Summary of Discussion on Esther Waters

Our discussion of Esther Waters focused on several areas: melodrama and its character stereotypes of (female) victim and (male) villain; the main characters Esther and her lover William Latch; the rhythms of melodrama; the film’s social commentary.

We initially noted that the film was subtler than anticipated, including in relation to expectations raised by extra-filmic fan and trade magazines. While many, though not all, Victorian melodramas seem to function at the level of both fate and character, Esther Waters’ melodrama mostly stemmed from the former. The characters, especially the main couple – Esther (Kathleen Ryan) and William (Dirk Bogarde) – were nuanced rather than stereotypical.

To provide some context, the source material – George Moore’s 1894 novel – was published towards the end of a cycle of ‘Fallen Woman’ novels. These include those written by British women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861) – as well as the male British novelists Wilkie Collins’ The New Magdalen (1873) and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Three years after Moore’s novel appeared the perhaps archetypal US melodrama – Charlotte Blair Parker’s play Way Down East – was first staged.  D.W. Griffiths’ 1920 silent film version starring Lillian Gish as Anna Moore is one of the most cited silent melodramas.  Like many other of the female protagonists in the cycle, Anna is betrayed by the man she loves, gives birth to an illegitimate baby, and is subsequently cast out by society. By contrast, we commented that Esther was a strong heroine who knowingly took decisions to direct her own life and was not the self-sacrificing suffering woman completely at the mercy of others. Similarly, we thought that William was not what some might consider to be the moustache-twirling villain of the piece. (While Bogarde does sport an ill-advised moustache for a fair proportion of the film this appears to be incidental.)

Considering the two main characters in more detail, we especially noted Esther’s resilience and determination. Some of Esther’s strong opinions are connected to her faith – she is one of the Plymouth Brethren. Her very religion therefore goes against the prevailing church of England doctrine dominant at the time– she is a nonconformist. Esther is also notably anti-gambling, in opposition to other members of the house, Woodview, in which she goes to work as a kitchen maid, since the estate keeps racing horses.  She also does not approve of the penny dreadfuls the other staff read aloud. Esther’s firm stance is reinforced by other characters within the diegesis. Mrs Latch (Mary Clare) is the cook at Woodview, and William’s mother. She states that Esther is a ‘strong’ woman’ – the type her son needs.

It is not just Esther’s or other characters’ comments, which reveal her strength, but also her actions. Perhaps surprisingly given Esther’s strong faith, she is seduced by William. Her response to her consequent pregnancy is typically stoic. She decides to keep her baby after William leaves, even though this means she has to quit her current situation, and have her child looked after by others while she finds employment in London. In one of the film’s most melodramatic, and disturbing, scenes, Esther visits her sick baby who is being ‘looked after’ by a woman, Mrs Spires (Beryl Measor), who has multiple children in her care. The woman implies that Esther, and her baby, would be better off if the baby quietly died. Instead of consenting to this outrageous suggestion, or pretending that she has not understood, Esther confronts the woman. She just manages to flee, clutching her baby, only to almost suffer another melodramatic fate: being run over by a horse and carriage. Esther is brave enough to mention the woman’s intentions to the policeman who saves her. His incredulous response (‘it’s 1875!’) further underlines the melodramatic nature of the previous scene, suggesting that such happenings do not occur in modern times.

Such principled honesty is also seen with Esther’s dealings with other characters. When Fred Parsons (Cyril Cusack), a part-time preacher who has taken a shine to her proposes, she immediately tells him that she has a son. Esther’s truthfulness is rewarded when he apologises for initially being shocked and offers to take on both her and her child. Esther is also honest in front of others. Several years after William’s initial disappearance, he and Esther unexpectedly meet on a crowded train.  In response to Williams’ question of where she has been, Esther sharply retorts that she has been looking after his son.  She appears to have little regard for what conclusions those around her might draw about her son’s illegitimacy.

This opposes the usual ‘fallen woman’ narrative of maternal melodrama in which the mother loses her self-respect due to her disgrace. In fact, Esther is posited as a ‘New Woman’ not just in the decisions she makes, but the way she is honest about her sexual desires.  (For more on the novel’s presentation of Esther Waters as New Woman rather than Fallen Woman, see Dr Andrzej Diniejko’s article on the Victorian Web:  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/mooreg/estherwaters.html) Esther’s answer to Fred’s proposal is that she is not just a ‘soul’ to be saved, but a woman too.  Choosing to marry William is therefore not masochistic self-sacrifice, since her son could have Fred as a father. Also, in opposition to other ‘fallen woman’ narratives, while Esther suffers to a fair extent, she finds happy employment (back at Woodview) at the film’s end and is the proud mother to a now grown up sailor son.

We also commented a little on the matter of class in relation to the actor playing Esther – Kathleen Ryan. Esther’s kitchen maid job clearly signals that Esther belongs to the working classes.  We were a little bemused by Esther’s often genteel quality – though we might perhaps connect this to her religion.  This was especially in relation to her accent, which at times had an Irish lilt (like Ryan’s own) and in any case was not signally working class. We noted that this was also the case in other British films from the time.

 

Given this term’s focus on Dirk, we also discussed his character at length. While some thought William an irredeemable cad, scoundrel and bounder, others were more sympathetic. His back story explains that the family was previously important in the county and gives him this reason to better himself. His ambitions are to go into bookmaking, partially because he insists that his nickname is ‘Lucky’ Latch.  This assertion, made to Esther on the hillside, is immediately undercut, however.  We hear thunderclaps and a storm commences – predicting that in fact William will not enjoy good fortune.

We also spent some time discussing how William’s actions comment on his character. William and Esther’s relationship seems to be based on mutual attraction. They enjoy spending time together, and he only pursues another woman once Esther regrets their intimacy and avoids him. His departure from the house is involuntary, and he is at the time unaware of Esther’s pregnancy.  William is absent for a fair proportion of the narrative, reappearing 6 years later. Despite the length of time that has passed it is clear that William has fond memories of his time at Woodview.  The back room of the pub he runs, and invites Esther to visit after they are unexpectedly reunited, is full of photographs of him with fellow staff from Woodview. He has also employed one of their former colleagues. William’s sentimental streak is particularly evident in the fact that he has kept the silhouette of himself and Esther, presented to them at the ball many years earlier. He seems genuinely to wish to make amends to Esther, soon proposing and proving to be a good husband and father. He is also demonstrably an honest bookmaker – even getting into a fight with his assistant when William insists they pay customers the money they are owed.

Some especially interesting matters in relation to the film’s gender politics were commented upon. William is dismissed from Woodview because of his relationship with the lady of the house’s niece, Peggy. If William were the heroine, it is likely that we would view such a relationship between socially unequal participants as exploitative.  Similarly, William is criticised for spending his wife’s money while if the genders were reversed, this might not have been mentioned. Spending a woman’s money is therefore not seen as a particularly manly thing to do – he, after all, should be the provider.

We noted that in some ways William suffers the fallen woman’s fate: he is diagnosed with a lung condition and is granted a deathbed scene. This especially brought to mind the several film versions of Alexandre Dumas’ consumptive La Dame Aux Camelias (1848). Despite William’s illness, Dirk Bogarde is lit well, looking almost pretty, in this scene, further underlining his taking of the place of heroine. It also fits in with the sensitivity of Bogarde – both as described off screen (his star image – as mentioned in his first fan magazine article considered to be different from the character he plays – though as I have noted there is sensitivity there) and progressively onscreen. We can link this to the sexual ambiguity scholars have said that Bogarde embodies. (For example, see Robert Shail’s 2001 article ‘Masculinity and Visual Representation: A Butlerian Approach to Dirk Bogarde’ in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Vol 6, Nos 1/2 and Glyn Davis’ 2008 chapter ‘Trans-Europe Success: Dirk Bogarde’s International Queer Stardom’ in Robin Griffiths’ edited study Queer Cinema in Europe.) It is difficult to know how much this may be related to the fact Dirk Bogarde is the male star – whether it was tailored to fit him as an introduction, or if this would have happened regardless.

William’s death-bed scene is intercut with scenes from the race on which his, Esther and their son’s futures, depend.  Such rhythm is important to melodrama, the lows of slow-moving action contrasting to the highs of unexpected, and at times, unbelievable, action. In the film, activity is especially notable during the scenes of the ball, the bustling crowds attending the races, and especially the derby day scenes. These aspects were especially singled out by reviewers to be of interest to the audience. Trade paper Variety especially commented on these as well as the death bed scene (6th October 1948, p. 11), while fan magazine Film Illustrated Monthly directly contrasted these with the film’s ‘stodgy’ melodrama (November 1948, p. 13). The former even perceptively notes that we are presented with a point-of-view of the race courtesy of William’s ‘imagination’. As such, the film comments not just on the fact that Bogarde is privileged here, since he is granted the heroine’s death, but on cinema itself. While during the setting of the film, the 1870s, cinema was not yet invented, its many predecessors such as magic lanterns were popular. Furthermore, by the date of the film’s production, 1948 audiences were, of course, well used to cinematic devices. For example, we especially noted the effectiveness of William Powell Frith’s ‘Derby Day’ engraving coming to life. The derby scenes also connect more specifically to melodrama. Esther bumps into Fred who expresses pleasure, though surprise, that William married Esther.  It seems that he expected the melodrama to end differently – as indeed might the film audience.

The significance of Derby Day as a social mixer – a ground where those from various classes mingled – was also mentioned. This led to more consideration of the film’s social commentary. We noted that while the film provided an indictment of the class system, it was even-handed in ascribing good and bad characteristics to those from the lower and the upper classes. As already noted, Esther and William are subtly drawn, although it is significant that the most reprehensible of the characters – baby farmer Mrs Spires – is also working class. The upper class Mrs Barfield (Fay Compton) of Woodview is very sympathetic, although the same cannot be said of some of Esther’s other employers.  It is more often the institutions, or lack of them, which are criticised. Esther’s illiteracy reflects on the lack of educational establishments, and the scenes of  her in the workhouse just after she has given birth underlines her impersonal treatment.

 

Much of this stems from Moore’s novel.  The film understandably, however, elides some events.  In the novel, Esther returns to her mother and violent step-father’s in London and her mother later dies. In the film, Esther visits London and is shocked to learn the news of her mother’s death.  The number of Esther’s employers and the suffering she goes through is also telescoped in the film.  This is effectively shown by a montage of Esther engaged in drudgery at different houses, as the years are flashed up on screen.  Significantly this is prefigured by the title page of a book on ‘household hints’ and accompanied by narration as to how servants should be treated. This etiquette includes only conversing with servants when necessary, or to pass a greeting. The light tone might be thought to detract from the film’s social message, but it effectively reveals the disparity between the onscreen reality (Esther’s drudgery) and the omniscient, distant, advice-giver who thinks such advice serves Esther’s, and society’s, best interests.

While some of these omissions are no doubt partly for space, it is also notable that this results in the character of William playing a relatively larger part. Furthermore, we must consider what aspects the film was allowed to show – in terms both of what it was thought audiences would tolerate and official censorship. Anthony Slide has briefly written about the treatment of the film by US censors. The process apparently began early, with the novel sent to Joseph I Breen. Breen suggested that certain elements  of the novel (sexual references including seduction, adultery and passionate kisses as well as Esther’s employment as a wet nurse) had to be removed, while others (the suggestion that the Spires would be punished by the law) should be added, and the moral consequences for Esther retained  (‘Banned in the USA’: British Films in the United State and their Censorship, 1933-1960 (1998, pp. 61-2). Slide notes that the film was eventually given a certificate on the 28th of July 1949 and released in 1951. Tellingly this was under the title The Sin of Esther Waters. No doubt this, raised incorrect expectations in US audiences, erasing the nuance present in the film’s depictions that are discussion uncovered.

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

Summary of Discussion on Three on a Match

Our discussion on the film covered various aspects including: its genre; its appeal to female audiences; its ‘Take Three Girls’ approach; its three heroines as role models; male characters; the character of Vivian; the film’s stars; its pace; contemporaneous materials like trade magazines; Warner Brothers studio; the 1938 remake and matters of censorship.

We began with comments on the film’s appeal to female audiences. This was established partly by the film’s genre. Best described broadly as a drama – as the American Film Institute (AFI) categorises it – it moves from melodramatic ups and downs to a more straightforward crime drama. It nonetheless remains focused on its female characters. The film demonstrates a ‘Take Three Girls’ approach, in which we follow the fortunes of three young girls at school into adulthood when they meet again.  This allows the film more flexibility than a single heroine, since it can follow three women’s stories.

This approach also allows for comparison of the film’s characters to one another, thus commenting on those considered the best ‘role models’. This is more complex than we might at first assume from the women’s early days at school. In the opening segment, Mary (Virginia Davis) is portrayed as a fun-loving, knicker-showing girl who gets into trouble for smoking. While Vivian (Dawn O’Day, later known as Ann Shirley) is voted the most popular girl in her class, this is superficial. In fact, since she disapproves of Mary’s free-and-easy attitude she sneakily reports her to teachers. Ruth (Betty Carse) wins an award for academic achievement. Mary is true to herself but not one of life’s conformers, Vivian is snooty and privileged, and Ruth hard-working. These characteristics point to their futures.  Rich Vivian reveals that she will attend a boarding school, while the less socially advantaged Ruth says she will train for a business career. Neither of them knows what will happen to Mary….

In fact, Mary’s trajectory ranges considerably. She is next seen in reform school (now played by Joan Blondell), but is soon a steadily-working actress. This is established as she chats about her current show to a hairdresser in the most female of social spaces: the beauty parlour. Coincidentally, Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is occupying the next booth, allowing for them to stage a brief reunion and organise to meet, along with Ruth (Bette Davis), for lunch.  At the lunch, it is clear that while Mary and Ruth seem happy enough, Vivian, though she is rich, and married with a young son, is unhappy. This spirals out of control as the film progresses, with her leaving her husband and committing adultery, becoming an absent mother, descending into drugs and poverty, and only at the film’s end partially redeeming her earlier behaviour by sacrificing her life to save her kidnapped son. Meanwhile, Mary finds happiness with Vivian’s husband Bob, and Ruth career fulfilment as governess to Bob and Vivian’s son. The character of a person is placed above their social standing. Nice people who have made a few wrong turns can be happy – especially if they enter the acting profession (!) (Mary), cheats and those unhappy with their privileged lot don’t prosper, though they can make amends (Vivian), and those who calmly get on with things can be quietly happy, if overlooked (Ruth).

 

 

We also briefly compared the film’s two main adult male characters. This is encouraged since Vivian leaves the steady and kind, though seemingly unexciting, Bob (Warren William) for the new and apparently charming Michael (Lyle Talbot). We also commented on the way the film directly juxtaposes Bob and Michael.  After his son is kidnapped there is a close-up of a desperate Bob, wringing his hands. This is immediately followed by a close-up of Michael’s hands.  While at first both men seem to be performing a similar action, it is in fact revealed that he is merely vigorously shaking a cocktail. The only other men involved in the film’s narrative are gangsters. Most notably Harve (Humphrey Bogart) threatens Michael when he is in debt, delivering him to his shady boss, Ace (Edward Arnold). The latter is coolly calculating, threatening violence while treating Michael with contempt – he will not even halt his macho act of plucking his nose hair without wincing or tearing up. This subtly implies that Michael will be subject so slow and painful torture.

Despite the fact that the film has three heroines, these do not have equal billing, screen time, dramatic impact or interest for the audience. Mary is top-billed, with her introduction as an adult character privileged over the other two women, and she ends the film happily after a successful romance. We spent more time discussing Vivian, however. It is far too simplistic to suggest that she is a bad mother who rightly sacrifices herself for her son (in the style of the maternal melodrama). Her situation is more complex. We see her struggle with her relationship with her child who while he is affectionate towards her, seems to prefer his nanny and father. Vivian tells Bob she thinks that having sole charge of her on will be good for her – giving her something to focus on. This does not turn out to be the case though, as when she runs off with Michael she is unable to perform even simple tasks like making sure her son is fed and clean. Other than this, she seems happy to be enjoying Michael’s attentions.

We commented on Dvorak’s realistic portrayal of Vivian. Her drug addiction and its consequences of poverty are well shown by Dvorak’s convincing acting, and the diminishing of her personal appearance and costume.  Vivian’s sacrifice was in some ways inevitable, though surprising in its violence. Earlier we have heard her being hit off-screen. Her final act is far more visible. She throws herself out of a window to draw attention to the whereabouts of her son: she has scrawled this information on her nightgown in lipstick. The film cuts from inside the hotel room to outside, showing Vivian hurtling towards the awning below and hitting the street with a thump.

We also discussed the film’s stars. Despite the film’s short running time, it is not a budget film, but one packed with characters played by stars. Although there are three heroines, a main focus is the star triangle of Mary and Vivian and Bob as Ruth plays a smaller part. Since this was early in Davis’ career, it is not surprising that she played a smaller role, and that the film did not make best use of her talents. We thought the small role Bogart played was more in tune with some of his previous parts, and that Arnold was effective.

Although there is a romantic triangle, the film’s pace means we do not witness Vivian and Bob’s courtship, and that Mary and Bob’s romance takes place at breakneck speed. They are very briefly shown to be attracted to one another as each separately boards the cruise ship to wish friends and family bon voyage. They only spend time together one Vivian has left Bob, with his beach proposal (swiftly following on from offering Ruth a position as governess) coming as a bit of a shock. The newspapers report on this as they note that Bob has divorced and remarried on the same day. The film sustains a rapid pace throughout. In addition to short scenes which establish the time frame (popular songs, historical newspaper headlines) these involve the characters too. After his son’s disappearance Bob, accompanied by Mary and Ruth, begs a judge to intervene in a scene which lasts just a few seconds. We thought the only time the film dragged was the discussion between male workers outside the beauty parlour. These men comment on how Mary has replaced Vivian as Bob’s wife and notice the reappearance of Vivian across the street. This merely recounts the plot and identifies the relationship between the two women who soon meet again. This may have been thought helpful at the time when cinema-goers were more likely to join a screening part-way through.

We discussed some contemporaneous extra-filmic material. Trade magazine Motion Picture Herald included a piece on Buster Phelps (who played the son) on the 8th of October.  This rightly complimented Phelps on his portrayal, but also noted that he was apparently being paid more than Dvorak. A review of the film had appeared in the same publication a week earlier. This understandably expressed distaste at screening the kidnapping of a child while the tragic Lindberg baby story was still in the headlines. It also asked that the gangsters are seen to be punished.

This comments on Warner Brothers’ preferred approach of presenting films which were inspired by real-life stories. We also saw Warner Brothers touches in the use of headlines and popular songs to establish time, and the fact it is bang up to date – the date 1932 appears. We noted references to other Warner Brothers films. A magazine article seen in the film which explains that the ‘Three on a Match’ superstition (that if soldiers in the trenches kept a match going long enough to light three cigarettes they would be seen by the enemy and at least one of them killed) was in fact advertising by a Swedish match manufacturer to expand his market. Warner Brothers released a film called The Match King (William Keighley, Howard Bretherton) this same year – which starred Warren William as the title character.  Some us also noted footage which was had been recycled from an earlier production (like Public Enemy 1931, William A. Wellman) and the presence of gowns also seen in other films.

Finally, we spoke about the 1938 remake of the film, Broadway Musketeers (John Farrow). This starred Margaret Lindsay as Isabel (Vivian in the earlier film), Ann Sheridan as Fay (previously Mary), and Marie Wilson as Connie (the Ruth character).  In addition to the name changes, and the shifted focus to the ‘Vivian’ character, there are other differences. For instance, they grow up in an orphanage, the son is now a daughter and the ‘match’ superstition is now about smashing glasses. The original and the update appeared six years apart, and significantly range from two years before, to four years after censorship was more strongly implemented via Hollywood’s Production Code. The later version did not include the characters’ childhoods, and therefore avoided altogether showing them as sexualised at an early age. The use of censorship seemed to not serve its intended purpose, however. The remake contains innuendo (and the Mary character is now stripper rather than an actress) and the differences are superficial and not necessarily the aspects audiences focus on. Isabel does not commit adultery since she divorces her husband before she found a new man. Her addiction appears to be legal alcohol rather than drugs which the 1932 film references openly via paraphernalia, intimation of Vivian suffering due to withdrawal, and Harve’s nose-sniffing gesture. Nonetheless she suffers the same fate as in the earlier film, unable to halt the progression of the melodramatic narrative.

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

Pam Cook’s essay ‘Text, Paratext, Subtext’ in SEQUENCE

Frances has also mentioned the exciting news of the recent publication of Pam Cook’s essay ‘Text, Paratext and Subtext’ in the online journal SEQUENCE. We were very happy to welcome Pam to speak on this subject of Mildred Pierce in its many forms at our Maternal Melodrama Symposium last May.

MP TV seriesThe following invitation to read Pam’s essay was written by REFRAME editor Dr Catherine Grant of the University of Sussex:

‘Writer-director Todd Haynes has previously recounted how film scholar Pam Cook’s 1978 foundational article “Duplicity in MILDRED PIERCE” informed his 2011 HBO miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel (an effective remaking of Michael Curtiz’ 1945 film). Now, in her new essay for the open access serial SEQUENCE (a REFRAME publication), Cook turns her attention to Haynes’ miniseries and its intertextual chain of makings and remakings, and explores, in particular, how we come to read it (or any other audiovisual artefact) as “maternal melodrama.” Her essay is online here:  http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/sequence2/archive/sequence-2-2/.’

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts, including any other melodrama links you’d like to add to the blog.

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

Posted by Sarah

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

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

Old Maid 1

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

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

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

Old Maid 2

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

Other possible areas for discussion:

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

 


 

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

 

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

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

Posted by Sarah

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

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

MP mother and daughter

Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mildred Pierce – film noir or melodrama?

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

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

MP double page ad Variety 1

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on Stella Dallas

Posted by Sarah

Lies has very kindly provided this summary of our discussion on Stella Dallas:

Stella Dallas overdressedFirstly, we discussed the way the film depicts social mobility and its (im)possibility within the supposedly democratic American society of the time. Stella achieves upward social mobility through a respectable marriage to a wealthy man, which is the end goal of many films (The Bride Wore Red comes to mind) but instead of ending on a kiss and a promise of happily ever after, Stella Dallas shows the aftermath of such a match. Stella’s difference from Stephen (and from members of his class) is expressed through her behaviour, her clothes and even, perhaps, her choice in beverage; we discussed her repeated mention of sarsaparilla and how this may be a preference connected to her working class status.

We linked this emphasis on social mobility or lack thereof particularly to the first and last images we get of Stella in the film. At the beginning, she is standing in her family home’s front yard looking out into the street and waiting to catch a glimpse of Stephen Dallas; both Dallas and the road are accessible and within her reach. At the end of the film, however, Stella is standing in the road, behind a fence and outside a closedStella Dallas end window, gazing at her daughter’s wedding, which is physically out of her reach. The wedding is also guarded by a policeman who eventually ushers Stella away. At the film’s beginning, therefore, social mobility (through Stephen) seems achievable, but at the end, it has been closed off to her, and she can only catch a glimpse of Stephen’s world from behind bars.

Nonetheless, we also remarked on Stella’s facial expression as she walks away from the window in the very last seconds of the film; she is sad, but also smiles and looks in a sense victorious. Although Stella has not achieved social mobility directly, she has done so indirectly through Laurel; her daughter has successfully entered Stephen’s world through her marriage to a wealthy man, thanks in part to Stella’s sacrifice. We remarked that this must have echoed the experience of many immigrants to the United States, who may not have personally been able to reap the gains of their decision but whose children and grandchildren received better future opportunities thanks to their immigration.

In terms of both Stella’s family situation in a fairly poorStella Dallas home working class family and of Stella’s wishes for social mobility, this film reminded us in some ways of Love on the Dole, which we watched as a group some months ago. In this film, too, daughter Sally (Deborah Kerr) strives for social mobility, but does so through a clandestine relationship with an unattractive, older rich man instead of through legitimate marriage, as Stella does.

Finally, we remarked upon Barbara Stanwyck’s acting style, which has aged well and which is remarkably restrained, particularly for a film dealing with such strong emotional highs and lows – there was little of the excessive acting we have seen featured in some previous films. This is particularly interesting in terms of this film as a classic (maternal) melodrama, since the genre is often characterized by excessive emotion and exaggerated performances.

Many thanks to Lies for organising the screening of Stella Dallas and providing a wonderful introduction and great summary of our discussion.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the first of the Summer Term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 13th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

Stella Dallas

In preparation for the Melodrama Research Group’s one-day Symposium on Maternal Melodrama we are screening several related films. The first of these is Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor). Lies has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Stella Dallas stars Barbara Stanwyck as Stella, the working class daughter of a mill worker who, in an attempt to better herself, seduces and marries mill executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles). The couple have a child, Laurel, but soon discover their marriage is not a success, as their differences in class and taste prove insurmountable. The two divorce and Stella retains custody of Laurel. Years later, however, as Laurel grows into young adulthood, it becomes increasingly obvious that her kind-hearted, but rather tasteless, mother is an obstacle to her introduction into her father’s upper class circles, and Stella is forced to choose between her own wishes and what she believes to be best for her daughter.

Originally published as a novel in 1920 and made into a silent film in 1925 (starring Belle Bennett as Stella and Ronald Colman as Stephen), this film is a maternal melodrama par excellence and should provide ample topics for discussion, such as:
– The ways in which this film can be defined as a melodrama
– The role of female self-sacrifice in (maternal) melodrama
– The role and function of class in this film, or What Happened After Cinderella Married The Prince
– The relationship between mother and daughter
– The relationship between both of Laurel’s mother figures (Stella and the second Mrs Dallas)
Do join us, if you can, for a classic Hollywood melodrama which showcases the talents of one of the most compelling female stars of the 1930s and 1940s.

Maternal Melodrama Titles and Abstracts

Posted by Sarah

The titles and abstracts for our upcoming Maternal Melodrama on the 3rd of June:

Pam Cook, University of Southampton, Film Studies

“Paratext and Subtext: Reading Mildred Pierce as Maternal Melodrama”

Maternal melodrama has MP TV seriesgenerated an influential body of critical writing that examines the implications of its representations of motherhood for women. Ambivalence towards and desire for mothers continue to inspire stories of maternal suffering, self-sacrifice, guilt and blame that have a powerful emotional appeal. I’ll focus on Mildred Pierce to try to get to the heart of why this genre (cycle?) is so significant and how a diverse collection of films comes to be viewed as maternal melodrama. Using my videographic work, I’ll look at the role of paratexts (Genette) in producing the subtexts that point to the genre’s transgressive potential.

 

 Catherine Grant, University of Sussex, Film Studies

 “Studying Old and New Maternal Melodramas Videographically”

Joan Fontaine Rebecca

In my talk, I will screen a number of my short audiovisual essays on film melodramas which centrally feature mother-daughter relationships (including two cinematic adaptations of Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1922 novel Stella Dallas [1925 and 1937], The Railway Children [1970], and Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank).

I will also explore what “creative critical” videographic methods can bring to the study of old and new maternal melodramas. I will argue not only for the greater potential of audiovisual expression for richer and more precise engagements with the motifs and textures of film melodrama, but also for the benefits of methods which more evidently express, and at times productively foreground, the subjective and affective investments of the individual researcher.

For an example of Katie’s videographic essays on Melodrama please visit her fantastic Film Studies For Free blog, especially the post ‘Voluptuous Masochism: Gothic Melodrama Studies in Memory of Joan Fontaine’:

http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/voluptuous-masochism-gothic-melodrama.html

 

Keeley Saunders, University of Kent, Film Studies (ks424@kent.ac.uk)

“Transitioning and the Maternal Melodrama: Parental Roles in Transamerica”

In the process of transitioning, many transgender individuals have to learn how to manage their new identity in society: dealing with other people’s perceptions of them, moving jobs or location, or significantly, ‘coming out’ to their family. Trans memoirs, such as Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan, detail the complex process of transitioning as a parent: for Boylan, moving from ‘father’ to ‘mother,’ with a period in between where the subject occupied neither – or both – positions. Documenting this issue draws attention to the traditional roles of gender and the social structures policing gendered parenting responsibilities or behaviours. Elsewhere this can be depicted through a parent’s response to their child coming out and their reaction (and the relationship developed) following such an announcement.

Family dynamics and the role of the parent is a recurring narrative trope within the fictional mode of ‘trans-cinema.’ Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) Maternal Melodrama Transamerica untitledpresents both of sides of the parental dynamic outlined above, following Bree, a pre-operative trans woman who is in the process of transitioning. This presentation will explore how Transamerica – and trans-cinema more broadly – adopts various melodramatic structures to portray its narratives. With particular reference to the characterisation and role of the mother, I will address how the film utilises the convention of parental roles, situating Bree as both the estranged parent and the estranged child attempting to (reluctantly) reconnect with her family before she undergoes her surgery.

 

 Lavinia Brydon, University of Kent, Film Studies

“The Suffering and Sacrifices of a Mother (Country): Examining the Scarred Irish Landscape in The Last September (1999)”

This paper seeks to investigate maternal Melodrama The Last Septemberand interpret the melodramatic tendencies of The Last September (Deborah Warner, 1999), an Anglo-Irish heritage film set just one year prior to the Ireland’s partition in 1921-1922. Taking John Hill’s comments on the melodramatic excess of the similarly concerned Fools of Fortune (Pat O’Connor, 1990) as a starting point, this paper will consider how the violence of the period complicates the restraint that typically marks the heritage film. Indeed, it will argue that the turbulent time frame permits the ‘astonishing twists and turns of fate, suspense, disaster and tragedy’ (Mercer and Shingler 2004: 7) for which early theatrical melodramas were famed. However, given the familiar nationalist allegory of Ireland as a poor old woman (otherwise known as Cathleen ni Houlihan), this paper will move on to consider how the violence inscribed on the Irish landscape allows the film to be framed specifically as a maternal melodrama. It will thus consider how the film depicts the suffering of and sacrifices made by Ireland as a mother (country).

 

Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All That Costume Allows: Does Dress Tell the Mother’s Story?”

As its title suggests, this short paper seeks to link two famous Film Studies texts: Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, and Jane Gaines’ 1991 article, “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story”. Gaines’ piece insists that, because of the gendered division of narrative agency inevitably operating in Classical Hollywood Cinema, character is conveyed in different ways; men, who are active in the narrative, making things happen, are summed up by those happenings, but women, who are passive and acted upon, cannot thus be known. Their characters need to be made apparent to the viewer through other means: Hollywood has traditionally used costume. As Gaines remarks, “a woman’s dress and demeanour, much more than a man’s, indexes psychology: if costume represents interiority, it is she who is turned inside out on screen.” (Gaines, 1991: 181)

Maternal Melodrama ATHA 3On first consideration, Sirk’s scenario – about a widow’s romance with a younger man seen, by her children and snobbish community, as her social inferior – appears ripe to contest Gaines’s assertions. The film is all about Cary Scott, the central female character, her feelings, motives, decisions. Her status as a mother surely endows her with agency, as she cares for her children and, true to the maternal melodrama formula, sacrifices her own happiness to ensure theirs? Does the film need to employ the ‘storytelling wardrobe’ for a character so at the heart of the story, even when she is female?  This presentation examines Cary’s costumes in detail to find out.

Reference

Gaines, Jane. 1991. “Costume and Narrative: How dress tells the woman’s story” in Gaines, Jane and Herzog, Charlotte, eds, Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. New York and London: Routledge.

Lies Lanckman, University of Kent, Film Studies

“All the melodramatics of my life are past!”: The Fan Magazine as a Melodramatic Medium

Although the topic of maternal melodrama inMaternal Melodrama Norma Shearer 3 film has received attention by a number of scholars, the focus appears to lie primarily on the study of particular emblematic films or, more broadly, on maternal melodrama on screen. This paper, however, will explore another connection between (Hollywood) film and melodrama; the way in which not just many films, but also the fan magazine and the star narratives contained within its pages can be seen to include a number of melodramatic elements.

By exploring fan magazine rhetoric produced between 1920 and 1940, I highlight a number of key themes and the way their treatment might be called melodramatic, ranging from the characterisation of particular stars, to the treatment of key life experiences, such as love, marriage and death. In this paper, however, I will particularly highlight the treatment of motherhood in the pages of publications suchMaternal Melodrama Stanwyck as Photoplay, focusing on two separate case studies. One is the treatment of Norma Shearer’s role as a tragic widow and single mother after the premature death of husband Irving Thalberg in September 1936. The other will focus on the rhetoric surrounding the divorce of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay in December 1935, which cast Stanwyck as an excessive/monstrous mother who essentially emasculated her (less successful) husband. Using these two case studies, I will attempt to draw comparisons between Hollywoodian (maternal) melodrama on and off screen.

 

Ann-Marie Fleming, University of Kent, Film Studies

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present”:  Exploring the melodramatic depictions of the women from Grey Gardens (1975 and 2009).

This paper seeks to explore how we understand mother-daughter tensions and acceptance through the use of the past in both Grey Gardens (1975) and the docudrama of the same name from 2009. Life at Maternal Melodrama Grey Gardens doc and filmGrey Gardens does not progress; instead the past is the present. Melodramatic moments, particularly the interactions between Edith and Edie, are caused by and centred on past grievances that are as much alive in 1976 as they were in 1952. In contrast, the docudrama’s past is shown as a tool to heighten the pain of the present, whilst stylistically appearing more significant.

Primarily the paper will focus on the films’ depiction of:

  • The unsaid, said and shown – An examination of the melodrama caused by the discussion of the past in contrast to the performance style of the docudrama.
  • Female urgency – The importance of the female body and its dominance of the frame at the peak of the melodramatic performance/reaction.
  • The rise and fall of tension – How each form manipulates time and remembrance to create melodramatic sympathy.
  • The melodrama of life itself – The re-creation of the past self and the character of the present.

Despite the differences in film form the paper hopes to expose one important factor: familial melodrama arises from the past’s collision with the present.

 

We hope you’ll be able to join us on the 3rd of June to hear the papers in full!

Update: the event is free, but booking is essential. Please email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to secure your place.

 

Schedule for Maternal Melodrama Symposium on 3rd of June

Posted by Sarah

Exciting news! We now have a schedule for the Maternal Melodrama Symposium which will take place on the 3rd of June in GLT3 (Grimond Lecture Theatre 3) and GS6 (Grimond Seminar Room 6). The day includes talks by our special guests –  Professor Pam Cook of Southampton University and Dr Catherine Grant of the University of Sussex – as well as from members of the Melodrama Research Group.

Schedule

10.00 – 10.30 Greetings and refreshments GS6

10.30 – 12.30 Videographic essays and the Maternal Melodrama GLT3

                Pam Cook: “Paratext and Subtext: Reading Mildred Pierce as Maternal

                Melodrama”

                Catherine Grant: “Studying Old and New Maternal Melodramas

                Videographically”

12.30 – 1.30 Lunch GS6

1.30 – 3.30 Afternoon papers GLT3

10 minute papers

                 Keeley Saunders: “Transitioning and the Maternal Melodrama:

                 Parental Roles in Transamerica”

                 Lavinia Brydon: The Suffering and Sacrifices of a Mother (Country):

                 Examining the Scarred Irish Landscape in The Last September (1999)”

                Questions

20 minute papers

                Tamar Jeffers McDonald: “All That Costume Allows: Does Dress Tell the 

                Mother’s Story?”

                 Lies Lanckman: “”All the melodramatics of my life are past!”: The  

                  Fan  Magazine as a Melodramatic Medium”

                 Ann- Marie Fleming: “”It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and

                 the present”:  Exploring the melodramatic depictions of the women from Grey

                 Gardens (1975 and 2009)”

                 Questions

3.30 – 4.00 Afternoon tea GS6

4.00 – 5.00 Roundup of thoughts, responses and future plans GS6

Please see the next post for contributors’ abstracts.

Update: the event is free, but booking is essential. Please email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to secure your place.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012) on BBCiPlayer until Saturday evening

 

Posted by Sarah

 

maternal melodrama

Just to let you know that you can catch We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), an important film for the forthcoming maternal melodrama symposium, on BBC iplayer until Saturday Evening: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01p241z/We_Need_to_Talk_About_Kevin/