Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

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

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

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

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

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

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

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

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

snow white 1

 

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

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

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

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

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

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

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

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

Summary of Read-through and Discussion of A Girl’s Cross Roads

Posted by Sarah

Our first (yes, there may be more….) read-through of a play from the Templeman Library’s Special Collections (http://www.kent.ac.uk/library/specialcollections/)  was challenging logistically, but very enjoyable as well as illuminating regarding the nature of melodrama.

Discussion was brief due to time constraints so do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

A Girl's Cross Roads 2We mostly focused on the plot: the suffering, tragedy and several deaths. It was noted that within this coincidence played an important, and less than credible, part. This linked A Girl’s Cross Roads very strongly with other melodramas we have studied. (And, it was thought, to Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey.) In addition, the comic sub-plot of the play was mentioned.  This too was connected to other melodramas we have seen and caused us to again wonder if such a switch is tone is needed to make the melodrama seem even more melodramatic.

The play’s characters were also commented on. We were impressed that the comic characters were still funny today, and that the villains had a real air of menace which made their actions more believable.

There were other very powerful moments. The fact that a delirious Barbara turned to the audience at the end, including them in her drink-fuelled hallucination of people watching her, was found to be particularly striking.

Thanks go to everyone who took part so enthusiastically. Special mention goes to Helen Brooks for so wonderfully playing Barbara – the play’s most demanding role. And many thanks, of course, to Jane for organising the event: supplying copies of the script, recording equipment and other provisions!

Do visit our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com for more information.

Melodrama Read-through and Discussion, 5th of June, Jarman 7, 5-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of the Summer Term’s discussion sessions, and our very first read-through, which will take place on the 5th of June, Jarman 7, from 5-7pm.

stageland07b

Jane is very kindly organising us for a read through of a melodrama play, and has provided the following information:

With a slightly different focus to our usual film-fare, this week we will be looking at an unpublished script for an early twentieth century stage melodrama, A Girl’s Cross Roads by Walter and Frederick Melville. The University’s Special Collections holds materials from the Melville family which reflect their influential standing in Victorian and Edwardian theatre.

The brothers Walter and Frederick Melville were part of the third generation of the Melville theatrical dynasty and, along with their four sisters and two brothers, were stalwarts of the stage as actors, directors, writers and owners and managers of theatres. Walter and Fred were particularly successful in London, where they owned and ran the Lyceum theatre from 1909 until 1939. They also had the Prince’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, built in 1911; this was later renamed the Shaftesbury Theatre.

The Melville brothers were hugely successful businessmen, eminently capable of producing hit dramas which pulled in the crowds. Their stock in trade was the winter pantomime, the details of which were famously kept a secret until the latest possible moment, and, of course, the Melville melodrama.

Although the Melvilles staged and adapted a number of popular melodramas in their time – including Sweeney Todd, East Lynne and The Count of Monte Cristo – it was a specific type of play for which Walter and Fred became particularly famous. These were called the Bad Women dramas, since they usually portrayed an immoral woman, often one of the villains, in contrast to a morally upright though perhaps downtrodden heroine. Considering that these plays were hugely successful from c.1838-1912, when campaigns for women’s emancipation were gaining momentum, it might be thought that these plays were a comment on the times. Some audience members evidently thought so, since Walter was obliged to write to a newspaper to explain that he was not ‘a woman hater’. In fact, the roles which his plays offered to actresses could be far better roles than they could take in less controversial dramas.

stageland07dA Girl’s Cross Roads was first performed in 1903, probably at the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The plot tells the tale of Jack Livingstone, a well off gentleman, and his wife, Barbara Wade, a woman who is convinced that Jack made a mistake in marrying her.  Jack’s friend Dr. Weston, who tells the sad tale of a woman who drank herself to death, is sure that he’s seen that look on Barbara’s face before; meanwhile the girl whom both Weston and Jack were in love with (and perhaps still are), Constance, has decided to leave the countryside to make a new life in London. The villains of the piece are quick to take advantage of Barbara’s fears, leading her down a path from which there is no return. Running alongside the main plot and intersecting with the other characters, a father looks for his daughter only to be appalled by what he finds, and the comic couple Toby and Tilly try to make their way in the world. Moving from the English countryside to the heart of London, the play takes in themes of the time including alcoholism, murder, intrigue and extortion in the thrilling ride of a typical Melville melodrama with tragedy, comedy and expertly handled suspense. This particular play is interesting, since it deals with fewer absolutes in terms of morally right or wrong, and calls into question the simplistic expectations from the audience of the popular stage.

As far as we know, none of the Melville scripts, including the Bad Women dramas, have ever been published and there has been very little research into them. This read through on the 5th June will be the first time this play has been performed in any sense for a considerable time – perhaps since the last time it was performed on stage. This will be a great opportunity to return to the days of high melodrama and perhaps confront some of our perceptions of the stereotypical stage melodrama.

Do join us if you can, for a wonderful opportunity to actively engage with some melodrama history.