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

All are very welcome to join us for our next melodrama screening and discussion session. We will be showing Victim (1961, Basil Dearden, 96 mins) on Wednesday the 6th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 6.

Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as barrister Melville Farr, a man whose apparently happy marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms) and professional reputation are jeopardised when a compromising photograph of him comforting a young man is exploited for criminal purposes.

The film’s concern with male homosexuality at a time when this was illegal in the UK made it controversial with contemporary audiences (including the British Board of Film Censors) and its bravery for tackling the subject is still recognised today.

US trade paper Variety described the film as both ‘thriller-drama’ and ‘social probe’ (6th September 1961, p. 6 ). It also applauds the fact that the film lacks ‘sensationalisation of the homosexual problem’. It will be useful to assess whether we concur with this assessment in the current day, and how this fits with a view of melodrama privileging exaggeration and excess.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on Hunted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on Esther Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 4th of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

After a brief break for the Festival of Projections Passages of Gothic installation, we return to the previously advertised screening schedule. All  are very welcome to join us for the last of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 4th of April, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ choice The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland, 105 mins). Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

DOB_4

 

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a film not easily classified. Upon its release, critics contextualised the work within European art cinema traditions, with comparisons to Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, as well as noting the influences of 1960s and 70s sexploitation films (Collin, 2015; Foundas, 2014). Strickland, himself, concurs with this broad range of inspiration, noting how, amongst others, he was inspired by films such as A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973) and Belle de Jour (1967) (Strickland, 2015). I propose that another way to interpret this challenging and compelling film is to think about it within the traditions of the Gothic. If we reflect upon the Gothic tropes and motifs discussed over the course of the term, it becomes clear how Burgundy may be analysed in this fashion. The film is set in an undisclosed place at an unknown time and – as indicated by the film’s opening scene – the narrative focuses upon the action taking place in and around the house. The film begins with Evelyn sitting alone in a woodland and the title sequence takes place as we follow Evelyn as she journeys from this peaceful area towards the large, dominating house. Upon arrival the non-diegetic whimsical music abruptly stops and the sounds of Spring audible elsewhere on the soundtrack – such as birds singing – suddenly convey a different, more menacing tone. Evelyn rings the doorbell and waits anxiously as the footsteps within take some time to finally arrive. When they do Evelyn is faced with a stern-looking Cynthia at the door who coarsely reprimands her: ‘You’re late’. Silently Evelyn walks through the door towards the dark gloom of the house within.

The emphasis upon the house and the interactions of the heroine within it, is only one way Burgundy draws upon the traditions of the Gothic. There are other motifs which we have seen in the Gothic films screened previously appearing here: the importance of a key; the idea of secrets to be uncovered and hidden places; the imperilled woman who, in this case, appears to be oppressed and abused; and the heroine’s exploration of the domestic space within darkness. Indeed, Burgundy features a memorable moment when Evelyn gets out of bed in the middle of the night– whilst significantly dressed in a white nightie – and ventures into the dark cellar, lighting her way with a candelabra. This iconic image of the investigative heroine is one we have seen numerous times in the other Gothic films watched, as reflected by the several examples we included in our Passages of Gothic installation two weeks ago. In this way, Burgundy appears to be another return to the Gothic which is evident elsewhere within contemporary cinema: the year after Burgundy sees the release of Ex Machina and Crimson Peak (both 2015). These films echo the Gothic in comparable ways as Ex Machina evokes the BluebeardDOB_2 tale in its translation of the Gothic heroine into an android in a science-fiction story, whilst Crimson Peak mirrors the familiar tale of a woman marrying a man she hardly knows in manner evocative of Rebecca (1940), albeit with events now taking place in a period setting.

Ex Machina and Crimson Peak are reminders of the Gothic’s roots, particularly in respect to the centrality of relationships between men and women within the narrative’s trajectory. It is here that Burgundy differs. Evelyn and Cynthia are a lesbian couple and the story focuses on the dynamics of their sadomasochistic roleplaying in which Evelyn is the willing submissive. More broadly, Burgundy explores the relationships between various women within the film, with these interactions being alternately sexual, romantic, friendships, business transactions or scientific discussions. In Burgundy’s world, there are no men at all; indeed, even the mannequins which are part of the audience for the Lepidoptera lectures are female. The absence of a male figure may signal an alternative interpretation of the Gothic mode but this should not be read as a DOB_1new, radical opposition to the Gothic ‘norm’ (if such a concept exists). In fact, it can be said that Burgundy harkens back to past themes and representations which can be analysed through the theories of queer Gothic.

Queer theory and the Gothic have shared tendencies insofar as both emphasise contrary readings and the importance of subtext. George Haggerty pushes this idea further, arguing that the Gothic ‘offers a historical model of queer theory and politics: transgressive, sexually coded and resistant to dominant ideology’ (Haggerty, 2006, 2). Brian Robinson traces a similar historical connection, noting that ‘[t]he queer is inscribed in the DNA of Gothic fiction’ (Robinson, 2013, 143). This genealogy is one which the cinema inherits and capitalises upon because, as Robinson continues, it ‘was on film that the tropes of the Queer Gothic would find their full flowering’ (143). The queer readings possible – or, arguably, inevitable – of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and the numerous adaptations of Dracula (1897), along with cinema’s continued fascination with vampires, strongly supports this assertion. The female Gothic can also be contextualised within this lineage: the importance of the Gothic heroine’s relationship with the archetypal ‘other woman’ begins to illuminate how such films can be interpreted through queer readings. A key example of this is the new Mrs de Winter’s discovery of the obsessive behaviour of Mrs Danvers towards her previous mistress in Rebecca (1940).

Burgundy brings to the fore the implied interpretations and queer subversions which have a historical precedent within cinema’s Gothic. In this way, the film becomes an embodiment of the uncanny: the return of the repressed which is, as Freud writes, unheimliche because this element ‘is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed’ (Freud, 1919, 148). Mair Rigby explores how the Gothic is queer – and how queer theory is Gothic – through the dialectics of the uncanny. Rigby argues:

When I say that queer scholarship’s encounter with the Gothic is ‘uncanny’, I mean that it appears to be based on a sense of a ‘secret encounter’ in which the texts bring to light something that ought to be repressed, something that feels particularly pertinent to people whose identities, bodies, and desires have been culturally designated ‘queer’. (Rigby, 2009, 48)

Burgundy presents this ‘bringing to light’ quite overtly through the portrayal of a world without men and in the detailing of alternative sexual practices which form an integral part of pivotal scenes between Evelyn and Cynthia. The fact that the most explicit forms of these acts remain off-screen only emphasises further their unheimliche nature: they are both familiar and normalised – we meet The Carpenter who specialises in building sadomasochist contraptions – and strange and marginal, as reflected by the way these practices are pushed to the periphery of the frame. Most importantly for Burgundy, however, is how the uncanniness of the story draws attention to the dynamics of the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, which is fraught with difficulties. By presenting us with two Gothic heroines, the film returns us to the central questions which orbit the archetypal female protagonist within this mode of storytelling: is the house a safe space or a danger? Within the romantic relationship, who holds the knowledge and the power? Whose secret is to be uncovered? What forms of oppression must the female protagonist(s) struggle against? Burgundy therefore revisits the ‘queerness’ of the Gothic and the significance of the Gothic heroine, although the film offers some surprising answers to the questions above: just like the ‘repressed’ returning to the light through the processes of the uncanny, so too does Burgundy remind us how what we initially think of as familiar or unusual, may quickly become conversely strange and homely.

DOB_3

 

References

Collin, R. (2015). The Duke of Burgundy: ‘Sexy and Strange’. [Online]. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/duke-of-burgundy/review/ [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Foundas, S. (2014). Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy. [Online]. Variety. Available from: http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-the-duke-of-burgundy-1201331373/ [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Freud, S. (1919). The Uncanny. In: Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Haggerty, G. (2006) Queer Gothic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Rigby, M. (2009). Uncanny Recognition: Queer Theory’s Debt to the Gothic. Gothic Studies, Volume. 11 Issue 1.

Robinson, B. (2013). Queer Gothic. In: Bell, J (Ed). Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. Witham: Colt Press.

Strickland, P. (2015). Peter Strickland: Six Films that Fed into The Duke of Burgundy [Online]. BFI. Available from: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/peter-strickland-six-films-fed-duke-burgundy [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Thanks very much for the introduction Frances! Do join us, if you can, for what sounds like a fascinating Gothic film many of us will have been intrigued by whilst watching the Passages of Gothic installation.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 8th of February, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the second  of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 8th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Uncle Silas, also known as The Inheritance, (1947, Charles Frank , 103 mins). We had previously scheduled this for November but technical difficulties meant we were unable to screen the film on that occasion.

uncle silas trade ad 6489211181_e0ccda9b07

Like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Uncle Silas is adapted from a novel which places a woman in peril at its heart. Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu’s work has been far less adapted for film and television than Daphne Du Maurier’s, however. Most adaptations focus on his novella Carmilla – notably Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) and Roy Ward Baker’s Hammer Horror The Vampire Lovers (1970).  Subsequent to the 1947 film version we are showing, Uncle Silas also appeared as a 2 part German TV series (Onkel Silas) in 1977 and a British TV 3 parter renamed The Dark Angel in 1989 starring Peter O’Toole, Beatie Edney and Jane Lapotaire.

Perhaps the reluctance to adapt Le Fanu is connected to earlier unsuccessful adaptions. ‘Cane’ reviewed the 1947 film for Variety (22nd October, 1947) when it was released in London. The review’s opening line opined that the ‘[o]nly excuse for this blood-and-thunder meller appears to have been the desire to screen what is alleged to be one of the first thrillers’. This therefore pejoratively implies that melodrama (‘meller’) has little merit in and of itself – especially if it is of the ‘blood-and-thunder’ variety.

The review continues in an even more negative vein as it opines that the fact ‘Le Fanu’s novel is still in public demand probably explains why over $1,000,000 was spent on a yarn that should have been allowed to stay on the shelf.’ It outlines the story and rates it ‘hopeless’. The acting comes in for further criticism as Derrick de Marney ‘hams all over the place’ and surprise is expressed at the casting Jean Simmons and Katina Paxinou in the main female roles. The film is ‘labored hokum’ which ‘can add little to British prestige. It’s not for export.’

We can interestingly contrast this reception of a UK product based on a classic novel to Variety’s earlier view on an US production based on a contemporary work. Rebecca was positively received by Variety (26th March, 1940) with both the film and the source novel praised: “Rebecca’ is an artistic success… noteworthy in its literal translation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel to the screen, presenting all of the sombreness and dramatic tragedy of the book in its unfolding’.

While Variety’s Uncle Silas review is not  especially complimentary, the review’s closing line perhaps suggests an attitude we can adopt during the screening if the film’s gothic thrills and spills are less than satisfactory:  the ‘‘[b]est hope for this is to exhibit it as a comic interpretation of a past era’.

Do join us if you can.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 30th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich, 124 mins)

 Introduction

Baby Jane hall

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was adapted from Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel of the same name. The story takes place in a once-fashionable part of Hollywood where two sisters share a dilapidated gothic mansion. ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson was a child star in cinema’s very early days, while Blanche’s heyday was as a movie queen during the 1930s. The sisters are now forced to live together, partly due to a serious accident which has left Blanche wheelchair-bound, and their unhealthy and violent relationship forms the core of the film.

The casting of two of 1930s HollyBaby Jane posterwood’s greatest female stars –  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the roles of the Hudson sisters provoked comment at the time. For example, both the film’s trailer and Variety’s review find the teaming of the stars significant. The trailer touches on the matter of star image as it warns the potential audience that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  does not resemble the pair’s previous (separate) films. Meanwhile, Variety opines that the casting of Davis and Crawford in retrospect seems like a ‘veritable prerequisite to putting Henry Farrell’s slight tale of terror on the screen’. It certainly led to great returns at the box office: the relatively low budget (just over $1 million) film grossed $9 million.[1]

Baby Jane productionThe film’s production has earned its place in Hollywood folklore in the intervening years. This is primarily due to the assertion that this marked the culmination of Davis and Crawford’s long-running, and some might say melodramatic, feud. Like many Hollywood stories though, this is only partially true. Several sources note the one-upmanship that took place during filming. For example, Bob Thomas’ biography of Crawford details some of the ‘conflict’ between the stars (pp. 224-229). Charlotte Chandler’s ‘personal’ biography of Crawford concludes that the ‘legendary feud between the two may have been just that – a legend’ dreamed up by Baby Jane’s publicity people which the stars both ended up believing (p. 248). Whenever the feud started, and for whatever reason, Davis had very definite ideas about a sequel to the film: “I’ll tell you the first scene. It’ll be a scene of this one,’ pointing at herself, ‘putting flowers on that one’s grave” (p. 250). (A follow-up film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, was made in 1964 – but with Olivia de Havilland replacing an ill Crawford part-way through).That until Baby Jane Crawford was not really on Davis’  radar is supported by Davis’ autobiography The Lonely Life, published in 1962, which does not even mention Crawford. Davis rectifies this, with relish, in her 1987 post Baby Jane memoir This ‘n That.
Baby JaneRegardless of any melodramatic off-screen tales surrounding What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog categorises the film text as melodrama. 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’. [2]

 

My analysis of the AFI Catalog shows that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  was one of 52 melodramas released in 1962. Interestingly, the 1960s showed an upsurge in the production of American produced melodramas. In the 1950s melodramas accounted for 147 films or 4.77% of all American films produced. In the 1960s this had risen to 529 and 22.60%. This does not quite hit the heights of the 1920s (a staggering 2230 or 33.16%) or the 1930s when 434 melodramas (constituting a fairly low 8.14%) were produced. But it is significantly more than in the 1940s (108 or 2.47%) or the 1950s figured quoted above. It might be especially fruitful for us to ponder why this might be the case. Especially as Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas are so often the focus of academic work on melodrama.

Recent scholarly work on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has focused on issues of aging, stardom and disability, matters we might well find it interesting to ponder. The articles/chapters include:

Jodi Brooks. “Performing Aging/Performance Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Figuring Age (1999): 232-47: http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/john-cassavetes/cassavetes_aging/

Sally Chivers. “Baby Jane Grew Up: The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability.” Canadian Review of American Studies 36.2 (2006): 211-228. (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Anne Morey. “Grotesquerie as marker of success in aging female stars.” In the limelight and under the microscope: forms and functions of female celebrity (2011). (See our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more details.)

Also visit the additional blog for more details of Variety’s review.

Access the (fairly non-spoilery) trailer on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/WhateverHappenedToBabyJane-Trailer

Do join us, if you can, for a classic 1960s melodrama with two superb performances from major 1930s female Hollywood stars.


[1] The budget for the film was $1,025,000 according to Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 256. Box Office Information for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? IMDb. The $9 million figure relates to worldwide grossed. Retrieved 22 October 2013.

[2] http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm

 

Bibliography and suggested further reading

The American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/

The Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com

Chandler, Charlotte. Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.
Davis, Bette. The lonely life: an autobiography. Putnam’s, 1962.
Davis, Bette, and Michael Herskowitz. This’n that: A Memoir. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987.
Newquist, Roy. Conversations with Joan Crawford. Citadel Press, 1980.
Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995.
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: a biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Variety Ultimate Subscription Now Available for Kent Users

Posted by Sarah

There is some very exciting news about a new resource available for those of us who have a University of Kent login. The Templeman Library now has access to Variety Ultimate. This means that most issues of the American trade journal (from 1905-the present) can now be searched and accessed. This is excellent news for research at Kent generally, and, of course, melodrama.

The link: http://chain.kent.ac.uk/login?url=http://www.varietyultimate.com/

I have had a very quick look in terms of film melodrama and found this very early review by ‘Jolo’ of the film The Big Sister on 15th of September 1916, p 26: http://www.varietyultimate.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/archive/issue/WV-09-15-1916-26

big sister

The film was directed by John B O’Brien and starred Mae Murray.’Jolo’ opined that the film ‘is melodrama without any attempt at concealment’. The mention of concealment is interesting in two ways. Firstly it indicates the reviewer’s, and the general, rather negative view of melodrama by suggesting that other melodramas might try to appear to be something else. But also, as we have seen, concealment is often a key theme of melodrama.

There will be many, many more exciting nuggets relating to melodrama, so do take a look. And do also share your findings by emailing me on sp458@kent.ac.uk. I can then post them to the blog for us all to enjoy!