford can be seen on youtbe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlMQ0UT9UaU

Davis as Pickford

The clips comment effectively on Pickford’s star image, genre expectation and silent films. All in 2 and a half minutes!

 

psychobitches

Apologies, for the delay, but this also seems a good opportunity to congratulate Tamar for guessing the right answer to the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Psychobitches Challenge. In the clip Mark Gatiss’ Crawford calls Frances Barber’s Davis by the single-syllabled ‘Bet’ rather than the double-syllabled ‘Bette’. Apparently, despite their feud, she would never have dreamed of doing this. Even to wind up Davis!

Well done too to Rosa for supllying another valid answer.

Many thanks to Lies and Ann-Marie for organising this and supplying the great prizes.

Summary of Discussion on American Horror Story

Posted by Sarah

After running the screening session on American Horror Story, Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion:

AHS house

Throughout the session, a constant discussion point was the house, and the importance to the narrative. Many of us commented on the fact it was presented as a gothic house. Also how there was a strange sense of space. The geography of the house did not appear logical – this was mentioned in relation to when Ben’s phoney patient went to leave the house. The front door did not appear where you thought it should be. However, the audience are more aware of the space and the size of the cellar. This use of space to confuse added an unreal aspect to the house – much like The Shining. It was noted how space was beginning to become associated with individual characters and how there was a lack of action outside the space of the house – even in the garden! Some of us who had seen it revealed that the narrative does move to the garden later in the series. Also noted was the lack of possessions in the house – we could see no photos or personal ornaments. Is this important? Maybe the lack of possessions was representational of Ben and Vivienne’s relationship? Empty? The lack of lighting was discussed – how dark the house was lit, adding to the Gothic ambience. Ann-Marie shared that the house was also used in an episode of Buffy entitled “Fear, Itself”. It was observed how the opening of the first episode cut from murders at the house to Vivienne at her gynaecological appointment – making the link with house, procreation and birth. One of the group mentioned how important children and birth are to the narrative, more so as the series goes on and how Constance said how important a “good line” is.

The concept of and use of ghosts was discussed. It was remarked that there is a split (evident later in the series) between those who are malicious and those who are good. The point was made how the character of the ghosts were forged and cemented at the point when they were killed. Although this did not seem to be true for Moira who appears to have a split personality. There is a certain morality in Moira as well as a form of archaic womanhood as she says, it’s women who always cleans up the mess (which she does at the end of episode 2). There was also a discussion on ghosts and the spaces they inhabit. Do they get to go outside? Again, those of us who have watched the series mentioned the episode of Halloween (without giving away any plot spoilers!).

AHS cupcakesThe style of the series was a point for discussion. It was suggested that the storyline involving the cupcake was very Hitchcockian – how the camera focused on the cake and its movement. It was reminiscent of the glass of milk in Notorious but also of Suspicion. The amount of male nakedness was a talking point! There appears to be much more of this than female nakedness. This appeared to be connected with Ben’s sadness and how his sadness is intertwined with his sexual desires. Notably in the scene where he masturbates and cries. The format of the series allowed for more risks in content and for more creativity in the horror/melodrama. The series could not just rely on horror, so there is an emphasis on the drama and melodrama. We invest in the family and, like a crime drama, we want to know what happens next. One of the group observed how revelatory each episode was – and that revelations were not just confined to episodes, but also in terms of ad breaks. You could tell where the ad breaks would occur and how the revelations would be formatted to allow for these breaks, which appeared very Dickensian, or reminiscent of how Dickens serialised his novels for weekly publication. The importance of editing was observed. There is a massive use of jump cuts, which adds to the unsettling nature of the series.

The violence of the series was noted. The excess of Vivienne’s attack on Ben when she finds him with the other woman – she strikes and cuts him with a knife. Also the replaying of Addie’s words “You’ll regret it” over this sequence. It provides a sense of foreboding. It appears as if a comment on modern relationships and how they are somewhat horrific and the split in the family which creates the horror. The focus on the family and the home and the idea of perfection and its attainment. The series appears to be providing commentary on the “all American dream” centred on the home (coded as gothic) and the family. Addie wants to look like a perfect girl and Tait was intended to be the perfect child.

AHS ConstanceJessica Lange’s Constance was a large focus of the discussion. She was discussed in terms of her allure, her power, her sexuality and as a mother. She appeared – through costume and how she spoke – as if a throwback from the 1950s. Constance is a melodramatic constructed woman as she could be from a Sirk film or a Bette Davis or Crawford vehicle. She has no qualms in calling Addie a mongoloid or a freak and locks her in the room of mirrors, which must be a horrific experience for Addie. But she is also very protective of Addie. Constance appears to be vested with some other worldly power which is part of her allure. She too was looking for the “perfect American life” in wanting to be an actress, which is how she came to be in LA.

Many thanks to Kat for organising a screening which led to much discussion, and for summarising it so well!

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

 

Summary of Discussion on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Posted by Sarah

Due to the length of the film, discussion was fairly short but it included: the theme of performance and imitation in melodrama and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s performances in the film; comparison to other Davis and Crawford films and performances; the intended Davis/Crawford follow-up film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte; some specific memorable scenes; the off-screen melodrama of Bette and Joan’s ‘feud’ and the daughters’ autobiographies.

Sunset BlvdThe centrality of performance to melodrama generally (which we have been focusing on particularly in the last few weeks), and to this film specifically, was noted. Of course, in part this is due to the fact both screen stars play characters who were once actresses. The film’s skilful use of old screen clips of Davis and Crawford’s films to demonstrate this  was striking, especially when juxtaposed to their current, older images. We noted that this also occurred with Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and was mentioned in some of this week’s readings (see Brooks, Morey etc) In both films it drives home their central Baby Jane spotlighttheme of performance. The older ‘Baby’ Jane (played by Davis) performs several times in the film by enacting her old song and dance routine.  The film highlights these moments by the staging: a ceiling light acts as a spotlight and Jane/Davis faces front.

Baby Jane telephone BD

The theme of Jane performing also plays out as she imitates her sister Blanche. Jane does so mockingly to begin with as she throws a phrase Blanche has just uttered back in her face, but later her imitation is used for the purpose of impersonation. The first time this occurs it is relatively innocent.  Alcoholic Jane is annoyed that Blanche has cancelled her account with the local off-license and she successfully fools them into believing they are talking to Blanche on the telephone. Not only does she uncannily imitate Blanche’s voice, but she also, arguably unnecessarily, uses similar facial Baby Jane telephone JCexpressions. The second occurrence is far more sinister. Wheelchair-bound Blanche has struggled downstairs and telephoned for help. Once more, Jane manages to convince the person she is talking to (a Doctor in this case) that she is in fact Blanche. Blanche is therefore denied the held she so desperately requires, and struggled so hard to gain access to.

We discussed the way in which Davis effectively portrayed Jane’s switch between the performance of childlikeness (her admittedly deluded, but still slightly detached, enactment of her old song and dance routine) and her regression to childhood. This appeared to be triggered by the cleaner Elvira finding that Jane was keeping Blanche tied up and locked in her room. After attacking and killing Elvira with a hammer, Jane pleads with Blanche to advise her. This is in stark contrast to the control she previously exercised over her sister. Later still, when Jane is concerned with escape, her first thought is to travel to the beach with Blanche.  It was noted that both Rain (1932) and Baby Jane end with deaths on beaches: in  Rain the reformer  Davidson (Walter Huston) commits suicide there, while in Baby Jane  Blanche dies due to her sister’s neglect and abuse.  We thought this was especially interesting since the beach has been written of as a place of safety, baby jane beach groupgiven its relation to childhood, and as a female space. Jane’s delight in obtaining (though significantly not purchasing) ice-creams for herself and Blanche and Davis’ uninhibited performance of Jane’s impromptu old song and dance routine on the beach underlines her regression.

 

Davis’ use of gestures was also baby jane kickcommented on. Many of these are in the service of revealing Jane’s true self – whether as unbalanced tormentor or a frightened child. We might particularly think of the most exaggerated: the relish with which she kicks the helpless Blanche. This was also true of the most exaggerated gestures Davis employed in Of Human Bondage (1934). These occurred during Mildred’s tirade against Philip (Leslie Howard) andOf Human Bondage tirade effectively revealed her violent and ugly character.  A difference between the characters – Mildred is always performing in some sense while Jane occasionally performs her old song and dance routine – is marked, however. It was also noted that the only way for Davis to successfully play a mentally unbalanced character regressing into childhood was to overplay her.

There is a further, more subtle level of character performance: the way we all display certain aspects of our character at different times and in varying situations in everyday life. This is less applicable to Davis’ Jane as on the whole she does not appear to be putting on an act: she mostly tells her neighbours, the cleaner Elvira and especially her sister Blanche, exactly what she thinks. Even the insidious way in which Jane causes Blanche to fear eating the meals Jane prepares is due to Jane’s previous grand gestures:  the serving up of Blanche’s pet budgerigar and later a rat for dinner.

Baby jane dinner screamCrawford has fewer opportunities than Davis to signal her performance. However, she must often placate the mentally unstable Jane by being less than truthful. Crawford does still have some moments which require extreme reaction. She becomes increasingly persecuted by Jane and fearful of the meals her sister serves.  A particularly noteworthy sequence involves both stars. Blanche/Crawford’s scream of horror as she uncovers the Baby Jane hysterical laughtergarnished dead rat is followed by Jane/Davis’ hysterical laugher. Jane has waited outside to hear Blanche’s reaction and the juxtaposition of shots and similar sounds effective unites the sisters and the stars.  Crawford’s shifting between restraint and a certain level of exaggeration (her fear) was compared to her earlier performance in Rain (1932).

The theme of performance extends to other characters in the film. Pianist Edwin Flag (played by Victor Buono) is first seen at home with his mother, Dehlia, (played by Marjorie Bennet) when she telephones Jane pretending to be her son’s secretary. When Edwin visits Jane he ‘performs’ literally since he accompanies Jane’s singing onbaby Jane Buono tea the piano. Performance is also present as he displays a particular side of himself to Jane in the hope that she will employ him.  He plays up his Englishness and emphasises his claims to refinement when the two take tea together.  Most notable is Edwin’s response to Jane’s routine. He does well to hide his horror at her attempts to sing. Edwin declares that Jane’s act is ‘wonderful’ when the camera’s privileged view of his face suggests he believes precisely the opposite. The audience must, of course, agree with this opinion. While Edwin is forced to listen and watch Jane through his need for paid employment, we find it hard to tear our eyes and ears away from the fascinating and grotesque spectacle: of both Jane and Davis.

We also briefly discussed the film’s style. The film often cross-cuts between Jane returning home in her car after running some errands and Blanche’s futile attempts at escape. In addition, Aldrich often signposts the particularly heightened moments of melodrama with an overtly dramatic use of shot choice (notably the zoom) and sound (often non-diegetic music).The scene in which an increasingly frustrated Blanche ineffectually wheels her chair around on the spot is a good example. In order to drive home Blanche’s feelings of confinement, Aldrich switches from a straight-on to an overhead camera angle which better reveals her inability to move far. Another very memorable shot is the one which prompts Jane to break down on the staircase. This depicts Edwin/Buono wheeling a wheelchair through the hall with a blanket over his head and a Baby Jane doll on his lap. In addition to causing Jane to react, it is puzzlingly bizarre in itself, and manages to be conspicuous in a film full of odd moments.

The intended Crawford and Davis follow-up to Baby Jane: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) also prompted some fruitful reflection. In this the roles of tormentor and tormented as played out in Baby Jane by Davis and Crawford respectively, were meant to be reversed. Before Crawford pulled out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, she was set to play Miriam – Charlotte’s (Davis) tormentor.  Interestingly the American Film Institute (AFI) defines Hush…Hush as horror rather than melodrama. Though it is certainly true that the boundary between the two is blurred and that Baby Jane itself has elements of horror. (We will be able to explore this more over the next two weeks as we focus on the horror genre.) Baby Jane and Hush…Hush contain other notable similarities. In addition to the planned reteaming of Davis and Crawford another star of Baby Jane appears:  Buono intriguingly plays Charlotte’s father in Hush….Hush’s hush hushflashbacks.  At the character level we observed the fate of the cleaner/housekeeper in both films. In Baby Jane Blanche’s ally, and cleaner, Elvira (Maidie Norman), is killed by Jane while Velma (Agnes Moorehead) Charlotte’s housekeeper and friend  in Hush…Hush… suffers a similar fate.

Of course the off-screen melodrama of Crawford and Davis’ ‘feud’ and their personal difficulties were also a point of discussion.  Both Crawford and Davis’ daughters (the latter’s offspring, BD Hyman, played the young neighbour in Baby Jane) wrote autobiographies which contained less than flattering portraits of their mothers.  Christina Crawford waited until her mother had died to publish her account, and therefore Joan could not put across her point of view.  Davis noted how unfair this was and when Davis’ own daughter published a similar volume Davis was able to retaliate to the accusations in her own memoir This ‘n That.

We ended the session with a brief reference to Davis and especially Crawford injohnny guitar relation to camp. The 60-something Crawford temporarily taking over her ill 20-something daughter’s role in a TV soap is a very good example, while Crawford’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar is notorious for its status as a camp classic. In Nicholas Ray’s film, Crawford feuded on and off-screen with another actress– this time Mercedes McCambridge. We thought it noteworthy that the clip from comedy series Psyhcobitches privileged the notion of camp.  It certainly seems that camp, specifically in relation to Baby Jane, is closely attached to Davis and Crawford’s star images in retrospect.

Many thanks to Lies and Ann-Marie for sharing their extensive Joan and Bette knowledge and providing some great competition prizes!

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