Summary of Discussion on The Bat Whispers

Our discussion of The Bat Whispers covered: its melodramatic elements, which included the Mystery, Violence, Chase of male melodrama; the film’s origins in literature, stage and cinema; consideration of the narrative’s use of stereotypes and connections to the gothic; the relationship between Cornelia Van Gorder and Lizzie Allen; the film’s style, especially its camerawork, in terms of influence; the film’s epilogue.

We began with discussion of elements relating to the ‘male’ melodrama: Mystery, Violence and Chase. These, especially the latter, were very much to the fore in our previous screening – Hunted (1952) starring Dirk Bogarde as a man on the run. This time, the criminal was the mysterious ‘Bat’, an inventive thief intent on terrorising the country. His unknown identity forms the film’s central mystery and means that we do not have access to his motives. The matter of disguise was also raised by another character. We noted how one of the film’s lesser character’s appearance, and poor attempt at passing for someone else, reminded us of a trope of the Superhero film. Dale Van Gorder (Una Merkel), niece of the elderly and indomitable Cornelia (Grayce Hampton) who is renting a country house for the summer, is anxious to hide her fiancé Brook (William Bakewell) in plain view as a gardener. In order to make sure he goes unrecognised (he is the missing clerk from a bank which has recently been robbed) Dale slightly ruffles Brook’s hair and gives him some spectacles. This made us think of the later depictions of Superman when he is passing for reporter Clark Kent. Other mystery elements arose as the film unfolded: who is responsible for the attacks on the characters?, who stole the money from the bank?, is the missing money in the house’s ‘hidden’ room?

The film contains several instances of violence. The Bat is reported by the newspapers to be a dangerous criminal, and we see him committing some violent acts. He murders a man he is robbing near the beginning of the film’s narrative, and we presume that he is also responsible for the onscreen shooting of Dick Fleming (Hugh Huntley) as well as other incidents. He is not the only violent character though. Fleming was threatening Dale with a gun at the time he was shot; Dr Venrees (Gustav von Seyffertitz) hits Detective Anderson (Chester Morris) over the head with a telephone; the caretaker (Spencer Charters) drops an urn from a height on a visitor when he appears on the doorstep. Some of this violence is, however, undercut by the film’s often comic tone. This mostly exists in the characters, especially those coded as of the lower classes. Specifically, these are Cornelia’s maid Lizzie (Maude Eburne) and the caretaker. The former’s responses to the violence, and indeed any mild instances of terror, are always exaggerated while the latter is demonstrably fearful of all strangers.

The film’s central narrative line is the search for the Bat. But the dynamic and suspenseful chase sequences which open the film – police cars race down city streets – are replaced by comic ones in the house. The most extended of these involves the caretaker being pursued though the house by the police. As well as involving one of the film’s demonstrably ‘comic’ characters, the footage also appears to be sped up. There are also scenes during which the Bat dashes through the house, making an exit through centrally placed chute. This has a comic effect, but this is increased when it the action is repeated, with comical noises and gestures, by Lizzie. The chase sequences also effectively establish the onscreen space, giving us insight into the house’s architecture. (We noted, for example, the connecting doors between Cornelia and Lizzie’s rooms.) The house’s construction becomes especially important as the location of a ‘hidden’ room, potentially the place where the missing money is being stashed, is sought. This therefore links both the mystery and chase elements present in the film.

While these specific melodramatic elements are more connected to the ‘male’ melodrama, we also commented on the film’s use of more ‘traditional’ melodrama stereotypes. These are worth considering in relation to the film’s stage origins, and its early sound cinema production context. The film is based on the play, The Bat, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood in 1920. It enjoyed popularity, closing after over 800 performances in New York, and more than 300 in London. The play was also praised by leading American theatre critic Alexander Wollcott in the New York Times. It had previously been filmed, by The Bat Whispers director Roland West, as a silent in 1926. That version starred Emily Fitzroy as Cornelia, Louise Fazenda as Lizzie and Eddie Gribbon as Detective Anderson.

It is notable that both the 1926 and 1930 films draw on the play, rather than Roberts Rinehart’s original 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. This had been directed by Edward le Saint as a feature-length silent in 1915. The novel and the 1915 film notably differ to the 1920 play and subsequent film adaptations. Many of the characters’ names are altered, but more significant changes are the exclusion of Cornelia’s nephew, and the addition of the titular criminal. The latter complicates the still-present bank robbery narrative. Although these divergences are important, it is perhaps because of the earlier film, and the question of rights, that the relationship between The Circular Staircase and The Bat was denied by Roberts Rinehart. It was also able to draw more directly on the play’s commercial success.

Furthermore, we can relate some changes to the difference in media. While the novel is told from Cornelia’s point of view, and in retrospect, the play and the 1926 and 1930 films are more action-based. This helps to explain the fact that the characters are not psychologically rounded, but mostly stock types. These generally either propel the plot (commit a crime, investigate it) or provide comic relief – especially the servants. We partly related the exaggerated style of some of the acting to the genre (comic mystery melodrama) especially with the comic characters. The timing of the film, and the long history of the story are also important. The Bat Whispers appeared at the start of the sound era. Its very title announces this fact, and the Bat does indeed whisper his threats to those he wishes to intimidate. While not all previous silent film acting is of the exaggerated type, theatrical gestures and overstatement were used in earlier film. Such a claim is reinforced when we also consider the long history of the narrative (the novel was published in 1908) – even in 1930 it may well have seemed dated to audiences.

There is some nuance however. This is mostly due to the fact that the Bat’s real identity, he is posing as Detective Anderson, is unknown for most of the film and only revealed in the last few minutes. It is important that the character we might think of as the hero – top billed Chester Morris (arguably the only real ‘star’) – turns out to be the villain. This is encouraged by some of the extratextual materials, in particular a lobby card which privileges Morris and Merkel, even suggesting a romance which does not materialise. The supporting cast is present, but with smaller pictures of the elderly retainers such as Lizzie. This prompted some reflection on the relationship between stars and ageing. The conflation of the hero and villain was accompanied by a blurring as to the identity of the victim. Perhaps a legacy of its stage origin and, as outlined above, the addition of the Bat character, the film’s focus is somewhat diffuse. Those characters who are subjected to deadly violence are exclusively men, although those behaving like victims (portraying fear etc) do not necessarily split along gender lines. Instead, the division between the brave and the cowardly is along class lines since the servants Lizzie and the caretaker are the most scared. These are also elderly, though its is certainly the case that the aged Cornelia is dignified and unflappable throughout.

Despite our consideration of the mystery, violence and chase of male melodrama, we discussed the female characters, and their relationship to the gothic, at length. The old dark house in which the action takes place encourages a consideration of the film as gothic. However, the film’s diffuse focus affected the male persecutor/female persecuted dynamic of its women in peril. Significantly, all three women fulfilled the role of active investigator. Cornelia calls in a professional investigator, and Dale is anxious to prove her fiancé’s innocence, searching the house with a lit candle. Lizzie does so to a lesser extent but sets a ‘bear trap’ attached to her bed which means she will be alerted if the trap is engaged. This provides one of the film’s best comic moments as Lizzie is indeed later propelled through her bedroom window in her onesie as the Bat is caught in her trap and drags her bed towards the window. Cornelia is certainly not a suffering heroine, but Lizzie is constantly scared, and Dale is distressed when she is trapped in the hidden room.

Unlike the usual gothic heroine, these women are not menaced by a husband. Cornelia and Lizzie are unmarried and even Dale’s fiancé only plays a small role. We were especially intrigued by the relationship between Cornelia and Lizzie. While the latter dresses as a maid and is treated in some ways like a servant by Cornelia, who gives her orders, there are mentions that the servants have fled. Perhaps Lizzie is excepted from consideration as staff since she is such an old retainer. More telling however, is the way Lizzie responses to Cornelia addressing her like an idiot child. Being told by Cornelia that she doesn’t have a mind, Lizzie sharply retorts that if she had one her employer would not let her use it. She also lists some of the ‘fads’ she has remained loyal to Cornelia through: theosophy, suffragism, and, as implied by Lizzie’s tone, most appallingly of all, socialism. They bicker like a couple.

The film certainly has its stagey moments, and there are some dialogue-heavy scenes. We were, however, impressed with some of the camerawork which was possible during scenes which were less dependent on bulky sound equipment for synchronous sound recording. The opening scenes are action-filled and employ miniature vehicles convincingly. We also noted some of the swooping, bat-like, movements of the camera in relation to the miniature used to represent the house. The film’s lighting and shadow-work were praised. The revelation that ‘Detective Anderson’ is the Bat is prefigured by a change in the way his face is lit. While earlier his exaggerated and somewhat comical facial gestures are lit in a straightforward manner, after his return from his altercation with the telephone, he appears to be far more menacing. Many of the images of the Bat in silhouette reminded us of German film director’s Lotte Reiniger’s work. The uncanny turning of bat from shadows into a moving figure was also deemed effective.

We also noticed the generic nature of the buildings portrayed. Some of these especially emphasised its function – e.g. a BANK. This brought to mind comic books. Such a connection is furthered by Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) who mentioned in his autobiography the influence The Bat Whispers had on his creation of the superhero. The film’s sets and style were also compared to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). More straightforwardly, the film was remade in 1959 (by Crane Wilbur) and for television in various countries.

Appropriately we closed our discussion by commenting on the film’s epilogue. This has Chester Morris, in evening dress, in front of a curtain which mimics that of a theatre stage of film theatre He speaks on behalf of his ‘friend’ the Bat and asking that his identity is not divulged by members of the audience. This seems especially appropriate for a sound film, and the keeping of the secret was also referenced in advertising for the 1959 film version. Significantly in The Bat Whispers this is done through the person of the star, and the one who plays the Bat, reminding us that the Bat indeed just a role Morris has played. This doubles the melodramatic element of disguise, pointing us once more to the conventions of the genre and its suitability for the medium of film.

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

Summary of Discussion on Hunted

Our discussion on Hunted touched on: genre (including melodrama and noir); the male melodrama and its reliance on mystery, violence, and chase; the main character Christopher Lloyd (Dirk Bogarde) as both villain and victim; Bogarde’s screen and star images; the relationship between Christopher and the boy Robbie (Jon Whitely) and other films with similar adult/child relationships; the way Christopher’s interaction with, or comparison to, other characters further illuminated his own personality; the film’s social commentary on the harsh realities of life in Britain post WWII.

We first noted a few moments in the film which seemed especially melodramatic in terms of heightened emotion. These included the tense moment at the film’s opening as 6-year-old Robbie (Jon Whiteley) stumbles across Christopher (Dirk Bogarde) after the latter has committed murder in a bombed out cellar; a courting couple’s discovery of the body of Christopher’s victim in the same location; Christopher’s display of emotion when he breaks into his flat and confronts his wife. Most of these were underscored by intense music.

The film’s use of real locations and its stark black and white photography were also commented on. These spoke to the film’s function as social commentary, and its film noir overtones. We discussed at length the ‘male melodrama’ Steve Neale has written about in his work on the term ‘melodrama’ in contemporaneous trade material.

We noticed that there was little of the first of the three elements considered important to the male melodrama – Mystery. The film was clear from the start that Christopher was guilty, with the audience in a far more privileged position of knowledge than the police, although it was unclear what the fate of the characters would be. Given Christopher’s crime, especially in the context of 1950s films, it seemed unlikely that he would escape unpunished.

The second of the important ingredient for male melodrama, violence, was more present – and in a few interesting ways. The most extreme of this occurred before the narrative began, taking place off screen. We do not see Christopher’s deadly attack on his rival, nor the abuse directed at Robbie by his father. The violence shown is fairly muted. Christopher is a little rough with Robbie at first – not wary of physically moving him. Christopher also strikes his faithless wife and gets into a tangle on a staircase with a policeman who is on the lookout for him at his block of flats.  Later, Christopher unceremoniously thrusts the well-meaning Mrs Sykes (Kay Walsh), who is concerned about Robbie, into a garden shed. While the fact we never see Christopher land a punch may be due to censorship or norms of the time as to what was depicted, we can also perhaps connect it to Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images. He may have been less likely to engage in on-screen violence in comparison to other male stars of the time.

Chase (the third aspect of the male melodrama) was the most present. Indeed, this was commented on in reviews of the time in relating to melodrama. This included the observation that some of the chase (the action stretches for several days across London, the North of England, Scotland and an attempt to reach Scandinavia) was less then credible (Variety, 5th March 1952, p. 6). It is important to note that while Christopher is a man on the run with a child, they start out on the run separately – multiplying the ‘chase’ element of the film.  The chase moments when Christopher and Robbie were together were the most effective, however. After being discovered by Mrs Sykes, Christopher jumped from a railway bridge onto a moving train and Robbie followed, providing a particularly tense moment.

Unsurprisingly, much of our discussion centred on Christopher. He is both villain and victim. His villainy is established very early on (he has, after all killed a man) and it is significant that the film does not seek to overturn this assumption – for example by revealing that while Christopher may have believed he killed the man, in fact the deed was committed by another. Christopher’s actions cause him to be a victim – he is relentlessly, if somewhat incompetently, pursued by the police. We also commented on the fact that because we spend so much time with Christopher, as well as see his growing friendship with the vulnerable Robbie, he is a rounded and sympathetic character.

Christopher’s small acts of kindness are evident from near the start.  He asks a man for a cigarette but hesitates when the man generously offers him his last one. While Christopher plans to use Robbie to retrieve money from his flat and is angry with the boy when he fails, he still prioritises Robbie’s meal over his own at a café. As their relationship develops, Christopher’s thoughtfulness towards Robbie becomes more frequent. This culminates in Christopher’s final act: he turns back the boat he has stolen, and in which he and Robbie are attempting to escape to Scandinavia, when he realises that Robbie is seriously ill. The death penalty was still in force in the United Kingdom at the time and Christopher could not plead a crime of passion as a defence. He is almost certainly sacrificing his own life for Robbie’s and in so doing claiming a form of redemption.

Bogarde’s acting effectively conveys Christopher’s dilemma. The man’s concern for the child is at first just solicitous, but when Christopher realises the extent of Robbie’s illness, he becomes more deeply affected. Christopher’s decision is not one taken lightly, or quickly, since, for all its inevitability, Bogarde shows that it has been pondered. Bogarde is also afforded opportunities to play Christopher’s sensitivity at earlier moments in the film. This is perhaps most notable when in reluctantly obliging Robbie’s request for a bedtime story, he inadvertently tells the story of his failed marriage. At first this seems a fairly traditional ‘Once Upon a Time’ tale about a giant who leaves home. As the story progresses, Christopher introduces a princess who clearly is meant to represent his wife. Christopher’s story-telling register slips from third (‘he’) to first (‘I’) person and he becomes upset when he relates that the lovers have parted. Christopher’s sensitivity is therefore displayed in two significant ways: he is shown to be able to relate to a child, and to be in touch with his sadness. It is also more effective than a flashback would have been since it allows us to see how Christopher has narrativized his past so that it makes sense to him.  This is also reinforced by Robbie’s response. It is clear that the boy is disturbed that the fairy tale has turned dark so quickly and concerned about Christopher’s display of emotion.

The complexity of Christopher’s character reminded us of the nuance and ambiguity of the one he played in Esther Waters four years previously. However, fan magazine material from the time of Hunted’s production highlighted the film as the third in which he starred as a ‘fugitive from justice’  (David Marlowe, ‘Bogarde Takes to the Boats’, Picturegoer 25th August 1951, p.8). There are significant differences between the films cited in the article– The Blue Lamp (1950) and Blackmailed (1951) – and Hunted. While Bogarde plays a man of dubious character in all three, it is only the last that ends in his redemption and allows Bogarde the opportunity to display a conflicted character who is sensitive.

We can consider how the film employs Bogarde in more detail. Of course, the star still gets to display his dashing good looks, but these are at times obscured by a growth of stubble. Furthermore, in terms of the ‘real’ Bogarde, I have previously noted (in the introduction to Esther Waters: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/09/27/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-1st-of-october-5-7pm-jarman-6/ ) that fan magazines discussed his sensitivity. I also commented that this was tempered by the material also mentioning Bogarde’s heroic war record. We can see these two tensions played out in his screen image in Hunted. Christopher’s kindness towards Robbie is balanced by his (pre-narrative off-screen) killing of his wife’s lover. This is reinforced by Christopher’s ‘manly’ job: he is a sailor, a profession almost exclusive to men at the time.  His sailing experience is necessary in terms of the film’s plot – it both explains the prolonged absences which have led to his wife’s infidelity and gives him the skills required to sail the trawler at the film’s end. In truth we did not think that scenes of Bogarde as a sailor would have been especially convincing – he was perhaps a bit too refined.

As implied by our focus on the behaviour Christopher displays towards Robbie in order to showcase the former’s sensitivity, the relationship between the adult man and the boy is central to the film.  As a child, Robbie judges Christopher on the way Christopher treats him (Robbie) and is understandably not as aware of what is happening as an adult would be. We discussed related films such as David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and Bryan Forbes’ Whistle down the Wind (1961).  It was mentioned that Jon Whiteley’s blond-haired innocence was reminiscent of John Howard Davies in the former film, before he meets the criminal Fagin (Alec Guinness). In the later film, Kathy (Hayley Mills) is prepared to accept Alan Bates on her own terms – she mistakes the stranger for Christ. Differences between these films and Hunted were also important. Christopher and Robbie’s dependence on one another turns into mutual affection. This, and especially the images of the adult carrying the child, reminded us of the recent version of True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Cohen).

We also spoke about how the fact this all unfolds on screen obviates a more suspect interpretation of Christopher’s intentions. The police try to second-guess Christopher’s motives for ‘abducting’ Robbie, speculating that he will use him as a bargaining chip to ensure his own release. However, our view is more privileged. We know that Christopher has not lured Robbie away, and in fact several times tells him to leave. We also see the initial roughness Christopher displays towards Robbie (physically manhandling him) slowly turn to more domestic scenes. During their time on the run, Christopher allows Robbie to keep a woodlouse as a pet, does not admonish the boy for accidentally spilling his milk, and agrees to tell him a bedtime story. While they are chasing across the countryside, Robbie’s grumbles (‘I’m tired’, ‘my legs are sore’, I’m hungry) and Christopher’s grumpy responses have the feel of a parent’s somewhat trying day out with his child.

The only real light moments in the film occur once the pair has arrived at Christopher’s brother’s Jack’s (Julian Somers) in Scotland. After having endured several days of hunger, the pair laughs as Robbie enthusiastically tucks in to a mound of food. The scenes here also show the difference between the two brothers. While Christopher is a murderer, he nonetheless has humanity. By contrast, Jack refuses to allow even just Robbie to stay, unwilling to be ill-thought of by his neighbours.

(It is worth noting that Bogarde and Whiteley again starred together – in The Spanish Gardener (1956, Philip Leacock) when Dirk plays the titular role of a man a boy (Whitlely) turns to when neglected by his own father.)

We also briefly discussed the film’s two main female characters, although they play small roles. It is understandable that we would partly judge Christopher by his wife Magda (Elizabeth Sellars) – the woman with whom he has fallen in love and chosen to spend his life. Magda does not receive much screen time, her infidelity mostly providing the reason for Christopher’s actions. The greater focus given to the film’s other characters is even shown in her introduction. Her first appearance is obscured when she is seen from Robbie’s point of view as he hides under her and Christopher’s bed.

Although Magda admits she has been unfaithful to Christopher, she remains loyal in her own way. When Christopher breaks into the flat at night and clamps his hand over her mouth, and strikes her in anger, she soon recovers. She also does not seem to have been affected by the death of her lover. In fact, she tries to seduce Christopher. Even after she has been rejected by Christopher (he dismisses her offer of jewellery to him) she is unhelpful to the police.

Mrs Sykes (Kay Walsh), the landlady of the B & B in the North of England at which Christopher and Robbie stay, contrasts to Magda. Magda’s expensive clothes provoke comment from the sharp-eyed police as to her fidelity (it is assumed she has received money or gifts from her lover, providing Christopher with a motive for the murder) and she is wearing a glamorous nightgown when Christopher breaks into the flat. Mrs Sykes is coded as working class through her garments – she wears a floral apron to protect her clothes as she does her housework. Mrs Sykes’ concern for Robbie, and her brave defence of him (she is worried that Christopher will harm the boy) is also an antidote to Robbie’s parents, the Campbells (Jack Stewart and Jane Aird), who appear to hold a similar social status. Mrs Sykes insists that Robbie takes a bath, and this leads to the revelation of his abuse at the hands of his parents – he bears the marks of a severe lashing.

The police’s interaction with the parents is also telling. The parents insist that they are not Robbie’s ‘real’ parents since he is adopted. Through the police’s questioning it soon becomes clear that he has few toys. The fact that the police have such insight (despite their bungling pursuit of Christopher) suggests that they often come into contact with such cases of abuse. The film’s establishing of its post war setting through its lingering of bombed-out buildings implies that in post-war Britain society’s most vulnerable victims are being overlooked.

 

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 15th of October, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for our next melodrama screening, on Monday the 15th of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6. We will be showing Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton, 84 mins).

This film, also known as The Stranger In Between, stars Dirk Bogarde as Chris Lloyd, a desperate man who has killed his wife’s (Elizabeth Sellars’) lover. After being discovered in a bombed out house by a boy, Robbie (Jon Whitely), Chris has to take the young witness with him as he goes on the run…

In contrast to Esther Waters’ focus on the suffering, though resilient, heroine, Hunted focuses on Bogarde’s tortured male criminal. The film contains aspects of the male melodrama, which Steve Neale relates to the Hollywood director Raoul Walsh’s use of ‘mystery, violence, chase’ (Genre and Hollywood, 2000).

To reinforce such a categorisation, trade paper Variety’s review called the film a ‘man-hunt meller’ (i.e. melodrama) (5th March, 1952, p. 6). Furthermore, fan magazine Picturegoer’s review commented on the last of the three aspect Walsh favoured: it describes the film as an ‘exciting chase’ (15 March, 1952, p. 16).

Do join us, if you can, for the second in our season of Dirk Bogarde melodramas.

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.