John Mercer’s Magnificent Obsession talk

Posted by Sarah

We were fortunate on the 29th of September to host another fascinating talk by Dr John Mercer of Birmingham City University (http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer)

Prior to a screening of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), John spoke about the fact that the orthodox version of Hollywood history often depends on gossip and rumour.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionJohn subsequently challenged some misconceptions relating to Magnificent Obsession. These range from matters of reception to production. It has been claimed that it was populist trash primarily targeted at female audiences. It has also been the view that the 1935 film  the 1954 version was a remake of was obscure. Meanwhile it is often assumed that Producer Ross Hunter was more interested in the project than Sirk.

mag ob novel

The 1929 source novel by Lloyd C Douglas (see book cover, left) was one of that biggest selling of the  year. In  addition, a previous 1935 film adaptation featured the established and incredibly popular star Irene Dunne and the up and coming Robert Taylor and reaped enormous box office rewards. These three facts reveal that the narrative was in fact highly significant since it was very familiar to audiences.

 

It was pointed out that Hollywood had not abandoned the Magnificent Obsession  magnificent-obsessionnarrative in the almost twenty years between the first and second film versions. It was adapted for Lux radio in 1936 (with Dunne and Taylor), in 1940 (staring Claudette Colbert) and 1942 (starring Dunne). In addition, the sequel to the source novel was adapted for TV as a popular soap opera in the early 1950s.

John also noted the different ways in which stars are treated in the Film Studies. There are those who have always been present both in popular memory and film scholarship; those largely forgotten by the masses but who are in some ways recovered by film scholarship; those who are simply ignored. While Hudson might be said to belong to the first category, Jane Wyman, sadly, belongs to the last.

John provided a useful summary of Wyman’s career. Although beginning as a fairly light jane wymansecond lead she progressed to challenging roles. Significantly Wyman received a Best Actress Oscar in 1948 and was nominated a further 3 times (including for Magnificent Obsession). Wyman was clearly well thought of at the time despite Film Studies’ subsequent lack of interest in her. In relation to melodrama Wyman specialised in ‘dignified suffering’ and was a ‘model of femininity’.Wyman’s status as a star, and her importance to Magnificent Obsession, was highlighted by John’s discussion of the film’s finances. Wyman received a large proportion ($150,000) of the film’s ($780, 000) budget.

Rock Hudson

Hudson’s career was also outlined by John. Interestingly, while today many assume that the contemporaneous opinion of Hudson’s acting was less than complimentary, John’s research in fact reveals that this is not the case.

 

Discussion of Sirk focused on the prevalent view of him in Film Studies as a cynical intellectual auteur and the ruthless efficiency with which he manages the audience’s emotional responses.  The sheer lavishness of the costumes and the cinematography was also mentioned.

Foster Hirsch’s description of the actors’ performances in Magnificent Obsession as ‘hushed’ was also referenced. This seems particularly at odds with the general view of ‘melodramatic’ acting and will be of special interest to the group for the first 3 screening and discussion sessions of term  which focus on performance.

Many thanks to John for another insightful and enjoyable talk which has inspired us to consider screening not only Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) which also starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson but the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession….

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

REMINDER: Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

Doris Day ConfidentialJust  a quick reminder about the melodrama events that are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on Sunday the 29th of September. These are part of a Doris Day weekend to celebrate both the launch of Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s recently published book on the star (see picture, left), and to showcase Day’s versatility as a performer.

A screening of Pillow Talk (1959) will take place on Friday the 27th of Sept at 6pm.

A singalong version of Calamity Jane (1953) is being shown on Saturday the 28th of Sept at 2.30 pm.

Melodrama Events On the 29th of September:

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

 

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

 

 

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

 

Do join us for some or all of these wonderful Doris and/or Melodrama Events.

Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

A reminder that the following exciting melodrama events are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on the 29th of September.

The first focuses on Douglas Sirk’s film Magnificent Obsession (1954).

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

John is co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama : Genre, Style, Sensibility. London ; New York : Wallflower, 2004

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

The Gulbenkian website description of the film: “Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ spiritual novel of the same title, churlish playboy Bob Merrick becomes indirectly responsible for the death of a much loved local doctor when he foolishly wrecks his speed boat. In trying to make amends, he falls in love with the doctor’s widow and must remake his life in order to win her love.”

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

The Gulbenkian website’s description of the film:  “A family vacationing in Morocco accidentally stumble on to an assassination plot and the conspirators are determined to prevent them from interfering. Includes a 5-10 minute introduction”

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

Doris Day Confidential

To see more details of Tamar’s book Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood, Sex and Stardom go to: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doris-Day-Confidential-Hollywood-Stardom/dp/1848855826/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378711364&sr=8-1&keywords=doris+day+confidential

 

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

It would be useful to draw together some of our group’s activities and discussion on melodrama over the last 9 months. I’ve added my own thoughts below which ended up being far more fulsome than originally intended!), but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to include your ideas. It would be great if people provided their own overviews, or a detailed focus on an element (such as the definition of melodrama or a specific film) which especially interested them.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionWe were very fortunate to begin the academic year with a Research Seminar at which Birmingham School of Media’s Dr John Mercer (co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, 2004) presented. John’s talk ‘Acting and Behaving Like a Man: Rock Hudson’s Performance Style’ focused on Hudson’s ‘behaving’ in several Douglas Sirk melodramas:  Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). This provided us with some great insights into probably the most referenced Hollywood director of film melodramas as well as underlining the close relationship between melodrama and performance.

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Gary Needham also presented at a fascinating Research Seminar. In ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy (1956): Minnelli, Hollywood, Homosexuality’. Gary, like John, explored the work of specific Hollywood director associated with melodrama: in this case Vincente Minnelli. Gary’s work interestingly opened up debate on gender relations and sexuality with a sensitive re-reading of Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy.

In our fortnightly meetings since January we have broadened out from this focus on 1950s Hollywood melodrama. We have screened a surprisingly wide variety of films with connections to melodrama, which hailed from France, Britain, the US, and Hong Kong and stretched from the silent cinema of the 1900s to contemporary film of the 2000s. We have also organised a very enjoyable and useful read through of a play.

We started with debate on the male melodrama by referencing Steve Neale’s reconsideration of melodrama in ‘Melo Talk’.  Neale argued that unlike the 1970s The Narrow Marginfeminists who wrote on melodrama in relation to the ‘women’s film’, trade press from Hollywood’s Studio Era was more likely to attach the term ‘melodrama’ to films with male-focused themes, such as film noir. Viewing Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) which was hailed at its time of release as a ‘Suspense Melodrama’ allowed us to engage with Neale’s argument in a practical as well as theoretical way.

son of the SheikBut melodrama is more usually thought of as being related to suffering.  The American Film Institute defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm). In keeping with this, we screened George Melford’s The Sheik (1921). The Sheik and the next film, Robert Z. Leonard’s The The DivorceeDivorcee (1930), were more closely related to traditional notions of melodrama focused on by feminists in the 1970s. Both of these centred on melodramatic plots and had suffering women at their hearts. Though the earlier film presented events in a more melodramatic way, partly due to the type of acting which is thought to predominate in the silent era.

Our screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) opened out our discussion to animation. Once more the melodramatic plot was in place, though we did note that the use of comedy tempered the melodramatic elements.

snow white 1

 

Gaslight UKShowing two versions of Gaslight – the British film directed1 Welcome Gaslight by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the Hollywood remake helmed by Gorge Cukor in 1944 – allowed us to compare examples from two major film industries. In terms of melodrama the same, or at least a similar, story being told in different ways was especially illuminating. The plot underpinning both is melodramatic, but the polished approach of Hollywood was strikingly different to the ‘blood and thunder’ uppermost in Dickinson’s film. The Gothic subgenre of these films also provided much discussion.

Love on the Dole 2Weekly activities in the Summer Term provided us with scope to show more, and some longer, films. We began with John Baxter’s Love on the Dole (1941) which fascinatingly combined a melodramatic plot with the aesthetics of social realism. Its unusual, downbeat, approach was highlighted by the films we screened the following week: George Melies’ Barbe-Bleu (1901), D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913) and Lois Weber’s The Mothering HeartSuspense (1913). Showing some very early short melodramas by French and American film pioneers George enabled us to directly compare films from cinema’s earlier days, afforded us the opportunity of watching the work of a female director which seems apt given melodrama’s usual focus on the female, and provoked thoughts regarding the use of suspense and restraint.

Poltergeist 2The screening of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) turned the group’s attention to horror. This provided us with an opportunity to assess the way melodrama works with, and amongst, other related genres. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Happy Together tangoTogether (1997) proved to be another surprising, but interesting choice for discussion. The clearly melodramatic plot concerning two young lovers’ trials was presented, at times, in a documentary style. This was thought to be revealing of melodrama’s inherent variety.

A read-through of Frederick and Walter Melville’s 1903 play A Girl’s Cross Roads returned us to more traditional notions of melodrama. The plot and the performances (at least when ‘performed’ by us!) were certainly over the top, with suffering central to the play.

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

Our most recent screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) proved very useful as it was a thoughtful meditation on melodrama especially in its parodying of the genre and Hollywood films of the 1950s.

In addition to our screenings and the read through we have been contacted by the BFI who are staging an event about melodrama in 2015. They intend to screen 50 unmissable melodramas. We compiled our own list of 50 unmissable melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/the-bfi-and-50-unmissable-melodramas/) which we had reduced from the longer list of 225 titles (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/unmissable-melodramas-the-long-list/) We are currently working through (and adding to!) these. We also plan to widen out further from film melodrama by engaging with theatre, television and radio(see the next post on Summer Activities for more information).

The Melodrama Research Group is busy working on several events: a screening of Midnight Lace (1960) in September, a forthcoming Symposium, a Festival, a Trip and is looking into Publishing Opportunities.

Summary of Discussion on Poltergeist

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion ranged far and wide, addressing several areas: the debate as to whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed the film;  comparisons to other Spielberg films; the film’s relation to drama and melodrama; the film’s central themes of love and family; how the comedic aspects affected the drama, melodrama and horror; some staples of the horror film gene;  parapsychologist Dr Lesh’s function; more specific aspects of the film including set design, particular shots and the use of music; comparisons to non-Spielberg films. As ever, do leave comments or email me at sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

indiana

We started by referencing Warren Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Continuum, 2006) in which Buckland analysed Poltergeist’s shot lengths and concluded that the film bore close relation to films directed by Tobe Hooper, rather than those directed by Steven Spielberg. However, the group thought that despite this, the film felt like a Spielberg movie– and he was indeed responsible for the film’s story as well as co-writing and co-producing it. On a very general level, Poltergeist was reminiscent of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and its mix of comedy quips and adventure/horror very similar to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It was noted that Poltergeist’s parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) had a similar sense of fun to the parents in Jaws, despite the arrival of children. The fact that the film showing on the family’s TV at one point – A Guy Named Joe (1943) – was later remade by Spielberg into Always (1989) was also commented on as further evidence of Spielberg’s close involvement. It was thought that a reason Spielberg might not have been credited as co-director was that he was exclusively contracted as director on E.T. at the time.

So how might the presence of Spielberg’s guiding hand affect the dramatic and melodramatic aspects of the film? Kat interestingly proposed that Spielberg had ‘blockbusterised’ 1930s and 1940s melodrama. It was agreed that the main connection to melodrama was the emphasis on excessive emotion and the heightened drama.  The film’s main themes regarding the power of love and the family and the very high stakes involved – the average American Family under attack from The Beast – were also related to this gesture towards the excessive. In addition, the characters’ relationships with one another were understandably highly emotional. This was aided by the use of non-diegetic music which inspired an emotional response from the audience. As well as at the level of the plot and theme, the cinematic treatment was excessive – the blockbuster special effects for example. This relates well to some of our other discussion about melodrama. Is melodrama most visible at the level of plot (the suffering of characters – as seen in Poltergeist when the family loses its youngest member) or the way in which the story is told? At this point, John Mercer and Martin Shingler’s Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (Wallflower Press, 2004) in which the authors state that melodrama is perhaps not a genre, but a sensibility or mood was considered. It was also suggested that Poltergeist’s excessive plot and treatment (especially its dramatic, or melodramatic, elements) were what made the film, essentially hokum, believable, at least at the moment of viewing.

In addition, sentimentality, which is certainly one of Spielberg’s hallmarks, was present throughout the film and is arguably connected to melodrama. This sentimentality contributed to the fact that the film, while it had elements of horror, was not too frightening. We also linked this to the comedy aspect present in several Spielberg films. The squabbling siblings reminded us of a US family sitcom. The sudden intrusion of the horrific elements was therefore in some ways surprising. While this might be thought to lead to extra-shock value, it generally toned down the horror elements as it seemed likely that the familiar comedy component would soon return. It was noted that no one actually dies in Poltergeist – which is highly unusual for a horror film and part of what contributes to its status as a family-oriented horror film.

Some more usual motifs of horror were present though. The house was of course revealed to have been built on top of an uncleared cemetery and the family’s ordeal was not over when the characters believed it to be.

leshCharacters outside the family in Poltergeist were also discussed. We particularly focused on the parapsychologist Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight). It was thought to be significant that as an outsider, and one who must to some extent suspend any disbelief she might feel, Dr Lesh functioned as a mirror for the audience. She acted as intermediary between us and the film’s moments of excessive drama. As an investigator of parapsychology she of course only appears after Carol-Ann is abducted – once the film’s drama has become excessive. She appeared to provide a sense of stability for the audience, therefore, and she explicitly acts in this way for Diane. The Doctor promises she will return, and the pair shares an emotional hug which marks Dr Lesh as a mother surrogate.

Other specific moments of the film we focused on included the shot which magically lengthened the landing corridor as Diane was attempting to reach the end of it to rescue her children. It was thought that the shot itself seemed out of place with the rest of the film, although the sense of urgency it engendered chimed well with the heightened drama. The pan ‘reveal’ which showed that the proposed housing development would be built on was also commented on. The prominent position the staircase occupied in Poltergeist was focused on. This relates to melodrama in terms of spectacle, although in this instance the stairs’ almost freakishly organic, twisty, appearance was deemed unusual.

We also found some echoes of Poltergeist in later films. The plot was compared to that of Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson), while Poltergeist’s beginning was related to that of A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) and the bobbing corpses in the back garden to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell  (2010). The latter is on UK TV this Sunday – Channel 5 9-11.05 pm – if you want to catch it.

We did not get around to discussing Thomas Elsaesser’s article on the family melodrama, but if anyone would like to do so, just add a comment. It should also bear relevance to next week’s screening.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing such an enjoyable, thought-provoking and, at times, quite scary film, and for providing other food for thought!