Summary of Discussion on Death in Venice

(Apologies for the few months delay in posting this summary. I’ve backdated it so that it fits in with the flow of discussion on the blog, allowing the focus to be on our more recent events such as The War Illustrated project.)

Our discussion on the film covered: its relation to melodrama; its music; its setting in time and place; films it reminded us of; the film’s place in Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images; material in magazines.

We discussed melodrama in terms of the suffering of the film’s main character, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde). The film unfolds at a leisurely pace with the seriousness of Von Aschenbach’s purpose for staying at a hotel in Venice, an illness, revealed as time progresses. This is compounded by Von Aschenbach contracting cholera after witnessing those around him undergoing the awful effects of the disease. The film ends with dying on a beach. Furthermore, Von Aschenbach undergoes emotional distress as he feels unrequited, and inappropriate, desire for an adolescent boy, the Polish Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen).

The film’s flashbacks also convey Von Aschenbach’s previous suffering. This is mostly emotional, rather than physical. Von Aschenbach has an extreme reaction to the poor reception of one of his musical works, and subsequently collapses. The inclusion of these scenes suggests that Von Aschenbach is still feeling their effects. Not all the flashbacks are unhappy. Some show Von Aschenbach happily spending time with his wife and daughter. This fits in with the rhythm of melodrama, since it shows both the highs (happy moments with his wife and child) and the lows (his extreme grief at their loss). We thought it interesting that Von Aschenbach’s wife and child, and indeed the happiness, was included given the film’s main focus on Von Aschenbach’s controversial desire for young Tadzio. Von Aschenbach is a complex character with a backstory which is revealed in a piecemeal fashion.

We also commented on Death in Venice’s relation to the mystery, violence and chase elements of melodrama. Only the last of these was present in the film. As Von Aschenbach becomes increasingly ill, he worries about Tadzio’s health, and pursues him through Venice’s streets. This ends with him collapsing in the street with exhaustion. Unusually for a pursuer in the chase, then, Von Aschenbach action causes him suffering, heightening this aspect of melodrama.

Death in Venice’s musical score, later released by EMI, was also discussed by the group in terms of melodrama. The opening shots of the film are languid long takes accompanied by the music of Gustav Mahler. Music also punctuates other significant moments in the film. Von Aschenbach feels embarrassed by his desire for Tadzio and decides to leave Venice. As he embarks on a long boat journey leisurely music accompanies the close-up shots of his sad face. After a mix up with Von Aschenbach’s luggage, he chooses to return to his hotel, and to Tadzio. Again, close-ups of Von Aschenbach are provided, though he is now smiling, and the mood of the music also seems to have lifted. Other points at which music is used especially effectively include the chase sequence referenced above, as well as the moving end of the film where Von Aschenbach falls ill on a beach and passes away.

The film’s extra-diegetic music seems especially appropriate because the occupation of Von Aschenbach is altered from a writer in Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, to a composer. Such a change also suits the medium of sound film. Von Achenbach’s musical background affords opportunities for music to be present within the diegesis. The flashback to the failure of Von Aschenbach’s concert includes music. We also see Von Achenbach’s responses to others playing music. Tadzio briefly picks out a few notes, badly, on the piano at the hotel. This does not seem to dampen Von Aschenbach’s desire. But he appears to be more judgmental about local musicians who are playing several instruments to try and inject some jollity into the cholera-stricken district.

The film’s European Edwardian-era setting as a backdrop for Von Aschenbach’s suffering was also commented on. This is undoubtedly connected to the date and location of the original setting of Mann’s, novella. But we thought that Death in Venice’s title, as well as its depiction of disease, foreshadowed the upcoming first world war which would decimate Europe. Tadzio’s family also reminded us of the Russian royals the Romanovs who were killed following the Russian Revolution which began in 1917. Much of this was connected to the film’s mise en scene. The hotel is large and ornately furnished, denoting its expensive nature. The people who can afford to stay there are generally of the upper classes – such as Tadzio’s family. The clothing worn by Tadzio’s family, especially the exquisite dresses, also suggest wealth. Tadzio’s sailor suit costume reminded us of some of the photographs of the Romanovs. His costume therefore effectively reflects the time period in which the film is set, and his status as a member of the upper class. It also significantly emphasises his youth in comparison to Von Aschenbach. (We thought that Tadzio’s hair style reproduced the 1970s of the film’s era of production, however!) We also briefly mentioned other films set in Italy’s iconic landscape, such as Don’t Look (1973, Nicolas Roeg) and A Room with a View (1985, Merchant and Ivory).

Since we have been screening several Bogarde films, we compared the melodrama in Death in Venice to other Bogarde films we’ve discussed. The suffering of Von Aschenbach raised thoughts about Esther Waters (1948, Ian Dalrymple), especially William Latch’s death-bed scene. We thought that the beautifully lit last moments of Bogarde’s character recalled similar deaths of heroines in film melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/06/summary-of-discussion-on-esther-waters/) The fact that some aspects of chase were involved in Death in Venice reminded us of our discussion of Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton), which depicts killer Chris Lloyd’s attempt to escape pursuing police (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/18/summary-of-discussion-on-hunted/).

 

Like Hunted, Victim (1961, Basil Dearden) combined suffering with mystery, violence, and chase. Death in Venice has significant differences from the UK-set Victim which had a crusading agenda tied to its time. Von Aschenbach’s desire for a young boy is of course not the same as the gay theme of Victim, and he is a more tragic character than Melville Farr in Victim. In Victim, Farr lost a close friend and was a closeted homosexual who the film suggested would continue to live with his wife in what might be seen as a compromise at a time when gay sex was illegal. Von Aschenbach’s sexual desire for a child places him further on the outskirts of society. His wish to be desirable to Tadzio means that Von Aschenbach undergoes a makeover. At the start of the film, Von Aschenbach visibly recoils from an older man whose hair looks suspiciously colourful and who is acting in a jaunty manner. After he becomes increasingly ill with cholera, Von Aschenbach visits a barber. The barber not only dyes Von Aschenbach’s hair to remove the grey but applies heavy make-up to his face. This sad visual demonstration that Von Achenbach is trying to recapture his youth is made even more poignant when he collapses sobbing in the street after losing sight of Tadzio. With his hair dye and make-up running, Von Aschenbach is a pitiful figure.

 

Bogarde did not exclusively portray provocative characters like Von Aschenbach after Victim. For example, in 1963 prior to playing the sinister titular character in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde starred in I Could Go on Singing (Ronald Neame – see blog post here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2019/01/15/summary-of-discussion-on-i-could-go-on-singing/ ) as well as the last Doctor film, Doctor in Distress (Ralph Thomas). The move to comedy was even briefly seen in Bogarde’s work with Losey, as he appeared in the spy parody Modesty Blaise (1966) before the pair returned to more serious fare with Accident (1967). Bogarde’s work with other European directors included Visconti. Just before Death in Venice, Bogarde starred as a man with links to the Nazi party in Visconti’s The Damned (1969).

 

Bogarde’s more controversial roles – especially in The Damned and Death in Venice – seem to occur in films which in some way foreground artifice. The makeover scene in Death in Venice emphasises that while Von Aschenbach is trying to present himself in a certain way to Tadzio, as an actor, Bogarde, is also casting himself in a certain light. The hair dye and make-up in fact cover the greying hair and subtler make-up Bogarde is already sporting as Von Aschenbach. We also considered the Bogarde’s star image – the way his ‘real self’ appears to us. We primarily thought about this in relation to the changing of the novella’s character from a novelist (and perhaps a stand in for Thomas Mann) to another type of artist – a composer. Classical music could still have been heavily used in film whose main character was a novelist, so the change perhaps has further significance. Bogarde’s main writing career occurred well after Death in Venice’s 1971 release. His first memoir, Snakes and Ladders, appeared in 1978, with his first novel, A Gentle Occupation, following two years later. Bogarde had, however, previously written articles for magazines (perhaps most notably a series of 5 for Woman magazine in 1961). The fact that he writes essay and poems is even mentioned in coverage about Death in Venice from the time. In Gordon Gow’s interview with Bogarde in Films and Filming, he self-deprecatingly comments that he doubts anyone will want to publish him (May 1971, p. 49): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/films-and-filming-may-1971/ Although it was unlikely to have happened, it would have been unfortunate if audiences mistakenly conflated the character of Von Aschenbach with the ‘real’ Bogarde.

Such a view is of course retrospective, and heavily Bogarde-centric. Other magazine coverage from the time instead emphasised the similarity of Von Aschenbach to composer Gustav Mahler. Gordon Gow’s review of Death in Venice comments that Von Aschenbach’s hairstyling and spectacles make him resemble Mahler (Films and Filming, May 1971, p. 87). Furthermore, Gow claims that the director Visconti thought Mann’s novella was responding to Mahler’s 1911 death. By changing Von Aschenbach to a composer, Visconti believed he was able to draw out Mann’s original intent. A similar opinion is expressed in Philip Strick’s review in the Spring issue of Sight and Sound (pp. 103-4): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/sight-and-sound-spring-1971/. Analysis of contemporary publicity and promotion therefore reveals that rather than distancing Von Aschenbach from Bogarde, changing him to a composer made him closer to Mahler.

If you’re interested in reading more about Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images, I’ve written several posts about the British Film Institute’s (BFI’s) collection of magazines bequeathed to them by his estate. You can find these on the NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/tag/dirk-bogarde/

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp761@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the melodrama blog.

Summary of Discussion on I Could Go On Singing

Our discussion on I Could Go On Singing included consideration of melodramatic aspects such as  Jenny Bowman (Judy Garland)  as a suffering woman and the genre of maternal melodrama; Judy Garland’s star entrance and moments of spectacle which privilege her; the film’s music: especially the way the songs commented, or neglected to comment, on the film’s action and themes; the relationship between the character Jenny Bowman and Garland’s own screen and star images; Dirk Bogarde’s character David Donne; Bogarde as a supporting star to Garland both on and off the screen.

The film was screened as part of our exploration of the many different facets of melodrama in films starring Dirk Bogarde. While Bogarde retains above-the-title billing, much of our discussion unsurprisingly focused on Judy Garland’s character, Jenny Bowman. We especially noted that the suffering which is central to many melodramas is evident in three parts of Jenny’s identity: as a performer, as a woman, and as a mother.

Revealingly, the original title for I Could Go On Singing was The Lonely Stage. The pressure on a performer in a one man or woman musical show is immense: he or she must be in the right place (often far from home) at the right time, fully rehearsed, and note-perfect. He or she also has to match the audience’s expectations of him or her as existing just for them in that moment. Jenny experiences problems towards the end of the film when she becomes drunk due to emotional distress and does not want to perform. Nonetheless, the show cannot go on without her, and she does not only appear as promised, but maintains an on-stage façade of being bright and fun.

The well-worn trope of a performer suffering behind the scenes has perhaps be shown to its best effect in the several versions of A Star is Born. The narrative sees a young female performer falling in love with an established star, and then eclipsing him. This leads to suffering for them both. Following William A. Wellman’s first iteration (in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) emphasis moved to musical versions. George Cukor directed Judy Garland herself alongside James Mason in 1954. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson were next in Frank Pierson’s 1976 film, and just recently Lady Gaga appeared opposite Bradley Cooper in his 2018 production.

Jenny’s suffering as a woman is expressed in terms of her romantic and familial relationships. She tells ex-lover David that she has been lonely since their relationship ended, even (in fact especially) during her two failed marriages. This is what partly fuels her desire to see Matt (Gregory Phillips), the son she left his father, David, to bring up 12 years ago. It also gives Jenny an excuse to see David again. Although David agrees to mother and son meeting once – under his supervision during Matt’s rugby match at boarding school – Jenny craves further contact. Predictably, Jenny’s precarious life as a performer (rehearsals, late performances, a focus on what is essential for her career success – herself) leaves little room for Matt.  When they spend time together at her hotel in London she sleeps late, and they miss sight-seeing opportunities.  Jenny, and David, also selfishly argue within Matt’s hearing, leading to him discovering the truth about his parentage – that David is his real, and not adoptive father, and Jenny his mother. Jenny’s sadness that she cannot be the mother she wants to be leads to her going on the drinking binge which jeopardises her career at the end of the film, revealing the impact of the personal on the professional.

I Could Go on Singing therefore comments on a woman not being able to have both a family and a career. Such notions still exist today, though they were even more prevalent at the time of the film’s production. Significantly, we thought that the film demonstrated that David’s relationship with Matt has also suffered due to his being away for long periods due to his work as an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. David has a warm and jokey relationship with Matt and he is clearly protective of him. But father and son do not spend much time together – not only is Matt away at boarding school (presented on screen by King’s School in Canterbury) during term time, but it is mentioned that he will also be spending some of his holidays with his Aunt in Kent. We should be wary, however, of viewing the father/son relationship through a modern lens. David certainly has a closer relationship with Matt than Jenny does, and one which was probably viewed as typical of the time.

Jenny’s relationship with Matt is similar to, but also different from, other maternal melodramas the group has previously screened. In both Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor) and The Old Maid (1939, Edmund Golding) the mother loves her child deeply but considers that she would be better off without her as a mother. In the former case this is due to the mother’s low-class status, and in the latter to the fact she is unmarried. (You can find more information on our responses to these films by searching the blog for the film titles.) I Could Go On Singing is a less extreme maternal melodrama in terms of Jenny’s suffering and sacrifice. Similarly, her child’s suffering is not brought about by parental cruelty or malice: Jenny and David could both handle their relationships with their son better, but this is not deliberate.

Our discussion of Garland also commented on her introduction. She is treated to a star entrance. Her figure, at first not especially recognisable, alights from a car and she proceeds to walk, with her back to camera, to a front door. This delays our first proper glimpse of Garland. The scene cuts to the well-lit interior of the house as a woman descend the stairs to answer the door and greet the visitor.  Garland is framed by an internal window, soon proceeding into the house and becoming recognisable to the audience. She then mounts the stairs to meet the advancing David.

Other moments which privilege Garland are more striking. Many of these relate to the staging of her songs. Garland’s rendition of I Could Go On Singing plays over the opening credits which are superimposed on abstract blurred coloured spotlights. I am the Monarch of the Sea is sung by Garland, and others, after Matt and his school classmates’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Later on, Jenny performs Hello Bluebird, It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go on Singing on stage.

We commented on the placement of these three songs in the narrative and how the lyrics related to the actions and emotions present in the film. The joyous Hello Bluebird appropriately occurs just after Jenny has learned, in contrast to a telegram she has just received, that her son Matt can in fact attend her concert. The lyrics of It Never Was You concern a disappointed woman who has searched for, but not yet found, a lost lover. While this may be seen to relate to Jenny’s relationship with David, the parallels in the next two songs are more conspicuous. By Myself is also about suffering connected to expectations of love not being met. But its highs and lows seem more extreme, more melodramatic.  Its lyrics declare that ‘this is the end of romance’ and reject the notion of love as ‘an overrated past time’; it is ‘only a dance’. While it is clearly not meant to be a song about recent or current events (Jenny is not improvising the song on the spot) its timing is significant:  it occurs just after Jenny’s heated argument with David when Matt finds out the truth about his parentage. There is also defiance in By Myself’s lyrics, despite the emphasis on being alone. The singer vows to ‘face the unknown, build a world of my own’ and is ‘sure that I am old enough to fly alone’. This suits Jenny’s action at the song’s completion: she strides off the stage and startles her manager, George (Jack Klugman) by demanding answers about the possibility of her gaining parental access to Matt.

I Could Go on Singing is arguably the film’s most important song. It not only frames the film – it is present over the opening credits, and on screen at the end after Jenny has been propped up by David – but is the only one expressly written for the film. It connects Jenny’s desire to sing (which is of course necessary to her career success) to being in love. The song’s claim that ‘When I see your eyes I go all out, I must vocalise till you shout “enough already”’ certainly supports its statement that ‘love does funny things when it hits you this way’. Memorably it avows that the singer could carry on until the ‘cows come home’, reinforcing this with an expression about an even less likely occurrence: the moon turning pink. It is worth considering a matter central to the film: who is the object of Jenny’s affections?  Is it David, Matt, herself, or possibly even her audience?

 

Differences between the way these songs were filmed (and especially how these emphasised Jenny’s status as a performer) were also commented on. The Monarch of the Sea fittingly includes no obvious means of amplification since it is an informal gathering around a piano. By contrast, the technology Jenny needs to deliver Hello Bluebird to a theatre full of people is not just visible, but made noticeable.   Jenny takes the microphone off its stand as she sings ‘I’m back home today’. This visually underlines the importance of her statement (the stage is her home) but also allows her to demonstrate this by actively moving around the space. The microphone lead trails with Jenny as the camera follows her walking across the stage. The other half of the performing equation – the audience – is also depicted. As well as crowd shots at the beginning and end of the song, cutting away to the audience during it means that Jenny can be re-framed in a longer shot which further conveys her status as performer.

It was noted that the obvious use of technology contrasts with It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go On Singing. These are more in keeping with the traditional film musical which erases the amplification apparatus, despite often pretending that songs are performed ‘live’. Such invisible technology shifts the film from stage to cinema spectacle. They are also noticeably unlike footage of Garland’s concert and TV performances which show her with a microphone in her hand.

These songs also show the audience, and Jenny’s status as performer, to differing degrees. Garland’s performance of It Never Was You (which was apparently sung live on stage) appears to have been achieved in one take. This focuses entirely on Garland, closing in on her from a straight ahead shot until it moves to show her in profile. The filming of By Myself also does not emphasise the audience’s presence. However, unmotivated cuts seem to comment directly on how the stage and film audiences should view Jenny.  The camera switches to a longer shot as the song’s lyric emphasise that the singer is ‘alone’. Jenny is seen as a small figure on a dark stage lit by only a spotlight.

I Could Go On Singing, like It Never Was You and By Myself, suggests that Jenny is not using unnatural means to deliver the necessary amplification. However, in common with the staging of Hello Bluebird, it focuses on the on-screen audience. Furthermore, it places Jenny (and Garland) in the context of her audience; several shots seem to be taken from the wings, depicting Jenny and the audience in the same frame and supporting interpretations of this being where Jenny (and Garland) belongs.

This important relationship between Jenny and her theatre audience is mirrored in that of Garland and the film audience. US trade magazine Box Office’s review and exploitips note that I Could Go on Singing is the first opportunity in nearly a decade to see Garland singing in character. A behind-the-scenes piece on the film in the May 1963 issue of US magazine Screen Stories compares her role as Jenny to those Garland played in earlier films. It is claimed that this is the first time Garland has smoked on the big screen or seemed the worse for drink; meanwhile Garland herself supposedly comments that this is her first ‘really adult love affair’ (p. 53). Implications that her recent roles were somehow child-like are not wholly accurate.  Following Garland’s role in A Star is Born, Garland appeared in the hard-hitting film dramas Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer) and A Child is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes). But such statements importantly reposition expectations about Garland’s current screen image. While Garland will once again be singing, she will not be playing the less adult roles of her early musicals. This was perhaps necessary since other than these earlier film musicals, Garland’s more regular concert performances were occasionally televised, meaning that audiences would have been more familiar with her singing ‘as herself’.

We can never know the ‘real’ person of the star, only what is said to be true about them (his or her star image). A star’s star image is often similar his or her screen image (the characters he or she plays), but this is especially true in Garland talking on the role of world-famous concert singer Jenny Bowman. The close relationship between Jenny and Judy was commented on by the March 1963 issue of UK film magazine Films and Filming.  Richard Whitehall opines that the film is a ‘demonstration of the ultimate in star quality with an artist moulding the material to her talents’ and that Garland ‘is the film’ (p. 34).

Some in the melodrama group thought that the film’s mining of Garland’s star image was exploitative.  It is, however, common practice, and we should be wary of denying her agency in choosing to make the film. Such views are of course coloured by our knowledge that this was Garland’s last film and that she died young, 6 years after its release. Contemporary audiences would not have been aware of these facts. Extratextual material at the time drew parallels between Judy and Jenny as singers, but also emphasised Garland’s good relationship with her children. The aforementioned March 1963 Screen Stories article displays a prominent photograph of Garland celebrating her birthday with a cake, alongside her 3 children, as well as her co-stars Bogarde and Phillips. The text of the piece also quotes Garland on the ridiculousness of this film constituting her first adult love affair, when she has ‘3 wonderful children in real life’. She has brought them to London for filming (Lorna and Joey were even extras in the film) and the article closes with an anecdote about the family sight-seeing (p. 53).

Of course we also discussed Bogarde’s role supporting Garland – both on screen and off. The film does not afford Bogarde the opportunities to show both the sensitive and villainous qualities we have noted in previous screenings (Esther Waters, Hunted, Libel, and The Singer not the Song). Our knowledge of David does develop from his first appearance on screen to his last, however. The way the pair first interacted was especially praised. There was formality and doctorly concern in his manner, while it was only slowly revealed that they have previously known one another and indeed have a son together.  Warmth between David and Matt allow for Bogarde to play the nice guy, who is protective of his son, but still willing to give Jenny a chance to share their son. Bogarde is especially effective in the scene in which he and Jenny clash over her desire to tell Matt the truth. His initial outburst of anger is followed by crestfallen regret when he sees Matt and realises that he has heard the truth.

 

The final scenes show yet more dimensions as David tends to Jenny’s wounds and promises to stay with her as long as she needs him. There was debate about the fact that David disappears while Jenny is singing I Could Go On Singing on stage at the end of the film. Some thought that his previous words had therefore meant nothing and that he had never intended to stay with Jenny. Others were of the opinion that the defiant way in which Garland performs this final song – which after all is about someone who can keep singing until the moon turns pink – showed that she had sufficiently recovered. This view is supported by the end of the fiction-version of the story which appeared in the May 1963 issue of US fan magazine Screen Stories:

   ” “I’ll stay,” he said.

“How long?”

“Until you can stand by yourself again,” he said….

She limped onto the great empty stage in her street clothes, late, but willing to sing. The audience yelled out, “We love you, Jenny,” as the lights came up; and Jenny yelled back, “I love you, too.” The spotlight on her face grew brighter, and the orchestra began to play. Jenny Bowman was home again, back where she belonged.”

 

THE END

(accessed via the official Dirk Bogarde website: http://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/screen-stories-may-1963/)

Following Judy’s return to the stage David’s absence is not noted in the text. Neither is his presence – it almost seems as though he is irrelevant. Jenny’s need for love is fulfilled by her adoring audience and it is stated that she is ‘home again, back where she belonged’

This led us to briefly consider Bogarde’s off screen role. While Bogarde’s support  is partially seen in his not competing with Garland for the emotional scenes, information he purportedly provided about the production gives further insight. He claimed that, sanctioned by Garland, he rewrote some of Jenny’s dialogue (John Coldstream, Dirk Bogarde, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2004, p. 287) This potentially gave Garland more agency, a matter about which the melodrama group had earlier expressed concerns.  It also highlights Bogarde’s many talents – he had a successful career as a writer as well as an actor. Furthermore, in addition to reminding us of the importance of production and reception contexts, it highlights the fact that such contexts place stars among other stars, both on and off the screen.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 10th of December, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the last meeting of the term. We will be screening I Could Go On Singing (1963, Ronald Neame, 99 mins) on Monday the 10th of December, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

The film was not assigned the label ‘melodrama’ by the American industry magazine Box Office, but is referred to as a ‘drama with songs’ (18th March, 1963). This allows us  to consider an important element of melodrama we have not yet considered in relation to Dirk Bogarde melodramas – music.

It is unsurprising that Box Office’s main focus in advice to cinemas as to how to advertise the film in the US (and probably the UK) is its female lead – singing mega-star Judy Garland – rather than Bogarde, who plays her British ex-husband. The magazine’s ‘exploitips’ says that the big selling angle is indeed the music, with Garland performing songs in a film for the first time since A Star is Born (1954).

Catchlines (short sentences which Box Office suggests can be used) refer to the music, but also outline a melodramatic performance style and plot: ‘Judy Garland, Singing, Laughing and Tearing Your Heart Out In a Great Drama with Songs Galore…She Had to Let Love Pass Her By as She Sang to her Public From the Lonely Stage.’

Do join us, if you can, for what is likely to be an emotional viewing!

Summary of Discussion on Libel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Summary of Discussion on Notorious

Our discussion on Notorious ranged across various aspects relating to melodrama and the gothic, also touching on production and reception issues and the recent film Crimson Peak.

An initial comment related to the film’s music. This was expressive throughout – including at moments when emphasis has already been provided visually. Several quick camera zooms into characters’ faces, poisoned cups of coffee, and vitallyNotorious ending important keys were also punctuated by music. We thought it was interesting that the most suspenseful scene of the film was not heavily scored. The final scene in which Devlin (Cary Grant) has finally come to Alicia’s (Ingrid Bergman’s) rescue and has to face down her Nazi husband Alexis (Claude Rains) and his mother (Madame Konstantin) uses the characters’ looks to convey the tension.

notorious beginningThe film’s opening is also intriguing. In this, Alicia is seen flirting with an unknown and silent man who only appears from behind, sat in a chair. This is especially sinister since Alicia seems to be so open with her smiles. While this functions to build up to Grant’s star entrance, it also foreshadows the danger he (as Devlin) encourages her to place herself in. As an American Intelligence agent he is involved in recruiting her and remains her contact throughout. He even enables the Alicia and her target –Alexis – to be reacquainted by placing her in physical danger. He gives her horse a surreptitious kick to necessitate the nearby Alexis to ride to her rescue.

The woman-in-peril aspect is complicated however by the fact Alicia willingly placesnotorious drink driving herself in extreme danger from the very start. This is especially seen in her drink-driving which conveys that following her father’s imprisonment for treason she does not care if she lives or dies. This places Devlin in danger for one of the few times in the film.  Alicia faces far more danger and heartache – marrying a man she knows to be a Nazi when she is in love with Devlin.

1 Welcome GaslightSuch a tense marriage can be related to other gothic heroines in films we have recently screened. In In Gaslight (1944) (another film in which Bergman starred) her character’s husband meant her harm. We can contrast this to Rebecca (1940) in which the heroine also marries for love, and rightly grows suspicious of her husband, Maxim. This is proved to be unfounded in relation to the second Mrs de Winter’s own safety, however.

There are also useful comparisons in terms of Rebecca’s heroine as an ‘almostRebecca investigator’.  Alicia is far more active than the second Mrs de Winter, fulfilling the role of spy. She also differs to the second Mrs de Winter (and several other gothic heroines) in her drunkenness.  The fairly blatant communication of her apparent sexual promiscuity contrasts even more sharply to chaste, innocent heroines. By Alicia’s own admission to Devlin that she is a ‘crook’ as well as a ‘tramp’.

notorious riding gear The fact Alicia appears in modern fashionable clothes contrasts to several other gothic heroines. Many of the other films we have screened are set in earlier periods (the late 1800s Gaslight, the early 20th century in The Spiral Staircase (1945)). Even the contemporary second Mrs de Winter only becomes comfortable in fashionable clothes as the film progresses. Alicia’s riding gear which is not only formal but includes a mannish tie contrasts to the second Mrs de Winter’s soft femininity.

A more specific aspect of setting often associated withspiral-staircase-dorothy-mcguire the gothic, the mansion house, is also present in Notorious. Alicia moves to Alexis’ house following their marriage and scenes of the lavish party they throw convey  a sense of space. It is significant that Alicia is not allowed access to all areas of her new home. Notably the key to the wine cellar, highlighted in the previous post’s advertisement for the film, is kept by Alexis. The wine cellar’s role as dangerous space also compares to The Spiral Staircase. A  staircase also plays an important part in Notorious. It conveys Alexis’ mother’s sense of ownership as she sweeps down them to meet Alicia for the first time and is the setting for the film’s climax. Devlin’s tense rescue of Alicia involves him carrying her down the staircase.

notorious fanThe smaller trope of the candle-carrying which we have noticed in other gothic films was also noticeable – though given a twist. Instead of carrying a candle or torch to aid with her investigations, Alicia holds a fan throughout the hosting of the party. This signals the deceit she is practicing on her husband and also nods to the film’s romantic moments – the film’s beginning  brings to mind a romantic comedy.  Significantly candles are most obviously present as a mood-setter for Alicia and Devlin’s outdoor picnic before their romance turns sour and she marries Alexis. The fact Devlin remains Alicia’s contact throughout the film also comments on the film’s romantic, rather than realistic, point of view as it allows for their relationship to play out.

We also discussed some of the film’s other characters. Joan Fontaine RebeccaWe found Alexis’ mother especially compelling. Dorothy Kilgallen’s November 1946 Modern Screen piece on the film (cited in the previous post) compared Madame Konstantin’s performance to that of Judith Anderson, as Mrs Danvers, in Rebecca (p. 138). We also spoke a little about Madame Konstantin’s earlier stage career and roles in European films. This was her main Hollywood role and like other emigres who had fled the Nazis, it is ironic that she played a Nazi in Notorious.

It was also mentioned that several aspects of the film relate to a recent release which drew on the gothic. In Crimson Peak (2015), like Notorious, the heroine is poisoned by a drink and carried out of the house at the film’s end. This reveals the continued relevance of melodramatic and gothic tropes.

notorious kissConsideration of Crimson Peak also flagged up Notorious’ very different production and reception contexts. While the later film is very sexually explicit, sexual references made in Notorious were rather explicit for their time – especially given the censorship of Hollywood films operating. In addition to general comments about Alicia’s sexual behaviour, it is heavily hinted that she has pre-marital sex with Alexis. The lengthy kiss between Devlin and Alicia was censored, however, with constant distractions and discussion about dinner technically meaning it did not last long enough to be considered objectionable. We also noted that alcohol was very freely enjoyed by Alicia – a contrast to a decade earlier when films such as The Thin Man (1934) were criticised for such scenes.

It was said that the key which played such an important role in the film also had an interesting afterlife. Apparently Grant took it from the set and sent it to Bergman when she was in disgrace for her adulterous affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Later still, Bergman returned it to Hitchcock.

We also spoke about Bergman’s star image. She was half-German as well as half-Swedish but unsurprisingly the latter was far more foregrounded in information circulated about her in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. Bergman’s international heritage was also utilised in her screen image as she often played characters who were not native to the countries in which her films were made. These extended to not just the United States, but Germany and Italy.

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

Summary of Discussion on In This Our Life

Our discussion on John Huston’s film In This Our Life Stanley and Williamnoted its focus on family. Sisters Stanley (Bette Davis) and Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) lives are closely intertwined, partly as the former steals the latter’s husband (Dennis Morgan). In addition, the women’s father previously co-owned a business now run by their invalid mother’s (Billie Burke) brother (Charles Coburn). This is further complicated by the suspiciously close, and highly disturbing, relationship between Stanley and her uncle. Such interconnectedness comments on the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) definition of melodrama, which notes family as an important aspect: The AFI 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)

Davis and de Havilland in this Our Life first dressesFamily is further emphasised were by the constant contrasting of Stanley and Roy. This was done on several levels. Personality and behaviour are of course key, but costume also plays a significant role. While Olivia de Havilland is introduced wearing a muted blue outfit (her father helpfully comments on the colour of the dress suiting her since the film is shot in black and white) Stanley is often seen in flashier outfits of prints, plaid patterns and flouncy frills. Furthermore she is criticised by other members of her family for wearing skirts which are too short.

 Stanley and Roy’s reactions to tragedy also tellingly involve clothes. After learning that her husband has deserted her for her sister Stanley, Roy angrily asserts that ‘I’m not wearing black’ and resolves to buy a red hat with a feather.  We see her wearing the accessory soon after, but the film’s black and white photography downplays the colour’s vividness. Similarly, when Stanley is supposedly heartbroken after the suicide of her husband she soon casts aside black outfits. Instead she opts for a light plaid which shocks her bed-ridden mother. The reactions of both sisters therefore involve the dismissal of black costumes. However, differences in the degree of seriousness of theIn This Our Life Davis plaid dress situations they are responding to is significant. While both have lost a husband (the same husband) Stanley has driven Peter to suicide. Also while Roy speaks of behaving badly to get what she wants (as Stanley always does) she does not follow though on this. Instead she does what the narrative expects – she falls in love with Stanley’s discarded fiancé, Craig (George Brent).

De Havilland and Davis’ acting was also markedly different. While de Havilland was not necessarily always restrained, her main outburst is the one outlined above. By contrast Davis is constantly playing at fever pitch. Davis’ performance involved variation in terms of embodying coyness, girlishness (very much denoted by Davis’ higher than usual voice), anger, seduction, deviousness etc, but there were very few, if any, moments were Davis/Stanley was completely still. Even when Davis/Stanley is sat listening to a gramophone record she is performing a dance with her shoes. It is also very noticeable that Davis’ face is never at rest.  We particularly commented on Davis’ use of her eyes.

We also related Davis’s performance to her precious incarnation of Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell).  (You can see our earlier discussion of this film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/10/summary-of-discussion-on-of-human-bondage/) Stanley and Mildred are both irredeemable characters, devoid of any moral compass. The impact of Stanley’s selfishness is more far-reaching however. While in Of Human Bondage the main person who suffered was the film’s protagonist, Philip, in In This Our Life Stanley devastates Roy and Craig, other members of her family and significantly a young employee of colour, Parry Clay (Ernest In This Our Life de Havilland hatAnderson), who Stanley blames for a fatal car accident she caused while drunk. This is shown in opposition to Roy and Craig’s kind treatment of Parry. Roy works with Parry at an Interior Decorators and she finds him work at Craig’s law office (Craig is a Civil Rights lawyer) when Parry expresses his wish to train as a lawyer.

Max Steiner’s score was also discussed. This accompanies many of the film’s emotional moments and is also used to foreshadow bad news. During several telephone calls when we are only privy to one side of the conversation the film’s music heavily underscores a sense of impending doom also conveyed by dialogue and actors’ expressions.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 5th of March, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 5th of March in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky, 108 mins).

Black Swan

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The film is said to be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel The Double. In the book a man goes mad when he encounters his double, and, like Black Swan, the double in Dostoyevsky’s novel is the polar opposite of the original self.

The film revolves around Tchaikovsky’s brilliant ballet, Swan Lake. Natalie Portman plays both the White and the Black Swan. Her performance, (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) focuses on the slow spiral into madness caused by an over-protective mother, the intense pressure of her work, confusion of her sexual orientation, and perhaps, the acknowledgment of the short-lived career of her predecessor (Winona Ryder). In fact, it is not hard to see the All About Eve (1950) links throughout the film, particularly if we consider the fear and paranoia of the younger/prettier/talented performers. Show business has a shelf-life, something the women in this film are more than acutely aware of.

The film was chosen for multiple reasons, but none more so than the idea of the doppelganger. The doppelganger is the paranormal double of a living person. The doppelganger is seen to be sinister and bad luck, often regarded as an omen of death. Perhaps most fascinating about the use of the double in this film is the idea of identity, both hidden and the eventual loss of it, and it is this that could be further expanded in our meeting.

 Potential discussion points:

The use of music, particularly in reference to Portman’s character, Nina.

Hidden identity and its connection to melodrama.

The extension of a fictional self and/or the dissolution of self.

The double in terms of polar opposites and its importance to narratives as a whole, but particularly melodrama.

Lastly, dance and movement as an expression of character. This brings to mind the sweeping cape of the Victorian melodramas. Plainly, what type of movement do we identify with a type of character? How does this alter our perception and add to the melodramatic mode? Are the villains prone to excessive movement, and how do we interpret that in our culture?

Do join us if you can.

A link to Dostoyevsky’s novella: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html

Summary of Discussion on The Hours

Posted by Sarah

Rosa has very kindly summarised our recent discussion on The Hours (2002):

The topics that were discussed after the screening were the essential ones mentioned in the previous introduction: music, costume, narrative and performance in (domestic) melodrama.

The Hours Glass soundtrackThe original soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, shows the importance of music, both in this film and in melodrama in general, as an element that supports the narrative as well as being powerful enough to stand out independently. Stephen Daldry, the director, talked about it at length in an interview (DVD extras) and highlighted how the repetition of the same theme over and over again makes the tension stronger in important points of the movie and helps bringing together all three stories, by mainly using the same piano theme.

Clarissa Vaughan flowersIn melodrama, costume and décor are crucial, and this film is an extraordinary example of a magnificent use of such resources. It is impossible not to link the initial sentence of the book Mrs. Dalloway, “Mrs.Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”, with the multiple patterns, prints and real flowers that from the very beginning of the film flood the screen. They are in the outfits, accessories, robes and dressing gowns of the female protagonists, the ties of the male characters, the wall paper- mainly in the 50s section of the film, there are fresh flowers in every household, a flower shop and a few scenes shot on location in Richmond’s gardens and parks. Katerina pointed out the dual meaning of flowers, which is quite applicable in this film: the ephemeral quality of them is an allegory of life/love, main themes of the story.

In the The Hours Richard's robesame way as characters are connected by music, flowers and scenography, colours and prints in the outfits give away messages that we are able to read and understand as the film goes by, bringing all characters together once more. There is a hidden and less obvious case, very cleverly placed within the storyline: Richard (Ed Harris) wears a blue robe with some kind of solar system pattern which happens to be the same fabric as the covers in little Richie’s bed back in the 1950s. If you are able to uncover the meaning of this double use of the same material, you will then be able to predict the end before the film finishes. Jane Gaines (“Costume and Narrative: how dress tells the woman’s story.” Fabrications: costume and the female body (1990): 180-211.) asserts that the costume should not anticipate the narrative plot, but on this occasion dialogue and wardrobe do give us hints of what will happen in the scenes to follow. Clarissa Vaughan says she has a premonition and in the next seen we see her wearing black, which we then learn was an anticipation of the death by suicide of her friend and ex-lover Richard. She wears an orange scarf over her total-black outfit, which could be a visual recourse in order to add definition to the silhouette or, reading more into the symbolism in this film, could express change or mutation, a generally accepted meaning of the colour orange.

Ann-Marie pointed out that it would have not been necessary to indicate in which period and place each story takes place, as the set and costumes are so significant, different and remarkable of each of the three stories, we are perfectly able to identify them. We compared it with how the book is organized and how in a written piece, it is necessary to specify more. In classical melodrama, as mentioned above, costume plays a very important role and this film is able to take us back to the original concept because of its richness in meaning and very intelligent use of the wardrobe. The contemporary part of the film is supported by the other two and all of them work together in a great way.

Thank you all very much for your participation and your very interesting comments!

And many thanks to Rosa for choosing such a rich film for us all to enjoy.

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

Summary of Discussion on Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

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

 

Music and the Melodramatic Aesthetic

Posted by Sarah

I just happened upon some interesting information on the University of Nottingham’s webpages. It relates to a vital part of melodrama that we have not had much chance to explore: music. It contains some useful videos which consider the intersection of melodrama and music, most of which seems to have been posted in 2008 or earlier.

Do take a look: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/music/research/projects/mma/index.aspx

There is also a report on the Music and the Melodramatic Aesthetic Conference which took place in 2008: http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/confreport.php?issue=14&id=1129