Summary of Discussion on Busman’s Honeymoon

 

 

Our discussion of Busman’s Honeymoon covered genre – especially different aspects of melodrama; adaptation; the notion of authorship; and casting.

The film credits both Dorothy L Sayers’ 1937 novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, and Sayers’ and Muriel St Clare Byrne’s 1936 play of the same name. But we primarily discussed the film in relation to Sayers’ novel. This is partly because our theme for this term is adaptations of detective novels written by women. There is also a practical reason: the play is far less known today, and more difficult to access, than the novel. The two authors of the play nonetheless raise interesting questions about authorship which I return to towards the end of this post.

 

We discussed the titles of the novel and the film. ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ suggests a mix of genres. The similar term ‘Busman’s Holiday’ refers to a vacation spent performing similar tasks to one’s ‘day job’. Lord Peter Wimsey investigates crime and Harriet Vane writes detective novels. We can therefore anticipate that their married bliss (significantly they are on honeymoon – implying romance – rather than on holiday) will be interrupted by crime. This is indicated more strongly in the subtitle to Sayers’ novel: ‘a love story with detective interruptions’. The title of the film on its US release, Haunted Honeymoon, is less explicit than the film’s UK title, perhaps the phrase is less well-known in the US. It still suggests that something unusual will occur during Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon in their new home.

We began our discussion on genre by commenting on this genre hybridity in more detail. The film’s genres are more equal than in the novel, which after all places primacy on a love story which is ‘interrupted’ by detection. The film switches between romance and detection more readily. Peter and Harriet’s jokey banter as they agree to stop investigating and writing about crime is juxtaposed with the crime itself. In this, the film more closely resembles the play’s subtitle (‘A Detective Comedy in Three Acts’) than the novel’s. The novel and the film begin with a focus on Lord Peter Wimsey (Robert Montgomery) and Harriet (Constance Cummings). But the film more quickly incorporates the crime by depicting the victim Noakes (Roy Emerton) and his relations with those around him. The film paints Noakes as an unpleasant man, with various people in the village shown to have motive for removing him. Noakes’ niece, Miss Agnes Twitterton (Joan Kemp-Welch), is revealed to be his heir, and in want of money in order to keep her fiancé, Frank Crutchley (Robert Newton). Frank has an additional monetary motive – Noakes owes him £10. The village policeman Constable Sellon (James Carney) also has a financial reason as Noakes is blackmailing him. Cleaning lady Mrs Ruddle (Louise Hampton) is another person who has been threatened by Noakes; he caught her stealing some of his fuel. Sure enough, Noakes is then knocked unconscious, presumably killed. This greatly contrasts with the novel as Noakes is only spoken of since we are introduced to the suspects once Peter and Harriet arrive at their new house.

We noticed that the film’s foregrounding of the crime also increased aspects of melodrama – especially male melodrama. Mystery is inherent in films which focus on detectives, and Violence is also often implied if the plot involves a murder. The film’s setting up of several suspects, each of whom is filmed creeping around the village and having unpleasant interactions with the victim, amplifies the mystery and means that the violence is enacted on screen. The chase aspect is also present. Again, this is emphasised in the film in comparison to the novel. In the latter when the policeman suspect, Constable Sellon, goes missing this is for a very short period of time. His discovery by a sergeant is only revealed to the reader in retrospect – perhaps partly because Peter is not involved. The film not only shows the chase, but, as with Noakes’ murder, the lead up to it. It inserts a car crash between a lorry and Lord Peter’s car in the centre of the village which is inadvertently caused by Constable Sellon. Constable Sellon flees the scene and the cinematography revels in the Devonshire landscape to picture policemen hunting their colleague. This is oddly anti-climactic as the audience does not necessarily think Constable Sellon is the guilty party; indeed, when Peter catches up with the fugitive he reveals that he does not believe in Constable Sellon’s guilt either. The chase scenes reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). But they play a far less central role in Busman’s Honeymoon and are shorter in duration than in either The 39 Steps or last time’s screening, Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1938). (see our discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2020/01/21/summary-of-discussion-on-young-and-innocent/) This perhaps comments on the ability of film to show rather than tell. While novels are of course not limited to telling, and can ‘show’ via description of the characters’ behaviour and though dialogue, the visual image can be more vivid.

As was the case during our discussion of Young and Innocent, we noticed elements of more traditional melodrama in Busman’s Honeymoon – suffering women. This is less of a focus in Busman’s Honeymoon than the male melodrama, since the suffering mostly relates to supporting characters. However, the suffering, like the aspects of male melodrama, also seems emphasised in the film in comparison to the novel. While the novel delays revelations about Noakes’ murder, and Miss Twitterton’s and Frank’s relationship, the film divulges this information sooner. This means that we are aware of Miss Twitterton’s shabby treatment at Frank’s hands (including his cheating on her with Polly (Googie Withers)) for a longer period. Miss Twitterton also relives her suffering as she relates what has happened to her to Peter and Harriet when they visit her house. Miss Twitterton’s distress, while acute, is short-lived – she soon pulls herself together. This was also the case when she was, understandably, affected at the finding of her Uncle’s body.

The film’s other main instance of high emotion relates to Harriet, after the murder has been committed but before it has been discovered. The morning after Peter and Harriet’s wedding night we hear a loud shot. Harriet rushes out of the house, terrified, and screaming for Peter. The matter is soon neutralised, and even turned comical; the shooter is revealed to be the local reverend Simon Goodacre (Aubrey Mallalieu), and the victim not Peter, but a stoat. This is an invention of the film, as the novel introduces the clergyman in a more traditional manner.

Harriet’s brief moment of suffering caused us to reflect on the fact that the film also has some gothic tropes. The house in which the murder has been committed is one bought for new bride Harriet by her wealthy husband Peter. This brings together both the old dark house often present as a setting in gothic narratives, and the idea of the unwise hasty marriage. The novel begins with a flurry of letters between various people, including members of Peter’s family, which comment on his and Harriet’s surprise recent elopement. These reveal that the pair did have a big church wedding planned, but that they decided on a smaller, more private, gathering. While the last-minute change of venue has caused consternation to some, it is made clear that Peter and Harriet have known each other for a long time. Those familiar with Sayers’ previous Wimsey novels would know that Peter and Harriet met several years earlier (in the 5th Wimsey novel, Strong Poison, published in 1930) when he defended her on a charge of murder against her live-in-lover. Harriet also appears, alongside Wimsey, in the 7th, Have His Carcase (1932) and the 10th , Gaudy Night (1935), novels of the series.

By contrast, the film introduces us to Peter and Harriet prior to their wedding. The film fleetingly pictures a society announcement of the upcoming wedding, noting that it is ‘long-awaited’. In the opening scene, Peter and Harriet are carrying out an inventory of wedding gifts, which include numerous, very gothic-looking, candelabras. Their relationship seems jokey but is not as obviously of such long-standing as in the novels. We do not see the wedding (this seems to occur at the time Noakes’ murder is taking place on screen), but we do glimpse Harriet trying on her wedding dress. Significantly, this is a traditional white gown. A letter from Peter’s sister-in-law, Helen, cattily comments that Harriet had the ‘sense and the propriety’ not to wear ‘white satin and orange blossom’ due to her scandalous past. We thought that the film therefore portrayed Harriet as less experienced, especially as there is no mention of her previous lover. While this is unsurprising, due to what was considered to be in good taste in the mass medium of film at the time, it can also be seen to position her more closely to the heroine of gothic narratives.

While we mostly compared the film to the novel to illuminate the former’s genre, especially melodrama, we also commented on the basic mechanics of the murder plot and representations of characters. Unlike Young and Innocent, Busman’s Honeymoon retained the same murderer and motive as its source novel. Frank killed Noakes for financial motives. We especially noted that the film stuck rigidly to Frank’s ingenious fake alibi. Frank set up a heavy plant pot, attached by wire to the radio cabinet; this struck Noakes when he opened the lid, as was his habit, at 9pm – a time at which Frank made sure he was seen elsewhere.

The film was very faithful to the novel in this respect, and most of the changes which heightened elements of melodrama simply moved aspects from later, to earlier, in the narrative. Moments at which the film diverged more strongly from the novel had a bigger impact on the characters, especially Harriet. In addition to small alterations which emphasise Harriet’s links to the gothic heroine, other elements give her less independence. Harriet’s means of earning her own income – writing detective novels – are denied to her in the film as she and Peter agree to both give up detecting. This affects Harriet more because Peter is very wealthy, and his work unpaid, while she will be dependent on him for money. In the novel, however, Harriet tells a journalist that she will continue writing; furthermore, she reveals that Peter is supportive of her stance: ‘he certainly doesn’t object- in fact I think he entirely approves’. The nature of Harriet’s work is also disparaged in the film. During the wedding gift inventory scene Harriet comments that Peter’s family thinks her novels are ‘junk’. This is not something Sayers states in the novel – perhaps because she herself is a female writer of detective fiction.

This returns us to consideration of authorship. Authorship is already a complex matter in films as they are the product of several collaborators – director, screenwriters, actors, camera operators, costume designers etc. This is intensified when the film is an adaptation. The authorship of Busman’s Honeymoon is especially convoluted. The film credits Sayers’ novel and Sayers and St Clare Byrne’s play. In addition, it lists that its screenplay was written by Monckton Hoffe, Angus MacPhail and Harold Goldman. But Sayers’ is probably the name we most recognise today. This was even the case at the time of the film’s release – via her 10 previous Wimsey novels and her co-writing of the play.

We can usefully compare the authorship of Busman’s Honeymoon to Young and Innocent. This too was a collaborative effort, but director Alfred Hitchcock’s input is probably most foregrounded in the present day. Hitchcock was well-known by the time of Young and Innocent’s release, though he had yet to achieve his almost mythic place in film. By contrast, its source, Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles was only the second in her Alan Grant detective series. We can speculate that the fact that the public was less attached to Tey’s novel may have been part of the reason it was feely adapted – only the first half of the novel appears on screen, and her central detective Alan Grant was mostly absent. After all, the title had to be changed because this no longer made sense as a reference to the murderer’s motive as both of these had been altered.

 

Brief consideration of Busman’s Honeymoon’s director is also necessary. The film’s production is complicated. While the American Richard Thorpe began shooting the film in the UK in August 1939, the outbreak of World War II meant that this was soon suspended. Arthur B Woods, a less known British director, took over when production resumed in March 1940. Although Woods gained acclaim for his noirish They Drive by Night (1938), nearly half of the 27 films he had directed from the start of his career (in 1933) are missing, presumed lost. The reasons for the number of films produced by particular directors, and why some of their films are still extant while others vanish, is of course multifaceted. But in way of comparison, all 10 of the films Hitchcock directed between 1933 and 1940 are still in existence. Woods was also denied the opportunity to cement his reputation as he was killed in action in 1944 while flying with the Royal Air Force.

 

 

We also commented on the impact the film’s casting of actors had on the film. We were surprised that that two US stars played the quintessentially English characters. Cummings was most familiar to us as Rex Harrison’s second wife in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945). Montgomery had a long career, but we mostly associated him with high-class characters, such as in Robert Z Leonard’s The Divorcee (1930). Just prior to Busman’s Honeymoon, Montgomery starred in Richard Thorpe’s Earl of Chicago (1940). Montgomery’s character in this film starts off as a gangster. But on the death of his English uncle, he inherits an Earldom and a butler and is propelled into the higher echelons of English society. Montgomery had previously appeared, as the Irish Danny opposite Rosalind Russell’s Olivia, in Thorpe’s 1937 US film version of Emlyn Williams’ play Night Must Fall. While Busman’s Honeymoon is a British film it, like Night Must Fall, casts Americans as non-American characters, but retains British actors in supporting roles.

 

We especially appreciated Sir Seymour Hicks’ performance as the devoted butler Bunter, alongside Robert Newton and Frank Pettingell. Hicks was connected to melodrama through his long-running association with Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge. Meanwhile, Newton and Pettingell both starred in Thorold Dickinson’s UK version of the melodrama Gaslight the same year that Busman’s Honeymoon was released. The connection of these actors to melodrama, and dramatic acting, heightened Montgomery (Peter) and Cummings’ (Harriet) separation from them. We related these to both class differences (the American Montgomery and Cummings play the only upper-class characters) and the film’s genre hybridity (detective comedy and drama).

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Summary of Discussion on Young and Innocent

Our discussion on Young and Innocent covered its relationship to both traditional and male melodrama; the main characters Erica (Nova Pilbeam) and Robert (Derrick De Marney) and the stars who played them; the film as an adaptation of Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling For Candles; another of its director Alfred Hitchcock’s films from around the time.

We were especially struck by the melodramatic tone of the first scene, a direct contrast to the jaunty, 42nd Street-style music, which plays over the opening credits. In the first scene, a man (Guy, played by George Curzon) and woman (Christine Clay, played by Pamela Carme) have a blazing row. This is filmed straightforwardly, privileging the gestures of the characters. These gestures are rather broad, but the staginess is explained later in the narrative as we learn that both participants are performers – a musician and a film star. The lack of inventive camerawork means that we focus on the dialogue in which Guy accuses his wife, Christine, of infidelity. As the argument reaches its peak, sound is used imaginatively. In addition to music underscoring the characters’ emotions, the weather is also dramatic. A diegetic clap of thunder obligingly replaces the, presumably colourful, insult Guy directs at Christine. Drama conveyed by landscape and music is extended to the scene in which Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) finds Christine’s strangled body on the beach. The lapping of waves at Christine’s lifeless, swimming costume clad, body is joined by another upswell of music.

 

Other aspects of the film can be more usefully connected to the male melodrama’s staple elements of mystery, violence, and chase. There is the central mystery of who killed Christine, and the whereabouts of the presumed murder weapon – the belt from Robert’s raincoat. Chase also plays a large part in the film as Robert soon goes on the run. Violence is implied in the hands-on method of the murder, even though we do not witness it. There is also the threat of violence, as we may fear for the life of young Erica (Nova Pilbeam); a woman who becomes bound up with Robert, and the film’s elements of mystery and chase. More traditional melodrama is returned to as Erica begins to regret helping Robert and fears for what will become of members of her family if she cannot return to them. Later Erica is reduced to tears again. The relationship between Robert and Erica has grown and, after a brief separation, they are reunited but she is distressed at the thought of losing him again.

The rhythm of the film is very important. There are points of high drama: a woman has been killed, Robert faces the death penalty if he is found guilty, and Erica faces expulsion from her family if she keeps true to him. There are car chases, a near train crash, and collapsing mineworks. But there are also slower moments. Notably there is comic relief we might compare to earlier stage melodrama which often used stock comic secondary characters. In Young and Innocent these are Robert’s surprisingly breezy solicitor, the incompetent uniformed police who are forced to travel in a cart with some pigs, Erica’s younger brothers, Erica’s Aunt (Mary Clare) and Uncle (Basil Radford), and Will the friendly china-mending tramp (Edward Rigby).

These secondary characters are incorporated more fully into the narrative than is often the case in traditional melodrama since Robert and Erica frequently interact with them. Robert steals his solicitor’s spectacles to effect a Clark Kent-style transformation in order to escape. He also inadvertently kicks a policeman in the head as he and Erica flee their hiding place – a remote mill. Will is enlisted by Erica and Robert to help them locate the real killer.

 

Some of these secondary characters are particularly attached to Erica. Her quarrelsome, but endearing, brothers and her aunt and uncle provide her with context. A visit to Erica’s Aunt and Uncle especially gives Erica and Robert the chance to extend the gentle badinage they have already begun to engage in as they drive through the countryside. The comic awkwardness of Erica introducing a new friend to her family is taken further. Erica’s Aunt questions Robert and, understandably due to his fugitive status, he invents a name for himself. He and Erica then have to improvise around this. When separately interrogated by Erica’s Aunt, they provide Robert with different professions: while Erica states Robert is an architect, he claims to write music. The use of fake names (and Robert’s is perhaps deliberately ridiculous) and the invention of identities brought to mind screwball comedy films. In films belonging to the screwball subgenre, generally thought to have begun in the United States in 1934, the main couple engage in ‘role play’ as part of creating their own world. Robert and Erica’s use of imagination is also employed when it is not necessary to put others off the scent. When they are alone at the cold and dark train station they begin to fantasise about a delicious dinner and a fancy hotel.

We also spent a fair bit of time discussing the two main characters, Erica and Robert, and the actors who played them. We considered the possibility that Erica was a suffering heroine, at risk from violence at the hands of Robert. In fact, this does not seem applicable to Erica. We were impressed with the spirit she showed throughout the film, and which is established in her first appearance. Erica breezes confidently into the police station at which Robert is being held. While Erica’s assurance is partly due to her status as the daughter of the chief constable, it is also influenced by her forceful personality which belies her youth. On seeing that Robert has fainted, Erica swiftly administers physical aid and offers alcohol in an effort to revive him. Erica is equally able to take charge at home by keeping her younger brothers in line – even when one produces a dead rat at the dinner table.

Erica is not limited to spaces connected to her father, though, as her ownership of a car allows her to travel wherever she pleases. It is significant that she alone seems able to persuade her old heap to work – her mobility is only possible because of her determination. Erica’s access to a car means that she can help Robert in his escape and subsequent investigation. She is also an active participant in this. She leaves Robert waiting outside as their quest for Robert’s missing raincoat leads them to Tom’s Hat café. While inside she chats naturally with the regulars, mostly lorry drivers, finding out that Will, a china-mending tramp, was seen wearing Robert’s coat. The release of this information leads to fight breaking out. During this, to Robert’s surprise, Erica is able to take care of herself. She also stands up to Robert as she insists, on more than one occasion, that her dog is not left behind. It is Erica’s knowledge of first aid which unmasks the killer. Will has revealed that the man who gave him Robert’s coat had a twitch. When Erica rushes in to help a musician who has collapsed at the Grand Hotel she realises that he too has a twitch. Her identification leads to him taking full responsibility for the crime, thus exonerating Robert.

We also thought a little about the fact that the film places Erica centrally. Nova Pilbeam receives star, above the title, billing. This mention of Pilbeam reminds us the that characters in films are connected to the stars who play them. Pilbeam was indeed young, aged 18 at the time of Young and Innocent’s release, and had only appeared in a handful of films. The characters she portrayed in these can be usefully compared to the independent Erica. In Berthold Viertel’s Little Friend (1934) Pilbeam played a girl who becomes aware that her parent’s marriage is disintegrating. The same year she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – as the kidnapped daughter of Leslie Banks and Edna Best. Just prior to Young and Innocent, Pilbeam starred in Tudor Rose (1936, Robert Stevenson) as Lady Jane Grey, ‘the Nine Days’ Queen’, who was executed at the age of 17.

The struggling youths Pilbeam had previously played mitigates Erica’s independent spirit. Furthermore, the title of the film on its US release, The Girl Was Young, underlines that Erica is the Young and Innocent of the UK film’s title. While in the film Pilbeam’s independence is championed, the outside context of her earlier films and the film’s titles on UK and US release, potentially place her at more harm from Robert.

This consideration that Erica might be a ‘woman in peril’ also needs to be contextualised in reference to Robert’s character, de Marney’s billing, and his previous films. Although Robert is suspected of murder, the only violent act we see him commit is an accidental one – the kicking of a policeman in the head. Robert manages to stay calm while he is on the run, and his role-play with Erica is good-humoured. When reflecting on how a star’s previous films affect his or her current role, it is worth noting that de Marney started in silent films in 1928. Because he had appeared in more films than Pilbeam by 1937 (19 to her 3), it is less easy to provide a summary of the types he played – both larger and smaller roles – in lower and higher budget films. He does not seem to have been attached to villainous characters, however. In Edward Godal’s ‘quota quickie’ Adventurous Youth (1928) de Marney played the main role of a heroic man fighting for his village during the Mexican Revolution. In the year of Young and Innocent’s release, de Marney, appeared in the small role of Young Disraeli in Herbert Wilcox’s Victoria the Great. De Marney played the same character in Wilcox’s sequel, Sixty Glorious Years (1938), and was connected to the role earlier in his stage career. It has been important to look at Robert’s character, and at de Marney’s previous heroic and statesmanlike roles when considering whether Erica is in danger, but it is also true that Erica and Pilbeam’s earlier roles hold more sway. She is after all, more centrally placed. While Pilbeam is given star billing, de Marney is only afforded a ‘with’ credit, which is places below both Pilbeam and the film’s title.

In addition to thinking about how the characters in the films are portrayed and the connections we can draw to the actors, they are further illuminated in comparison to Josephine Tey’s novel. The film is a fairly free adaptation. It changes the identity of the murderer. In the novel this is revealed to be Christine’s brother, Herbert Gotobed, after her husband, Lord Edward Champneis, is first suspected. Christine’s brother does not appear in the film, and her husband, now renamed Guy and redeployed as a musician, is the guilty party. Guy does not play a large part in the film, though he is involved in the key moments which bookend it: he argues with Christine in the opening scene, leading to her murder, and he confesses to his crime in the film’s last moments. The revelation of his guilt just prior to this is especially arresting. The camera sweeps from its initial focus on guests in the lobby of the Grand Hotel to the crowded dance floor, the group of the black-face orchestra, and finally to the twitching drummer – Guy. As well as demonstrating the impressive range of the camera, it is perfectly timed with the sound, as the close up coincides with the line of the song ‘no one can like the drummer can’.

 

We also discussed the fact that the film only adapted the first half of the novel – Erica’s meeting with Detective Inspector Alan Grant and her subsequent undertaking to prove Robert’s innocence. The second half of Tey’s book moves to Grant’s uncovering of the real culprit. In the film, which changes the identity of the murderer, the matters are tied together: finding Robert’s missing raincoat leads to the identification of a twitching man who used the belt to kill Christine. The film’s change in scope also means that it pulls focus. While Grant provides the through-line for the novel, he is barely present in the film, as the renamed ‘Inspector Kent’ (John Longdale) who briefly interrogates Robert at the police station. We were able to recognise that ‘Kent’ was Grant as the dialogue Erica shares with Grant in the novel is allocated to Kent. The film’s main detectives are instead Erica and Robert. 

Because the film’s aspect of investigation is very narrow – finding the lost raincoat – it does not explore the motive for Christine’s murder. I have already mentioned that Guy only bookends the film. Christine is afforded even less attention. This is not the case in the novel, which provides lots of information about Christine’s public image (in fan magazines) before it delves into her past.

Although the film removes some characters, and provides less information about others, it supplies new characters too. These are mostly Erica’s relatives – her brothers, her Aunt and Uncle – and add to the film’s comedy. While this bolsters Erica’s role, it mitigates her self-sufficiency. By contrast, Robert is given less of a back story in the film than the novel which details a previous name change so that he was able to receive an inheritance. The fact that in the film Robert accompanies Erica on the investigations she pursues alone in the novel impacts on her status as an independent woman. In the novel, Will is a menacing figure, who threatens Erica when she visits his isolated caravan alone. Will is altered to a more genial type in the film – he even gets dressed up and dances with Erica at the Grand Hotel. In addition, Robert’s own solo hunt for Will at a boarding house, gives Erica less opportunity to display her bravery.

The placing of a bickering couple at the film’s heart, in contrast to the novel, brought to mind another of Hitchcock’s’ films from a few years earlier. In The 39 Steps (1935) attention is expanded to encompass both Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeline Carroll) in a significant divergence from John Buchan’s novel. This couple-focus is not exclusive to Hitchcock as Hollywood films especially privilege the couple. The mix of screwball and detective aspects was also in fashion at the time. The hugely popular The Thin Man (1934, WS Van Dyke) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy spawned many imitators and five sequels. This returns us to consideration of Young and Innocent’s genre. It deftly combines not just detective tropes and comedy elements, but aspects of male, as well as more traditional, melodrama. In Erica, it has a spirited, but at times vulnerable heroine, who interacts in interesting ways with the film’s elements of melodrama.

Do log in to add a comment or email me on sp761@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

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

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions.  We’ll be showing Young and Innocent (1937, Alfred Hitchcock, 83 mins) on Wednesday the 15th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

This film is part of our new focus on film adaptations of detective novels written by women. It is based on Josephine Tey’s second Inspector Alan Grant novel, A Shilling for Candles, which was published in 1936.

 

In addition to comparing the film to Tey’s novel, we will, of course, be focusing on how it relates to melodrama. The UK fan magazine Picture Show is helpful in this regard. Its preview, written by Maud Hughes, opens by noting that ‘romance runs through the warp of crime’ (25th of December 1937, p. 5). Hughes then briefly recounts some crucial aspects of the characters and the plot. In edited form (for the sake of spoilers!) the summary is that ‘Nova Pilbeam is the daughter of a Chief Constable [who] helps a…man wanted by the police on a charge of murder’.

The man on the run (played by Derrick de Marney) may be related to some Dirk Bogarde melodramas we have screened over the last couple of years. These showed Bogarde as a suffering figure and also contained the Mystery, Violence and Chase  aspects of the male melodrama (see especially Hunted: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/18/summary-of-discussion-on-hunted/  ) .

Meanwhile the main female character is potentially the ‘woman in peril’ we have often seen in gothic films, as well as the ‘suffering woman’ of melodrama. The US title of the film, The Girl was Young, further underlines this, suggesting that it is she who is the ‘young and innocent’ (and therefore the most vulnerable character) of Hitchcock’s film.

Hughes comments following her plot summary that ‘cynical’ critics may consider the film to be ‘sheer melodrama’ are very instructive. They demonstrate that ‘melodrama’ is often a pejorative term, especially when it is undiluted (‘sheer’). But Hughes argues for its historical popularity: it is the sort of the story which has ‘held the interest of the big public for hundreds of years’.

Hopefully we’ll enjoy it too. Do join us if you can.

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.