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CORHAM KINDEM University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill

LUCY FISCHER UOIver51ly of Pittsburgh

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~ Wayne State University Press Detroit

Preface II

Introduction 13

Copyright © 1991 by Wayne State University Press,
Detroit, Michigan 48202. All rights are reserved.
No part of this hook may be reproduced without formal permission.
95 94 93 92 91 5 4 3 2 1
I. The Evolution of Social Melodrama fohn C. Cawelti 33

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publieation Data Z. The Melodramatic Imagination Peter Brooks 50 Vi
Imitations of life: a reader on film and television melodrama
edited by Marcia Landy. 3. Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama
p, em. - (Contemporary film and television series) Thomas Elsaesser 68
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-8143-2064-3 (alk, paper),-ISBN 0-8143-2065-1 (pbk,
alk, paper) II
I. Melodrama 10 motion pictures. 2. Melodrama in television. GE RE, STYLE, A D AFFECT 93
3 Nlelodrama-History and criticism. I. Landy, i'vlarela, 1931-
II. Series
4, Identifications Charles AffTOn 98
PNI995,9.M45145 1991
791,43'o,5-de20 90-34379
5. Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama Daniel Cerould 118

6. Ways of Melodrama Raymond Durgnat 135
Manufactured In the United States of America
7. The Family Melodrama Thomas Schatz 148

8. Who Is Without Sin: The Maternal Melodrama in American
Film, 1930-1939 Christian Viviani 168

9. The Moral Ecology of Melodrama: The Family Plot and
Magnificent Obsession Noel Carroll 183

8 COlltellls COil ten Is 9

III 22. Souls Made Great by Love and Adversity: Frank Borzage
John Belton 371
23. Closure and Containment: Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind
10. Notes on Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism Christopher Orr 380
Chuck Kleinhans 197
24. Coppola, Cimino: The Operaties of History Naomi Creene 388
II. The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's Marked Woman
Charles Eckert 205 25. The Collective Voice as Cultural Voice Christine Saxton 398

12. Leave Her to Heaven: The Double Bind of the Post-War Woman 26. Lana: Four I'ilms of Lana Turner Richard Dyer 409
Michael Renov 227
27. faces of the American Melodrama: Joan Crawford
/ Jean-Loup Bourget 429
13. Madness, Authority, and Ideology in the Domestic Melodrama
t/ of the 19505 David N. Rodowick 237

14. Melodrama and the Women's Picture Pam Cook 248

IV 28. The Search for lomorrow in Today's Soap Operas

/ 15. Minnelli and Melodrama Ceoffrey Nowell-Smith 268 29. Crossroads: Notes on Soap Opera Charlotte Brunsdon 466

/ 16. Report on the Weekend School Griselda Pollock 275 30. Dallas and the Melodramatic Imagination len Ang 473

17. The Moving Image: Pathos and the Maternal 31. A Reader-Oriented Poetics of the Soap Opera Robert C. Aflen 496
Mary Ann Doane 283
32. Men, Sex, and Money in Recent Family Melodramas
18. "Something Else Besides a Mother": Stella Dallas and the Maternal Eflen Seiter 525
Melodrama Linda Williams 307

19. The Scar of Shame: Skin Color and Caste in Black Silent Melodrama
V 33. French film Melodrama Before and After the Creat War
DIRECTORS AND STARS 349 Richard Abel 542
20. Realism and Romance: D. W. Griffith A. Nicholas Vardae 353 34. The Family Melodrama in the Italian Cinema, 1929-1943
Marcia Landy 569
21. The Films of D. W. Griffith: A Style for the Times
Alan Casty 362
10 Contents

35. Fassbinder's Reality: An Imitation of Life Ruth McCormick 578

36. European Anti-Melodrama: Godard, Truffaut, and Fassbinder
Katherine S. Woodward 586

37. The Melodrama in Latin America: Films, Tclenovelas, and the Preface
Currency of a Popular Form Ana Lopez 596

Bibliography 607

Index 61\

Because of the wide-ranging critical concerns expressed in thc study of
melodrama, touching all aspects of film study-history, genre, narrativity, style, repre-
sentations of sexual difference, authorship, the nature and role of stars, spectatorship,
audience response, and popular culture-a readcr on melodrama is a timely and
useful critical text, serving to bring together writings that until now have becn scattered
among various journals and books on the subject. The essays included in this volume
are organized around current theoretical, historical. and methodological concerns.
They represent contesting points of view and different historical moments in the
history of cinema. Because of the range of concerns expressed by the authors, this book
will be useful for classes in popular culture, genre, film and ideology, and women's
studies. In teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, I felt the need of a text that
would represent the best work to date on melodrama. This volume is my attempt to
meet that need.
I would like especially to express my gratitude to Lucy Fischer for her invaluable
comments on several versions of the book and for being an exemplary colleague. Busy
as she is, she always finds time to support other people's scholarship. I would also like
to thank Dana Polan for commenting on the preliminary manuscript. Patricia Erens,
the gcneral editor of the series, offered helpful suggestions about format and style, My
thanks to Jamie Shepherd, who, during a long hot summer, helped both with the
correspondence concerning permissions and with proofreading the manuscript, and to
Dr. Alberta Sbragia, Director of the Western European Program, and her assistant, Dr.
Ursual DaVIS, for providing necessary funds for work in time of need. Above all, I am
indebted to Stanley Shostak for his criticism and his friendship.


She took a deep, bravc breath and told him. "My
mother was a Frenchwoman. I only knew that her
name was Solange Bertrand. a 'commoner' as you
would .put it.' My father met her when he liberated
Paris with the Allied forces. I know nothing more. My
father was an actor, a wcll-known one. much re-
speetcd, named Sam Walker. They were said to be
vcry much in love, and they had three daughters, of
which I am the second one. And then .... " She al-
most choked on her words as she told him, but in an
odd way it was a relief to say the words. ". . as a
result of some madness he killed her. And when he
was convicted of the crime, he committed suicide in
his cell, leaving me and my sisters penniless and or-
phaned. We were left with an aunt for a few months,
and then a friend of the family, an attorney, found
homes for us and got us adopted, two of us anyway. I
was very fortunate in that I was given to Margaret and
her first husband, a lawyer named George Gorham. I
was five at the time. I was apparently four when my
father killed my mother which is why I don't recall it.
And I don't know anything about the man named
George Gorham. Apparently six months later he died,
and my mother ... Margaret, that is, came to France
to recover and met my father ... Pierre.. . He
adopted me as soon as he married my mother ...
and then you came along."
-Danic1le Steele, Kaleidoscope

Things are like this throughout the film [Imitation
of Life]. They are always making plans for happiness,
for tenderness, and then the phone rings, a new part
and Lana revives. The woman is a hopeless case. So is
John Gavin. He should have caught on pretty soon
that it won't work. But he pins his life on that woman
just the same. For all of us it's the things that won't

14 Introduction Introduction 15

work that keep our interest. Lana Turner's daughter Illness and criminality are often the marks of the protagonist's inevitable transgression
then falls in love with John. she is exactly what John against societal expectations, and the presence of physicians, psychiatrists, and represen-
would like Lana to be-out she's not Lana. This is tatives of the law IS a commonplace. These figures serve a contradictory role in the
understandable. Only Sandra Dec doesn't understand. narrative, They are agents for recuperation, helping the protagonists to take their appro-
It could be that when one is in love one doesn't under-
priate place in the social and domestic order, disciplining their unruly passions and
stand too well. Annie. too. loves her daughter and
desires, or reconciling them to their difference, in which case the resolution is not
doesn't understand her at all. Once, when Sarah Jane
is still a child. it is raining and Annie takes her an domestic containment but isolation or death. Their presence also provides a means for
umbrella at school. Sarah Jane has prctended at school exposing how gender and sexuality are instruments of social power, ensuring compli-
that she is white. Thc truth comes out when her ance through both coercion and consent. ll,e external landscape is a correlative for an
mother shows up with the umbrella. Sarah Jane will internal landscape of hysteria, schizophrenia, depression, obscssion-compulsion. and
never forget. And when Annie, shortly before her misdirected desire. In most instances, tensions Jfl personal relationships arc generated
death, wants to see Sarah Jane for the last time, her from power and domination which take the form of class, property, generational. sexual,
love still prevents her from understanding. It seems to and racial struggles. The narratives generate emotional intensity involving not only the
her to be a sin that Sarah Jane should want to be figures within the melodrama but the external audiencc, and affect is conveyed primar-
taken for white. The most terrible thing about this ily through gesture, music, and iconography which are indicative of the limItations of
scene is that the more Sarah Jane is mean and cruel conventional verbal language to express the intense psychic and bodily pains or pleasures
the more her mother is poor and pathetic. But in ac-
experienced by the characters.
tual fact, exactly the reverse is true. It is the mother
Melodrama is not unique to the cinema but is deeply rooted in Western culture
who is brutal, wanting to possess her child because she
loves her. And Sarah Jane defends herself against her since the eightcenth ecntury in prose fiction and in the thcater. That the ideology it
mother's terrorism, against the terrorism of the world. represents is alive and well within the culture can also be secn in the transference of
The cruelty is that we can understand them both, the "melodramatic imagination" to television in the popular daytime soap opcras as
both are right and no one will be able to help them. well as in such prime-time programs as "Dynasty," "P'alconcrest," and "Dallas." Some
At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because critics argile, though, that the impetus to melodrama is stronger during times of
changing the world is so difficult. Then they come ideological crisis. For example, in the last years of Italian fascism, from 1939 to 1943,
together again at Annie's funeral. and behave for a few melodrama served to dramatize cultural conAicts. The films exploded with irresolvable
minutcs as though everything was all right. It's this "as contradictions involving tensions between the personal and the public sphcres, within
though" that lets them carry on with the same old
the family, and within the individual. Similarly, the Hollywood melodramas of the
crap, underneath they have an inkling of what they
arc really after. but they soon forget it again. 1950s are intimately linked to the unsettled ideological milieu of post-World War II
-Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Douglas Sir" society and the Cold War in particular.
Melodramatic texts have constitutcd an important source of pleasurc, learning, and
even resistance to prevailing social attitudes. Yet, until recently, melodrama has suf-
bed from either negative esteem or almost complete disrcgard by critics. With the
assault on the hegemony of the classics and of high culture and with the feminist
The passage from Danielle Steele's Kaleidoscope and Fasshinder's commentary on reevaluations of popular culture, critics have begun to recognize the importance of
Douglas Sirk's film, Imitation of Life, exposc the content of melodrama: a constant understanding how profolludly the popular theater, cinema, radio. and television have
struggle for gratification and equally constant blockages to its attainment. Melodramatic shaped modern society and how great a role the melodramatic imagination has played
narratives are driven by the experience of one crisis after another, crises involving severed in these media. Melodrama traverscs a number of genres-romances, narratives of
familial ties, separation and loss, misrecognition of one's place, person. and propriety. crime and espionage, thrillers, and historical narratives. Moreover, the protagonists of
Seduction, betrayal, abandonment, extortion, murder, suicide, revenge, jealously, in- melodrama vary. In the women's narratives such as the women's novel and film, as
curable illness, obsession, and compulsion-these are part of the familiar terrain of wcll as the soap opera, the protagonists are females. and thc conAicts are often seen
melodrama. The victims are most often females threatened in their sexuality, their from a woman's vantage point. In other genres ranging from the action-oriented
property, thcir very identity. Often orphaned, subjected to cruel and arbitrary treatment westerns to the family melodramas, the pcrspective is more likely to be associated with
at the hands of dominecring paternal and maternal figures or their surrogates, they conAicts involving male identity and power. 1n all cases, though. what is at stake are
experience a number of trials, until. if they are fortunate, they are rescued by a gentle questions of personal and cultural identity, social power, and continuity. One can
and understanding lover, the "happy, unhappy ending" in Douglas Sirk's terms, Identify the stratcgies of melodrama in its dichotomizing of the world, its Mani-
16 Introduction Introduction /7

cheanism, its emphasis on sensibility and sentiment, its inflation of personal conflicts, more recent terms, both Fredric Jameson and Andreas Huyssens have argucd for the
and its internalization of external social conAiets. ideological nature of these divisions and the relationship between "mass" and "elitist"
Given the effectiveness of melodrama in exposing the mechanisms of power inher- cultures, the latter being a reaction to the former. High art has thus been seen as a
ent in bourgcois representations. it is important to question why there have been so few purer exprcsslOn of cultural values, untaintcd by the vulgar world of commerce. Yet In
studies of thc genre until very recently. One reason for the low esteem in which thcir reaction against mass cultme, elitist works of art have been eomplicit in denying,
melodrama has been held is Its identification with mass, or what has been termed "low if not censoring, knowledge about the culture. In the wholesale condemnation of mass
culture," in contrast to "high culture." Low culture has been identified with escapism, culture, the opportunity for understanding the needs and desires of marginal groups
vulgarity, sensationalism. excess, and exaggeration, regarded as corrupting by critics within the culture has been retarded.
who have upheld the values of high seriousness, universality, timelessncss, and espe- By the same token, the popular novel, cinema, and television are not devoid of their
cially realism. The separation hetween high and low cultures is tied to political and own complicity. They are not on the side of the angcls but are blatantly commercial.
cultural stnlggles which took placc in the last part of the nineteenth century and They appear to reinforce dominant values. Yet. like all forms of cultural expression, they
continued unabated through the early twentieth century, revealing sharp divergences are not monolithic. They, too, are rife with contradictions. In their seemingly seamless
concerning the impact of cultural artifacts on their audiences. For liberals such as narratives. they reveal contradictions. Inevitably, contradictions surface in the texIs'
Matthew Arnold. literature and theater. in order to maintain their high mission. must attempts to reconcile irreconcilable conRicts. Their "resolutions" are built on an edifice
not pander to the masses but must seek to raise their intelleetuallevel. of opposing elements which on close examination reveallhemselves to be in conRict not
The hias against low culture, whether of an ethical or aesthetic east, has generally only with each other but with the events they seek to resolve. The study of popular
been linked to a class and gendcr bias. The audiences have heen characterized in narratives has become a taboratory for examining the persistence of dominant cultural
degraded intellectual terms as untutored and indicative of the debased tastes of the attitudes. It has also become a way of exploring how narratives are also the locus for
"masses." More particularly, as Andreas Huyssens writcs, "Time and time again docu- resistance to the status quo. Hence, forms of representation are not only the somce of
ments from the nineteenth century ascrihe pejorative feminine characteristics to mass repetition; they are also the story of change, rcsistance, and cven subversion.
eulturc.") Moreovcr, he adds. "The fear of the masses in this age of declining Iiheral- The most persistent complaint about the media has becn that they distort "reality,"
ism is always a fear of woman, a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the uncon- implying that they are indicative of a "bread and circus" mentality and of a reproduc-
scious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and of stable ego boundaries in the mass."/ tion of the meaningless consumption of capitalist society. Nowhere is this attitude
The fear of the masses has thcrefore been instrumental in creating a resistance to more prevalent than in the treatment of mass cultural production. In the past, when
critically exploring the needs and desires which are deeply embedded in the mass culture critics referred to Hollywood as the "dream factory," they tended to use the term
eulturc. dream in a pejorative rather than a Freudian sense. In this context, dream and fantasy
Even in the examinations of critics committed to sludies of social change and to an are insubstantial and vacuous. Escapism implies that the texts are removed from
examination of mass culture, such as those of the frankfurt school, assessments of the "reality" and have no contact with the needs, desires, or struggles of individuals.
"culturc industry" have been negative. Theodor ·W. Adorno wrote: Melodrama has been high on the list of escapist works, regarded as the consummate
Just as culture sprang up in the marketplace, in the traffic of trade, in communi- form of evasion.
cation and negotiation, as something distinct from the immcdiate struggle for Yet an examination of popular literature, cinema, and television challenges these
individual sclf-preservation, just as it was c10selv tied to trade in the era of attitudes, exposing them as judgments rather than analysis. First of all, the notion that
mature capitalism, just as its representatives wer~ counted among the class of the audiences for these texts are merely passive consumcrs has been questioned by
"third persons" who supported themselves in life as middle men. so culture, contemporary critics who argue that these texts, hy virtue of their longevity and
considered "socially necessary" acording to classical rules, in the sense of repro- phenomenal success, make contact with the audience and. as such. with immediate
ducing itself economically, is in the end rcduced to that as which it began, to and everyday prohlems. Moreover. if the texts thrive on fantasies, then it is imperative
merc communication. Its alienation from human affairs terminates in its abso- to explore the possibility that these fantasies have substance. that they have, as Fredric
lute docility before a humanity which has been transformcd into clientele by the Jamcson says, "as their underlying impulse-albeit in what is often distorted and
suppliers. In the name of the consumer, the manipulators suppress everything
repressed, unconscious form--our deepcst fantasies about the nature of social life; hoth
in the culture which enables it to go beyond the total immanence in the existing
as we livc it now, and as we feel in our bones that it ought rather to be lived. "S
society and allow only that to remain which serves society's equivocal purpose. 1
These fantasies are not alien to reality but are constituted within the culturc. This is
The writings of Gyorgy Lukacs, too, concerned as they were to identify "progres- not to say, however, that the texts are not manipulative and exemplary of the fe-
sive" cultural production reproduced the middle-class predilection for the classics and tishization of commodities but is rather a reminder that they are not total distortions of
tended to regard mass culture (as well as avant-garde texts) as symptomatic of cultural human needs and desires. The challenge is to understand how and why mass culture
decadence. However. Lukacs's linking of mass and modernist culture acknowledges has becn regarded as a monolith and as antithetical to reality. Some critics. such as
the relationship between the two where other critics havc tended to keep them apart. In Antonio Gramsci, havc suggested that cultural works arc not monolithic. any more
18 IntroductIOn Introduction 19

than individuals are, and that it is necessary to identify the nature of the mass culture which reduce reality in univocal ways.,.3 Following the work of Bakhtin, Bordwell finds
in order to understand the ways that ideology, or common sense as he called it. is a a varicty of discourscs at work in the text which challenge the notion of a monolithic
pastiche of contradictory attitudes, geared toward survival. Cultural artifacts contain text. Such a vicw raises the possibility of examining texts for their lapses, illogIcalities,
the marks of dominance and subordination in their strategies of containment. but thcy and contradictions, for the ways they can be read against thc grain. feminists in
also provide the clues to opposition 6 particular have found this way of reading films useful as they seck to locate alternativc
The implications of such a position are crucial to the study of cultural texts, raising voices in thc texts.
questions about how to trace the relationship between economic and social reality and Mclodrama, therefore, which scems so obviously to call attention to itself and its
cultural production. The text is not merely a direct response to or reAection of social modes of construction to the point of ridicule, provides a test case for undermining thc
life; it is also a determinant of social reality. In an attempt to understand how form and traditional critical predilection for the unified text. Its ohvious stratcgies for polarizing
meaning in h work are inextricably, though often indirectly, tied to their conditions of issues, for fragmenting voices in the text. and for violating the language of rationality
production, critics have turned their attention to the domain of ideology as the carrier and empiricism call attention to the text's struggle with itself. Furthermore, the audi-
of social values and attitudes. Ideological analysis is by no means new. What distin- ence is assigned a morc active role in the process of engaging with the text as opposcd
guishes contemporary investigations of ideological operations is their refusal to assert a to the traditional assumption of audience passivity. The notion of a more dynamic
duect conncction hetween social determinations, their relationship to the institutions relationship to the text does not, however, imply that melodrama is necessarily a
of social power, and the nature of artistic representation. progressive or revolutionary mode, but it does suggest that the text can be seen morc
Ideology is no longer rcgarded as false consciousness or the cocrcive imposition of clearly as ncgotiating in complex ways its relationship to the world and to its audience.
values, attitudes, and beliefs on innocent victims by the apparatuses of powcr. Ideology An examination of the popular literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
is now assumed to he more pervasive and less obvious as such. In order to be effective, centuries exposes the ways in which melodramas are inextricable from social conAicts,
idcology has to function by consent; and in order to gain assent, it must be made to revealing, obliquely or directly, class, gender. and generational conAiets. Even whcn
appear natural. inevitable, and personally enhancing. Above all, it does not appear as the literature and drama appear to be reinforcing the values and attitudes of the class in
coercion. Rather. it appears as transparcnt, as consonant with thc the way things are or ascendancy-the middle class-the works often betray their strategies, providing in-
should be. One of the most transportable means of ideology is through myths, images, sights into the ways they deform and seek to contain culturally opposiltonal elements.
and symbols which are deeply rooted in the culture. Specifically. these myths and Whether the works express a sense of conformity or opposition, it is clear that they
symbols are linked to questions of class, gender, and racial identity; authority and contend with questions of social and class identity, and critics have increasingly been
power; and the family and private property: However, since thcse issues are clothed in able to demonstrate the social basis of literature. In the case of the commercial
the language of myth and fantasy, they do not immediately lend themselves to histori- cinema. an analysis of its social basis has been more problematic. On the one hand,
cal analysis. The critic's work has thus become one of deciphcrment, of locating how reinforced by the existence of censorship, there has always been the assumption that
the secmingly ahistorical narratives are, in fact, intimately linked to social cxperiencc. cinema exerts a powerful role in the shaping of social values and attitudes. On the
A major complaint about melodrama has been Its assumed antirealistic stylc. This other hand, there has also been a resistance on the part of critics to exploring the
assessment has been based on notions of realtsm which are derived from naturalism specific social determinants of cinematic represcntation.
WIth its privileging of "oblcctive" social rcality and a fidelity to character and setting. In the post-World War II cinema, as in literature, the predilection for realism
The writings on rcalism in recent decades have suggested, however. that the assess- obscured the importance of melodrama, suggesting that it, like so much of the genre
ments of cultural production are thcmselves ideological. What is realism in one era work associated with thc commercial cinema.· was a retreat from politics, a form of
may become escapism in another. The criterion of fidelity to external reality is a expres.~ion that not only pandered to the popular taste but was rcsponsible for corrupt-
latecomer in aesthetics and in no way need preclude other forms of representation. ing the hearts and minds of audiences. To the supporters of Italian neorealism, this
Tlte concept of rcalism demands not only reexamination buttlte critique of realism as type of cinema would be associated with fascism. while the realist aesthetic would be
well. For example, the confusion over the nature and role of realism has been further associatcd with the struggle against fascism. Because of the emphasis on location
compounded in critical theory with the introduction of the concept of the "c1assic settings, the use of nonprofessional actors, and the use of loosely constructed plots, the
realist text." This conccpt. as developed by the critics of Screen maga7.ine in thc last concern with the present and with overtly political conAicts, neorealism appeared as a
decade. is based on the ninetcenth-ccntury novel and its reproduction in the Holly- harbinger of the liberation of Western culturc from the decadent forms that were
wood cinema of genrcs. closely integrated with the structures of domination.
"A classic realist text," Colin MacCabe says, "may be defined as onc in which there In the cinemas of Western Europe. as well as in Hollywood, the realist aesthetic
is a hierarchy of discourses which compose the text and this hierar~hy is defined in took hold, producing films that were social in nature, that appeared to address and
terms of an empirical notion of truth ... MacCabe's notion of the unified text has been redress the social issues that were considered to have been obscured by Hollywood, the
challenged by David Bordwell, who finds that "Far from attcmpting to provide an "dream factory." With the reexamination of the genre films produccd under fascism, it
lInmediated literary representation of reality, the novel tends to criticize discourses became obvious that the judgment of these films as escapist vehicles could not be
20 Introduction Introduction 21

sustained. In fact, critics began to recognize that the notion of escapism was itself to scc ideology in lcss monolithic terms. Narratives can thus be seen as a pastiche or
ideologically based. The films were not merely a rubber stamp for prevailing political collagc of received knowledge, of strategies for survival, of idiosyncratic markings. 'l11d
attitudes. The notion of escapism could no longer be regarded as a sign of vacuousness of conformity and resistancc to prcvailing ideas. Sccond. the criticism led to a his-
and absence of meaning. Rather, escapism would come to signify a rctreat into the toricizing of narrative. By focusing on the 1950s through Sirk's films, the critics could
private sphere. The highly stylized form of representation characteristic of genre films entcrtain questIOns about the convergcncc of the family melodrama and the social
dependent on set convcntions and codes allowed for the cntertainment of issues that milicu which becamc a model for further studies of melodrama. The 1950s was a timc
were politically circumscribed in direct discourse. Moreover, thc antircalist cast of the of idcological crisis. Puhlic issucs such as the Korean War, the Cold War, and the
narratives allowed for morc psychologically focuscd conAicts which touched at thc d~crs of nuclear holocaust paled alongsidc n10c'e immcdiate priv'lte concerns ahont
heart of discontents concerning patriarchy, the family, and personal and sexual iden- tllC..~;;;ctity of the family as a haven from a threatening social cnvironment. The
tity. Couchcd in highly Aorid languagc and in terms of conAicts that seemed removed f;lmilv- melodrama-has-hecn dcscribed as dramatizing the retreat intI! the privatc
in time and spacc from the external appearances of everyday life, the film language spher~. Thc films also dramatize the impossible blHdens and cxpectations placed on
ironically often came closer to dramatizing the contradictions of immediate life under the family. Most importantly, these films provide an example of how thc sccrningly
fascism than many realist texts. escapist aspects of melodrama are intimately tied to pressing social conccrns. More-
In general, the study of film genres has done much to redcem these texts from the over, thc privileging of these films for study has motivated feminist critics to raise
charge of superficiality. Cenre study has called attention to the reciprocal function of specific questions about how these films position womcn in contrast to thc women\
texts. that they are a contract between the audience and the film, thus challenging the films of the 1930s and 1<)40s.
notion that audiences are totally passive victims manipulated hy the culturc industry. The essays in this hoot, though they mav diffcr in point of view. are concerncd with
Moreovcr, genrcs are not static. They make concessions to their changing audienccs similar issucs. The writers seek to identify the nature of melodrama from a numher of
through the renewal and transformation of their filmic conventions. The assumption pcrspcctives. Is melodrama a gcnre like the detective narrative. thc musical, the
that audienccs are totally identified with the films and hencc rohbed of any critical romance, or is it more all-emhracing? Is there a way to identify the appeal that thc
insights cannot be borne out by the role audiences play in the survival or demise of various forms of melodrama exercise on the audience? Is melodrama an example of
particular genres. Equally important is the long-held assumption that under the spcll how the culture industry cxercises a hold on the minds and hcarts of the audicnce,
of cinema, spectators confuse reality and fiction. Just as texts are not monolithic, scrving to contain forccs for social change, reproducing traditional attitudes which
neither are the responses of the audience. With the assistance of psychoanalytic theory. militate against alternativc views of soeicty, thc family, scxual diffcrcncc, pcrsonal
it is possible to speculate on the complex ways in which genres and their audiences idcntity, economic inequality? Or is it possible to locate in melodrama an exprcssion of
negotiate orders of reality. For example, the style of genre films, like the lauguage of social discontents and of unrcsolvable conAicts in contcmporary social life? Is it possi-
dreams, is a collage of the real and the fantastic, of remote and the everyday experi· hie to rcad thcse texts "against the grain," surfacing ways in which they subvert
cncc. Most oftcn, threatening aspects of experience arc conccaled in order to he conventional notions of behavior and heliefs?
entertained. ConAicts that are unresolvahle in daily life are clothed in the form of In addressing these questions. the writers inevitably become involved in questions
wish-fulfillment. Therc are clues in the texts to their underlying conAicts, momcnts of method. for example, is it enough to merely interpret a text? Arc there strategies of
when the language of the text appears to be saying more than what it intends. It is analyzing the texts that enable the texts to yield up their secrets? What is the role of
possible to see what Freud termed overdeterminations in his analysis of discourse, film and tclevision production in determining the naturc of the text and the ways in
those heavily freighted momcnts that intentionally or unintentionally call attention to which it sccks to garner audience involvcment? What role do the screen and television
the naturc of problems which are, within the contcxt of the narration, unresolvable writers play in these texts? What about studios, stars. sponsors of television programs,
though the narrator has sought to disguise or overcome them. publicity, advertising? How scnsitive are these films and programs to thc Aow of
Be~a_use of its highly affectivc natllTe, its specializing in psychological conAicts, thc evcryday life. to political and social changes? And, above all. what IS thc basis of
family melodrama has become an important site for investigating the propcrties of pleaslHc in melodrama?
gen-re~thc-nature of audience involvcment, and the psychosocial issues that underpin The cssays are organized so as to provide a broad historical and thcoretical context.
ifie films. Thc study of genre has most often been associated with spccific dircctors. for There is by no means a consensus about any of these questions, though the writers
example. the impetus for the study of family melodrama was generated by the critical seem to agree on the importance of reevaluating the productions of mass culture and
reexamination of the films of Douglas Sirk, along "'ith othcr Hollywood directors such removing the stigma placed on them. Morcovcr, they seem to agree that melodrama is
as Nicholas Ray and Vincentc Minnelli. The cxamination of the stylistic cxccsses of one of the major modes of mass cultural expression. At the same time that the writers
Sirk's family' melodramas led critics to assert that his films activelv subvert conven- are attempting to develop a genealogy of melodrama, to account for its spccifie proper-
tional bourgeois values, attitudes. and beliefs. Thc analysis ofSirk's films served scveral ties and strategies, to situate it in relation to the particular media in which it appears,
important functions in film studic;. first of all, thcse stndies reinforced the critical there is more disagreement about the nature of its impact on the audience.
work Imking film production to ideological practiecs and, in particular, thc tcndency Part I of this volume, "The Melodramatic Contcxt," addrcsses the cultural impor-
22 Introduction Introduction 23
tance of melodrama. The writers examine the history of melodrama, linking that and the essays in this section also present different assessments of its generic characteris-
history to significant social developments. John G. Cawelti's "The Evolution of Social tics. Thomas Schatz's 'The Family Melodrama" describes the p<lrticular nature of that
Melodrama" is a major attempt to recuperate popular literary forms, to compensate for genre, distinguishing such subgenrcs as the family aristocracy vari<ltion, the male
their neglect and stigmatization. He examines thc evolution of social melodrama, intruder-redeemer in the world of women, and the male weepie. Schatz's discussion is
accounting for its historical appearance. He traces the formulaic elements of the social sensitive to changes in style that relate to social <lnd historical developments, though
melodrama, identifYing how the aesthetics of melodrama is elosely intertwined with his specific focus is on the melodram<ltic texts of the 1950s. He does not, however,
cultural values. The appearances of Peter Brooks's "The Melodramatic Imagination" accord much attention to the women's film.
and Thomas Elsaesser's 'Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melo- Bv contrast Christian Viviani in "Who Is Without Sin: The Matern<ll Melodram<l
drama" were important moments in the movc to take a popular form of representation in A~erican Film. 1930-1939." explores the genre of the women's film, a popular
and examine it seriously. Brooks characterizes melodrama as verbal and visual cxcess genre in the 1930s but largely neglected until resurrected by feminist theorists. These
and traces its lineage to the eighteenth- and nincteenth-century theater, to popular films center on a female protagonist and her conAicts with deviance and conformity.
forms of literary and theatrical expression. He relates its appearance to historical Viviani traces the rise, ch<lracteristics, transformation, and reception of the maternal
events, providing a much-needed language to assess the workings of melodrama. melodrama, a genre common to both the European cinema and Hollywood. The
While Brooks traces the melodramatic imagination to the eighteenth-century essay provides an introduction to the psychoan<llytic discussions of the women's film
novel, Elsaesser explores its cinematic expressions and probes its political and ideologi- that are ineluded in this volnme. Moreovcr. Viviani's examination of the films treats
cal underpinnings. A major strategy of melodrama resides in its mystification of social the ideological implications of the genre delicately, refusing to indict thcm as mere
class and of political power and powerlessness. Since the film texts reveal a tendency to examples of conformity ind women's suppression.
displace historical, political, and economic issues onto the private sphere and onto oel Carroll's essay provides an <llternative example of genre analysis. His discus-
psychological conAict, critical analysis seeks to identify how ideological displacement sion of melodrama relies heavily on what he terms "the moral ccology of melodrama."
can be exposed in the melodramatic text. Elsaesser tends to see melodrama as dy- He challenges those critics who read melodramas ag<linst the grain. Applying the
namic, altered in relation to differing historical situations. Differences in melodra- methods of generic and stylistic analysis to Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession,
matic expression can be idcntified in the silent cinema, the pre-World War II cinema, Carroll finds more cvidcnce for reading the films <IS expressions of conformity rather
the postwar cinema, and contemporary film and television. These differences can be than subversion. His cssay crystallizes a dominant conAict in media analysis: namely.
linkcd to changing ideological imperatives. However, not all melodramas provide an the possibility of recuperating popular and commercial texts.
auto-critique or contain subversive elements. Somc melodramas. depending on histori- Part III, "History and Ideology," addresses Carroll's reservations by altempting to
cal factors, may serve to recuperate cultural and social values and ideology. move from <I purely textual analysis to a consideration of the convergences between the
"Gcnre, Style. and Affect." Part II of this volume, addresses the specific techniques text <lnd social history. At stake are two questions: whether melodrama converges with
and stratcgies through which melodramas generate responsc from audienccs. Given social life. and whether melodrama is a reproduction of the dominant and traditional
the negative status of melodrama in the past and the tacit assumptions that the lan- values within the culture or whether it is subversive. undermining prevailing attitudes
guage of melodrama was obvious to all, very little study was devotcd to exploring how through its deployment of genre strategies and its style. Thc essays in this section
melodrama is constructed. Moreover, the question of whether melodrama is a genre or examine the melodramas of the 1940.1 and 1950s in relation to women's position,
a style is contingent on being able to idcntifY differences between style and genre. On represcntations of the family, and notions of soci<ll elass. Their an<llysis of the films'
the one hand, melodrama cuts across genres. appearing in different forms of narra- ideological impact leads the critics to see the films as exposing underlying social
tives, thus suggesting that it is more akin to a worldview, a specific and pervasive mode contradictions.
of confronting social conAict. On the other hand. it is possible to identif)' specific Chuck Kleinh<lns, in "Notes on Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism,"
melodramatic genres with their own stylistic properties. identifies conjunctures between cl<lss relations, sexuality, and the positioning of the
Charles Affron's study of linkages bctween cinema and sentiment provides a lan- family as a way in which melodrama works on the audience. By linking melodram<ltic
guage to describe thc workings of melodrama, in particular how viewers arc involved in expression to the complex role of the family under capitalism, Kleinhans makes a case
narr<ltives and "made to recognize their feelings in cinematic fictions as they now for melodramas <IS a response to complex social needs. The implic<ltinns of hiS position
recognize them in life." With the aid of psychoanalytic and re<lder response thcories, are several. First of all, he sees the films as addressing pressing social problems rather
he explores the affective designs of the "tearjerker." Daniel Gerould's formalist exami- than merely reproducing mindless conformity. Moreover, in his method, he demon-
nation of melodramatic strategies draws on Russian formalist theories of melodrama to strates that texts are not one thing or another, not purel)' progressive or purely regres-
identifY the techniques of the melodramatic text and its aesthetic principles. In "Ways sive, but that, like thc social reality of which they are a part, they, too. are character-
of Melodrama," Raymond Durgnat examines thc differing w<lys in which character. ized by conAicting attitudes.
<lction, and emotion contribute to the workings of melodram<l. Since the film texts reveal a tendency to displace historical, political, and cconomic
Much of the reccnt work on mel~drama has bcen connected to the study of genre, issues onto the private sphere and onto psychological conAict, critical analysis sceks to
24 Introduction Introduction. 25

identify the ways in which ideological displacement can be exposed in the melodra- hence the unity of expectations relating to power, social C!;lSS, sexuality. and sexual
matic text. Charles Eckert's study of Warner's A Marked Woman addresses a major difference.
dilemma of narrative analysis; namely, how to translate thc static and sccmingly unhis- Because of its highly coded mode of representation, melodrama has been a conge-
torical aspects of genre into recognizable social conAiets. Through a close analysis of nial medium for testing psychoanalytic theory and the ways in which this theory can or
the text, Eckert exposes textual strategies which through melodrama mask the social cannot be historicized. Griselda Pollock's cnmmcnts on the uses of psychoanalytic
and historical conAiets embedded in the lext. theory point to its deficiencics in historical analysis and in theorizing the nature of
focusing particularly on the immediate post-World War II cinema, Michael family in relation to the position of women. While psychoanalysis has aided in provid-
Renol', in his an'llysis of Leave Her to Heaven. examines how the film positions the ing feminist theory with a working model of subjectivity from which to explore the
woman in a double-hind situation which is exemplary of the eonAicting and contradic- nature of sexual difference. while it has taken feminist thcory bcyond conventional
tory messages communicated to womcn immediately after the war. Examining the sociological studies of women's image and "role," Pollock's essay points to difficulties
sctting and in particular the rcpresentation of thc family, Renov makes a ca. e for thc of remaining too rigidly within a psychoanalytic model. especially when that model
interface between women's representation and post-World War II ideology. does not accommodate itself to the concerns of women.
David Rodowick's essay, "Madness, Authority, and Ideology in the Domestic Marv Ann Doane's "The Moving lmage: Pathos and thc Maternal" draws on
Melodrama of the 1950s." carcfully and amhitiously orchestratcs the formal, histori- psycho;nalytic thcory to explore women's representation though she attempls to his-
cal, psychological. and social convergences in the Hollywood domestic melodramas of toricize her discussion of melodramas from the 1930s and 1940s. Rehearsing reccnt
the 1950s. His study. like the others in this section, is exemplary for its attempt to open theoretical work on melodrama, she traces how melodrama and women's eonAicts can
up the text to a number of social considerations. Unlike many studies that focus on the be seen to coincide in the discourse of the mother and particularly in the pathetic affect
formal properties of a genre and exclude historical considcrations, Rodowick's essay so characteristic of mclodrama. She dcscribes the maternal melodrama as a drama of
regards an undcrstanding of social history and psychology as essential for understand- separation and return in which the mothcr is the site of multiple contradictions. Thc
ing stylistic choices. convergence of the maternal and the language of melodrama, Doanc claims, arises in
Pam Cook's "Melodrama and the Women's Picture" rehcarses current definitions their "mutual reinforccment of certain semes: presence, immcdiacy, readability."
and theories of mclodrama. In particular, following thc work of LalITa Mulvey, who is Through psychoanalysis and semiotics, feminist critics have sought to locate a
skeptical about thc attempt to find the progressive elements in the women's picture, female discourse in the women's films. Since many melodramas are either addressed
Cook seeks to distinguish two types of melodramas-the women's picture and the to a female spectator or involve the issue of female sexuality, the issue of spectatorship
tragic melodrama. The women's picture (a term coined by Molly Haskell in From has becn central to cxploring the ways in which the melodramatic text addresses female
Reverence to Rape) addresses women and their problems. The tragic melodrama is spcctators and situates them within or against certain conceptions of sexuality. power.
associated with male identity conAiets, in particular with the conAict between fathers and even social elass. Linda Williams's analysis of thc maternal conAict in Stella
and sons. In the 1930s and during World War II in the United States and in Britain, Dallas outlines various theoretical aspects of the mother-daughter relationship. Wil-
the women's film Aourished. Cook's essay focuses on that branch of British melodrama liams's reading of the language of mclodrama in King Vidor's lilm identifies moments
produced hy the Cainsborough studios in thc 1940s. its historical context, thcmes, and of resistance to the ideology of patriarchy. She finds that in certain melodramas of
visual codes. and specifically how those melodramas produccd contradictory rcpresen- which Stella Dallas is a prime example, one can locate a female discourse.
tations of sexual difference. Jane Caines's discussion of The Scar of Shame introduces the question of race in
The essays in Part IV, "Psychoanalysis, Cendcr, and Race." are represcntativc of relation to melodrama. Her essay raises qucstions about the ideology of films addressed
critical work that is heavily dependent on psychoanalytic theory for developing cou- to black audiences and containing black subjects. Unlike the maternal melodramas
cepts specifically related to the deciphering of film texts. In both current feminist and which appear to subvert the representations of women and allow for a female dis-
Marxist criticism, psychoanalytic theory has provided a way to get heneath thc text's course, The Scar of Shame is a closed text, inscrihing the ideology of racism and only
surface not only to explore the affectivc and stylistic aspects of melodramatic reprcsenta- admitting of eounterhegemonic positions on the part of the informed spectator.
tion but also to address spccifically how texts have a knowlcdge of their audiences. In Gaines's interrogation of the stratcgies of the text also raises a question about the degrec
its emphasis on the unconscious and the mechanisms of reprcssion, in its linking of to which feminist theory in its quest for an alternative discourse needs further impetus
repression and loss to the construction of the human subject and the mechanisms of from reception rather than from psychoanalytic theory.
desire. psychoanalysis rcdeems the ostensihlc banality of the melodramatic text. Part V, "Directors and Stars," offers representative examples of auteur criticism, an
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith rcads melodramatic excess in terms of the family romance, examination of the limitations of such critical treatment. and samples of criticism that
the construction of subjectivity, and thc language of hysteria. He relates these to identify other elements in production such as the role of stars. Excepting studies of
bourgeois ideology, not in a direct cause-effect relationship but as symptomatic of the genre, the discussion of melodrama has been heavily dependent on the concept of the
positioning of the subject within bourgeois culture. Rcading the melodramatic text in auteur, focusing on the "personal" styles of such directors as D. W. Griffith, Frank
this fashion exposes expectations about the Aow of narratiyjty, the unity of the tcxt, and Borzagc, King Vidor, Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli. and Nicholas Ray. Hence.
26 Introduction Introduction

analyses of influences, studio production, and historical and social issues have been several versions of Stella Dallas, it is the Barbara Stanwyck version that is most
discussed within the context of a particular artist's oeuvre. Moreover, the role of the examined. The presence of particular stars is crucial to an understanding of a film's
auteur has been central to discussions of melodrama. The films of D. W. Griffith are, melodramatic strategies, but what is necessary is a method for describing and analyzing
therefore, an important moment not only in the development of narrative cinema but the star's functions within the text. Richard Dyer's study of four Lana Turner films
also in the development of cinematic melodrama, as A. Nicholas Vardac's examina- opens up ways of discussing how the star image is an important but neglected aspect of
tion of Griffith's films indicates. Alan Gasty examines Griffith's melodramas for the film language and how, in the case of the Turner melodramas he examines. her role is
ways they represent a fusion of motion picture techniques, personal sensibility, and instrumental in providing for a certain ideological coherence, if not subversiveness, in
cultural assumptions. John Belton's study of frank Borzagc's films distinguishes the texts.
Borzage's melodramas from Griffith's. Borzagc avoids the extreme polarization so "Faces of the American Melodrama: Joan Crawford," by Jean-Loup Bourget. offers
characteristic of Griffith's work. Moreover, his treatmcnt of conflict tends to transpose a way of reading a cincmatic text, in this instance melodrama and in particular
events from the material onto the spiritual plane, focusing on the emotional states of women's films, through the perspective of the star's contribution to the thematics of
his characters as opposed to their social contcxts. the text. Bourget contends that the distinct style of actresses like Crawford is part of the
While studies of 1930s melodramas have increased, particularly thosc which deal landscape and ideology of melodrama. The personality and physical appearance of
with the woman's film and the treatment of gender in these hlms, much of the critical Crawford are linked to the textual tensions between nature and culture so prevalent 10
work has been generated by an examination of the films of the 1950s, ineluding the the melodramas in which she stars. Bourget is trying not to invent a category of the star
works of such directors as Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirko Their to replace that of auteurist criticism but rather to open up an area of study that has been
melodramas have been identified as self-consciously using style as a way of subversively only feebly investigated; namely, the filmic and extrafilmie contributions of the star to
probing and exposing the contradictions of social class, sexuality. and materialism in the style and meaning of melodrama. .
American culture. Sirk's films utilize color. music, choreography, costume, and mise- If melodrama moved into the cinema from the theater and from prose ficMn.
en-scene as a means of undercutting identification with the characters and their becoming a dominant aspect of film narrative and style, it is now the case that
situations. Christopher Orr, in his study of Sirk's Written on the Wind, "Closure and television which is the ncwest form of mass culture, has also found melodrama a
Containment: Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind," takes a slightly different profitable'cultural item of consumption. The soap opera, originally a creation of radio,
direction. While acknowledging the role of style as a means of undercutting the was transferred to daytime television and has gradually found its way in a new, more
content, he also focuses on ways that content and style work together to provide a social lavish format in prime-time television. The essays in Part VI examine the various
critique. He examines the privotal and excessive nature of Marylee Hadley as the forms of television melodrama.
disruptive force in the melodrama which undermines the legitimization and contain- In "The Search for Tomorrow in Today's Soap Operas," Tania Modleski provides an
ment of the bourgcois ideology that the film seeks to subvert. unusually complex perspective on television. Her examination of soap operas addresses
As most studies of genre mdicate, genre is not a static system but sensitive to the characteristics of these programs as well as their specific terms of reception. In
historical and social changes. The work of Hollywood directors such as Francis ford charting the strategies of the soap opera. Modleski is particularly concerned to positJon
Coppola and Michael Cimino has introduced a different content and different stylistic the female characters and the female spectator in relation not only to the programs
approach to melodrama which Naomi Greene in her essay "Copola, Cimino: Thc themselves but to the historical and ideological imperatives that are an intrinsic part of
Opera tics of History" has described as operatic and historical. Crcene links the work of the experience of the soap opera. Modleski does not regard the programs as tightly
these directors to the political, ideological, and stylistic concerns of the 1970s cinema. controlling the viewer's vision but sees them rather as offering a space for women's
and. in particular, to the political and social climate of the post-Vietnam war era. pleasure and addressing real needs and desires.
As these essays on various directors indicate, the search for a single voice in the text Like Modleski. Brunsdon questions whether the audience for soap operas is a
continues to animate film criticism, and in particular the position of the director has gendered audience and whether this is a useful hypothesis. In her essay, "Crossroads:
been considered preeeminent. Drawing on the work of Roland Barthes and John otes on Soap Opera," she explores the context for the soap opera. its textual strate-
Caughie, Christine Saxton in her essay "The Collective Voice as Cultural Voice" takes gies. and its discontinuities, commenting particularly on the program's uses of space.
issue with the search for a single voice and proposed to identify the text as a cultural the fractured framework in the form of a plurality of story lines, the role of interrup-
collaboration between producers and consumers. She sees the text as a collectJon of hons and the deferment of knowledge and resolutions, and the importance of deceit in
voices, a "juncture of multiple codes," and her essay attempts to account for other establishing a relationship between spectator and text. Brunsdon affirms Modleski's
voices in the text. view that the form of soaps is particularly geared to female viewers, an issue that Robert
In the overwhelming critical preoccupation with the director as author of the film, C. Allen will challenge in his discussion of the soap opera.
the role of the star has been given scant attention. Yet an examination of particular While television studies of soap opera have concentrated on distinguishing the
melodramas, especially remakes of popular narratives, reveals significant differences in formal effects of television from those of cinema. critics have also concentrated on
point of view based on performances by the films' stars. For example. though thcre are television treatments of genre. len Ang's study, "Dallas and the Melodramatic Imagina-
IntroductIOn Introduction 29
tion," examines the prime-time soap opcra within the context of recent theories of
matic narratives. Fassbindcr found Douglas Sirk's films inAuential in thc development
melodrama. Like Modleski and Brunsdon, Ang identifics how elements of continuity of his own attempt to crcate popular and political films that addressed the convergences
and discontinuity characteristic of serialization and the deployment of multiple narra- of family, sexuality, social e1ass, and history. Ruth McCormick's essay, "Fassbinder's
tives contribute to an inhibiting of identification with a single central character and to a Reality: An Imitation of Life." examines the thematics in fassbinder's films and hIS
diffusion of interest among several, creating a sense of community. It is thc soap opcra struggle to develop a style that was capable of communicating how his characters are
community that is thc source of melodrama, not the individual characters. In "Dal- victimized by their own melodramatic scenarios. Katherine S. Woodward, in hcr cssay
las," melodramatic conAict and exccss is conveyed through thc metaphors of aleohol- "European Anti-Melodrama: Godard, Truffaut, and I'assbinder," discusscs modernist
Ism and illness, which present thc nuelear family in terms of crisis and brcakdown appropriations of mclodrama. Calling the films of thesc directors "anti-melodramas,"
rather than idealization. For Ang, thc "melodramatic imagination docs not reside in she examines how their work self-consciously and critically seeks to undermine tradi-
great public tragedies bul in the tragedics of daily life so congcnial to prime time soap tional melodramatic representation. Finally, Ana Lopez, in her essay, "The Melo-
operas. "
drama in Latin America: Films, Telenovelas, and the Currency of a Popular Form,"
Too often, assumptions about responses to film narratives are carried over to a discusscs the popularity of melodrama in Latin American countries from the silent
discussion of television. Robert C. Allcn's "A Reader-Oriented Poctics of thc Soap cinema to the present, with thc exception of the sixties and scvcnties, when the Ncw
Opera" distinguishcs betwccn cinematic and television style. In describing the textual Latin American cinema rejected many of the popular melodramas as petit bourgeois
system of soap operas, Allcn pays particular attention to the codes that govern thc and sought to creatc a ncw anti-bourgeois form. However, with the expansion of
television narratives. Moreovcr, his distinction betwcen modes of viewing in cinema and television, melodrama has reappeared as a popular form in the telenovelas which,
telcvision is useful for distinguishing diffcrent audience rcsponses to the melodramatic. unlike the American soap operas, are e1early demarcated narratives. Like the writers
Adopting concepts from reader response thcory, Allen attempts to account for the naturc whose studies of American and British television arc represented in this book, Lopez
of audience rcsponses to soap operas and for gcudcred responses, in particular. views the telcnovelas as responding to certain needs of the audience which are not
I'ocusing on the late 1970s Ellcn Seiter explores contemporary cxprcsslOns of purely regressive.
melodrama In both cincma and television in "Men, Scx, and Money in Recent I'amily The essays in this volume were selected to represent some of the major concerns of
Melodramas." Commenting on thc resllrgencc of thc family melodrama in the 1970s, film and television study over the past two dccadcs. Thc writings testify to thc intellec-
it popularity among audicnces, Seiter addrcsses differcnees among daytime and prime tual ferment that char<lcterizes contcmporary medIa sludy. Abovc all, it should be
time soap operas, and films. Shc finds that the cinema, in particular, has been most apparcnt that the essays proceed from a position of active intellectual engagement in
marked in moving away from an earlier cmphasis in family melodrama on women and their concern not merely to charactcrizc and describe thc forms of melodrama but to
on e1ass conAict and toward a concern with male issues and with upper-e1'lss charac- analyze its impact on the audience. The role of the media in contemporary society is
ters, a situation shc rcgards as a loss for women. for whom melodrama had constituted not a matter of indifference but a crucial factor in understanding social relationships
a channel of exprcssion in popular culture. and the potential for social change. By no means have the questions raised by thesc
Most of thc essays in this anthology are conecrned with Anglo-American melo- writers been definitively answered, but the essays challenge the reader to understand
drama, since the prepondcrance of critical work has focused on it, but melodrama is what is at stake in the study of melodrama.
also cvidcnt in European and Lltin American cinema and telcvision. Part VII, the
final section, addresses the appearancc of melodf<lma in the early French cinema and
in the Itahan cincma of the 1940s, the cxistcnce of modernist forms of melodrama
excmplified in the European and Latin American cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. and
popular expressions of melodrama in rccent Latin American television. otes
Richard Abel's essay, "I'rench Ftlm Melodrama: Beforc and After the Grcat War ..
cxplores the connection between the first bourgcois film melodramas and the Fren:h
thcatre. Thc cinema soon supplanted the theatre as a source for melodrama, but it was
the wartime melodramas, in particular, exemplificd in such films as Abel Gancc's I. Andreas Huvssen. "Mass Culture as Woman: Modermsm's Other," in Studies III Eatertain-
Mater Do/arusa. that were a primary inAuencc on the post World War I Frcnch avant- ment, cd. b; Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana Universllr Press. 1986), p. 193.
garde narrative cincma. My own discussion of the Italian film melodrama during the 2. Ibid, p. 196.
late 1930s and 1940s cxplores how the melodramas of the period can be rcad so as to 3 Theodor Adorno, Prisms (London: NeVIlle Spearman, 1967), pp. 25-26.
shcd light on fascist ideology. Visonti's Ossess;one dissects the immediate and everday 4. Cyorgy Lubes, 'The Historieat Novel of Democratic Humanism," in MarXISm & ArL, ed!w
structures of life under fascism, exploring familial relations and the violence they Berel Lang and Forest Wilhams (New York: DaVId McKay, (972), pp. 372-89.
5. Fredric Jameson. "Relheation and Utnpia in Mass Culture," Snewl Text. no. I (1979), p. 147.
gencratc, a violence that converges with the more public aspects of fascist life.
6. Anlonio Cramsei, Miscellanea. Quademie del carcere. Vol. 3, cd hI' Valentino Cerralana
In a contemporary contcxt, the films of Rainer \Verner I'assbindcr utilizc melodra- (Turin: Eina\ldi, (975). Pl'. 2t93-95.
7. Coltn MacCabc, Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature (Manchester; Manchester
Umvemly Press, 1985), p. 34.
8. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison; Umversity of Wisconsin Pre"
J985), p 19. .~.


U nt1l the last t\Vo decades. melodrama was regarded as a sensa-
tional and thealrieal form of manipnlation of the audience'" ell1otions. Little attentIon
was paid to its genealogy, Its particular stylistic properties, and its social significance.
The essays in this section arc characteristic of an attempt to correct this deficienc:.
'hev seek not onlv ~o identifv thc s )eclfic features of melodramatic representation but
The melodra-
na/ic lnwglna/lOn is a term that ha" hecome useful for signifying this broader ap-
roach. The' krin suggests'that melodrama IS a.~~ay of perceivrng the world. a response
o.~cific soci~l..pre~s\!.res w~i~b_c"-[ In Iiter;Jlr,He and dra!lla,a~ w<;Jras in
fu: cinema. Toe term also "uggests that the focus of critical work on melodrama
xtends beyond the study of an indi~idual a·titl~o·ror text, f~cusTTlgrath~; ~-~ its general
:h~'racle; and, above all, on its pervasivencss as a ~ociohi~tQrieal'phenomenon. .
John G. Gawel;;'s e.ssaY 'charts the evolutIOn of melodrarna In literature, heglnnrng
wIth Dickens's work in thc nincteenth century and endrng with thc recent writIngs of
Irving Wallace. He isolates and describes melodramatic convcntions and suggests their
connection to dominant social themes and conflicts which he finds inextricably tied to
the essence of melodrama. He IS concerned witb he. w.a.xLilJ_whl.C.h melodrama
increasingly challenged tradit~;I--view~of ordcr and orthodoxy in society: ~~i';lg
changes In women"s represelltation ancr the_illC.rC~!silJg.i!)trqQJi~i)Q.I] 5~USSl!e~(J(er.inli.
n~li tv and the 'pursuit of suc:~~s,..i!.illto[p~cm:eJ. But certain formulas remain constant in
social l1lelodrarrw 'despite-changing 11lStoric~1 conditions: ils OIiddlc·d~s, orient~tloll

32 The Melodramatic Context

and its emphasis on romantic love, the monogamous family, and ethical consider-
ations of power and success.
GROOl:S, The appearancc in 1985 of Peter Brooks's The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac,
nlUSIC Henry lames, and the Mode of Excess signaled changes in the traditional modes of

literary study and the fact that the time had arrived for melodrama to be considered as a
seriolls rather than pejorative treatment of literary and theatrical production. Brooks's
analysis of the melodramatic imagination exposes how writcrs within the canon of high
cultural production were drawn to melodrama as a way of cxprcssing what secmed
inexpressihle within the realist mode, finding that a fundamcntal characteri tic of
melodrama is the tendcncy "to cxprcss all," to give uttcrance 10 those feelings that secm
inaccessible within the ordinary modes of discourse. For Brooks, thcse feelings arc tied
to thc moral occult. to a vision of the world as a scene of polarized moral conflict.
The Evolution of Social Melodrama
[n effect, melodrama seems within this contcxt to be a striving for a transcendent
rcality, an overcoming of the inertness of things, an expression of spirituality III the face
of an II1crcasingly meaningless. desacralized cxistence. Brooks identifies the language
of melodrama as primarily gestural, related most particularly to thc music with which
it is associated, thc melos of melodrama. Not only is music inextricably linked to the JOHN'G. CAWELTI
genealogy of the form, but it also is an esscntial ingredient in melodrama's straining to
evokc the ineffahle, to articulate that which seems inaccesiblc to verbal language. For
Brooks, melodrama is an inescapablc fact of modcrn life which hc traces to a human
need for meaning and significant action.
By contrast, Thomas Elsaesser's "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the If he did not invent it, Charles Dickens developed the formula for
Family Melodrama" seeks to link thc history of melodrama to periods of social and social melodrama into onc of the most successful fictional genrcs ofthc nll1eteenth an~
ideological crisis. in particular to thc eighteenth century and the rise to power of the twentieth centuries. DIckens showed conclusively that a wntcr could represent soc~~t)
bourgeoisie. Elsaesser traccs a transformation in melodrama from tragic to conformist in a fairly complex and critical way yet still achieve tremendous popu'~r success I le
represcntations that secm to converge with the rise and the later consolidation of d
s nthesi7.ed social criticism with_tbearchetype.of mclodrama and there y gave rca ers
hourgeois power. [n the nineteenth cenhtry, with growing industrialization and elass ti,e pleasure of seeing the follies of men and institutions com,bllled WIth the saltsfactlon
struggle, the melodrama thrived as a locus for thc expression of social and political of witnessing thc triumph of virtue and the pUl1lshment of \ICC. d f ,.
conAict. as exemplified in the novels of Dickens in England and Hugo in France. The Tbc melodramatic conventions on which Dickens drew wcre thc pro ucto ear Icr
crux of thc melodrama as a vehicle of social expressionlics in its tcndcncy to fuse social · botll fiction and the theater. In the last dccade of the eighteenth
deve 1opmen ts 111 [ . I th "
and ceonomic conAicts with psychological and spiritual intensity. · d f I drama had become increasingly popu ar WIt 1 Cgro\\Ing
eenturv a new k'111 0 me 0 . 11 a
Elsaesser. like Brooks, extends the term melos to cover all the stylistic strategies of public'for books and theater. The central figure in this formulaIC pattern was usua yn
melodrama that crcate its cxpressivity and are enhanced in the cinema by means of . t ng ladv of some lower or ambiguous statUS-VIllage malden, orpha ,
camera, lighting, mise-en-seenc. the use of objects, montage, color, and, in thc sound Vir UOllS you '. db I h cter
dau hter of parents in reduced circumstances-who was pursue ya rna e c . ara
cinema, vcrbal and musical sound. The films of the 1950s, particularly those of of h~gher status and dubious intentions, a figure of anstocrahc, erotIC, fina~clal, and
Douglas Sirk and Vinccntc MinneIJi, arc exemplary of a tendency of some melodra- social power' in other words. some form of the stereotypical sqUIre WIth cur !fig mus-
mas to allow thcmselves to be rea,1 ag'linst the grain, as subverting thc very attitudcs taches. The ~orely beset heroine commonly loved a more worthy and mnocent young
that they seem superficially to be endorsing. The handling of decor and the archi- \.· self enmeshed in status difficulties, often because hiS true parentage
man wh a was mm . I h f
tectonic usc of people and objects produce a dramatic discontinUIty, a jarring sense of was ~oncea\ed for one reason or another. This primary tnang e was t e esscnce a
excess, signaling class and sexual tensions that call attention to the elements of rcpres- melodrama and was capable of two major permutaltons, correspondmg loosely to
sion. linking thc personal to thc political and inviting both frcudlan and Marxian . d . d s of action In the first case. the herollle reSISted the entreahes
comIc an tragIc mo e .
analysis. Many current studies of cinema melodrama have followed Elsaesser's lead in
exploring the family melodrama as a crucial site for the convergence of aesthetics and
34 fohn C. Cawelti The Evolution of Social Melodrama 35
and threats of the villain and was ultimately united in marriage with the noble young affirming in one stroke the nineteenth-century middle-class values of love, domestic-
man. In Richardson's seminal Pamela, the villain and the good hero were combined as ity, social respectability, masculine dominance, and feminine purity. III the later nine-
phases of a single character, but in most instances hero and villain exemplified moral teenth century, this ideal union became increasingly precarious and melodrama began
principles ill J more stereotypical fashion. In the tragic melodrama, the heroine to change in relation to new cultural tensions.
suecumhed to the vtllain's plots. "When this happened," as David Grimsted puts it, The other basic principle of the melodramatic vision in this period was the primacy
of religion. Religion was, in effect, the cement tying together the other social and
repentance. madness. and death were all that awaited her, except in a few
moral ideas. The heroine's faith in God not only helps her to endure the trials and
instances where after long suffering she was allowed a modicum of happiness.
tribulations she is subjected to by the villain. but it also leads her to make the proper
Such unhappy fate was inevitable even if the heroine had heen "unfortu1'1ate,
rather than guilty"-if she had been raped or deceived by a "false marriage." romantic choice of the good hero who can share her profound faith. Moreover. the
These were favorite plot devices because the woman's total purity of intent made hero and heroine's Christian dedication sanctifies their union and insures that it will be
her fall more pathetic, but no les. inevitable. I a truly proper and respectable one. Above all, it is the sense of di\'ine providence
operating in the world that insures that virtue and vice will achieve their appropriate
This dramatic and narrative formula. which set a supreme symbol of virtue (the rewards. [n Mrs. Southworth's The Curse o(Cli(ton, Archer Clifton IS deceived by the
beleaguered village maiden) against a potent embodiment of evil (the wicked squire), wicked "other woman" into thinking that his wife has married him for his money.
and then arranged in a particularly suspenseful and exciting manner for the success of Driven by suspicion, he subjects his loving and virtuous helpmeet to two years of brutal
virtue and the pUlllshment of evil, was a highly effective version of the archetype of indifference. His suspicions are finally cleared up (a) through an especially seiAess and
melodrama. But in tracing the evolution of social melodrama we must also look at the heroic act on the heroine's part. (b) through Clifton's chance encounter with an even
particular social and cultural themes involved. Melodrama, as we have seen, is particu- wealthier gentleman she had earlier rejected, and (c) through a deathbed confession by
larly dependent on a sense of what is a proper, acceptable, and plausible means for the villainess. Somewhat embarrassed by his lack of trust. as well he might be, Archer
Insuring the triumph of virtue in spite of the terrible strength of vice. This sense of the Clifton laments to his wife,
proper order of things justifies the coincidences and accidents of melodramatic action
"And, oh, Catherine to think that all this trouble 1 have suffered, and have
and reveals, in a striking way. the conventional moral vision that a particular culture
inAicted upon you, should have been so unnecessary."
and period wishes to see affirmed by the striking reversals of fortune that charaeteri7.e
the structure of melodrama.
But she, knowing better, and deeper in her faith, replies,
In the melodramas of the early nineteenth century, the principle of proper order
reAected an intertwining of religious and social values. The single most important "Oh, no! it was 110t unnecessary. Cod suffered it to be, and it was well-very
outcome of any melodram'l was the marriage of the virtuous heroine to the right well! All things work together for good, to them that love the Lord! And every
man-or, in the tragic version of melodrama, the degradation and death of the fallen pang that has ploughed our hearts in the past. will make them fruitful of good in
heroine. In general, thc right man was somewhat ahove the virtuous heroine in social the future. One fruit is, that the suffering of the last two years has drawn our
status. though at the beginning of the star)' he rna)' have been poor or a lost heir. When hearts together as nothing else could have done. ·,2
a relationship developed between a poor young man and a woman above him in status.
something unfortunate usually came of it. unless by the operation of melodramatic Thus. the murky melodramatic triangle of virtuous heroine, noble hero, and
coincidence the noble hero turned out to be the rightful heir to a still larger fortune. If dastardly villain was a drama of providence in which suffering and doubt challenge the
a wealthy girl became involved with a hero beneath her station she often exemplified heroine's religious faith, but insure that. if she remains chaste and tme and submits
one of the favorite secondary characters of the early nineteenth-century melodramatic herself to God's will, not only will she become a respectable wife and the center of a
formula, the "other woman," who was normally more like the villain than the heroine. happy domestic circle but this social and romantic achievement will be sanctified and
In fact. the "other woman," wealthy, decadent. and lustful, increasingly took on the blessed by the hand of God. Thus the melodramatic formula of this period dramatized
role of villain. as later melodramatists cast about for ways to give new vitality to what the eongmence between the social ideas of domesticity, romantic love, and respectable
were. by mideentury. somewhat tired conventions. mobility and the religious faith in the divine governance of the world. In these stories,
These stereotypes of character and action indicate the degree to which social melodramatic coincidence and apparent chance take on a special emotional and moral
dominance. the ideas of middle-class domesticity, the dream of romantic love, and the force because they are understood to be results of God's operative providence. When
drive for social mobility were unified in the popular moral vision of early nineteenth- rightly understood, they show US that every worldly event is controlled by His benevo-
century England and America. After being threatened with a fate worse than death by lent interest and power. Henry Nash Smith is right in calling this a "cosmic success
an upper-e1ass villain. the virtuous heroine settled into happy domesticity with a solidly story.";
respectable young man with whom she also. coincidently, was in love, thus neatly Beyond the basic formula of virtuous hero and heroine entangled in the toils of an
36 /oh" C. Cmvelti The Evolution of SOCial Melodrama 37

arislocratic villain and saved by a providential series of revelations or happenstanccs, The basic combination of social criticism ancl melodramatic plot that Dickcns so
the melodrama was fleshed out by a variety of minor figures: brilliantly articulated was embodied m hundreds of novels and plays III mid-
The gallery of rogues was increased by such stock characters as the designing nineteenth-century England and America. onc was more powerful and striking th:m
governess, preferably ['reneh; the hardhearted landlady. the cruel stepmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which in both printcd and thcatrical form
the inhuman creditor, the Rinty jailor. the vile procuress, and the mercenary was the greatest rnnctecnth-century best-sellcr.
wet nurse. Upon the side of the angels were to be found, with wearisome The extraordinary impact of Uncle Tom's Cahin-perhapslhe onl" book other than
monotony, the noble soldier dispensing good cheer out of a meager pcnsion, the Bible that has been held responsible for a major war-was a teshmony to i\1rs.
with a gesture or two borrowed from Unele Toby; and the gencrous sailor Stowe's ability to express her scnse of decply felt social wrongs in tcrms of the melodra-
cndowed with some of the more genial characteristics of Smolletl's seamen. The matic conventions her rcaders were predisposcd to respond to. Most important. she
[melodramatist's] contention that sympathy is the mainspring of human naturc extcnded thesc melodramatic convcntions to cover black characters as well as white
was exemplified in numerous instances of the good apprentice, the philan- and therebv accomplished one of the first major acts of racial integration on the
thropic mcrchant. the chivalrous rustic, the noble savage. the highborn
4 Imaginative levcl. Just as Dickens forced his audience to a new awareness of the urban
benefactress, and thc long-suffering wife.
poor by euttmg through the class separation bctween high and low character stereo-
Grimsted points out that the scriollS melodramatic triangle was often paralleled bl' a typcs that had been the rule m early melodrama, Mrs. Stowe took thc even morc
low comedy situation and characters whosc attitudes and actions burlesqued and even daring imaginative step of treating black characters as high meloc.lramatic herocs and
sometimes 'cast an ironic light on the turbulent posturings of the major characlers, as heroines. Her carefully c.Iocumented account of the system of slavcry and its outrages
if, to achieve its highest effectivencss, melodramatic moralism had to be scrved up wilh against hnman deccncy 'n"fd the Christiall faith was given added force by her insistence
a dash of comic realism. Indeed. the ideal vision of melodrama with ils fundamental on presenting black characters as serious melodramatic protagonists. Her characteriza-
principle of a supremely just universe often seems a little too much for its audiencc to tion of Eliza drcw upon two of the strongest melodramatic traditions. the virtuous
accept withont some sense of basic evil or comic ridicule lurking in the wings. heroine persecuted by the brutal seducer and the suffering mother. George Harris was
Thus, from the very beginning of the nineteenth century, melodrama tended to add the noblc upwardly mobile hero suddenly confronted with a dastardly plot against the
at least a dash of spice to its portrayal of virtue triumphant and cvil defeated. \ Morc woman he loved and prevented by his situation from going to her aid until it was
sophisticated audienccs were probably mure responsive to the kind of story that could almost too late. Unele Tom himself embodied the convention of thc benevolent father
balance somc of the satisfactions of melodrama against the e1aims of their sense of and moral spokesman who suffered and dicd as a martyr to thc cause of Christian faith
reality. The village virgin, her noble young swain. and the mustachioed villain may and feminine purity. Mrs. Stowe's white characters also grew out of melodramatic
have been satisfying enough for the simpler audiences of the popular theater, but for stereotypes: the dastardly, lascivious. mustache-twirling villain, Simon Lcgree: the
melodrama to rcach out to the more educated public as well it had to find ways of pure and innocent young girl; the peevish spinster.
setting its stories of virtue versus vice in a context of more plausibly complex representa- The action, too, was of the essence of melodrama. Specific scenes like Eliza's Right
tions of thc world. The result was the emergence. first in Dickens and then III an across the frozen river, the death of Little Eva. the sudden attack on Augustine SI.
almost unbroken tradition of best-sellers since his time. of what 1 have called social Clare and the ultimate confrontation of Unele Tom and Simon Legree possessed those
melodrama, with its basic structure of a melodramatic inner plot embodied in a more qualities of suspenseful excitement, seemingly miraculous coincidcnce, and intensity
or less complex and critical treatment of society. of emotion that are essential to melodramatic incident. The overall actIOn of Uncle
Pcrhaps because of the way in which it depends on a complex balancing of quite Tom's Cahin was constructed of two large movements: the danng Right, pursuit. and
disparate perceptions of the world, social melodrama shades over on one side into the eventual escape of Ceorge and Eliza Harris to the orth, and the bondage, suffering,
non melodramatic novel as when, in some of the novels of Dickens and almost all of and martyrdom of Uncle Torn as hc moved deeper and deeper into the hcll of the
Dostoevsky. strongly melodramatic elements arc overpowered by a nonmeloclramatic slavery system of the plantation South. The happy outcome of the trials of George and
social vision. On the other side, social melodrama is closely rclatcd to other melodra- Eliza obviollsly demonstrated the operation of providcnce. Not only did they escape
matic formulas of similar character: thc historical. the gothic. the religious, or the from bondage, but they kcpt encountering kindly and deccnt people who, as agents of
sensation melodramas. These other modes of melodramatic expression share with a higher plan. helped them on thcir way to freedom. The martyrdom of Unele Tom
social melodrama the structure of a melodramatic action embedded in a more complex was a less obvious but deeper portrayal of the divine governance of thc world, for, III his
imaginative vision, but the nature and source of that Vision rcRect a religious or hopeless suffcring, Tom's Christian resignation to the will of God insured tlwt he
historical rather than a primarily social concern. Thns a truly adequate treatment of would meet his terrible fate with dignity, faith, and a growing certainty of his eternal
the evolution of melodrama in the nineteenth and twcntieth centuries is a task of great salvation. Tom's victory was substantiated by the narrator's frequent and explicit com-
complexity. Here I can only make a few observations about major changes in the ments on the subjcct, and by the two major incidcnts that marked important stages in
complex of moral attitudcs underlying the development of social melodrama hv analyz- the process of Torn's martyrdom: the death of Little Eva and thc degencration and
ing some excmplary works. damnation of Simon Legrce. The manner of Little Eva's demise perfcctly exemplified
38 fohn C. Cawelti The Evolution of Social Melodrama 19

the striking change of tears resolved in ultimate joy that was the essence of nineteenth- rity. On the contrary, having faccd the dangers of social worldliness and corruption
century melodrama. Eva's translation to heaven-an episode that later generations with moral purity and Christian resignation, the melodramatic protagonist typically
with different moral and religious attitudes would see as the quintessence of archaic achieved a marriage that placed him or her firmly within the genteel and respectable
melodramatic absurdity-was a scene that deeply moved nineteenth-century readers classes. Or, if the heroine ultimately succumbed to her trials, the result was a lingering
and theatrical audiences who were evidently supersensitive to the combination of death, usually among lowly, simple people who offered a final protection. If, like
childhood innocence and purity with suffering, death, and the certainty of heaven. Uncle Tom, the tragic melodramatic protagonist had learned to accept martyrdom. the
But it also played a vital symbolic role in Tom's story, assuring us that whatever his reader was usually assured in some fashion that the protagonist's death was only the
temporal suffering might be, he was certain to join his beloved little mistress in eternal prelude to a more glorious resurrection.
bliss. Legree's progressive deterioration was lovingly detailed by Mrs. Stowe. After Culturally, the social melodrama of the mid-nineteenth century can best be inter-
'10m's death, Legree sees a diabolical figure of death beckoning to him, a vision that we preted as an attempt to reconcile the increasing conAiet between traditional Christian
are certainly intended to take as the sign of God's justice striking down the guilty, views of the world and the secular values of a rapidly changing society. The formula
Mrs, Stowe's work was unique in its power and impact because she integrated her that dominated the period's social melodrama resolved the tension between religion
attack on the social evil of slavery with the prevailing melodramatic vision of thc world. and the valucs of mobility and success by making its virtuous protagonists examples of
Yet Uncle Tom's Cahin was typical of mid-nineteenth-century social melodrama in its both and by asserting a fundamental unity between the operation of God's providence
emphasis on divine providence as the agency of a benevolent moral ordcr that rewards and the creation of happy, prosperous, and respectable middle-class families. By the
the good and punishes the wicked, bringing about the melodramatic triumph. The end of the nineteenth century, however, this equation of traditional religious attitudes
mid-nineteenth-ccntury vision of a Christian, providential world implied several other and middle-class social v;f!ues was no longer viable in the social melodrama. In the
themes. It meant that feminine purity and the ideal of motherhood were dominant number one best-seller of 1913, Winston Churchill's The Inside of the Cup. the story
symbols of virtue, the chief objects of the noble hero's protection and the villain's begins with an apparent affirmation of the social and moral vision that we have lust
attack. Closely associatcd with the ideal of purity was the value of Christian resignation described, but the ironic tone of the narrative indicates that the traditional melodra-
and submission to God's will. Heroine and hero both had to learn faith in Cod's matic version of the moral order has broken down:
operative providence in order to be assured of a happy resolution to their problems.
[Our story begins in] a city overtaken, in recent years, by the plague which has
The central role of the villain as seducer also grew out of this complex of values. The
swept our country from the Atlantic to thc Pacific-prosperity. Before its advent
ideal moral order that God's providence ultimately established for the virtuous and the [rcspcctable families] lived leisurely lives in a slecpy quarter of shade trees
denied to thc wicked was a happy synthesis of traditional Protestant religious ideals and and spacious yards and muddy macadam streets, now passed away forever.
the middle-class social values of domesticity and respectability. The proper fate for the Existencc was decaroliS, marriage an irrevocable step, wivcs were wives. and the
melodramatic hero Or heroine was to learn Christian resignation by preserving moral Authorized Vcrsion of the Bible was true from cover to covcr. So Dr. Gilman
purity in the face of great trials and temptations, with the assurance that this would lead preached and so they believcd. 8
to a hap~y aod respectable marriage as a temporal prelude to eternal salvation in the
afterlife. In this novel, the profession of religious piety reprcsents a residue of stultifying ortho-
This divinely appointed moral order had many worldly enemies. Their attempts to doxy and large-scale social hypocrisy. There is a deadening separation between religion
draw the hero and heroinc from the proper path constituted the major source of and society: "[On Sundaysl the city suddenly became full of churches, as though they
suspenseful excitement and virtuous suffering. Moreover, in social melodrama, the had magically been let down from Heaven during Saturday night. They must havc
plots of the aristocratic rake were often supplemented or even replaced by the pressure been there on weekdays, but few persons even thought of them. "Q
of bad social institutions. Mrs. Stowc's analysis of the way in which the social system of Increasing ambivalcnce about divine providence as the cornerstone of society was
slavery had corrupted government, the church, and the family was comparable to accompanicd by doubts about the two other value complexes that were basic to the
Dickens's attack on the Court of Chancery. the system of debtor's prison, the social earlier melodramatic vision: thc purity and domestic submissiveness of women and the
treatment of the poor, and other institutions. These heavy indictments were echoed ideal of the respectable, middle-class family. If feminine purity, piety, and submissivc-
more thinly in Mrs. Southworth's attacks on aristocratic social prejudice and Susan ness were no longer felt to be so important as to evoke the hand of God in their defense;
Warner's pale criticisms of the worldliness and materialism of city society, It was also if the dircct operation of God's providence in worldly affairs was no longer felt as an
an important article of melodramatic faith that people were generally good when their imaginative reality; if the attainmcnt of Christian resignation in a life of domestic piety
hearts were simple and open to God's word and to love for their neighbor. Invariably and respectability was no longer conceived to be the highcst ideal; then it was not
the suffering, melodramatic protagonist found assistance and support among children, possible for melodramahsts to continue writing stories in which virtuous maidens were
rural people, and the lowly, those yet uncorrupted by the artifices of society, Yet, at the pursucd by lascivious and aristocmtic rakes, saved at the last minute by providential
same time. the successful hero or heroine was hardly fated to remain in lowly obscll- interventions, and happily married to a lost heir of the respectable gentry. Nor could
40 /oh" C Cawelll The Evolulion of Social ,vlclodrama 4/

they depend on stories in which Christian innocents accepted martyrdom in the who scnse the emptiness and futility of their Jives and go west to become part of a new
assurance of eternal happiness in a palpable heaven. life.
The increasing prcssure on thc traditional visIOn was reAccted in two significant late The best-selling social melodramatists of the early twentieth century-writers like
nineteenth-century dcvelopments in the formulas of social melodrama. One consisted Harold Bell Wright and Winston Churchill-evolved a new melodramalic synthesis to
of attempts to revitalize the traditions by expressing them in more modern terms. An deal with tensions betwcen the traditional Christian moral universc and the new sense
example is what James Hart calls the "Gatcs Ajar" school in whieh writers tried to of social change. Their works are a melange of the leading social and philosophical
integrate the traditional view of divine providence and Ihc conception of heaven and curren Is of the time-Spencerian Social Darwinism. the social gospel, political re-
hell with contemporary social values. I':ven more striking was a transformation of the formism and progressivism. the institutional church, the new sociology of environmen-
virtuous Christian heroine by writers like Augusta Jane Evans. whose Beulah (1859) talism. evcn, in some writers, the intcllectual and philosophical racism of the period-
and 51. Elmo (1807) were rtInaway best-sellers in the 1860s and early 1870s. In thesc all stated in such a way that they can be ultimately harmonized with a morc socially
stories, the heroine retained her Christian purity and faith. but. in contrast to the early oriented Christianity. For these writers the traditional orthodoxies of Christian thought
nineteenth-century image of a meek and submissive female, became a veritable tigress had to be revitalized to correspond with new realities, hut they see no fundamental
in the defense of her religion against aggressIve and agnostic men. 10 The typical plot eonAict betwcen a religious vicw of the world and the new social currents. Indced,
pattern of Miss Evans's novels restructured the traditional melodramatic triangle by their stories show that a regenerated religious perspective can bring about a meaningful
settmg a virtuous and dominant heroine against an aristocratic but weak male, who, understanding of social change. Thus Harold Bell Wright wrote in his enormously
convcrtcd to Christian faith by the heroine's indomitable force of will, was miracu- popular Shepherd of the Hills (1907) about a minister who had lost touch with his faith
10llsly transformed into a noble but submissive hero. 51. Elmo. for example, began as a in the increasing swirl of'materialism and change that characterized hiS fashionable
sort of Byronic decadent, but under the avalanche of heroine Edna Earl's purity and urban world. His quest for regeneration takes him to thc primitive Ozarks, where he
faith was eventually converted into a pious minister and devoted husband. E. P. Roe, a learns to reaffirm his faith in a newly virile and passionate manner, freed from the
best-seller in the 1870s and one of the last major social melodramatists in the earlier sterile orthodoxies of the past. Winston Churchill's The Inside of the Cup (1913) told
tradition, updated his works by giving a greater topicality to his treatment of the the same basic story. except that his ambivalent minister found a vital social gospel
contemporary social scene and by mverting thc traditional moral roles of mcn and among thc urban poor who lived on the margins of his upper-class parish. With his
women. In his popular Barriers Burned Away (1872) the heroine, initially' a high-living ncwfound strength, Churchill's John Hodder is able to confront his wealthy congrega-
wealthy yOllng lady, was eventually converted to virtue and purity by her love for the tion with their selfishness and materialism while winning the lovc of the rebellious
noblc young hcro. This happy event was brought abollt by the great conAagration of daughter of the city's wealthiest capitalist. In the social melodramas of the early
the Chicago fire. twcntieth century, the traditional plot of the embattled virgin and the lascivious sc-
A second major development was the emergence of new forms of melodramatic ducer was typically replaced by the story of Ihe young man or woman who recognizes
action, and of new ways of treating society. Most important, social change and up- Ihe failure of success and seeks a higher idcal than material wealth and powcr. The
heaval bccame a primary background for melodramatic action. The earlier melo- aristocratic seducer was transformcd into the figure of the selfish capitalist or the
drama, howevcr much it may have advocated some kiod of social reform such as the corrupt political hoss who seeks to persuade the protagonist to give up the quest for a
abolition of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin, tended to portray society within the story as more humanc religion and a higher conccpt of servicc to suffcring mankind. The
static. IndIviduals rose and fell, but society went on in much the same way. This is true cxtent to which the novels of Wright and Churchill remained within the orbit of
of thc earlier novels of Dickens as it is of mid-nineteenth-ccntury American social melodrama is evident by comparison with such eontcmporaries as Stephen Crane,
melodramas likc those of Mrs. Southworth. For Dickens, a growing sense of social Frank lorris, and Theodore Dreiser, in whose works there is no possible resolution
upheaval meant that his later novels would become Icss melodramatic, and increas- between the traditions of Christianity and the new naturalistic determinism. Even
ingly dominated hy a dark sense of SOCIal chaos. Later melodramatists conccrned with William Dean Howells, close as he sometimes comes to social melodrama in his
social changc developed stories in which the protagonist was morally regencrated hy a attempts to balance an increasingly critical view of contemporary society with a duc
new and better understanding of what was happening to society. By the end of the representation of "the smiling aspect ofHfe," cannot bring himself to the melodramatic
nineteenth century, this had become one of the standard patterns of social melodrama. reaffirmation of a bcnevolent moral order. For example, his novel The Minister's
The protagonist, faced with a rapidly changing society, finds his traditional religious Charge (1887) deals like Wright's Shepherd of Ihe Hills and Churchill's The Inside of
and moral orthodoxy inadequate and finally wins through to a better relationship to the the Cup with a minister's attempt to revitalize his faith by a concern for human
world around him. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social melodramas suffering in the midst of social change, but ends up in a much more ambiguous sense
are full of ministers who are convcrted from a narrow orthodoxy to a new and more of genteel futility. One might also compare Howells's A Hazard of elV Fortunes
humane social gospel, capitalists who recognize the narTOW materiallsm of their goals (1890) with Wright's Winning of Barbara Worth (1911) as stories about the failure of
and discovcr a new fullness of spirit in service to mankind, of tired and jaded aristocrats capitalistic selfishness. Where Howells's Dryfoos comes to recognize an irreconcilable
42 John G. Gawelti The Emlution ofSacial Melodrama

conflict between the power of wealth and his human needs, Wright's Jefferson Worth Basin in Arizona. Her high jinks and flirtations nearly lead to tragedy until she falls
establishes a higher harmony between the service of God and Mammon in the gospel deeply in love with a young westerner and changes her attitudes toward life. Yet her
of the social ministry of capital. original wildness is only sublimated into a new and more proper form, for in the
Just as the melodramatists of the early twentieth ccntury found ways of dTilmatizing novel's climactic scene this regencrated flapper faces down the villam and so shames
the harmony betwcen social change and Christian tradition in a vision of Christian him that he is forced to leave the territory. In general, the melodramatic heroine of the
progressivism, they also worked out new patterns for resolving the tensions crcatcd by early twentieth century was clearly evolving in the direction of what would become a
changing conceptions of the feminine character and of relations between thc sexes. In favorite feminine stereotype in the novels and films of the thirties and forties: what has
place of the traditional melodramatic inc~rnation of feminine purity and submissive- been labeled the "good-had girl," a heroine who appears at the beginning of the story to
ness, the social mclodram~tists of the later nineteenth century gradually evolved a be wild and even immoral but who is eventually revealed to be a truly chaste and
morally sympathetic portrait of thc new woman. While the divorcee, the promiscuous. loving woman.
and the prostitute remained beyond the pale and werc still usually allocated an unfortu- In addition to its emphasis on social change, a new heroine, and the regeneration of
nate fate, they wcre often treated with conSIderable sympathy and understanding and traditional values, the early twentieth-century social melodrama explored a variety of
sometimes were even allowed to takc a role as secondary heroine until their tragic fate new subjects, the most important of which were various forms of sensational crime and
caught up with them. The official heroine, though still usually characterizcd by sexual scandals, particularly among the upper classes, as well as the material that had been
purity, gradually lost much of her submissiveness ~nd was even granted a certain made available through the evolution of the western formula. Wister, Emerson
dcgree of wildness. One of the most popular heroines of the early twentieth ccntury, Hough, and Zane Grey made a great success out of the western formula in the early
Wright's Barbara Worth, was a vigorous horsewoman and the companion of rugged twentieth century by givmg it some important elements of social melodrama such as
cowboys and railroad workers. Much of the drama of her romance with the upper-class the multiple plot, the complex analysis of society, and an elaborate treatment of the
eastcrn cngineer Willard Holmcs derived from the conflict betwccn his love for hcr romance between hero and heroine, qualities that were not an indispensable part of
and his fceling that she was not quite respectable enough to bring home to his snobbish the western formula but, in this period, helped writers like Wright and Crey to achieve
family, a conflict that was easily overcome when he rccognized her truc purity and best-seller status. The melodramatic vision of the early twentieth century with its
moral worth as well as hcr vigor and courage. Winston Churchill went cven further in concern for the regeneration of traditions in the midst of a changing conception of
the treatment of independent and self-rehant heroines. Some of his leadmg women society and sexuality was made to order for the western setting. Here it seemed appropri-
were in their early thirties and had already achieved a degree of professional accom- ate that the heroine should be a more vigorous and openly aggressive type than the
plishment before they met and fell in love with their future husbands. traditional heroine. Similarly, the portrayal of a jaded, overly genteel easterner revital-
Despite the greater vigor and force of thc new melodramatic heroine and an ized into true manliness (or womanliness) by an encounter with the simpler and more
increasing physicality and sensuality in her makeup, the social mclodramatists of the "natural" society of the West was one effective way of dramatizing the theme of
early twentieth ccntury strove mightily to balance these new feminine qu~lities with a regeneration.
residue of the purity and gentility so important to the traditional feminine ideal. In To sum up, the prevailing formula of social melodrama in the late nineteenth and
Shepherd of the Hills, Wright drew a much-loved portrait of Sammy Lane, the wild early twentieth centuries was hased on the representation of social and moral regenera-
mountain girl, who. underncath her primitive and passionate exterior, has a dcep tion. Whether fairly conservative and orthodox in inelination like Harold Bell Wright
desire to be a cultivated Christian lady. Before her marriage she achieves this goal or liberal like Winston Churchill, the social melodramatists portrayed a society that
under the Shepherd's tutelage. Even the frce and easy Barb~ra Worth has a fundamen- had moved from the proper course and needed to rediscover what was most important
tal substructure of instinctive femininc modesty. Her first meeting with the man she about life. In this society rcligion had become a sterile orthodoxy. The leading citizens
wdl eventually marry goes like this: had lost their humanity in the pursuit of wealth and power. Yet. underneath it all,
there was an evolutionary force working to bring about a truer spirituality and a more
It was no Aimsy, two-fingered ceremony, but ~ whole-hearted, whole-handed
direct and loving relationship between people. Those who discovered and aligned
grip that made the man's hlood move more quickly. Unconsciously, as he felt
the warm strength in the touch of the girl's hand. he leaned towards her with themselves with this deeper force were sure to become spiritually regenerated and find
quiek cagerness. And Barbara, who was looking straight into his face with the happiness. As a dramatization of cultural ideologies, this formula can be interpreted as
open frankness of one rnan to another, started and drew back a little, turning her a way of resolving the conflict between social and religious traditions and the new
heael aside. II intellectual and social currents of the later nineteenth century. The social mclodramas
of Wright, Churchill, and many of their contemporaries were expressions in fictional
Zane Grey, who would carry the early twentieth-century tradition of social melodrama form of some of the same Impulses hehind the more popular forms of the social gospel
forward into the twenties and thirties, elaborated still further on this combination of and the moralistic aspects of Progressive reformism. Indeed, the same emphasis on the
wildness and femininity in his heromes. for example, in his Code of the West (1934) rediscovery and revitalization of Christian ideals that we find in the social melodramas
the heroine is a flapper from the East who IS visiting her married sister in the Tonto of this period is also central in the enormously popular religious best-scller of 1897,
I '·~I .... '-\....~'-,r,;, Jf '\'JOC/~l ~£F:

fohn C Cawelll The Evolution o{Social Melodrama

Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, which told the story of a group of people who sought to on the human level tbat can offer the same sClISe of ultimate significancc as the
transcend the sterility and Iwpocrisy of the traditional Christian orthodoxies by apply- conceptio7J'ofCod's providence gavc to earlicr generations. One of the most intereshng
ing basic Christian principles to modern social life. This was essentially the moral . rccent social melodramas, Irving Wallace's The Word (1972). offered a fairly complex
viSIon of the leading social melodramatists of the early nineteenth century: the affirma- exploration of the meaning of religion in thc modern world by confronting a representa-
tion of a new and VItal social Christianity based on tile spirit of love and'service rather tive group of modern men and women with a ncw gospel supposedly written by a
than on submiSSIon to God's will. The new vision also attempted to resolve increasing brother of Christ. Some choose only to exploit the new gospcl as a highly profitable
anxieties and ambigUIties about the moral natllfe and proper social role of women by publishing enterprise, but many people's livcs are transformed by the way in which the
creating an active and even aggressive heroine who discovered her rightful place In ~ new gospel seemingly substantiates both the historicity and tbc divinity of Christ. The
passionate and deep attachment to a morally revitalized and loving man. protagonist encounters inconsistencies and anachronisms tbat lead him to a bitter old
10 discuss the complex developments of social melodrama in the twentieth century man who claims to have forged the document for revenge upon the church. Mysteri-
evcn in the most general tcrms is beyond l11y present intention. Instead, to complete ously, the old man dies in an accident-possibly murdered by the publishing syndicatc
this tentative analysis of the changing formulas of social melodrama, I will consider the to protect their profits-before he can give the protagonist definitive proofs of the
social melodramas of a group of writcrs who have dominated the best-seller lists since forgery. The protagonist, a successful but frustrated public relations man who has been
the mid-I960s: Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins. Arthur Hailey, and Jacqueline Su- commissioned to direct the publicity for the new gospel, must finally decide whether to
sann. These writers are clearly in the tradition of social melodrama, since they typi- seek the truth about the forgery or to accept the fact that belief in the new gospel--even
cally combine a detailed and often critical analysis of contemporary society with a if false-has benefited many people. That he chooses in the end to commit himself to
melodramatic plot full of surprise and suspense that brings a group of characters the hard road of truth is'a sign both of his personal regeneration and of the ultimate
through a series of trials and tribulations to their appropriate rcwards. Indeed. the inadequacy of unquestioning religious faith as a basic principle of moral order.
continuity betwcen these writers and such earlier social melodramatists as Winston The Word has an unusual philosphical depth and articulateness as well as a compel-
Churchill and even Charles Dickens goes beyond the general synthesis of social real- ling melodramatic plot. It may be Wallace's best work to the present time and thc
iSTJI and melodramatic action to spccific types of melodramatic plot. Jacqueline Su- olltstanding example of contemporarv social melodrama. Thc novel illustrates the
sann's most recent novel Once ls Not Enough (1973) is a classic tragic melodrama in quest for order that dominates the contemporary formula: a search for transcendent
modern drcss whcre a heroine is "seduced" (i.e., unable to make a proper sexual significance in a secular, naturalistic age when religious faith has lost its powcr to
adJustment bccause of a pervcrse love for her father) and goes to a lingering degrada- inspire a basic belief in the benevolencc of the world order and has come to seem only
tion and death, a mid-twentieth-century Charlotte Temple or Clarissa Harlowe. Irving a complex psychological phenomenon. In order to fulfill the archetype of melodrama
Wallacc specializes in the regencration plot in which a hero is revitalized by new moral with its basic affirmation of moral significance and order in the universc. thc contempo-
discovcries. Harold Robbins tends to writc stories of the failure of success. His central rary social melodramatist has had to turn to other sources of transcendence. The most
charactcrs pursue the phantoms of wealth and power only to discover that true fulfill- important area he looks to is that of hllman relations and scxuality.
ment can only come through lovc, loyalty, and compassion. Arthur Hailey usually 11 has been often observed of the writings of Wallace. Robbins. Susann, et a!., that
combines a number of these hasic melodramatic plots in multiple subplots growing out Moruo:;,flm'l they cxcmplify a contemporary obscssion with sexuality, and this IS true. Sexual rela-
of the various characters involved in the institutions his novels center upon: a hotel, an f'6 PRl Cf tionships of all sorts constitute the primary lIarrativc intcrest in their works to the
airport. a large antomobile corporation. nit degrcr-ttratnne is partly constrained to agree with the critics who see such novels as The
DespIte these formulaic continuities, the social melodrama of thc 1960s depends COM~MP Love Machine (1969), The Carpethagger.; (1961), and The Seven MillUtes (1969) as
upon a very diffcrcot conception of the moral universe than its early twentieth-century r'V1(LODr-r,m
elaborate exercises in soft-core pornographv.. 11 Certainl)', there is a connection betwcen
predecessors. First of all, the religious concerns so prominent in earlier periods are the emphasis on sexuality in these contemporary social melodramas and the Aourish-
almost totally absent from the contemporary best-selling blockbuster. Nejther tbe \"''--'orv\ ing in the sixties and seventies of many different kinds of pornography. Yet there is a
traclitional vision or God's proyidenee nm the early twentietb ceat'lry's s~nse...uf..hijr­ ~ great difference betwcen a straight work of pornography with its primary purpose of
mony between the evolution ofsoeiety "od the manifestation ofG,ld's will is cmbodi~d sexual cxcitement and the novels of Wallace. Susann, Robbins, and Hailey where
io the curreot formnlas. Gorl seems to have bcen largely banished from the world of sexuality is part of a larger moral context. The cQntempQrary sQciaL!Ild.o!lJil.!.l1<1ti.s.t.
Rpbbllls Wallace and tbeir colleagues. This does not mean that these writers have no seek tQ integr.i!~ new ideas of scxualliber!!tiopwitiJ tra.9i!ionjlL~9!.'.~PJi.'?.!!s. of !.o.f.!1_a_r1.!.i~
conception of a moral order. Melodrama would be impossible without some vision of love and Illonog<:!rny. Th0.Q.g)j Qf a f,illJilliliatisfyiQg..S£lilllIl!.tLba..Kd_QI.1...1.. deeJl..and
poetic justice shaping the developmeot of tbe story Bul flU the contemporarv melodra- lasting romantic relationship is one moral­
matist the assumptioo that faith in God is tbe ultimate tcst of virtue and the means by sian. Those charactcrs who seck and achieve this kind of expcrience are contemporary
which worldlv problems can be rcsolved is no longcr tcoahle. Indeed, the central analogues of the pure young women ancl virtuons hcroes who found happiness in
problem that these writers dramatiz.c flvcr aud over again is wbether modc;~- s~c~iar Christian piety and faith. But who exploit seKnalilx-aLiL.lJ.lli!illJQ,.P-Q\l::!:r~,}yhQ.
man is doomcd to a life without transcendcnt meaning or whether there is something dCU¥--.5=aUulfilllllc.nUo...o.thC:J.s...J)LlY.11Q.]'ljUQJ.lrulG.r~ta.D.~Uh~J!£.<;;c~Si! .f.}:.ldillioJlship
46 fohn C. Cawelll The Evolution of Social Melodrama 47
between sex and love are doomed tQ failull: as contemporary incarnations of the Wright aDd Winston Churchill withQut the latter's attempt to integratc the DCW ideals
i fO-pw:cbl:Lui Ilc_wb.Q..,YiJ:J.d,uo-.S.l:dl)s.tixeJffil.P.ta tLO.IUll..ei.I!!el Qdr?.D!;I!i.<;. v·ll<uJls. J11, th is with a rcvitalized seDse of rcligiQus meaning. But from anQther point Qf vicw the DovelS
mQral uDivcrse PIltib'-rrlily be a fQrm of repressiQD, but promiscuity is :;till..tile_PJim- Qf RobbiDs, Wallace, and Susann migbt be secn as melQdramatic traDsformatloDs of
mse....pathJQ...unhappiness The tntly virtu.Ql\Llrc thQse who, like the herQj!l.!...9.lThe the naturalistic muckraking nQvel. as attcmpls to domcsticate or cQnveDtionalizc the
Seven Minllle.u:ea.liz.cJhat.h.appinessJiesiJJ..iUYDthesis Qf fu.!J~~!!.1y_~!l-d...d.e£P 19ve. naturalistic vicw of social, economic, and scxual detcrmiDisrn by leaviDg out its pcssi-
ThQSC whQ fail to fiDd the fullness Qf humaD IQVC aDeI sexuality either because they are mistic viSIOn and its tcndeDcy toward a radical critique Qf the incquities and contradic-
repressed Qr because they seek fQr false goals like famc, wealth, aDeI powcr are OD their tions of "the system." ID general, thc contemporary social melodrama ,mives at its
way tQ "The Valley of thc Dolls." visioD of a meaniDgful moral order by resolving thc cQnAict betwccn secular natural-
.-~ The UDIQD of romaDtic IQVC aDd scxuality is ODe SQurce Qf transccDdeDt mQral ism and thc traditiQnal faith iD transccudcDt verities by dramatiziDg thc process
~alJt t ....... -'i....'
- oreler in the contcmporary social melodrama. The othcr is a conccpt Qf truc success through which protagQDists arrive at rcgeDeration aDd happiness by discQvcring ulli-
eX' , aDd iDtegrity set against the evils Qf the unrcstrained pursuit of wcalth and power in matc significancc in a totally fulfilliDg love aDd a true ideal of success, bQth of which
thc glamorQUS and cxcitiDg WQrld Qf mQdern busiDcss, advcrtisiDg, aDd the media. arc viewcd as possiblc dcspite thc disordcr, uDhappincss, aDd cQrruptlQn Qf modern
The novels of Wallacc, RohbiDs, Hailey, aDd SusaDD teem with men and wQmcn American sQciety. Becausc writcrs like Wallacc, Robbins, Susann, aDd Hailey can
who havc achievcd a brilliaDt success iD glamorous careers but have DQt fQUDd that provide this assurance and rcaffirm this ultimate sense of mQral order and significance
their accQmplishmeDt is cither morally satisfying or rcspQnsivc to their rcal humaD iD thc context of what appears to bc a realistic portrayal of society with all its iDjustices
needs. RoblD Stonc, the hero Qf Susann's The Love Machine, rises to the top of the aDd frustratioDs, its glittcring temptatiollS and overwhelming cQDsteliatlons Qf wealth,
telcvision industry and has innumerable casual affairs, but he does Dot find happiness pQwer, aDd cQrruptioD, thcy have been ablc to hold the high but probably cphemeral
until he givcs up his pQsition of power tQ bccQme a writer and acccpts his nced for a place Qn the best-seller lists that effcctive sQcial melQdramatists havc becD able tQ
womaD whQ truly IQVCS him. EsseDtially the same thing is true of the herQes of command since thc begiDDiDg Qf thc nincteeDth century.
RQbbins's The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers. The lawyer protagQnist Qf Wal- LQQkiDg back Qver thc eVQlutiQD Qf the best-selling sQcial melodrama, it appcars
lace's The Seven Minutes is temptcd by thc Qffer Qf a lucrativc cQrporate lcgal PQst that the type gradually shifts its fQrmulas as cach gCDeratioD seeks its Qwn means of
aDd the empty aDd reprcssive scxual beauty Qf the tycQQn's daughtcr, but his CQura- resolving the teDsion between changiDg perceptiQns Qf the sQcial sccnc and the moral
gCQUS defcDse Qf a CQDtrovcrsial erotic DQvel makes him rcalize that he is on thc path ideals that define what is right aDd sigDificant in Iifc. Thus, iD thc mid-ninetcenth
to dcgradatiQD: ceDtury the formula of sQcial melQdrama dramatized the operation of CQd's provi-
dCDcc as the primary means through which thc virtuous found happiness and the evil
fQr Barrctt [thc nQvel] had exposed tQ him thc ugly truth that iD Ithe tyCOOD'S
were pUDished. By the begiDniDg Qf the tweDtieth ceDtury, a ncw fQrmula of sQcial
daughter] he had sought nQt love but success, aDd the uglicr truth that his gQals
iD life were empty aDd that by achievi'lg them he would fiDd nothiDg that could melodrama had developed emphasizing the protagoDist's discQvery of a rcvitalizcd
sustaiD a lifetimc of rcmaining years. I, ChristiaDity that CQuld enCQmpass the drastic sQcial changes threateDiDg thc religiQll$
and mQral traditiQD. Finally. in the mid-twcDticth ceDtury, thc prevailing formula of
Truc success, as oppQscd to the pursuit of wealth aDd power for their OWD sake, is sQcial melQdrama has turned away from religiQD tQ scck fQr othcr meaDs of affirmiDg
marked by personal iDtegrity, satisfyiDg humaD relationships, aDd the opportuDity to bc traDscendent moral truths iD a secular. Daturalistic world.
Qf scrvice to Qthers. It alsQ usually iDvQlves a fulfilliDg romantic sexual relatiQnship Despite these cQDsiderablc chaDges in thc fQrmulas of social melodrama, there arc
with a IQviDg partDer. In the WQrld Qf the cODtempQrary social melodrama, those whQ certaiD basic cODtiDuities Qf theme aDd structurc such as the cmphasis Qn romantic
come tQ realizc the mcaDing of true succcss and seek wholeheartedly usually become lovc as an ultimate valuc, the dcfcnse of mODQgamQUS, family-oriented relatiQDships
rcgeDerated aDd their lives take OD a new sigDificaDce and meaning. The cCDtral betweeD meD aDd womeD, aDd the attcmpt tQ defiDc true aDd false cQnceptioDs of
aDtagoDist, cODtempQrary analogue to thc traditiQDal mclodramatic villain, is usually success aDd status. Thcse themcs, which secm to prevail through the whole period of
Dot a person but thc soulless mQdcrn cQrporatiQD that seduces tbe protagQDist with falsc thc ninetceDth aDd twcntieth ceDtury, suggest, I think, that social melodrama is primar-
ambitioDs aDd then turns him iDtQ aD ulcer-riddcD manipulator without the capacity ily a gcnrc Qf thc well-cstablished middlc class for whQm these particular valucs arc of
for human feeling, uDtil he has thc gQod fortuDe to realize tbe errQr Qf his ways aDd mQst importancc. If this speculatiQn is corrcct. thcD the csseDtial sQcial-psycholQgical
turn toward a true ideal Qf success. NQ dQubt the public fQr the CQDtcmpQrary melQ- dYDamic of sQcial melQdrama is QDe of CQDtiDually iDtegrating ncw sQcial circum-
drama takes somc pleasure in vicariQus participatiQn in thc protagQDist's wheeling and stances and ideas tQ the dcvelQping middlc-class seDse of social valuc. Perhaps, thcD,
dealing, but it has thc additioDal satisfactiQD Qf discoveriDg that QDly by a return tQ thc the social melodrama has beeD QDe Qf the meaDS by which thc American aDd EDgllsh
basic humaD values Qf rQmaDtic IQve aDd true success that are available tQ everyQne middle e1asscs have SQ succcssfully adjustcd thcmselves to the drastic sQcial aDd cul-
can the prQtagQDist fiDally gaiD happincss. tural changes of the last ccntury and a half. If so, it will be iDterestiDg tQ see how thc
ID many ways this CQDtemporary parablc of regeneratioD is similar to the quest fQr a formulas of sQcial melodrama evolve to cODfroDt the cnormous changes that will facc
Dew sense of morality in the early tweDtieth-ceDtury social melQdramas Qf Harold Bell our society in the future.
4R fohn G. Cmvel/l The EvolutIOn of Social Melodrama 49

novels of the later nineteenth ecntury. Ilclcn Papashvily. All the HafJ/lY Endings (New York:
lIarper. 1956). suggests that women enjoyed such stories because they were essentiallv
fantaSIes of femllline heroism and even eonqnest Within the still respectable framework ,;f
Notes domesticity.
11. Harold Bcll Wright, The Winning of Ilarbara Worth (Chicago: Book Supply Co .. 191 I), p.
12. See Ihe discussion of Harold Robbllls as sofl-eore pornographer 10 Peter Michelsen. The
I. David Crimsted. Melodrama Um-eiled: American Theater and Culture, JROO-IRSO (Chi- Aesthetics of Pornography (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), chap. 2
cago: Univcrsity of Chicago Press, 1(68), p. 176. 13. Irvmg Wallace. The Seven Minutes (New York: Simon and Sehnster. 1969). pp. 244-45
Mrs. E I), E. N Southworlh, The Curse o(Clifton (New York: AMS Prc'S, 1970), p 465.
This novel was first published in 1852.
3. Henry Nash Smith, "The Scribbling Women and the Cosmic Success Story," Critical In·
quiry. I, no. I (September 1974): 51.
4. Herberl R. Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America. 1769-1860 (Durham. N.C.: Duke
UniverSlty Press, 1940). pp, 170-71.
5. This may be a major reason for the perenmal popularity of the Clarissa Harlowe-Charlotte
Temple type of tragic melodrama, which extends down to such prescnt-day best-sellers as
Susann's Once Is Not Enough, a modern version of this formula, The tragic melodrama plot
type allows a sympathetic and spicy portrayal of sin without disrupting the vision of Ihe moral
order. since Ihe sin is lovingly and sado-masoehisllcally punished at great lenglh.
6. There seems no need for me to comment on Dickens as thc founding falher of social
mclodmma. since his works arc so well known and have been subjected 10 such a variety of
critical analysis. Of course, in saying Ihat Dickens was the first great master of social melo-
dr,1ma I am not saying that he did not also Iranseend the formula in many if uot all of hiS
works. To understand Dickens as social melodramatist is particularly useful in graspmg the
force for his eontcmporary readers of certain aspects of his work Ihal twenlieth-century taste
tends to find dated or cloying. For instance. it IS noteworthy that nineteenth-century readers
were. on the whole, most enthusiastic ahout thc earlier novels where melodramalie elements
and resolullons playa much more dominant part, while more rceenl readers tend 10 approve
morc highly of later works like Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend wherc an increasingly
bleak and critical view of society overpowers Ihe melodramatic viSIon. Bleak House" perhaps
a turning point in this development. In one sense we nught say that melodrama and SOCial
criticism arc perfectly balanced in that novel and thai the two arc cneapsulated in the double
narrative structure (i. c., the portions told hy the anonymous narrator and the narrative of
Esther Summerson). But the fact that the Iwo visions arc thus almost detached from each
other In Ihis structure indieatcs perhaps the extent to which Dickens is having mOre and more
difficulty in holding them logelher in his work. Dickens himself was apparently aware of the
degree 10 which his darker and more critical viSion of society and his declining ability to
qualify this with an effeellve sense of the benevolent order of melodrama were beginning 10
alienate his audience. That hc lurned al Ihe last to experiment with thc new structures of the
sensation melodrama in the unhnished Edwin Drood suggests his sC<lTch for a new principle
of melodrama that might be more in harmon v with his bleakcr vicw of sociely. Sec the
brilliantly suggcstive treatment of this issue in Randolph Ivv, "The Victorian Sensation Novel
r\ Study m Forllluia Fielion," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago. 1974.
7. Smith commenls insightfully on Ihe prcvalence of this theme, pp. 5j~66.
8. Winston Churchill. Tlw Inside of the Cup (New York: Macmillan. 1913), p 1
9. Ibid.. p. 2.
10. Dec Carrison. in a forthcoming article that I had the good fortune to sec in mannsenpt.
"Immoral Fiction in the Gilded Age Library," presents a detailed analysis of the emergence or
the aggressive female and her defeat of the formerly dominanl male in the melodramatic

,..- Bj:;··~.
. ,-...
\, IOI'D'"
\ \lNiV /
The Melodramatic Imagination 5/

The gestures of life call forth a series of interrogations aimed at discovering the
meanings implicit in them. The narrative voice is not content to describe and record
gestllTe, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather,
the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the
evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield mean 109, to make it
give up to consciousness its full potential as "parable. h

Throughout these opening pages of La Peau de chagrin, we can observe the narra-
tor pressuring the surface of reality (the surface of his text) in order to make it yield the
full, true terms of his story. In the face of the old man who takes the hat, we are told we
can read "the wretchedncss of hospital wards, aimless wanderings of mined men,
inquests on countless suicides, life sentences at hard labor, exiles to penal colonies. h

The Melodramatic Imagination The gambling house itself elicits a contrast betwcen the "vulgar poetry" of its evening
denizens and the "quivering passion" of daytime gamblers. The crowd of spectators is
like the populace awaiting an execution at the Place de Greve. Finally we reach this
PETER BROOKS judgment: "Each of the spectators looked for a drama in the fate of this single gold
pIece, perhaps the final scene of a noble life" (9: 17).
Use of the word drama is authorized here precisely by the kind of pressure which
the narrator has exerted upon the surface of things. We have in fact been witnesses to
Qu'on n'aille pas s'y tromper, ce n'elait pas peu de
chose que Ie mClodrame: e'Nait la moralite de la Revo· the creation of drama-an exciting, excessive, parabolic story-from the banal stuff of
lution! reality. States of being beyond the immediate context of the narratIve, and in excess of
-Charles Nodier it, have been brought to bear on it. to charge it with intenser significances. The
narrative voice, with its grandiose questIons and hypotheses, leads us in a movement
through and beyond the sllTfaee of things to what lies behind, to the spiritual reality
which is the true scene of the highly colored drama to be played out in the novel. We
Overture have entered into the drama of Raphael's last gold piece; that coin has become the
token of a superdrama involving life and death, perdition and redemption, heaven and
There is at the start of Balzac's first major novel, La ['eau de chagrin, hell, the force of desire caught in a death struggle with the life force. The novel is
a passage that indicates how we should read Balzac, how he locates and creates his constantly tensed to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to
drama, and, more generally, how the melodramatic imagination conceives its represen- the tmcr, hidden reality, to open up the world of spirit.
tations. When Raphael de Valentin enters a gambling house to play roulette with his One could adduce a multitude of other examples. 1here is always a moment in
last franc, a shadowy figllTe crouched behind a counter rises up to ask for the young Balzac's descriptions of the world where the eye's photographic registration of objects
man's hat. The gesture of surrendering one's hat forthwith elicits a series of questions yields to the mind's effort to pIerce surface, to interrogate appearances. In Le Pere
from the narrator: Coriot, after a few initial lines of description of Mile Miehonneau. the narrator shifts
into the interrogatory: "What acid had stripped this ereatllTe of her female forms~ She
Is this some scriptural and providential parable? Isn't it rather a way of eonelud- must once have been pretty and well-built: was it vice, sorrow, greed? Had she loved
ing a diabolical contract by exacting from you a sort of security? Or may it he to
too much, been a go-between, or simply a courtesan? "Vas she expiating the triumphs
oblige you to maintain a respectful demeanour toward those who are about to
win your money? Is it the police, lurking iu the sewers of society, trying to find of an insolent youth'" (2:855). Reality is for Balzac both the scene of drama and mask
out your hatter's name, or your own, if you've inscribed it on the headband? Or of the true drama that lics behind, is mysterious, and can only be alluded to, ques-
is it. finally, to measure your skull in order to compile an instructive statistic on tioned, then gradually elucidated. His drama is of the true, wrested from the real; the
the cranial capacity of gamblers~1 streets and walls of Paris, under ·pressure of the narrator's insistence, become the
elements of a Dantesque vision, leading the reader into infernal circles: "as, step by
step, daylight fades, and the song of the guide goes hollow when the visitor descends
into the catacombs" (2:848).
The same process may be observed in Balzac's dramatizations of human encoun-
Peter Brooks. "The Mclodramallc ImaginalJon." from The MelodramatIC ImaginatIOn: Balzac, ters. They tend toward intense, excessive representations of life which strip the facade
Henry lames. Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New York: Columbia University Prc~<,
of manners to reveal the essential conAiets at work-moments of symbolic confronta-
1985). Rcprll1ted hy pcrmlSSlon of the author.

52 Peler Brooh The rVJelodramatic Imaginatioll 53

tion which fully articulate the terms of the drama. In Gobseck, for instance, the and utter the unspeakable. give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatize through their
sinning Comtesse de Restaud. struggling to preserve an inheritance for her two illegiti- heightened and polarized words and gestures the whole lesson of their relationship.
mate children. is caught in the act of trying to extort her husband's secrets from the
oldest son (the legitimate child) when the eomte rises from his deathbed: r They assume primary psychic roles, father. mother, child, and express basic psychic
. conditions. Life tends. in this fiction, toward ever more concentrated and totally
expressive gestures and srdtelHents. Raphael de Valentin is given a lesson by the old
"Ah'" cried the eomte, who had opened the door and appeared suddenly, almost
naked, already as dried and shriveled as a skeleton.. . "You watered my life antiques dealer: "Desire sets us afire, and power destroys us"-terms which reveal the
with sorrows. and now you would trouble my death. pervert the mind of my true locus and the stakes of his drama. Eugene de Rastignac, in Le Pere Corio/. IS
own son, turn him into a vicious person," he cried III a rasping voice. summoned to choose between Obedience, represented by the family. and Revolt,
The comtesse threw hcrself at the feet of tillS dying man, whom the last represented by the outlaw Vautrin. The metaphoric texture of the prose itself suggests
emotions of life made almost hideous, and pol\[ed out her tears. "Pardon, polarization into moml absolutes: Rastignae's "last tear of youth," shed over Goriot's
pardon'" she cried. grave. from the earth where it falls "rebounds into heaven." The world is subsumed bY1
"Had you any pitv for me?" he asked. "I let you deVOl\[ your fortune. now an nnderlying maniehaeism, and the narrative creates the excitement of its drama by \
vou want to devour mine and ruin my son."
"All right, yes, no pity for me, he inflexible," she said. "But the children!
putting us in touch with the conflict of good and evil played out under the surface of I
things-just as description of the surfaces of the modern metropolis pierces through to
Condemn ynur wife to live in a convent. I will obey; to expiate Illy faults toward
a mythological realm where the imagination can find a habitat for its play with large
you I will do all you command: but let the children li\'e happily! Oh, the
children, the children'" moral entities. If we consider the prevalence of hidden relationships and masked
"\ have eml" one child," answered the eomte, stretching his shriveled arm personages and occult pow~rs in Balzac. we find that they derive from a sense that the
toward his son iu a gesture of despair. 12:6651 novelist's true subject is hidden and masked. The site of his drama, the ontology of IllS
true subject. is not easily established: the narrative must push toward it, the pressure of
I have deliberately chosen an extreme example here. and in quoling it out of its the prose must uncover it. We might sav that the center of interest and the scene of the
context, I run the risk of simply confirming the view, popularized by Martin lurncll underlying drama reside within what we could call the "moral occult." the domain of
and others, that Balzac 15 a vulgar melodramatist whose versions of life are cheap, operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of
overwrought, and hollow.'s usc of hyperbolic figures, lurid and grandlose,- reality. The moral occult is not a metaphysical system: it is rather the repository of the
events, masked relationships and disguised identities, abductions, slow-acting poisons, fragmentary and desaeralized remnants of sacred myth. It bears comparison to uncon-
secret societies. mysterious parentage, and other clements from the melodramatic: scious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions
repertory has repcatedly been the object of critical attack. as have, still more, h'is lie, a realm ,vhieh in quotidian existence may appear elosed off from us, but which we
forcing of narrative voice to the breathless pitch of melodrama, his insistence that life mmt accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value. The melodramatic mode in
be seen always through highly colored lenses. "His melodrama," Turnell comments, large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult.
"reminds us not so much of Simenon or even Mrs. Christie as of the daily serial in the We shall return to these summary formulations. It is important first to extend our
BHC's Light Programme." In his most waspish SeTII/iny manner. Turnell 'Idds, "It understanding of the kind of representation of social life offered by melodrama of
must be confessed that our experience in reading Balzac is not always very e1e\'ated and manners, and to extend the demonstration beyond by calling npon his greatest
that his interests arc by no means those of the adult. ,,2 admirer among subsequent novelists, Henry James. The melodramatic tenor of James's
'j,) the extent that the "interests of the adull" imply repression, sacrifice of the
imagination was beautifully caught by his secretary, Theodora Bosanquet:
pleasure principle, and a refnsal to live beyond the ordinar}', 'Tinnell is right, but his
terms of jndgment blind him to Balzac's characteristic drive to push through manners i When he walked out of the refuge of his study into the world and looked about
him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their
to deeper sources of being. Such represelltations as the scene I quoted from Cobseek
elaws into the quivering flesh of the doomed. defenseless children of light 1
arc necessary culminalions to the kind of drama Balzac is trying to evoke. The progress
of the n,lrrat,,'e elicits and authorizes such terminal articulations. The scene represents James's moral maniehaeislll is the basis of a vision of the social world as the scene of
'1 vlclory over repression, a climactic momcnt at which the characters are able to dramatic choice between heightened moral alternatives, where everv gesture, however
confront one another \nth full expressi"it)', to fix in large gestures the meaning of their frivolous or insignificant it may seem, is charged with the conflict between light and
relations and existence. As in the interrogations of La Peall de chagrin we saw a desire darkness. salvation and damnation, and where people's destinies and choices of life
to push through surface to a "drama" in the realm of emotional and spnilld reality, so seem finally to have little to do with the surface realities of a situation, and much more
m the scene from Coh.leek we find a desire to make starkly articulate all that this family to do with an intense inner drama in which consciousness must purge itself and
conflict has come to be about. assume the burden of moral sainthood. The theme of r~nuneiation which sounds
The desire to express all seems a fundamental charaetenstic of the melodramatic ~. through James's novels-Isabel Archer's return to Gilbert Osmond, Strether's return to
mode. Nothing is spared because nothing is Icft unsaid: the characters st,md on stage I Woollett, Densher's rejection of Kate Cray-is incomprehensible and unjustifiable
54 Peter Brooks The Melodramatic ImaglllallOll 55
except as a victory within the realm of a moral occult which may be so inward and Paris sinister implications of impending disaster and chaos, and pervades the final
pcrsonal that it appears restricted to the individual's consciousness, predicated on the encounter of Stlether and Mme de Vionnet with "the smell of blood," Their relation
individual's "sacrifice to the ideal." has all along been based on Strether's "exOlbitant" commitment to "save her" if he
As jacqucs Ilarzun has emphasized, james always creates a high degree of excite- could. Here, the evocation of bloody sacrifice, elieiting a state of moml exorbitancc,
ment from his dramatized moral dilemmas, partly because of his preoccupation with aothorizes the intensity of the encounter, whcre Strether sees Mme de Vionnet as
evil as a positive force ever menacing violent conAict and outburst' Balzac did an resembling Mme Roland on the scaffold, and where he moves to his most penetrating
apprenticeship in the roman noir, nourished himself with Gothic novel melodrama viSIOn of the realm of moral fOlces in which she struggles. "With this sharpest percep-
and frenetic adventure story, and invented cops-and-robbers fiction. Th~se are modc~ tion yet. it was like a chill in the air to him, it was almost appalling, that a creatme so
which insist that reality can be exciting, can be equal to the demands of the imagina- fine could be, by mysterious forces, a creature so cxploited" (2:284). Stlethel, and
tion, which in Ilalzac's case means primarily the moral imagination, atplay with large James, have pierced through to a medium in which Mme de Vionnet can be seen as a
a,!]d basic ethical conAiets. With James, the same insistence has been further trans- child of light caught in the claws of the mysterious birds of prey, After this perception,
posed into the drama of moral consciousness, so that excitement derives from the whcn Strcther speaks it is to say, "You're afraid fOl your life'''-an articulation that
characters' own dramatized apprehension of clashing moral forces. A famous sentence strikes home, makes Mme de Vionnet give up "all attempt at a manner," and break
from the preface to The Portrait of a Lady suggests James's intenL Hc is describing down' in tears, This stark articulation, which clarifies and simplifies Mme de Vionnet's
Isabel's vigil of discovery, the night she sits np and makes her mind move from position and pa.ssion, which puts her in touch with elemental humanity ("as a maidser-
discovery to discovery about Gilbert Osmond. "It is," says james, "a representation vant crying for her young man," thinks Strether) and with the ravagcs of time, finally
Simply of her motionlessly seeing, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity differs little from the exehanges of the Comte and Comtesse de Restaud in Gobseck.
of her act as 'interesting' as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. "I The Jamesian mode is subtler, more refined, but it aims at the .lame thing: a total
The terms of reference in the adventure story are mocked; yet they remain the terms of articulation of the grandiose mOlal terms of the drama, an assertion that what is being
reference: moral consciousness must be an adventure, its recognition must be the stuff played out on the plane of manners is charged from the realm of the moral occult, that
of a heightened drama. gestures within the world constilntly refel us to anothcr, hyperbolic set of gestures
The excitement and violence of the melodrama of consciousness are obviouslv alld where life and death are at stake,
derivatively Ilalzacian in such an early novel as The American, Christopher Newl;lan's There is a passage from James's 1902 essay on Balzac (he wrote five in all) that
initiation into thc epistemology of good and evil is rcpresented through a dark ancestral touches closely on the problem of melodramatic representation. A notable point about
crime hidden beneath, and suggested by, the gilded surface of Faubourg Saint- the passage is that it constitutes a reparation, for in his 1875 essay, in French Poets and
Cermain society: depths open beneath the well-guarded social image of the Bellegardc Novelists, James had singled out, as an example of Balzac's ineptitude in portrayal of
family; crisis is rcvelation of sin, and Newman's consciousness must open to receive the aristocracy, the episode in lIlusions perdues where Mme de Bargeton, under the
the lurid, Aashing lights of melodrama. But even in James's latest and most subtle inAuence of her Parisian relation the Marquise d'Espard, drops her young provincial
fiction-probably most of all in this fiction-the excitement of plot is generated almost attachment, Lucicn de Rubempre. The two women desert LUCien, whose dress is
exclusively from melodramatic eonAiet within the realm of the moral occult. There is ridiculous and whose plebeian parentage has become public knowledge, in the middle
a pressure similar to Balzac's on the textual surface, to make reality yield the terms of of the opera and sneak out of the loge. Aristocratic ladies would not so violate man-
the drama of this moral occult. To take this time deliberately a low-keycd example- ners, James argues in the carlier essay, would not behave in so Austcrcd and overly
standing in apparent opposition to the quotation from Gobseck and thereby suggesting dramatic a fashion. His view in 1902 is more nuanced and marks an effort to come to
the range of the mode-from The Ambassadors: following the revelation of Mrne de terms with those featurcs of Balzacian representation that he had preVIOusly criticized'
Vionnet's relationship with Chad, Strether goes to pay her il final visit. He st..1nds for
the last tllne in her noble apartment: The whole episodc, in "Les Illusions perdues," of Madame de Bargeton's
From beyond this, and as from a great distance-beyond the comt, beyond the "chucking" Lucien de Rubempre, on reaching Paris with him, under pressurc of
corps de logis formmg the front--came, as if e~citcd 'lnd exciting, the vague Madame d'Espard's shockability as to his coat and tlOusers and othcr such
voice of Pilris. Strether had all along been suhject to sudden gusts of fancy in matters, is either a magnificent lurid document or the baseless fablic of a Vision.
connexion with such matters as thcse-odd starts of the historic scnse, supposi- The great wonder is that, as I rejoice to put it, we can never really discover
tions and divinations with no warrant but their intensitv, Thus and so, On the which, and that we feel as we rcad that we can't, and that we suffer at the hands
eve of the great recorded dates, the days and nights of revolution, the sounds had of no other author this particular helplessness of immersion. It is dOlle-we are
come in, the omens, the beginnings broken out. They wcre the smell of revolu- always thrown back on that; we can't get out of it: all we can do is to say that the
tion, the smcll of the public temper-or perhaps simply the smell of blood. 6 true itsclf can't be more than done and that if the false in this way equals it we
must give up looking for the difference. Alone among novelists Balzac has the
That this vision is ascribed to Strcther's "gusts of fancy" docs not really hedge the bet. secret of an insistence that somehow makes the difference nought. He warms his
James makes thc "unwarrantcd" visioo exist, wrests forth from "bcyond" the facadcs of facts into life-as witness the certainty that the episode I iust cited has ahsolutely
Peler Bronk" The Melodramatic Imagll1alion 57

as much of that property as if perfect matching had been achieved. If the great the merest starting point for an immense construction of connotation. One could
ladies in question didn't behave, wouldn't. couldn't have behaved, like a pair of adducc this momcnt in The Wings of the Dove when Merton Densher learns from
ncrvous snobs. why so much the worse, we say to ourselves, for the great Indies Milly Theale's servant th'lt Milly can't reeeivc him-his. and our. firstmdication that
in question. We know them so-thev olVe their being to our so sccing them; crisis is at hand:
whercas wc never can tell ourselvcs how we should otherwise have known them
or IVh~t quantity of being thcy would on a different footing have been able to pul [Eugenio] now, as usual, slightly smiled at him in the process-but ever so
forth .. slightly, this time, his manner also being attuned. our young man made out, to
the thing, whatever it was, that constituted thc rupture of peace.
James's somewhat barRed admiration here seems to arise from a perception of "sur-
This manner. while they stood for a long minute facing cach other over all
reality" in l3alLac's representation of the episode: the fact that its hyperbolic mode aud
they didn't say, played a part as wcll in thc sudden jar to Densher's protected
intenSIty make it figure more perfcctly than would an accurate portrayal of manncrs statc. It was a Venice all of cvil thai had broken out for them alike, so that they'
what is really at stake for the characters and in their relationships. If reality does not were together in their anxiety, if they really could have met on it: a Venice of
permit of sueh self-reprcsentations, he seems to say, then so much the worse for reality. cold, lashing rain from a low black sky. of wicked wind raging through narrow
I3v the manner in which the thing is "done"-by the quahty of the narrati~e passes. of general arrest and interruption. with the people engaged in all the
performance-we know the charactcrs essentially; wc are, if not in the domain of water-life huddled,
stranded and wageless, bored and cynical,
under archways
realill'. in that of truth. and bridges.
J~mes poses the altcrnative of judging Balzac's episode to be "either a magnificent
Imid document or the baseless fabric of a vision," only to conelude that we cannot tell The Jamesian prestidigitation IS in full evidence here. Eugenio's slight, too slight smile
which it is. This alternative, and the admission of defeat in the attempt to choose. is the detailed token which indicates a larger manner which in turn indicates a "rupturc
strikes close to the center of the problem of melodrama. The melodramatic imagina- of peaee"-already the vocabulary is laking on strong coloration-and this ruptllfe
tion needs both document and vision, and it is centrally concerned with the extr'lpola- then becomes the passageway for a Aood of evil. eonJtHing mto existence a new Venice
tion from one to another. \Vhen the Balzacian narr<tlor pressures the details of reality of storm, darkness. and suppressed violence.
to make them yield the terms of his drama, when he insists that R;Jphael's gestures refer We will later pursue in more detail the questions posed by this metaphoricity of
to a p;Jrabolic story. or when he creates a hyperbolic scene of Lucien de Rubempre's gesture that evokes meanings beyond its literal configuration. We may already he
social defeat, he is llSing the things and gestmcs of the real world, of social life, as kindS struck by the seeming paradox that Ihe total expressivity assigned to gestme is related to
of metaphors that refer us to the realm of spiritual reality and latent moral meanings. Ihe ineffability of what is to be expressed. Cesture is read as containing such meanings
Things cease to hc merely themselves, gestures cease to be merely tokens of social because it is postulated as the metaphorical approach to what cannot be said. If we
intercourse whme meaning is assigned by a social code; they beco~e the vehicles of often Come perilously e1ose, in reading these novelists, to a feeling that the representerl
metaphors whose tenor suggests another kind of reality. In The Ambassadors, Strether's world won't bear the weight of the significances placed on it, this is because the
discovery of Mille de Vionnet's affair with Chad is essentiallv;J vehicle for diseoverv of represented world is so often being used metaphorically, as sign of something else. If
hcr entrapment and exploitation by "mvsterious forces." . , we consider in this light the implications of works like The Beast in the Jungle and The
I. A. RichardS has given an en~ompassing definition of metaphor as a "transaction Sacred Fount, we find that the more elusive the tenor of the metaphor becomes-the
betwecn contexts," and in all these cases there is such a transaction: pressure on thc more difficult it becomes to put one's finger on the nature of the spiritual reality
primary context is such that things and gestures are made to release occult meanings, alluded to-the more highly charged is the vehiele. the more strained with pressure to
to transfer significance into another context. B Both Balzac and James weavc a rich suggest a meaning beyond. The violence and extremism of emotional reaction and
texture of metaphor in their prose. and the metaphors most onen create an expanded moral implication that we find in the prose of both James and Balzac may in part
moral context for the narrative. But it is not a question of metaphoric texture alone; it derive from their Jack of e1ear fonndation, their location in an ethical consciousness
is rather that, to the melodramatic imagination, significant things and gestures arc that cannot be shown to correspond evidently and necessarily to the way life IS lived by
nccess,lTtly metaphoTlc In nature because they must refer to and speak of somethmg most people. To the uncertainty of the tenor corresponds the exaggeration, the heighl-
, else, Everythmg appears to bear tIrc stamp of meaning, which can be expressed, ening of the vehielc. The heightening and hyperbole, the polarized eonAict, the
pressed out, from it. The dandy de Marsay, refusing to recognize Lucien de Rubempre menace and suspense of the representations may be made necessary by the effort to
III rtlusions perdues, lets his lorgnon fall "so singularly it seemed the blade of the perceive and image the spiritual in a world voided of its traditional Sacred. where the
guillotine" (4:624). [n Le Lys dans la vallric, the narrator reads in the "forced smile" of body of the ethical has become a sort of deus absconditus which must be sought for.
the dying Mme de Mortsauf "the irony of vengeance, the anticipation of plcastlfe, the postulated. brought into man's existence through the play of the spiritualist imagina-
intoxication of the soul and the rJge of disappointment" (8:1003). If with James we arc tion. We cannot, however, go farther without saying more about melodrama, our
tempted to believe that gestures receive their charge from social manners-this is aner understanding of the concept and use of the word, its historical and ideological situa-
all the classic view of James-we find that. on the contrary, social signification is only tion. and its nature.
58 Peler Brooks The Melodramatic Jmaginatwn

emotional and ethical drama based on the maniehaeisti c .struggle of good and evil, a
worra \~here-~h-~t o;le-'lives for and by is seen in terms of, and as determined by, the
most fundamental psychic relations and cosmic ethical forces. The polarization of
The Uses of Melodrama good and evJl works toward revealing their presence and operation as real forces in the
world. Their conflict suggests the need to recognize and confront evil. to combat and
expel it, to purge the social order. Man is seen to be, and must recognize himself to be..
playing on a theater that is the point of juncture, and of elash, of imperatives beyond
I have tried, in the opening pages, to suggest the pervasive melo- himself that are non-mediated aiid irreducible. This is what is most real in thc uni-
dramatism of two such important novelists as Balzac and Jamcs-the very consub- verse. The spectacular enactments of melodrama seek constantly to express these forces
stantiality of melodrama with the mode and vision of their fiction. But I have not yet and imperatives, to bring them to striking revelation, to impose their evidence.
said anything in explication or justification of the word melodrama, its appropriateness In considering melodrama, we are in a sense talking about a form of theatricality
as a critical term, the reasons for choosing a label that has a bad reputation and has which will underlie novelistic efforts at rcpresentation-which will provide a model for
usually bcen used pejoratively. The connotations of the word are probably similar for the making of meaning in fictional dramatizations of existence. The nincteenth-
lIS all. They include: the indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and century novel nccds such a theatricalitv, as we shall see, to get its meaning across, to
schematization; extreme states of being, situations, actions; overt villainy, persecution invest in its renderings of life a sense of ~emorability and significance. With the rise of
of the good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark the novel and of melodrama, we find the entry into literature of a new moral and
plottings, suspense. breathtaking peripety. The few critics who have given senous aesthetic category, that df the "interesting." Its first theoretician may be Diderot, in his
attention to melodrama have noted its psychological function in allowing us the effort to establish the new genre of drame, which owes much to the novels of Richard-
\ pleasures of self-pity and the experience of wholencss brought by the identification son and in some ways prefigures melodrama. Diderot's definition of Ie genre serieux.
with "monopathic" emotion, in Robert Heilman's phrase. 10 Eric Bentley in particular intermediate between tragedy and eomedy-b~texpneitlynot a mixture of the two-
has argued the importance of melodrama as a concept opposed to naturalism, its addresses itself to the "interesting" in life. What he proposes is a serious attention to the
expression of emotion in the pure histrionic form of dreams, its representation of the drama of the orainary: the "picture of the misfortunes that surround us." the representa-
guintessentially dramatic. II In his discussion of four dramatic types (melodrama, farce, i;-;;;:;';c"dangers concerning which you must have trembled for your parents, your
tragedy, comedy). Bentley sets melodrama first, because it embodies the root impulse friends, yourselves. ,,12 This should not be read as a recommendation of naturalislte
of drama-the need for dramatization, we might say, for acting out. The term seems "realism." On the contrary, Diderot wants to exploit the dramatics and excitement
useful. cven necessary, because it points, as no other word quite does, to a mode of discoverable within the real, to heighten in dramatic. gesture. the moral crises and
hIgh emotionalism and stark ethical conflict that is neither comic nor tragic in persons, peripcties of life. The drame is characterized by its specific form of the sublime, which
structure, intent, effect. That the term covers and, in common usage, most often refers Diderot defines through examples of hypothetical speeches: the father who has been
to a cheap and banal melodrama-to soap opera-need not decrease its usefulness: nursed by his son in old age pronounces, "My son, we are even. I gave you life, and
there is a range from high to low examples in any literary field, and the most successful you have restored it to me"; or again, "Always tell the truth . . . . I so beg you by these
melodrama belongs to a coherent mode that rewards attention, in its literal as well as in feet that I warmed in my hands when )'ou were In the cradle. ,,13 These enunciations,
its "extrapolated" forms. What I will say about melodrama in general will. I think, be like the situations that frame them, possess the precise "sublimity" of melodramatic
relevant to the low examples as well as the high, with the difference that, as in all art, ( rhetori~:!:the emphatic articulation of simple truths and rciabonsriiPqtne"'clii'iificatibn
the low is attempting less, risking less, is more conventional and less self-consCIous. At of-the' co'smic moral sense of everyday gestures'! We are ncar the beginnings of a
its most ambitious, the melodramatic mode of conception and representallon may modern aesthetic in which Balzac and James witr fully participate: the effort to make
appear to be the very process of reaching a fundamental drama of the moral life and the "real" and the "ordinary" and the "private life" interesting through heightened
finding the terms to express it. - dramatic utterance and g~sture that lay bare the true stakes.
It might be idle to use the term melodrama were not the literal reference of the The word melodrama means, originally, a drama accompanied by music. It ap-
word also relevant to our critical perspective. Working back from the adjective melodra- pea;s to hive first been used in th's sense by Rousseau, to des~rib~ a play in which he
matic, used to describc such novelists as Balzac and James, one finds that melodrama sought a new emotional expressivity through the mixture of spoken soliloquy, panto-
proper, stage melodrama, constitutes a viable and important context. Considering mime, and orchestral accompaniment. 14 The word then came to characterize a popu-
mainly the "classical" melodrama as it was first established in France at theClai'Vinif the lar drama derived from pantomime (itself accompanied by music) that did not fit
nineteenth century, w~ fi~d a fully reaiized. coherent theatrical mode whose structures within any of the accepted. genres. Music was an important clement in Diderol's
and cha'racteristies, in their very purity and even crudity, can teach us to read a whole aesthetics; it was given a durable role in nineteenth-century theatre and then became a
body of modern literature with a finer perception of its project. Without now entering staple in the contemporary form that most relayed and supplanted melodrama. the
mto the eharactcristics of stage melodrama we can note that wc find there an intcnse cinema. Jean-Paul Sartre has well described the effect of musical accompaniment in
Peter Brook's Tlte Melodramatic ImagInatIOn iii
the silent film, the kind of clear identity it provided for character and incident, Ihe
rigorom necessity it conferred on p/ot;15 anclwc are aware ofilOw in the spc,lking film it
principal mode for lJncoverin~, demonstrating, and making operative the essential
moral universe in a post-sacred era.
still dctermincs mode and meaning. Even thongh the novel has no literal music, this This claim needs further attention. The Revolution can be seen as the convulsive
connotation of the term mclodrama rcmains relevant. The emotional drama necds the last act in a process of desaeralization that 'vaS set in motion at the Renaissance, passed
• desemanticized Iauguage of music, its evocation of the "ineffable," its toncs ,mel through the momentary compromise of Christian humanism, and gathered momen-
registers. Style, themafte structuring, 'modulations of tone and rhythm and voice- tunl during the Enlightenment-a process in which the explanatory and cohesive force
mllsleal patterning in a mctaphorlcal sense-arc called upon to invest plot WIth some of sacred myth lost its power, and its political and SOCIal representatlllfls lost theIr
) of thc inexorabilityland necessity that in prc-modcrn literature derived from the substra- legitimacy. In the coursc of this process, tragedy, which depcnds on the communal
tum of myth. partaking of the sacred body-as in the mass-rbecame impossible IR The cnrcial
One might be tempted to consider melodrama as a constant of the imagination and moment of passage could no doubt bc located somewhere in the seventeenth century.
a constant among litcrary modes: it could be (as somc critics havc proposed for the Racine st,mds cmblematleally as the last tragic plaYWright (Milton as the last epic poet)
terms baroque and romanticism) one typological pole, detectable at all epochs, as and his career has much to tell us about the increasing difficulties encountered in the
Heilman suggests in his discussions of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. Such a apprehcnsion and representation of communal sacred impcratives. The Quarrel of the
conception of the term IS no doubt valid; one cOllld rcasonably, for instance, talk of the Ancient and the Moderns, at the close of the seventeenth century, was the symbolic
melodramatic in EuripIdes in distinction to the tragic in Sophocles. 16 But melo<.Irama annunciation of literature's divorce from the mythic suhstratllm that had sustained it.
as we need the term-as it demonstratcs its usefulness-appears to be a peculiarly its incipient privatization and desacralization.
modern form, and thcre is a specific rclevanee in the genre labcled melodrama as It Yet bv the end of tht Enlightenment, there was clearly a renewed thirst for the
comes into being in an historical context. The origins of melodrama can be accurate" ,Sacred, a reaction to desacralization cxpressed in the ,"ast movement we think of as
located within the context of the Frcnch Revolution and its aftermath. This is th~ Romanticism. Thc reaction both reasserted the need for some version of the Sacred
epistemological moment which it illustratcs and to which it contributes: the mOI;'e~lt and offered further proof of the Irremediable loss of tbc Saercd in its traditional,
that symbolically, and really. marks the final liquidation of the tradition<ll Sacred and categOrical, unifying form. Mythmaking could not only be individual, personal; and
its rcpresentative institutions (Chllfeh and Monarch), the shattering of thc myth of the promulgation of ethical imperatives had to depcnd on an individual act of sclf-
Christendom, the dissolution of an organic ,md hierarchically cohesive society, and understanding that would then-by an imaginative or evcn a terroristic Icap--bc
the invalidation of the literary forms-:tragedy. comedy of manners-that depended on offered as the foundation of a general ethics. In fact, the entity making the strongest
such a society. Melodrama does lIot simplv represent a "fall" from tragedy, but a claim to sacred statns tends morc and more to be -perso~ality itself. I'rom amid the
response to the loss of the tragic vision. It comes into being in a world where the collapse of order principles and criteria, the individual ego declares its central and
traditional imperatives of truth and ethiCS have been violently thrown into question, Y overriding value, its demand to be the measure of all things. The incipit of modernity
yet where the promulgatioo of truth and ethics, their instauration as a way of life is of is the first page of Rousseau's Confessions, with its insistence on the uniqueness of his
immediate, daily, political concern. When the revolutionary Saint-Just e~c1aims: "Re- individual inner heing, his difference from all other men, and on the necessity of
publican government has as its principle virtu,e: or if not, terror, ,,17 he is using the expressing that being in its totality. The importance attached by Rousseau to his
maniehaeistic terms of melodrama, arguing: its logic of the excluded middle, and decision to "say all," tout dire, is a measure of the personalization and inwardness of
imaging a situation-the moment of revolut'ionar)' suspension-where the word is post-sacred ethics, the difficulty of their location and expression. Iq A manic analogue
called upon to make present and to impose a new society, to legislate the reglllle of can be found in Sade's effort to "say all" the possible crimes that arc permitted in
virtue. A new world, a new chronology, a new religion, a new morahty lay within the nature, in order to prove that the only principle to be observed is that of the individual"s
grasp of the revolutionary legislator and, particularly, in the power of his verbal repre- totalistic pleasure. Melodrama represents both the urge toward resacralization and the
sentations. The Revolution attempts to saerali?e law itself, the Republic as the institu- impossibility of conceiving sacralization other than in personal terms. leIodramatie
tion of morality. Yet it necessarily produces melodrama instead, incessant struggle good and evil are highly personalized: they arc assigned to, they inhabit persons who
against enemies, without and within, branded as villains, suborners of morality, who indeed have no psychological complexity but who arc strongly characterized. Most
must be confronted and expunged, ovcr and over, to assure the triumph of virtue. Like notably, evil is villainy; it is a swarthy, cape-enveloped man with a decp voice. Good
the orator)' of the Revolution, melodrama from ils inception takes as its concern 'a'nd .....,1/ and evil can be named as persons are named-and melodramas tend in fact to move
raison d'ctre the location, expression, and imposition of basic ethical and psychic 'I' toward a clear nomination of thc moral universc. The ritllal of melodrama involves the
truths. It says them over and over in clear language, it rehearses their eonAiets and confrontation of clearly identified antagonists and the expulsion of one of them. It can
combats, it reenacts the menace of evil and the eventual triumph of morality made offer no terminal reconciliation, for there is no longer a clcar transcendent value to be \
operative and evident. While its social implications may be variously revolutionary or reconciled to. There is, rather, a social order to be purged, a set of ethical imperatives \
conservative, it is in all cases radically democratic, striving to make its representations to be made clear.
clear and legihlc to everyone. We nwy legitimately elaim that melodrama becomes the Of particular pertiuence in any discussion of desacralization and the response to it
62 P.t.r flrook.< Th. Mdodramatie ImagmatlOn 63

are two early Romantic ("Q!~.:~.omantic") forms that in fact nourish one another, man's sense of dependence in relation to a "wholly other," and hIS feeling of being
'} .... lndodrama ~nd the Cothic novel. 'fhe Cothic novel stands dearly i~ reaction to
0105t covered by it. The origin of religious feeling, according to Otto, lies in the "primal
.desacralizatioll and the pretensions of rationalism; it represents. in '0. P. Varma's numinous awe." in a religious dread that may have at its root "demonic dread." The
phrase, a "quest for the numinous. ,,20 It reasserts the presence, in the world, of forces radical emotion is a feeling of the "eerie" and "uncanny," then elaborated into a
that cannot be accounted for by the daylight self and the self-sufficient mind. Yet the concept in which the idea of awfulness and majesty exists in relation to the numcn.
Cothicists typically discover that this reassertion of spiritual forces and occult issues Matilda's theology starts from the same point, but then cvolves toward what a Christian
hidden ill the phenomenal world cannot lead to the resaeralization of experience. The 'theologian would see as a perversion, the belief in spooks and spirits, where "Cod" is
status of the Sacred as "wholly other"-in Rudolf Otto's phrase-as a realm of being merely one figure in a manichaeistic demonology. It is as if, coming out of the
and value recognized to be apart from and superior to man, is gone and is irrecover- Enlightenment, man had to reinvent the sense of the Sacred from ils source-but
able. Of the mysterium tremendllm, which Otto defines as the essence of the Holy, discovered it now skewed and narcissistically fascinated by its point of origin. There is a
only the tremendll1ll can be convincingly revived. II This issue, in fact, is given a reassertion of magic and taboo, a recognition of the diabolical forces which inhabit our
dramatization in M. C. Lewis' The Monk (along with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the world and our inner being. Since these forces achieve no sacred status as wholly other;.
most interesting and intelligent of the Cothic novels) in relation to the problem of guilt they appear, rather, to abide within nature and, particularly, within nature's creaturc, "
and il.l definition. The monk's temptress, Matilda, proposes to call upon diabolical aid man. If the tremendum has reasserted its presence and force against the reductions of
in the seduction of the virginal Antonia; and Ambrosio, who still retains vestigial belief rationalism, the mysterium that it should modify has been displaced from without to
in the Christian paradox of salvation, resists: "No, no, Matilda, I will not ally myself withill. We are led back to the sources of the "uncanny" in the processes of desire and
with Cod's enemy." In reply. Matilda is fiercely logical in her description of the repression analyzed by freud. I~ The desacralization and sentimentalization of ethics
changed ontology of the supernatural and Ambrosio's altered relationship to it: leads us-as Diderot discovered in reading Richardson-into "the recesses of the
cavern," there to discover "the hideous Moor" hidden in our motives and desires. II
Arc you then Cod's friend at present? . Arc you not planning the destruction The Cothic castle, with its pinnaeles and dungeons, crenellations, moats, draw-
of innocence, the ruin of a creature whom he formed in the mould of angels? If
bridges, spiraling staircases and concealed doors, realizes an architectural approxima-
not of daemons, whose aid would yOll invoke to forward this laudable design?
Will the seraphims protect it, conduct Antonia to your arms, and sanction with tion of the freudian model of the mind, particularly the traps laid for the conscious by
their ministry your illicit plcasures? Absurd! But I am not deceived, Ambrosio! the unconscious and the repressed. The Cothic novel seeks an epistemology of the
It is not virtue which makes you reiect my offer; yOll would accept it, but you depths; it is fascinated by what lics hidden in the dungeon and the sepulcher. It sounds
dare not. 'Tis not the crime which holds your hand, but the punishment; 'tis not the depths, bringing to violent light and enactment the forces hidden and entrapped
respect for Cod which restrains yOll. but the terror of his vengeancc!2Z there. The Monk-in which all the major characters arc finally compelled to descend
into the sepulcher of St. Clare, there to pcrform their most extreme acts-belongs to a
In her logic of the exeluded middle (the very logic of melodrama), Matilda demon- moment of"e1austral"litcrature, fascinated by the constrained and hidden. determined
strates that Ambrosio has moved out from under the mantle of the Sacred, and thai to release its energies. 16 The content of the depths is one version of the "moral occult."
ethics are now determined, not by virtue, but by terror. Her argument images a world the realm of inner imperatives and demons, and the Cothic novel dramatizes aga1l1
in which Cod exists still, but no longer as holy mystery and as moral principle eliciting and again the importance of bringing this occult into man's waking, social existence, \
love, worship, and respect. No longer the source and guarantor of ethics, "Cod" has of saying its meaning and acting out its force, The frenzy of the Cothlc, the thunder of
become an interdiction, a primitive force within nature that strikes fear in men's hearts its rhetoric, and the excess of its situations image both the difficulty and the importance'
but does not move them to allegiance and worship. Cuilt, in Ihe largest sense, may of the breaking through of repression, where victory is achieved, as in melodrama, by
Itself derive from an anxiety produced by man's failure to have maintained a relation to finding the true stakes of the drama.
the Sacred; it must now be redefined in terms of self-punishment, which requires The Monk, this exemplary Cothic novel written at the dead end of the Age of
terror, interdiction of transgression, retribution. As with the revolutionary legislator Reason, at the intersection of revolution and reaction, offers a particularly forceful
Saint-lust, we have a new alternative basis for the ethical community: a sentimental dramatization of passage into an anxious new world where the Sacred is no longer
virtue (of the type often urged in Diderot's aesthetics) or else a retributive, purgative viable, yet rediscovery of the ethical imperatives that traditionally depended on it is I
terror. vital. Rediscovery would then be the task of the individual ethical consciousness 111
The nature of the traditional idea of the Sacred is e1arified in Clifford Ceertz' struggle with an occult domain. Melodrama shares many characteristics with the
definition of the status it maintall1s in "primitive" cultures: "The holy bears within it c'
Cothic novel, and not simply in the subjects that were traded back and forth between
everywhere a sense of intrinsic obligation: it not only encourages devotion, it demands the two genres. It is equally preoccupied with nightmare states, the e1austration and
it; it not only induces intellectual assent, it enforces emotional commitment. ,,23 A true thwarted escape, with innocence buried alive and unable to voice its claim to recogni-
Sacred is evident, persuasive, and compelling, a system both of mythic explanation tion. Particularly, if shares the preoccupation with evil as a real, irreducible force in
and implicit ethics. The traditional conception of the mysterium tremendum requires the world, constantly menacing outburst. Melodrama is less directly interested in the
64 Peler Brooks 65
The Melodramatic Imagmation

reasscrtion of the numinous for its own sake than in its ethical corollaries. Melodrama "the Orphic explication of the earth." of Yeats for a synthetic mythology which would
starts from and expresses the anxiety brought by a frightening new world in which the enable him to hold "in a slllgic thought reality and justice," of Norman Mailer for
traditional patterns of moral order no longer provide the oeeessary social glue. [t plays dreams adequate to the moon-these are all versions of a reaction to the vertiginous
out the force of that anxiety with the apparent triumph of villainy, and it dissipates it feeling of standing ovcr the abyss crcated when thc nccess~ry center of things has ~~cn
wilh the eventual victory of virtue. [t demonstrates over and over that the signs of cvacuated and dispersed. Starting perhaps from Rousseau s deCISion that he must say
ethical forces can be discovered and can be madc legible. It tends to diverge from the a\l" III his "cnterprise without example," thcre is a desperate cffort to renew contact
Gothic novel in its optimism. its claim that the moral imagination can open up the with the scattered ethical and psychic fragments of the Sacrcd through the reprcsenta-
angelic spheres as wcll as the demonic depths and can allay the threat of moral chaos. tion of fallen rcality. insisting that bchind reality, hidden by it yet indicated within it.
. '!\IIelodrama is indeed, typically, not only a moralistic drama but the drama of morality; there is a realm where large moral forccs are opcrative. where large choices of ways of
it strivcs to lind. to articulate. to demonstrate, to "prove" the existence of a moral being must be made. The Promethean search to illuminate man's quotidian existence
universe which. though put into question, masked by villainy and perversIOns of bv the reAected Aame of the higher cosmic drama constitutes one of the pnnclpal
judgment, does cxist and can be made to assert its presence and its categorical force q;lests of the modern imagination. The melodramatic mode can bc seen as an intensi-
among men. lied. primary. and exemplary version of what the most ambitious art, since the begin-
nings of Romanticism, has heen about. . . .
I am not making an argument for the direct inAuence of melodrama proper on What seems particularly important in the enterpnse of the SOCIal melodramatlsts-
novelists like Balzac and Jamcs (though this inAucnce is in fact discernible), I am and here one should include, beyond Balzac and James, Dickens, Gogo!. Dostoevsky,
rather suggesting that perception of the melodramatic in thcir work can usefully be Proust, Lawrence, to nan\e only the most important-is thcir dual engagement with
grounded and extended through reference to melodrama. Melodrama is the redllctive, the representation of man's social existence, the way he lives in the ordinary. and WIth
litcralistie version of thc mode to which they belong. The world of melodrama consti- the moral drama implicated by and in his existence. They wnte a melodrama of
tutes a temptation for such as Balzac and James because it offers a complete set of manncrs. On the one hand, they refuse any metaphysical reduction of experience and
altitudes, phrases. gestures coherently conceived toward dramaltzation of essential rcfuse to reduce their metaphorical enterprise to the cold symbolism of allcgory. They
spiritllal conAic!. It provides the expressive premises and the e1ear set of metaphors that recognize, with Isabel Archer dllfing her intense VIgil, that "this base, ignoble world .. it
they will exploit in extrapolated form, with a more problematical scnsc of the relation appeared, was after all what one was to live for" (2: 197). On the other hand, thcy mSlst
between vchicle and tenor. that life does make reference to a moral occult that is the realm of eventualvaluc, aud
Such writers as Balzac and James need melodrama because their deep subject, the this insistence makes them more interesting and ambitious than more "behavioristic"
locus of thcir true drama. has come to he what we have called the "moral occult": the novelists who. from Flaubert onwards. have suggested that therc are not morc thmgs
domain of spiritual forces and imperative that is not clearly visible within reality, but on carth than can bc represented exclusively in terms of the material world.~
which they believe to be operative there, and which demands to be uncovered, regis- melodramatists refuse to allow that the world has bccn completely drained of transcen-
tered, articulated. In the absence of a true Sacred (and in thc absence indccd of anv Je-;;~e' a~d they locate that transcendence in the struggle of thc children of light with
specilie religious belief of their own) they continue to believe that what is mo;t thc ehildrcn of darkness, in the play of cthical mind.
important in a man's life is his ethical drama and the ethical implications of his psychic . It comes back, once again, to that alternative posed by Jamcs in reading Balzac,
drama. Yct hcre they arc dealing in quantities and entities that have only an uncertain between the "magnificcnt Imid document" and the "baseless fabric of a vision." To
ontology and. especially, an uncertain visibility: thcy are not necessarily scen iu the makc the fabric of vision into a document, to makc the documcnt lurid enough so that
same manner, if perceived at all, by an audience. since the social cohesion of an it releascs the vision. to make vision doeumcnt and document vision. and to persuadc
earlier socicty with a greater community of belief no longer obtains. In the manner of us that thev cannot be distinguished, that they are necessarily interconnectcd through
the melodramatist, such wnters must locate, express, dcmonstrate, prove the very the chain -of spiritual metaphor, that resonanccs are set up, electrical connections
terms in which they arc dealing. They must wrest them forth from behind the facades establishcd whencver we touch any link of the chain. is to make the world we inhabit
of lifc. show their meaning and their operation. Prceiscly to the extent that they feel one charged with meaning, one in which interperS{lOal relations are not merely con-
themselves dealing in concepts and issucs that have no certain status or justification, tacts of the Aesh but encounters that must be carcfully nurturcd, judged, handled as If
they havc recoursc to the demonstrative. heightened reprcsentations of melodrama. they mattered. It is a question, finally, of that attentIon to the significant in life that
..);r We might, finally. do well to rceognize the melodramatic modc as a central fact of lamcs captured in a famous line of advice to young novelists: "Try to be one of the
. the modern scnsibility (., take Romanticism to be the genesis of the modern, of the people on whom nothing is lost. ,,27 To be so sensitized au instmment, onc upon whom
sensibility within which we are still living), in that modern art has typically felt itself to everything leaves a mark, with whom everything sets up a correspondence,. IS not
bc constructed on, and over, thc void, postulating meanings, and symbolic systems simply to be an observer of life's SllTfaee, but someone who must brll1g mto eVldeuee,
which have no certain justification because thc)' arc backed by no thcology and no even mto bciug, hfe's moral substance. So that the task of the wnter 's hke that
universally accepted social codc. The mad qucst of M'lllaflllc for a Rook that would be assigned by Balzac to the exiled Dante. in his talc Les Proserits; "He eloscd hllnself 111
Peter Br{)()ks The Melodramatic ImaginatIOn 67

his room, lit his lamp of inspiration, and surrendered himself to the terrible demon of 16. See Ileilman. TTllgedy and Melodrama, pasim. Thi' "'agc i, continucd hv Jame' 1,. Snuth.
work, calling forth words from ilence, and ideas from the night" (10: 344). who ,ubd.vide, the genre into melodrama of triumph. of dcfeat. aud of prole,t.
17. L"ui, de Samt-just. "In'htuti"ns repuhhcaines." in Oellvres ch"'sics (Pans: Galhmard. I'I6R).
I' ,27
18. I take thi' dennition of lraged) frol1l orthrop prye. Allotamy or Crillclsm (Princeton
Princeton U.uvcrSity Press, IQ57). PI'. 214-15. I nnd cnnnrmahon of l1lV View of de,ac-
ates ralizatlOn and it, aftermath in a suni,"r argumenl "rged by Le,lic Ficdler: 'cc. in particular.
Lore and Death III Ihe Amencan Novel (I QIi>; repnnted cd .. London: Paladin Book,. IQ70).
p. H
19 See. m particular. thc elo,mg paragraph of hook 4 of Roussean', Conressio",.
I. Ilonnrc de Balzac. La I'eau de chagrin, 111 La Comedie Humallle, cd. t-.larccl flouteron 20. Devcndra I'. Varma. The ColiC flame (London: A. Barkcr. 1957). 1'.211. On tim aspcet of
(Paris: B'bllOtheque de Ia P!e.ade. 1955- 56), Q: 11-12. All volume and pa~e reference~ to 1.0 thc GOlhic novel, ,ec also Lowrv Nelson. fT.. "Night Thought, on Ihe Coth,e Novel." Yale
Comedie '-lrlllwlI1e arc 10 the Plbade edrtion and will henceforth be gi,·etJ m parenthe,e, m Review 52 (1'163); Eino Rallo, The Haullied Caslle (London: C Routledge. 1927): Rohert O.
the text. I refer to the Pklade text for the sake of convenience, hecause it i' relalrvely compact Ilurne. "Cothlc versn' Romantic' A Rcvaluation of Ihe Cotlnc OI·el." P:vlLA 84 (1969)
(II volul11e,) and wideh' avadable. In ,orne in,tanee" iI, text need, emendation. and I have 21. Rndolf Otto, The Idea or Ihe Holy IDas Heilige), trans. John \V. Harvev (Oxford: Calaxv
had recourse to the 1Il0st reliable edition. the replica of the "Fume eorrige," publi'hed a, Book.<. IQ58). chap,. 4. 5
Balzac', Oeuvres cOlllpli!tes (Paris: l.e' Bihhophiles de rOngmalc, 1966-). All translahons 22. Matthew Gregory LewIS. The Monk ( 'cw York: Grove Press. Evcrgreen Books, 19591. p.
hom the French arc my own. 266. For a more detail~d diseus,ion of Ihis passage. of The MOllk and the problem of the
2. Ivlartin TllTnell. The Novel in frallee (New York: Vmtage flooks, 1958), p. 220 Sacred, ,ee my artiele ':Virtue aud Terror: The Monk," ELH 40. no. 2 (1973)
,. Theodora Bo,anqnct. Hellry lallles at Work (London: Ilogarth Press, 1924). p. >2. Thi' 2>. Clifford Ceertz. "Etho'. World V.ew, and the Analy,\, of Sacred Svmboli,m," in The Illler·
passage i, al,o cited by Leo B. Levy, Ver"ioll.' or Melodrama: A Sludy or Ihe Fiction alld prelation nr Cull II res (New York: BaSIC Books. 1973), p. J 26
Drama or /-Ienry lames. 1865-1897 (Berkeley and Lo' Angeles: Uni"ersily of CalifornIa 2~. Sigmund preud. "The Uncanny" ["Oa' lInheimhehe"]. in Standard Edition (London: Ho·
Press. 1957). g:"th), 17:218-56.
~. See Jacque, Barwn, "Henry Jame,. Melodramati't," in The QuestlOll or Henry James. cd. F 25. Diderol. "1':loge de Richard'on," HI Oellvres estlll!l1qlles, p. >2.
W Dupee ( ew York: Holt. 1945). 26 A prime example of elaustralliterature IS Les V,clnnes c/oitn!es (1791), a pia}' by Boulet de
Henry James, The Porlrail or a Lady (Ne\\ York: Senbners. 1905), !:xXI. Followmg the Monvcl which Lewrs saw m Pari, shortly before begmning work on The MOllk, and which he
oflgmal reference. page reference' to James's novel, will be given in parenthese' m Ihe text. lranslated a, Vella III , ,taged in London. Another celebrated example. which Lewrs mal' also
6. Henry James, The Amba,sadors ( ew York: Scribners. 19(9), 2:274. havc known, i' Le Couvell/. ou les Voeux rorces. by Olympe de Gouge, (1790). And there arc
7. Henry Jame', "'Iouore de (1902)" in Nole, Oil Novelisls ( lew York: Scribners, 1914). many more. particularlv of the revolutionary penod. See mv di,eussion of Pixereeourl's
PI' 140-41. Lalude. ou Trenle-eillq aIrS de caplivile in chapter 2. Sec also Roberl Shackleton. "The
8. I A. R.ehard,. The Philosophy or Rhelonc (New York: Oxrord lJOlveTSltv Press. 1936). p. 94. ClOIster Theme til foreneh,m." m The frellch Mind: Studies in HOllar or
We mi~ht note. 10 reference to the IOlhal passage quoted from La Peau de cllOgrm. thai ClIs/ave Rudler, cd. Will Moore, Rhoda Sutherland. Emd Starkle (Oxfnrd: Clarendon.
parable ha' been denned as "leaching a moral by means of an extended melaphor" hv 1952). The .mportance of The MOllk and .t, exploration ofp,yehological depth,. as well a,
Richard A. Lanham in A Ilandl"l or Rhelorical Term' (Berkeley and Lo, Angele' Unive",tv the clo,e relation of the Cothic novel 10 the Revolulion, wa' lucidly recognized bv the
of CahforOla I'rss, 19(8), p. 70 foremo,t cxpositor of the claustral and it, repressed content. the MarquIS de Sade, in hi' e's<ly
9. Henry Jame,. The Willgs or Ihe Dove (New York: Scribner',. 190<)1, 2.259 "Idee ,ur Ie, romans," in Oeuvres (Paris: Cerele du Livre Preeieux. 19(4). 10.15
10 Traged)' alld Meloelrama' Vemorrs or Experiellce. p. 85. 27. Henry James, "The Art of Fiction." in The Fulllre or Ihe Novel. cd. Lenn Edel (New York:
II "Melodrama," in The I.ire or the Drama. pp 195-218. Vinl.1ge flanks. 1956). p. 13.
12 f)en" Oiderot. "I:~ntrctrell' SIlT Le Fils l1a/urel." in Oeuvres e,l/uiIJques. cd. I'alll Vcrniere
(Pa",: Carmer. 1959). pp, 148-49. ror Didero!', di,clIssion of the "inlere,!" spee.fie to the
genre senclix. sec p. 130. The same ac~lhelic C.1tcgory IS dl'~ccrmbJe in IllS diSCUSSIon of
.~.ehar~;on (Ill "I-:Ioge de Richardson") .nd 111 IllS comment, on the palOtings of Greuze (10
Salon, )
I;. D.derot. "Entrellens." p 148.
14. The pl.y wa' P)'gmaliorr. "Scenc Iyrique," nrst ,taged in Lyon 111 1770; and the wor<1
meloorame. characterizing Pygmaliol1, is mentioned in Rousseau's "Ohscrvations .'1lT rAlcesle
Italien de M. Ie Chevalier ChIck" (probably wnltcn in 1774 or 1775). 111 fean-Jacques RoIlS·
,cau, Oellvres (Pam. 180 I). 10.319-20.
15. Jean-Paul Sartre. Les Mols (Pam: Gallllnard. 19(4). PI' 101-2.
Tales of Sound and Fury 69

films, and notably Written on tlze Wind, to develop my points. This said, it is difficult
to sec how references to twenty more movies would make the argumcnt any truer. [i'or
better or worsc, what I want to say should at this stage be taken to be provocative rather
than provcn.

CD Bearing in mind that (whatever one's scruples about an exact definition) everybody
has some idea of what is meant by "melodramatic," any discussion of the melodrama as
a specific cincmatic mode of expression has to start from its antecedents-the novel
and certain types of "entertainment'" drama-from which scriptwriters and directors
havc borrowed their models.
The first thing one notices is that the media and literary forms which have habitu-
Tales of Sound and Fury: ally embodied melodramatic situations have changed considerably in the COllrse of
history, and, further, they differ from country to country; in England, it has mainly
Observations on the Family Melodrama becn the novel and the literary gothic where melodramatic motifs persistently crop up
(though the Victorian stage, especially in the l880s and 1890s, knew an unprece-
dented vogue for the melodramas of R. Buchanan and G. R. Sims, plays in which "a
THOMAS ELSAESSER footbridge over a torrent breaks under the steps of the villain; a piece of wall comes
down to shatter him; a boiler bursts, and blows him to smithereens");1 in Prance, it is
the costume drama and historical novel; in Germany "high" drama and the ballad, as
well as more popular forms like Moritat (street songs); finally, in Italy the opera rather
How t()) Make Stanes Wee!!, than the novel reached the highest degree of sophistication in the handling of melodra-
matic situations.
Askcd about the colour in Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk rc- Two currents make up the genealogy. One leads from the late medieval morality
plied: "Almost throughout lhe picture I used deep-focus lenses, which have the effect play, the popular gestes and other forms of oral narrative and drama, like fairy-tales and
of giving a harshness to the objccts and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the folk-songs to their romantic revival and the cult of the pictureseque in Scott, Byron,
colours. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters, Heine and Victor Hugo, which has its low-brow echo in barrel-organ songs, music-
which is all inside them and can't break through." It would be difficult to think of a hall drama, and what in Germany is known as Bankelhcd, the latter coming to late
better way of describing what this particular movie and indeed most of the best melodra- literary honours through Brecht in his songs and musical plays, The Threepenny Opera
mas of thc fifties and early sixties are about. Or for that matter. how closely, in this or Mahagonny, The characteristic features for our present purposes in this tradition are
film, style and technique is related to theme. not so much the emotional shock-tactics and the blatant playing on the audience's
In this article I want to pursue an elusive subject in two directions: to indicate the known sympathies and antipathies, but rather the non-psychological conception of the
development of what one might call the melodramatic imagination across different dramatis personae, who figure less as autonomous individuals than to transmit the
artistic forms and in different cpochs; sccondly, Sirk's remark tempts one to look for action and link thc various locales within a total constellation. In this respect, melodra-
somc structural and stylistic constants in one medium during one particular period (thc mas have a myth-making function, insofar as their significance lies in the structure and
Hollywood family melodrama betwcen roughly 1940 and 1963) and to speculate on articulation of the action, not in any psychologically motivated correspondence with
the cultural and psychological context which this form of melodrama so manifestly individualised experience.
reRected and helped to articulate. Nonetheless this isn't a historical study in any strict Yet, what particularly marks the ballad or thc Bdnkellied, i.e., narratives accompa-
sense. nOr a catalogue raisonne of namcs and titles, for reasons that have somethiug to nicd by music, is that the moral/moralistic pattern which fumishes the primary contcnt
do With my general method as well as with the obvious limitation imposcd on film (crimes of passion bloodily revenged, murderers driven mad by guilt and drowning
research by unavailabilitv. As a consequence I lean rather heavily on half a dozen themselves, villains snatching children from their careless mothers, servants killing
their unjust masters) is overlaid not only with a proliferation of "realistic" homey detail,
but also "parodied" or relativised by the heavily repetitive verse-form or the mechanical
up-and-down rhythms of the barrel organ, to which the voice of the singer adapts itself
(consciously or not), thercby producing a vocal parallelism that has a distancing or
Thomas £Isacsser, "Tales of SOllnd and Fury: Observations on the ['amily Melodrama," ongl-
nally publIShed In Monogram. no. 4 (l972), pp. 2-15 Reprinted by permission of the alilhor
ironic effect, to the extent of often criss-crossing the moral of the story by a "false," i.c.,
and the Bnbsh Film Institute. unexpected emphasis. Sirk's most successful German melodrama, Zu Neuen U(em,

70 Thomas Elsa...s.r Tales of Sound and Pury 71

makes excellent usc of the street ballad to bring out the tragic irony in the court-room tually demanding forms of melodrama, the element of interiorisation and per-
scene, and the tune which Walter Brennan keeps playing on the harmonica in King sonalisation of primarily ideological conAicts, together with the metaphorical interpre-
Vidor's Ruby Centry works in a very similar way. A variation on this is the usc of tation of elass conAict as sexual exploitation and rape, is important in all subsequent
fairgrounds and carousels in films like Some Came Running and Tarnished Angels, or forms of melodrama, ineluding that of the cinema. (The latter in America, of course,
more self-consciously in Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright) and Welles is a stock theme of novels and movies with a "Southern" setting.)
{Lad}' from Shanghai and The Stranger) to underscore the main action and at the same
time "ease" the melodramatic impact by providing an ironic parallelism. Sirk uscs the Paradoxically, the French Revolution failed to produce a new form of social drama
motif repeatedly in, for instance, Scandal in Paris and Take Me to Town. What such or tragedy. The Restoration stage (when theatres in Paris were specially Iiccnsed to play
devices point to is that in the melodrama the rhythm of experience often establishes "melodramas") trivialised the form by using melodramatic plots in exotic settings, and
itself against its value (moral, intellectual). providing escapist entertainment with little social relevance. The plays warmed up the
standard motif of 18th-century French fiction and drama, that of innocence persccuted
Perhaps the current that leads more directly to the sophisticated family melo- and virtue rewarded, and the conventions of melodrama functioned in their most
drama of the 40's and 50's, though, is derived from the romantic drama, which had barren form as the mechanics of pure suspense.
its heyday after the French Revolution and subsequently furnished many of the plots What before the Revolution had served to focus on suffering and vietimization-
for operas, but which is itself unthinkable without the ) 8th-century sentimental thc claims of the individual in an absolutist society-was reduced to ground-glass-in-
novel and the emphasis put on private feelings and interiorised (puritan, pietist) codes the-porridge, poisoned handkerchiefs and last-minute rescues from the dungeon. The
of morality and conscience. Historically, one of the interesting facts about this tradi- sudden revcrsals of fortune, the intrusion of chance and coincidence had originally
tion is that its height of popularity seems to coincidc (and this remains true through- pointed to the arbitrary way feudal institutions could ruin the individual unprotected
out thc 19th century) with periods of intense social and ideological crisis. The pre· by civil rights and liberties. The system stood accused of greed, wilfulness and irratio-
revolutionary sentimental novel-Richardson's Clarissa or Rousseau's Nouvelle nality through the Christ-like suffering of the pure virgin and the seiAess hcroism of the
Heloise. for example-go out of their way to make a case for extreme forms of right-minded in the midst of court intrigue and callous indifference. Now, with the
bchaviour and fceling by depicting very explicitly certain external constraints and bourgeoisie triumphant, this form of drama lost its subversive charge and functioned
pressllTes bearing upon the characters, and by showing up the quasi-totalitarian more as a means of consolidating an as yet weak and incoherent ideological position.
violence perpctrated by (agents of) the "system" (Lovelacc who tries everything, from Wbereas the prerevolutionary melodramas had often ended tragically, those of the
bribing her family to hiring pimps, prostitutes and kidnappers in ordcr to get Clarissa Restoration had happy endings, they reconciled the suffering individual to his social
to becomc his wife, only to have to rape hcr after all). The same pattern is to be position, by affirming an "open" society, where everything was possible. Over and over
found in thc bourgeois tragedies of Lessing (Emilia Calotti, 1768) and the early again, the victory of the "good" citizen over "evil" aristocrats, lecherous elergymen and
Schiller (Kahale und Liebe. 1776), both deriving their dramatic force from the the cven more conventional villains drawn from the lumpenproletariat, was re-enacted
connict between an extreme and highly individualised form of moral idealism in the in sentimental spectaeles full of tears and high moral tones. Complex social processes
heroes (again, non-psychological on the level of motivation) and a thoroughly eor- were simplified either by blaming the evil disposition of individuals or by manipulating
flIpt yet seemingly omnipotent social class (made up of feudal princes and petty statc the plots and engineering coincidences and other dei ex machina, such as the instant
functionaries). Thc melodramatic clements arc elearly visible in the plots, which conversion of thc villain. moved by the plight of his victim, or suddenly struck by
revolve around family relationships. star-crossed lovers and forced marriages. The Divine Grace on the steps of otrc-Dame.
villains (often of noble birth) demonstrate thcir superior political and economic Sincc the overtly "conformist" strategy of such drama is quite evident, what is
power invariably by sexual aggression and attemptcd rape, leaving the heroine no interesting is certainly not the plot structure, but whether the conventions allowcd the
other way than to commit suicide or take poison in the company of her lover. The author to dramatize in his episodes actual contradictions in society and genuine clashes
ideological "message" of these tragedies. as in the case of Clarissa, is transparent: thcy of interests in the characters. Already during the Revolution plays such as Monvel's Las
record thc struggle of a morally and emotionally emancipated bourgeois conscious- Victimes cloitrees or Laya's L'Ami des lois, though working with very stereotyped plots,
ness against the remnants of feudalism. They pose thc problem in political tcrms and conveyed quite definite political sympathies (the sccond, for instance, backed the
concentrate on the complex interplay of ethical principles, religious-metaphysical Cirondist moderates in the trial of Louis XIV against the Jacobitcs) and were under-
polarities and the idcalist aspirations typical of the bOllTgeoisie in its militant phase, stood as such by their public.z
as the protagonists come to grief in a maze of economic necessities, realpolitik, Even if the form might act to reinforce attitudes of submission. the actual working
family loyalties, and through the abuse of aristocratic privilege from a still divinely out of the scenes could nonetheless present fundamental social cvils. Many of the
ordained, and thcrefore doubly depraved, absolutist authority. pieces also Aattered popular sympathies by giving the villains the funniest lines, just as
Although thesc plays and novels, because they use the melodramatic-emotional Victorian drama playing cast of Drury Lane was often enlivencd by low comedy
plot only as their most rudimcntary structllTe of meaning, bclong to the lllorc intellec- burlesque put on as curtain raisers and by the servants' Farces during the intermission.
72 Thomas Elsaesser Tales of Sound and Fury

All this is to say that there seems a radical ambiguity attached to the melodrama fissures and ruptures in the fabric of experience, and the appeal to a reality of the
which holds even more for the film melodrama. Depcnding on whether the emphasi~ psyche-to which the notions of suddcn change. reversal and excess lend a symbolic
fell on the odyssey of suffering or the happy ending. on the place and context of rupturc plausibility.
(moral conversion of thc villain, unexpected appearance of a henevolent Capuchin
monk throwing off his pimp's disguise), that is to say, depending on what dramatic In France it is the works of Sue. Hugo and Balzac that reAect most closely the
mileage was got out of the heroinc's pcrils before the ending (and one only has to think of relation of melodrama to social upheaval. Sue, for example. use.~ the time-worn trap-
Sade's Tustine to see what could be done with the theme of innocence unprotected), door deviccs of eloak and dagger stage melodrama for an explicitly sensationalist, yet
melodrama would appear to function either subversively or as escapism---<:ategories committed journalism In a popular form and rendered politically palatable by the
which are always relative to thc given historical and social context. 1 fictionalized trcatment, his Mysteres de Paris were intended to crusade on such issucs
as public heallth, prostitution, ovcrcrowding and slum houslllg, sanitation. black-
In the cinema, Griffith is a good examplc. Using identical dramatIc devices and
market racketeering, corruption in govcrnment cireles, opium smoking and gambling.
cinematic techniqucs. he could, with Intolerance, Way Down East or Broken Blos-
Sue exploited a "reactionary" form for reformist cnds, and his success, both literary and
soms, create, if not exactly subversive, at any rate socially committed melodramas,
practical, proved him right. Twenty years later Victor Hugo. who had learnt as much
whercas Birth of a Nation or Orphans of the Storm are classic examples of how
from Sue as Sue had picked up from NOtre-Dame de Paris. produced with Les Misera-
melodramatic effects can successfully shift explicit political thcmcs onto a personalised
bles a super-melodrama spectacular which must stand as the crowning achievement of
plane. In both cases, Griffith tailored ideological conAicts into emotionallv loaded
the gcnrc in the novel. The career of Jean Val jean, from convict and galley slave to
family situations. .
factory owner and capitalist, his fall and literal emergence from the sewers of Paris to
become a somewhat unwilling activist in thc 1848 Revolution, is staged with the help
The persistence of the melodrama might indicate the ways in which popular
of mistaken identities, orphans suddenly discovering their noble birth, inconvenient
culture has not only taken note of social crises and the fact that the losers are not always
rcappearance of people long thought dcad, hair-breadth escapes and rescues, multiple
those who deserve it most, but has also rcsolutely refused to understand social change
disguises, long-suffering females dying of consumption or wandering for days through
in other than private contexts and emotional terms. In this, therc is obviollsly a healthy
the streets in scarch of their child-and yet, through all this, Hugo expresses a halluci-
distrust of intellectualisation and abstract social theory-insisting that othcr structures
nating vision of the anxiety, the moral confusion, the emotional demands, in short, the
of experience (those of suffering. for instance) are marc in keeping with reality. But it
metaphysics of social change and urban life betwween thc time of Waterloo and 1848.
has also meant ignorance of the properly social and political dimensions of these
Hugo evidently wanted to bring together in a popular form subjective experiences of
ehangcs and their causality. and consequently it has encouraged increasingly escapist
crises. while kceping track of the grand lines of Francc's history, and he succeeds
forms of mass entertainment.
singularly well in reproducing the ways individuals with different social backgrounds,
However. this ambivalence about the "structures" of cxperience, endemic in the
levels of awareness and imaginations, respond to objective changes in the social fabric
melodramatic mode. has served artists throughout the 19th century for the dcpiction of
a vancty of thcmes and social phcnomena, whilc remaining WIthin the popular idiom. of their lives. For this. the melodrama, with its shifts in mood, its different tempi and
Industrialisation, urbanisation and nascent cntrepreneurial capitalism have found the mixing of stylistic levels. is ideally suited: Les Miserables, even more so than the
their most telling literary embodiment in a type of novel clearly indebtcd to the novels of Dickens, lets through a symholic dimension of psychic truth, with thc hero in
melodrama, and thc national liberals in Italy during the Risorgimento. for example, turn reprcsenting very nearly the id, the supercgo and finally the sacrificed ego of a
saw thcir political aspirations reAected in Verdi's operas (cf. the opening of Visconti's repressed and paranoid ociety.
Sensa). In England, Dickens, Collins and Reade relied heavily on melodramatic plots Balzac. on the other hand, uses melodramatic plots to a rather different end. Many
to sharpen social conAicts and portray an urban environment where chance encoun- of his novels deal with the dynamics of early capitalist economics. The good/cvil
ters, coincidences, and the side-by-side existence of extreme social and moral contrasts dichotomy has almost disappeared. and the Maniehean conAicts have shifted away
wcre the natural products of the very conditions of existcnce-crowded tenement from questions of morality to the paradoxes of psychology and economics. What we
houses, narrow streets backing on to the better residential property, and other facts of sec is a Schopenhaucrian struggle of the will: thc ruthlessness of industrial entrcpre-
urban demography of the time. Dickens in particular uses the element of chance, the neurs and bankers, the spectacle of an uprooted, "decadent" aristocracy still holding
dream/waking, horrorlbliss switches in Oliver Twist or Tale o{Two Cities partly to feel tremendous political power, the sudden twists of fortune with no-good parasites becom-
IllS way towards a portrayal of existential insccurity and moral anguish which fiction
ing millionaires overnight (or vice vcrsa) through speculation and the stock exchange,
had previously not encompassed, but also to explore depth-psychological phenomena, the antics of hangers-on, parvenus and cynical artist-intellectuals, the demonic, spcll-
for which the melodrama-as Freud was later to confirm-has supplied the dynamic binding potency of money and capital, the contrasts between abysmal poverty and
motifs and the emotional-pictorial decor. What seems to me important in this form of unheard-of affluence and waste which characterized the "anarchic" phase of industrial-
melodrama (and one comes across a similar conception in the sophisticated Hollywood isation and high finance, were experienccd by Balzac as both vital and melodramatic.
melodramas) is the emphasis Dickcns places on discontinuity, on the evidence of His work reAects this more in style than through direct comment.
74 Thomas Elsaesser Tales a/Sound and Fury 75

To sum up: these writers understood the melodrama as a form which carried its own tion of the problem can be found in the account which Lilian Ross gives of how
values and already embodied its own significant contcnt: it served as the literary equiva- Cottfried Reinhard and Dore Shary reedited John Huston's Red Badge of Courage to
lent of a particular. historically and socially conditioncd mode ofeX/Jeriellce. Even if the give it a smooth dramatic shape. with build-ups and elimaxes in the proper order,
situations and sentiments defied all categories of vcrsimilitude and were totally unlike which is exactly what Huston had wanted to avoid when he shot it. \
anything in real life, the structure had a truth and a life of its own, which an artist could Because it had to rely on piano accompaniment for punctuation, all silent film
make part of hi 5 material. This meant that those who consciously adopted melodramatic drama-from True Hearl Susie to Foolish Wives or The Lodger-is "melodramatic." It
techniques of presentation did not necessarily do so out of incompetence nor always meant that directors had to develop an extremely subtle and yet precise formal lan-
from a cynical distance, but, by turning a body of techniques into a stylistic principle that guage (of lighting, staging. decor, acting, e1ose-up, montage and camera movement),
carried the distinct overtones of spiritual crisis, they could put the finger on the texture of because they were deliberately looking for ways to compensate for the expressiveness,
their social and human material while still being free to shape this material. for there is range of inAection and tonality, rhythmic emphasis and tension normally present in
little doubt that the whole conception of life in 19th-century Europe and England, and the spoken word. Having had to replace that part of language which is sound, directors
especially the spiritual problems of the age, were often viewed in categories we would like Murnau, Renoir, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi, Hawks. Lang, Sternberg achieved in
today call mc1odramatic--one can sec this in painting, architecture. the ornamentation their films a high degrce (well recognised at the time) of plasticity in the modulation of
of gadgets and furniture, the domestic and public mise-en-scene of events and occa- optical planes and spatial masses which Panofsky rightly identified as a "dynamisation
sions. the oratory in parliament, the traetarian rhetoric from the pulpit as well as the of space."
more private manifestations of religious sentiment. Similarly, the timeless themes that Among less gifted directors this sensitivity in the deployment of expressive means
Dostoyevsky brings up again and again in his novels-guilt, redemption, justice, inno- was partly lost with the ad\~nt of direct sound. since it seemed no longer necessary in a
cence, freedom-are made specific and historically real not least because he was a great strictly technical sense-pictures "worked" on audiences through their dialogue, and
writer of mc10dramatie scenes and confrontations, and they more than anything else the semantic force of language overshadowed the more sophisticated pictorial effects
define that powerful irrational logic in the motivation and moral outlook of. say, and architectural values. This perhaps helps to explain why some major technical
Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov or Kirilov. Finally, how different Kafka's novels would he. innovations, such as colour, wide screen and deep-focus lenses. crane and dolly, have
if they did not contain those melodramatic family situations, pushed to the point where in fact encouraged a new form of sophisticated melodrama. Directors (quite a sizeable
they reveal a dimension at once comic and tragically absurd-perhaps the existential proportion of whom came during the 30s from Germany, and others were clearly
undertow of all genuine melodrama. indebted to German expressionism and Max Reinhardt's methods of theatrical mise-
en-scene) began showing a similar degree of visual culture as the masters of silent film
drama: Ophuls, Lubitsch, Sirk, Preminger, Welles, Losey, Ray, Minnelli, Cukor.
Considered as an expressIve code, melodrama might therefore be described as a
Putting Melos into Drama particular form of dramatic mise-en-scene, characterised by a dynamic use of spatial
and musical categories, as opposed to intellectual or literary ones. Dramatic situations
are given an orchestration which will allow for complex aesthetic patterns: indeed,
orchstration is fundamental to the American cinema as a whole (being essentially a
In its dictionary sense, melodrama is a dramatic narrative in dramatic cinema. spectacular, and based on a broad appeal) because it has drawn the
which musical accompaniment marks the emotional effects. This is still perhaps the aesthetic consequences of having the spoken word more as an additional "melodic"
most useful definition, because it allows melodramatic elements to be seen as constitu- dimension than as an autonomous semantic discourse. Sound, whether musical or
ents of a system of punctuation, giving expressive colour and chromatic contrast to the verbal, acts first of all to give the illusion of depth to the moving image, and by helping
storyline, by orchestrating the emotional ups and downs of the intrigue. The advantage to create the third dimension of the spectacle, dialogue becomes a scenic element,
of this approach is that it formulates the problems of melodrama as problems of style along with more directly visual means of the mise-en-scene. Anyone who has ever had
and articulation. the bad luck of watching a Hollywood movie dubbed into French or German will
Music in melodrama, for example, as a device among others to dramatize a givcn know how important diction is to the emotional resonance and dramatic continuity.
narrative, is subjective, programmatic. But because it is also a form of punctuation in Duhbing makes the best picture seem visually Aat and out of sync: it destroys the Aow
the above sense, it is hoth functional (i.e., of structural significance) and thematic on which the coherence of the illusionist spectacle is built.
(i.e., belonging to the expressive content) because used to formulate certain moods- That the plasticity of the human voice is quite consciously employed by directors
sorrow. violence, dread, suspense, happiness. The syntactic function of music has. as for what are oftcn thematic ends is known: Hawks trained Lauren Bacall's voice so that
is well known. survived into the sound film, and the experiments conducted by Hanns she could he given "male" lines in To Have Gild Have Not, an effect which Sternberg
Eisler and T W Adorno are highly instructive in this respect. 4 A practical demonstra- anticipated when he took great care to cultivate Marlene Dietrich's diction, and it is
Thoma" f:/saesscr Tales o{Sound and Fury 77

hard to miss the psychoanalytic significance of Robert Stack's voice in Writtell on the Four Horsemen, when Glenn Ford and Ingrid Thulin go for a ride to Versaillcs, but
Wind, sounding as if every word had 10 be painfully pumpcd up from thc bottom of which in fact tells and foretells the whole trajectory of their relationship.
one of his oil-wells. Sirk, too, often constructs his films in this way; the restlessness of Written on the
If it is truc that speech in thc American cinema loses some of its semantic impor- Wind is not unconnectcd With the fact that he almost always cuts on movemcnt. His
tance in favour of its matcrial aspects as sound, then conversely lighting, composition, visual metaphors really ought to have a chapter to themselves; a yellow sports-car
decor increasc their semantic and syntactic contribution to the aesthetic cffcct. They drawing up the gravelled driveway to stop in front of a pair of shining white Doric
bccome functIOnal and integral elements in the constmction of meaning. This is th~ columns outside the Hadley mansion is not only a powcrful piece of American iconog-
justification for giving critical importance to the mise-en-scenc ovcr intellectual con- raphy, especially whcn taken in a plunging high-angle shot, but the contrary associa-
tcnt or story-valuc. It is also the reason why the domestic melodrama in colour and tions of imperial splendour and vulgar materials (polishcd chrome-plate and stucco
wide scrcen, as it appeared in thc 40's and 50's, is perhaps thc most highly elaborated, plaster) create a tension of correspondenccss and dissimilarities in the same image,
complex mode of cincmatic signification that the American cinema has cvcr pro- which perfectly crystallizes as the decadent afAuence and melancholy energy that give
duced, because of the restrictcd scope for external action determined by the subject. the film its uncanny fascination. Sirk has a peculiarly vivid eye for thc contrasting
and becausc everything, as Sirk said, happens "inside." To the "sublimation" of thc cmotional qualities of textures and matcrials, and he combines thcm or makes them
action picturc and the Busby Berkeley/Lloyd Bacon musical into domestic and family clash to very striking effect, cspecially when they occur in a non-dramatic scquence;
melodrama corresponded a sublimation of dramatic conAict into decor, colour, gesture again in Written on the Wind, after thc funeral of Hadley Sr., a black scrvant is seen
and composition of framc, which in the best melodramas is perfectly thematised in taking an oleander wreath off the front gatc. A black silk ribbon gcts unstuck and is
tcrms of the charactcrs' emotional and psychological prcdicaments. blown by the wind along,the concretc path. Thc camera follows lhe movement,
For cxample, when in ordinary language we call something melodramatic, what we dissolvcs and dollies in on a window, where Laurcn Bacal!. in an olcander-green drcss,
often mean is an exaggeratcd risc-and-fall pattern in human actions and emotional is just about to disappear behind thc curtains. Thc scene has no plot significancc
responses, a from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous movement, a foreshortcning of lived whatsoever. But the colour parallels black/grecn, grcen/grecn, white concretc/white
time in favour of intensity-all of which produces a graph of much greater Auctuation, lacc curtains provide an extremely strong emotional rcsonance in which the contrast of
a quicker swing from one extrcme to the other than is considercd natural, realistic or in soft silk blown along the hard concretc is registered the more forcefully as a disquieting
conformity with literary standards of versimilitude; in the novel we like to sip our visual association. The dcsolation of thc scene transfcrs itself onto thc Bacall character,
pleasures, rather than gulp thcm. But if we look at, say, Minnclli, who has adapted and the traditional fatalistic association of the wind reminds us of the futility implied in
some of his best melodramas (The Cobweb, Some Came Running, Home from the Hill, thc movie's title,
Two Weeks in Another Town, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) from gencrally These effects, of course, rcquire a highly self-conscious stylist, hut they are by no
cxtremely long, circumstantially detailed popular novels (by James Jones, Irving Shaw means rare in Hollywood. The fact that commercial necessities, political censorship and
et al.), it is casy to sec how in thc process of having to reducc 7 to 9 hours' reading thc various morality codes restricted directors in what they could tackle as a subject has
matter to 90-odd minutcs. such a morc violcnt "melodramatic" graph almost incvita- entailed a different awarencss of what constitutcd a worthwhile subject, a change in
bly produces itself. short of the narrativc bccoming incoherent. Whcrcas in novels. orientation from which sophisticatcd mclodrama bencfitcd perhaps most. ot only did
cspecially when they are staple pulp fare, sizc connotes solid emotional involvcment they provide a dcfined thematic paramcter, but thcy encouraged a conscious use of style-
for the readcr, the specific values of the cinema lie in its concentratcd visual mctaphors as-meaning, which is a mark of what I would consider to be the very condition of a
and dramatic acceleration rather than in the fictional techniqucs of dilation. Thc modernist sensibility working in popular culturc. To take anothcr example from
commercial necessity of compression (being also a formal one) is taken by Minnclli Minnelli; his cxistential theme of a character trying to cnstruct the world in the image of
into lhc films thcmselves and developed as a theme-that of a pcrvasive psychological an inncr self, only to discover that this world has become uninhabitable because it is both
pressure on the characters. An acutc sense of claustrophobia in decor and locale frighteningly suffocating and intolerably lonely (The Long, Long Trailer, The Cobweb) is
translatcs itself into a restless and yet suppressed energy surfacing sporadically in the transformed and given social significance in the stock melodrama theme of the woman
actions and the bchaviour of thc protagonists-which is part of the subject of a film like who, having failed to makc it in the big city, comes back to the small-town home in the
Two Weeks in Another Town, with hysteria bubbling all the time just below the surface. hope of finding her truc place at last, but who is made miscrable by mean-mindedness
The feeling that there is always more to tell than can bc said leads to very consciously and bigotry and then suffocated by the sheer wcight of her none-too-glorious, still
elliptical narratives, procccding often by visually condensing thc characters' motiva- ruefully remembered past (Hilda Crane, Beyond the Forest, All I Desire).6 But in
tion into sequences of imagcs which do not seem to advance the plot. The shot of the Minnelli, it bccomes an opportunity to explore in concrete circumstances the more
Trcvi fountain at the end of a complex scene wherc Kirk Douglas is making up his philosophical questions of freedom and determinism, especially as they touch the aes-
mind in Two Weeks is such a metaphoric condensation. and so is the silent sequence, thetic problem of how to depict a charactcr who is not constantly extcrnalising himself
consisting entirely of what might appcar to be merely impressionistic dissolvcs, in the into action, without thereby trapping him in an environmcnt of ready-made symbolism.
Thomas Elsaesser Tales of Sound and Pury 79
Similarly, when Robert Stack shows Lauren BacaJl her hotel suite in Written on the nist to act in a way that could shape the events and inRuence the emotional environ-
Wind, where everything from Rowers and pictures on the wall to underwear, nailpolish ment. let alone change the stiAing social milieu. The world is closed. and the charac-
and handbag is provided, Sirk not only characterizes a rich man wanting to take over ters are acted upon. Melodrama confers on them a negative identity through suffering,
the woman he fancies body and soul, or the oppressive nature of an unwanted gift. He and the progressive self-immolation and disillusionment gcnerally ends in resignation:
is also making a direct comment on the Hollywood stylistic technique that "creates" a they emerge as lesser human beings for having become wise and acquiescent to the
character out of the elements of the decor. and that prefers actors who can provide as ways of the world.
blank a facial surface and as little of a personality as possible. The difference can be put in another way. In one case, the drama moves towards its
resolution by having the central conAicts successively externahsed and projected into
Everyone who has at all thought abont the Hollywood aesthetic wants to formulate direct action. A jail-break, a bank robbery, a Western chase or cavalry charge, and even
one of its peculiar qualities: that of direct emotional involvement, whether one calls it a criminal investigation lend themselves to psychologized, thematised representations
"giving resonance to dramatic situations" or "Reshing out thc cliche" or whether, more of the heroes' inner dilemmas and frequently appear that way (Walsh's White Heat or
abstractly, one talks In tcrms of identification patterns, empathy and catharsis. Sincc They Died with Their Boots On, Losey's The Criminal, Preminger's Where the Side-
the Amcrican cinema, determined as it is by an ideology of thc spcctacle and thc walk Ends). The same is true of the mclodrama in the serie noire tradition, where thc
spectacular, is essentially dramatic (as opposed to lyrical, i.c., concerned with mood or hero is eggcd on or blackmailed by the femme fatale-the smell of honeysuckle and
the inner self) and not conceptual (dealing with ideas and the structures of cognition death in Double Indemnity, Out of the Past or Detour-into a course of action which
and perception), the creation or reenactment of situations which the spectator can pushes him further and further in one direction, opening a narrowing wedge of equally
identify with and recognise (whether this recognition is on thc conscious or uncon- ineluctable consequences, that usually lead the hero to wishing his own death as the
scious level is another matter) depends to a large extent on the aptness of the iconogra- ultimate act of liberation, but where the mechanism of fate at least allows him to
phy (the "visualisation") and on the quality (complexity, subtlety, ambiguity) of the express his existential revolt in strong and strongly anti-social behavior.
orchcstration for what are trans-individual, popular mythological (and therefore gener- Not so in the domestic melodrama: the social pressures are such, the frame of
ally considered culturally "lowbrow") experiences and plot structures. In other words, respcctability so sharply defined that the range of "strong" actions is limited. The
thiS typc of cinema depends on the ways "melos" IS given to "drama" by mcans of tellingly impotent gesture, the social gaffe, the hysterical outburst replaces any more
lighting, montage, visual rhythm, decor, style of acting, music-that is. on the ways directly liberating or self-annhilating action, and the cathartic violencc of a shoot-out
the mise-en-scene translates character into action (not unlike the pre-Jamesian novel) or a chase becomes an inner violence, often one which the characters turn against
and action into gesture and dynamic space (comparable to 19th-century opera and themselves. The dramatic configuration, the pattern of the plot makes them, regardless
ballet). of attempts to break free, constantly look inwards, at each other and themselves. The
This granted, there seems to be a further problem which has some bearing on the characters are, so to speak, each others' sole referent, there is no world outside to be
question of melodrama: although the techniques of audience orientation and the acted on, no reality that could be defined or assumed unambiguously. In Sirk, of
possibility of psychic projection on the part of the spcctator are as much in evidence in course, they arc locked into a universe of real and metaphoric mirrors, but quite
a melodrama like Home from the Hill or Splendor in the Grass as they are in a Western generally, what is typical of this form of melodrama is that the characters' behaviour is
or adventure picture, the differcnce of setting and milieu affects the dynamic of the often pathetically at variance with the real objectives they want to achieve. A sequence
action. In the Western especially, the assumption of "open" spaces is virtually axio- of substitute aetions creates a kind of vicious circle in which the close nexus of cause
matic; it is indeed one of the constants which makes the form pcrennially attractive to a and effect is somehow broken and-in an often overtly Freudian sense--displaced.
largely urban audicnce. This openness becomes problematic in films that deal with James Dean in East of Eden thinks up a method of cold storage for lettuce, grows beans
potential "melodrama" themes and family situations. The complex father-son relation- to sell to the Army, falls in love with Julie Harris, not to make a pile of money and live
ships in The Left-Handed Cun, the Cain-Abel themes of Mann's Westerns (Winchester happily with a beautiful wife, but in order to win the love of his father and oust his
73, Bend of the River), the conAict of virility and mother-fixation in some of Tour- brother-neither of which he achievcs. Although very much on the surface of Kazan's
neur's Wcsterns (Great Day in the Morning, Wichita) or the search for the mother (_ film, this is a conjunction of puritan capitalist ethic and psychoanalysis which is
country) in Fuller's Run of the Arrow seem to find resolution because the hero can act sufficiently pertinent to the American mclodrama to remain exemplary.
positively on the changing situations where and when they present themselves. In The melodramas of Ray, Sirk or Minnelli do not deal with this displacement-by-
Raoul Walsh's adventure pictures, as Peter Lloyd has shown,7 identity comes in an substitution directly, but by what one might call an intensified symbolisation of every-
often paradoxical process of self-confirmation and overreaching-but always through day actions, the heightening of the ordinary gesture and a use of setting and decor so as
dircct action. while thc momentum generated by the conAicts pushes thc protagonists to reRect the characters' fetishist fixatiems. Violent feelings are given vent on "overdeter-
forward in an unrelentingly linear course. mined" objects (James Dean kicking his father's portrait as he storms out of the house
The family melodrama. by contrast, though dealing largely with the same Oedipal in Rebel Without a Cause), and aggressiveness is worked out by proxy. In such films,
themes of emotional and moral idcntity, more often records the f.1ilure of the protago- the plots havc a quite noticeable propensity to form a circular pattern, which .in Ray
Thomas Elsaesse, Tales o{Sound and Fury 8/
i~volves an almost geometrical variation of triangle into circle and vice versa. 8 whereas adolescent maladjustments of a wider social significance. Individual initiative is per-
Sirk (nomen est omen) often suggests in his circles the possibility of a tangent detaching ccived as problematic in explicitly political terrris (All tJ,eKing's'Men):'art'cr having
Itsclf-the full-Circle construction of Written em the Wind with its linear coda of the previously becn merely stoically and heroically anti-social, as in the film nair. The
Hudson-Bacall relationship at the end, or even more visually apparcnt, the circular external world is more and more riddled with obstacles which oppose themselves to
race around the pylons in Tarnished Angels broken when Dorothy Malonc's plane in personal ambitions and are not simply overcome by the hero's assertion of a brawny or
thc last Imagc soars past the fatal pylon into an unlimited sky. brainy libido. In Mann's Westerns thc madness at the heart of thc James Stewart
It is pcrhaps not too fanciful to suggcst that the structural changes from linear character only occasionally breaks through an otherwise calm and controlled surface.
cxtcrnahsalJon of action to a sublimation of dramatic values into more complex forms like a strong subterranean current suddenly appearing abovc ground as an inhuman
of symbolisation. and which I take to be a central characteristic of thc melodramatic and yet somehow poetically apt thirst for vengeancc and primitive Biblical justicc.
tradition in the American cinema, can be followed through on a more gcneral level where the will to survive is linked to certain old-fashioned cultural and moral values-
where it reAccll a change in the hIstory of dramatic forms and the articulation of of dignity, honour and rcspect. In the films ofSirk, an uncompromising fundamentally
energy in the American cinema as a whole. innoccnt energy is graduall)' turned away from simple, direct fulfillment by the emer-
As I have tried to show in an earlicr article (Monogram. no. I), one of thc typical gence of a conscience, a sense of guilt and responsibility, or the awareness of moral
featurcs of the classical Hollywood movic has been that the hero was defined dynami- complexity, as in Magnificent Obsession, Sign of the Pagan, All That Heaven Allows
cally, as the centre of a continuous movement, often both from sequencc to sequcnce and even Interlude-a theme which in Sirk is always interpreted in terms of cultural
as well as within the individual shot. It is a fact of perception that in order to get its decadence.
bearing, the eye adjusts almost automatically to whatever moves, and movement,
together with sound, completes the realistic illusion. It was on thc basis of sheer
physical movement, for example, that the musicals of the 30's (Lloyd Bacon's 42nd
Street bcing perhaps the most spcctacular example). the gangster movie and the B-
Where Freud Left His Marx in
thriller of the 40's and early 50's could subsist with the Aimsiest of plots, an almost total
absence of individual characterisation and rarely any big stars. These deficiencies wcre
the American Home
madc up by focming to the point of exaggcration on the drive, thc obscssion, the idee
fixe, that IS to say, by a concentration on the purely kinetic-mechanical e1emcnts of There can be little doubt that the postwar popularity of the family
11lIman motivation. Thc pattern is most evidcnt in the gangster genre, wherc the melodrama in Hollywood is partly connected with the fact that in thosc years America
single-mindcd purSUIt of moncy and power is followed by the equally single-minded discovcred Freud. This is not the place to analyse the rcasons why the United States
and peremptory pursuit of physical survival. ending in the hcro's apotheosis through should havc become the country in which his theories found their most enthusiastic
\'Iolent death. This curve of rise and fall-a wholly stylised and external pattcrn which reception anywhcre, or why they became such a decisive influence on American
takes on a moral significance--ean be seen in movies like Undenvorld, Little Caesar, ., but the connections of Freud with melodrama are as complex as they are
The Roaring Twenties, Legs Diamond and dcpends essentially on narrative pace, undeniable. An intcresting fact, for cxample, is that Hollywood tackled Freudian
though It pcrmits intercsting variations and complexitics, as in Fuller's Underworld themes in a particularly "romantic" or gothic guise, thlOugh a cyele of movies inaugu-
USA. A sophisticated director, such as Hawks, has used speed of delivery and the rated possibly by Hitchcock's first big American success, Rebecca. Relating his Victori-
pulsating energy of action to comic effect (Scarface, 20th Century) and has even anism to the Crawford-Stanwyck-Davis type "women's picture," which for obvious
applied it to films whose dramatic structure did uot naturally demand such a treatment reasons became a major studio concern during the war years and found its apotheosis
(notably H,s Girl Friday). In fact, Hawks's rcputed stoicism is itsclf a dramatmgical in such movies as John Cromwell's Since YOIl Went Awa)' (to the front, that is),
deVice, whereby sentimentality and cynicism arc played so close together and played so Hitchcock infuscd his film, and several others, with an unique intimation of female
fast that the result is an emotional hot-cold shower wh,ch is apt to numb the spectator's frigidity producing strange fantasies of persecution, rape and death-masochistic rever-
sensibility into feeling a sustained moral charge. where thcre is more often simply a ies and nightmares, which cast thc husband into the role of the sadistic murderer. T~is
vcry skIlled SWItchboard manipulation of thc same hasie voltage. (I am thinking espe- projection of sexual anxiety and its mechanisms of displacement and transfer is trans-
Cially of films hke Only Angels Have Wings). lated into a whole string of movies often involving hypnosis and playing on the
This unrelenting intcrnal combustion enginc of physical and psychic energy, genen- ambiguity and suspense of whether the wife is merely imagining it or whether her
cally excmphfied by the hard-boiled. crackling aggrcssiveness of the screwball comedy, husband really docs have murderous designs on hcr: Hitchcock's atoriolls and Suspi-
butwluch Walsh diagnosed in his Cagney heroes as psychotic (White Heat) and a cious, Minnelli's Undercurrent, Cukor's Gaslight, Sirk's Sleep My Love, Toumeur's
vehIcle for extrcme redneck republicanism (A Lion in the Streets), shows signs of a Experiment Peri/olls, Lang's Secret Beyond the Door all belong in this category, as does
dcfinite slowing-down in the 50's and early 60's, where raucous vitalit)iand ;':;st;~tu'll Preminger's Whirlpool, and in a widcr sense Renoir's Woman on the Beach. What
"lust for lifc" is deepened psychologically to intimate ncuroses and adolescent or not so strikcs one abollt this list is not only thc high number of European emigres cntrusted
Thomas Elsaesse' Tales of Sound and Fury 83
with such projects, but that virtually all of the major directors of family melodramas
plot build up to an evidently catastrophic collision of counterrunning sentiments, but a
(except Rad in the 50's had a (usually not entirely successful) crack at the freudian
string of delays gets the greatest possible effect from the elash when it docs come. In
feminist melodrama in the 40's.
Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful Lana Turner plays an alcoholic actress who has
More challenging, and difficult to prove, is the speculation that certain stylistic and been "rescued" by producer Kirk Douglas giving her a new start in the movies. After
structural features of the sophisticated melodrama may involve prineiple's of sym-
the premier, Aushed with succcss, self-confident for the first time in years, and in
bolisation and coding which Freud conceptualised in his analysis of dreams and later happy anticipating of celebrating with Douglas, with whom she has fallen in love, she
also applied in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life. I am thinking less of the preva- drives to his home armed with a bottle of champagne. However, we already know that
lence of what Freud called Symptomhandlungen or Fehlhandlwlgen, that is. slips of Douglas isn't emotionally interested in her ('" need an actress, not a wife," he later tells
the tongue or other projections of inner states into interpretable overt behaviour. This her) and is spending the evening with a "broad" in his bedroom. Lana Turtler, suspect-
is a way of symbolising and signalling attitudes common to the American cinema in ing nothing, is met by Douglas at the foot of the stairs, and she, at first too engrossed in
virtually every genre. However, there is a certain refinement in the melodr.alIla=il herself to notice how cool he is, collapses when the other woman suddenly appears at
becomes part of the c~~.;;p~sit-io~ of the frame. mo-re subiimi~any a~d~;~btrusivel\' the top of the stairs in Douglas's dressing gown. Her nervous breakdown in the car is
transmitted to the spectator. When Minnelli's characters find themselves in ~~~o'­ conveyed by headlights Aashing against her windscreen like a barrage of foot-lights and
tionally precariollS or contradictory situation, it often affects the "balance" of the visual arc-lamps.
composition-wine glasses. a picee of china or a trayful of drinks emphasize thc This letting the emotions rise and then bringing them suddenly down with a thump
fragility of their situation-e.g., Judy Garland over breakfast in The Clock, Richard is an extreme example of dramatic discontinuity, and a similar, vertiginous drop in the
Wid mark in The Cobweb explaining himself to Gloria Grahame, or Gregory Peck emotional temperature punctuates a good many melodramas-almost invariably
trying to make his girlfriend see why he married someone e1sc in Designing Women.
When Robert Stack in Written on the Wind. standing by the window he has just
played out against the vertical axis of a staircase.
'n one of the most paroxysmic
montage sequences that the American cinema has known, Sirk has Dorothy Malone
opened to get some fresh air into an extremely heavy family atmosphere. hears of in Written on the Wind dance on her own, like some doomed goddess from a Diony-
Lauren l3acall expecting a baby, his misery becomes eloquent by the way he squeezes sian mystery, while her father is collapsing on the stairs and dying from a heart-attack.
himself into the frame of the half-open window, every word his wifc says to him Again, in Imitation of Life, John Gavin gets the brush-off from Lana Turner as they are
bringing torment to his lacerated soul and racked body. going down the stairs, and in All I Desire Barbara Stanwyck has to disappoint her
Along similar lines, I have in mind the kind of "condensation" of motivation into daughter about not taking her to New York to become an actress, after the girl has been
metaphoric images or sequences of images mentioned earlier, the relation that exists in rushing downstairs to tell her father the good news. Ray's use of the staircase for similar
freudian dream-work between manifest dream material and latent dream content. Just emotional effects is well known and most spectacular in Bigger than Life, but to give an
as in dreams certain gestures and incidents mean something by their structure and example from another director, Henry King, I'd like to quote a scene from Margie, a
sequencc, rather than by what they literally represent, the melodrama oftcn works, as I film following rather elosely Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis, where the heroine,
have tried to show, by a displaced emphasis, by substitute acts, by parallel situations and Jeanne Crain, about to be taken to the graduation ball by a blind date (whom we know
meta phoTIc connections. In dreams one tends to "usc" as dream material incidents and to be hcr father) since her poetry-loving bespectacled steady has caught a cold, comes
circumstances from one's waking experience during the previous day, in order to "code" tearing down from her bedroom when she hears that the French master, on whom she
them, whilc nevertheless keeping a kind of emotional logic going, and even condensing has a crush, has dropped in. She virtually rips the bouquet of Aowers out of his hands
their images into what, during the dream at least, seems an inevitable sequence. Melo- and is overwhelmed by joy. With some embarrassment, he has to explain that he is
dramas often use middle-elass American society, its iconography and the family experi- taking somebody else to the ball, that he only came to return her papers, and Margie,
ence in just this way as their manifest "material," but "displace" it into quite different mortified, humiliated and cringing with shame, has just enough time to get back
patterns, juxtaposing stereotypcd situations in strange configurations, provoking elashes upstairs before she dissolves in tears.
and ruptures which not only open up new associations but also redistribute the emo- While this may not sound terribly profound on paper, the visual orchestration of
tional cnergies which suspense and tensions have accumulated. m disturbingly different such a scene can produce some rather strong emotional effects and the strategy of
dircctions. American movies, for example, often manipulate very shrewdly situations of building up to a climax so as to throttle it the more abruptly is a form of dramatic
extreme embarrassment (a blocking of emotional energy) and acts or gestures of violence revcrsal by which Hollywood directors have consistently criticised the streak of incur-
(direct or indirect releasc) in order to create patterns of aesthetic significance which only ably naive moral and emotional idealism in the American psyche, first by showing it to
a musical vocabulary might be able to describe accurately, and for which a psychologist be often indistinguishable from the grossest kind of illusion and self-delusion, and then
or anthropologist might offer some explanation. by forcing a confrontation when it is most wounding and contradictory. The emotional
One of the prineiplcs involved is that of continuity and discontinuity (what Sirk has extremes are played off in such a way that they reveal an inherent dialectic, and the
called the "rhythm of the plot"). A typical situation in American melodramas has the uodeniable psychic energy contained in this seemingly so vulnerable sentimentality is
Thoma.< Elsaess", Tales of SOUlld alld Fur)' 1i5
utilised to furnish its own antidote, to bring home the discontinuities in the structures
where the world seems totally predetermined and pervaded by "meaning" and interpret-
of emotional experience which give a kind of realism and toughness rarc if not unthink- able signs.
able in the Europcan cincma.
This marks another rccurrent feature. already touched on, that of desire focusing
on the unobtainable objcct. The mechanisms of displacemcnt and transfer, in an
enelosed lield of pressure, open a highly dynamic yet discontinuous eyele of non-
What makcs these discOtltinuitics in thc melodrama so effective is that they occur. fullilment, where discontinuity creates a universe of powerfully emotional but
as it were, nnder pressure. Although the kinctics of the American cinema are gcnerallv obliquely related lixations. In melodrama, violence, the strong action, the dynamic
directcd towards creating pressure and nwnipulating it (as suspense, for example). the movement, the full articulation and the Ae.shed-out emotions-so characteristic of thc
melodrama presents in some wavs a special case. In thc Western or the thriller, Amcrican cinema-become the very signs of the characters' alienation, and thus serve
suspense is generatcd by the linear organisation of the plot and the action, together to formulate a devastating critique of the ideology that supports it.
with the kind of "pressure" which the spectator brings to the lilm by way of anticipation Minnelli and Sirk are exceptional directors in this respect not least because they
and a priori expectations of what he hopcs to sec; melodrama, howevcr, has to accom- handle stories with four, live or sometimes six characters all tied up in a single conligllTa-
modate the later type of pressure, as already indicated. in what amounts to a relatively tion, and yet give each of them an cven thematic emphasis and an independent point of
"closed" world. view. Such skill involves a particular "musical" gift and a very sensitive awareness of the
This is emphasi7.ed hy the function of the decor and the symbolisation of objects; harmonising potential contained in contrasting material and the structural implications
the setting of the family melodrama almost by delinition is the middle-class home, of different characters' motives. Films like Home from the Hill, The Cobweb, Tarnished
lilled with objects, which in a lilm like Philip Dunne's Hilda Crane, typical of the Angels or Written on the Wind strike one as "objective" lilms, since they do not have a
genrc in this respect, surround the heroine in a hierarchy of apparent ordcr that central hcro (even though there may be a gravitational pull towards one of the protago-
becomes increasingly suffoc'lting. From father's armchair in the living room and nists) and nonetheless they cohere, mainly because each of the characters' predicaments
mother's knitting to the upstairs bedroom, where after live years' absence dolls and is madc plausible in terms that relate to the problems of the others. The lilms arc built
teddies are still neatly arranged on the bedsprcad, home not only overwhclms Ililda architecturally, hy a combination of structural tensions and articulated parts, and the
with images of p"rcntal oppression and a rcpressed past (which indirectly provoke her overall design appears only retrospectively, as it were, when with the linal coda of
explosive outbursts that sustain the action), it also brings out the characteristic attempt appeasement the edilice is complete and the spectator can stand back and look at the
of the bourgeois household to make timc stand still, immohilise life and lix forever pattern. But thcre is, espceially in the Minnelli movies, also a wholly "subjective"
domestic propcrty rclations as the model of social life and a bulwark against the more dimcnsion. The lilms (because the parts are so elosely organised around a central theme
disturhing sides in human nature. Thy theme has a particular poignancy in the many or dilemma) can be interpreted as emanating from a single consciousness, which is
lilms about the victimisation and enforced passivity of women-women waiting at testing or experiencing in dramatic form the various options and possibilities Aowing
horne, standing hy the window, caught in a world of objects into which thcy arc from an initially outhned moral or existential contradiction. In The Cobweb John Kerr
cxpectcd to invcst thcir feelings. Since YOIl Went Awa)' has a telling sequence in which wants both total self-expression and a delined human framework in which such freedom
Claudette Colbert, having just taken her husband to the troop train at the station, is meaningful, and George Hamilton in Home from the Hill wants to assume adult
returns home to clear up after the morning's rush. Everything she looks at or touches, rcsponsibilities while at the same time he rejects the standards of adulthood implied in
dressing gown, pipe, wedding picture, breakfast cup, slippers, shaving hrush, the dog, his father's aggressive masculinity, In the latter the drama ends with a "Freudian"
reminds her of her hushand, until she cannot bear the strain and falls on her bed resolution of the father being eliminated at the very point when he has resigned himself
sobbing. The banality of the objects combined with the repressed anxieties and emo- to his loss of supremacy, but this is underpinned by a "Biblical" one which fuses the
tions force a contrast that makes the scene almost epitomise the rclation of decor to mythology of Cain and Abel with that of Abraham blessing his lirst-born. The interweav-
characters in melodrama: the more thc setting lills with objects to which the plot gives ing of motifs is achieved by a series of parallels and contrasts. Set in the South. the story
symbolic signilicance, the more thc characters arc enelosed in seemingly ineluctable concerns the relations of a mother's boy with his tough father, played by Robert
situations. Pressure is generated hy things crowding in on them, life hecomes increas- Mitchum, whose wife so resents his having a bastard son (Ccorge Peppard) that she won't
ingly complicated beeausc cluttcrd with obstacles and objects that invade their person- sleep with him again. The plot progresses through all the possible permutations of the
alities, take them over, stand for them, become morc real than the human rclations or basic situation: lawful son/natural son, sensitive George Hamilton/hypochondriac
emotions they were intended to symholise. mother, tough Ceorge Peppard/tough Robert Mitchum, both boys fancy the same girl,
It is again an instance of Hollywood stylistic devices supporting the themes, or Hamilton gets her pregnant, Peppard marries her, girl's father turns nasty against the
commenting on each other. Melodrama is iconographically lixed bv the claustro- lawful son because of the notorious sex-life of his father, etc. However, because the plot
phobic atmosphere of the bOllTgeois home and/or the small-town setting, its emotional is structured as a series of mirror-reAeetions on the theme oHathers and sons, blood ties
pattern is that of panic and latent hysteria. reinforccd stylistically hy a complex han- and natural aflinities, MinneJli's lihn is a psychoanalytical portrait of the sensitive
dling of space in interiors (Sirk, Ray and Losey particularly excel in thiS) to the pomt adolescent-but placed in a delinite ideological and social context The boy's COnSCiOllS-
86 Thomas Elsaesser Tates o(Soulld and Fury 87

ness, we realise, is made up of what are external forces and circumstances, his dilemma Crane, Days of Wine and Roses). Although alcoholism is too common an emblem in
the result of his social position as heir to his father's estate, unwanted because thought to films and too typical of middlc-class America to descrve a close thematic analysis,
be undeserved, and an upbringing deliberately exploited by his mother in order to get drink docs become interesting in movies where its dynamic significance is developed
even with his father, whose own position as a Texan land-owner and local big-shot forces and its qualities as a visual metaphor recognised: whcrcver characters are seen swallow-
him to compensate for his wife's frigidity by proving his virility with other women. ing and gulping their drinks as if they were swallowing their humiliations along with
Melodrama here becomes the vehicle for diagnosing a single individual in ideological their pride, vitality and the life forcc have become palpably destructive. and a phoney
terms and objective categories, while the blow-by-blow emotional drama creatcs the libido has turned into real anxiety. Written on the Wind is pcrhaps the movie that most
second level. where the subjective aspect (the immediate and necessarily unreReetcd consistently builds on the metaphoric possibilities of alcohol (liquidity, potency, the
experience of the characters) is left intact. The hero's identity. on the other hand. phallic shape of bottles). Not only is its theme an emotional drought thai no amount of
emerges as a kind of picture-puzzle from the various pieces of dramatic action. alcohol, oil pumped by thc dcrricks, or petrol in fast cars and planes can mitigate, it
Home from the Hill is also a perfect example of the principle of substitute acts. also has Robert Stack compensate for his sexual impotence and childhood guilt feel-
mentioned earlier, which is Hollywood's way of portraying the dynamics of alienation. ings by hugging a bottle of raw corn every time he feels suicidal, which he proceeds to
The story is sustained by pressure that is applied indirectly, and by desires that always smash in disgust against the paternal mansion, In one sccne, Stack is making
chase unattainable goals: Mitchum forces Ceorge Hamilton to "become a man" unmlstakeable gestures with an empty Martini bottle in the direclion of his wife, and
though he is temperamentally his mother's son, while Mitchum's "real" son in terms an unconsummatcd rclationship is visually undcrscored when two brimful glasses
of attitudes and character is Ceorge Peppard, whom he cannot acknowledge for social rcmain untouched on the table, as Dorothy Malone does her best to seduce an
reasons. Likewise, Eleanor Parker puts pressure on her son in order to get at Mitchum, unresponsivc Rock Hudson' at the family party, having previously poured her whiskey
and Everett Sloane (the girl's father) takes out on Ceorge Hamilton the sexual hatred into the Rower vase of her rival. Lauren Bacall.
he feels against Mitchum. Finally, after hiS daughter has become pregnan(he goes to Mclodrama is often used to describe tragedy that doesn't quitc come off: either
see Mitchum to put pressure on him to get his son to marry the girl, only to break because the characters think of themselves too self-consciously as tragic or because
down when Mitchum 'hlrns the tables and accuses him of blackmail. It is a pattern the predicament is too evidently fabricated on the level of plot and dramaturgy to
which in an even purer form appears in Written on the Wind. Dorothy Malone wants carry the kind of conviction normally termed "inner necessity." Now, in some Ameri-
Rock Hudson who wants Lauren Bacall who wants Robert Stack who just wants to die. can family melodramas the inadequacy of the characters' responses to their predica-
La ronde d l'americaine. The point is that the melodramatic dynamism of these ment becomcs itself part of the subject. [n Cukor's The Chapman Report and
situations is used by both Sirk and Minnelli to make the emotional impact "carryover'· Minnelli's The Cobweb-two movies explicitly concerned with the impact of Freud-
into the very subdued, apparently ncutral, sequences of images that so often round off ian notions on American society-the protagonists' self-understanding as well as the
a scene and which thereby have a strong lyrical quality. doclors' attempts at analysis and therapy are shown to be either tragically or comically
One of the characteristic features of melodramas in general is that they concentrate inadequate to the situations that the characters are supposed to cope with in evcryday
on the pomt of view of the victim: what makes the films mentioned above exceptional life. Pocket-size tragic heroes and heroines, they arc blindly grappling with a fate real
is the way they manage to present all the charactcrs convincingly as victims. The cnough to cause intense human anguish, which as the spectator can see, however, IS
critique-the questions of "evil," of responsibility-is firmly placed on a social and compounded by social prejudice. ignorance, inscnsitivity on top of the bogus claim
existential level, away from the arbitrary and finally obtuse logic of privatc motives and to scientific objcctivity by the doctors. Claire Bloom's nymphomania and Jane
individualised psychology. This is why the melodrama. at its most accomplishcd, Fonda's frigidity in the Cukor movie are seen to be two different but equally hysteri-
seems capable of reproducing more directly than other genres the patterns of domina- cal reactions to the heavy ideological prcssures which American society exerts on the
tion and exploitation existing in a given society, especially the relation betwcen psychol- relations between the sexes. The Chapman Report, despite having apparently been
ogy. morality and class-consciousncss, by emphasizing so clearly an emotional dy- cut by Darryl F. Zanuck Jr., remains an extremely important film partly because it
namic whose social correlative is a network of external forces directed oppressingly treats its theme both in the tragic and thc comic mode without brcaking apart.
inward. and with which the characters themselves unwittingly collude to become their underlining thereby the ambiguous springs of the discrepancy between displaying
agents. In Minnelli, Sirk, Ray, Cukor and others. alienation is recognised as a basic intense feclings and the circumstances to which they arc inadequate-usually a
condition, fate is secularised into the prison of social conformity and psychological comic motif but tragic in its emotional implications.
neurosis, and the lincar trajectory of self-fulfilment so potent in American ideology is Both Cukor and Minnelli, however, focus on how ideological contradictions are
twisted into the downward spiral of a self-destructive urge seemingly possessing a whole rcRected in the characters' seemingly spontaneous behaviours-the way self-pity and
social class. self-hatred alternate with a violent urge towards some form of libcrating action, which
This typical masochism of the melodrama, with its incessant acts of inner violation. incvitably fails to resolve the conRict. The characters experience as a shamefully
its mechanisms of frustration and over-compensation. is perhaps brought most into the personal stigma what the spectator (because of the parallelisms between the different
open through characters who have a drink problem (cf. Writtell all the Wind. Hilda episodes in The Chapman Report. and the ana logics in the fatcs of the seven prIncipal
88 Thomas Elsae.'Ser Tales o{Sound and Furr 119

ligures of The Cobweh) is forced to recognise as belonging to a wider social dilemma. lost spontaneity and energy, and in Iilms like All I Desire or There's Always 'Iomorrow,
The poverty of the intellectual resources in some of the characters is starkly contrasted whcre, as so often. the fundamental irony is in the titles themselves, this theme. which
with a corresponding ahundance of emotional resources, and as one sees them help- has haunted the European imagination at least since Nietzsche, is absorbed into an
lessly struggling inside their emotional prisons with no hope of realising to what degree American small-lown atmosphere, often revolving around thc questions of dignity and
they are the victims of thcir society, one gets a clear picture of how a certain individual- responsibility, how to yield when confronted with true talent and truc vitality-in short,
ism reinforces social and emotional alienation, and of how the economics of the those qualities that dignity is called upon to make up for.
psyche are as vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation as is a person's lahaur. In the Hollywood melodrama characters madc for operettas play out the tragedies of
The pomt is that this inadequacy has itsclf a name, relevant to the melodrama as a humankind. which is how they cxperience the contradictions of American civilization.
form: irony or pathos, which both in tragedy and melodrama is the response to the Small wonder they are constantly bafAed and amazed, as Lana Turner is in Imitation
rccognition of diffcrent levels of awareness. Irony privileges the spectator vis-a-vis the of Life, about what is going on around them and within them. The discrcpancy
protagonists. for he registers the diffcrencc from a supenor position. Pathos rcsults bctween seeming and being, of intention and result, registcrs as a perplexing frustra-
from non-communication or silence made eloquent-people talking at cross-pllfposes tion, and an ever-increasing gap opens between the emotions and the reality they seek
(Robert Stack and Lauren Bacall when she tells him she's pregnant in Written in the to reach. What strikes one as the true pathos is the very mediocrity of the human
Wind), a mother watching her daughter's wedding from afar (Barhara Stanwyck in beings involved, putting such high dcmands upon themselves, trying to live up to an
Stella Dallas) or a woman returning unnoticed to her family, watching them through exalted vision of man, but instead living out the impossible contradictions that have
the window (again Barbara Stanwyck in All I Desire)--where highly emotional situa- turned the American dream into its proverbial nightmare. It makes the best American
tions are underplayed to present an ironic discontinuity of feeling or a qualitative melodramas of the Iifties 'not only critical social documents but genuine tragedies.
differenee in intensity. usually visualized in terms of spatial distance and separation. despite, or rather because of, the "happy ending", they record some of the agonies that
Such archetypal melodramatic situations activate very strongly an audience's partiCI- have accompanied the demise of the "affirmative culture." Spawned by liberal ideal-
pation, for there is a desire to make up for the emotional delieiency, to impart the ism, they advocate with open, conscious irony that the remedy is to apply more of the
different awarcness, which in other genres is systematieally frustrated to produce sus- same. But even without the national disasters that were to overtake America in the
pense: the primitive desire to warn the heroine of the perils looming visibly over her in 1960.1, this irony, too, almost seems to belong to a different age.
the shape of the villain's shadow. But in the more sophisticated melodramas this pathos
is most acutely produced through a "Iiheral" misc-cn-scene which balances diffcrent
points of view, so that the spectator is in a position of seeing and evaluating contrasting
attitudes within a given thematic framework-a framework which is the result of the
total configuration and therefore inaccessible to thc protagonists thcmselves. The Notes
spectator, say in Otto Premingcr's Daisy Kenyon or a Nicholas Ray movie. is made
aware of the slightest qualitative imbalance in a relationship and also sensitized to the
tragic implications which a radical misunderstanding or a misconception of motives
I. A. Filon. The Englis'. Stage. London, 1897. Filon atso olTers an interesting defiTlilion of
might have, even when this is not playcd out in terms of a tragic ending.
melodrama: "When dealing with trving. I asked the questIOn, so often discussed, whether we
If pathos is the result ofa skilfully displaccd emotional emphasis, it is frequcntly used go to the theatre to sec a representation of life, or to forgel life and seck relief from It.
in melodramas to explore psychological and scxual repression, usually in conjunction Melodrama solves this question and show< that hath theories arc right, by giving satisfaction
with the theme of inferiority; inadequacy of response in the American cinema often has to both desires. III that it offers the extreme of rcalism in scenery and language together with
an explicitly sexual code: male impotence and female frigidity-a subject which allows lhe most uncommon sentimenLs and events."
for thematisation in various directions, not only to indicate the kinds of psychological See J. Duvignaud. Sociologie d" theatre, Paris, 1965, IV, 3, "Theatre sans revolution,
anxiety and social prcssures which generally make pcople sexually responsive. but as revolution sans theatre."
metaphors of unfreedom or a quasi-metaphysical "overreaching" (as in Ray's Bigger 3. About the ideological function of 19th-centory Vidorian melodrama, sec M. W. Disher:
Than Life). In Sirk, where the theme has an exemplary status, it is treated as a problem of "Even in gaffs and saloons. melodrama so strongty insisted on the sure reward to be bestowed in
"decadence"-where intention. awareness, yearning, outstrip performance-sexual, this life upon the law.abiding that sociologists now see in this a Maehia\'ellian plot to keep
democracy servile to Church and State.... There is no parting the two strains. moral and
social, moral. prom the Willi Birgel character in 211 Neuen Ufern onwards, Sirk's most
political, in the imagination orthe nineteenth-century masses. They arc hopelessly entangled.
impressive characters ;lre never up to the demauds which their lives make on them. Democracy shaped its own entertainments at a time when the vogue of Virtue Triumphant was
though some are sufliciently sensitive, alive and intclligent to feel and know about this at its height and they took their pattern from it. ... Here are Virtue Triumphant's attendant
inadequacy of gcsture and response. It gives their pathos a tragic ring, because they take errors: confusion between sacred and profane. between worldly and spiritual advancement,
on suffering and moral anguish knowingly, as the just price for having glimpsed a better between <elf-interest and self-sacrifice" (Blood and Thunder. London. 1949. pp. 13-14).
world and having failed to live it. A tragic self-awareness is called upon to compensate for Howe\,er, it ought to be rememhered that there arc melodramatic tradilions outside the
90 Thomas Elsaesser Tales of Sound and Fury 91

purilan-democratic world view. Catholic counlries, such as Spain. Mexico (cf Buiiuel's Mexi- MUSIC
can films) havc a very strong line m melodramas, bascd on Ihc Ihcmcs of alonement and
rcdcmptlon. Japanese melodramas have been "highbrow" sincc the Monogatari slories of the Hans Eisler. Composing for Film, London, 1951.
16th century and in M,zoguchi's films (0 Haw. Shinheike Monoga/an) they reach a transcen- T W. Adorno. M usiksoziologie, Hamburg. 1968.
dence and stylistic sublimation rivalled only by thc very best Hollywood melodramas. O. Cooke, The Language of Music. London, 1959.
~. Hans Eisler. Composing for Film. London, 1951
5. Lilian Ross, Pielure. I.ondon. 1958.
6. Thc impact of Madame I30vary via Willa Cather on thc Amcrican cmcma and the popular CINEMA
,magmation would dc.<erve a closer look.
7. Brighton Film Review, nos. 14. 15.21. H. Sachs, "Film Psychology," Close-Up 3. no. 5 (November 1928).
8. Ibid, nos. 19. 20 R. Durgnal. "W.ys of Melodrama," Sight and Sound. August-September 1951.
9 I have nol seen A Woman's Secret (1949) or Born to Be Bad (1950), cithcr of which might E. Morin, Le Cinema ou ['hom me Imaginaire, Paris, 1958.
includc Ray in this calcgory. and the Ida Lupmo character in On Dangerous Ground }. Mitry. Esthetique du cinema. Paris. 1962.
(l952}-blind. livmg with a homicidal hrother-is dIStinctly remmiscen! of this masochistic Cinema/ographie fran~aise. 7 Dccembcr 1963.
slrain 111 Hollywood ferniOism. B. Nichols. "Rcvolution and Melodram.... Cinema (USA) 6, no. I (1970).
10. As a prmciple of misc-en-scenc Ihe dramatic usc of slaircases recall.< Ihe famous }e.<snertreppe J. L. Comolli. Sirk inlerview. Cahiers du Cinema no. IR9, April 1967.
of German thea Ire. The Ihematic conjunction of family and height/depth symbolism is Cinema 71, special number on melodrama (no. 161).
IlIccly described by Max Tesier: "Ie heros ou J'heroine sont balloles dans uns veritablc .<cenic- Jean-Loup Bourget, Posi/i{, n". 131 (October 1971).
raitway social. ou les e1asses sont rigoureusement eompartimenlees. Leur ambition cst dc Fernsehen und Film. special number on Sirk and melodrama. Fcbruary 1971.
qUItter 11 jamalS un milieu moralement deprave. physiquement eproll\-anl, pour acceder au P. Wil1eman, "Dist.ntiation .nd Douglas Sirk," Screen, Summer 1971.
Nirvana de la grande bourgeoisic.. . Pas de famille, pas de melo! Pour qu'il y ait mela. il
faut avant tout qui! y ait faute. pCche, Iransgression sociaIe. Or, qucl eslle milicu iMal pour
que sc developpe cette gangrene, sinon cette cellule familialc. lice il unc conccption
hierarch,que de la societe?" (Cimima 71. no. 161, p. 46).

Bibliography: Melodrama

This bihltography is hy no means attcmpting 10 he comprehensive. It is offered by way
of an outline of how the subject might be approached.


M. W. Disher. Blood and Thunder. London, 1949.
A. Filon. The English Siage, London. 1897.
j. Ollv'gnalld. Sociologic du theatre, Paris, 1965.


w. C. Phillip" Dickens. Reade and Col/ins. ew York, 1919.
L. A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the Amenean Novel. London, 1967.

Thcre is no disagreement among critics about the affectivc
nature of the melodramatic texi. though there are still thosc who view its strong
emotionalism as an indication of aesthetic and ideological backwardness. To the seri-
ous students of melodrama, the emotive basis of melodrama constitutes a challenge.
The emotional languauge conveyed through gesture, ieonograph}', and music is not
vacuous hut is a register to articulate profound personal and social conflicts. Conse-
quently, critics have sought to provide a systematic description and analysis of the
specific strategies employed by mclodrama. Through an examination of its formal
properties, they have attemptcd to identify the "emotional teleology" of the form and
hence to articulate its impact on the audiencc.
Charles Affron's discussion of the "tearjerker" addresses the negative connotations of
pathos. Whilc critics are uncomfortable in confronting works that call forth sentiment,
the fact remains that pathetic fiction has been extremely popular from the earliest
cinema to the present. Affron, like Peter Brooks, argues for the meaningful connection
between affect and meaning in melodrama. He finds that viewers' responses arc not
arbitrary but are generated from experiences in their own lives which the texts call forth.
The seemingly simple and transparent texts are neither simple nor transparent, and,
applying methods from structuralism, narrative theory, and reception theory, Affron
attempts to locate the basis of the spectator's involvcment in melodrama.
By invoking the concept of identification. Affron probes the strategies involved in
producing the spectator's sense of a consonance between representation and experi-
ence. Through the process of imaging and through the various ways in which the

94 Genre, Style, and Affect Cenre, Style. and Affect 9,
image is projected and received, spectators locate their own subjectivity. Affron applies moment. Cerould's discussion of these tcchniques is particularly effective for an undcr-
a psychoanalytic model of the construction of the individual's subjecfivity and uses standing of literary melodrama. To be effective for an analysis of cinema, his work
Christian Metz's application of this process to spcctatorship in the cinema. The would have to address the specific visual properties of the medium, Moreover. his work
viewer's expericnce of loss and struggle for identification is the basis for all experience. needs to be accommodated to the specific role of auteur, actresscs, and changing
The cinema promises the spectator the illusory satisfaction of finding wholeness and is historical contexts,
predicated on thc constant intcrplay between possession and lack. In the viewing Raymond Durgnat's discussion of melodrama acknowledges the relationship be-
experience which is akin to thc dream state, inducing a reduction in reality testing, the tween dramatic action and the calling forth of emotion, Drama is dependent on action
spectator is frce to contemplate fiction as reality. Affron docs not rcgard this process as and movcmcnt that are motivated, but drama becomcs melodrama when cmotions are
onc of passivity in the conventional sense. Watching a film produces a Auid state invoked and when actions or threatencd actions produce emotions that provide a test of
where the vicwer is frec to entcrtain a fusion of reality and drcam statc. The conditions character. The relationship bctween drama and melodrama is Auid. Melodrama may
of sedentary viewing in the dark are regrcssive, and the regression gcnerates affect. The become drama, and drama may become melodrama. They are not clearly demarcated
viewer is free to indulge in the interplay of fantasy and reality, entities but often cocxist. Melodrama is to drama as slapstick is to comedy. Emotional
With the assistancc of reader response thcory, Affron examines how the vicwer's melodrama is the term Durgnat applies to films that subordinate action to emotion.
responses to film are gcared toward involvement, comprehension. and satisfaction. Hollywood is most adept at this kind of melodrama. Whcn the emotional melodrama
The experience of the film thlls liberates spectators from the constraints of ideology, hcgins to cxplorc character, the films move toward drama. In John Huston's films, for
Following Peter Brooks, Affron regards melodrama as a challenge to the reality princi- cxample. thcre is a purposcful subduing of affect in the intcrcsts of charactcr and
ple, Melodrama articulates the unsaid. However. going beyond Brooks, Affron insists action, Pure melodrama consists in the chase, in actions that involve threat and self-
on distinguishing cinematic melodrama from the novelistic and dramatic, Cinema. preservation, in minimal characteriz'ltion, but thesc are only effective insofar as thc
because it is a visual mcdium, requires attention to specular activity. The Italian opcra events can be cOllv1l1cing. Thc perfect balance in melodrama consists in the film's
offers a better analogy with film in its solo/choral emphasis, uses of ensemble, combin- ahility to fuse dramatic episodes with emotional subtlety. Ultimately, Durgnat asserts
ing of action and spectacle, and hyperbolic performance. Affron finds the term melo- that any formula is only as effective as the controlling vision of the creator. The
drama too constraining and reductive to account for cinematic affect. For example. the problems that arise in melodrama are not related to its techniques but to the failure of
typification characteristic of melodrama is subvcrted through thc individuating quali- the artist, to an uninteresting, banal, and conventional perception of the world.
ties of the close-up. Moreover, there is for Affron a significant difference between the There is by no means unanimity about thc distinctive properties of melodrama as a
generality of a victimized melodramatic protagonist and the specificity of Lillian Gish genrc, though most critics would agree that an alternating pattern of equilihrium and
as actress. In general, he finds generic considerations problematic for an understanding disequihbrium is characteristic of melodrama as it is of all genres, An emphasis on
of the cinematic affect. internal conflict, a hcightened emotional responsc to events. a polarized representa-
Daniel Gcrould takes a more strictly generic approach to melodrama. For his tion of character and situation, and a tension betwccn the personal and the social, the
discussion, he draws on the work of the RUSSIan formalist critics who had analyzed the conventional and the deviant or marginal, may also demarcate melodrama from other
techniques and principles of melodrama long before other European and Amcrican gcnres. Beyond these general characteristics, critics would part company, The essays in
critics. Formalist critics had located the basic principles of melodrama in its calling this scction represent different ways of considcring the specific features of melodrama,
forth of intense fceling, what Gerould calls its "emotional teleology." Thc melodra- It should become e1ear that discussions of genre are not merely descriptivc but are
matic plots appear to be violations of everyday expericnce in their usc of material that incxtricably tied to ideological issucs.
produces an emotional shock for the audience, in their deploymcnt of reversals and Following Thomas Elsaesser's lead, Thomas Schalz's discussion of the genre privi-
twists of the narrative line, alternating betwecn success and failure, misery and good leges the family melodrama. While thc 1930s and I940s witnessed the florescence of
fortune. Among the technical strategies of melodrama, Gerould identifies the princi- romantic melodramas in the films of such directors as Frank Borzage and John Stahl,
ple of relief, the isolation of intense narrative momcnt, the strategy of stark contrast in Schatz argues that the expressivc potential of film melodrama was not fully exploited
character and situation, and the creation of a dynamic whercby the characters and the until thc post- World War II era, associated particularly with the stylized techniques of
spectator are constantly thrown off balance. The use of secrets is fundamental for the European director Max Ophuls and with the early films of Vincente Minnelli. In
providing tensions in melodramatic composition, the 1950s, a time of ideological crisis as witnessed in the Cold War, the rise of
In the construction of the melodramatic narrative, Cerould identifies the impor- suburban life. and the loss of faith in the "American Dream," the melodrama became
tance of the prologue in containing the initial dramatic knot, open exposition by the a critical vehiele. exposing the underlying tensions and contradictions of American
characters, multiplicity of actions, dramatically expressive endings, indirect movement society.
toward a denouement, a nonindividuated sense of character as well as character Schatz focuses on the centrality of the American family in these melodramas,
reversibility, the role of chance in providing ncw narrative twists, and the presence of a asserting that the family as the cornerstone of American society. upholding the values
"thlllg" (like Hitchcock's McGuffin) which serves as a means of recognition in the final of patriarchy, upward mobility, and private property, was endangered. And the varia-
96 Cenre, Style, and Affect Cenre, Style. and Affect 97

tions of the 1950s melodramas all seem to revolve around the various threats to familial which is intimately tied to real-life expericnee. Like Durgnat, Vivlartl sees melodrama
stability, Schatz identifie.s these variations as the male intruder in a world of women of as balancing narrative complexity and emotional simplicity.
which he takes Picnic to be exemplary, the widow-lover variation as in All That Heaven In its earliest versions of the matcrnal melodrama, the Hollywood genre bore traces
Allows, the family aristocracy variation in Giant, the "male \Veepie" as exemplified in of its European ancestry. In the 1930s, however, with the Depression and the coming
Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life. Like Elsaesser, Schatz sees the style of the films as of the New Deal, Hollywood Americanized its narratives. The protagonist of the
working against the grain self-consciously to expose social, class, and sexual contradic- maternal melodrama was no longer the submissive and resigncd mother. She became
tions, and he finds that, unlike other genres of order, the oppositions to that order freer and more active in hcr own behalf. Her illicit actions arc justified by her love for
cannot be resolved. the father of her child and by her social, if not Illoral, recuperation through work.
Schatz's discussion rcinforccs the recent emphasis on the family 'lS the subject Moreover, the Hollywood mother is identified with the country rather than the city,
matter and site of struggle in melodrama, thus demarcating melodrama as a genre from with the earth, and hence with the traditional values of the hearth and social stability.
Its expression in other film genres such as thrillers, science fiction, and horror. How- As Viviani indicates, the Hollywood maternal melodrama is an "apologia for self-
ever, in his taxonomy of the various expressions of family melodrama, he pays scant renunciation, total sacrifice, and total self·abnegation." In certain instances, as in the
attention to those forms of melodrama that foreground women's conflicts and women films George Cukor made with Constance Bennett between 1930 and 1933, the
as the protagonists. The various expressions of the women's films are underrepresented maternal melodrama is exposed through irony for what it is-namely, an illusion for
and unexamined in his preoccupation with the family melodrama. overcoming the conflicts of an era that was "knowingly grounded in eroticism."
In contrast to Schatz, Noel Carroll's discussion of the "moral ecology of the melo-
drama" takes Sirk's Magnificent Obsession as an example of how the films of the 1950s
as well as current expressions of the genre are a recycling of the traditional melodramas
of the 1930s and 1940s. For example, he sees the 1978 films International Velvet and
Uncle Joe Shannon as involving the loss and restoration of family members. Citing
such elements as the presence of the orphan discovered by a relativc, the family
reunion, the importance of Christmas as the time of that reunion 'IS well as its relation
to the "mythic family," Carroll sees these films as resurrecting the world of D. W.
Criffith. The strategies of these films are particularly problematic considcring the
amount of criticism that has been leveled at the nuclear family by feminist critics.
Rathcr than regarding Douglas Sirk's films as antidote to conformist reprcsentations
of the family, as is the case with Elsaesser and Schatz, Carroll finds that Magnificent
Obsession involves the same generic properties-loss and restitution and a narrative
symmetry that reinforces a pattern of containment. Carroll identifies other aspects of
Sirk's deployment of style as serving to reinforce thc idca of the family plot as part of
thc moral order, in Sirk's portf<lyal of the organic unity of nature, in the nature and
dcsign of the Aoral arrangements, and in the color coordination of objects. Carroll's
essay, therefore, calls into question the ways in which critics have read the generic and
stylistic properties of melodrama as containing subvcrsive elements.
The priority of critical attention given to the family melodrama has also been
challenged by feminist critics who have called attention to another popular expression
of melodrama-the women's film and, in particular, the maternal melodrama. The
maternal melodrama is a staple of the Hollywood melodrama of the 1930s and 1940s
when the audiences were largely female. Maternity, a familiar subject in nineteenth-
century Italian and French melodrama. was also common to the pre-World War II
cinema, cspecially in the 1930s and 1940s. Christian Viviani traces the genre through
the varions versions of Madame X. The films cnaet the woman's fall and her concomi-
tant suffering as shes expiates her sin of hearing an illegitimate child. The excessive
emotionality of the maternal melodrama appears on thc surface to be removed from
reality. An outer core of pathos and stylization, says Viviani, conceals an inner corc
Identifications 99

has made textual and evaluative criticism loath to examine some of the most affective
film texts: the pejorative resonance of "senhmental" has deterred serious consideration
of those films for which that adjective is an accuratc characterization. It is argued that
blatantly emotional films cheapen and banalizc emotion because they arc blatant.
Thcir promptness to elicit feeling offends those who consider being easily moved
equivalent to being manipulated. victimized. deprived of critical distance. Art works
are judged bad when, in what are purportedly trivializing modes. they attempt to
convcy deep fcelings about the self, thc family. love, commitment. ethics. Some
directors identified by their affinity for sentimcntal fictions (Ford, Capra) have been
rescued through political. sociological, and occasionally formal exegesis; others
Identifications (Cukor, Sirk) have been canonized by auteurism. Critics are not uncomfortable in
treating the mythic resonancc of How Green Was My Valley, I the "America" of Mr.
Smith Goes to Washingtoll, thc self-reflexivity of A Star Is Born, the irony of Imitation
of Life. But most commentators, in ignoring the fact that vicwers have a strong
response to "tearjerkers," also overlook how and why that response is informed with
both fiction and medium. Essential aspects of these films' narrative, visual, and aural
CHARLES AFFRO strategies, and of the natu;e of the cinematic experience, are reflected in those embar-
rassing tears.
Viewers arc engaged and made to recognize their feelings in cinematic fictions,
perhaps as they ncvcr recognize them in life, by the processes of representation that
Tearjerkers derive from the dynamics of films and from the specifics of their viewing. While
"conventional" narrative films relish situations that seem to contain sure sentimental
"Bathetic" and "pathetic" are phonetic siblings and semantic twins. appeal-departure, doomed love, mother love, death-it is finally the degree to which
Thc first, a pejorative term, euphonically qualifies thc second, the deSignation of a these situations conspire with those specifics that ensures a given work's affectivity. The
type of response. The sense of low artistic worth conveyed by "bathetic" all too easily resulting processes of representation condition response perhaps more surreptitiously.
appropriates both the initial bilahial stop of "pathetic''' and its capacity to provoke strong but just as strongly and hypnotically as that which is represented.
emotions in teary-eyed spectators. This unfortunate lexical confusion has given "pa- Viewers respond to the medium when its conditions ccho something of thcir feeling
thetic" a deCidedly negative connotation. Art works that create an overtly emotional and their experience; viewers become involved in the image as image when that image
response in a wide readership are rated inferior to those that engage and inspire the engages them in its workings, when its constitution becomes a field as rich and inviting
refined critical, intellectual activities of a selective readership. Much of narrative film as thosc that effect involvement in life. Film provides a variety of accessibilities to its
falls into the first category, and indeed was designed to do so by its creators. The success modes, beguiling vicwcrs to enter into its processes and then using those processes to
of pathetic fiction has becn continuous. ranging from the first decades of cinema and capture represcntations of emotional situations that are lifelike to a degree our eyes can
the one-reeled plights of childltkc heroes to the triumph-over-advcrsity scenario of scarcely believe.
physically afflicted protagonists (a paraplegic, a sports hero hurt in an accident or dying
of an incurable disease) of the late seventies. In the jargon of the daily press, the latter
are three- and four-handkcrchief films. And to many, frecly Aowing tears havc about as
much lasting value as the drcnched tissues with which we wipe them away.
Reading with Feeling
If we consider the movies to be a meaning-generating body of art, we cannot afford
to dismiss proof that meaning Itas in fact been generated. Tears are that proof. Yet the
affective power of narrative, responsible for so much of the cinema's popular appeal,
[t i precisely the ease of such seductive beguilement that has
caused some critics to be wary of affect. Affect extends the status of the work beyond
what seems to be its integrity into an area that shifts with the vagaries of pluralistic
readings. In a defensc of textual integrity W. K. Wimsatt exposes what he calls "the
Charles Affron. "IdentificatIOns." from Cinema and Sentiment (Chicago. Universitv of CI,,- Affectivc Fallacy. . a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what
eago Pre", 1982). Reprinted by permiSSIOn of the author and the University of C1;iea~o Pres' it does)." A critical posture committed to affectivity "begins by trying to derive the

100 Charles Affron Identificatians IOl
standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impression- illustration, the "seriousness" of Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin and Antonioni's
Ism and relativism." Read as a function of the Affective Fallacy, "the poem itself, as an L'avventura.
object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear."z I will leave it to other
critics to debate Wimsatt's other, more renowned Fallacy, the Intentional. It is his
dismissal of affectivity with the qualification "fallacious" that I question here. If his
caution is useful in its insistence upon the rcality of the text, its categorical nature
prohibits the celebration of the very activity the text promotes (and in which he, of "Art" Films
course, engagcs)--a sustained, concentrated, thoroughly committed reading. "Impres-
sionism" and "relativism" are not the necessary outcomes of an analySIS that considers,
in addition to a text's rhetorical coherence, the mechanics of its effect upon the reader
and the operations the reader performs upon the text. Even a popular form such as narrative film has not escaped its
With their often overlapping and mutually inspiring criteria, thc methodologies of hierarchics of taste. nle word "art" itself has been uscd to designate movies marketed as
structuralism, linguistics, semiotics, psychocriticism, phenomenology, narrative theory, high cullure (in the silent period, the "film d'art," often the filming of a "serious" or
and reception theory hold reader and text in variable degrees of tension. J In doingso they "e1assic" play) or perceived as such by the public (almost all foreign films released in
release the text from the Pantheon of evaluation and from the ethical categorization of the United States after World War 1I were referred to as "art films" and played at "art
high. middle, and low culture, and have helped authorizc the examination of many of houses"). This implies that other movies are not art at all, or have less art than those
the texts that interest me, films that fail to satisfy either the canons of classical coherence with the designation. Yet the works of the Italian neo-realist dircctors, for example
or those of avant-garde subversion, but that elicit, in many viewers, passionate reading immediately recognized by intcllectuals as challenging and by general audiences as
activity. It is that activity that then become something like a value in the critical enter- "art," are awash with the same trappings of sentimentality-the child sorely tried by
prisco Stanley Fish's definition of "Affective Stylistics," a particularly polemical state- neccssity (Shoeshine, Open City, Bicycle Thief), the faithful animal (Umberto D.), the
ment of readership theory, expresses the character of these recent critical approaches. pathetic death (Shoeshine, Open City, Paisa, Bitter Rice)--that are often considered
Fish attempts to establish the critical relevance of texts that, "because of their alleged negative in "commercial" narrative films. Umberto D., one of the most stylistically
transparency, arc deelared to be uninteresting as objects of analysis." An examination of austere of the neo-realist films, is the story of a dispossessed old man who spends the
the dynamic of utterancc in these texts "reveals that a great deal is going on in their last hours before his attempted suicide trying to find a home for his dog. De Sica and
production and comprehension (every linguistIC experience is affecting and pressuring, his collaborator Zavattini may adopt a manner that creates an impression of objectivity,
although most of it is going on so close up, at such a basic, 'preconscious' level of but they then apply it to the story of an old man and a dog! My excIamative punctua-
experience, that we tend to overlook it."~ As soon as the activities of "production and tion is ironic to itself since I am not at all surprised that any narrative film, whether it
comprehension" become relevant to criticism, textual evaluation scems perilous, just as be on a critic's All-Time Ten Bcst List or relegated to a collection of "guilty pleasures,'06
our taste seems vulnerable to time and culture. Yesterday we went to the marketplace is sustained by sentimental configurations.
and laughed at the Farce ofMaitre Pathe/in, played by amateurs and itinerant actors on a No less exempt from these configurations are highly mediated cinematic fictIOns.
hastily erected platform; today we consider it rhetorically, generically, semiotically, Susan Sontag, in her essay on Robcrt Bresson, cxamines the function of mediation m
psychocritically 111 our graduate courses on medieval theater. A popular art by definition. the art work's emotional power:
the farce had to be immediately legible to naive rcaders. But a naive reader is not an Somc art aims directly at arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings
unresponsive one, and a naive reading tells us that much about art is defined by its through the route of the intelligence. There is art that creates empathy. There is
reading-generating elements. Narrative film is a popular art and has suffered from the art that detaches, that provokes reRection. Great reRective art is not frigid. It can
stigma of its transparency, the ease with which it is read. Yet, as in the case of farce, our exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep. But
observation that a genre or mode is of easy access should not be taken to imply that this its emotional power is mediated. The pull toward emotional involvement is
access is easily understood or that easy is synonymous with facile. Presumably, easy counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterested-
fictions contain a complexity of gears whose smooth meshing conceals how they come ness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser de-
together and how, once they are engaged, the reader is also cngaged in the functioning of gree, postponed. 7
the mechanism. As Stanley Cavell has suggested, popular films are not neeessarilv Avoiding an overtly evaluativc tone, Sontag opposes the direct, empathetic response
disqualified from serious viewing just beeausc they are easily read. "If film is seriollsly t~ elicited by easily accessible, presumably popular art and the deferred one of "great
be thought of as art at all, then it needs to be explaincd how it can have avoided the fate of reRective art." She then goes on to describe how the spectator's awareness of form tends
modernism, which in practice means how it can have maintained its continuities in "to elongate or to retard the emotions. . . . Awareness of form does two things simulta-
audiences and genres, how it can have bccn taken seriollsly without having assumed the neously: it gives a sensuous pleasure independent of the 'content,' and it invites the use
burden of serio\1Sness.'" Cavell then proceeds to demonstrate, through a e:ltholicit)' of of the intelligence...8 She seems to be suggesting th'lt the emotional response arrived at
102 Cha'les Aff,on Identifications 103
through "distance," through "the use of our intelligence," through our awareness of imitation of the emotions which we see expressed brings vividness and affective tone
mcdiation (prescnt of necessity In all art), is of quite a different quality than reader into our grasping of the play's action. We sympathize with the sufferer and that means
involvement characterized by empathy and immediacy. Yct, while Bresson's ellipses, that the pain which he cxpresses bccomes our own pain ... II This mode of identification
both visual and narrative, certainly require "intelligent" reading, his fictional configura- is primarily generated by the movies' sensational aspects. Movies are able to convey
tions and iconography (the "content" referred to by Sontag) are so blatantly pathetic sensational phenomena without recourse to codes. We perceive scnsation as sensation,
(the country priest, victimized by his village, dying of cancer; the Christ-like donkey even though it is only a projected image on a screen. Cincmatized sensation is often
9 the long-suffering adolescent Mouehette; the doomed lovers, Lancelot and minimally qualified by what we call style, and therefore we distinguish its quality of
Guenievre, etc.) that they provide immediate affective access. For the reader who is presence from the deferrals of verbal and symbolic codes. In its figuring of sensation,
then initiated into the mysteries of the director's style, both the story and its manner of film draws verbal and compositional articulation to a status of presence.
reading become moving. and do so simultaneously. Bresson's stylisties is as familiar as In Frank Capra's It's Q Wonderful Life a complex fictional configuration is capped
Frank Capra's to those viewers for whom reseeing, an activity invited by the nature of by an image of physical pain. The resulting dynamics transcends our sense of the
the medium, further reduces whatever distance there may be between reading a film image as representational, as a projection distinct from the moment and the circum-
and responding to it emotionally. Of course, because of their unconventional editing stances of its creation. TIle young George Bailey, partially deafened as a result of saving
and framing, it is tempting to think of Bresson's films in terms of mediation. and of his littlc brother from drowning, works at a drugstore. When he scoops up some ice
course, Bresson's work has not had the wide-ranged popularity of Capra's films. Yet cream for Mary (who becomes his wife later in the film), she whispers into his deaf ear
clearly Bresson is drawn to the dramatic patterns of sentimental art. TIle art film too, (the locus of pain at the climax of this extended sequence), "George Bailey, I'll love
then, is subject to what Jean Mitry has described as the priority of cmotion in cinema. you 'til the day I die." M}, Gower, the pharmacist, drunk with liquor and grief after
"In cinema.. we gain access to the idea through emotion and bccause of this reading the telegram announcing his son's death, accidentally puts poison into a
emotion, while in verbal language we gain access to emotion by means of ideas and prescription. Aware of the error yet unable to confront the sorrowing man, George goes
through them. ,,10 This is, in part, due to that aspect of the cinematic image (and to his own father for advice. He interrupts a violent confrontation between Mr. Bailey,
sound) that must remain unmediated, its nonsymbolie relationship to its reference- the kindlv banker, and Mr. Potter, the rich, meanhearted villain. (This part of the
that which was filmed-a characteristic of all cinema, from its art films to its most episode i; prefigurative of George's adult conflict with Potter.) Finally, in a labyrinth of
popular, "bathetic," tearjerkers. planes and shadows at the back of the pharmacy, Mr. Gower slaps George in the head,
bloodying his car, beforc the truth finally emerges and both the guilt-ridden man and
What follows is a dynamic model of affective response to cinema that exploits the forgiving boy are united by an embrace and a sympathy of tears. The pain of the
various thcories of viewer/spectatorlreader identification with the art object. In the slap and the sight of blood qualify the whole episode, shade it, give it the coherence of
hope of accommodating the wide range of these approaches, I concentrate on identifi- a literary metaphor, without betraying thc immediacy of the sensation it produces. It IS
cation as a function of the reader's situation vis-a-vis the text, and of the text's oscilla- particularly efficient exploitation of the medium's expressivity as explicit surface and as
tions between versimilitudinous representations and fictive artifices. It seems to me fiction of presence.
that the passage between the reader and the text's Auetuating status locates the energy That fiction is indubitably a powerful link between viewer and screen. It is an
and the affect of reading. extension of the world of experience that, III part, identi fies the viewer as a perceptive,
sentient being. Yet the mere record of that experience is only the point of departure for
the models of identification proposed by psychocritical discourse, a point of departure
that locates the self not only III the surface of the image, but in the rhetoric of imaging
Likeness, Sensation, and the Image of Absence and in the specific modes in which the image is received. I do not mean to undertake
here an exhaustivc, systematic cxamination of this critical litcrature. but only to
suggest its importance in detaching the viewing experience from the norms of photo-
graphic versimilitude that have so often controlled identification theory. These ap-
"I liked it because I identified with the characters" is a casual but proaches forcc us to consider the connections between who looks at the movies and
insistent refrain heard in movie lobbies and classrooms. That such a remark is reduc- how that looking occurs.
tive of a complex experience in no way lessens its pertinence to the viewing of narrative Mitry relates thc dynamics of spectatorship to those of its prime factors:
film. It suggests the appeal of the surface of the fiction in its explicit semblance to the
most familiar patterns and events of life, as they arc conveyed by photographic images
thanks to the mobility of the camera, to the multiplicity of shots, I am every-
of human beings and their environments. Hugo Munsterberg describes this degree of where at once. . . . I know that I am in the movie theatre, but I feel that I am in
identification in his early study of the psychological implications of silent film. "Our the world offered to my gaze, a world that I experience "physically" while
104 Charles A((ron ldentj~cations )()5

identifying myself with one or another of the characters in the drama-with all the likeness we find rcAected there. hilt because the "reAection" forces us to acknowl-
of them, alternatively. This finally means that at the 'novies I am both in this edge. somcwhcre in our apprehension of the screen image, that our looking is not
action and outside it, in this space alld outside of this space. Having the gift of predicated on the satisfaction of {inding,: what we look at is not there. (Thierry Kuntzel
ubiquity, I am cverywhere and nowhere. 12
uses the Freudian analogy of the "mystic writing pad," with its di~appcaring inscrip-
For Mitry, the viewer's rapport with the Fictional character is equally ubiquitous. "It is tions, to suggest the paradoxically dual status of the screen image.)I, Metz is emphatic
not the situation lived by the hero that I suffer, it is a 'sllbjectil'ity' [un s!/bjecti~ that is in his characterization of absence in a medium where "everything is recorded." Rcad-
actualized by him, a wish that I accomplish through his intermediary. "I, This "subjee- ing a film therefore requires the realization tIrat' ' every fil' t' fil m. "I~
m IS a fi cIon
tll'ity," animatcd by thc freedom of camera and of editing, affords the viewcr a flux of Metz does not completely discard thc notion that the viewer may derive satisfac-
spatial and fictional identification whose cmotional appcal was alrcady apparent to tion in Finding semblance in the screen image, but he does characterize it as "a little
Miinsterberg in 1916. "Not morc than onc sixteenth of a second is nceded to carry U.I miraclc"l? dependent on thc uncxpected and elusive correspondences between exte-
from one corner of the globe to the other, from a jubilant setting to a mourning sccne. rior and interior orders. the images we perceive as outside us on a cinema screen,
The whole keyboard of thc imagination may be used to lerve this emotionalizing of and an experience of life composed of the constant play between sense impression
nature. ,,14 Identification is therefore liberated from the constraints of everyday experi- and our inner beings. The Aeeting, unstable nature of these mside-out Imks IS
cnce and made part of a process suggestive of emotion itself-movemcllL coherent both with the nature of the medim and with a model of identificatioll that
only intermittently calls for the recognition of lifelike representati~ns. The realm of
Movement has been located in the intersecting topologies of the work itself, the the lifelike is extended from identities with the world as we see It to the world of
places of interchange bctween the work and the receiver. and in the receil'er. And dreams, fantasies, cmotrons, beyond the purview of wide open eyes. ours and the
these topologies have been infleeted by the ontological status of the sereencd image- camera's.20 This requires a redefinition of reality that accommodates a lowering of
its figuring of abscnce. its distance in time and space from what was photographed. our ability, our desire, and our need to test reality, a lowering of our vigilance that IS
Cinema, in its display of present (fleeting) images of an absent reality, makes the allowed and invited by the comfort of art and the comfort of the sItuation m whIch
reading activity a pursuit, a desire for the fiction encrgized by a dialectic of possession we reccive it-the darkened theater. Edgar Morin asserts that "the passivity of the
and lack. Much of recent film theory in !'rance and England, informed by Frcudian spectator, his Impotence, put him in a regressive situation. Being in. the theatcr
and Lacanian thinking (to which I will return), posits the reading of cinema as a visual illustrates a general anthropological law: we all become senltmental, senSItIve, tearful
test of the tensIOn hetween the self and intermittently mastered orders of image and when we are deprived of our means of action. ,,11 Since watching a Film requires that
symbol. For the moment I will rely on Christian Metz's work to summarize how the we sit still in a dark room and that we assume an attitude of physical inactivity. it
problematics of the viewing situation (and the viewer's identity) in front of a presence as indeed exempts us from the rigors of reality. "The novelistic film, a mill of images
lIustable as that of cinema is made a property of thc film's intelligibility. "Ill order to and sounds overfeeding our zones of shadow and irresponsibility, is a machine for
understand a film (at all), I must perceive the photographed object as abscnt, its grinding up affectivity and inhibiting action. ,,22 Protecting us against the dangers of
photograph as present, and the presencc of this absence as signifying. ,,15 Reading (and circumstance, the demands of interacativity, the spectatonal Sltualton renders us
pleasmc) are predicated on a rhythm of possession, loss, and restitution. Metz defines susceptible to the meaning of reality as fiction. since that fiction is the only exterior
this rhythm in L1canian terms. exploiting the implications of the mirror allalogy: reality we perceive.
Dispcnsing with but the barest mcdiation of temporal and spatial contingency, both
the durable mark of the mirror which alienates man in his own reflection and viewer and film enjoy their parallel privacies and the bliss of rhythms and dccors that
makes him the double of his double. the subterranean persistence of the exelu- emanate from the self and from the work of art. Metz resists the temptation to fix these
sive relation to the mother, desire as a pure effeet of lack an endless pursuit, the activities in the drcam state, but chooses instead a Aux of intensities, of passages
initial core of the unconscious (primal repression). All this is undoubtedly
between (I) reality, (2) daydream, 0) dream. The experience of the fiction film favors a
reactivated by the actions of that other mirror, the cinema screen, in this rcspect
<I verit<lble psychical substitute, a prosthesis for om prilll<1llv dislocated lil1lbs. 16
new experience, an "ongoing circulation among the three: authorizing. in sum. a sort
of central and moving zone of intersection where all three can 'reencounter' each other
Thus, the "cndless p1lfsuit" of the imuge is rooted in the child's initial effort at sclf- on a singular territory, a confused territory which is common to them and yetdoes not
identification through (and in spite of) identification with the mother. Cinema's im- abolish their distinctness." foiction, through its particular manners of ,dentrficalton,
plicit mirrorness holds and withholds the promise of satisfying idcntifications in the contributes to this dynamics and topography:
activity of sight itself. Identification is thcrcfore detached from the diegctic status of the
fiction, from the plcasure of perceivmg plot and circumst<lnee, and effected by the the diegesis has something of the real since it imitates it, something of the
viewer's most basic relationship to the image, a relationship made particularly crucial daydream and the drcam since thcy imitate the real. The novelIStIC as a whole,
becausc of the mobility of the film image. We identify with cinema not only because of with its cincmatographic extensions, enriched and complicated by audItory and
106 Charles Affron Identifications 107

visual perception (absent in the novel), is nothing other than the systematic something of the presentness of image viewing in the rcality that emerges when a
exploitation of this region of reencounters and manifold passages. 23 written text is read:
Every articulate reading moment entails a switch of perspective, and this consti·
tutes an inseparable combination of differentiated perspectives, foreshortened
memories, present modifications, and future expectations. Thus, in the time·
Working with Movies Row of the reading process, past and future continually converge in the present
moment, and the synthesizing operations of the wandering viewpoint enable the
text to pass through the reader's mind as an ever.expanding network of connec-
tions. This also adds the dimension of space to that of time, for the accumula-
These suggestivc plays of oscillation between states of sleep and tion of views and combinations gives us the illusion of depth and breadth. so
waking and between the mimetic elements of the fiction challenge a narrow applica- that we have the impression that we are actually present in a real world. 26
tion of the realist aesthetic of film. Decentered, delocated, rendered all-embracing, Claudine Eizykman provides strong counterargument to the notion of passive spcc-
reality becomes a function of perception/imagination/fantasy. Identification is then tatorship at the cinema in hcr elaboration of an "energetics" (energetique) of response.
found in flux between the work of the art and the work of the art perceiver, between She evokes the violent effect made by film on the viewer who, after leaving the movie
surface and sense. bet-.veen the work's motion and our cmotion. This degree of identity house, feels "extrcmely undone, perforated, shaken by a thousand intensities much
links the real and the fictional through the patterns of their separate proccsses. and that stronger than those of tel~vision, by a thousand light beams more refractive than those
linkage makes the rcading of thc fiction as fiction a reading of ourselves, of selves as of any pictorial, musical'-or theatrical space." A desire for such violence runs counter
frce of material contingency as fiction can be. to a desirc for reposc and passivity:
Various exponents of readership theory have examined the dynamics of free passage
betwecn reader and text, and around reader and text, in a wide range of defining What force moves us to shut ourselves up for two hours (minimum) in a black
room where we will be inundated, invaded, bombarded, in a situation of surren-
systems. This mobility rcquires that we reexamine those models of the film-reading
der and profound discomposure without contact with the actors, the audience,
situations that stress passivity, regression, and infantilism, models that nced not be
that wc find at the theater or a museum? No, it is not passivity that compels us.
discarded. but rather understood as points of departure toward the spccific activities of Or then, if passivity compels us, it is becausc it suggests something other than
reading. for Wolfgang Iser, "the literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to banal servitude, submission; it is a passivity that dilutes, that.. dilutes our selves,
recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call our resistances, our puny shows. Passivity, but also passion. 21
the creative dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality...24 (ser reiterates this
formulation in his more recent book, characterizing the text as event in its temporal Passion, but also dynamics, energetics. Using Freud's model of Economy, and Marx's
activity: of Circulation, Eizykman asserts that viewer response is provoked more strongly by the
various functional processes of cinema than by its "references, contents, motivations,
as we read, we react to what we ourselves have produced, and it is this mode of . ..28
reaction that, in fact, enables us to experience the text as an actual event. We do
not grasp it like an empirical object; nor do we comprehend it like a predicative
fact; it owes its presence in our minds to our own reactions, and it is these that
make us animate the meaning of the text as a reality. 25
lser's readerltext juncture is located in the kind of reading eltcited by the written text Belief
(where images are symbolically coded), yet he has recourse to quasi-cinematic visual
and spatial analogies to convey what he calls "the wandering viewpoint," the reader's
shifting positions in the text:
Because they consider process prior to surface, the various psy-
The switch of viewpoints brings about a spot-lighting of textual perspectives, and chocritical and material modalities, whether they emanate from the apparatus. the
these in turn become reciprocally influenced backgrounds which endow cach screen. the story, the image, the viewer's psyche, memory, intelligence, or body, share
new foreground with a specific shape and form. As the viewpoint changes again, a common redefinition of the status of fiction and our helief in it. It IS no longer quite
this foreground merges into the background, which it has modified and which is necessary to suspend dishelief if we assume that belief is engaged in the reality of the
now to exert its inRuence on yet another new foreground.
fiction's fietivity (as opposed to the reality of the fiction's illusion) and if that reality is
This mobile viewpoint is suggestive of the camera's freedom of vantage, the altered, to a large degree inflected by the complexity of our reality. When we use music as a
reversed, widened, shortened, lengthened filmic field, and of Mitry's ubiquitous suh- paradigm for the art enterprise, we can see the extent of our capacity to believe in a
jectivity, elements that contribute to the creation of the reality effect. lser even finds work of art thoroughly detached from the lifelike, exempt from the need to reRect
Charles Affroll Iden lifica tions 109
action, character, the world of things. Referring only to its own order without recourse whom will materialize (not unlike movie stars) and conjure a fiction of the hero's
to the register of symbol and image. music produces such stroog emotional responses absence within the fiction itself (George is made to sec what life would have been like
and identifications that we often overtly manifest them by tapping and humming. had he not been born). Capra elicits the utter incredulity of the audience through the
MeI(Jdiei~ "haunt us night and day," as do fictions when we share and enjoy their transparency of the angelic configuration to elicit later a milch deeper belief in the
fictmtl'. OllT comphclty gives a dIfferent emphasis to the factors that have often been whole of the fiction. We witness a film mediated by an angel, and a hero who through
described as the work of arl and its eonlenl. Do we respond primarily to the work or the the angel's power is made to see his life as a movielike fiction of presence and absence.
content, to the activity Or the schema of a fiction that urges lIS to hum alonng, as It So frequent is the oscillation between the levels of credence (ours. George's) that by the
were, tuning ourselves to its various tensions' Robert Scholes argiles strenuouslv lhat end of the film Capra has reminded us of the essential pertinence, in this visual
the spectator's consclOusncss of the fictional is a rich source of reading satisfacti~n. "J medium, of the proverb "Seeing is believing." It is indeed enough to see a movie
should like to suggest that the proper way for narrative arlists tu provide for their fiction. no matter how fantastic, to believe it.
audiences an experience richer than submissive stupefaction is not to denv them the
satisfactions of story, but to generate for them stories which reward the mo,;t energetic
and rigorous kinds of narrativity. ,,10 A Auctuating shape, an IIndulating texture, a
mobile face caught between the medium and fiction, elements of cinematic uar-
rativity, call attention to the art as object and invite Our continued efforts at possessloll, Melodrama and Reality
activities that ultimately determine our experience of the work.
These activities force lIS to transcend our ideologies and our most cherished censur-
ing mechanisms. Legions of viewers and critics proelaim their abhorrence of the
Peter Brooks suggests that the reality principle functions as a
politics of Ford and Capra films, to say nothing of Leni Ricfcnstahl's The Triumph of
boundary through whose traversal the melodramatic mode releases meanings that
Ihe Will, yet willingly submit, and repeatedly resubmit, to these films' emotional
wither in less emphatic registers. "The melodramatic utterance breaks thrO\lgh every-
resonance. We reject the "cavalry" ethic, the pie-in-the-sky populism, the nazi mythol-
thing that constitutes the 'reality principle,' all its censorships. accommodations,
ogy; we respond to the modes of their conveyance. These modes do not necessarily
tonings-down. .. Desire triumphs over the world of substitute-formations and de-
force vIewers to subscribe to the values of the fictive worlds they depict. What happens
tours, it achieves plenitude of meaning. ,,13 This extent of meaning is often masked by
is often qllite the contrary precisely because films invite us to perceive them in the
complex linguistic and stylistic mediations of art and the highly conventionalized
purity of their fictional status, and often therefore to respond to an emotional dynamics
discollfse we use in life to avoid the pain of confrontations with others and revelations
whose pressllfe far exceeds that of uniforms, emblems, speeches, mere signs.
to ollfselves. Brooks hears something of the speech of the psyche in melodramatic
.Many of the meanings relevant to this emotional dynamics, this system of affect.
utterance as it drives toward the elearest articulation of what we prefer not to say:
reSISt thoroughly explicit articulation and thrive only in the sublimations, projections,
metaphors, aoel allegories of fantasy and fiction. Here belief survives the menace of The desire to express all seems a fundamental characteristic of the melodramatic
evidencc, experIence. logic; it sustains the presence of patently unreal agents and mode. Nothing is spare because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on
blatantly artificial formal devices. Belief can he achieved by fiction even when fietivity stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatIze
demes us the comfort of "real" illusions. O. Mannoni, in his analysis of theatrical through their heightened and polarized words and gestures the whole lessor~ of
IllUSIon, Clefs pOllr /'imaginaire ou {'au Ire scene, traces this property of art to the their relationship..:rhey assume primary psychic roles, father, mother, eluld,
and express basic psychic conditions. Life tends. in this fiction, towards ever
FreudIan 1I0tIo~1 of disavowal and the fetishist's belief in the maternal penis. The
more concentrated and totally expressive gestures and statements. J~
mechanICS of SllTIultaneous belief and disbelief becomes a model for other kinds of
"beliefs that survive the denial of experience. ,,'I One of these is the viewer's belief in It is melodrama's fullness, intolerant of the strategies of conventional expression, that
the baldest manifestations of theatrical (cinematic) illusionism. Mannoni locates the is considered excessive by standarrl eritiea I canons.
properties of such (dis)belief in a fluctuating movement through dream and varieties of Brooks's psyehodramatie analogy challenges the widely held prejudice against melo-
conscIousness (thereby anticipating Metz). His remarks on the mediation of belief by drama's simplicity of articulation and access. He has taken on the major task of
masks. spmts, actors arc particularly helpful in e.xplaining some of the most trouble- rehabilitating what has long been considered a minor genre, 31 Many of his arguments
some conventions of sentimental fiction: "If we ourselves are not victims of an illusion are obviously applicable to narrative films of sentiment, IVorks that have their sources
at the theater or in front of masks, it seems, however, that we need someone else who, in the melodramatic literary traditions of the nineteenth century. The affinities be-
for our satifaction, is prey to this illusion. Everything seems contrived to produce it, tween narrative, cinema. and the pathetic are exemplified in the films of D. W.
but 111 someone else, as if we were in collUSIon with the actors. ,,12 Griffith, whose prolific output and whose commercial success prove the viability of the
Soon after the credits of It's a Wonderful Life, we see a Hollywood sky, replete with melodramatic register in cinema. Griffith actcd in and wrote stage melodramas before
what seem lIke moving, talking light bulbs; we hear a conversation of angels, one of working at Biograph. Pcril-rescue and evil-good scenarios {although not Griffith's only
Charies AffTOn identifications IIJ
fictional typcs, as is somctimcs believed) are pervasive, from his first one-reeler, The
psychological, spatial, and temporal depths into which we arc invited to plunge.
Adventures of Dollie (1908), through the grandiose The Birth of a Nation (1915) and
depths that are both distinct and inextricably mixed in their successive and renewed
Intolerance (1916), to his loving adaptation of the already "old fashioned" melodrama promises of satisfaction and fuJfillment.
Way Down East (1920), and beyond. The pathos of these films had a formative effect
on many directors, an cffect evidenced in Eisenstein's theory and practice, and in the
work of artists less well remembered, right to the present day. Yet, dcspite its obvious
applicability to narrativc in lilm, Brooks's formulation of melodrama as it is manifested
in the novel and in the theater is insufficient when we consider that cincma, in its Genres
modes of production and perccption, is like neither written nor "live" acted tcxts.
Cincmatie melodramas must thcrefore be examined in the specifics of the specular
activity it elicits. Its discourse must be distinguished from the incessant symbolic codes
If melodrama is a term insuflicient to Clllema, and thcreforc to
of prose, its enactments from thc presence of performers in the theater's real spacc and an understanding of its types of fictions, are there othcr designations morc appropriate
to cinematic affectivity? "Tearjerker," "weepy," and "sentimental" arc negative and
A more nuanced analogy for film is probably the Italian melodramma, the opera, implicitly judgmental of the films to which they are applied. 16 The "woman's film" is
because of its amplilicatory, hyperbolic registers-the utterance of singers and orches- ambiguous and inaccurate. It suggests that such a film is only about women or that it
tra. I think it useful to draw a parallel between the massed effects of ensemble in the appeals only to women. Neither is true. The word "family" in family film is more
music theater and cinema's synthetic simultaneities, conveyed by long shots and indicativc of the kind of a\1diencc for which the fiction is intended than it is of its type,
montage, of decors and multitudes that would not fit on any stage. The solo/choral although almost all family films have elements of sentiment. This is also true of
(emphasis on individual/emphasis on group) and the linear/harmonic (depiction of "romantic" films, love stories. Because of their imprecise, Impoverished, or evaluative
progressive actior,fspectacular mise-cn-scene) juxtapositions of the film epic from Into/- semantic resonance, thcse tcrms do not accommodate the affective range of film
erance to Close Encounters or the Third Kind demonstrate cinema's expansion of narrative. What is the genre of Potemkin? The Last Laugh? Mr. Smith Goes to
fictional space through such syntheses. And for the sake of argument I will extend the Washington? Tears are elicited by films about well-heeled Jovers, indigent mothers,
operatic analogy of hyperbolic performance (vocal projection, extremes of rangc) to the little boys, dogs, proud cavalrymen, and glamour girls, in modes lhat range from light
close-up, a uniquely cinematic mode of theatncal prescntation.
comedy to the "serious." Strong emotions are often displayed in drawing-room come-
Yet, with its insistence on the uniqueness of the performer. the close-up does not dies, thrillers, and actIon-wcsterns. Genre distinctions arc excessively limiting even
belong to a melodramaturgy that, lilT good reason, Brooks bases upon the audience's when applied to those texts that seem to define the genre. Is it not fruitful to read (as
perception of type rather than individuality. A victimized, unwed mother who baptizes has in fact been done) Hitchcock's thrillcrs as love stories? The temptation is great with
her dying baby is a melodramatic configuration, but it ceases to be that whcn she is otorious and Rear Window. to name two of the most obvious examples. Raymond
Lillian Gish in close-up performing that act in Way Down East. While the close-up
SelloUT has done a meticulous psyehocritical reading of North by Northwest in which
sustains Brooks's notion of melodramatic plenitude, it subverts melodramatic moral
sexual identities and conflicts arc no Ics\~erilous to the hero than a crop-dusting plane
typagc. And further, distincxt from the modalities of both spoken and musical theater.
ad a narrow ledge of Monnt Rushmore.
the photographic naturalism of cinema prove to be particularly intoJerant of melo-
Yet, faced with the omnipresence of affectivity in cinema. geneTIc categories have
drama. A stage version of Way Down East's spectacuJar catastrophe on an icy river
helped me to identify some texts as periphcralto my argument. In mysteries, thrillers,
would undoubtedly seem both melodramatic and ludicrous; Lillian Gish's hand and
most westcrns, and very light comedies, affect may be pervasive. bllt it is only intermit-
hair floatIng in real, frigid water are not. (The sequence was shot, at peril to life and
tcntly perceived on the surfacc of the text. The love scenes of Notorious and Rear
limb, at White River Junction.) When melodrama ceases to be schematic, through the
Window punctuate what appear to be suspensc films. This is not true of David Lean's
cinematic particularizations of enactment and photography, it transcends that which is
Brier Encounter or of Frank Borzage's History Is Made at Night. For the purpose of
reductive in its mode (other aspects of performance often counteract the reductive in
examining the affective response, I havc chosen a corpus of film in which, for the most
melodramatic live theater), pushing the specific work and the perceiver beyond type to
part, the rendition of emotional states involving the expression of sentiment constitutes
the status of uniquc experience. or can we respond to the image as "simple" when it
the superlicial and primary fictional mode. The medium elearly displays its affectivity
IS rcad as part of a series of images whose very essence of flux violates the categorical
in films that dramatil.e affect itself, films in which the expression of sentiment is at the
nature of melodrama. Films cease to engage us not when they exhibit their melodra-
center of the narrativc, films that, even after the most casual viewing, can be recog-
matic inAections, but whcn they cease to exert the lure of cinematic movement, nized as having as their project the dramatization of relationships of sentiment. Jt is
whether that movement be defined by images of stasis or furious action. The medium
precisely these films that have been judged negatively because of their sentimentality
has the power to rescue the surface of the fiction through its proccsses of movement, its and their ability to draw strong, yet uncritical. responscs from viewcrs. They usually
JiluslOllislic and fantastic projections, and its stagings. That surface is Illvested with
imagc the flow of tears, and they succeed in making audiences' tears flow in sympathy.
1/2 Charles A{(ron Identifications In
They employ and enjoy strategies that sustain significant durations of feeling; they playing yet another self-sacrificing woman in love, lies in yet another bed. This time,
insistently manifest how and why emotion is manifcsted. though, she has been rescued from her suicide attempt. All we sec of her face arc her
Audienccs have affective responscs to many films. Those trcated hcre obviously eyes, isolated in a cosmetically glamorous. perfect opening in the bandages around her
reRect both the generalities and the particularities of my affective response. I havc tried head. A touch of the absurd, with odd echoes of The Invisible Man and The Mummy,
to rcmain consistcnt, however, in choosing films that force us to consider the workings might have been avoided if a traceable design had been established. We are even
of affect itself-in the fiction, in the medium, and in us. By doing that I do not wish to denied the satisfying outcome of the conventional "bandaged face" scene-the removal
imply that a film will automatically trigger an affective responsc if it foregrounds affect. of the bandages. Emotional response to this image is short-circuited by the reading that
Some readers may be disconnected from a text because thcy have insufficient knowl- the text's disorienting ingredients have imposed. Among the troubling configurations;
cdge to read it. Othcrs havc expert knowledge of a given subject and will thcrefore be the opening sequcnee in which Crawford, "the toast of New York," docs her nightclub
intolerant of distortion and fictionalization. The specifics of an individual's personal act, a scries of "modern" turns to Chopin, partnered by MCM's resident adagio
experience and situation may force the rejection of the text. A nine-year-old hoy will dancer, Tony De Marco; the "humorous" use of the black maid, Hattie McDaniel,
most probably remain unmoved by the plight of the consumptivc, love-struck courte- who at one point is compared to a farm tractor; the strenuous shifts in tone Fay Bainter
san; the historian will find ludicrous the inaccurate, falsifying "version" of Marie is made to display, from sarcasm to pyromaniacal fury (she has barely a hair out of
Antoinette's life and death; the committed feminist is likely to have a negative response place during her lunatic incendiary activities) to morning-after repentance and good
to a film that idealizes a woman's sacrifice of her career to wifcly subservience. sense; the shot of Crawford carrying Sullavan out of of the burning house in her strong
There arc vet other films for which it would be difficnlt to identify what Stanley arms (one <lsks why Young and Douglas wcre not more alert); the very premise thai
Fish has called an "informed reader" or an "interpretive commnnity,"~S These are texts Young prefers Crawford to Sullavan, given the personas and abilities of these particular
that fail through their own confusion, their clumsy use of conventions, their involun- performers. This curiously heterogeneous mixture of textual eonstitutents is conveyed
tary betrayal of rcaders' expectations. (Voluntary betrayals arc often a rich source of by a publicity still of the stars, grouped as they ncver are in the film, their smiles and
affect.) A mother-Iovc film will certainly not draw forth tears if its rendition is perfunc- frowns in discordant array against an ominously shadowy background. The photograph
tory, awkward. inappropriate, if its structure is inadvertently illogical. Thc death of a thwarts the most energetic [lltempt to supply it with narrative meaning. In this, as well
child and a mother's grief are affectless, Reeting episodes in Call Her Savage, whose as in style and compositirlll, it resembles stills for films that arc paragons of narrative
plot is as hyperkinetic as the familiar gestures of the star, the post-"It" Clara Bow. Even coherence. What is remarkahle, however. is how precisely it emblemizes the nearly
performers and directors renowned for their work in fictions of sentiment succumb to impermeable narrative patt<:Tl1 of The Shining /-lour.
textual incoherence. In 1938 prank Borzage directed Three Comrades and The Shining There are undoubtedly viewers so attracted to some aspect of The Shining Hour that
lInur. In the first, the death scenc of Pat. the character played by Margaret Sullavan, is they are able to ignorc its disions and inconsistencies. Most of us are forced to read the
the emotional peak of a narrative that forms a dense and consistent pattern of situations film as a function of an p!'centrie combination of incompatible elements. How else are
of friendship, love. and idealism. Pat sums up our feelings about these feelings in her we to make sense of th"se bandage-framed eyes that stare out, perhaps in wonder at
suicide. She has just undergone surgery for lubereulosis. Warned that the slightest what has preceded? We ~tMe as well and wonder, not at the film's improbability, but at
movement will prove fatal, she laboriously rises from her bed. goes to the terrace, and the absence of the web of gestures, words. and images that sustains improbability where
stretches out her a rillS to her husband in the courtyard below. Unwilling to be a burden it belongs-within a fiction.
to those who are dear to her. she sacrifices herself in a gesture that acknowledges the
coherence of the fiction. Acting and direction satisfy us in their completion of an
emotional trajcctory, drawing us up along with performer and camera. This trajectory
is denied the "interpretive community" for which The Shining Hour was intended. A
"major studio classic narrative" film, The Shining HOllr is meant to provide a reading
perceived as coherent by a wide range of audiences. The plot itself does not prevent
such a reading. A nightclub performer, Joan Crawford, unfulfilled by big-city success
and sophistication. marries a rich Wisconsin farmer. Melvyn Douglas. Her arrival at In his stud v on time <lnd fictional coherence frank Kermode
the family estate provokes her husband's sister, Fay Bainter, to jealous rage, and her evokes the status of angels as defin~d by St. Thomas. His angels are "neither matter, with
husband's brother, Robert Young, 10 adulterous desire. Bainter burns down Crawford's its potentiality. nor pure act, but immaterial with potentiality. . . . They are therefore
new house; unloved Margaret Sullavan seizes thc occasion to attempt to immolate neither eternal nor of time. ,,)9 So it is for the material immateriality and the eternally
herself, thereby authorizing the love of her husband. Young, for Crawford. The repeatable durations of movies and their stars. who effect the transformations once
audience expects a resolution whose intensity, in complementing the logic of the reserved for angcls. The ideal medium for angels has oftcn been the properties of the
fiction, is a prime source of affect. The conclusion offers instead a shot whose eccen- fictivity of sentimental cinema, with its constellation of ideallizing conceits. This ethos
tricity rcAects the kind of reading that the text rcpeatedly generates. Margarct Sullavan. of fictivity is exemplified in the films of frank Borzage, a director whose long career is
114 Charles Affmn tdentificatlOns JI,
marked by an obsessive pattern of sentimental configurations. The title of Borzage's miracle of communication between the living and the dead in Smilin' Through, the
His/ory Is I"'lade at igh/ is suggestive of cinema's penchant for artifice, improbability, miracle of variable photographic density in the last images of Three Comrades, where
idealization. The very notion that history, in this case a fiction film, can bc "madc" at the survivors link arms with the dead. Myra (Catherine McLeod) and Goranoff (Philip
night, thereforc in the absencc of light, suggests a distance between the medium and its Dorn), the protagonists of I've Always Loved You, "speak" through art, live as if life
requisitc light. Making history at night asscrts the cinema's trickcry, its seductive search were the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no. 2, appear in sets decorated to such a high
for what seem to be lightless photographic contexts, and its subsequent crcation of purely degree that they can be nothing but decor, and in colors so vivid that they cannot for a
cinematic light. This gesture is defiant of the patently documcntary qualIty of each film moment be mistaken for those we perceive in nature. At the climax of I've Always
frame. It posits the fictivity of a medium that for Edgar Morin projects "the world of Loved You we perceive the extent to which cinema itself is emotion for Borzage. The
spirits or phantoms, such as it is manifested in a great number of archaic mythologies: an last shot is not of the protagonists but of the means through whieb their feelings are
aerian world in which omnipresent spirits navigate. ,,40 conveyed-piano and surrounding decor (the source of the aural/visual image) and the
The narrative premisc of His/ory Is Made at ight proclaims the force of fiction camera (the recording apparatus). The invisible camera becomes the principal actor as
through its profusion of unlikelihoods and coincidences. Paul, "the greatest head- it tracks back up the center aisle of the auditorium, away from the piano that Myra has
waiter in all Europe" (Charles Boyer), saves Irene (Jean Arthur) from her estranged just abandoned. The concerto thunders to its conclusion despite her absence. As music
husband's plot to prevent their divorce. The husband (Colin Clive) frames Paul for mirrors, transmits, and subsumes the emotional power of the medium, it demonstrates
murder and then blackmails Irene into renouncing her gallant lover. Unaware of the how for Borzage, and for so many others, there is almost no distinction between art for
murder and of why Irene gives him up, Paul goes to America and transforms a dreary feeling and art as feeling.
restanrant into the most fashionable dining place in New York in the hope that his Many sentimental narratives tend to generate improbabilities in proportion to the
belol'ed "Miss America" will appear. Meanwhile. Irene has flcd from her vicious strength of the feelings they express. In such narratives the vcry activity of fiction
husband, but agrees to return with him to Paris when an I11nocent man she believes to making becomes so expressive that it reflects a measure of incompatibility between
be Paul has been apprehended. On the night of the couple's departure they just happen feeling and necessity, between emotion and logic. Experience tells us to reject Chico
to dine at Paul's restaurant. Irene's joy at finding Paul out of danger is short-lived; Paul and Diane's "seventh heaven," Myra and Goranoff's audiovisual harmonics, Irene and
will not let tlIe innocent man stand trial. The lovers sail for Paris on the liner owned by Paul's historic night. But we succumb to these idealizations, the glamorous close-ups,
Irene's husband, who in a fit of mad jealousy urges the captain to reckless speed and the molding of faces and bodies in images whose artifices arc compounded by plot,
certain disaster amid the ice fields of the North Atlantic. Paul, Irene, and the others are light, and the "magic" of cinema. Feeling is located in this ambiguous field of probable
saved from death when the last bulkheads of the "Princess Irene" hold against the improbability, where real yet absent performers play out situations that both happen
surging water. and do not happen. Emotional engagement is powered by the deployment of cine-
The style of the film's narration does nothing to mitigate improbabilities that it in matic strategies that liberate actors from flesh, objects from matter, emotion from
fact relishes. At the beginning Paul rescues Irene by masquerading as a jewel thicf; they necessity.
fall in love about two minutcs later, in a taxicab; alone in Paul's restaurant, hey ~c
the tango the night through, Irene barefoot, in a fur coat. Th~' ea of love in
fictions: the menu for a perfect dinner, a pair of puppets dr on th ir han . Th .
feelings, freed by these fictions, are replayed when Irene r rns to I in another
restaurant, in another city, and yet again. when they order tha erfeet meal aboard Notes

,6.k ~Il , ,~, "~I, "~=ry
ship and dance the tango in their stateroom. They achieve e of transcendence in
the context of the final disaster, the end-of-the-world configuration of the sinking ship,
the life and death enactments of couples being separted, the de rigeur, in extremis
rendition of "Nearer My God to Thec" by the brave little orchestra. Awaitin what ,f film. Il '" <h, "'" of m, ",om'O<.
seems like certain death, em'e1oped in fog, the faces of Paul and Irene re suffuse v' 2 W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.. The Verbal leon: Studies in the Meaning afPoetry (Lexington: University
the complexities of fiction and of cinematic light. The niek-of-time eseue shifts the Press of Kentucky, 1954), p. 21.
film to yet a higher register of joy and miraele, offering the satisfactio of tion at its 'l. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. cds., The Reader in the Text: Essays an Audience and
purest. Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1980), provide an excellent bibliogra.
phy for reader-orientcd criticism.
This is the satisfaction too of Borzage's Seventh Heaven, where Diane (janet
4. Stanley E. Fish, "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics," in Self-Consuming Artifac/s:
Caynor) and Chico (Charles Farrell) transcend harsh necessity in their Parisian garret, The Experience of Seventeenth.Centur)' Litera/ure (Berkeley: Univemty of California Press,
and transcend space, death, and blindness through their telepathic relationship, fully 1972), p. 390.
conveyed by the simplest of shot juxtapositions-Diane in Paris, Chico in the trenches S. Stanley Cavell, The World VlelVed: Ref/ections on the On/ology of "ilm, enlargcd ed. (Cam-
at the front. Chico's reappearance is a miracle offaith, light, and cinema. 42 Such is the bridge. Massachusetts and London: Harvard Univcmty Press. 1979), pp. 14-1 S.
116 Charles Affron Identi(ications 1/7
6. Beginning in 1978, a series of articles has appeared under the rubric "Cuilty Pleasures" in form nf dramatic mise-en-seenc, charaeteri7.ed by a dj'namic use of spatial and mUSIcal
Film Comment in which various critics dISCUSS the "bad" films they lovc mos!. categories. as opposed to intellectual or hterary oncs" (1'. 6). And later. "Thc acsthellc
7. Susan Sontag, Aga",st Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, qualities of this type of emcma dcpend on thc ways 'melos' is givcn to 'drama' by means of
19(,6), p. 177. lighting, montage, visual rhythm, decor, style nf acting, music-Ihat is. On the ways the
8. Sontag, p. J79 mise-en-scene translatcs charactcr into actlorr" (I'. 8).
9. Nick Browne. "Narrative Point of View: The Rhetoric of Au hasord, Balthasar." Film 30. Robert Scholes," arration and Narr"tivity in Film," Quarterly Review of Film Studies I
Quarterly 31 (Fall 1977): 19-31. (1976): 290.
10. Jean Mitry, Esth<itique et psych%gie du cmema. 1. Les structures (Paris: Editions Uni- 31. O. Mannoni, Clefs pollr l'/f1IQginaire ou l'autre scene (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1969), p. 12.
versitaires, 19(3), p. 147. (This and all subsequcnttranslations from cited foreign language 32. Maononi, pp. 163-64.
edihons are mine.) Edgar Morin is just as insistent on the fundion of affect in the production 33. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry lames. Melodrama, and the
of cfOematie meaning. "\Ve must conceive of affeclive participation as emema's genetic stage Modes of Excess ( 'ew Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 41.
and structural {oundation." Le cinema ou l'homme imoginaire (Paris: Editions Can thier, 34. Brooks, p. 4.
1958). p. 91. 35. Robcrt !-kilman redcfines melodrama in somewhat differcntterms. He extcnds Ihe genre to a
II Hugo Munsterbcrg, The Film: A Psychologlcol Study, The Silent Photoplay in 19/6 (1916; widc range of "scrious' fictions that can be characteri7.ed as belonging to "the realm of
reprint New YOlk: Dover, 1970), p. 53. disaster." Another distinguishing feature of melodrama is its deployment of "undivided"
\2. Mitry, p. \79. Jcan-Pierre Meuneir, in Les structures de l'experience !ilmique: L'identi!ication characters. "Melodrama, in sum, ineludes the whole rcalm of conAiets undergone by charac-
(ilmique (Louvain: Librairie Universitairc, 1969), examines this in terms both of the notion of ters who arc presented as undividcd or at least without divisions of such magnitude that they
intersubjectivity developed by Hesnard and of the phenomenolngl' of Merleau-Pnnty and must be at the dramatic,ccntcr: hence melodrama includes a rangc of actions that extcnds
Sartre. Although he distinguishes betwcen a viewer's sense of "being with" and "being likc" from disaster to sueecs<. from defeat to victory, and a range of cffects from thc strongest
the fictional charactcr. he attaches the cinematic experience firmly to categorie., of li(e1ikc cnnviction of frustration and failure that serious art can dramatize. to the most frivolous
recognition and rcscmblance. assurance of triumph that a mass-circulation wnlcr can confect." Tragedy and Melodrama:
13. Mitry, p. 188. Versions of Experience (Seallle: Univcrsity of Washlllgton Prcss. 1968). p. 86.
14. Mllnsterberg, 1'1'. 51-52. 36 I"rank McConnell bravely rcscues "sentimental" in his ingemous coupling of romantic art
l'i. Christian Metz, "The Imaginary Signifier," trans. Bcn Brewster, Screen \6 (Summer 1975): and film. "The naive perceptions of a child-<Jr, for Schiller, of the childhood of poetry and
58. culture, the archaic masterpieces-arc forcver e10sed to us, readers and viewers of a latcr day.
16. Met7., "Imaginary Signifier" p. 15. Sentimental art. the art of the romantic imagination, both the ncecssity of recap-
17. Thierry Kuntzcl, "A lote upon the Filmic Apparatlls," Quarterly Review o{ film Studies I turing those naive perceptions for the sake of a fully human, fully conscious life and thc
(1976): 266-71. impossibility of recapturing that life without thc aId of the sophistication, the mtclligence,
t 8. Metl., "Imaginary Signifier," p. 47. and the techniques of artifice which separate it from uS so irrevocably." The Spoken Seen:
19. Christian Mctz. "Thc Fiction Film and Its Spectator," trans. Alfred GlIzzetti. New Literary film and the Romantic Imagination (Baltimore: lohns Hopkins University Press. 1975), PI'
flistory 8 (August 1976): 98. 40-4 I.
20. Martha Wolfcnstein and Nathan Lcites, 10 what was probably the first book.length analySIS of 37. Raymond Bellour, "Le blocage symbolique," CommunicatIOns, no. 23 (1975), PI'. 235-3'i0.
cinema within a Freudian discoursc, Movies: A Psychological Study (Glencoc, Illinois: Free 38. FISh, "Intcrpreting the Variorum,-' pp. 473-85.
Prcss. 1950), examines film fictions almost exelusively in terms of thc viewer's fantasy 39. Frank Kerrnode, The Sense o{ all Ending: Studies in the Theory o{hction (New York: Oxford
configufrltions and projections. Univcrsity Press, 1967), p. 70
21. Morin. p. 81. 40. Morin, p. 39.
22. Met7.. "Fiction Film." p. 79. 41. David Thomson states, "In Borzage's best work, passion. VISual eroticism, and fidelity to the
23. Mel7.. "Fiction Film." p. 102. ideal of love produce imagery so psychically material as to make story lines almost pretexts."
24. Wolfgang Iser, The Implred Reader' PattenlS o{Commun;cation in Prose Fie/ion from Bunyan America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gi{t of Unreality (New York: William Morrow,
to Beckell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. \(74), p. 279. 1977), p. 213. While in Borzage's films "the ideal of love" certainly emanatcs from style and
25. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theor)' of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins enaelment, it is also shaped by the lictivit)' of the "story lines," clements too lightly
UniverSIty Press, 1978), pp. 128-29. Stanley Fish in "Interpreting the Variorum," Critical dismissed by Thomson.
Inquiry 2 (Spring 1976): 474, alsn emphasi7.cs the temporal expenence of the lext in his 42. Philip Rosen, in "Difference and Displaecment in Seventh Heaven." Screen 18 (Summer
description of readmg as interpretation. 1977): 99, assesses the value of light as "signifier for all of the Imllbstantialities of the film,"
26. Iser, Act o{ Reading, p. 116. insubstantialities resumed in thc film's miraculous conclusion.
27. Claudine Eizykman, La /oUlssance-einema (Paris: 1011 , 1976), Pl'. 7-8.
28. Eizykman, p. 13.
29. Thomas Elsaesser, in his rich and allUSIve "Talcs of Sound and Furl': Observations on the
Famil)' Melodrama'-' Monogram, vol. ~ (1972), makes extensive usc of the musical analogy.
"Collsldcrcd as an expressive cude, melodrama might therefore bl" described as a particular
Russian Fonnalisl Theories of Melodramo 119

Novel while Eichenbaum seriously investigated O. Henry and the Short Story,4 and
both dealt extensively with cinema. The Formalists were naturally attracted to genre
studies, particularly to seemingly minor or marginal genres which had received virtu-
ally no critical investigation, but were clearly significant in their impact on other,
better known forms.
It is in this context that Russian Formalist interest In popular theatre arose. Several
Formalist critics and writers associated with the school actually did take up thc study of
drama, not as a purely literary form. but as a mixed theatrical mode, and the genre
which called forth their most intensive scrutiny was popular melodrama, usually
regarded as subliterary and ignored by the makers of poetics. For the Formalists,
however, who were non-judgmentally objective in approach. and committed to explor-
Russian Fonnalist Theories of Melodrama ing the essential characteristics of a genre and to tracing its evolution into "higher"
types, no study of dramatic form could be more congenial and rewarding than that of
In his seminal work, Russian Fonnalism: His/ory-Doctrine, S Victor Erlich points
out that the Formalists wcre at their best in dealing with extreme stylization; the fairy
tale provided ideal material for their analytical methods because it is "one of the most
thoroughly formalized literary genres" and "one of the least psychology-minded types
of fiction.·,{, The same thing could bc said of melodrama as a subject for Formalist
theoretical exploration. Of all theatrical modes, melodrama is the most conventional-
ized, depending for its success far less on individual talent and imagination than on the
skillful manipulation of stock formulas.
The Russian Formalist critics, who Rourished in the Sovict Union For all these reasons, the Russian Formalists made, I believe, an unusually valuable
in the mid-1920's, are best known for their stylistic and linguistic studies as well as contribution to the theory of melodrama long before this popular genre was seriously
their analyses of narrative and poetic techniques. In rejecting the psychological. socio- studied as a dramatic form in England, Amcrica, or anywhere else. For the first timc in
logical, and biographical approaches to literature and instead focusing attention on the the history of criticism, the Formalists analyzed the mechanism of melodrama and
intrinsic properties of the work of art itself, particularly its technique and structure, revealed its fundamental techniques and its aesthetic principles.
through rigorous scientific dissection, the Formalists anticipated by many years a
number of the major principles of both the American ew Criticism of thc 1940's and The small, but important body of Formalist writing on melodrama consists almost
the French Structuralism of the 1960's. I exclusively of three studies (all written in 1926): Sergei Balukhatyi's Poetics of Melo-
For the most part, the Russian Formalists were literary and academic critics. little drama, Boris Tomashevsky's French Melodrama of the Beginning of the Nineteenth
concerned with the performing arts, for whom the primary materials for analysis were Century, and Adrian Piotrovsky's Towards a Theory ofCinema Genres. Although only
poetic texts. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the scholarly presentation of Formal- Tomashevsky was a ful1-Redged member of the Formalist circle. Balukhatyi and
ist theory in English no place is given to drama or theatre, an applied genre which Piotrovsky were at least temporarily associated with the school, and their essays are
would appear to lie outside the purview of the movement. 2 At first glance, melodrama firstrate examples of the Formalist method and appeared as contributions to major
especially might seem an unlikely subject for Formalist theory. Formalist compilations at the height of the movement in 1927. just before its rapid
It must be understood. however, that the Russian Formalists were indeed interested demise under repressive attack from reactionary Marxist quarters. Balukhatyi's essay
in popular and oral culture and did not discriminate in favor of the printed over the was published in Volume III of the Leningrad Formalist periodical, Poetika (as was
spoken word. In fact, several of their celebrated analyses are of traditional oral materi- Tomashevsky's in Volume II), and Piotrovsky's study appeared in Poetics of Cinema, a
als, as witness Vladimir Propp's work on the fairy tale and folklore.' Two of the leaders Formalist collection, edited by Eichenbaum, that ineludes work by Shklovsky and
of the movement, Victor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum, showed a marked interest Yurii Tynyanov.
in nineteenth-century popular fiction; Shklovsky wrote of Dickens and the Myster}' Melodrama was. in this period, a timely subject. Immediately after the Revolution
and into the mid-1920's, there had been widespread practical interest in melodrama
and spirited discussion of its place in the new Soviet theatre. Blok, Lunacharsky, and
Daniel Gerould's "RUSSIan Formalist Theories of Melodrama" origmally appeared in The Jour- Corky, among others, argued that the strong didactic and theatrical values inherent in
rIal of American Culture, Vol. I, no. 1 (1978), pp. 152-68. Reprinted by permission or the
melodrama made it the ideal popular theatre for mass audiences in a new revolution-
all thor and The Journal of American Culture.

120 Daniel Cerould Russian Fomwlist Theories o( Melodrama 12/

ary society. New Soviet melodramas as well as famous French nineteenth-century Balukhatyi wishes to avoid a purely literary interpretation and establish the actual
examples of the genre (such as Dumas' Tour de Nesle) were given magnificent stagings; theatrical form of melodrama which has impact on a spectator, not a reader.
Meyerhold produced Alexander Faiko's anti-capitalist melodramas, and Stanislavsky"s
Moscow Art Theory did a version of D'Ennery's The Two Orphans. q
Undoubtedly, the active ferment over melodrama in the theatrical life of the time
finds a reReetion in tbe Formalists' detached analytical studies, but the Formalist
approach is from a diametrically opposed point of view. Whereas Corky and All elements in melodrama-its themes, technical principles, construction. and
Lunacharsky discovered an important utilitarian function for melodrama in Soviet style-are subordinate to one overriding aesthetic goal: the calling forth of "pure,"
society. the Formalists limited themselves to depicting the nature of the genre itself, "vivid" emotions. Plot. character. and dialogue, working in unison. serve to elicit from
both as an abstract form and as an evolving organism in the natural history of dramatic the spectator the greatest possible intensity of feeling.
forms. The emotionaltcleology of melodrama conditions the choice of its particular poetic
means-which are limited in number. but highly effective in the theatre. Melodrama
is primarily characterized by its method of "playing on the emotions."
The fundamental task for the melodramatist is "baring the passions," which consti-
tute the motive force of the characters' actions. The display of "passion" is central to
1. Balukhatyl and the Poetics of Melodrama the structure of melodrama as the mainspring of its plot; "passion" is revcaled not for its
own sakc, but only to explain the dramatic action which results from it. Since action in
melodrama is always extraordinary. it must be justified by a high degree of feeling,
expresscd as "vivdly" as possible with "maxima'" intensity. Hence, the organic and
Sergei Balukhatyi (1892-1945) was the major theoretician of
mutually interactive bond between propulsive emotion and plot in melodrama. and
drama among the Formalists and critics associated with the movement. and hc was the
the peculiar artistic strength of the melodramatic form.
first to develop a coherent set of principles for Formalist analysis of drama in his book.
The emotional teleology of melodrama is manifest in the following elements:
Problems of Dramaturgical Analysis: Chekov (1927). Balukhalyi continued to write on
1. In its plot themes. Melodrama uses plots with foolproof emotional bases. Typi-
Chekhov and the principles of Chckhovian dramatic construction, but after 1930 and
cally melodramatic are extreme violations of the normal conncctions among everyday
the persecution of the I'ormalists as hcretics. he was unable to complete his theoretical
phenomena; the very fact of violation and the dcsire on the part of the spcctator to see it
work and turned instead to the safer field of Corky studies. particularly bibliography
pnt right will call forth strong emotions. Usual plot fhcmes: accusation of an innocent
and text transmission, with occasional ventures into sociological analysis in order to
person in a murder or theft. the fatc of a defenseless girl. a character as victim of his
demonstrate his renunciation of formalism.
own passions, a person forced to commit decds contrary to his own conscience.
Balukhatyi's Poetics of IVrelodrama remains to the present day the most thorough
2. Tn tire material furnished by the facts of everyday li(e and by the characters'
and incisive systematic analysis of the structure and techniquc of melodrama ever
actions. Melodrama utilizes matcrial that will invariably produce strong emotional
undertaken. The author's method, characteristic of the Formalists, is first to determine
shocks for the spectator. Usual material: murders. large-scale thcfts or forgeries. con-
the functional purposc and compositional plan of melodrama and then to break it
frontation with a mnrdcred victim, trial, sentencing, preparation for the execution.
down into component parts. The following summary provides a condensed version of
hard labor, beggary. futile efforts to earn a living. a father's curse. tragic or joyous
Balukhatyi's complete argument and rctains all the hcadings, sections. and subsections
shocks connected with sudden recognitions.
of the original.
3. In the construction o( a plot with unexpected twists and sharp reversals in the
story line: either incessant changes of "happy" and "unhappy" episodes for the principal
INTRODUCTION characters. or an unintcrruptedly "unhappy" line of development for the chief char-
acter until the denouement with its final "happy" reversal. Especially forceful is the
The objcctive of the study is to establish the basic constructional principles of denouement with an unexpected reversal which determines the fates of all the charac-
melodrama and to set forth the typical traits of the genre. Thc aim is purely theoretical. tcrs. resolvcs all side issues. restores to normality the violated relationships, and satis-
not historical; 110 attention is given to thc varicties of national melodrama. or to the fies the spectator. Thc expressivc quality of such a denouement is strengthened by the
diffcrent periods in its evolution. The material analyzed consists of late melodramas in pathos of the elosing speeches and the scntentiousness of the coneluding remarks.
translation (primarily from the I'reneh) from the repertory of the Russian theatrc, 4. In strikingly effective situations. which make an immediate impression on the
ehicRy of the last quarter of the nineteenth ccntury. spectator at crucial moments in the drama. Melodramatic plot construction abounds
The plays, largely in manuscript. are part of the collection at the Central Library of in situations snseeptible to obvious "sentimental" treatment. Frequcnt situations: a
Russian Drama in Leningrad. 10 By studying stage versions intended for pcrformance, mothcr parts with her daughter; a young daughter loses her mother; a father (or
/22 Daniel Cerollid Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama 123

mother) searches for his daughter, meets her, and fails to recognize her; a mother (or characters. This perfect system of rewards and punishments is perceived by the specta-
father) and daughter meet in penal servitude; a girl loves a young man, but is com- tor as a "natural" reflection of the basic "laws of morality," predetermined by the very
pclled to bccomc the fiancee of another. course of events.
5. In characters involved in vivid, expressive emotional interrelationships (a loving Melodrama teaches, consoles, punishes, and rewards; it submits the phenomena of
couple, bride and bridegroom, mother or father and daughter), subsequently violated life and human conduct to the immutable laws of justice and offers reflections upon
in a dramatic fashion (sudden jealousy, forced parting of lovers, loss of the child, men's actions and feelings. A favorite device for moralizing is the insertion at crucial
imprisonment of the father). Melodrama expresses feelings which are comprehensible moments in the plot of sententious speeches evaluating the ethical quality of the
to all, universal and primitive, frequently voiced by a mother ("matcrnal feelings") or a characters' experiences and feelings. In the denouement violated norms are righted
loving couple ("love"-thc favorite emotivc theme in melodrama). The characters in and problems solved in a spirit of idcal morality.
melodrama are affecting by their very nature: children, adolescents. defenseless girls. A
second series of feelings, such as "envy," "self-seeking," and "vengeance" creates richly III. TECHNICAL PRINCIPLES
cffectivc dramatic situations.
6. In the speeches and dialogue of the characlers, arranged dynamically and expres- 1. Principle of Relief Melodrama strives for sculptural relief within its schema-
sively. "Impassioned speech" is peculiar to the characters who are always ready to make tization; plot situations and character traits are givcn in sharply-etchcd design. Inclined
speeches about their feelings. They have the ability to changc rapidly both the thcmcs to psychological primitivism, characters are assigned the simplest and clearest function
and emotional coloration of their speeches ("joyous" tonality changing to "sorrowful" (victim, villain, insidious. enemy, dedicated friend or servant). Speech or dialogue
and vice versa). The character "bares" his inner emotional experienccs and expresses develops a single theme, in a single tone. but with vivid cmotional and expressive
them in pathetic speeches. using maximally "impassioned" words. These "deeply-felt" coloration by means of intonation and gcsture. The characters' deeds and gestures are
speeches are not only the direct expression of strong emotion, bllt they also contain absolute, devoid of nuanced transition. Everything moves forward by sharply isolating
"analysis" of the emotion being experienced, that is to say, thc character's self-appraisal the crucial, striking moments in thc dramatic action. r3ther than by co-ordinating
of the strength of his own feelings ("Remember with what hate my heart is overflow- thcm with the surrounding moments. Melodrama maintains itself on the heights of
ing!") This device reveals the intense energy of the feeling which organizes the entire intensity, thereby obtaining the maximum force from each cl'i.ode.
expressive speech. 2. Principle ofContrast. Melodrama makes extensive usc of jllxtaposition of diverse
Expressiveness is achieved by stylistic as well as thematic qualities. Copiousncss of material. A usual cvice is the interweaving of the destinies of characters at different
exclamations, energetic intonations, expressive vocabulary, and rhythmic construction ends of the socialladdcr (beggar and count) or at different moral elevations (villain and
creatc the sensation of speech animated by "great feeling." The emotional spccches in victim). Contrast may exist in changes of phase for one and the same character: a
melodrama are usually similar to onc another, undifferentiated by the character or character is capable of being unexpectedly transformed from vicious to virtuous (usu-
temperamcnt of the speakers. ally in the denouement). or "love" may change into "vengeai1ce." Contrast may be
The expressive nature of the speeches is strengthencd by the stagc directions which found in a situation where the qualitative side of the material is antithetical to the
accompany them; thc number of thcsc in any melodrama is immense, and the lexical setting in which it is placed (an innocent and defenseless victim amidst criminal
variety of their specifications bears witncss to the melodramatist's attempt to find striking vagabonds, a murder while a ball takes place in the next room).
tones of voice. Such pathos-laden speech, coming at the sharpest and most significant Contrast also exists in the expressive style. Melodrama rarely maintains a single
moments, reinforccs the plot dynamics aod underscores the dramatic situation. dramatic tone, but alternates the comic in situation, charactcl, and speech with the
Clear and forceful statement of emotional cxperiences is necessary for motivation. intensely tragic. This alternation gives melodrama an "agitated" texture, imparting
In melodrama we must not look for psychological justification for the actions which particular sharpness to its emotional themes through contrastive illumination.
occur, as we would in realistic drama. Actions and deeds in melodrama are justificd, 3. Principle of Dynamics. In plot structure and narrative development, each phase
not by detailed investigation of "fceling," or by its "psychology," but solely by the very is followed by what appears to be an entirely new phase in relation to what went before.
natllre and force of the emotion itself. or at least by an entirely new degree of expressiveness. In this way the spectator's
emotions are constantly held at a high point of tension.
II. MORAL TELEOLOGY Thc characters are perpetually confronted with obstacles on thcir way to achieving
their goals: temporary successes and recognitions prove inadequate Cif false, giving rise
Although melodramatic construction is necessarily geared to maximally calling to new consequences leading to further struggle. Melodrama llSCS various devices for
forth the spectator's emotions, melodrama is nevcr limited to manipulation of cmo- braking the main action: through the intrigues of a vicious character, through contin-
tional themes alonc. There is invariably a moralizing treatment of plot. Melodramatic ual delays in the carrying out of a key action, through failure to make a crucial
documents are "happy" for the positive charactcrs and "unhappy" for the negative recognition, through unexpected circumstances. Retardation al the denouement has
/24 Damel Cerould Russia" Formalist Theories of Melodrama 125
especially expressivc force, putting the spectator through further trials at the conclud- everyday life. as it were a pathological situation. (A mother. wishing to hide thc fruit of
ing phases of the action when he wishes to see thc resolution accomplished. Likewise. her first love, abandons her daughter to strangcrs.)
according to the same principle. the endings of the individual acts fall at moments 2 The prologue. Here the initial dramatic knot and plot thread is treated graphi-
whcn new plot developments arc first introduccd and not yct fully disclosed. cally, with clear stress on its role for all subsequent developmcnt of the action. The
Melodrama always finds ways to introduce thc !lncxpecled into thc action. The prologue stands at the beginning of the play, separated from the remaining phases of
dvnamic effect of this device lies in the fact that it violatcs the "course of evcots" as it the unfolding "action" by a significant stretch of time.
has bccn outlined and 'llready grasped by the spectator. turning it in ncw. unknown 3. Exposition. Exposition about cvents and the general disposition of the characters
dneetions through the introduction of a ncw fact or deed. not stipulated by the IS givcn at the beginning of the acts (espccially the first), not in masked form. but
previous action. Hence the presence in melodrama of the following: sudden arrivals. openly and distinctlv, in dircct speechcs by the characters which strcss the dramatic
arrivals of a character at the moment when he is remembered or spoken of, sudc1cn qualitie$ of the basic situations. Such opcn exposition occurs in each of the following
mcetings. substitutions, kidnappings. uncxpected findings. recognitions and rescues. acts. especially if they are separated from the preceding acts hy a large interval of time
introduction of unforcscen circumstanccs Icading to a "happy" resolution of the plot. or contain clusters of events.
unexpected denoucmcnts. Thc characters are provided with self-explanatory speeches; in these spceehes the
Most often melodrama makcs dynamic me of a secret. The secret is thc most charactcrs themselves dcfine their own situation, reveal the general line of their con-
powerful factor in the play's dynamics, permitting the melodramatist to hold the duct, and speak ofthc motives of thcir corning actions. Thus. the spectator at any given
spectator's intcrest uninterruptedly throughout the pcrformance. Use of the secret is moment is not at a loss about plot and character relationships.
varied. There may be a total secret, contained in thc cxposition to the play. and 4. Multiplicity ofacts: Melodrama often has six, seven, Or eight acts, sometimes as
unknown to both the characters and the spectator. Thc spectator can only guess as to many as ten or eleven. since the action with its many themes and plot reversals passes
the naturc of thc sccrct (on the basis of scattered "hints"), to which no character has the thro~lgh a long series of phases and episodes. Each act has its own structure and
kcy. The gradual revelation of the secrct, while the spcctator attempts to gucss it, gives development.
the melodrama its compositional tension. 5. Epilogue. act endings. Melodrama gives special significance to the denoucment
i\ secoud type of sccrct is the secret for the characters, but not for the spectator. In in which all the plot lines come together and the basic themes are fully articulated;
thiS casc the play's compositional dynamics are hascd on the unfolding of situations sometimes the play draws to a close by means of an act which Isulates the final phase in
which hlock an "easy" solution to the enigma of concealed relationships. The charac- the form of an epilogue. More often. the denoucment occurs in the final scene of the
tcrs approach the solution, then move away from it again; the solution is continually last act where all narrative and plot lines are exhaustively resolved-a fact which
hraked by "fatal misunderstandings." Thc spectator. as though a participant in the explains the special impact of the concluding act of a melodrama. The endings of each
evcnts unfolding on stage, has a strong "WIll" to havc the secret diselosed, but his desire individual act are likewisc dramatically expressive. since they complete the plot phase
must remain tense and unresolved until thc denouement. unfoldcd in that given act and at the same time create a new complication which will
The dynamics d melodrama reside not only in the plot, but also in thc language, he unfoldcd in the following acts. The distinctive sharpness of the act endings is
gesture. and mime which give the stamp of forccfulness and aceeleratcd tempo to thc heightened hy the pathos of thc characters' speeches. Such a structuring of act cndings
melodramatic style. allows for a dynamicallv shifting series of plot episodes, cach diverting in itself, and not
co-ordinatcd with the surrounding episodes.
6. Movemenl in tiers. Hence. what is characteristic for melodramatic composition
IV. CONSTRUCTION is not a straight rise to the culminating point and then a lowering of tension until the
conelusion, but rather a movement in tiers by which each new phase of the plot with
its new "obstaeles" and "non-rc$olutions" gives rise to new degrees of dramatic inten-
The originality of melodrama lies not only in thc simultaneolls action of thc sity. This new "quality" of dramatic intcnsity, which builds in layers. creates height-
technical principles describcd abovc, but also in the usc of various constructional ened dramatic pcrccption on the part of thc spectator. not resolved until the final
deviccs for unfolding the emotIOnal plot, and moralizing thcmes inherent in the play. moments of the denouement.
The actual construction of melodrama shows all thc signs of being a fixed "model" form 7. Actlitles. Concerned that the spectator grasp the full dramatic weIght of a given
creatcd by the selection of a series of expressivc. effect-producing items arranged in a plot thread or episode contained within a given act, thc melodramatist provides special
dramatic-scenic system. Principal among these are: designations for both the play and the separate acts, thereby directing the attention of
1. The dramatic knot. At the basis of melodrama a situation is always set up which whoever reads the poster to the intensely dramatic traits implicit in these titlcs. The
gives rise to incvitable dramatic consequences and predetermines and favors the crc- presence of act titles-<!ramatic in theme and exprcssive in style-is a specific trait of
alioll of "sharp" phases of plot development. In this initial thread of the plot. there is the melodrama poster. Takcn as a series, these titles offer intriguing hints as to the
always some violation of the "norm" of character relationships and the habits of dramatic nature of the plot and its progressive unfolding.
126 Daniel Gerould Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama 127

8. Play titles. The methods of formulating play titles are various. The titles may distinguished parents. "Reversibility" even extends to personal qualities: the vicious
establish the central dramatic situation, the dramatic knot, or initial dramatic event, figure repents and becomes virtuous. but not vice versa, since these transformations
the basic stimulus for a character, the milieu or dramatic place of action, the dramatic must serve the moral themc.
quality of thc narrative, the designation of the thing which plays an active role in the 11. Strikingly effective sitltatlOns. Melodrama is made up of a series of strikingly
drama. The double title with "or" is characteristic of melodrama. The complex title effective situations which Aow from the dramatic conception and initial principle of
has a double function: for example, to name the chief character and single out the construction. However, some particular effective situations may fall outside the basic
basic situation, to single out thc basic situation and makc a sententious comment, or to dramatic conception, but be necessary for working out separate sections of the play.
name the chief character and the chief dramatic emotion. Melodrama is always on the look-out for new and untried possibilities for effective
9. The characters and their functions. Melodrama unfolds before the spectator the situations. Thc most frequently employed are: false death, unaccomplished recogni-
Intrigues and destinics of characters who offer occasions for baring the emotional and tion, thc murdered man exposing his murderer, the villain exposing himself at the
moralizing themes of the play. Characters in melodrama do not carry the full weight of moment of triumph. The strikingly effective situation, the impending dramatic mo-
real life; they are rather only outlined distinctly, being effective not in themselves. but ment, is announced in the characters' speeches as the "fatal minute" or "frightful
as spokesmen for the emotional ideology of melodrama and as points of attachment for conjunction of circumstances."
the springs of the plot. Above alL characters in melodrama are devoid of individuality, 12. "Chance." Plot dcvelopment in melodrama is not "organic" and need not be
either personal or everyday realistic; they are interesting to the spectator. not in thcm- psychologically or realistically motivated. The chain of events in melodrama-
selves becausc of their "rich" or "original" psychic substance, as are characters in prcdetennined only by tl1e play's emotional and technical aims and giving rise to
realistic, psychological drama, but only because of their role in interweaving plot lines, strikingly effective situations-is an end in itself. At those moments when separate
their creation of dramatic situations, or the "pure" emotional coloration laid bare in phases of plot are united, "chance" plays a key role as a cohesive element, combining
their speeches which for melodrama is the source of dramatic intensity. and crossing lines of action and intrigue and producing sharp dramatic situations. An
In a certain sense. melodrama is devoid of "heroes" possessing free activity who initial "chance" starts the dramatic action, and for the subsequent unfolding, new
make their own destinies for themselvcs. II The dramatic spring is not the character. "chances" are required. Thus "chance" allows for new, unexpected plot twists. An
but the plot with its emotional bases; the characters are only its "tools" and are defined illusion of organicness is created by having all the elements involved in a given
in their character traits only as much as is necessary for motivating the progression of situation already introduced before the chance occurrcnce takes place. However. melo-
the plot. Hence tbe fundamental one-dimensionahty of melodramatic characters. drama also makes use of "chances" from outsidc simply to resolve a situation, but the
They act according to principles which are predetermined by their plot roles. automatic use of external "chanee" as a dellS ex machina weakens the persuasive.
Accordingly, the characters in melodrama fall easily into groups depending on their artistic power of melodrama.
simplified dramatic functions which remain unchanged throughout the play. One- 13. The thing. A "thing" can be introduced into melodrama in order to eomplicate
dimensional and stationary, the characters in melodrama are cast in "masks," of which the "normal" course of events or to violate a harmonious series of character interac-
there are only a limited number. The basic series--of characters who are "positivc" and tions. On the other hand, a "thing" may bring about the restoration of a violated series
"virtuolls"-are bearers of thematically stable and sympathetic qualities: honor, valor. of relationships. By means of a "thing," the true identities and relationships of the
selAess love, gcnerosity. The positive ideological theme of the play is attached to the charactcrs may come to light. A "thing" may enter actively into the plot; its disappear-
destiny of such a virtuous character and undergoes the peripeties of "suffering" experi- ance can bring about the complication by causing a false accusation, A "name" or even
enced by him, terminated by a final "happy" ending to maintain the moralizing a "voice" can serve the same function as a "thing," as when a character uses another's
tendency. Ilame or voice with insidious purpose or to hide a "secret."
The "positivc" figure is juxtaposed to the "negative" character, the "villain"-a Present throughout the entire plot as a hidden sign, a "thing" can have decisive
vicious, pitiless figure, whose deeds, theatrically effective in themselves, serve as significance for the denouement when it is correctly recognized in the final moments
stimulus for testing the positive values of the play. These primary figures are sur- of the play.
rounded by secondary figures who are connected with the complications and share the
peripeties of the "suffering" characters (as "devoted servant") or act the role of "tool" for
the vicious characters (innocent or willing helper of the villain). Comic and pictur-
esque elements are introduced into melodrama by these secondary characters who
have traits lacking in the principal characters. Melodrama is written expressly for the stage and designed to be as effective as
10. "Reversibility" of the characters. Characters in melodramas are subject to eon- possible in the theatre. Those elements which will most affect the spectator, not the
trastive, polar changes. The ability of the character to become transformed into his reader, are chosen; in this sense, melodrama is the most scenic of all genres. The
opposite is customarily utilized in constructing the play's denouement: the rich be- melodramatist accordingly prepares bis text so that it will have maximum effect on thc
come poor, the poor rich; the character of unknown origins invariahly discovers his spectator when transposed to theatrical conditions, as witness the presence of extensive
/28 Daniel Gerould Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama /29

indications of mise-en-scene, including mimed action. Setting and local color are "higher" genre. (Elsewhere, in his analysis of Chekhov's early plays-particularly
given with maximum dramatic expressivcness, although with only as much dctail as is Plalanol', Il'anol', and The Wood Demon-Balukhatyi shows how the great Russian
necessary for a functional depiction of time and place. dramatist, long fascinated by French melodrama, began to evolve a new, "higher"
Melodrama likes to transfer the dramatic action into the historical past, using the genre by covering over melodramatic skeletons.)lz
colorful material of a stylized epoch and giving some "versimilitude" to the strength of Such is Balukhatyi's Poetics of Melodrama. a complete and coherent system for the
the emotions, which are attached to historical figures or characters of a remote era. The formal analysis of the genre, providing a terminology and methodology for dealing not
interweaving of tragic and comic motifs has spceial significance in the actual perfor- only with the verbal and literary text of a play, but also with its scenic and gestural
mance of melodrama, providing the spectator with alternating moments of tension and languagc.
relaxation. In its search for auditory reinforcement of its expressive themes, melodrama
has recourse to musical "accompaniment," especially for significant, intense, or pathetic
moments. A similar "accompanying" role is played by "threatening" manifestations of
nature (thunder, lightning) and by natural beauty (moonlight, sunbeams). 2. Tomashcvsky and French Melodrama of the
Beginning of the Nineteenth Century

Boris Tomashevsky (1890-1957), one of the major Formalist
Melodrama is not a standardized form that has remained unchanged during its onc
critics and scholars, wrote'extensively on the theory of literature, Russian versification,
hundred years of existence; it has constantly developed variants of its basic composi-
and the works of Push kin. He was also interested in drama and questions of dramatic
tional form. The earlicst melodramas were richly emotional. but with only weakly
genre,lJ and his only extended artiele on the subject is a masterful study of the way in
developed plot. Subsequently different varieties of melodrama evolved: psychological,
which the lower genre melodrama was absorbed by the higher genrc romantic drama,
ideological, morals-and-manners, and pure plot. Although limited in its emotional
According to Tomashevsky, French melodrama is actually part of a popular tradition of
possibilities, melodrama has always sought out new effects and developed new twists of
irregular tragedy, going back to the time of Alexandre Hardy, to which Hugo and the
plot; hence, judicial, criminal, adventure, and detective variants have all arisen. The
romantics turned in their break with classicism. Attacking a problem in literary history
growth of realistic drama has led to the creation of realistic and social melodrama.
and influence usually ignored by academic critics,l~ Tomashcvsky is concerned to
show the melodramatic skeleton which the romantic playwrights covered over and
VII. THE DRAMATIC NATURE OF MELODRAMA evolved into a new genre. And in this fashion Tomashcvsky's treatment of melodrama
follows the Formalist law of the "canonization of the junior branch," which Victor
With its "impression-making" plot, its "infectious" emotions, and its "exciting'· Shklovsky explained in the following terms: "When the 'canoll1zed' art forms reach an
themes, expressed on the stage by universal and primordial means, melodrama impasse, the way is paved for the infiltration of the clements of non-canonized art,
achieves a "staggering" impact. Melodrama operates with "pure" forms of theatrical which by this time have managed to evolve new artistic devices. "I;
action and is inherently dramatic to the highest degree. The laws of dramatic construc- Instead of attempting to define melodrama abstractly as Balukhatyi does, l(lma-
tion and stage effect should be studied in melodrama. shevsky explores the different terrain occupied by melodrama during its early years and
The effectiveness of the genre on the stage is demonstrated by the fact that melo- specifies its historical importance through an analysis of the origins of the genre. Func-
drama will invariably "work" with any group of spectators whose hearts are open to tioning as a brilliant and incredibly learncd theatre historian, Tomashevsky diseloses the
such affecting emotional experiences, and such "primitivc" spectators constitute an essential elements of melodrama as it evolvcd in relation to other theatrical genres of the
extremely broad group, even if the range of thcir responses is limited. late eighteenth and early ninetcenth century. Tomashevsky uses as primary evidence
In its "pure" aspect, melodrama acts directly through its constructional and emo- what contemporaries and critics of the times said about melodrama. maintaining that
tional forms, but melodrama can also be found in many other types of drama in which they had a e1ear conception of the nature and significance of the new genre.
its "pure, primordial" principles are masked, weakened, and complicated by other The Russian Formalist critic dcrives the origins of melodrama from two sources: the
aspects, such as realistic portrayal. psychological motivation. or ideological dialectics. drame of Diderot, Scdaine, Mercier, and Beaumarchais and the heroic pantomime of
It is possible to reveal the melodramatic skeleton at the basis of tragedy by reducing it to the small Parisian theatres in the 1780's. From the drame mclodrama took its basic
its essential elements (as happens, for example, on the provincial stage in a primitive method of constructing a play and from the pantomime its complex staging, each act
interpretation of Shakespeare). Or, in the oppositc direction, it is possible for a melodra- having a different setting. According to Tomashevsky, melodrama grew up as a result of
matic skeleton to become covered with the solid flesh of realistic material and con- the battle between small and great theatres over regulations restricting the performance
cealed beneath an elegant layer of psychology and ethical, social, or philosophical of regular plays to the licensed houscs. The law was successfully evaded by heroic
content. We thereby lose the feeling of melodramatic style and accept the playas a pantomime, a truly popular theatre using elaborate decor as well as music for emo-
130 Daniel Gerould Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama 131

tiona I commentary on the action. As spoken words were gradually added, the transi- cle and adventure, full of exciting situations and external stage action; with the tri-
tion from pantomime with dialogue to melodrama became imperceptible. umph of classicism, this irregular tragedy (often called tragicomedy as well) took refuge
These early French melodramas were for the most part based on non-theatrical in other genres (ballet, opera, fair booth theatre, pantomime).
matcrial, scntimental romances and adventure novels (largely English) containing Melodrama belongs to this popular tradition and is, in fact, a particular kind of
mysteries to be resolved. In fact, the rapid development of action in melodrama tragedy opposing the classical canon. Its historical role has been to penetrate the high
requircd complicated and extended stories. Everything in these plays was gcared to tradition and re-asscrt the values of popular theatre; the battle of romantic theatre with
calling forth the spectator's emotions, an aim which melodrama shared with tragedy; classicism is the direct result of the gradual evolution of melodrama.
what was innovative about the melodramatist's art lay in the new scenic mcans which
he employed to produce emotional effccts and in his simplification and massing of
emotional motifs.
As classical modes of drama retrcated into pure literature, popular theatre Aour- 3. Piotrovsky and Towards a Theory
ished, and melodrama for the first thirty years of the nineteenth century-like the
of Cinema Genres
cinema today with which it has much in common-was the most popular and highly
developed form, containing many sub-genres (fantastic, exotic, historical). Often subti-
tled a grand spectacle, these plays relied on operatic staging and lavish settings; the One of the most brilliant and talented young artists and writers to
author of mclodrama had to have the imagination of a painter. Musical accompani- appear in the chaotic, yet immensely exciting world of the Soviet stage immediately
ment, a heritage from pantomime, gradually disappeared (remaining only as an etymo- after the Revolution, AdrIan Piotrovsky (1898-1938) workcd in almost every aspect of
logical vestige in the name), but pantomimc itself contmucd as an indestructible theatre and thcn went on to a distinguished career in film. Thcorist, critic, playwright,
element, revealing the origins of melodrama, prominent in the living images, or and scholar, as well as practical man of the theatre, Piotrovsky was director of the
tahleaux, at the end of each of the acts. 'Theatre Workshop of the Red Army, literary advisor of the Kirov Opera aod Ballet
Although melodrama has its customary villains, innocent heroines, and humorous Theatre, and artistic director of the Lenfilm Studio.
simpletons, Tomashevsky argues that the genre is essentially devoid of charactcr types. In thc early 1920's Piotrovsky wrote and organized mass spectacles (such as The
Rather, its silhouettes are sharply drawn with only a mlllimum of character traits, as Paris Commune), which he considered as a revival of the ideals of ancient Greek drama
requircd by the plot. The heroes of melodrama are rigorously subordinated to the as well as a fulfillment of Vyachcslav Ivanov's symbolist notions of a truly communal
development of the action, and their characters cannot he a source of aesthetic experi- theatre in which all are participants. For Piotrovsky, Aeschylus was the model for a new
ence in themselves, but only insofar as they contribute to the plot. Comic characters post-revolutionary theatre of the masses; trained in the classics, he translated the
alonc were free to be treated somewhat more fully and given a psychological dimen- Oresteia and also many works by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.
sion. However, in its basic formulation of character, melodrama maintains thc tradi- Intercsted in theoretical aspects of both stage and film and their interaction,
tion of tragedy, not comedy, by insisting on thc priority of action. Piotrovsky made a pioneering application of Formalist principles to cinema in his essay
Language in melodrama, like characterization, is primarily an outgrowth of plot. Towards a Theory ofCinema Genres. Fascinated with mclodrama as a genre, the young
The melodramatists broke with tradition and abandoned verse (an exhausted medium) author experimented with the form himself. In 1926, ~he same year as his essay,
for prose in an attempt to create a simpler, more natural language, evcn though the Piotrovsky composed the scenario for The Devi!'s Wheel, a famous Soviet film mclo-
dialog~le still rctained many aspects of rhetorical verse patterning, Rhythm and intona- drama by Kozintsev and Trauberg (ahout a sailor from the Aurora in the clutches of
tion arc of crucial importance; the accelerated rhythm of short replies is characteristic gangsters III a sinister amusement park) displaying marked Formalist leanings. 16 Thus
of melodrama, as are stage directions stressing the role of intonation in the expression Piotrovsky wrote both a Formalist theory of film melodrama and a Formalist film
of various elementary emotions. melodrama at almost the same time.
Comparison of melodrama with comedy on the basis of the happy ending is faulty Ironically, his temporary association with Formalism in part cost him his life.
in Tomashcvsky's vicw; actually melodrama has taken little from the comic tradition. Under violent attack in the late 1920's, the official and more acadcmic Formalists were
The happy ending is a peripheral trait, characteristic only of the first period of melo- all able to survive through rccantation and retreat into historical and sociological
drama and not significant for the complex structure of the genre. In the second scholarship. 17 As a public figure in the arts, Piotrovsky's position was more exposcd and
period-the I820's-melodrama directly preceding the romantic theatre often ended vulnerable. In 1930 he first piously disclaimed any connection with Formalism, and
in bloody disaster. Such heroic melodrama, with gloomy denouements, on historical finding that insufficient to satisfy his critics, he publicly confessed his Formalist errors
and exotic themes, usurps the territory of tragedy. and severely condemned them in 1932. Evcn this disavowal of his own past did not
Thus, through careful historical research, Tomashevsky is able to prove his thcsis. suffice to save his life; although he received a state prize in 1935, Piotrovsky was
Before the canonization, in the mid-seventeenth century, of French classical drama arrested in 1938 and died under unknown circumstances the same year. 18
based on declamation, there existed another tradition-of a popular theatre of specta- In Towards a Theory of Cinema Genres, Piotrovsky argues that film is a fundamen-
/32 Daniel Cerould Russian Formalist Theories or Melodrama Jl3
tally different medium from literature and advances the thesis that cincma is rapidly and its emotional impact pcrfcctcd, as in Pudovkin's The Mother and in Eisenstein's
evolving its own gcnres hy abandoning the falsc literary genres of cincma-drama and films and theory of The Montage of Attractions (which dcrives dircctly from Griffith).
cincma-novel (which adapt litcrary principles to film) and returning to its origins. In ils Finally, the new "lyrical" gcnre, which dispenses entirely with plot and even consecu-
early days when it was aware of its own technical possibilities and still not engaged in tive time in order to present poetic images of man-things-naturc, has evolved out of
competition with the other arts, the ncwly discovercd art of cinema revel cd in its own the lyrical aspects of American melodrama, but has movcd evcn further away from the
limited means, freely using images of nature and acrobatic stunts-without any plot. old dramatic and narrativc canon.
According to Piotrovsky, true cincmatographic genres arise from a perfecting of
cinema's own tcchnical mcans. The futmc linc of developmcnt for cinema will be Besidcs offcring penctrating and original insights into thc nature and history of
essentially comic and lyrical. beyond plot and psychology. Amcrican film comcdy and melodrama, thcsc threc Russian Formalist approaches can scrve as models for the
Amcrican adventure melodrama are the two genres which have led the way in reveal- scrious study of the genrc. Balukhatyi, Tomashevsky, and Piotrovsky arc truc pioneers
ing the essential naturc of film. Now Soviet cinema. as represented by Scrgci Eiscn- in the technical analysis of melodramatic form.
stein and Dziga Vcrtov. are continuing and carrying still further the process of frccing
cinema from thc inAuencc of litcraturc and thcatre, and a new plotless gcnre, or poctry
of the cinema, IS arising, based on cxelusively cinematographic means of exprcssion.
The American comic cinema gcnrc of Chaplin. Lloyd, and Keaton offcrs onc
modcl. Based on acrobaflc tricks, eccentric (stunt) use of objects, ,md a hero with a Notes
elown's fixed mask, these films avoid plot and psychological motivcs and have nothing
to do with theatre or literature; they rathcr have affinities with circus.
The second model, the American adventure cinema gcnre, stands in thc samc
rclation to the literary cinema-novel as the American comedy does to thc salon t. Ewa M. Thompson, RUSSian Fnrmalism and Anglo-American New Cn/lcism (The Hague'
Mouton, (971). In addItion to a detailed comparison between the Russian Formalists and the
cincma-comcdy. The big city (with its dctectives, policemen. and poctics of safcs and
New Critics, Thompson points out that "Another group of literary researchers thal owes
armorcd cars) gavc ncw life to the old masks of the cheap adventure story. Thc truc much to Ihe Formalisl writings is that of the French and Bulgarian slructuralists of lhe
originality and significancc of the advcnturc genre lay in its acrobatic tricks and 1960s." mentioning Todorov and Barthes as examples (p. 103).
montage of dynamic extcrnal action; it opcned up new possibilities for the composition 2. Three collections of Russian Formalist writings are available in English: Russian Formalist
of filmic matcrial by its accelerating structure of serial installmcnts. culminating in Criticism: Four Essays, trans. and cd. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln; University
brcak-neck chases and racing trains. of Nebraska Prcss, 1965); Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and StructuralIst Views. ed
When audiences flrcd of fantastic advcntures (based on ovcr-exploited tricks) and Ladislav Matejka and Krvstyna Pomorska (Cambridgc: Massaehusells tnslitnte of Technology,
required stroog emotional cffccts, the compositional principle "catastrophe-ehase- 1971); and Russian Formalism, cd. Stephen Bann and John E Ilowtt (New York; Barncs &
rcscuc" inhercnt in the adventurc film brought into cxistenee a new genre. thc Amcri- Noble. t973). The Frcnch collection, Theorie de la Llttera/ure; Textes des Formalistes
can melodrama. Thc emotionally eI'<Irgcd images of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford Russes, cd. Tzvetan Todorov (Pa",: Editions de Seuil. t965). hkewise eontains nolhing about
replaced the pure advcnture genre, represented by Pcarl Whitc. drama or theatre.
tn English, see Vladimir Propp. i'vlorphology or the Folktale. trans. L Scott (Bloominglon
Thc Griffith cincma melodrama, however, differs radically from its thcatrical coun-
Indiana University Press. 19,8).
terpart. In film melodram<l no dramatic will directs the action. In thc early portions of 4. The essays by Shklovskr and Eichenbaum appear III Readings in Russian Poetics.
his melodramas, Griffith casually skctchcs thc interrelationships and preconditions 5. Victor Erlich, Russwn Pormalism; History-Doctrine (The Ha~ue. Moulon. 19(5).
neccssary for lcading up to the catastrophe. Then the c<ltastrophe itself takes placc, 6. Ibid.. p. 249
shown through hundreds of dctailcd imagcs in a complex montage. Only in eincn1<l, 7. See Earl J' Bargainnier. "Melodrama 'IS Formula." Joumal or Popular Culture IX, No.3
duc to its special means of trcating "time" and "space," is such a development of the (Winter. 1975), pp. 726-713. for a discussion of thc lise of formula as an approach to
catastrophc possiblc. "Timc" is fragmented mto rapidly Aashing segments, while melodrama.
"space" is rcndcrcd dynamic and bccomes a co-ordinatc of timc. 8. The original Russian sources arc as follows; S Balllkhatyi, "K Pochkc Melodramy,"
The Criffith "catastrophe" is the core of film melodrama, as a creation of montage, Poetika, Ill, rcpr. Leningrad, 1927 (Wilhelm Fink· Munich, 1970). pp. 63-86, B
the very model of cinematographic stylc. The "elemcntal catastrophe" in film melo- Tomashcvsky. "Frantsllzskaya Melodrama nachala XIX vcka." Poe/ika. tl. op. cit .. PI' 55-
82: A Piotrovsky. "K Tenrii Kino-zhanrov," Poetika Kino, ed Il M. Eichenbaum (Moscow- .
drama shows the parity of human wills and natural forces; "man" and "nature" are
Leningrad, Klllopcchal', 1927), PI'. 143-170. I am grateful to Mel Gordon of Ncw York
equally important and play similar roles. Ice (Way Down East) can take thc place of the University for making avaIlable to me a rlllcrofilm of the Eichenbaum collection.
villain; it is casier to provide motivation by natural forccs and disasters than through 9. For a discussion of the importanec of melodrama in early SovIet lifc, see DanIel Gerould,
human conduct, always so difficult to explain in film. "Gorky, Melodrama. and the Development of Early Snvlet Theatre," yale/tlleatre. Vol. 7.
Thc principles of Amcrican film melodrama have been taken up in Sovict cinema No.2 (Winter, 1976), pp. 33-44.
134 Daniel Cerould
10. In the course of his essay. Balukhatyl cites some three dozen melodramas, including a
number by D'Enner)' and his collaborator. Dumas pere. Descourcelle, Briscbarre and us,
and many others.
II. Viclor Erlich points out that "Formalist poctics assigned to the literary hero a very modest
parI: he is merely a by-product of lhe narrative structure, and as such. a compOSitional rather
than a psychological entity. ,. Russian Formoli.,m. p. 241.
12. S. D. Balukhal)'I. Problemy Dramaturgicheskogo Analiza: Chekhoy. repr. Leningrad, 1927
(Wilhelm Fink: Mut1lch. 1969).
13. Tomashevsky wrotc an article. "On Dramatic Literature." about the dilTerellee between
literature and thea Ire. which appears in two issues orZhizn' Isku.!Stya in 1924, No. 13. p. 5.
and No. 16. pp. 5-6
14 Erlich comments on the Formalists' ability to chart the course of literary change and lhe
growth of new forms: "this awareness of thc Auidity of the literary process made lhe Ways of Melodrama
Formalists alive to literary affinilies and cross-currents undreamt of by textbook writers." Ponnalism, p. 259.
I S. Victor Shkloysky, quoted by Erlich, Ibid., p. 260. The passage appears in Literatura i
Kmematograf(Beriin. 1923), p. 29.
16 For information about The Deyi!'s Wheel, sec Jay Leyda, Museum ofModern Art Film Notes
(October 2-November 18, 1975), p. 6; and Istonya Soyetskogo Kino, Vol. 1 (1917-1931) RAyMo D DURGNAT
(Moscow: IskuSSIYo. 1969), pp. 339- 34 2.
17. According to Erlich. al the end of the twenties 'Thc Formalists fOllnd themselves under a
savage attack. The only a!temahve left to them was to become silent or to acknowledge
'frankl~' their errors." Russian Formalism. p. 135. Shklovsk~ rccanted in 1930.
j 8. After the demisc of Stalinism, Piotrovsky was rehabilitated. A se!cchon of his wfltings, plus
remIniscences (by Trauberg, Kozintsev, and Cerasimov among others) and a complete bibli-
ography, was published in 1969: Adrian Piolrovsky. Teatr-Killo-Zhizn (Leningrad: [skusstvo, Because violence is a leading characteristic of the postwar world, il is
1%9). rcAectcd in a good deal of conlemporary art, and in consequence melodrama is no
longer considcred as a wholly disrcputahle element. A fcw noles on the interrelalion-
ship of melodrama and significance (in lhe widest scnse of the word) in thc cinema
should be of interest.
A melodrama has hcen defined as a story wherc lhe characters exist 10 justify the
action. This simple definition, on which Elizabeth Bowen's "Notes on Writing a
Novel" makes intcresting comment,l at once brings up complications. In the cinema
they would arise thus:
Thc cinema exposes ilself primanly through movement. Purposeful lllovement of
an animate heing-a lllan kisses a woman, or walks downstairs, or fIlns across the
road-is generally called Action. Movement and action cannol be rigidly separated:
for instance, a horserider in long shot, decorating the pielure, is best classified as
movcment, but in close shot. or going somewhere of importance to Ihe slory, is
counted as action. A stagecoach. itself inanimate but representative of people, can
similarly come undcr both headings.
Drama demands that action and movement shall be motivated andlor express
something. One director and scriptwriter will express himself largely by means of

Raymond Durgnat's "Ways of Melodrama" originally appeared In Sight and Sound, Vol. 21,
no. I (1951), Pl'. 34-40. Reprinted by permission of the author and Sight and Sound.

131i Raymo"d Durgnal Ways of Mel()(lramCl 137
movement-by curtains blown in the wind at significant moments, or by camera tracks The reason for this lies in the n,llure o[ artistic conception. Character IS oftcn bcst
into significant close-ups. David Lean uses this method almost exclusively (and some- exhibitcd in a speei'11 cireumst,mee, but In ordcr to place him convincingly in this
what monotonously). The same thing may he expressed by means o[ action. A man circumstance we have to cxplain how his charactcr got him there. Many ilrtists-
camping out all the prairie hC<lrs a coyote whine; he expresses his state of mind by notably Henry James-begin by imagining a situahon or a conAict, then shape the
firing wildly into the darkness. The man's firing at the coyote is motivated solely by his characters to fit it, then alter the emphasis of thc conAict or situation as the charactcrs
own state of mind. But if you prc-ereate some reason for his action-for instance. the evolve in their minds. Othcrs (D. H. Lawrcnce) begin with a character and Ict him
coyote had hitten him-your action begins to become melodrama. The motivation, make his own situations. Lawrence said that his method of writing a novel was to
heing obvious, no longer reveals the man's state of mind: all it tells us is that he is not a invent two couples and let thcm work out their own affairs.
forgiving person-a negative thing. Make the motivation simpler-he was frightened
that the coyote would steal his chickens, or that thc whine was in fact that of an Indian
spy-and his action rc"eals nothing about him at all. The firing just beeome.s reflex
action following on the context.
But one notices (l) how easily action slips into melodrama, (2) that the links
between melodramatic episodes <Ire the simplest emotions unanalysed and taken for
granled. and (3) that melodrama is organised or consequential action-springing from
previous action. or from a state of Ihreatened action. If you like, the melodramatic
O elOdrama

The diagram shows a circle dividcd into three rings. Charader is gcncrally consid-
cred as the corc of a person's reaction to circumstance (actions), so I represent it as the
innermost circle. Next to it is drama. Drama and melodrama together correspond to
episode is to drama as slapstick is to corncdy. Many eomedics have slapstick climaxes,
what Elizabeth Bowen callcd "action," but to a"oid confusion I shall use this lerm in
and the cheapest slapstick episode can be a framework or scaffolding for comedy.
Ihe scnse of "purposeful movement of an animate being," emphasising the plastic
Similarly with drama and mclodrama.
rather than the narrative qualitics of a film. The difference bctween drama and melo-
But if. as well as this logic of melodrama, you have a simultaneous development of
drama lics in whclher the emphasis is on the emotion or the action. Outside comes the
[eeling, you have a film which is both drama alld melodrama. The actioll of a film
circle of melodrama. furthest from thc ccntre bul containing (i.e. neccssitatll1g) the
may be mclodr<lmatic. but its movement and settings psychologically revealing. A
other two, just as drama "contains" but docs not necessarily reveal character, and just
gangster is hetrayed to the police by his moll, <lnd trapped in a museum: first in a room
as eharactcr in art is investignted within a situation.
fnll o[ Reynolds and Cainsboroughs; but as the policc drive him from room to room
A work of art can first be conccived al any point in the circlc. The first idea to come
the art becomes more and more primitive, until he is finnlly surrounded by the ghastly
10 Henry James would be that of a dramatic situation and thc gencral characteristics of
dcformed brcasts and tortured faces of tribal totem poles. Combined with the action,
the protagonists. As the idca de\"Cloped, the protagonists would take on more complex
this could illustratc: (I) disgust \\lith women. (2) acute realisation of his own weakncss,
and finely developed charactcrs. A story by D. H. Lawrence, conversely, moves Ollt-
ancl (3) a reversion from a comparatively civiliscd veneer to a stntc of bestial terror. The
wards from the innermost circlc. It is often impossiblc to say whcrc a work of art was
sequence would be worthy of Welles at his wildest, but his films lack the scope aud
first concei"ed-imagination can he so flcxible and so sensitive, adjusting its mecha-
dcpth of contcxt that could make his ingenious mirror and aquarium scenes signifi-
nism for suiting character to situation and vice versa. Ihat the work seems to have been
cant If a charactcr has no real significance (which he can be givcn only by acute and
conceived at all points in thc cirele simultaneously.
careful observation, lacking in The Lady {rom Shanghai}, then ncithcr will ;my amount
Most fiction, drama and films incorporate some e1emcnt from each part of Ihe
of extraneous symbolism or ingenuity.
circle. [t is misleading to speak of drama and melodrama as hvo distinct forms, and
Sirnilmly melodrama must have relevance. In these notcs I do not e1aim to deal
then trv to draw distinctions bctween them; thcy arc not forms but elements, and often
with all its forms, but mainly with those possessing a context of some significancc. It
occur ;ide hy side, and inextricably confused.
might be argued that melodrama is simply an arbitrary extension of drama: a fist fight,
for instance, is a more or less arbitrary extension of hate. disagreement or competition,
,md adds nothing to the drama except physical intensity. Nonetheless, a melodramatic
situation can often provide a searching lesl of character.
This idea is a basic dcvice of John Huston's: The Maltese Falcoll. We Were Strang- II
ers, Treasure o{ Sierra Madre, Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle all put keenly ob-
served rcalistie characters in highly melodramatic situations. The melodrama springs
from simple emotions (greed, patriotism, self-preservation, escape) and is used to
investigate not merely the quality of that emotion but the characters as a whole. Thcrc is a type of film aptly callcd in this country "emotional
Huston's films become dramas. Thus drama may be an extension of melodrama as melodrama." In such films emotions are like clubs which chnractcrs swing about thcir
surely as melodrama can be an cxtension of drama. heads and knock each other (and often themsclves) out with. The Amcrican term is
138 Raymond Durgnat Ways of Melodrama 119

"heavies"-Deception, Stolen Life. and so on. The rules and regulations are as clearly Deteriorations of this sort come from a failure in conception; what begins as all
worked out as in any heavyweight bout: there is no real characterisation, and the films investigation of character is not developed. and the characters have to be fitted improb-
arc always deliberately limited to well within the "drama" cirele. with melodrama ably into melodramatic Situations. Italian films like Flesh Will Surrender anti Tomor-
permissible as a climax (Davis shoots Rains). The keynote of the emotional melodrama TOW Is Too Late show the same process. They arc slow and ponderous, and great efforts
is that emotions which in melodrama serve as the links between melodramatic episodes are made to invest inadequate shots and actions with far more significance than they
are here used to bring about not action but 'mother emotion. The only way out is can bear. Time is not kind to thiS type offailure. either-one sees even what happenetl
generally suicide or death in childbirth. to the emotional mclodrama in All Quiet 011 the Western Front.
The Americans are the most mechanically efficicnt in this field; the ['rench have
produccd some enjo}'able examples, though in Europe gencrally. and Sweden above
all. the passions-on-the-farm tradition is too prominent. The English insistence on
good taste in cmotional fodder puts them at a <.Iisadvantage with the emotional melo- III
drama. and the Madonna of lhe Seven Moons-Jassy cycle never ditl justice to its own
hedonistic possibilities. The latest of the series. The Reluctanl Widow. lacked
unforgiveably the courage of its own vulgarity. and devoted half its time to intention-
ally burlesquing itself. The Seventh Veil was more intelligent, but in their successor to Much the same happens to the "pure" melodrama (the thnller
it. Dayhreak. the Boxes yiel<.led to the temptation to complicate the intrigue at the and run-of-the-mill western) but, for aesthetic reasons, more slowly. Sitting recently
expense of the drama. through The 39 Steps, a film I did not see on its original release. I was surpnsed to fintl
The public hangman in Daybreak is not unly a public hangman but (on the side) a myself totally unmoved by every excitement. except that of Hannay jumping off the
barge-owner and a hairdresser. His wife knows that he is a barge-owner, but not that train when it is stopped on the bridge. irritated by its facetious whimSicality (the Dooat-
he's a hairdresser or a hangman. His colleague in the hairdressing business knows that Carroll exchanges). and quite uneonvineed by its wildly theatrical acting.
he's also a hangman. but not that he's a barge-owner. II Scandinavian seaman seduces Oddly enough. The Lady Vanishes, with its vivid and recognisable caricatures of
the wife and assaults the barge-owner, for whose presumed murder he is sentenced to English types, its catching of the Munich mood and its pleasantly welt integrated script
be hangetl by the hangman. Under the impression that her hllSband is dead. his wife and excitements, remains enjoyable. It has a definite rapprochement with reality. But
shoots herself and he, having resigned his hangmanship and no longer a barge-owner, Foreign Correspondent. with its nominal (not organic) little people v. Germany tie-up.
but still a hairdresser. cuts his throat. The story is told in Aashback. and its colourless characterisation of ambassadors and their daughters. fails to convince
The same tendency toward ahsurd elaboration can be noted in a good many or excite. One prefers the frankly picaresque Saboteur, with its undisguised, authentic
"heavies"-most of Hal Wallis's from Sorry Wrong Number onwards-with the result borrowings from earlier films.
that any investigation of character. even on a superficial level, becomes impossible For In skilled hands the pure melodrama, the melodrama of pursuit and escape, of
assoon as emotional melodrama begins to IrIvestigate character, it becomes-partially at threat and self-preservation, can-like the emotional melodrama-be entertaining
least-drama. At their best, the Americans show a sensible tendency to unite the enough. The characterisation call be relatively simple and superficial but it must. like
"heavy" and the thriller: the vintage Hal Wallis productions (In This Our Life, Marlha the situations. convince on its own level. How impressive the combination of emo-
Ivers. File on Thelma (ardon. I Walk Alone. 0 Man of Her Own) and films like Douhle tional and "pure" melodrama can be is demonstrated by The Third Man. an engrossing
Indemnity and Phantom Lady are composed equally of Chandler-style material- film which yields great pleasure at each viewing. II is not only that the technique is
vicious femmes fatales who in most cases provide the motivation (greed and sex explode particularly expert and sophisticated, but that the melodrama is subordinated to real-
into violence). the authoritative tours of seedy, honky-tonk backgrounds-and of heavy ism, which is closely interwoven with character-the melodrama, in fact, of signifi-
novelette situations stemming from "The Saturday Evening Post" and elsewhere. They cant context. The American and Italian IIses of melodrama offers in this respect the
are successful because not weighed down with more apparatus than they can hear. and most consistent interest.
some arc better than others because the talent of a superior director (Huston with In This
Our Life, Wilder and Brackett with Double Indemnity) shows through.
~ost of the films arc constructed as thrillers with a strong emphasis on emotion,
but Huston with In This Our Life reverses the procedure, subduing the melodrama and IV
concentrating on the emotional drama: Ophuls did the same thing with Caught.
These are cases of "heavies" almost turning into dramas. The converse call be seen in
films like The Passionate Friends or the French Paltes Blanches; these start Ollt as
dramas, but because the drama is inadequate they turn into emotional melodramas. In We have something near a perfect fusion when the melodramatic
the case of David Lean. one suspects that the new technique he was on the edge of has episodes are used to analyse and comment on the emotions acting 'IS links between
not (yet) developed further than sheer chronological complication. these episodes; when the emotions themselves arc of some subtlety and complexity.
Ra}'mond Durgnat Ways of Melodrama /41
and when their revelation is not overshadowed by Aamboyant treatment of the melo- The films may be divided into two groups: those where the melodrama is intended
drama itself. to be incidental to the drama (Paille in lire Streets), and those where the drama (in
It is far ea.sier to obtam tension from a gunfight or a chase than from a mental effect if not in intention) is incidental to thc melodrama-KISS o{ Death, Union
conflict. The responsibility here lies ou director and scriptwriter. The writer must Station. Where the melodrama is successful, as in Street With No Name. the film IS
invent situations that will prm'lde powerful and expressive images; the director must enjnyahle as s\lch. But the more pretcntious films suffer considerably from their
realise these images on the screen. If the writer has failed to provide suitable image- scripts. and the inability of merely competent directors to introdnee exciting filmic
situations. if he expresses mental conAiet only in terms of commentarv or dialoglle, the clements into them.
director can, by visual imagination and sensitive catching of a rele"ant atmosphere The Naked City took the Form of the investigation hy a pol icc oFficer of a New York
round the dialogue, give the situation\'C images; but he IS lin like,," to succeed murder. Hellinger's intention was to nse this ,IS a prctcxt for examining New York liFe.
completely with tillS. . Unfortllnately the majority of the interviews took pl;lee in the detectivc's office. divorc-
An excellent example of a good Image-situation IS this from Ccoffrcv HOllles' ing the main characters from their homes and habitual backgrounds, and the exmnina-
screenplay for The DiVIding Line. t\t the beginning of the manhunt after th'e temfied tion of ew York life consisted mainly of their allSwers to the detective's questions.
Spanish-American fugitive, the organiser of the hunt s;lyS: "Dou't shoot IInless vou Their reactions 'He shown in dialogue, and in a detective's office, whcn thcy would
have to .. Thc newspaperman also involved m the purSlIIt is spotted by an adva;lce hardly he at their most natural. Even when the younger detective investigates on the
guard of the posse who, mistaking him for the fugitive. promptl~' hlaze away. Bullets spot, the camcos through which we go are conventional and tell liS little. The all-in
whine andneochct ahollt the unarmed newspaperman. The machinerv of melodrama wrestler is seen doing-guess what'-all-in wrestling exercises.
is used naturally to reveal the savagery of the posse. . In Cal/ Northside 777, James Stewart's investigation takes h1m into people's homes,
A film hamstrung hy weak image-situations is Kiss o{Deatlr. Its first point is that the into their contexts, as it were. But the weakness here is ahsurdly obvious: when a visitor
hero, Nick Blanco (Mature), became a criminal through preSSlHe of circumstances. calls. it is customary to stop what one is doing and to sit down opposite him and talk.
The commentary tells us he couldn't gct a job, and goes on: 'This is how Nick Bianco The scriptwriters let this formality weaken all their image-situations. and Hathaway
did his Christmas shopping for his kids." And we sec him with two accomplices lacked the skill to overcome this obstaele as Polonsky might havc donc.
stealing jewellery from a department storc. A weak presentation of pressure of circum- Cal/ Northside and Panic in the Streets can both be rcsolved into a series of
stances makes the cpisode look no more than cheaply sentimental. eonversatiolls and interVIews. Wherever placed-in cafes, police stations, dives. ships,
Every dranwtic conflict in the film is cxpressed through dialogue. much of it m tenements, newspaper offices, prisons, council chambers-both films remain essen-
limp scenes at the D. A.·s office. Bianco's love for IllS children. his repugnance at the tially a series of conversations whose point is expressed entirely m dialogue. Call
thought of heing a stool-pigeon, his grief at his wife's SUicide, all these key motivcs arc I orthside docs not even show characters in action. and only Richard Conte's Weieek
rcve,lled in images of conversation. The image which the screenwriters Impress on our and Lee J. Cobb reveal anv qualities (love nfhis wife and a tendency to fib respectively)
minds to illustrate these emotions is simply that of two men silting on either sidc of a not instantly deducible from their physiognomies. The principal characters in nearly
desk_ all these films arc hackne}'ed-the poor slaving mother. the blowsy slut, the comfort-
Conversation III itself is not necessarily a weak IIllJge-sitwltion, as Polonsky's Porce ing wife-girlfriend figure, the stolid fellow with a keen conscience underneath. Dana
o{ Evil indicatcs Thc distinctiion IS that the conversations of Force o{ E"il are i~tensell' Andrews in Boomerang goes throllgh exactly the same confliets as Paul Douglas in
atmospheric, and that they make their points not m dialo.gue alone but hy a cornbina'- Panic 111 the Streets. and the only characteristic of ,III the heroes to distingllish them
tioll of word spoken and reaction ohserved. Conversatio~s in Amcrica~ sociological from the ordinary well-disposed stock type is, simply, conscience. There is no doubt,
thollers tend to be simply filmed radio dialogue, with nothing left for the camera to though, that many of the secondary portraits arc Illteresting, particularly those in PanIc
observe. The reactions arc merely stock rcac/ions to make the eOIl\·er.sations look ill the Streets.
con\'incing. Kazan's sense of atmosphere makes this one of the bcst of the thrillers. Hathaway
Seeing Call Nortllside 777 a second time I found it was possible to elosc onc's eyes eonspieuouslv lacks any feellllg for atmospherc; in Call Northside, for instance, no
for long periods and yct follow perfectlv situation, character, relationship. ancl even eontrasting moods arc evoked in the scenes in the prison governor's office, the police
locale. even thongh I had forgotten thc accompanying visual im'lges. station or the newspaper office. The treatment is slick and perfunetorv. Pa11Jc 111 the
Call Northside 777, Pallic ill the Streets (with the execption of a few momcnts), The Streefs is obviously supcrior in this respect. hut even so Kazan's realism is a surface
House on CJ2nd Street, The Naked City, Street Witlr 0 Name_ UnIOn Stalion. all matter. more resourceful in effect than original in conception. The real renaissance in
suffcr from poor imagc-situations invented hy thc writers: rather monotonously, IXlwer- Hollywood melodrama came through some smaller and fresher films, like those associ-
fnl images arc fOllnd for the passages of Illelodramatic aetion, but the revelation of ated with Dare Schary- They Live by Nighl, The Window, Crossfire, The Set Up,
character IS restricted almost entirely to dialogue and convCT.l<ltion. Boomerang. de Deadline at Dawn-with force o{E,,;{ and Act o{Violence and the least prctelltious of
Rochelllont's first seriOIlS drama, and Siodmak's unpretentious, linder-appreciated Cry the Fox films, Cry o{ the City
o{ tire City were the only real successes of them all. These films point out the difference hetween artistic realisrn and Hathaway's or
Raymond Ourgnat Ways of Melodrama
Kazan's perfunctory sense of locale. Crossfire was made entirely in the studio; it builds change, dcgeneration or despair is observable in Leo when he moves from a small to a
up brjlJiantly the mood of listlessness and boredom, of stored-up hate with nowhere to big 'numbers' racket man. Action springs from intriguing charactcrs, but it does not
go, of dull, endless bar-crawling around cities by night and card-gamcs by day. serve to develop character, only to bring evcnts to a head.
Dmytryk's direction has a sensc of the seedy, of bare walls and low bars, dramatic use of Further, instead of breaking down complexity into imagcs, Joc cxplains his thoughts
lighting and angles. Even thc minor and inferior Deadline at Dawn, though its (and nearly cveryone else's), Doris hcrs, and Lco and Leo's wife his, and so on, in
attempt to catch the spint of a big city by night failed as a whole, gave us several short conversation. Excessivc reliance on the spoken word is particularly obvious in onc
and fascmating portraits of other lives-portraits as tcrse and vivid as those in Panic In scqucnee; the cinematographic cquivalent to joe's comment, "OaTIs wantcd me to
tire Streets. It was disappointrng to find Clifford Odet>' script dcstroying evcrything it makc love to her," is Doris looking mto the camera (first-pcrson vicwpoint), wanting to
had built up by false touches like the sub-Prevert crook (Joseph Calleia) and the silly bc madc lovc to. The commentary is not merelv superRuous but weakens, bccause it
twist ending. Of They Live by Night and Tire Window enough has been written already. distracts from, the visual image, The same thing occurs tWICC in the last sequence.
In general, the Rabby and cnnvcntional portraiture of the bigger films contrasts The conversations in Force of £vil are, of course, unusually well written and
unfavourably with thcse smaller oncs. directcd by Polonsky, and the images and acting as powerful as images of conversation
Similarly, thc first few momcnts of Intruder lI1 the Dust show remarkable scnsitive- can be.
ness. Long shot of a church steeple over thc tops of trees, its bell ringing the hour: thc Cry of the City, the bcst of the Fox thrillers, skilfully manipulates our sympathies
sound of the bell is heard over thc succeeding shots. Thc camera pans round (high (altcrnating between pursuers and pursued): we sympathise with thc escaping criminal.
elevation) the town square-thc sun, thc cars, thc shops and the chromium signs. Cu! Rome (Richard Conte) and hope he will cscape the undcrworld lypes whom he
to a man waitmg at a shoeshine stand. After a moment he gets up, gocs into thc encounters; at thc same timc therc is no scntimcntahty, Rome turns a gun on his
barber's saloon: "Where's thc boy'" "Haven't you heard?" the men reply, "the niggers mother, and then the girl who helped him, the doctor who patched up his wounds, thc
won't bc around on thc streets to-day, . shot a whitc man in thc back ." Through old convict who assisted his escape, the younger brother aping his ways, all become
thc windows as the barhers shave their customers, people drift by along the sidewalk: a involved in his Right and desperation and suffer for it. This portrayal, in melodramatic
police siren squeals-"That'll be him!"-people bcgin to hurry past: customcrs get up, terms, of criminal egotism is startling and exciting. Siodmak's dircction has a fine ear
onc not waiting to clean the soap off his face, and rush out. A car with a Rat tyre sirens for the sounds of the city, and an observant eye for the backgrounds and the snatches of
and clatters its way to thc kerb. Cut to a first-person viewpOInt insidc the car, the shcriff action you see through windows while yOllT characters talk.
driving, the gazing crowd seen through the windows, and two black hands in the The success of thcse films makes one wonder, finally, what is the justification of the
forcground, resting on the back of the driver's seat. "newsreel" sh'le. Newsreels are duller than most fictional films: locational photography
IntTlider in tire Dust is a work of brilliant observation rather than self-cxpression, has by now I~st its freshness as such, the lITgency of the commentary of Boomerang has
and this makes comparison with the scm i-documentary slyle salutary. The mcchanics dcgenerated into a verbal laziness for what the writers and directors fail to present in
of its plot arc far ncater and better integratcd than those of the sociological thrillcrs; image-and the cndless proccssion of undcrcover men and women also indicates
there are two complex main characters (thc ncgro and the boy). and although the rest cxcessive exploitation of a formula.
(If the charactcnsation is morc convcntional and thc important psychologIcal conRict
in the boy's mind has to be exprcssed in commcntary, the minor figures in Intruder in
the Dt/st are as well rendered as thc maior charactcrs in thc semi-documcntanes.
One is reminded herc of wcaknesscs in Force of £vi/, of thc reasons why it rcmamed
a complex and intriguing film rather than a complete experience. .
Events evolve but chnracters remain static in the film. joe Morse, its hero, has two
conRicting urges, thc urge to make his own way and thc urge to save those whom he
likes. He knows that peoplc want to bc bullied into the evil of which they arc afraid and At the end of thc war, significant melodrama in Britain seemed
he is bitterly conscious of his own inabilily to rcsist corruption. Doris is torn betwcen on thc right track, most interesting being the straightforward cxtcnsion of an everyday
hcr love for and disgust with joe, and the two halves of his character: Lco distrusts his situation into melodrama with Waterloo Road. Then Laundcr and Gilliat switched to
brother joe but is too weak to withstand him. There are two interesting slllaller parts- the conventional ccccntricities and situations of London Belongs to Me. Ealing fol-
the intimidated book kceper in the small "numbcrs" bank, and thc racketeers' wife lowed the convincing. intcrcsting It Always Rains on SlInda)' with the efficient routine
who, half-maternally, half-sadistically, loves joe for his humanity and weakness, of The Blue Lomp and Pool of London, and the limitations of these are reRected in
These complcx characters, howevcr, do not devclop. What Doris says does not almost every othcr British mclodrama. The best of them. like The Small Voice, and the
affect loe who. drunk as he is, stilliurchcs off to a showdown after his brother has been worst, like Good Time Girl, have been hamstrung not so mLlch by any problem of
kidnappcd; she is in danger of becoming reconciled to the cvil in joe, and of bcing image-situation, of integration of drama and melodrama, but simply by cliche charac-
Rattened by his forcefulness, but only thc second and less scrious process is shown: no tcrs. A few films havc brought a degree of freshness into thcir conventions (Once a jolly
/41 Raymond Durgnat Ways of Metodrama /45

Swagman, Chance ofa Lifetime). but in the sphere of melodrama itself only The Third There is a stunted, helpless goodness in her-she helps Cioi, she realises what virtue
Man, discllssed earlier, has reinvigorated a tradition. It is disappointing that British means (she wanders disconsolate in the rainl, too late (after the rapel, is harshly
melodramas do not sct themselves a higher target than imitation of American models: reminded of the possible consequences of her weakness and the crook's brutality (the
even when the response to locale is good, as in Pool of London, the characters and their misearri'lge). Interwoven with all this IS the masterly exposition of ricefield life; its
reiatiotlShips arc second-hand. At other times, the wholesale borrowing of West l!:nd misery (the rain). its despair (the fight between the regulars and the outsiders), its
theatrical types-suburban housewife, emsty grandmother, amiable father, jovial pro- animalism, and, above all, the sabotage of this miserable labour bv a band of self-
miseuollS Hermione Baddeley type, etc.-does not produce anything fresher. interested men (the same idca recurs in Caccia Tragiea).
The characterisation of Cioi, of the crook and the sergeant is equally illustrated by
the action. If not searching, all these figures are adequately created and have verisimili-
tude. I think one would have a hard time proving any of the characters less real than
VI the cops, Aoozies and bartenders in American thrillers.
Both types of film arc concerned with predicament and situation. Neither attempts
to go deep helow the surface Wid mark in Panic ill the Streets, for inst'1I1ee, has a
worry about a tailor's bill, a touch generally applauded. No one could call this "going
One can understand the mistrust of melodrama on the part of below the surface"-it was simply an interesting added predicament In their efforts to
film critics. but it is a pity this should lead to the serious depreciation of the Italian style find onginality withill the formula, screenwriters tend to cram in more and more of
represented by Bitter Rice and Without Pity. My intentioll is not to indicate that they these little touches and side problems whose relevance is duhinus. The predicaments
arc masterpieces (they aren't). but that their method is as worthy of serious consider- in Bitter Rice and Caccia Tragica arc at least an integwl part of the theme. The Italian
ation as the American crime documentaries. formula has, of course, its disadvantages. i\ script has to be extraordinarily good to
De Santis uses a melodramatic story to point up the aspects of life (Bitter Rice) or integrate complicated melodrama satisfactorily with the drama, to manoeuvre the
the eonAiet (Caccia Tragica) which form the themes of his films, and the realistic epIsodes into positions of significance, to prevent Aamboyanee from swamping revela-
element 10 heighten and justify the melodramatic action. The close interweaving of tion of character. Caccia Tragica was less happy in this respect than de Santis' succeed-
story and background means that every episode becomes ambivalent; it is one of a ing Bitter Rice.
chain of melodramatic scenes. and also expresses something ahout theme or charac- Already Lattuada failed when he essayed this style with Serrza Pieta. dismissed by
ters. The melodrama spriugs from reality, and reality informs the melodrama. most critics as trashy melodrama with pretensions; actually it is a sincere enough film
With the more Aorid meloclrarnatie style of the Italian film it is less easy to appreci- which fails not through dishonesty but through inability to deal with the complex style
ate social or psychological connotations. But these do exist, pace the critic who mea- this method requires.
sured de Santis' progress from Art to Commerce by the length of leg his heroines One can sec the script trying to follow the accepted mles of tragedy. The more hero
displ;ly. and heroine try to free themselves from their fate, the more entangled they become.
The sex element in Bitter Rice springs from the primitive eouditions and the Their eventllal death comes almost as a relief. since we feel that any more struggling
animalism of rieefield life as well as from box-office requirements. Similarly, the on their part would only have debased them fmther. Unfortunately the relationship
violence of this film and of Caccia Tragica-not exaggerated to judge from the news between the negro and the white girl is weak (he worships her like a dog, only wants to
reports of Italy-has a perfectly legitimate place in the drama. Leaving aside for the follow her arollnd) and never becomes more than a series of hurried meetings and
moment the purely aesthetic pleasure derived from de Santis' understanding of the eOllversallons. Their story remains a series of melodramatic incidents. brought about
medium-which some American directors might well envy-the films show de by a Peter Lorre-like procurer in a white suit. by the military police Jml various odd,
Santis' skill at the immediate tTill1slation of relationship into situation, of problem into unsatisfactory eharaeters-llot the general circumstance of post-war chaos. Motivation
predicament and character into action. is poor: we are led to believe that Angela was forced to become a prostitute bceause the
Straightway Bitter R,ce displays Sylvana's animahsm (jiving), her disillusionment procurer pushed her into the water and fished her ant again, and then, without any
(exchanges with the soldIers), and her kind-heartedness (she introduces Cioi to the perceptible change in her fortunes, she stops heing one. Impossible soliloquies hold up
unofficial employment agency on the train). But her kind-heartedness is only ullpulse, the action at unsuitable moments, and the cutting is ragged.
and as soon as Cioi's interests eonAiet with hers, she takes the lead in opposmg her. But the eyele really begins to run to seed with Pictro Cermi's Lost Youth. This
Even her kmd-heartedness is mingled with her longing for excitement (Cioi was the dlustrates nicely what happens when incompetence and a good formula combine.
crook's moll). We see her continual impatience with the hard way of honesty the Though the film is a thriller. thc standard of the image-SItuations (loving looks, family
sergeant offers her, and her nai"e belief and tmst in the promises of the crook who life. fathers failing to scold sons, breakfasts, pensive stares endlessly prolonged) is
manipubtes her credulity for his own ends. I~ven at the end her weakness and inade- IIl1cxeitlng. and the melodrama (gangster leaves on scene of the crime cigarette lighter
quacy still haunt her: she is unable to fire the pistol In the slaughter-house scene. with IllS initials on it, bought because he always loses matchboxes), poor. By showing
/4fi Raymond Durgnat Ways of Melodrama /17
us shots of tiny tots pursuing each other with toy pistols, and giving a few statistics on
the crime wavc. the film tries to he socially significant. The script integrates ncither its
adolcsccnt gangstcr's trilling characteristics nor his pathology as a whole into feeling.
outlook or character (ncurosis' need for excitement' Oedipus complex? degradation Note
caused by war and familarity with violencc? lack of parental discipline? b<ld company?
lovc of !noney? or some or all of these things?).

I. "What about the idea that the fUllction of action is to express the characters? TIllS IS wrong. The
characters arc there to provide the action.... II is the iodivlsibility of the act from the 3elor,
and thc inevitability of that act on the part of that actor. that gIves acllon vensllnrlitude ..

What is immcdiately apparent from thcsc notes is that any for-
mula. any style, IS precisely as good as the artists it attracts. Of the many melodralll<ls
sct in a contemporary reality, the failures arc ncarly always not the technical oncs of
melodrama but of a conventional or uninteresting perception of reality. This reminds
one that melodrama set in spheres where realism is superscded by a poetic reality-the
Western-or by fantasy, can nonetheless be significant. if there is an artist of calibre
bchind it.
Alexander Nevski is an interesting example of a melourama allied to poetic reality.
Its characterisation is elcmentary, its dramatic qualities conventional, and the fatc of
everyone concern cd is decided io the long battle scene, whicb bears much of the same
relation to its context as the gunfight at the end of The Lady (rom Shanghai. One's
enjoyment of the film is untainted by the slightest enthusiasm for one side or the other,
dcspite the contrast of wlckcd, cruel Tellton knights with vertically held lances and
helmets low over their hard eyes. and the noble heroism of the gruff. bearded Russians
who have no helmets and thus appear Icss sinister. The past which the film creates IS
deliberately romanticised, thc melodrama has thc spaciousness and simplicity of a
heroic legend-not simply a Rus>ian legend, but one COlTlmon to every country and
raec. The film makes no comment on the legend. just recreates it; it relains a Russian
Aavour in the emphasis on Russian humiliation and enemy panoply. The melodrama
and the beauty of thc Images bear relev,lnee to an imaginary and unreal past, yet
remain significant.
Perhaps the verr fact that the realitv and thc Significance wonkl have to be poche
and not realist is what deters development in this field. We have never had a truly
plCaresquc Western, though Stagecoach approached it. Bccause of the dearth of fan-
tasy. these notes have been restrictcd to the intcr-relation of melodrama and rcalism:
one remembcrs Fritz LlIlg's fairly cmde attempts at melodrama with fantasy (Dr.
Mabuse, Metropolis) twcnty vears ago but, in more recent timcs, of melodrama subser-
vlcnt to a world of poctic reality, Les feliX sont Faits is an unsuccessful. and Orpillie a
succcssful cxample.
The Family Melodrama /49

Hollywood cinema and its narrative forms developed, though, and borrowed elements
from pulp fiction, radio serials, romantic ballads, and other forms of popular romantic
fiction, the tcrm "romantic melodrama" assumed a more speciali~.ed meaning. Gener-
ally speaking, "melodrama" was applied to popular romances that depicted a virtuous
individual (usually a woman) or couple (usually lovers) victimized by repressive and
inequitable social circumstances, particularly those involving marriage. occupation.
and the nuclear family.
Actually, the gradual dcvelopment of the movie melodrama is quite similar to that
of romantic and screwball comcdy. "Comedy." in the early cinema. was a nar;ativc
filmic mode that evolvcd into the "romantic comedy" and thcn. as romantic conRicts
began to be treated in terms of sociosexual and familial codcs, into the screwball
The Family Melodrama comcdy genre. Similarly. the melodramatic mode of silent filmmaking gradually was
adapted to romantic narratives and becausc of the coincidence of certain formal and
ideological factors. it emerged as a distinct formula. We can extend this analogy by
THOMAS SCHATZ considering social melodrama as the inverse of social comedy. Whcreas the eharactcrs
of romantic or screwball comedies scoff at social decorum and propriety. in melodrama
they are at the mercy of social conventions; whcrcas the comedies integrated the
I am not an American; indeed I came to this folklore anarchic lovcrs into a self-snfficient marital unit distinct from their social milieu, the
of American melodrama from a world crazily rcmoved melodrama traces the ultimatc resignalion of the principals to the strictures of social
from it. I3ut I was always fascinated with the kind of and familial tradition.
picture which is called melodrama, in America.. The master of the silent melodrama was D. W. Griffith, who established its style,
Melodrama in thc American scnsc is rather the archc- tone, and substance in films like Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms, True-
type of a kind of cinema which connects with drama. I
. Heart Suzie (1919). Way DOll'n East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922), in
-Douglas Sirk
which the sociosexual trials and tribulations of the sisters Gish et a\. were communi-
cated in theatrical pantomime. The narrative strategies were calculated to enhance the
"You're supposed to be making me fit for normal life.
What's normal? Yours? If it's a question of values, victims' virtuous suffering: long camera takes, ponderous narrative pacing, frequent
your vaInes stink. LOllsy, middle-class, well-fcd, smug close-ups of the anxious heroine (usually with cyes cast heavenward), somber musical
existence. All you care about is a paycheck you didn't accompaniment, and so on. Griffith's heir apparent was Frank Borzage, who first
earn and a beautiful thing to go home to every night." directed silents (most notably Seventh Heaven in 1927) but is best remembered for his
-Patient to his psychiatrist in The Cobweb (1955) early sound melodramas-A Farewell to Arms (1932). A Man's Castle (1933), and No
Greater Clory (1934). John Stahl also dirccted both silent and sound melodramas,
although he had much greater success with his sound romances, particularly Only
Yesterday (1933), Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Ohsession (I (35), When Tomor-
Melodrama as Style and as Genre row Comes (1939), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945).
By the 1940s, the plight of the star-crossed couple whosc love conquered all had
In a certain sensc every Hollywood movic might be dcscribed as becomc familiar. although thc notion of melodrama still applied as much to dramatic
"melodramatic." In the strictcst definition of the term. melodrama rcfers to thosc articulation and musical punctuation as to the narrative formula that the studios were
narrative forms which combine music (me/os) with drama. Hollywood's usc of back- in the proccss of refining. Not until after the war did Hollywood filmmakers rcally
ground music to provide a formal aural dimension and an emotional punctuation to its begin to test the range and cmotional power of that narrative and with films showing
dramas extends back even into the "silent" era. Live musical accompaniment (usually the anxious lovcrs in a suffocating, highly stylized social environment. This period was
organ or piano) was standard from the carlicst days of theatrical projection. As the dominated by Max Ophuls, an expatriate German filmmaker who directed three
intense romantic melodramas-Leller from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught
(1949), and The Reckless Moment (1949}-before leaving Hollywood and returning to
Thomas Schatz, "The l"amilv Melodrama." in HoU),wood Gellres: Fonnulas. filmmaking. Europe. Orphuls' Ruid camera work and elaborate sets encloscd his characters in a
alld the Studio System (Nell' York: Random lIome, 1981). Reprinted by pCTTTlIssion of the world where love IS engulfcd and overwhelmed by the material trappings of a reprcssive
author and Random House socicty.

150 Thomas Schatz The Famit)' Metodrama 151
Orphuls' work was complemented in the late 1940s by two novice Hollywood 1958 Cat all a Hot Tin Roo(Richard Brooks)
directors-another German expatriate, Douglas Sirk, and a set designer fresh from the The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)
Broadway musical stage, Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli's postwar melodramas (The Too Much, Too Soon (Art Napolean)
Clock, 1945; Undercurrent, 1946; Madame Bovary. 1949; The Bad and the Beautiful, 1959 A Summer Place (Delmer Daves)
1953), like Sirk's (Summer Storm, 1944; Shockproof, 1948; Thunder all the Hill, 1951; Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli)
All I Desire, 1953), not only solidified the heightened visual style and somber tonc of Imitation or Life (Douglas Sirk)
the Hollywood melodrama, but they Reshcd out the narrativc and thematic conven-
1960 From the Terrace (Mark Robson)
tions that carried the genre into its most productive and fascinating period. It's intercst-
Home (rom the Hill (Vincente Minnelli)
ing to note the concurrent development of the social melodrama and the integrated
The Bramble Bush (Daniel Petrie)
musical after the war, even though each represented radically different conceptions of
contemporary social conditions-and in Minnelli's case, these different conceptions
were realized by the same director. Movie melodramas survived in the 1960s, hut the formal and ideological effects of
the ew Hollywood and the Kennedy administration's New Frontier affected the
genre's development. By the '60s, the melodrama had been co-opted by commercial
television, not only in the "daytime drama" series (i.e., soap operas) but also in prime
time domestic drama. The success of Peyton Place (as hoth a bestseller and feature
1950s Melodrama: The Genre Comes of Age
film) and its 1961 movie sequel RetuTll to Peyton Place led to network television's first
serialized prime time drama, also titled Peyton Place, which was on throughout the
mid- to late 60's and eventually ran in three half-hour installments per week.
It was in the mid-1950s that the Hollywood mclodrama emerged The melodrama's narrative formula-its interrelated family of characters, its repres-
as the kind of cinema that Sirk, Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and other filmmakers could sive small-town milieu, and its preoccupation with America's sociosexual mores-
exploit successfully. Perhaps the most interesting aspect in the evolution of the genre is managed to live beyond the Eisenhower years and into the era of civil rights, Vietnam,
that its classical and mannerist periods are essentially indistinguishable from each the sexual revolution, and the women's movement. Still, the distinetive spirit of the
other. Because of a variety of industry-based factors, as well as external cultural phe- '50s melodramas was lost in the transition. One of the more interesting aspects of this
nomena, the melodrama reached its equilibrium at the same time that eertain filmmak- period of the genre is its paradoxical critical status: the "female weepies," "women's
ers were heginning to subvert and counter the superficial prosocial thematics and films," and "hankie pix" which were so popular with matinee crowds in the 1950s have
cliched romantic narratives that had previously identified the genre. No other genre become in recent years the filmic darlings of modernist, feminist, and Marxist critics.
films, not even the "anti-Westerns" of the same period, projected so complex and The mitial success of romantic tearjerkers reRected the collective capacity to stroke the
paradoxical a view of America, at once celebrating and severely questioning the basic emotional sensibilities of suburban housewives, but recent analysts suggest that the
values and attitudes of the mass audience. Among the more significant and successful '50s melodramas are actually among the most socially self-conscious and covertly
of these melodramas are' "anti-American" films ever produced by the Hollywood studios. Thomas Elsaesser, for
example, suggested recently that Hollywood's most effective melodramas "would seem
1954 Young at Heart (Cordon Douglas) to function either subversively or as escapism--eategories which are always relative to
Magnificellt Obsession (Douglas Sirk) the given historical and social context.'·z His point is that Hollywood's postwar melodra-
mas, following narrative and social conventions established in previous movies, in
1955 Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli)
popular literature, on radio serials, and elsewhere, appeared on the surface 10 be
East orEden (Elia Kazan)
something other than what they were. The audience was, on one level, shown formal-
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
ized portrayals of virtuous, long-suffering heroines whose persistent faith in the Ameri-
1956 There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk) can Dream finally was rewarded with romantic love and a house in the suburbs.
Picnic (Joshua Logan) Beneath this seemingly escapist fare, however, Elsaesser glimpses the genre's covert
All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk) function "to formulate a devastating critique of the ideology that supports it. ,,)
Giant (George Stevens) Thus the critical response to the movie melodrama covers a wide and contradictory
Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray) range. Depending upon the source and historical perspective, it is described on one
Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli) extreme as prosocial pabulum for passive, naive audiences. and on the other as subtle,
1957 Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk) self-conscious criticism of Amcrican valucs. attitudes, and behavior.
The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt) The widespread popularity and the surface-level naivete of the melodrama usually
Peyton Place (Mark Robeson) discourage both viewer and critic from looking beyond its facade. its familiar techni-
152 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama 153
color community and predictable "happy ending." But in the hands of Hollywood's of thc home and into the work force. By the mid-1950s, men had returned to increas-
more pcrceptive filmmakers, particularly Sirk, Minnelli. and Nicholas Ray, the genre ingly alienating, burcaucratic jobs and womcn were caught between the labor market
assumes an ironic, ambiguous perspective. As our previous analyses of postwar West- and the need to return home to raisc families. Greater mobility, suburbanization, and
erns, musicals. and crime films already have indicated, the melodrama was not alone Improving educational opportunitics uprooted families and put a strain on their nu-
in subverting many of the ideological traditions that these genres had espoused earlier. clear coherence, which made the age-old "generation gap" a more immediate and
Andrew Dowdy, in his Films of Ihe Fifties (aptly subtitlcd "The Amcrican State of pressing issue than it had ever been before. Among the dominant intellectual fashions
Mind"), has suggcsted that genre films, bceause of their familiarity and presumed of the postwar era were Freudian psychology and existential philosophy. Each stressed
prosocial function, could broach delicate social issues more effectively than could the alienation of the individual due to the inability of familial and societal institutions
"serious" social dramas. Hc writes, "Themcs that alienated a mass audience in a self- to fulfill his or her particular needs.
consciously serious movie were acceptahle if discreetly employed within the familiar While these various cultural factors coalesced within the popular cinema, whose
atmosphere of the Western or the thriller."~ stage of narrative and technical evolution was ideally suited for the glossy, stylized
Somethmg docs seem to be going on below the surface of '50s movies, and particu- world of the melodrama, the family melodrama began to take shape. As Geoffrey
larly in gcnre films. While current popular evocations of the '50s tend to wax nostalgic, Nowell-Smith describes it, "The genre or form that has come to be known as melo-
projecting an era of stability, prosperity, and widespread optimism, those who look drama arises from the conjunction of a formal history proper (development of tragedy,
more closely at that period's cultural documents may see through the facile naivete to realism, etc.), a set of social determinations, which have to do with the rise of the
an altogcther hlcaker reReetion. As Dowdy observes, "If we had only movies by which hOllTgeoisie. and a set of psychic determinations, which take shape around the fam-
to measure cultural change, those of the '505 would give us an image of an America ily... 7 Because '50s melodramas centered upon the nuclear unit, and by extension,
darkly di~lurbed by its own cynical loss of innocence, an America prey to fears more upon the home within a familiar (usually small-town; American community, both the
pervasive and intense than anything admitted to during the war years. ,,5 constellation of characters and the setting are more highly conventionalized than in
Film critic-historian Michael Wood shares Dowdy's feelings about the movies of other genres of integration. That these familiar social structures are at once so very real
the 1950s, ,md devotes considerable attention to that period in America in the Movies. to the viewer and yet so clearly stylized within the genre's artificial framework adds a
In describing his own changlllg impression of Joshua Logan and William Inge's 1956 unique dimension to the iconography of the family melodrama. This might explain
masterpieec, Picnic, Wood suggests that the film's "pcrsistent, insidious hysteria," its the sparse attention the melodrama has received from critics, as a distinct narrative-
undercurrent of alienation and loneliness, went generally unnoticed when the film cinematic formula.
was released but now seem to "haunt" the narrative. During the '50s, these qualities The family unit seems to provide an ideal locus for the genre's principal characters
were "mufAed by other emphases we chose to give the film, but we did sec its and its milieu for two fundamental reasons. First. it is a preestablished constellation
hopelessness and frantic gestures, we did hear its angry and embittered words, and this whose individual roles (mother, father, son. daughter; adult, adolescent, child, infant,
is preciscly the function I am proposing for popular movics. They permit us to look and so on) carry with them large social significance. Second. it is bound to its commu-
without looking at things we can neither face fully nor entirely disavow. ,,6 What '50s nity by social class (father's occupation and income, type and location of the family
audiences were trying to avoid was a radical upheaval in the nature and slTuctllTe of home. etc.). Ideally, the family represents a "natllTal" as well as a social collective, a
American ideology. HUAC and McCarthy, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Korea and self-contained society in and of itself. But in the melodrama this ideal is undercut by
the Cold War, Sputnik and the threat of nuclear destruction, changing sociosexual the family's status within a highly structured socioeconomic milieu, and thcrefore, its
norms and the postwar "baby boom"-these and other events brought our fundamental identity as an autonomous human community is denied-the family roles are deter-
valucs under scrutiny. America's collective dream was showing signs of bccoming a mined by the larger social community. The American small town, with its acute class-
nightmare. consciousness. its gossip and judgment by appearances, and its reactionary commit-
ment to fading values and mores, represents an extended but perverted family in which
human clements (love, honesty, interpersonal contact. generosity) have either solidi-
fied into repressive social conventions or disappeared altogether.
The Family as Narrative Focus Thc image of the American family as it evolves through the 1940s is vcry interesting
in that even apparently optimistic films like How Green Was My Valley (1941),
Shadow ofa Doubt (1943), It's a Wonderful Life, and The Best Years o{Our Lives (both
1946) rely for their impacl on the gradual erosion of our cultural confidence in the
The nuclear. middle-class family, the clearest representation of nuclear family. Also noir thrillers like Double Indemnity (1944) and Mildred Pierce
America's patriarchal and bourgeois social order. was undergoing its own transforma- (1946) developed this thematic. These films exploited the changing roles of women in
tion and became the focus of Hollywood's '50s melodramas. World War II and the w"rtime and postwar America, and also showcd how black-widow inclinations
"Korean ConRict" had sent men into the service and overseas and moved women out stemmed from dissatisfaction with a suffocating middle-class lifestyle. The heroine in
/54 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama 155
each film-Barbara Stanwyck in the former, Joan Crawford in the latter-is bent upon
escaping a tcdious husband and tacky suburban home. Little motivation is given for
her dissatisfaction. out none is necessary: middle-class claustrophobia and Mom's
desire to escapc it are simply taken for grantcd. But these are noir thrillers and the Young at Heart and Picnic: The Male
dissatisfaction is morc difficult to cxplain in other films whose obVIOUS aims are to Intruder-Redeemer in a World of Women
uplift the audience and reaffirm their traditional valucs.
Consider Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Father of the Bride (1950), two of
Hollywood's-and director Vincente MinnelIi's-more successful and saccharine cele- The contrast is well demonstrated in the uneven and inadver-
brations of small-town family life. Each film traces the courtship and betrothal of a tentll' ironie 1954 film, Young at Heart, a movie which shifts back and forth from a
naive hero inc (Judy Carland and Elizabeth Taylor, rcspectively) which is complicated musi'cal to a melodramatic stance. The Tuttle household is the focus of this film and
by their fathcrs' familial-occupational confusion. This conflict is animated in both contains a widowed professor of music who is raising three talented and eligible
films through a dynamic "nightmare" sequence, which momentarily points up the daughters (including Doris Day and Dorothy Malone--even the casting .exhibits the
dcep-seated doubts about family and community stability that thc surface stories tend film's generic schizophrenia). The film opens with Dad and two of hIS daughters
to repress. playing classical music in the living room. The third daughter (Malone) enters and
announces her engagement to a fellow named Bob, an overweight but available local
In Meel Me in SI. Louis, Margaret O'Brien (playing Carland's younger sister) is so
businessman. This brings the issues of spinsterhood and marital compromise out into
distraught ovcr hcr family's upward mobility and Dad's having been transfcrred to New
the open, and the remainder of the film traces the courtship and wedding of each of
York that shc literally goes berserk at one point, running outside in a hysterical
the daughters. Malonc's home-grown fiance is juxtaposed with a suave composer from
nocturnal frenzy to demolish a "family" of snowmen. In Father of tlze Bride, Spencer
the big city (Gig Young as Alex), who invades the Tuttle household-hIS father and
Tracy's distress over his daughter's impending marriage brings on a surreal nightmare
Tuttle had once been close fricnds-to work on a musical. Alex's refined wit and talent
in which his role in the wedding is expressed in images of inadequacy, loneliness, and
despair. This is accentuated by Minnelli's slow-motion camera, the severe visual initially disrupt the Tuttle milieu, although as the narrative dev~lops it becomes
obvious that he is the heir apparent to the senior Tuttle, the hard-workmg and responsI-
angles, and thc impressionistic set. Both of these films end happily enough. Not until
ble but somewhat aloof patriarch.
the mid-1950s did Minnelli draw his cultural subversion out from under the cover of
darkncss and dream logic. Alex and Laurie (Day) eventually become engaged, but not before Alex brings in an
After the war, then, the traditional image of marriage, the home, and the family old friend, Barney (Frank Sinatra), to help arrange the musical score. Barney is
was undergoing more self-critical reflection. With the emergcnce of the family melo- painfully antiheroic. He derides the middle-class environment ("It's homes like these
that are the backbone of the nation-where's the spinning wheel?") and agonizes that
drama in the '50s, the American family moved out of its role as supporting player to
"the resident fates" are keeping him from success as a songwriter. Even though Barney
achieve star billing. Films no longer simply used familial conflicts and interrelation-
ships to enhancc some external complication (a crime, thc war, some social evcnt) but does little but slouch over a piano and whine interminably through the cigarettc
focused on the social institution of the family itself as thc basis for conflict. A rather dangling from his lips. Laurie falls in love with him and eventually stands up Alex on
interesting paradox emerged from this shift of concentration: on the one hand, thc their wedding day to elope with her ill-matched lover. (The wedding was to have taken
family crisis was the dominant narrative conflict; on the other hand, the rcsolution of place in the Tuttle house, further reinforcing its value as the locus for social-familial
that conflict had to be found within the cxisting social structure, i.e., the family. ritual.)
Unlikc genres of order, the melodrama '.I social conflicts and contradictions could not The narrative moves quickly after this. Alex hangs around the household as surro-
be resolvcd by violently eliminating one of the opposing forces; unlike genres of gate son and "good loser"; his musical is a hit while Barney's career is stuck at the
integration, its social rcality could not bc magically transformed via music or screwball piano-bar stage. Laurie plays the domesticator, renouncing her musical talents; and
attitudes. In fact, those un1l1hibited types who ruled in thc comedy-oriented films are she becomes pregnant. Before she can tell Barney of their impending parenthood, he
oftcn the more angst-ridden and oppressed members of the melodrama's community. attempts suicide, but when he learns he's a prospective Daddy, a miraculous transfor-
The liberating quality of performancc and individual expression of the musical and mation takes place. Dissolve to one year later: Barney's unfinished song (which we first
screwball comedy are simply means for establishing one's socioeconomic identity in heard the day he met Laurie) is a hit and all's right in the family household,
the family melodrama. Ultimately, no description of a film like Ypung at Heart can begin to convey the
emotional and intellectual reversals that would have been necessary to sustain the
narrative. Thc film's own internal schema-its inherent value system, characterization
and mise-en-scene-is so inconsistent, so filled with ruptures, and so illogical that the
narrative is an amalgmn of confused, self-contradictory impulses. The resolution is
especially illogical: we have seen the central characters as either victimized by or
156 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama 157

utterly hostile to the existing social-familial-marital system, but somehow romantic seems even morc concerned with marriage as a rcfuge against loneliness and an opportu-
lovc and parenthood magically transform familial anxiety and despair into domestic nity for natural human contact; Mrs. Potts, the one woman willing to admit she's pleased
bliss. The uncvenness is intensified by thc casting-Doris Day's vibrant, naive cnthusi- to have Hal ("a real man") around the house, is the most overtly romantic of the lot.
ast and Sinatra's emaciatcd, withdrawn sulkcr seem utterly incompatible. Thcir indi- suggesting that truc love is-or should be-oblivious to social circumstances.
vidual values and attitudcs (as well as thcir establishcd screcn personalitics) arc so Madge's anticipated coronation as harvest queen at the Labor Day picnic is comple-
diametrically opposed that marriagc, a hit tune, and kids in the housc scarcely seem mented by Alan's anticipated proposal of marriage-the holiday feshval represents an
adequate to reconcilc their differenccs. Director Cordon Douglas might have 'turned initiation rite for the heroine in both a communal and a marital sense. Hal's arrival on
thesc drawbacks into assets by assuming a more ironic, distanccd perspective, but he the morning of the picnic, his obvious sexual rapport WIth Madgc, and the fact that
develops a straightforward, unselfconscious narrative that treats its material as "realisti- he's corne to ask Alan for a job create a network of social and sexual tensions that
cally" as possible. intensify throughout the film. Both Hal and Madge are in a position to use Alan and
Ncvertheless, a number of gencric elements converge in Young at Heart. The~' therehy improve their social class, although their own "natural" attraction to one
anticipate the morc cffective films that would turn logical inconsistencies into assets. another keeps them from becoming manipulative and self-serving.
The aging patriarch in a female-dominated household. the search for the fatherlloverl At one point III the film, Hal leaves the women to sce Alan at his family estate, and
husband by the anxious offspring, the male intruder-redeemer who regenerates and Alan takes him on a tour of the family's grain mills which are the economic and
stabilizes the family, the household itself as locus of social interaction, and the ambigu- agricultural lifeblood of the community. Overlooking the Kansas wheatfields from the
ous function of the marital embrace as both sexually liberating and socially restricting- top of a huge grain elevator, an appropriatc image of his father's domination of the
these qualitics were refined through repeated usage and incorporated into melodramas milieu, Alan promises Hal a job, but makes elear his intentions regarding Madge.
that were at thc same hme coherent, consistent, and complex. Alan also is planning to attend the Labor Day festivities, and thus is willing to cross the
A direct narrative descendent of Douglas's film is Picnic, a 1956 adaptation of socioeconomic barrier in order to woo Madge and impress Hal.
William Ingc's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama which director Joseph Logan took from The various narrative subcurrents surface at the picnic: Madge is crowned Queen of
stage to screen with enormous succcss. Like its predecessor, Picnic involves a commu- Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) and celebrates that rite of passage in a
nity of womcn whose preoccupations with marriage, spinsterhood, and morality are sensuous, moonlit dance with Hal. A drunken, panicky Rosemary interrupts their
disrupted and intensified by a male intruder-redeemer. The plot traces a small Kansas embrace as she tries to establish hcr own sexual and feminine idcntity, but she only
town on Labor Day as it celebrates the harvest. The film follows the nomadic Hal causes an ugly scene that attracts the attention of the other picnickers. Hal is accused of
(William Holden). who jumps the freight train an which he rode into town in search disrupting the community's tranquility-he has clarified the myriad sociosexual ten-
of an old eollcge schoolmate, Alan (Cliff Robertson). Hal's search begins on "the sions beneath thc surreal glaze of fireworks, Japanese lanterns and the full moon. At
wrong side of the tracks," whcre he happens upon and completely disarms a female this point, director Logan and cinematographer James Wong Howe depart from natu-
collective. This group ineludes Madge (Kim ovak, who we later learn is Alan's girl), ralistic style and begin to use camera angles, movement, and lighting to create an
hcr widowed mother and younger sister, an old maid schoolmarm (Rosalind Russell as artificial, stylized narrative-visual tone. The elosing sequences take place in daylight
Roscmary) who boards with them, and a wise old neighbor. Mrs. Potts (Verna pelton), on the following morning, ouce the community neuroses return to their subliminal
whose invalid mother lives upstairs. realm, and this day/night break further stresses the importance of the picnic itself as the
These four generations of unmarried women form a complex and fascinating con- narrative and thematic core of the film.
figuration of characters and attitudes. Madge, the beauty queen, and her little sister Picnic is resolved with the promisc of hvo weddings-one between Rosemary and
(Susan Strasberg), the bookish tomboy, envy each other's distinct talents. While Howard and the other bctwcen Madge and Hal. After thc picnic, each couple had
Madge repeatedly dccries her reputation as "the pretty one," her mother encourages consummated their love in true Midwestern small-town fashion, driving into the
her to exploit her sexuality to snarc Alan (a mcmher of the local aristocracy), even if it Kansas night to the music of locusts and locomotive whistles. 13)' now Rosemary's and
means compromising her "virtue." Mrs. Potts, the stable matriarch who is too old and Howard's relationship takes up roughly the same amount of screen time as Madge and
seasoncd to let society's opinions dictate her judgment, continually calms the discord Hal's, and the viewer is able to contrast the hvo couples' radically different views of
within the femalc collective. Peripheral to the group is Rosemary, the shrill neurotic marriage, with the older pair sharing none of the romantic naivcte or sexual exhilara-
splllster bent on snagging her long-standing bcau, Howard (Arthur O'Connell). Rosc- tion of thc initiate-lovers.
mary's endless denials of her own sexual frustration and fear of spinsterhood affect the The film's elosing sequences focus upon Madge, though, and upon the reactions of
entire group, providing an almost hystcrical subcurrent that touchcs cach woman. her mother and Mrs. Potts to the news of her impending marriage. Madge's mother
Madge is the ccntral figure in this constellation. Each of the older women projects a warns her not to repeat the same mistake she and Madge's father had made, whereas
different conception of sexuality and marriage to her: her mother (whose husband had Mrs. Potts accepts the irrationality of romantic love. Thc film's closing image, in
deserled her years before) considers sex a commodity that can be cxchanged for an which the lovers are moving in thc same dircction but by differeut means (Hal has
improvcd social standing; Rosemary understands the spinster's social outcast status but hopped a freight, and Madgc promises to follow by bus), reinforces the ambiguity of
158 Thomas Schal;;: The Family Melodrama /59

their embrace, It represents an idealized sexual union, but it is also an impulsive Aight usually in the guise of her children and their class-bound family home. All That
into the same social traps which had ensnared their parents. Still. the possibility of Heaven Allows, for example, shows a recently-widowed mother-domesticator. Cary
escape from the repressive community and the obvious chemistry between Holden's (Jane Wyman), whose postadolescent children, hcr friends from the club, and her
and Novak's characters tend to enhance the "happy end" nature of this resolution, even middle-class home urge her to remain a carbon copy of her dead husband (Conrad
though we cannot logically project that ending into the "ever after." Nagel). Much to the community's consternation, she falls in love with her gardener,
ROil (Rock Hudson), a younger man of somewhat lowcr social class. To intensify the
conAict bctween true love and social conventions, director Douglas Sirk constructs an
elaborate pattern of visual and thematic oppositions that contrast the lifestyles of her
lover and her dcad husband. Hut ultimately the heroinc merely makes a choice
The Widow-Lover Variation
between her stoic, Emersonian gardener and her dead bourgeois husband--one of
these men will govern her life. Wyman makes the "right" choice, of course, opting for
love and Rock Hudson. but only after a virtual act of Cod brings her to his aid when he
Because the lovers in Picnic have managed to escape their mi- is injured in an accident. Thus Sirk undermines the film's happy end on two levels.
lieu, it is possible for us to believe that their marriage might be a natural and human Only an arbitrary cvent within the logic of the narrative (Ron's accident) enables the
coupling as well as a social institution. This belief is reinforced by the intruder- heroine to break out of her assigned role; and on a broader thematic level, she manages
redeemer Hal, a genuinely "natural man" whose character developed outside the to escape one dominating patriarch only to accept another.
community, seemingly in some timeless dimension. This is essentially the basis for his We would have to assume that Cary's marriage to Ron would be less repressive and
personal and sexual attraction. The prospect of a liberating marriage is actually quite dehumanizing than her earlier, class-bound marriage had been, and so the resolution
rare in the '50s family melodrama, which usually depicts that social ritual as solidifying seems more positivc than not. Like Hal in Picnic, Ron personifies the intruder-
the couple's position within the community rather than providing them With an escape redeemer who somehow has fashioned his own value system outside the small-town
from it. community which has entrapped the heroine But this docs not alter his role as
A more familiar narrative strategy traces the courtship of a widowed mother as well "breadwinner" and patriarch, nor is he any less "socialized" within his own community
as-or perhaps in lieu of-that of the postadolescent daughter. Magnificent Obsession, than was Cary's first husband.
All That Heaven Allows, Peyton Place, Return to Peyton Place, A Summer Place, The redeemer's ambiguous status, particularly in Sirk's films, is finally a function of
Imitation of Life, and many other '50s films involve the courtship of an older woman, the filmmaker's penchant for irony, as well as his capacity to depict the repressive
invariably a widow or divorcee, whose adult status and established familial role mini- middle-class environment so effectively. Like Vincente Minnelli, Sirk was a master of
mize the possibility for Aight from her repressive environment. In Picnic, Madge, as formal artifice and expressivc decor. His filmic world-at once familiar and yet lavishly
yet unburdened by children, family home, or any significant community position, had artificial and visually stylized-is inhabited by characters who are always emotionally
a certain freedom denied to the women in these other films. In the family melodrama's at arm's length, operating in a social reality that clearly is once removed from our own.
puritanical moral climate, that freedom is elosely related to the woman's virginity: As Sirk and the other principal melodrama directors understood, any "realistic" narra-
Once she is literally and figuratively "taken" by a man, the heroine surrenders her tivc strategy in thesc glossy romances would be both aesthetically and ideologically
initiative, her self-reliance, and in effect, her individual identity, counterproductive, and would undercut the films' obviolls idealization of the vicwer's
Her life is determined thereafter by the male-and by extension thc male-oriented. social reality. Sirk's success is closely related to his use of music. camerawork, casting
patriarchal society-she commits hcrself to. The strategy of these films, generally (Rock Hudson is ultimately nothing more than a evocative cardboard cut-out in Sirk's
speaking, is to counter the heroine's role as mother-domesticator with that of sexual films), set design and costuming (especially the use of color to "codify" the characters
partner. This opposition itself is intensified by the role of her daughter who is just and their milieu), and other formal filmic devices.
reaching womanhood and whose romantic delusions arc propelling her toward the Other directors chose the path of realism over stylization, and thetr films, straight-
same marital and social traps as her mother. Of the "weepies" just listed, only Magnifi- forward paeans to thc American middle class, generally have suffered critically in the
cent Obsession lacks a mother-daughter opposition, although this film, like the others, long run, Mark Robson's Peyton Place, for example, relates much the same story as All
does portray a woman in early middle age caught between her socially prescribed role That Heaven Allows but has not worn well over the years, mostly due to the fact that
as mother and her reawakened individual and sexual identity, As numerous critics have the viewer is supposed to take the subject matter seriously, Sirk never stooped to this
pointed out, the heroine's choice is scarcely viable: regardless of her ultimate commit- level of insult-as Andrew Sarris has observed: "Even in his most dubious projects,
ment, which usually is to her lover-redeemer, the heroine merely exchanges one trap Sirk never shrinks away from the ridiculous, but by a full-bodied formal development,
for another, allowing her individual destiny to be determined by the values of her new his art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on content. ,,8 Peyton Place traces
lover rathcr than her previous one. the romantic events in the lives of an unmarried woman and her daughter after an
The previous lover's ghost still haunts the heroine and impcdes her romance, intruder-redeemer enters the community and courts the mother. Whereas All That
160 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama 161
Heaven Allows dealt primarily with America's socioeconomic and materialistic values, na] traits of succeeding generations. 'nle dramatic conflict is based on a contradictory
this film focuses upon its marital and sexual taboos. Whereas Ron's character was a view of marriage: it is a means of liberation from unreasonable familial demands and
synthesis of Thoreau and Marx, here the redeemer is an amalgam of Drs. Frcud and also the only way of perpetuating the family aristocracy.
Spock-in fact, the community crisis in the film results from the new high-school The family's status is enhanced by its rolc within the community, whose economy
principal's efforts to initiate sex education classes. Cary's attempts to shed her material- and social climatc it controls either directly or through benign neglect. This motif
istic value system arc not similar to those of this heroine (Lana Turner as Constance surfaces in Picnic-Alan will inherit the "family business" and thus the socioeconomic
McKenzie), a woman who is attcmpting to resolve the sexual hangups that resulted lifeblood of the community generates much of the tension surrounding his character.
from her sordid past-adultery with a married man in the big city. But the lovers' Right from Alan and from his father's wealth offers an option that is
Constance has paid dcarly (truc to the melodrama's moral demand of absolute unavailable to the class-bound lovers in the family aristocracy melodramas. The
retribution), not only through a lifetime of guilt and sociosexual pathology, but Varner family in The Long Hot Summer, the Hadley family in Written on the Wind,
through the very existence of her illegitimatc daughter, Allison. just as Sirk's film and thc BenedIct family in Giant are established as inescapable ideological givens; they
cstablished a network of oppositions involving enlightcned versus uncnlightened capi- crcate the socioeconomic climate that IS around them. Significantly, these films usu-
talism. Peyton Place counters scxual inhibition with a more liberal (at least by '50s ally arc bascd in the South, where the conception of the landcd gcntry has survived
standards) attitude. The film suggests that the community can learn the. error of its into the twentieth century. 1'he dramatic action may be confined exclusively to the
repressivc ways and achieve the American Dream. family's mansion and estate, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or it may extend to thc larger
Thc film's utopian vision and neat happily-ever-after resolution are its undoing, social community, as in Written on lhe Wind, Giant, and The Long Hot Summer,
however, since they create a rupture in narrative logic which cannot possibly be wherc thc community is an extension of the family estate. [n Written on the Wind, the
rationalized. While Sirk avoided this by resolving the plot with an arbitrary event town and the estate share the Hadley name, and the family insignia is everywhere~n
(Ron's accident), in Peyton Place, Robson resorts to a ritual sequence-a sensa- automobiles, oil rigs, street signs-giving considerable weight to the actions and atti-
tionalized small-town trial-in which the community comes to its collective senses tudes of thc family members themselves.
and rcncgotiates its system of valucs and beliefs. The climactic trial brings into the The constellation of characters in this variation revolves around an aging patriarch
open the various acts of adultery, rape, incest, and other iniquities committed through- (sometimes close to death), whose wife is either dead or c1se functions only as a
out the story. But the essentially benevolent citizenry is encouraged to appreciate thc peripheral character who has produced inadequate male heirs and sexually frustrated
value of truth and understanding over retribution-that, in the local doctor's words, daughters. The patriarch's search for an heir to his feudal monarchy usually sets up the
"we've all been prisoners of each other's gossip." The community realizes that in the conflict between his own spoiled, ineffectual son and an intmder-rcdeemer figure who
past, "appearances counted more than fcelings," but through honest human interac- is equal to the patriarch in strength, mtellcct, and self-reliance. The son's inability to
tion they reach what Allison terms "the scason of love." If the forced, arbitrary nature negotiate the wealth and power of hIS legacy mirrors the daughter's sexual confusion,
of its resolution is not obvious in the original, one need only look to the sequel, Return although the idealized intruder inevitably enablcs the daughtcr to clarify her sexuality
to Peyton Place, to realizc how easily this utopian community and the pat happy end and develop an individual identity beyond familial context. (An interesting twist on
could be undone. this convention occurs in Cat on a Hal Tin Roof, in which Paul Newman and jack
Carson are cast as the tormented, inadequatc offspring of patriarch Burl Ives, with
Elizabeth Taylor assuming the role of the intrudcr-redccmer, whose "true love" stabi-
lizes cwman's sexual confusion and reaffirms his role as heir apparent to "Big
The Family Aristocratic Variation Daddy.")
Thus these films stress the patriarch's search for an hcir and evcrything implied by
the handing down of power from onc gcncration to the next. Operating in a way
similar to many of the scrcwball comedies, the redeemer figure often helps the wealthy
At the narrative-thematic core of familv melodramas is a meta- aristocrat to rccovcr whatcver values and attitudcs had enabled him to attain his
phoric search for the ideal husband/lover/father who, as Am'erican mythology would wealth. His son's inadequacy demonstrates that these attributes have been lost, and
have it, will stabilize thc family and integratc it into the larger community. Hollywood often the son, as wcll as the patriarch and the daughter, profits from the intrudcr's
mythology tends to portray the husband and the lovcr in essentially contradictory rcdemptive powcrs. The role of the spoiled, whming offspring is one of the more
terms: the woman's dilemma is that she must opt for either socioeconomic security or interesting in the aristocracy melodramas, and provided actors like jack Carson (Cat on
elllotional and sexual fulfillment. Her dilemma is intensified in what might be termed a Hot Tin Roof), Tony Franciosa (The Long Hot Summer), and Robert Stack (Written
the family aristocracy variation of the '50s melodrama, which includes films likc 011 the Wind) with some of thc most intcnse and rcwarding roles in their film careers.

Written on the Wind, The Long Hot Summer, Giant, Cat 071 a Hot Tin Roof, From the As such, these melodramas arc actually as much male "wecpies" as they are female
Terrace. and Home from the Hill. These melodramas trace the behavioral and attitudi- ones.
162 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama /63
Although the son's inadequacies are a function of his father's wealth, most of these critical of American middle-class ideology which both the characters and the maiority
films stop short of an outright condemnation of wealth and the corrupting inAuence of rJth?audlencc' Know' so 'well. The master of the tormented-son portrayal was James
unchecked sociocconomic power. As in the screwball comedies, the patriarch gener- De'an. Whelher encouraging his emasculated father (Jim Backus) to stand on his own
ally is reeducated and thus humanized by the redeemer figure. Ultimately, this progres- in Rebel Without a Calise or simply trying to win his insensitive father's (Raymond
sive enlightenment resolves the various conAicts within the family and returns the Massey) love in East of Eden, Dean's soulful stare and agonized gestures projected the
tormentcd son to the patriarch's favor. In The Long Hot Slimmer, for example, the image of a son either unwilling or unable to accommodate society's expectations of
aging and decadent Will Varner (Orson Welles) consistently bemoans the lack of male ,nale adulthood.
heirs and "the establishment of my immortality." His only son, Jody (Francillsa), is While Dean's films focus on the son, others like The Cobweb and BIgger Than Life
woefully insecure and inept, and at one point asks his father, "Where do vou go are straightforward male '\veepies," examining the plight of the middle-class husband!
looking for it, Pappa, if you ain't got it in you?" Intruder-redeemer Ben Quick (Paul lover/father. Each of these melodramas is a sustained indictment of the social pressures
Newman) eventually weds Varner's renegade daughter (Joanne Woodward), promising which have reduced the well-meaning patriarch to a confused, helpless victim of his
Will many grandsons (i.e., real heirs with more potential), and he also helps Jody own good intentions. The heroes in icholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (James Mason as
discovcr his own worth. prompting the patriarch's closing pronouncement, "Mavbc I'll Ed Avery) and Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb (Richard Widmark as Stewart Mciver)
live forever." are both professional bureaucrats and community serrvants: Avery is a grade-school
The strain on IIlternal narrative logic with such a pat ending is severe. Thc existing teacher, and Mciver is the head of a psychiatric clinic. These films, like those of
social and familial structures act as both the problem and its eventual solution, and the Douglas Sirk, develop artificial conAicts that are intensified and finally overwhelmed
only significant motivation for the resolution is the inAuence of the redeemer figure. by the family conflicts they touch off.
But the problems themselves are so immediate, familiar, and intense, they scarcel\' can In Bigger Than Life, we are introduced to the victimized hero as he is finishing his
be resolved as easily as their narratives suggest. Generally speaking, then, fa.'nily work day at school and slipping off to put in a few extra hours as a taxi dispatcher to
melodramas might be seen as critical of American ideology at the level of narrative "make ends meet." Ed is overworked and having dizzy spells but is too proud to tell his
exposition and complication, but their resolution invariably reaffirms, however imphlU- wife of his moonlighting or his illness. She, in turn, suspects that Ed's unccounted
sibly, the cultural status quo. extra hours mean that he's having an affair to escape the boring routine of their static
Occasionally a film like Written on the Wind surfaces, however, where the subvtT- life. Ed eventually collapses, and his physical illness is treated with a '50s wonder drug,
slon of familial and socioeconomic conventions is sustained throughout. In Sirk's 1957 cortisone. Ed abuses the drug because it gives him a sense of power, mission, and self-
melodrama, the patriarch dies upon learning of his daughter's scandalous sexual estcem that his familial and social roles do not. As the narrative develops, Ed becomes
activities. she in turn loses the only man she ever loved, and the tormented so, increasingly monomaniacal, loudly criticizing his family, his colleagues, and his social
commits suicide. Sirk provides us with a moderately happy ending, though. The environment. Director Ray does not focus on cortisone as the cause of Ed's antisocial
redeemer (Rock Hudson) is finally cleared of the accusation that he murdered the SOil behavior and psychotic outbursts, and so, ultimately, we are interested in his character
(Stack), and hc leaves the Hadleys' world with the dead son's widow (Lauren Bacall) as a bizarre critique of American middle-class values and attitudes. Ed's tirade at a PTA
This arbitrary, ambiguous closure does little to resolve the social and familial tensiom meeting ("we're breeding a race of moral midgets") and his refusal to let his son eat
that had destroyed the entire Hadley family, although it provides the protagonists with a until he catches a football properly are neuroses that any frustrated parent might
fortuitous escape hatch. exhibit under duress. They emphasize not only Dad's own past failures and lingering
anxieties but also the social basis for those anxieties, as well as one man's impotence in
effecting a change in the status quo.
While Ed's own family senses something is wrong-at one point his son whispers to
Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnclli, and the Male Mom, "Isn't Daddy acting a little foolish?"-his lip service to social conventions
prevents anyone else from recognizing the severity of his mental condilion. This
central apathy reinforces the film's subversive tone, in that those around Ed may look
askance at his outbursts, but they accept his behavior as his way of "letting off a little
Thc aging patriarch and tormented, inadequate son appear most steam." Ed's criticism of the American family, educational system, and class structure
frequently in the aristocracy variation, although they occasionally are part of middle- becomes more vocal and more intense, until he finally decides upon an Abraham!
class families as well. 1n films like Rebel Without a Calise, Bigger Thall Life, Tea and Isaac-style "sacrificc" to atone for his own failures and to save his son from the same
Sympathy, East of Eden, and The Cobweb, the central conAict involves passing the class-bound fate, Over the protestations of his wife-UBut God stopped Abraham," she
role of middle-American "Dad" from one generation to the next. Here, the p;;;;iar~h's pleads, to which Ed replies, "God was wrong!"-and with the television turned up to
anxieties and the son's tormented insecurities cannot be attributed to family wealth or a full volume io thc background, Ed prepares for the ritual exccution. A spectacular
decadent aristocratic view of life. As a result, these films tend to bc more directly fistfight with the grade-school gym teacher (Walter Malhau), which devastates Ed's
/64 Thomas Schat:: The Family Melodrama Iii,
bourgeoIs home, prevents disaster as well as precipitating his return to the hospital and offers him a ride in the film's opening seqnence, the two strikc up a conversation about
evcntual rceovcry. In thc film's ironic cpiloguc, Ihe family is tearfully rcunited in Ed's art and artists. With l.eonard Rosenman's ominous, pulsating music in the back-
hospital room. The family doctor prcscribes thc same cortisone treatment bllt closer ground, Stevie laments: "Artists are better off dead-they're not so troublesome . . . .
regulation ofthc dosage. Consider thc narrative sleight-of-hand involved in this resolu- They said Van Gogh was crazy bccausc he killed hnnself. He couldn't sell a p;linting
tion: the real ISSHe in the film is not the danger of wonder dTllgs but rather the kind of when he was alive, and now they're worth thirty million dollars. Thcv weren't that bad
socIal-familial climate that Ed's drugged state penmtled him to condemn. At the end. thcn and they'rc not that good' now-so who's crazy'" As they pull onto the elinic
Ed's aberrant hchavior i.s resolved but not the social conditions that lIlotivated his grounds later. Stevie suggests that "everybody's tilted around here. That's why you
behavior. didn't know who I was. You can't tell the patients ffllm thc doctors." "Yes. I can,"
Ray's film recalls Sirk's in that it cxploits a supcrficial plot dcvice to eamouAage its replies Karen. "the patients get well."
social criticism. Vincente Minnclli's male "weeples"-partieularly The Cohweb, Tea This remark ultimately governs the narrative. Stevle's ability to "get well" and come
alld Sympathy, Home (rom the Hill, and 'livo Weeks ill Another TOlVn-also follow this to terms with himself is juxtaposcd throughout with the essenhaJly negative view of the
narrative strategy. Whether Minnelli is examining the angsl-ridden familial relatIOn- communIty into which Stevie might hope to integrate himself. Although Stevie does
ship in a mcntal hospital (The CoblVeh). on a college campus (Tea and Sympathy), or emerge as a relatively "stable" individual. his insightful outbursts against McIver early
evcn within a foreign-hased Hollywood fill1l unit (Two Weeks in Allother Town), his in the film cast real doubts on thc value of his "cure." In a psychiatric session early in
rnclodr;nnas Irace thc search for thc ideal family. Usually, hc contrasts the protagonist's the film, Stcvic pOUTS out a devastating critique of Mclvcr and his lifestyle: "You'rc
"natural" family with an artificial groHp from his professional environment. In The supposed to he making me fit for normal life. What's normal' Yours' If it's a question
Cobweb, for example, Richard Widmark portrays a clinical psychiatrist (Stewart of values. vour values stink, Lousy, middle-elass, well-fed, smug existence. All you
McIver) torn between his domestic family (Cloria Crahame as his wife Karen and their care abo~t'is a paycheck you didn't earn and a beautifnl thing to go home to every
two children) and the smrogate family that he cHltivates in his psychiatric clinic with a night. ..
staff worker, Meg (Lauren Bacall), and a disturbed adolesccnt artist, Stevie (John Kcrr), Thcsc are not the hysterical ravings of an unbalanced adolescent, since we can see
Meg and McIver ask Stevie to dcsign new drapes for the elinic's library as a therapeutic that Mclver's own deteriorating pe\sonal and professional competence lend credibility
exercise, not realizing that Karen and a matronly bmeaucrat at the clinic (Lillian Cish) to these criticisms. We can also sec that Stevie will be able to "recover" became hc
already have assumed responsibility for doing it. This banal plot device generates an seems to understand that socicty itself is not well-an understanding that none of the
intric;te network of familial. social, and professional eonAicts. none of whIch is "normal" characters exhibits.
resolved S<ltisfactoriIY-and at film's cnd thc hbrary is still withoul drapes. Mciver and Meg finaly bow to thc social impediments to the IT union, and he
The empha.>is o~ famil)' interaction is highlighted by tbc fact that Mciver is a returns to his wifc with the half-hcarted pledge that he will work harder at their
freudian psychoanalyst. "Why don't you analyze my Oedipus complex or my lousy relationship. Minnelli himsclf aeeeptcd the arbitrary nature of his resolntion, admit-
father?" Stevie asks Mciver early in the film, to which the psychiatrist later responds. ting, "It seemcd dishonest, since we'd established extraordinary bonds between the
''I'm not your father, and I won't TUn out on you like your falher did." As good a doctor and the staff membcr, but the conclusion was very much within the existing
surrogatc father as McIver is on the iob. though, his domestic feelings are sorely movie code. ,,9 Which, of COlITse, IS a reAection of America's implicit moral code, and
lacking. He docs not communicate with his wife either verbally or sexually and is a Minnelli clearly was sensitive to the need to resolve the issues raised in the film within
virtual stranger to his own children. We learn that when his daughter was askcd at an acceptable framework. Mciver's decision to remain with the jealous, whining
school what she wanted to be, she replied, "One of Daddy's p'ltients.'· Karen rather than the stoic, supportive Meg scarcely represents a positive resolution,
Mciver's role as a professional father to the elinic's children clearly is more reward- however, and The Cobweh's end is more an act of resignation-for both Mciver and
ing. He and Meg develop a call1eraderie that is eventually consummated sexually-or l'vlinnelli-than of intcgration,
at least Mmnelli's well-timcd fades imply as much within the limits of the Production
Code. Their relationship is hascd on thelT shared devotion to Stevie. Mciver eventu-
allv tells Meg: "If we make this work we may be ahle to show him we're differenl-
good parcnts." Stevic does show signs of rccovery at film's end, but these arc not
entirely dne to the couple's ministrations.
Stylization, Social Reality, and Critical Values
Stevie, as Ml1lnelli's spokesman against the "unbalanced" nature of contemporary
society, aSSllmcs the rolc as principal social cribc in the film. lie has impeccable
credentials for this job as both fmstrated artist and deserted son. ( ot only had his own The Cobweh is a typical Hollywood melodrama in that it traces
father deserled him, hnt he confidcs in kg midway throngh the film that his mother the identitv crisis of an individual whose divided domestic and occupational commit-
dicd the prcvious ycar, an event that triggered his breakdown.) Stevie's rolc as critic is ments pro~ide a rational hasis for confusion and anxiety. The more adept filmmakers
established cven before wc learn that he's a patient at the clinic. When Mclver's wife learned tn exploit these contradictions and ambigllltics via plot and charactcrization
166 Thomas Schatz The Family Melodrama 167

and through heavy stylization as well. Although we have devoted most of our attention
in this chapter to conventions of setting, plot, and character in the melodrama,
ultimately their formal orchestration may well be the most significant quality in these
films. In a 1959 review of Sirk's most successful and most overtly stylized melodrama.
Tmitation of Life, critic Moira Walsh deserined the film as a "pretentious, expensive,
overstuffed Teehnieolor example of Hollywood at its worst," and she went on to
condemn the film as "a perfect example of the tendency to confuse fantasy with reality
I. lohn Halliday. Sirk on Sirk (New York: The Viking Press, 1972). p. 93.
which serious students of our mass culture arc inelined to regard as most destructive of 2. Thomas Elsocsscr, "Talcs of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Fannly Melodrama,"
the human personality. ·010 This was written about the same film which German eritie- Monogram #4 (1972). p. 4.
filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who himself has remade several of Sirk's films. 3. 1bid., p. 13.
recently termed "a grcat, crazy movie anoutlife and about death. And anout America." 4. Andrew Dowdy. Films of the Fifties ( lew York: Wilham Morrow and Co., 1973). p. 72.
It is a film, argues Fassninder. in which "nothing is natural. Ever. ot in the whole 5. 1bid., pp. 62-63.
film ... II 6. Michael Wood, America in the Movies (New York: Bas,e Books. 1975). p. 163.
In retrospect, the reviewcrs' highbrow myopia is 110t surprising-contemporary 7. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Minnelli and Melodrama," Screen (Summer (977), p. 113.
8. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema ( ew York: E. P. Dutton. t968), p. 110.
critics of Flaubert. Dickcns. and D. W. Griffith often misunderstood what their melo-
9. Vincente Minnelli, 1 Remember It Well (Garden City. . Y: Doubleday and Co., 1974), p.
dramatists were doing. The huge success of Tmitalion of Life, and the renewcd interest
critics and scholars have in it, suggest that this and other film melodramas work on 10. Moira Walsh, rcview of Imitation ofUfe, America (May 9, 1959), p. 314.
substantially different levels of viewer engagement. They range from transparent ro- 11. Rainer Werncr Fas,binder. "rassbinder on Sirk," Film Comment (November-December
mantic fantasy to a severe indictment of the culture that perpetuates that fantasy. Moira 1975), p. 24
Walsh was accurate about the confusion of fantasy with reality, but it is the characters 12. Halliday, op. cil., p. 132.
within the melodrama, not the filmmaker, who are confused. In fact, Sirk's popularity
scems closely relatcd to his capacity to flesh out the unnatural aspects of America's
social reality, to articulate cinematically how that reality is itself a collective cultural
In discussing Imilation of Life more than a decade after its release. Sirk compared
his narrative strategy to classical Greek drama in which "there is no real solution of the
predicament the people in the play arc in, just the deus ex maehina, which is now
called 'the happy end.' .. 12 Sirk's capacity to articulate the nature of these social condi-
tions that fashion our individual, familial. and social identities. He offers an ambigu-
ous resolution, so we in the audience can take it in a variety of ways.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the '50s melodramas is the breadth of
emotional and intellectual response they elicit from viewers. Whether we regard the
genre as a formula for prosocial pap or as a genuine critique of American ideology,
however, depends upon our own attitudes, prejudices, and expectations. Unquestion-
anly, the vast majority of Hollywood movie melodramas have been designed as transpar-
ent celebrations of the cultural status quo. But the family rnelooramas of the 1950s.
particularly Sirk's. Minnelli's, and Ray's-with a nod toward Joshua Logan and Mark
Robson-do seem to extend the genre into a stage of formal cinematic artistry and
thematic sophistication not characteristic of other melodramas. The more effective of
these films stand not only as works of considerable artistic merit, but also as cultural
documents of Colo War America and, perhaps even more importantly, of Hollywood
in its death throes. The rcpressive ideological climate, the false sense of sociopolitical
security. and Hollywood's advanced stage of narrative and cinematic expression all
coalesce in the family melodrama to produce a stylized and disturbing portrait of '50s
America that, with each passing year. comes more clearly into focus
Who Is Without Sill /69

the mother theme, as one can clearly see in the films of Rafaello Malarazzo, or in
evocative titles such as Le fils de personne [Nobody's Son] (I'v!atarazzo), Le Peche d'une
mere fA i\lfother's Sin] (Cuido Brignone), Les Enfants ne SOllt pas a vendre [Children
Are Not for Sale] (Mario Bonnard). [These titles are kept in French, as Viviani gives
them. The English translations in square brackets are my own-Translator.]
French cinema, always lukewarm and somewhat soberly elegant (and a touch
boring) in its treatment of melodrama, found in the mother theme a rare occasion to
give free rein to the emotions: either by honoring tested literarv classics, like La
Porteuse de pain or La l'orchade, I or by featmll1g an actress of magnitude. Gaby
Morlay was the veritable queen of these films, rivalled for a while by Francoise Rosay,
who did not last as long, but who had the distinction of starring in Jacques Feyder's
Who Is Without Sin: The Maternal Melodrama French masterpiece of the genre, the near-perfect Pension Mimosas.

The themc dcveloped just as richly in Hollywood where any star worth her salt gave
in American Film, 1930-1939 in at least once in her career to the ntual of maternal suffering; either totally, in a film
conceived cntirely around this idea, or episodically, in a film where the idea is intro-
duced as a side issue. (One thinks of Greta Carbo in Edmund Goulding's Love [19281
CHRISTIA VIVIA I and Clarence Brown's Anna Karen ina [19351 or Marie Walewska in Clarence Brown's
(Translated by Dolores Burdick) Conquest [19381.) A smnoth lovely face, still untouched by age but where imploring
eyes are ringed with pain and greasepaint furrows, the hair streaked with appropriate
silver threads delicately traced by a master hairdresser-it lVas a kind of rite of passage,
an ordeal whereby the actress proved she was a True Actress. And thcn the Oscars
would rain down, and the moviegoers would line up at the box office.
This type of role was also a kind of guarantee for the actress's future; it assured her
Melo must bc moving. and thus it has recourse-not to the gro- that the public was ready to accept her aging. Starting with the silents, maturing
tesque, as many believe-but to situations, feelings and emotions which everyone has actresses used this type of film as a bridgc between playing the seductress and playing
experienced at one time or another. These elements are juxtaposed, telescoped, multi- "the heavy," There were some rather sensitive psychological analyses (Smoldering Fires
plied, ill order 10 maintain the pathos at an intense level, simultaneonsly creating both [1924] and The Goose Woman [1925]-both by Clarence Brown) or attempts at serious
an outer laver, which seems unreal by virtue of its excessiveness, and an inner core, social analysis (Henry King's Stella Dallas [\925]). But much earlier Griffith had
which calls upon collective experience of real life. Successful melo maintains the already made the mother one orthe central figures of his univcrse and had dedicated to
difficult equilihrium between its narrative form-often of a baroque complexity-and her the first, and perhaps the finest, classic of the genre: Way Dowll East (J 921), to
its emolional content of disarming simplicity, which he gave a unique and quasi-epic breadth (thrce hours of running time).
In tbis perspective, it is only natural to grant a privileged place to maternal senti- During the Forties, the theme Aourished exceptionally well because of the high
ment. Disconsolate, unworthy or admirable mothers were already populating the plays preponderance of female viewers during the war. Only slightly hidden under "realist"
of the nincteenth century, touching the spectator by appealing to the "Oedipus" in him wraps, the maternal melo was in its full glory in a filmic world where femininity was
which/who asked nothing better than to rise to the surface. Let us recall the incest organized between two poles: the pin-up (Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth) and the
tbeme in Hugo's Lucrece Borgia or-in an entirely different key-the Parfum de la
mother (Creer Carson). The end of the war and the progressive evolution of social
dame ell Iloir by Caston Leroux, to pick two works at random, mores gradually weakened the importance of something which had already been
In cincma, the cntirc edifice of Italian melo finds OIlC of its sturdiest foundations in
constituted as a subgenre. The 1966 version of Madame X (by David Lowell Rich)
tolled its death knell. Things had come full circle since one could date the birth of the
genre with the first version of Madame X, Frank Lloyd's film of 1920. Certainly the
Chrishan V,,'iani's "Who Is Wilhout Sin: Thc Matcrnal Melodrama io American fi'ilm, origins of the maternal melo lie deeper and tracing its cinematic prehistory would
1930-1939 orlgmally appeared as "Qui est sans peche: Lc melo malernel dans Ie cinema make an exciting narrative; but let us simply say that the first version of Madame X
americain, 1930- 'l'J" in POllr une hIS/Dire du melodra"'e all cinema, Us Cahiers de la Cin- fixes a certain set of elements and inAuences which already existed in a somewhat
ematheque, no. 28, ediled by i\'Jaurice Roelens. Trooslatcd by Dolores Burdick and pubhshed disparate state, fixes them into a strongly structured scenario which will serve as
in Wide Angle. Vol. 4, no, 2 (1980), PI'. 4-l7. Reprinted by perrOlssioll of thc Irallslalor and
Johns Hopkins Universltv Press thematic matrix to the films that follow.

170 Christian Viviani Who Is Without Sin 171

The critics took note of the old-fashioned nature of the film and the public stayed away.
Moreover, so many maternal melos had bloomed beteen 1929 and 1937 which had
created strong and valid causes for the mother's "fall" other than her breaking of a
1. Madame X: Eve Expelled from the Bourgeois rigoristie moral code that the plight of Gladys George's Madame X must have seemed
Eden totally disproportionate to her initial fault.
The inRuencc of Madame X on the whole sub-genre it more or less launched is not
The different versions of Madame X mark off the various stages of an ideological order; the failure of the 1937 vcrsion proves that much. This inRu-
of the history of Hollywood's maternal melo. In 1920, Frank Lloyd directed Pauline ence was rather of a structural and dramaturgical nature. A woman is separated from
Frederick. In 1929, Lionel Barrymore directed Ruth Chatterton. In 1937, Sam Wood her child, falls from her social class and founders in disgrace. The child grows up in
directed Gladys George. In 1966. David Lowell Rich directed Lana Turner in a respectability and enters estahlished society whcre he stands for progress (in Madame X
production lengthily prepared by Douglas Sirko he becomes a lawyer). The mol her watches the social rise of her child from afar; she
Madame X is an adaptation of a French play by Alexandre Bisson who seems to cannot risk jeopardizing his fortunes by contamination with her own bad repule.
have left scarcely any trace in [the French] theater, but who became a veritable war Chance draws them together again and the partial or total rehabilitation of the mother
horse on Anglo-Saxon stages. Until 1966, the theatricality and "Europeanness" of the is accomplished, often through a cathartic trial scene. Let us note that if the American
work will be fully assumed: stage actresscs play the lead,' and the Parisian setting of the films of the golden age often showed the story of a success and a rise to fame, Madame
original is maintained. We must wait until 1966 to see Madame X played by a movie X and the maternal melos tended to show the reverse: the story of a failure and a
star-Lana Turner-who had no previous stage experience. In addition. this last descent to anonymity or oblivion. Happy endings in this genre are as common as
version transposed the story to the U. S. and-adding the character of a Machiavellian unhappy endings, but the former often have a false or tacked-on quality, do not really
mother-in-law (Constance Bennctt}-brought the archetypal melo into a typically affect the basic pessimism of the maternal melo and may be used by talented filmmak-
American social context for the first time. ers as an unconscious prolongation of the characters' desire. Think of the oneiric
The commercial Failure of the 1937 version, the only failure of the four, can be aspect of the ending of von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932), for example: a gleaming
explained by the refusal of its creators to make their Madame X either "cinematic" or Dietrich, swathed in furs, repeating the fairy talc she had been reciting to her child at
"American." The two earlier versions had been smash hits. addressed to a public not the opening of the film.
yet caught in the double trauma of the Wall Street crash and the coming of talkies. Madame X had two lines of progeny. Its legitimate offspring constitute a small,
Theater stars still possessed a dignity and prestige which were denied to movie stars and clearly delimited group of films in which we see the "European" vein of Hollywood's
which predisposed them to the playing of admirable-mother roles. One can only maternal melo. The bastard offspring arc much more numerous and varied and make
explain the immense popularity which the already mature Ruth Chatterton met in up what we can call an "American" line of the sub-genre.
films at the beginning of the sccond era on the basis of the almost mystical reverence
which then surrounded actors coming from the stage already loaded with fame. ~ The
moral code of old Europe still exercised a profound inRuence on Americans. Audi-
ences were able to accept the fact that Madam X's fall was traceable to her adultery, II. The Children of Madame X
committed in a moment of frenzy and expiated in lifelong maternal suffering.
One could also wink at the nobly theatrical and studied character of her suffering
which. in a way, seemed to set the pose for posterity. But 1929 jostled the mind-set. The impact of thc first two versions of Madame X was such that a
Under the pressures of necessity America strengthened its nationalism and isolation- good number of maternal mel os went on to borrow from Bisson's play. even copied it
ism: internal prohlems needcd attention and the time was no longer right for an outright, blurring the original's outlines with morc or less skill. These films, direct
admiring tcnderness toward Old Europe. Cinema reRected this changing politics. descendants of the model, were generally characterized by a European setting, some-
A careful study of dates shows the American cinema progressively eliminating times situated in a recent past (turn-of-the-century, early twentieth); the mother's fall
Europe from the majority of its films after 1930; Europe is only tolerated when from grace was symbolized by a tormented odyssey which marked an opposition to the
described with the irony of comedy or when fixed in an historic past envisaged as a permanence of the bourgeois household, veritable ideal of this thematic. totally impreg-
simple romantic setting. This Americanization of Hollywood cinema, which had been nated by Victorian morality. This Europcan vein of maternal melo developed before
cosmopolitan in the silent era and would go back to cosmopolitanism in the Forties, Roosevelt's coming to power, except for thc Madame X of 1937. whose failure we
was particularly clear in the melo; we witness the close of Garbo's career and the end of discussed above, and certain films with Kay Francis made when her career was already
Dietrich's "serious" period. In this context, the Madame X of 1937, faithful to tradi- declining6 (Joe May's Confession [19371 was a remake of a German film starring Pola
tion, and played "as though on stage" by Gladys Ceorge, seemed a prehistoric fossil. Negri.) In addition to the films of Kay Francis, which were already Illarked by a certain
172 C!Jdslian Viviani Who Is Without Sin 173

theatricality and Europeanncss, this whole vein can practically be defined in five an illness which will leave her blind (East Lynne). In the same way, Irene Dunne
specific Ii/ms. In Sarah and 5011 (Dorothy Armcr, 1930) Ruth Chatterton easilv leaves England for France where shc cnds up running a bar for soldiers (The Secret of
repeated hcr success of the previous year ill Barrymore's Madame X. East Lynn~ Madame Blanche). Cladys Ceorge leaves Paris for the Cote d'Azur wherc she finds
(l'rank Lloyd, 1931) was the nth version of an old British classic, treated in films since momentary peace as a govcrness. then goes all the way to New Orleans where she
1912. The Sin of jVladelon Claudet (Edgar Sclwyn, 1931) brought to Helen Haves, becomes a prostitnte (Madame X). ew Orleans is also the sccnc of Marlene Dietrich's
great lady of the stage, the cincTTwtie consecration of the Oscar. Thc Blonde Venus of degradation: shc becomes a streetwalker there and loses her cbild (Blonde Venus). But
the next year trafficked In traditional stmctures tlllged with a certam intellcctual this latter film (like Sarah and Son, like Comet over Broadway [Busby Berkeley, 1939)
perversity. The Secret of Madame Blanche (Ch'lTb Brabin. 1933) wellt back to the and J Found Stella Parrish [Mervyn leRoy. 1935) both WIth Kay Francis} shows the
same matcrials wilh conscientious application. woman's fall followed by hcr rise to snccess. Actrcss or singer, the woman pulls herself
At the outset of the storv, one finds the bourgeois Eden: the home. Before the Fall. up by meJns of her talent to the pinnacle of money and fame, gaining weaponry with
Ann Harding (Ea,st Lynne), Kav prancis (House on 56th Street, Confession) or Cladl's which to do equal battle against the society which has dispossessed her of her role as
Ceorge (Madame X) know a scmblance of happiness in the lovingly preservcd comf~rl mother. Thus Ruth Chatterton rises from shady cabarets to the stage of the opera to
of a great house dominated by an immense staircase, ~ filled with discreet and faithfnl finally be worthy of winning back her child (Sarah and Son). Marlene Dietrich goes by
servants 'Illd lit up by the prcscnce of a child. East Lynne is the name of a home and way of Paris and becomes a great music hall star, coming back in an extravagantly
The House on 56th Street (Roberl Florey, 1933) tells the story of a hOllSe. Blonde Venus stylish outfit to take up her role as mothcr and bring back to Herbert Marshall part of
is quite different. since it starts out by isolating the marricd couple in a crowded. the dream of which their marriage had been deprived (Blonde Venus). Kay Francis
uncomfortable little apartment. thus operating a critique on the pelfillcss of this leaves second-rate night clubs to find fame and dignity as a dramatic artist on the
domestic idcal and the irony that lay in making it an ideal Jt the very moment when English stage (Comet over Broadway). These latter films. because of the personalities of
the economic crisis had made this kind of home trulv mvthic. This statement of thcir directors or their screenwriters, show-with a ccrtain bitterness-that monel'
frllstmtion was further underscored by thc recital of a fain: talc mentioned earlier 'llone can put a woman on an equal footing with the society that rcjects her. Instead ~f
which simultancously betraycd both 'the need for an ideai and' its lack. This petit: showing IlS mothers burrowing into anonymity, Ilndergoing their punishment and
bourgeois conplc tells a fairy talc which is in fact only an episode of thelT own past, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their child, these films set up an opposite model
prettified by nostalgia. of women who reconquer their digllity by coming out of anOllymity.
At the exact opposite of this idealization, we find thc dance hall and the fnrnished One can isolate the case of Kay I'raneis, in whom one finds the insisient motif of
room at thc opening of Sarah and Son, the music hall of The Secret of Madame the stage (I Found Stella Parrish. Confession, Comet over Broadway). nostalgia for the
Blanche and the painter's shldio of The Sin of Madelon Claudet which establish a more bourgeois ideal of house and home (The House on 56th Street which parallels the
realistic, more tawdry or despcrate ambiance. In contmst, thc musie hall of The House moral decline of the woman with thc physical decay of the house where she lived) and
on 56th Street is painted with affection and brilliancy, like some carefree paradise, But sacrifice for the daughter (Sybil Jason plays the daughter in both Stella Parrish and
it is a derisory paradise, ready to crumble. The man. authoritarian and rigid, UIHjnes- Comet). This last theme, the most clearly drawn, is exploited in a particularly trou-
tioned master of the place, is aSSImilated to a wmthful, Biblical God-the-I'ather (Con- bling manner in The House on 56th Street and Confession wherc Kay Francis kills, or
rad Nagel in F.ast Lynne. Warren Willian in Madame X): Eve commits the sin takes responsibility for a crime, in order to protcct her daughter from falling into her
(adultery) in thought (East Lynne) or decd (Madame X) and what follows is nothing own "sin" (gambling in House, love of the same man ITT Confession). This treatment of
but a modern transformation of the myth of Eve's Fall. But the man can also be the theme of motherhood corroborates lhe idea of a Christian vision of Eve's Fall as
emotionally weak (Philip Hohnes in The Secret of Madame Blanche, Neil Hamilton in operating in the maternal melo, the daughter seeming ready to follow exactly the same
The Sin of Madelon ClaudeO, physically weak (Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus) or degrading itinerary as her mother.
both (Ruth Chatterton's husband in Sarah and Son); thcn it is he, as a vulnerable If Kay Francis was able to incarnate slleh a reactionary ideology as late as 1939,8 it
Adam. who drags Eve down into the Fall. However, he often pays for his weakness was because the outdated aspect of the plot was fortunately balanced by the cleansing
with hi.s life (Philip Holmes in The Secret of Madame Blanche and Sarah and Son, speed and irony of the Warners professionals. But we mllst recognize that with a few
Gene Raymond 111 The House on 56th Street) and leaves the woman alone to bear a exceptions here and there, the European vein of the maternal melo is eminentlv
burden for which he is at least partly respomible. reactionary in the ideological perspective of the New Deal. Heroines who arc submi;-
There remains the child. whose mothcr is sepJrJtcd from him (East Lynne, Ma- sive. resigned, sickly, even naive (Helen Hayes in Madelon Claudet). defenseless,
dame X) or who is qnickly doomed to separation (The Sin of Madelon Claudet. The lacking in energy or decisiveness were hardly good examples for thc moviegoing public
Secret of Madame Blanche, Sarah and Son, The House on 56th Street). Thus punishcd of J 932 and 1933 who needcd to he mobilized to face the economic crisis. The direct
in her motherhood. the woman begins J downward trajectory which is often pJralieled lineage of Madame X was an uncomfortable reminder of an earlier slate of mind which
by a geographic odyssey "toward the boflom.·' Ann Harding, driven out of E,ngland, had led to the Wall Street crash. If dramatic structurcs were efficient as lTlodels, it was
makes a long jouTlley through Europe which wililcad to her lover's dcath in Paris and imperative to people them with more stimulating, combativc heroines, a type already
174 Christian Viviani Who Is WIthout Sin /75

implicit as the ideal of the New Deal. Already the slightly feminist coloration of Sarah admirable Totahle David (1920), a film already bearing that aftertaste of bitterness and
and 5071 and the devastating arrogance of Dietrich in Blonde Venus had shown the disillusionmcnt which was going to givc such a particular tone to the grcat epic frescoes
way. In 1932, with the elections coming up and with men like Darryl F. Zanuck and he was to make his domain (Stanley and Livingstone [1940], Captain from Castile
Philip Dunne-both rather e10se to Roosevelt---<Jccupying key posts in the big studios, [1947]). We can sct Stella Dallas as a parallel to Madame X because of the presence of
the American vcin of the maternal melo was beginning to take form. certain themes-maternal sacrifice, the descent into anonymity, the reinsertion of the
child in the mother's life. In contrast, there are the new thcmcs of prejudice, educa·
tion. female undcrstanding, the "good marriage" of the children. Capital innovation:
the moral sin of Madame X is rcplaced by the SOCIal error that Stella undergoes, but for
III. The Bastards of Madame X which she is scarcely responsible. This new position will be quickly absorbed by the
maternal melo and will be imprcssively fruitful after 1932, as soon as thc ideals of the
Roosevelt period are in the air.
To thc precursor role of Stella Dallas. wc must add the catalytic function played by
From Griffith on, the American cinema had been exploring an Back Street (John M. Stahl, 1932). It is not a maternal melo, but this film started the rage
essentially American domain of film melodrama: True Heart Susie (1919) and Way for the story of "the other woman." This success seems almost a sociological phenome-
Down East (1920) already contained a great number of elements which would be used non and is hardly surprising in a pcriod where rejects and marginals, gangsters and fallen
again in Ihe Thirties. women, seemed to conquer instant public sympathy. Irene Dunne, playing Rae Smith,
In addition to traditional elements such as the secret, the illegitimate child, the "lhe woman in lhe back street." surely feIt this "'hcn she said, in a 1977 interview with
rejected woman, the seduction, the silent love, Griffith introduces the city/country John Kobal, "Back Street was very popular with women. Thc number of letters I received
dichotomy, the critiquc of prejudices no longer aristocratic but petit·bourgeois, even from women who were living in the 'back street' of a man's life, and who thought I could
rural, the permanence of the earth, the counterpoint of the elements of nature give them answers to their problems! Sometimes they si~ned their letters. but most often
unleashed-these are new motif.\ grafted onto an already constituted corpus of melo· they didn't. They simply wanted someone to talk to ...
drama. After 1932, Frank Capra made Forbidden, really another vcrsion of Back Street
Of all these e1emcnts, the most important is doubtless the displacement of lhe wilh an illegitimate child added. The same remark holds true for The Life of Vergie
action's social milieu. In order to become truly American, the melo had to be adapted Winlers (Alfred Santell. 1934). [n fact, if children were missing from Back Street
to a society without a true arislocracy, where the moral ideal was representcd by the (except for John Boles' legitimate children who caused many torments for poor Irene
petit.bourgeoisie. One cay say that it was Griffith who accomplished this decisive Dunne), the theme of frustrated motherhood was there: Rae, the woman condemned
transposition in 1918 when he made True Heart Susie, a rural American melodrama, to the shadows, looked wilh envy and emotion at the children of others, legitimate
and Broken Blossoms, a traditional melo of British origins. II True Heart Susie takes children she could never hope to bear. It was easy to superimpose the figure of "the
place in a context both rural and petit.bourgeois, but contains no critique of the social other woman" on that of the unwed mothcr and even reinforce the sympathy of the
milieu. We must wait for Way Down Easl; here the social milieu no longer serves as a (mainly female) audience for the heroine. From all these inAuences was born the
mere sclling, but takes on its own meaning by way of the filmmaker's critical glance. American vein of the maternal melo. Unlike lhe European vein, it is rich and diverse;
Significantly, in this latter film il is an unwcd mother who is in conAiet with the sociely born a little before Roosevelt's rise to power, it would stay in favor for a very long time,
in power. By symbolically underscoring lhe struggle of Lillian Gish against the prcju- up until a film like My Foolish Heart (Mark Robson, 1951). All lhe great female stars.
dices that overwhelm her. by creating the spectacular finale on the thawing river, from Bette Davis to Susan Hayward. would succumb to it.
Griffith hrought out the tragic composition that maternal melo was to take in its In contrast with the weakly, pathetic heroine of the Europcan cyele, symbolized by
American vein: a rejected and solitary individual who bravely lries to go against the the lillIe Helen Hayes of The Sin of Madelon Claudet, the American eyele of maternal
current. All-powerful destiny has been replaccd by all-powcrful society. melo proposed a decisive and energetic heroine. more liberated and autonomous, a
Griffith did not have to wait long for followers. The combined inAuence of Way type of which Barbara Stanwyck remains the archetype (in Stella Dallas [King Vidor,
Down East and thc first Madame X, both of 1920. engendered lhe American vein of 19371 and especially in Forbidden, ['rank Capra's great film). Thc new heroine was
maternal melo. Films like So Big (Charles Brabin, 1923) The Goose Woman (Clarence born around 1932. during Hollywood's period of relative freedom from censorship,
Brown) or My Son (Edward Sloman. 1925) quickly mined this lode with considerable which can explain the fact that in 1933 Margaret Sullavan, in her first film, gave the
public response. For convenience, we shall take as our initial milestone Henry King's character its freest and most perfect cxpression in the fine work of John M. Stahl, Only
Stella Dallas (1925)." Adapted from a popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, the Yesterday, a film unfortunately eclipsed by the popularity of Back Street. In Only
great American specialisl (along with ['anny Hurst) in lachrymose literature, Stella Yesterday, everything combines to exculpate the unwed mother, justifying her behavior
Dallas still remaillS a e1assic of the genre, thanks to the sincerity and honesty of King's by her deep love for a man. She chooses anonymity of her own free will, refusing to
trealment. lie depicted the rural. petit·bourgeois milieu he had already shown in the marry a man who has forgotten her, preferring to keep a marvelous memory rather
176 Chnstian Viviani Who Is Withoul Sin 177
than chain him artificially through duty. She chooses to remain single, but is not opening of the silent version), it has, on the other hand, added a stifled rage which
abandoned. She finds honorable work and is not forced to degrade herself to support makes the ending scesaw toward veritable tragic-grandeur: the wedding of Stella's
her son. Whcn the timc comes, she will cven give herself once to the man shc lovcs daughter offered as a spectaclc to anonymous passersby, whom a policeman disperses. 16
and who has forgottcn her, acccpting with a poignant vitality this chancc to livc only in In Stella Dallas, misfortune comes from the city. John Bolcs, ruincd by bank-
the prcsent moment. ruptcy, and then by his father's suicide, comes to work in a small town. With the
Unlike what happened in the ElITopean vein, in thc American vein thc mother is promise of social betterment. hc abandons Stella and their daughter, who arc in his
generally 1I0t socially outcast, but accepted by way of her work life, Menial jobs arc way, and returns to the rich heiress who incarnates his own easy and symbolically
rathcr rare and usually occur only in pre-1932 samples of the genre: Constancc sterile idea. Boles represents the false values of the City and is bearcr of destruction
Bennett in Cmllmoll Clay (Victor fleming, 1930) and Loretta Young in the rcmake of (suicide, bankruptcy, sterility). Stanwyck represents the true values of the country-
Private Number (Roy del Ruth, 1936) Aee a troubled past by becoming chambermaids, gcncrosity, abncgation, fertility. She finds an unexpected ally in Barbara O'Neil, the
but love will soon raise them from this lowly condition, Sylvia Sidncy in Jennie rich hciress, who offcrs Stella's daughter the values of culture and civilization which,
Gerhardt (Mario Gering, 1935) is, on the other hand, cxploited because of her status as added to thc simple and basic values lI1culeated by the mother. will permit city and
a domestic cven if the critical plot, based on Dreiser, has been somewhat softened in country to join in an ideal of progress of which Stella's daughter will bc the heir and
the adaptation. finally, poor Winifrcd Westover goes through a veritable calvary of the repository. In a philosophy onc could compare with that of Joan Crawford's films of
struggling, uncducated woman in Lummox (Herhcrt Brenon, 1930). In general the this era, the ideal of the New Deal is incarnated halfway between city and country at
woman has an honorable job which makes usc either of her aptitudes for devotion (a thc cost of heavy sacrifice from each, and thanks to female solidarity. 17
journalist in Forbidden, a nurse in Born to Love [Paul Stein, 19311, a secretary in That This idealization of the country is already found in Griffith's Way Down East. The
Certain Woman [Edmund Goulding. 1937]) or of her artistic gifts (a milliner In The Sin of Madelon Claudet also suggested it through its idyllic depiction of Madelon's
Life ofVergie Winters, a decorator in Only Yesterday and in Gregory La Cava's Gallant youth on a farm. But it IS perhaps So BIg (1932), William Wellman's fine remake of
Lady [193 3J and Sidney Lanfield's remake, Always Goodbye [1938], a music teacher in Charles Brabin's 1923 silent, which really puts the issue at the center of the maternal
Wayward [Edward Sloman, 1932]). melo. Made a year bcfore Roosevelt's coming to power, So Big-like many Hollywood
Socially accepted through her work, it is very rare that she becomes a prostitute like films of that crucial year-bcars an ideal rather close to Roosevelt's (cf. Wellman's
poor Clara Bow in Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon, 1933) or that she doesn't western epic The Conquerors) which would tend to confirm the theory of connections
work at all like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. Integrated into the world of work, uniting Roosevelt to certain Hollywood personalities (mainly at Warners or Fox, like
she unconsciously participates in the gcneral effort to bring America out of the crisis; Darryl F. Zanuck, producer of So Big). In this Wellman film, a social itinerary doubled
she is set up as an antagonist to a hoarding, speculating society, repository of false and by a moral and philosophical one (Thorcau and Whitman are not far away) make
outworn values. Often described acerbically, this society is rich but idle, thus sterile, Barbara Stanwyck move from the role of city woman to that of country woman through
and it is the sacrifice of "the other woman" and the presence of her b'lstard child a scries of losscs (two widowings, a financial failure. the moral loss of her son who
which, in a certain scnse, end up placing society in thc perspective of hope for social denics the "heritagc" of his mother), losses which lead her toward happiness and
progrcss. wisdom, closc to the earth and happy in thc success of a young man to whom she has
If the woman is accepted in hcr environment through her work, morally she is still become attached. Here Stanwyck incarnates an archetype of the eternal mother (which
more or less rejectcd. We havc here thc residue of an outworn morality, dictated by the the script drives home by depriving her of a male companion) linked, naturally, to the
rich and idlc society, stigmatized and swcpt away by the morality of thcsc films. 10 earth envisagcd as an inexhaustible and pcrmanent source of riches. In this adjusting of
film is clearer on this point than the fine Stella Dallas. Stella, to whom Barbara the pantheistic philosophics of Thoreau and Whitman to the needs of thc crisis.
Stanwyck lends a moving mixture of strident vulgarity and overAowing sentiment, acts women, once again, playa central role. They are the kcepers oftruc values, shown by
throughout the film as though she werc guilty of something. The cowardice of John the complicity linking Stanwyck to Bette Davis, fiancee of Stanwyck's son, a girl who is
Boles has managed to convince her that shc is guilty of having been born into a lowcr a double for thc Stanwyck of the film's opcning, and who gives us a gleam of hope for
social class and for lacking either the means or the will to risc. Vidor, who seems never the young man's future. Finally, success is representcd once more by a character
to have finished scttling his accounts with a certain petit-bourgeois American mcntal- "between country and city," who, because he is an artist, has a privileged. quasi-
ity," makcs the snbject far more than a simple anecdote, and confers on it a burgeon- mystical rapport with naturc.
ing complexity found in fcw melodramas (cxcept perhaps in Capra's Forhidden). He Perhaps Call Her Savage carries to its ultimate expression this theme of the rcturn
givcs us the portrait of an uncultivated, gcnerous woman, all emotion and impulse, to the earth: Clara Bow, more "American" than "natural" in behavior, after going
who does not realize that the "good society" she admires so much is injuring her, and through frightful vicissitudes worthy of Madame X, returns to the country of her
who, in a tragic and absurd sacrificc, ends up stripping hcrself of everything in the Indian forcbears and finds happiness with an attractive half-breed (Gilbert Roland); the
name of that society which has cast her as an inferior. If Vidor's version lacks the half-breed motif is symbolic, of course, since Clara herself is depicted as the daughter
paddcd softncss of Hcnry King's (cf. Ronald Colcman's courting of Belle Bennett at the of an upper middle-class woman and all Indian chicf.
178 Christian Viviam Who [s Without Sin 179

The symbolic child who carries within him the salvation and progress of a society to establish the recognition of the rights of the natural mother. A refusal of such
which has just undergone a real-life setback-the mother often gives him lip of h~r recognition is rare and resounds in a particularly poignant manner. The pessimism of
own frce will, whilc in the European cycle, the child was taken away from her. The Forbidden is almost unique: the final action of Barbara Stanwyck tearing up the will
mother givcs up her child to insurc him ,10 education. a moral training that only a that recognizes her as the mother of Adolphe Menjou's daughter, and which leaves her
wcll-placcd family can provide him. Thc mother's first rcaction to the birth of her the fortune, is not an ultimate sacrifice, but an act of revolt and refusal. Compare this
child is to reject him (Helen Hayes in Madelon Claudet, Barbara Stanwyck in Forbid- attitude with the serenely assumed independencc of Margaret Sullavan in Only Yester-
den, Ann Harding in Gallant Lady); she then accepts him brieRy, then realizes that day and the tragic absurdity of the ending of Stella Dallas.
her single statc can only lead the upbringing process to failure. She allows herself to be One ean find a separate fate for The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), one of
convinccd to give the child to a childless familv which is often that of the natural father Bettc Davis's greatest successes. Set in nineteenth century America (George Brent dies
(Forbidden, Vergie Winters, Give Me Your He~rt). In sum, the maternal melo plays- in the Civil War, leaving Bette Davis pregnant), it explores an era and a society where
sometimes with a certain cunning--on two levels. It seems outwardly attached to the the unwed mother cannot for a moment contemplate rearing her own child. In order
old moral code by making the mothcr pay for her "sin." But it implicitly condemns the to remain near her daughter, she is forced to undergo all the torments and humilia-
old system of values rcpresented by a sterile or unhappy couple, which is obliged to tions caused by the sick jealousy of her horrible cousin (Miriam Hopkins, more
adopt the bastard child in order to offer up the image of a traditional family. The only viperous than ever) and to bccome an object of fear and ridicule in the eyes of her own
notable exception: Only Yesterday, where Margaret Sullavan rears her child by herself. child. It is significant that in order to show such a subject in 1939. one must have
In gencral, the ruse comes out, as in Vergie Winters; or the death of the "legitimate" recourse to a rather considerable temporal distance. The Old Maid is different from the
wife ends it by permitting the constitution of another family, united by both love and other American maternal melos because the heroine comes from "good family," is not
blood (Gallant Lady, Always Goodbye, That Gertain Woman). cast out of her social class because of her child, but rather chooses silence and
Give Me Your Heart (Archie Mayo) pushes to the absurd the creation of a new anonymity. This very sentimental film is not however without tragic resonances in its
family around the child: the iIIegitimatc son of Patric Knowles and Kay Francis, depiction of a society tearing itself apart and has a crespuscular atmosphere that can
adopted by the married couple Patric Knowlesll'rieda Inescourt. unites, thanks to the lead us to consider it the final point of the maternal cycle as developed in the Thirties
plotting of thc two women, two couples around him: Kay Francis/George Brent, the in Hollywood. Tn many points (female jealousy, sentimentality, the personality of Bette
American couple, and KnowleslInescourt, the English couple. The bastard is a carrier Davis) The Old Maid already announces the forms that maternal melo will take in the
of life. destined to regeneratc a paralyzed society. This role is particularly obvious in Forties with films like The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) or To Each His Own
Only Yesterday where. on learning of his paternity, John Boles-ruined in the Wall (Mitchell Leisen, 1946).
Street crash-decides against suicide and takes care of the child Margaret Sullavan The Old Maid, unlike the other maternal melos of the Thirties, IS isolated in a sort
leaves him upon her death. of "placeless timelessness." In becoming Americanized, the maternal melo had be-
These films recount the talc of a woman's loss due to a man's lack of conscience come more and more inRected toward the social, except in this film. For proof we have
and show her reconquering her dignity while helping her child re-enter society thanks only to look at Jennie Gerhardt, a rather mediocre film despite a still vibrant Sylvia
to her sacrifices. It is a clear metaphor for an attitude America could adopt in facing its Sidney, but which clearly presents the sorrows of the unwed mother in a perspective of
national crisis. Only Yesterday is a case in point; the sentimental errors of John Boles class prejudice. 19 The moral sin of the "European-style" melos is replaced by a social
are clearly associated with his financial errors, for his stock market speculations ruin error, vestige of a bad system stigmatized by the film: Sylvia Sidney in Jennie Gerhardt,
him. The entire American vein of maternal melo reRects the era and describes a Constance Bennett in Gammon Clay or Loretta Young in Private Number are all more
society in transition, coming close to tragedy in this twilight preoccupation (the end of or less victims of a form of droit de cussiage ("groper's rights") because of their position
a world), for melodrama is only the illegitimate child of tragedy. as servants. On the other hand, women who do "noble" work (decorators, journalists,
Between the respectable family, which rcpresents the dying world, and the mother, secretaries) find in their work the strength to bear the ordeals and problems of their
who represents hope for the future, wc find the man. In these films, he is llsually a lives: a sort of independence, a way of balancing the unstable nature of their condition
strange and weak-willed character, rarely played by a great star, a person who hasn't the as unwed mothers. This stability is reinforced by the presence of a man, product of the
courage to make up his own mind and who rclies on the family to make deCisions. This world of work, who sustains the heroine and loves her in silence (Ian Hunter in a
sometimes turns into an Oedipal conRict bctween mother and son. as in Wayward number of Kay Francis's films).
which mdeed treats the struggle betwcen two women for the affection of a man- In short, work, a social value, redeems the moral fault by permitting the mother to
I ancy Carroll his sweetheart, and Pauline Frederick, his mother. IS The weapon of the hide both her guilty liaison and her child. The reactionary nature of these works seems
decadent family being hypocrisy (Wayward, Common Clay, Private Number, Give Me scarcely dented by the switching of accent to the social, for the mother now pays for her
Your Heart. That Gertain Woman), it is often through a ruse that the "real" mother fault no longer through a veritahle degradation, but by being condemned to anonym-
regains her rights (Gallant Lady, Wayward, Always Goodbye), or else by accident ity, the true curse in the Hollywood thematics of the Thirties, totally geared to the
(That Gertain Woman, The Life ofVergie Winters). Indisputably, the cntire genre tends success story and the rise to fame. In this regard there is hardly any difference between
180 Christian Viviani Who Is Without Sin 181

films aftcr Roosevelt's accession, and a film like Lummox (l930) where the heroine, a here takes the trouble to go out and adopt! She is sterile, while the "legal wife" gives
cleaning woman, pays for her motherhood with a life of humiliation and anonymity. birth. In addition, the Bennett character acts in a play called Rockabye, written by the
The maternal melo in it, American vein is an apologia for total renunciation, total man she loves and which seems a veritable parody of numerous contemporary melos
sacrifice, total self-abnegation. Melodramatic exaggeration. of course, but stilltranspar- like Call Her Savage or Blonde Venus: the abandoned mother finds herself walking the
ent enough in a period when America really needed to mobilize good will and dedica- streets in order to earn her living and support her child! In this film the cliches are
tion without promise of immediate recompense; witness the numerous "unhappy given as cliches: everything is mise and the mclodrama is nothing but a show, an
endings" one finds in the sub-genre. While scrupulously respecting established dra- indirect way of denouncing the illusionism of the genre. The mIracle IS that m spIte of
matic structures. conscientious craftsmen and talented filmmakers made movies of everything, Rockabye contains nalmal and moying scenes. and that the artlficJai cal-
high quality which it would be interesting to study anew and subject to critical reap- vary' of this actress manages to be touching through attention to detail and truth of
praisal; Common Clay, So Big. Gallant Lady, Vergie Winters, That Certain Woman. emotion.
Others created masterpieces whose scope makes them transcend the simple limits of a The point of Rockabye was that the maternal melo was only eonventi.on and
genre: Forbidden, Blonde Venus, Only Yesterday, Stella Dallas. The Old Maid. These illusion. But that is exactly what melo had to be-an illusion destined to moblhze the
filmmakers and stars worked in a strict form whosc rules they respected. The case of public in a certain direction. an illusion that transposed the anguish of an era. an
Ceorge Cukor and Constance Bennett is somewhat different. illusion-who can deny it?-knowingly grounded in eroticism. The attractiveness of
Between 1930 and 1933, Constance Bennett was extremely popnlar, and was thus the actress was irnport;mt, of course. but also the Oedipal theme which runs hke
able to command very high salaries. In addition, she was the only major star of the filigrce throughout Hollywood cinema from 1930 to 1945, and which a film hke
time who was not attached to a given studio and who negotiated her own contracts with Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1(42) would set forth in nearly Freudian terms And
a legendary shrewdness. She specialized in the wildest melodrama. which seems besides. what male viewer has never dreamed of being fondled by a desolate and
strange if we consider her aristocratic bearing, sophistication and witty cynicism. so out arousing mother with the face of a Constance Bennett, a Kay FranCIS. a Marlene
of keeping with her roles of simple shopgirls, and so much more in tune with comedy, Dietrich, an Ann Harding? What female viewer has not dreamed of herself lookmg
in which she also excelled. Her personality seemed to allow her to act her way through like an Irene Dunne, a Barbara Stanwyek, a Sylvia Sidney? The melodramalJc mythol-
the most extravagant situations with a sort of ironic detachment that resembled a wink ogy of Hollywood is doubtless false, hut it is nonetheless seductive for being illusory.
of complicity at the audience; basically. it was a way of getting the viewer's sympathy as
valid perhaps as the pure and simple "identification" that happened with a Barbara
Stanwyck, for example. Constance Bennett often worked With directors intelligent
enough to make use of the very ambiguity of her persona: Gregory La Cava and Ceorge
Cukor were among the decade's best comic directors and Victor Fleming had a great Notes
sense of humor. But there was a privileged relationship between Bennett and Cukor;
she found in him her ideal director. For his part. Cukor was floundering a hit at the
beginning of his film career, having difficulty getting rid of the influence of theater. He
I. Onc can cOlllpare morc rccent versions of thcse classics: La Porleuse de pain (Maurice
was stimulated by his association with Bennett, and out of their meeting came his first
Cloche, 1963) aod La Pncharcle (Georgcs Comoret. 1954).
major film. What Price Hollywood (1932). a first version of A Star Is Born, far from the
2. One can wonder at the large number of paternal melos ,n French cinema. many morc than
polished work of 1954, to be sure, but certainly far more than a simple sketch. Cukor's onc finds in Italy or in Hollywood. but comparable to certain German productions: Nostalgic
approach differs radically from that of other directors in that he managed when neccs- (Tnurjanski. 1937). Le Cot/pablo (Raymond Bernard. 1(37). or Nuil de clecembre (Kurt
sary to suppress the ironic distancing in Bennett and to weld her very artificiality into Bernhardt, 1939) and even-why not>-Pagnol's trIlogy. where Cesar IS certainly the central
the character he gave her to play. Thus. in the role of a movie actress. she is credible figure.
and moving from start to finish in What Price Hollywood. or in Ollr Bellers, where she 3. Pauline Frederick and Ruth Chatterton won mOVIe stardom in their respective vemons.
plays cruel and bitter social comedy like a virtuoso. Gladys Georgc was less lucky. ano found hcrself quickly relegated to secondary roles. despite
Cukor and Bennett made their contribution to the maternal cycle (in which the the "name" she had made on the stage.
actress had already participated with films like Common Clay or Born to Love) in a 4. This may be the only way, for example. to explain the aslolllshing success of the already old
strange work which curiously mingles mclo and comedy-Rockabye (1933). For an George Arliss althc beginoing o[ the talkies.
5. This fairy laic. III fact. transposed inlo legendary terms Herbert MalShaWs meetlllg with
actress who had already playcd the suffering mother, Rockabye was a subtle. almost
Marlcne Dietrich: a stalwart knight. he saves her from a ternble dragon. The final repnse of
Machiavellian expose of the workings of maternal melo. A successful actress and a
this intcrrupted legend is thus all the more oneiric.
frustrated mother, she is separated from her adopted child and then from the man III 6. Even if her mclos were often sci in the U.S., Kay FranCIS was marked by Ihe European
her life, hecause his wife is expecting a child. With nothing more than this, Cukor was influence. Perhaps it was her slightly formal appearance? She was hired <ll Warners al the
ahle to ironize the traditional structures: instead of hearing an unwanted child. Bennett same time as Ruth Chal1erton and in a certain way she prologues the UllIverse of Coallerton.
Christian Viviani

7. The staircase, symbol of power, is one of the traditional motifs of melo; for example in
Writ/en on the Wind (Doub/as Sirk, 1956).
8. Kay Francis began to lose her popularity around 1934-35. If she hung on after that, it was
thanks to an ironelad contract that made her the highest paid star of the moment, even ifher
films had only middling success of if they were sometimes not much better than B pictures.
9. If Dorothy Ar>.ner is interesting because she was the only woman director then working in
Hollywood, her feminist hagiographers have based too much of their admiration on the ideas
in her work, without really taking inlo aecounl the rarily of fine films in her output. Sarah
and Son, for example, is ralher heavy handed. One exception: the excellent Craig's Wife
(1936), well served by Sidney Buchman's brilliant script.
10. This was already the case in Josef von Sternberg's Btonde Venus, not without irony. The petit-
bourgeois setting was already in place in the shorts of Griffith, like The New York Hat (J 912).
II. Although it was made before Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie was released immediately The Moral Ecology of Melodrama: The Family Plot
after. But Griffith remained faithful to traditional mclo; for example in Orphans of the Storm
(1922) or Lady of the Pa"ements (1929).
and Magnificent Obsession
12. King Vidor's film follows quite faithfully the plot of Henry King's first version. Only their very
different approaches help distinguish between the two films. (The issue of Us Cahiers d. ta
Cim'mathequ. (No. 28) in which this article was originally published contains an appendix
featuring plot outlines of all the melodramas discussed in the issue, which is enhrcly devotcJ NOEL CARROLL
to materials on melodrama in cinema. J
13. In Focus on Film No. 28: "Irene Dunne: A Conversation with John Koba!."
14. This anlal:onism is emphasized by racial difference in Madam Butterfly (Marion Gering,
1932), a film one could easily include in the category of Hollywood maternal melo.
15. Stella Dallas IS certainly a work marked by the personality of this very great director; ils
heroine has more than one point in common with those of Beyond the Forest (1949) and In the late 19705, Hollywood film production is increasingly reliant
Ruby Gentry (1951). on traditional genres. The exhumation of old formulas-from the 1950s especi<Jlly but
16. The framing of the scene, its lighting, even the form of the bay window where the wedding also from the 19305 and 1940s-is becoming more and more pronounced. Program-
ceremony is enacted, evoke in a lroubling way a cinematic speelacle. matic, albeit often high-budget, horror, sci-fi, war, and sports films dominate the
17. This solidarity is obVIOUS in The Shining Hour (Frank Borzage, 1938), where Joan Crawford current fare of domestic releases. To a certain extent this is a result of Hollywood's
and Margaret Sullavan are bound together in a series of reciprocal sacrifices. Let us also
innate business conservatism: Nothing succeeds like something that succeeded before;
mention C,ve Me Your Hearl (Archie Mayo, 1936), where Kay Francis is united with her
son, thanks to the sterile wife who has adopted him. old genres never die, they merely await rebirth in another decade. But Hollywood had
18. This theme is luminously treated in John Cromwell's remarkable film The Sitver Cord been more daring in the range and types of films it experimented with from the late
(1933), where Irene Dunne violently denounces the abnormal character of Laura Hope 1960s to the mid-1970s. The retreat to genres is not completely an industry initiative; it
Crews' love for her son Joel McCrea. is also a response to the growi ng conservatism of the period, which, in tu rn, is reAcctcd
19. It is curious 10 note that the work of Theodore Dreiser, a socially committed novehst, can in the films.
easily be reduced 10 a melodramatic structure-for example, in Carrie (Wilham Wyler, Melodrama is among the genres presently being recycled. Two 1978 releases-
1951), a fine film. strangely neglected and underrated. International Velvet and Uncle Joe Shannon-are particularly interesting because of
the similarities of their structures. Both concern the symbolic reconstitutions of fami-
lies; lost parents arc replaced by loving parental figures who, concomitantly, gain
surrogate children. In certain respects. these films can be seen as in the lineage of the
melodramas of kidnap and restoration that are so important in Griffith's Biograph
work. They also recall the Dickensesque ploy of an orphan who is rediscovered by a
relative. Of course. in Griffith and Dickens. a family is literally reunited, whereas in
Internalional Velvet and Uncle Joe Shannon the reconstitution is symbolic. Neverthe-

Noel Carroll. "The Family Plot and Maglll{icent Obse.,sion," originally printed in Melodrama
(New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980), pp. 197-206. Repnnted by permi",on of the
author and the New York Literary Forum.

/84 Nod Carroll The Moral Ecology o{J'vlelodrama 185

less, the narrative structures in all these examples are predicated on the "rightness" of holiday is one of the most potent symbols in Hollywood's arsenal. In the hands of a
the nuclear family. Indeed, that "righhless" underlies the esthetic "fitness" of the plot; master propagandist like Frank Capra, a Christmas carol at the right moment becomes
i. e., narrative closure is achieved through the restoration of nuclear family relatioll5. a veritable national anthem, instilling a wavc of irrational fellow-feeling that makes
llltematiollal Velvet is a bchlted sequel to atiollal Velvet. In it, Velvet. \\·ho IS nuw Capra's nebulous populism seem almost plausible. The mechanics of this effect are
in her forties, has a mece whose parcnls have dicd in somc unmentionably gruesome simplc--Christmas imagery induces regression. rekindling childlike beliefs in social
aceidcnt. The rcsentful orphan is shipped from Ariwna 10 England 10 sl'll' WIth her stability and community that grow out of idealizations of the family. In Uncle Joe
aunt who has a writer hoyfricnd. Thc child is snllen not only bccause of hcr parcnls' Shanllon, the ideological usc to which Christmas is put is not in the service of a broad
death and her ahrupt rcsettlement, hut, more importantly, because she has never felt political stance like populism but as a reaffirmation of the family and its role as the
loved. We ruefully note that the only reason the child did not die with her pments was central and natural form of human relation.
that, because Ihey always Ignored her, they did not take her on their last, fateful trip. The film opens with the eponymous joe playing his trumpet at a recording studio.
The child is described in the film as lacking an identity, as living a cardboard, cut-out The camera pans arouud him, the circular movement suggesting that he is complete as
existence with no depth of fceling. And this is associated with thc lack of parental well as at the center of his harmonious universe. It is his son's birthday and Joe gives
affection. the boy a trumpet like his, only smaller. joe is at the hcight of his carcer, but the film
The child's lack of a real family (in hoth a literal and psychologIcal scnse) is makes it clear that fame is less important to him than family. Joe is unremittingly
paralleled by a similar lack on Velvet's part. We learn that Velvet Iragically lost her own uxorious, touching and kissing his wife at every turn. He ignores triumphant curtain
child as the result of a miscarriage during a riding accident. Both Velvet and her niece calls after his concert at the Hollywood Bowl in order to be home in time for his son's
are depicted as psychologically "incomplete"; they hoth need families to make them birthday party. But disaster strikes; his home is aAame as he pulls into his neighbor-
"whole. " hood. The film dissolves, and seven years later we sec Joe-a skid row wino desperately
Thc niece's alienation first hegins to ease when riding and caring for Vclvet's clutching his horn. He has lost both his family and his arl. These are the two losses the
legendary stallion, Pic. Her eyes glow while she watches the birth of Pie's last foal. As plot must recuperate.
the colt gambols with its mother, the edihng connects the maternal scene with thc Joe visits a prostitute, but she is out. Her son, Robbic, who calls all her clients
niece, symholieally defining the child's yearning as not just for the horse hnt, more "uncle," demands that Joe tell him a story. Joe and Robbie fall asleep. Next morning,
broadly, for a family. When Velvet huys the niece the horse, the girl rides it day in and the police awaken them at gunpoint. Robbie's mother has run away and the boy must
day out, hecoming evcn more obsessive abonl riding than Velvet had been in the go to an orphanage. He revolts and hides in Joe's car, convinced he can make some-
earlier film. Years pass as the child, now a teenager, evolves into Velvel junior. thing (namely, a father) out of this bum.
However, she is so preoccupIed with the perfection of her equestrian ~rt that she In the tradition of Chaplin's The Kid (a particularly interesting film in terms of the
forgoes boyfriends and a social life. Thus, though somewh~t fuller. the character is not family plot), Robbie comes to idolize joe. Christmas is approaching so Robbie steals a
yet complete. For that we wait until the final reel when as a member of the British Santa Claus outfit from a department store, and the duo plays street-corner renditions
Olympic riding te<lm shc "miraculously" wins a Cold Medal while also learning the of "jingle Bells" to earn their keep. At this point joe docs not yet understand that
meaning of tcamwork. With the medal comes the sense of personal identity she lacked Robbie is his salvation. He slaps the boy for playing with his own dead son's trumpet,
all along and this is connected with her marriagc to the captain of the American riding tries to send Robbie away, and finally puts the boy in the orphanage. Joe's inability or,
team. Rcturning to England, thc niece introduces her new husband to "her parents," perhaps more aptly, his refusal to acknowledge Robbie as his symbolic son is an
finally acknowledging the family hond whose denial has caused all thc emotional example of a key device of melodrama for engendering suspense. We know the boy is
tensions in the film. The act is furlher commemorated whcn the niece gives Velvet her exactly what joe wants; when will hc realize it?
Cold Medal; this compcnsales for the ilward that Velvet didn't reccivc, for technical joe attempts to commit suicide after he puts RobbIe in the orphanage. This is the
rcasons, in the earlier film. Thus, from one horse race, we get two generations of symbolic turning point in the film. Director joseph Hanwright Roods the scene with
families wh05e constitution neatly solves all the emotional problems prcsupposcd by metaphors. As joe sinks to the bottom of the bay, he looks up and sees a hall of light
the rest of the plot. shimmering on the surface. Having "seen the light," he struggles upward, no longer
The melodramatic elements of International Velvet-including the emotional ex- "drowning in self-pity." He kidnaps Robbie from the orphanage. In subsequent scenes,
tremes, cOlllcidences, and improbable complementary plot symmetries-are even his music begins to improve. The opening symbol of "harmony" continues; each
morc exaggerated in Uncle Joe Shannon. Released as a "Christmas" film, it under- station in joe's progress is reRected in his playing. Insofar as the etymology of "melo-
scores its use of the "family plot" with all the imagery of the Yuletide season, Christmas drama" is drama plus music, Uncle joe Shannon is at least notable for making joe's
is the da}' on which our culture celebrates the completion of its mythic first family. solos an explicit index of each phase of his moral growth.
Because Christmas exists in large measlIfe as a mass fantasy-inextricably hound up Though Joe acknowledges his paternal affection for Robbie, a cataslrophe (the
with childhood a,~soclations of the warmth, generosity, and security of the family-the favorite type of plot complication in melodrama) erupts. Robbie has cancer. Joe eon-
186 Noel Carroll The Moral Ecology of Melodrama 187

vinccs him to undergo surgery. But when Robbie's leg is amputated, the boy feels Joe mas, the film begins with a tragic accident. Millionaire playboy Bob Mcrriek overturns
has betrayed him. He refuses to talk to his surrogate father. He won't practice using his his speedboat; an ambulance rushes to the scene with Dr. Wayne Phillip's resuscitato~.
wheelchair or his crutches. The doctors fear that he has lost the will to live. At the same time, the vcnerable Doctor Phillips has had a stroke, but Without hiS
The plot becomes perfectly symmetrical. ow loe must redeem Robbie. He gives resuscitator, he dies. His young wife, Helen, is informed. Several characters pointedly
Robbie his son's trumpet, a gesture whose phallic significance is no harder to decipher remark on the irony of the situation. A great humanitarian and surgeon has been lost
than the horse symbolism in International Velvet. But Robbie still won't budge. Joe so that a wastrel like Merrick can live. They presuppose an injustice or imbalance in
tries to infuriate him back to life. Joe plays his horn at a Christmas party for the other the way Wayne Phillips died. something that will in fact be rectified in the way the plot
hospitalized children. He has never played better. Hearing the music, Robbie strugglcs unravels.
downstairs to reclaim his "father," Unsteady on his crutches, he glowers al loe; but Merrick is introduced as reckless, arrogant, brash, discourteous and selfish-the
hatred and pride give way to love. The boy hangs on Joe's neck while Joe plays very opposite of the saintly, always thoughtful-to-others Helen Phillips. Merrick, hospi-
mellifluously with one hand. The camera circles them, echoing the opening shot. in Waync Phillips's clinic, barks at the doctors, diagnoses himself, and lectures
Both have become complete again. The father has a son, and the son, a father. The on medicine; he announces that he once was a medical student-a fact that Will
music, the camera movcment, and the Christmas iconography heighten the effect of become important shortly. The clinic staff treats Merrick aloofly and h.e sneaks outof
this "family reunion." The esthetic "unity" and integration of elements here not only the hospital. In the tradition of melodramatic coincidences, he hitchhikes a nde With
correspond to but mirror the theme of emotional symbiosis between father and son. none other than Helen Phillips. He tries to make a pass at her until he learns that shc IS
Coming on the heels of a decade of radical andlor feminist criticism of the nuclear Mrs. Phillips and that he is connected with her husband's death. He gets out of the .car
family, melodramas like International Velvet and Uncle Toe Shannon are somewhat but faints. She returns him to the hospital, learns who he is, and vows to aVOid him.
surprising. In their particular usc of the family plot, they project and unquestioningly Yet thcir fates have already been intertwined. His desire for her continually grows
endorse the family as the right structure for human relations. Parent-children relations while she resists each of his advances.
are posed as inevitable-somcthing characters are irresistibly drawn toward (for their Another story line develops parallel to the romantic interplay between Merrick and
own good). Emotion is engendered in the audience by means of characters who, for a Helen. lust as these two characters "discover" each other's identities, so Helen gradu-
given period of time, fail to sec or refuse to acknowledge the rightness of the symboli- ally "discovers" who her husband, Wayne Phillips, really was. Pcople wnte to, and
cally reconstituted family proposed by the plot. The idea of the family, as it is shared visit, her with stories of mysterious debts owed to Dr. Phillips. At crUCial pomts m thelT
with the audience, makes these stories possible. But, at the same time, the existence of lives, Phillips helped them with money, advice, and influence. In each case, he swore
these stories reinforccs prevailing beliefs in the idea by symbolically rehcarsing a faith them to secrecy. When they attempted to repay him, he said it was already "all used
in the family through fictions that train, or, at least, further inculcatc audiences in this up." We learn, primarily through a painter namcd Randolph. that Phillips practiced a
particular way of ordering everyday human events. biz.arre, quasi-religious faith. He believcd that helping others gives the benefactor
A sense of deja Vll accompanied my encounters with International Velvet and access to "power." One could achieve whatever one wanted through his cosmic power.
Uncle Toe Shannon. I knew I had seen their basic plot structures in operation before, Strained analogies with electricity are offered to explain how this moral-metaphysical
and I set about trying to remember where. Thc answer came quickly; it was Magnifi- mechanism works. For example, the secrecy is like insulation. Great men "ground"
cent Obsession, a 1953 adaptation of a Lloyd Douglas novel of the same title, directed themselves in this power. In fact, their greatness "flows" from this power. Christ is cited
by Douglas Sirko Sirk was, among other things, a highly successful director of film as one of the foundcrs of this system of self-interested altruism. Randolph's career as a
melodrama whose critical currency shot sky-high in the early 1970s. Part of the reason painter floundered until he mastered the method under Phillips's tutelage.
behind this reevaluation is the fact that new German directors, like Rainer Werner Randolph explains Phillips's religion, his "magnificent obsession," to Merrick who,
Fassbinder, who arc intercsted in parodying or extending the melodramatiC form, despitc warnings against trying to "feather one's own nest" with it, attempts toapply the
honor Sirk as a major forebcar, including, for example. homages to his style in their power in his pursuit of Helen. He helps a parking attendant whose famIly IS m trouble
films. Sirk is now considercd a central cxemplar of film melodrama. In somc cases. and suddenly he sees Helen. He rushes to tell her about this "miracle" and about his
especially with reference to AlL That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, favor- allegiance to her husband's faith. She grows increasingly annoyed and, in her efforts to
ably disposcd critics arguc that Sirk uscs melodramatic formats in ordcr to subvert escape from him, is hit by an oncoming car. As a result of the aCCident, she IS blmded.
regnant values and preconceptions. Historically, melodrama has at times provided a Along with her widowhood, this is another tragedy the plot will commutate.
vehicle for social criticism. Yet, though I am not sure whether All That Heaven Allows Merrick, moved by the consequences of his actions, begins to practice Phillips's
and Writtell on the Wind merely appear subversive, I am certain that Magnificent doctrines in earnest. Hc sccretly helps the Phillips family by buying their house at an
Obession is conformist in terms of form and content, and form as content. exorbitant price. He also enrolls in medical school again as the best means to help
Whereas in previous examples, the symbolic transformations of the family plot othcrs, and prcdietably he specializes in surgery. Quite clearly, he is becoming Wayne
involve the replacement of parcnts and childrcn with surrogates, in Magnificent Obses- Phillips. Helcn refuses to allow him to see her, but he takes advantag~ ofhe~ blmdness
sion thc plot works to substitute a lost husband with a new one. Like many mclodra- and visits her at the beach daily. He tells her that his name is Robblc Robmson. HIS
188 Noel Carroll The Moral Ecology of Melodrama 189
whole manner is changed. He is no longer brash but humble, self-effacing, other- violation of the moral order, an imbalance like Merrick's selfishness, causes a repercus-
directed, and reassuring. He emotes all the cultural cues of being a "conccrncd" sion which, in turn. causes further events until thc imbalance in the system is adjusted
person-a visible altruism has supplanted his earlier selfishncss. He secrctly pays for and equilibrium again obtains in the relationship between the moral order and human
Helcn to travel to Switzerland where shc is cxamined by a battcry of the world's most affairs. Melodrama, in gcneral, emphasizcs strong dichotomics of good and evil as well
renowned spccialists. When they tell her tlwt a cure is Impossiblc. he flies to her side to as exact corrcspondences betwecn moral conRicts and dramatic ones. In Magnificent
lend support. He takes her to a peasant festival to distract hcr, and after thcy dance all Obsession, the metaphor of "the powcr" is a device that conflates the moral order and
evening he confessses his lovc as well as his rcal name. She says tl1<lt shc kncw hc was evcryday cvents into one synchronised (ecological) structurc.
Mcrrick (the themc of identity again) and that she lovcs him. But the obvious denoue- Thc values and virtucs ill all variants of Magnificent Obsession are "other-
ment is blocked, cnhancing mclodramatic suspense. Shc runs away; she is afraid that regarding." They include some e1emcnts that are not normally thought of as "moral,"
he will marry her out of pity. He goes on to bccome an internationally famous doctor. but more as matters of etiquette. In Sirk's film Merrick is initially marked as "bad"
His sidcburns turn grcy. Hc repairs patients' private livcs, dcmanding sccrccy and because hc is rndc, impaticnt, and domincering. Politeness and courtesy-to-all rather
refusing futurc repayment on the grounds that by that time "it [thc powcr] will bc all than the proverhial whitc hat is the most important sign of the good guy in American
used up." As he rushes about the hospital corridors, we assume that this is what Wayne lilm. Merrick is thc villain until he learns the power-a form of cosmic scnsitivity (and
Phillips must have looked like. In short, during this intcrlude, both Merrick and Helen good manners) to others-at which point he is virtually a demigod.
prove thcy are "good." which. in this context, mcans "self-sacrificing." Thcy arc rcady Stoicism, both in terms of physical and emotional sufferance. is also lauded. Both
to reap thcir rcwards. Helen (vis-a-vis her hlindness) and Merrick (in his lovc of Helen) cvince it and are duly
Randolph tells Mcrrick that Helen is ill in cw Mexico. He arrlvcs ,md the local rewardcd. This stoicism, especially in Helen's case. is other-regarding; she does not
surgeon asks Merrick to perform the operation. Merrick is afraid he is not skilled want to burden her friends and companions. Humility and generosity. of course, are
cnough, though wc rcalize he has storcd up a surfeit of "power. " Aftcr some reluctance the prime ingredients of "the power." Thus, the film projects a seductive fantasy,
he operates, hoping to restore Helen's eyesight. He spends an all-night vigil at her catechizing receptive audiences in courtesy, stoicism. humility, and charity. A constel-
bedside. She awakens: she can see; they will marry. The injustices and imbalances, thc lation of values is idcologically reinforecd hy promising that that precise ethos is
discquilibriums in Helen's life, introduced earlier in the plot, arc adjusted by means of connected with, is even constitutive of. "the source of infinite power."
the practice of Wayne Phillips's "magnificent obsession," and homeostasis returns. The moral ordcr, or at least the moral order being valorized, is presented as part and
Helen regains her husband in the form of Merrick who has been moldcd according to parcel of the naturc of things as a causal force or as a regulatory force with causal
the Phillips prototype. The original family has been rcconstituted with a kind of efficacy. In this respcct, the particular moral order is represented as natural, namely, as
narrative symmetry that portcnds "destinv." part of thc nature of things. The nuclcar family-the favored form of human relation-
Sirk's Magnificent Obsession diffcrs fr~m Lloyd Douglas's novel in many rcspeets; a ship in this ethos-is also part of the cosmic ordcr. If damaged, it rcstores itself. This
large number of plot dctails havc becn changed, dropped, or added including Ran- process is given as natural in a context where to be natural is right and vice versa. The
dolph's occupation, Merrick's age, Helen's blindness, etc. Also. Sirk's film avoids family plot in melodramatic fiction structures human cvents in a way that cxcmplifies
Douglas's banking metaphors for the power, relying only on the electrical one, while and cndorses the ideology or ethos it presents as natural.
also deleting Douglas's notion that religion is a scicnce. According to Sirk, his script. In Magnificent Obsession, the family is not only associatcd with thc structure of the
which was prepared by Robert Blees. was primarily bascd all the screenplay for the universe (unfolding itsclf), hut also it has connotations of being eurativc. both psycho-
1935 adaptation of Magnificent Obsession, directed hy John Stahl. Nevertheless, the logically and physically. By the cnd of the film, Helen is no longer alonc and she is no
Sirk film remains tmc to the esscntial tenets of Douglas's mysticism. As in Douglas's longer blind. Both the sicknesses of the heart and those of the body have been cured by
Disputed Passage and Green Light (also films directed by Frank Bor7.agc in 1939 and Bah Merrick's becoming Dr. Phillips. This notion of the curvaturc power of the family
1937 rcspectively), Magnificent Obsession promotes an ethic of service and sacrifice, is implicit in the family plot. Though International Velvet and Uncle Joe Shannon lack
dcvotcd to systematic selflessncss which is conncctcd to impersonal, moral powcrs that the metaphysical trappings of Magnificent Obsession, they too rely on thc idea that the
have causal cfficacy in the world of cvcryday cvents. That is. Douglas and Sirk prcscnt (figurative) restoration of the familv is "restorativc" in a broad sense. r13mely, a remedy
a viewpoint whcre morality is trcated as pari of the basic structure of the universe. Facts for existential maladics. The family plot IS a narraltve stmcture with strident ideologi-
and values are not strongly demarcated; moral disequilibriums are reflected in events. cal implications; it portrays the family as part of some underlying order and as having
In the film, Mcrrick's wastcful existencc and arrogant manner "cause" Phillips's naturally revivifying powers.
dcath and. latcr, Helen's hlindness. His melodramatic rcgeneration, through a hodge- Sirk develops the theme of order in Maglllficent Obsession visually in a way that
podge of metaphysics and popular mechanics, results in redressing these tragedies. In buttresses the family plot with consistent metaphorical imagery. Throughout the film,
this sensc. what r call a moral ecology is presupposed by the plot. That is, the plot is thcre is a recurring motif of nature. Largc windows look out ovcr landscapes; one ofthe
structurcd as if therc were a stroug causal intcrdependency bctween a fundamcntal many examples is the forestry outside Randolph's house which we sce whcn he opens
moral order (which is gcarcd toward producing self-sacrificc) and cvcryday eveuts. A the blinds. The Phillips's home is surrounded by compositionally emphatic, well-kept
190 I oiil CaTroll The Moral Ecology of Melcx!rama 191

lawns and trees. We see many tranquil, picture-postcard vistas around the lake. Nature "design" and "destiny." Another expressionist dcvice-the use of height to signal
is presented as quiet, serene, and harmonious. That these specific connotations are the authority-comes into play in one of the key scenes in the film. Just before Mernck
relevant ones for the imagcry in Magnificent Obsession is established in the opcning operates on Helen, he has a crisis of nerve. He looks up; there is a cut to a low-angle
shots. Merrick's whitc speedboat with its red stripe plows through thc placid lake. Sirk shot of Randolph standing behind a plate of glass and observing Merrick from the
stresscs its speed and its intrusiveness as it cuts a high, vertical wave through the water. gallery of the operating theater. The soundtrack blares the "Ode to Joy" theme from
Merrick's recklessness, symbolized by the boat crash (and later the car crash outsidc Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (which has been the leitmotif of the "magnificent obses-
Randolph's house), is set against the order and calm of nature. When nature reap- sion" throughout the film). The low camcra angulation plus the "celestial. choir"
pears, as it does often, it stands not only for beauty but for organic unity. Though thc rcnder Randolph as a fatherly, godlike figurc suddcnly come to carth to dIspense
idea that the natural order is providential or divinely appointed is never made explicit, courage, strength, and assurance. This notion of (secret) providential interve~tlOn
it hovers in the background. Thc "harmony" of the landscapes functions as a visual inAects the significance of the stylization throughout the film-all the vanous Visual
correlative to the moral ecology of the plot. ordcrs and designs arc ciphers of a supranatural systcm which works through charac-
Another major motif is that of Aoral arrangements. These are Aowers of all kinds ters, casting them in terms of a specific ensemble of "other-regarding" virtues and quitc
everywherc in the film. Sometimes these Aowers satisfy a simple compositional necd, Iitcrally "sanctifying" the family. Stylization functions as a virtual hicrophany in Mag-
drawing the audicnce's attention to what will be a dramatically pertincnt sector of the nificent Ohsession, expressing a religious faith in the subservience of the visible world
screen. Sometimes the Rowers playa symbolic role; when a despairing Helen, who to dceper principles.
believes she is incurably blind, accidcntally knocks a pot with a rose in it off her Swiss either International Velvet nor Uncle Joe Shannon traffic in thcology as overtly or
balcony, we remember an earlier rosc, associated with Dr. Phillips's death, and thc as systematically as Magnificent Obsession. Thcir idiom or rhetoric is psychology
pathos of the scene is magnified by correlating her blindness with her other major rather than rehgion. Both assume an extremely broad notion of a psychological econ-
tragedy. But over and above the local effects of Rowers in a given shot or scene, the omy that has the capacity to adjust to the loss of beloved obiects through processes of
sheer statistical volume of ROTaI arrangements in the film as a whole is expressive. They symbolic replacement. This somewhat general principle is then put III the service of
connote beauty, nature and design, a cluster of attributes that summarize the sentimcn- the nuclear family. The psychologically wounded characters find replaccments for lost
tal order of thc family plot. relativcs who actually play the social (not merely the psychological) role of thelf lost
Of course, the use of color throughout the film serves a Similar end. Image after family. The films begin with a valid enough (though vague) psychological principle but
image can only be described as color coordinated. The compositions resemble those of employ it to construct plots that celebrate the inevitability of the nuclear Family.
a department store catalogue. Everything is new and matches everything else in the Undoubtedly, the usc of psychology is more palatable to audience.s of the 1970s than
most balanccd and symmetrical way. For examplc, in thc first beach sccne there is a the theology of Magnificent Obsession. But the effect is the samc.
green and whIte striped tcnt in the background and a matching chair in the fore-
ground. As the camcra pulls back when Hclen arrives in her pink dress we scc two
matching low symmctrically disposcd, red beach chairs. bter she has a green bcach
blanket to go with her green swimsuit. These color coincidenccs can be quite insistent.
Helen hands a lilac bouquet with a white spray to a companion wearing a lilac-colored
suit with a whitc collar. We sce a closc-up of Helen's farcwell letter to Merrick; it is
written in lilac-colored ink and it is held in front of a Aoral arrangement with lilacs
visible in the background. at all of the color coordination is as aggressive as some of
these examples but it is never understated either. We feel that both thc manmade and
natural environments are incredibly designed. That sense of design is educed through
visual cliches of harmony and order that associatively bolster the concept of design and
destiny (the inevitability of the family) in the narrative.
Thc concurrence of the style of composition and choice of iconography with the
narrative themc in Magnificent Obsession is an example of a variation of thc pathetic
fallacy, though the technique is really more of a donnee than a fallacy when it comes
to film melodrama. Sirk began his artistic career (in theater and film) in Germany in
thc 1920s. In certain respects, the stylization of Magnificent Obsession recalls some
tendencies of the expressionist-neoromantic films of the Weimar period. His color
symmetries, for example, are reminiscent of the black and white, architectural symme-
tries of Fritz Lang's Siegfried's Death. where thc composition also has connotations of

While thcre is consensus among cntics of melodrama about its
connection to social and economic conditions, therc IS decidcd disagreement about
the varions forms it takes. its modes of addrcss. its impacl on the audience. and its
subversive potential. Vor critics like Brooks. thc primary impetus of melodrama is
moral and spiritual, a reprcsentation of the striving to transcend ambiguity and con-
nict. Carroll finds the tendency in the gcnre to reinforcc traditional valucs. in particu-
lar thc preservation of the nuelear family, while Elsacsser and Schatz find subversive
elements at work in the style which undermine prevailing values and attitudcs. The
essays in this section explorc how the production of melodrama converges with particu-
lar historical moments and how its mode of representation reveals the operations of
ideology. The aim of the essays IS not so much to identify the "reactionary" or "progres-
sive" tendencies of the works so much as to expose contradictions in the works and in
thc society.
Chuck Kleinhans's "Notes on Melodrama and the Vamily undcr Capitalism" exam-
ines the evolution of the family in the bourgeois era, noting how it comes to assume
central importance in thc pm'ate sphere as a place of rctreat. This separation is
cndcmic to life undcr capitalism which thrives un divisions betwecn the work and
family, between leisure and productivity. The family is cxpectcd to provide the emo-
tional gratification denicd in the productive sphere. but the dcmands placed on it are
more than the family can satisfy. Kleinhans argues that this provides the stuff of
melodrama. and for this rcason melodrama and social experiences coincide. Melo-
drama provides conflicts and situations whIch parallcl thc conflicts experienced by the

His/Dry and Ideology His/ory and Ideology 195
~ud~en~e, and the audience, rather than being passive, is actively involved in compar- tion to enjoy the pleasures of motherhood. The woman was to answer all these
Ing Its sltuatron to those presented in the melodramas. Here Kleinhans echoes Gramsci demands, contradictory though they might be.
in rcgarding mass forms as containing strategies for dealing with everyday realitv. In The homicidal actions of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven appear on the
reading the melodrama a certain amount of translation is necessary, since the 1~e10­ surface to be the consequence of jealousy, but the source of her conflicts is actually
drama often utilizes a language that displaces the social onto the political, the material something else more akin to the family melodrama than to one of individual pathol-
onto the spiritlJ;J1.
ogy. Her Oedipal drama seems ostensibly to arise from the desire to please and possess
In his analysis of Marked Woman, Charles Eckert explores the structure of this the love object, her reincarnated father in the person of her husband. This love
Warner's film which appears to balance two forms of expression: a controlled melodra- assumcs a totally destructive direction. Placed as she is between a father whose affec-
matic plot and a series of scenes that erupt with uncontrolled emotion. The film's tion for his daughter was countered by the hostility of the mother, she is, in Renov's
center does not rcside in the melodrama but in the portrayal of class conflict. Capitaliz- terms, already situated at the hemt of the double bind. And this double bind is
IIlg on the Lucky Luciano trial, the film develops the familiar plot of women exploited reproduced in her relations with others which Renov situates at the heart of the society.
and brutahzed by a villainous gangster and his eventual capture and punishment. The Renov's essa)' is an attempt to bring together the insights of psychiatry with those of
decor of the film, the dIsjunctive acting styles, and the particular role of the gangster social history.
IIlVlte speculation about the film's social motives. The intenscly emotional scencs David I Rodowick's "Madness. Authority, and Ideology in the Domestic Melo-
seem to be raising questions about the women's suffering that arc not answered by the drama of the 1950s" addresses melodrama as a mode of experience more than as a
melodramatic plot with its reductive form of explanation. By reading the film in tcrms genre, and as the locus of aesthetic, social, psychic, and formal determinations which
of its deeply embedded oppositions which are disguised through a number of displace- are carriers of history and ideology. Like Elsaesser and Kleinhans. he finds that the
ments, Eckert seeks to expose how the clues in the film lead to a narrative that family is a dominant, though not sole, institutional determinant in the melodramatic
unsuccessfully masks the issue of the Depression and of class conflict. text, a surrogate for other aspects of power within the society. While the focus in the
The forms of displacement that arc successfully conccaled in other films surface in domestic melodrama appears to be restricted to private issues-inheritance, the cre-
Eckert's analysis of this film, ror example, in his discussion of the gangster, Eckert ation of social and sexual identities-the family docs in fact participate in the reproduc-
notes Vanning's diffcrence from pre-Depression gangsters who were played by Anglo- tion of the social relations of production under patriarchy and in the formation of sexed
Saxon actors and associated with the upper classes. In Marked Woman, Vanning is the and gendered identities that can participate in the social order. The arena of the
locus of a number of contradictions which mask his cntrepreneurial origins in his domestic melodrama is the crisis of identification. Violence and sexuality arc equated,
lower-class and cthnic persona and threaten to turn him into the undifferentiated and the texts alternate between paralysis and surplus energy, dramatizing the irreconcil-
melodramatic villain. The transformation is not effected, however, and Vanning can- ability of desire and the law.
not be sentimentalized. Neither can the women's suffcring. Melodrama docs not Not all melodramas are bearers of criticism and resistance to the status quo,· but
successfully mitigate the harsher aspects of class conflict embedded in the film. Since these domestic melodramas of thc 1950s are, in their formal qualities, characterized by
melodrama is often a strategy of sentimcntalizing and deflecting from social issues, stylistic excess which allows for the appearance of contradictions that were rampant
Eckert's essay seeks to reelaim what melodrama seeks to conceal. within the culture and part of the historical conditions of the 1950s in the postwar
Michael Renov's essay on Leave Her to Heaven examines the film III the context of disillusionment, the Cold War, and the failure of traditional familial and institutional
immediate post-World War II melodramas. Renov adopts the psychological terminol- structures. Melodrama is thus, for Rodowick. not the reflection of that reality but
ogy of the double bind in order to account for thc appearance of the pathological intrinsic to it in recognizable ways,
female III films of that era. At that time, servicemen were returning to their families. Pam Cook's discussion of melodrama focuses on the women's pictures produced by
There was a concerted effort to change women's orientation, a process in which the British Gainsborough Studios in the 19405. She notes the auteurist emphasis of
women werc themselves complicit. As the focal point of double-bind communication critical works that, following Elsaesser, seek "cinematic countercurrents." She con-
women were confronted by conflicting messages, forced to reconcile conflicting de: trasts this with the feminist work of Laura Mulvey, who regards the analysis of melo-
~a~ds. In this no-win situation, no matter how the individual responds, the response drama Icss as a quest for the progressive text and more as a matter of identifying
IS dIssonant With the message being sent because the messages are contradictory. contradictions specifically around women's position under patriarchy. Mulvey identi-
Dunng World War II, women were told that if they did not work, the war would be lost fies the difference between tragic melodrama and the women's picture. The former is
and their men would die.
concerned with the Oedipal conflict, male domination, and a male point of view, the
On the other hand, the message from the Depression was communicated that latter with the traditional female values of nurture, sentiment, and a female point of
working women were a reproach to unemployed men. Guilt was generated, too. view.
around the working mother's presumed neglect of children. In the postwar era, women The question of point of view is tricky. Cook argues, since the distinction is not
were al,o enjoined to heal the traumas of the returning servicemen. Moreover, the always elear-cut. But the importance of pursuing this difference is crucial to an
necessity of reproduction was also enjoined on women with the corresponding injune- understanding of both the ways in which the women's picture participates in the
History and fdeology

dominant male discourse and the ways it diverges from it. For example, the tragic
melodrama is linear, based as it is on the central conAict of the challenge to the fathcr's
power, while in women's melodrama the challenge is presented in the heroine's desire
to take the mother's place. Her position is one of unccrtainty, lack of knowledge, hence
the emphasis in these films on the investigative mode. Thc narrative is circular rather
than linear, closed rather than open, returning often to the point of inception. The
hero's conAicts involve escape from society, while the heroine's conAicts involve con-
frontation with society often in terms of Failure resulting in her accommodation to the
status quo or punishment for transgression.
Cook discusses the visual codes of melodrama which, in tragic mclodrama, func-
tion to intensify the male protagonist's suffering and serve often as ironic commentary.
In the women's picture, objects, particularly domcstic objects, can serve as correlatives Notes on Melodrama and the Family
For the female protagonist's feelings and point of view. Unlike the tragic melodrama.
thc meaning of these objects is inaccessible to the characters though accessible to the
under Capitalism
spectator, endowing the spectator with knowledge superior to that of the characters.
The protagonist's limited knowledge marks her world as one of fantasy. The women's
picture is prohlematic in the context of classical cinema insofar as female discourse can
only be communicated through the languagc of hysteria or paranoia. The Female body CHUCK KLEINHANS
becomes a map on which to read female desire, but the ubiquitous physician, psycho-
analyst, or lawyer cannot decipher the signs.
Cook's analysis of the Gainsborough women's films situates them at a specific Caught between the longing for love
moment in British history: World War 11 and the immediate postwar era, Much likc And the struggle for thc legal tendcr
Renov's discussion of the Hollywood postwar melodrama. Cook's essay insists that the -Jackson Browne'
films can be bcst understood by exploring the conjunction between the wartime
ideology and the female audiences that lllany films addressed. British women of the
time would have been subjected to dual attitudes. On the onc hand. the women First, some statistics. About one-half of the marriages that take place
voluntarily and through conscription swelled the work force. Child care was available in the large urban areas of the United States this year will cnd in legal failure-
to free them from the home. With men away in the service, casual sex was not separation, divorcc. desertion, etc. This rate is ahout the samc as thc statc average for
uncommon. At Ihe same time that these rcal changes in women's position were California, which is widely taken to bc the vanguard state in lifestyle. Nationally, one-
evident and often reinforced, concerns were also expressed about the traditional posi- thnd of all marriages end in divorce. 2
tion of women and the future of the family. The films of the era display a similar sense A conclusion: the traditional, white, "middle class," two generation nuelear family
of contradiction relating to women's position. Continuing into the immediatc postwar and marriagc, its legal form, no longer function as viable institutions. Today wc are at a
years, the women's melodramas present females as struggling, in varying degrces, point in the U. S. where the traditional family and marriage arc the exception rather
betwcen traditional femininity and the imperatives of social changc. than the norm.
Second, a popular song lyric.

Little One, whatcha going to do?
Little One. honey, it's all up to you.
ow your daddy's in the den
Shooting up the cvening news
Mamma's with a friend
Lately shc's bccn so confused'

Chuck Kleinhan,s "Notes on Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism" originally ap-
peared in Film Header 3 (February 1978), pp. 40-47. Reprinted hI' permiSSIOn of the author
and Film Header.

198 Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism
Chuck Kleinhans
In a feudal society the family as a whole was occupied in the area of production, most
Another conclusion: the situation of the family, which has been a core social unit in commonly in agriculture. This pattern persists in the artisan and petit bourgeois family
the bo~~~eois ep,och: is represc?,ted in popular culture, from songs like the Rolling until relatively recently. It is sustained in the U. S. by the long persistence of the family
Stones Mothcrs Little Helper to Hollywood's Looking [or Mr. Goodbar. But we farm and the arrival of immigrants who brought older family patterns--<Jf!en peasant
expcct that. This representation appears acutely in the stage and film domestic melo- patterns as in the case oflrish, Polish, southern Italian, and Greek immigrants-into the
drama during thc capitalist era. Of course I will acknowledge that as a gencral dramatic urban industrial life of American capitalism. But, if the U.S. in some ways has held onto
form melodrama can be found in many periods, as in Euripides' Athenian dramas. Yet an older pattern of the family for a longer timc-especially in nostalgic forms such as we
the tragedy--{)r melodrama--{)f Ancicnt Greece is clearly of a different order than the see in the Western, as in Shane-America has also moved fast and far into the social
situation of Lessing's Miss Sara Sampson, Dumas' Camille, Ibsen's 001/'.1 House or problems of advanced capitalism 6 In twenticth-century America the family completed
O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. ' the transformation from being a productive unit based on private property (the farm, the
Whe~ we look at the emcrgence of the modern melodrama about 250 years ago (the artisanal tools of production, the small business) to being the centcr of personallifc, the
bourgcOls domeshc melodrama, to be more precisc), today everyonc can clearly undcr- primary institution for the acquisition of personal happiness, love, and fulfillment.
stand ItS ~Iass nature as drama of and for a specific class. poiscd against anothcr class: a From a central place in production undcr feudalism and early capitalism, women and
cultural-Ideological weapon in a political and economic struggle that changed history children were moved to a marginal place as a ncw division emcrged. The homc becomes
forever. Standard theatre histories and national literary histories acknowledgc it. And the rcalm of women and children, and the industrial workplace emerges as the area of
we can remember that this class interpretation of melodrama emcrging as a bourgeois proletarian men. Women are responsible for the remaining material production within
genre ~as first fully advanced by Lenin's teacher, Plekhanov, and developed with the home and also for the personal or human values. At the same time, domestic
finesse m Arnold Hauser's The Social History of Art. Yet today it seems much harder material production has bcen increasingly socialized (that is, turned over to other
for people to .Ice. the class nature of melodrama, for what arc, I suspect. a few good institutions of education, health, welfare, etc.) and commodified, as seen on a large
reasons (such as Its diffUSion across class lines by the mass media), and some bad ones scale in thc increase in the service sector of the economy and more immediately in the
(such as a deliberate refusal to acknowledge class politics). shift to packaged and prepared food. In this context, housework and childcare are
Since bourgcois domestic melodrama emergcs with the asccnsion of capitalism, divorced from their productive base. Women are assigned domestic tasks that seem
and smce It deals with the family, it makes sense to look at the family under capitalism increasingly trivial and emotional responsibility for personal problems that have their
to bctter understand melodrama. In his preface to The Origin of the Family, Engcls origin outside the home. These two aspects of women's lives overlap at the point of
obscrves that, consumption. Thus a Pillsbury jingle for prepared dough products claIms,
Accordin? to the materialist conception the determining factor in history is, in
the final mstancc, the produchon and reproduction of the immediatc essentials Nothing says you lovc 'em
of hfe. TIllS agam IS of a two fold charactcr. On the one side, the production of Like something from the ovcn
the means of eXIstence, articles of food and clothing, dwellings and of the tools And Pillsbury says it best. 7
nccessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human
belllgs themselvcs, the propagation of the species. The social organization un-
The more the family loses its possibilities for material production, the more it
dcr ,.vhlch the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country
hve IS determllled by both klllds of production; by thc stage of development of becomes a prime site of consumption. Mass consumption, the domestic side of impe-
labour on the one hand and of the family on the other. S rialist market expansion, contains an ideology of pleasure and self-gratification which
is defined largely in individual rather than social terms. With consumption detached
In the bourgeois era, as contrastcd with all earlicr historical epochs, the family from production (the fetishism of commodities Marx dcscribes in the first chapter of
becomes the central area of personal life, a place of respite from productive life, from Capital), a full life is thwartcd. Rather than life, one has a succession of lifestyles.
the ahenated labor that most workers must facc. This split between productive relations The family becomes a ccnter of subjectivity, cut off from the world of action and
a.nd personal relahons, between work and family, betwecn production and reproduc- decisions. Home is for passion. suffering, sympathy, sacrifice. self-attainment. Work is
hon, IS umque to capltahst social organization. Whereas in precapitalist social forma- for action, doing, for the money which pays for the home. Yet home is also shaped by
hans laborers. (Illcludlllg sla~es) operated within a unified life situation while working the ideology of individualism, especially as shaped by the Puritan-Protestant heritage
and not worklllg, under capltahsm the proletarian has one lifc at work and another life of U.S. life. The family is supposed to achieve the personal fulfillment denied in the
at lelsurc. Meaning and purpose are not in one's work, which consists of alienated workplace for adults and denied in school for childrcn. At home everyone becomes a
lahor: but in whatcver can be dcfined outsidc of work. Givcn that one's sense of
consumer trying to get a bigger slice of the emotional pie.
Identl~.a.nd social worth could not be achievcd in productive labor under capitalism, From this perspective we can see why so much of the early resurgent women's
the diVISion of social from economic life meant that the family and the area of movement was involved with a critique of the role of the housewife and mother, both
mterpersonal relations took on a huge burden.
200 201
Chuck Kleinhans ilvfclodrama and the Farmly ullder Capitalism
by. older women rejecting the social mold they were a part of and by younger women portrayed situations only in the more abstract form of seeing a generation conAict
rele~tJng the future that was held out to them. Nor is it mystcrious why the emergent which is analogous to the pattern of one's own upbringing. .
femmlst movement has often had deep contradictions in defending subjectivity as One of the most persistent structures in bourgeois domestic melodrama IS thc
women's special social quality while also trying to advance thc position of women in pattcrn of a woman sacrificing her own goals-which may be. defined as personal
the male-dominated productive sphere. The personal is political, hut that awareness achievement, a career, happiness. independence-for the happllless of another per-
can produce a strategy for change only if we see that capitalism has produced the split son. Without being aware of it when I selected the films, I taught a course m melo-
between the personal and the productive and that capitalism mllst be overcome to drama which showed a series of films all of which have a woman's sacrifice as a maJor
transccnd that dichotomy. theme: Lois Weber's The Blot (1921), Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, Cukor's Camille,
In short, "personal life, .. the contcmporary family, and the special role of women in Arzner's Christopher Strong, Prcminger's Dais)' Kenyoll and Fallen Angel. Stahl's Back
a social sphere scparated from the production sphcre can and must he seen as a Street, the Stahl and Sirk versions of Imitation of Li(e, and Sirk's All That Heaven
historically specific form. It is as much a part of the development and transformation of Allows and Written 011 the Wind. It is not very difficult to see that the constant
capitalism as Taylorized work and the state operation of education. Under capitalism reoccurence of the pattern of a woman's self-sacrifice in melodrama bears some rela-
people's personal needs are restricted to the sphere of the family, of personal life, and tion to the actual lived emotional experience of women in our culture. As the guard-
yet the family cannot meet the demands ofheing all that the rest of society is not. This ians of the horne, as the family member given virtually total responsibility for the
basic contradiction forms the raw material of melodrama. emotional life and well-being of the family, womcn are constantly called upon to
In this context it is no surprise that melodrama and life coincide. Perhaps more sacrificc for the greater good of kecping the man ready for the world of production and
than any other genre, melodrama deals directly with one side of the ea~italist dichot- raising the children.
omy, WIth the personal sphere, home, family, and women's problems. When I visit Melodramas provide the audience with situations which are analogous to those
my parents, my mother and I often sit over coffee while she tclls me all the family commonly experienced in family and personal life. Much of melodrama's, recurring
news, which consists of a serics of new changes of personal relations in the c1an- appeal lies here, in the artistic representation of situations such as a woman s saenficc
deaths, divorces, children rejecting parents and vice versa, people losing johs and that the audience has experienced as well. Understanding melodrama 111 thIS way helps
lovers and finding new ones, etc., etc. And my mother often closes the updating of explain why "high culture" techniques of analysis and eva.luation do not obtain in
these family stories with the spontaneolls observation that they are melodramatic, or understanding the gcnre. For example, plots often unfold With eome,dence an cssen-
"like a soap opera." And they are. In fact, knowing that melodramas arc like family tial component of narration. This is casily judged a fault. But if melodrama IS apprccl-
SItuatIOns, we can rather easily find a number of schemes or frameworks with which to atcd for its situations, rather than for its overall development, then weak tranSihons are
analyze both of them, such as the Freudian family romance (which some of the Screen not significant. In other words, thc parts may be more important than the whole, and
critics have now discovered about 20 years after American critics pointed it Ollt), or thus the concept and value of organic unity may be irrelevant if applied to a melo-
R, D.. Laing's description of the structure of schizophrenic families, or Eric Berne's drama. Understanding the key role of dramatic situations in melodrama can also help
transactional analysis, or Cregory Bateson's interactional systems theon'. q Clearly, they us understand whv wc so often find totally truncatcd explanations of character mohva-
all "work" in the sense of providing a structural framework with which to approach tion in the gcnr~. In melodrama our intercst is not in the gradual exposihOJI and
melodrama. For example, Bateson's double bind fits the situation of Cary (Jane Wy- development of a character's personality and decision making, but rather m the dlrcct
man) m All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) perfectly. portrayal of the social psychological situation itself in its arhshcally dIsgUIsed, but
More dircctly than other gcnres, melodrama helps us understand, relate to or deal relatively "raw" form. 10
with thc same kind of situations that we emotionally experience in personall'ife. J do Considering melodrama in this light throws doubt on the assumption that because
not want to say it is cathartic and get caught in an Aristotelean framework, but clearly a melodrama typically demands elose identification of audience with narrative, it
,:C relate to melodrama largely because it docs present situations which are structurally neecssarily follows that the spectators are also passive. It seems possible that the
SImilar to those we emotionally experience in life. It represents to us the contradictions audience IS (or could be) actually rather active-selecting, lISing, judging what it sees.
of capitalism as evidenced in thc personal sphere. Clearly, at this point I am offering a speculation, but it IS one worth following up with
Me~odramatic sit~Jations are sometimes directly parallel to the audience's experi- further analysis. Although I am approaching it from a different perspective, my argu-
ence. For example, I m sure some of my readers have direct experience from their own ment here intersects with one made by Lama Mulvey in a paper on All That Heaven
family with the central question in All That Heaven Allows: should a widow remarry, Allows bccause we both argue that melodrama gains its strength from evoking contra-
and If so, outSIde her class and to a younger man? For others the same situation may dictions in the sphere of pcrsonallifc. )
havc an indi~eet relation to our cxperiencc-should a divorecd mother remarry, and on Since I've begun to speculate, I will offer four additional hypotheses. First, melo-
what baSIS WIth rcgard to her children's feelings> Or, what arc thc sexual options of a drama depicts the return of the repressed, in the Freudian sense. Sometimes this may
woman who has reached menopause in our socicty? Yct others may relate to thcsc he seen directly by showing convcrsion hysteria symptoms in characters as is rather
202 Chuck Kleinhans Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism

obvious in All That Heaven Allows when Cary is diagnosed for psychosomatic head- women is now taken over and changed by women filmmakers. Several experimental-
aches. Or hysteria can erupt in the narrative pattern itself, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith ists i1Iu~trate the use and reinterpretation of melodrama: Yvonne Rainer (especially
has recently argued with regard to Minnelli's melodramas. 12 In addition, and perhaps Film about a Woman Who . .. ), Joyce Wieland (The Far Shore), Chantal Akerman
more importantly, melodrama may act in terms of much deeper psychological struc- (Jeanne Dei/man), Laura Mulvey (Riddles of the Sphinx, made with Peter Wollen).
tures in an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. Specifically, we find the oedipal and Marguerite Duras. . .
struehlre reappearing repeatedly in terms of the home/career division ill many melodra- The Aexibility and malleability of melodrama presented here should mdleate the
mas. Some of the strange resonances in Mildred Pierce can be attributed to the working importance of studying the genre. Melodram~ appeals to .the mass audience (and to
out of a sct of oedipal structures. Il Similarly, Gretchen Bisplinghoff has suggested that film critics) because it offers artistic presentations of gemnne problems. At the s~me
Stahl's Imitation of Life resolves the reproductive/productive, home/career dichotomy time bourgeois melodrama locates those problems in the area of the famIly, preCISely
by having the white mother take on the father function while the black mother serves where many of the issues raised cannot ever be solved. In tins It reproduces eapltahst
the mother function. 14 Close examination of specific films is needed to confirm, deny, social relations by assuming that the family can and should resoh'e contradictions
or qualify the function of such oedipal structures. arising in productive life. Thus alcoholism can be appropriate subject matter, as m
Second, while it may seem that the great age of film melodrama is over, I think it is Days of Wine and Roses. But bourgeois melodrama rather carefully ,avOIds tOPiCS that
not dead but rather going through further changes, and we should not be looking for its expose the dialectical relation of production and reproduction. 1 he psychological
current health in The Other Side of Midnight but elsewhere. All three vcrsions of The dynamics arising in families and personal relations dunnglfenods of lay-offs: unem-
ployment, and underemployment are seldom portrayed. Only when socIety can
Godfather offer an interesting juxtaposition of the gangster and melodramatic genres
with the former genre carrying the realm of production and the latter the rcalm of reconcile production and reproduction will melodrama be robbed of ItS ammatmg
personal life. Especially curious: women disappear-the melodrama of interpersonal contradictions. Until that time we can expect the genre to echo the endlesstransforma-
tions of personal life in the capitalist era. In a ntopian future, when class hIStory comes
rclations goes on between the men of the family. The result, as John Hess points out,
to an end, melodrama may well be seen as one or the most poignant expressIOns of the
provides an acid critique of the middle class American family. 1\ Also we can regard a
film sitch as Looking for Mr. Goodbar as a melodrama dealing with the social-sexual bourgeois epoch.
position of young women today. Through a deeply sexist misunderstanding of the
objective and subjective situation of women, the film shows not only the split of
productive life and personal life in the day and night transformations of Terry, the
Diane Keaton character, but also the impossibility of a reconciliation, underlined by
an inverted Liebestod ending.
Third, I want to add a footnote to one of the best recent articles discussing mclo-
drama, Charles Eckert's analysis of Marked Woman. 16 Eckert says that by studying
structural oppositions in the film we call see the transformation of class issues into 1 presented an earlier version 111 a Film Division semil~~r, orthw~stcrn ~niversity. Novem-
other oppositions: male/female, urban/rural. and so forth. The class nature of the ber. 1977. Many participants there inAueneed my reVISions, espeCIally \al Almendarez and
film's central eonAiet is disguised by these changes. I would add that in domestic William Horrigan who also gave papers and Thomas Elsaesser who lectured at lenglh on film
melodrama we find the oppositions contained within the family, in the personal melodrama. These ideas took initial shape through interaction with students III a course I
sphere, in a way that is at once dense and illusive. Repeatedly we discover very taught at Northwestern, fall, 1977. I want to stress that this essay is tentative in the sense that
deliberately structured ambiguities in family melodrama. For example, in All That specific case studies are needed to elaborate and qualify my argument.
Heaven Allows the specific reasons that keep Cary and Ron (Rock Hudson) apart are 1. "The Pretender," on his album of the same name (Asylum 7E-1079). .
multiple and vague. Some of it is a difference in class: petit bourgeois property owner 2. I have been unable to find the precise documentation of Ihese figures which I read III the
summer of 1977 in two sources. one of which I believe was Time or Newsweek. However I
and small businessman vs. haut bourgeois widow. Some of it is age (30ish vs. 40ish);
have cheeked the data for individuals divorced and married in two slandard reference works:
some of it is lifestyle. The oppositions can be expressed and interpreted in various ways: U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 1976 (97th cd .. Washington:
within society vs. outside society, small town vs. rural. children vs. no children, sexual Dept. of Commerce. 1976). and Department of Health. Edueatiun and Welfare, V,tal
fulfillment vs. fear of sexuality, sacrifice vs. happiness, and so forth. But the effect of Stallstics of the U.S. 1973, vol. 3, Marriage and DIvorce (WashlOglon:HEW. 1977). I am
this multiplicity is not richness and complexity. a presentation of overdetermination, sure the statistics are reliable. Nationally. there arc now half as many divorces as marnages
but rather a poverty and ambiguity. The film allows, even encourages, multiple read- each year. The national divorce rate remained about the same from 1920-1960. II merea~ed
ings. One spectator can interpret the eonAict as one of age; another can see class as the every year from 1960-1973, doubling in Ihat lime. If marnage IS no longcr a Viable SOCIal
central issue. and so forth. No particular reading of the film is correct, except as it is institution, it may be lhat divorce increasingly is. The growth of related servIces (speCIal
completed by a specific viewer. la wvcrs, counselling and therapy, self-help books. ele.) supports thIS observation
Finally, I would point out that melodrama, the genre made earlier by men for 3. lackson Browne, "Red Neck Friend." on his alhllm For Everyman (Asylum SD-5067).
204 Chuck Kleinhans

4. Georgi V. Plekh~nov, "french Dr~ma and Painting in the 18th Century," in his Art and
Society and Other Papers in Historical Materialism (NY: Oriole, 1974). This edition ~ppears
to reprmt from ~ variety of unacknowledged sources: pcrh~ps from Art and Social Life, tr. E.
Fox and E. H~rlley (London, 1953). Arnold Hauser. "The Ongins of Domestic Drama," m
hIS The Social /-listory of Art, vol. 3. Rococo, Classicism. Romanticism, tr. H~uscr and
Stanlcy Cadman (NY: Vintage, n.d.), pp. 84-99.
Fredrich Engels. 1884. quotcd in Sheila Rowbotham, Wornan'sConseiousrwss, Man's World
(Balltmore: Penguin. \97», p. 47. I am greatly indebted 10 Rowbotham for ml' analysis and
to Eli Zarelskl', Capitalism, the Family & Personal Life (NY: Harper, 1976). I have also been
innueneed by the work of and discussions with Serafina Kent Bathrick who is completing a
dISsertation on women and the famill' in Hollywood films of the Forties at Wisconsin,
Madison. The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film:
6. It's worth pointing out as an aSICle that most people reading this essay have, or hope to have, a
life which eombmes produclton and reproduction, economIc lifc and soc,al life. Such
unification is thc great appeal of bcing a profcssional-onc's work and li[e can be one. Yct
Warner's Marked Woman
such unity is achieved for the individual profcssional and not by the family unit. Increasingly,
many professionals--cspecially those working wllhin state institutions-understand thcy arc
not free profcssionals but rather privileged wage laborers, as is evidenccd in the wave of CHARLES ECKERT
teacher unionIZation, health sector organizmg, etc. An excellent cxposition o[ the proletar.
ianization of traditional white collar work: Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital
(NY: Monthly Rcview, 1976).
7. From memory. Carol Lopate, "Daytime TeleVISion," Radical America J I: I (Jan.-Fcb. 77),
33-51. provides a fine explanation o[the relation bctween the housewife's daily siluahon and
televiSlon's soap opcras, quiz shows, and commercials. Marked Woman was produced by Warner Brothers-first atlonal in
8. Conversely, the "male" gcnres such as the Western and the action film provide a fantasy of 1937, based on an original script by Robert Rossen a~d Abem Finkel, and dIrected by
power, control, and autonomous activity in the "outside" world of production: precisely Lloyd Bacon. It is, to give its fullest definition, a topical, proletanat-onented ga~gster
where workcrs do not have powcr, conlrol, and autonomy. it must be understood within a complex tradItion of films, and agamst a
9. A particularly interesting application of Bateson's work is Chapter 5 of Paul Watzlawick, Janet fil m. As suc h , h t f th
backdrop of Depression issues. The analysis I shall attempt respects t e contex 0 e
Helmick Beavm, and Don D. jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of
Interac/iollal Patterns, Pathologies, alld Paradoxes (I Y: Norton, 1967), which examincs the film and centers upon three crucial problems. .
Edward Alhec play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a model of confuscd communication. The first concerns a striking contrast between the cool, rigidly controlled emotions
10. From this point of vicw, attempts to assign a psychological pathology to charaelers are tvpical of the scenes that develop the melodramatic plot and a dIfferent order of
misguided. Characters arc mconslStcnt, but nol because thcy arc "crazy" (WIth the obvIOUS ~motions spanning a spectrum from despair to rage that appear m a senes of mter-
exception of when this is explicit in the narrative). spcrsed scenes (and in the crucial final scene). Thc affective center of the film seems
II. "Douglas Sirk and Melodrarna," mimeo, prcsented at thc Socicty for Education 10 Film and displaced into another dimension than the melodramatic, a dimenSIon that the latter
Television weekend school, March, J977. in London. scenes define. I The second problem concerns the way 10 winch the moral and SOCial
12. "Mmnelli and Melodrama," Screen 18:2 (Summer, 1977), 113-119. dilemmas arc developed. And the third concerns the significance of the pr.lme-movcr
of the pial, the gangster-racketcer: since he is a heavily s~ercotyped figure bnngmg WIth
14. More accurately they arc electra structures (female rivalry for the same man or thing which is
iniilally linked to one of the wornen): Mildrcd \'s. Veda for Bert, Mildred vs. Mrs. Beiderho[f
him not simplv the swagger and jargon of dozens of prevIous mearnatlons hut a speCIfic
for Bert, Mildred vs. Vcda for Wally, Mildred vs. Veda for Monte, and Mildred vs. Veda for
Ihe busincss. Mildred Pierce provides a good example of my prcvious point about situation aura of signifieanecs and values, understanding him requires what we might call a
bcing marc important than character consistency. It is virtually impossible to answcr thc "theory of the gangster," thc development of whIch WIll take us bcyond Marked
Aristotelean qucstlOn, "what is Mildred's naw or mistakc?" without obvious rcductionism. \,voman.
My understanding of the film is indebted to joyce Nelson. "Mildred Pierce Reconsidcred,"
Film Reader 2 (1977), pp. 65-70.
14. In elassroom diSCUSSion. Co ri hi by the Regents of the University of California. Charles Eckert, "Anatomy of a
15. "Codfather l/: A Dcal Coppola Couldn't Refuse," jump Cut 6-7 (May-july 75), I, 10-1 I. PrJ~la~ian Film: Wamcr's Marked Woman," onglnally appeared In Frl", Quarterly 27. no. 2.
16. Film Quarterly 27:2 (Winter, 73-74).11-24. Winter 1973-74) 10-24. and was reprinlcd III Bill NIchols, MOYles and MetilOds (Berke
17. Fassbinder's Fear Eals the Soul; Ali, an exccption to the rule, gains deplh by deallOg with \ey: University of C~Rfornia Prcss. \985), pp. 407-28. Reprinted by penTIlsS!on of the Umver-
relations of produeilon and reproduclion sitl' of California Press.

Charles Eckerl
However disconnected these analytical concerns may seem, they are, J believe,
f The Anatomy ofa Proletarian Film 207

ment was a task force set up under as ambitious a prosecutor-cum-politician as the
aspects of a single unified intellectual operation that affects almost every detail of the country contained, Thomas E. Dewey.
film. It may be helpful to define this operation and to sketch in the conclusions I will Dewey began by raiding the brothels and arresting almost one hundred women as
be moving towards before entering upon an extended analysis. My major contention is material witnesses. [n its early stages the trial was high-spirited, with an absurdly
that the ultimate sources of Marked Woman and its tradition are in class conflict; but Runyonesque cast: "Jo-Jo" Weintraub. Crazy Moe, "Little David" Betillo, Cokey Flo.
the level at which the film-makers perceive this conflict, and the levcl at which it is Bnt as the trial centered more and more upon thc women, whose testimony would
lived by the fictional characters and perceived by the audience, is existential rather make or break the prosecntion's case, the proceedings became a bleak window upon a
than political or economic. It is in the lived experience of the Depression, in the world of exploitation, drab servitude and occasional terror.
resentment directed at those who "caused" the Depression, and in the sense of disparity Nancy Presser said that one of Luciano's men drove her into prostitution by threat-
between being poor and being rich, that this popular notion of class conflict originates. ening to "cnt me up so that my own mother wouldn't know me. ,,2 And Thelma Jordan
The expression of the conflict in the films, however, is almost never overt. It is said, "[ knew what happened to girls who had talked about the combination. The soles
instead converted into conflicts of a surrogate nature-some ethical, some regional. of their feet and their stomachs were burned with cigar buttl for talking too much . . . .
some concerned with life-style, some symbolized by tonal or aesthetic overlays created 3
I heard Ralph [Liguori] say that their tongues were cut when girls talked ... Liguori also
by the makers of the films. The analysis of this elaborate secondary structure requires threatened that if any of the women testified against the combination "their pictures
close attention to the processes of condensation and displacement by which latent would be sent to thcir home town papers with stories of what they were doing for a
content is converted into manifest content. I would like to avoid jargon for its own living. ,.4
sake, but Freud's terms and their strict definitions are essential for an understanding of Another of the women, Helen Kelley, testified to thc economics of prostitution.
the processes involved (I shall give definitions at the appropriate point in the analysis). [ She had quit an underpaid job to bccome a prostitute and in her first week made $314.
hope to show that thc effect of these operations is to attenuate conflicts at the level of After a friendly booker persuaded her to quit and go straight she took a job as a waitress
real conditions and to amplify and rcsolve them at the surrogate levels of the melo- averaging nvelve dollars per week. After a year of this she went back to the booker "to
drama. This solution is not always successful, however; it can lead to dialectical play solve an economic problem. "I
between the real and disguised conflicts, the effect of which is to make the usually The conditions of the prostitutes' lives influenced Rossen and Finkle, as we shall
opaque operations transparent. I believe that this is what happens in Marked Woman see, but the real issue of the trial was the conviction of Luciano. To this end Dewey
and that it is the chief source of the atypical feel of the film and of the forceful and faced two obstacles--eonvincing the women that they would be protected from retalia-
unsettling character of a number of its scenes.
tion. and convincing the jury, and the public at large, that prostitutes were "worthy of
But all of this can only be c1arificd after we have recalled the film and its topical belief" in a court of law. When he found that his star witness's life had been threat-
basis. Marked Woman capitalized upon a sensational trial reported almost daily in the ened, he spent hours persuading her to testify, and then fatuously described to the court
New York Times between May 14 and June 22, 1936. Because the details of this trial the scnse of "responsibility" that the experience had aroused in him. And when he had
strongly influenced Rossen and Finkle, and because the trial provides a body of real finally gotten his conviction, he assured the court that it was in no sense a personal
analogues to the fiction of thc film, 1 shall review it first. I will then give a summary of victory; credit rather belo~rd to "the men who prepared the case through months of
the film designed to make the disjuncture between the melodramatic and the strongly gruelIng, hard work. . . .
affective scenes apparent, while giving enough detail to familiarize the reader with the And where were the "confessed prostitutes" who had been barely "worthy of belief"
whole film and to provide matenal for the subsequent analysis.
at this moment of sharing the spoils? They left the House of Detcntion and "were sent
to Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey's offices in the Woolworth Building, where
they received, as fees, sums ranging benveen $150 and $175"-barcly a half week's
earnings for a working prostitute. "Many said that they planned to return to their home
The Trial town," or so the Times sentimentalized. 7
From the trial Luciano went on to organize the prison at Dannemora. then the
New York dock workers, then the international drug trade. Dewey becamc governor of
the state of New York and candidate for the presidency in 1944 and 1948. The women,
Charles "Lucky Luciano" Lucania won his place in the pantheon who had served both men equally well, disappeared. as they do in the film, into the
of Depression Mafiosi by cornering a market more durable than liquor-the brothels of fog.
New York. His method was that of the simple "take-over," with promises of protection
from the law and fair treatment for all concerned. The reasons why the state of New
York decided to get Luciano were as politically and socially complex as those that drove
Capone out of Chicago-and fortunately need not concern us here. The state's instru-
208 Charles Eckert The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film 209

does not testify against Vanning. Then, in the middle of the scene, Graham becomes
pontifical and infmiatcs Mary:

The Film Graham: ow, Mary, we're trying to help you.
Mary: I'm doing all right.
Graham: for how long? Until Vanning gets as much as he can out of you
and then throws you in the ash can? Now, we're trying to put a
stop to that-help people like you. But there's nothing we can do
Now let us summarize the film that Warner's made to capitalize
unless you're willing to help yourself. ow, why don't you give us
upon this trial. with particular atlentiou to the affective split referred to earlier. In the
a break?
first sequence Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Cianelli) entcrs the Club Inti me, a dinncr- (passionately) What kind of break have you ever given us? Outside
club that he had just takcn over and intends to convert into a "classy" nightclub and of kicking us around every chance you get. There's only one kind
gambling room. He informs thc women who work therc, among them Mary Dwight of a break we want from you, and that's to leave us alone. (Voice
(Betic Davis), that he has all the clubs in town and the women who work in them rising) And lct us make a living in our own way! Or is that asking
"scwed up." Hc intends to "organizc" the placc and to give the women protection from too much? (Long pause) Anything else you want to know?
the law. In the course of the sequencc he fircs one of the women who looks too old to
be a hostess, is asked by Mary to let her stay on, relents, shows an interest in the The outhurst is over quickly, and the scene ends with Mary sullenly uncooperative.
outspokeu Mary, and is repulscd by her. Emotionally. all of thc dialogue is muted: But we havc been given another insight into the conditions and psychology of thc
Vanning is a study in icy cynicism; the women are apprehensive and morose. The women that diverts our attention back to the realities of the Luciano trial-and the
tonalities estahlished in this initial sequence are those that dominate the melodrama Depression itself.
throughout. In a series of rapid scenes Vanning's lawyer Gordon (John LiteJ) develops a plan to
Thc next scene shows us five of the women in an apartmcnt thcy rent together: ruin Graham: Mary will be told to "cooperate" but a bought witness will destroy
homey curtains, department-store art, an air of proletarian domesticity. Thcy enter Graham's case. When Mary is called into see Graham again, she pretends to be
depressed, discussing whether they should continue to work for Vanning. One of them terrificd of Vanning, but otherwise willing to cooperate. Thc characterization of Gra-
suggests that working in a factory or as a waitress would be preferable. Mary suddenly ham in this scene seems intentionally self-righteous. He tells Mary, "You're not the
interrupts with the first strongly felt language in the film: "We've all tried this hvelve- only one in the world who was born with two strikes against them. I probably got kicked
and-a-half-a-week stuff. It's no good. Living in furnished rooms. Walking to work. around just as much as you did. I didn't like It any better than you do. The only
Going hungry a couple of days a week so you can have some clothes to put on your differencc behveen us is that-well, I did something about it, you won't."
hack. I've had enough of that for thc rest of my life. So have you." And as for Vanning Pretcnding to be challenged by Graham, Mary agrecs to testify. The emotions of
and his hoods. "I knoll' all the angles. And I think I'm smart enough to keep one step the courtroom scene are largely played out in the faces of Mary and Betty. Mary allows
ahead of thcm until I get enough to pack it all in and live 011 easy street the rest of my herself to be accused of "entertaining" men after hours and grimly accepts the shame;
life. I know how to beat this racket.·' This insight into the real conditions of the Betty cannot look at her sister. The exchange between Graham and Mary at the end of
women's lives is so strongly assertivc that it momentarily diverts our attention from the the scene is cold: "Thanks for the ride." "So long chump, I'll be seeing you."
melodrama. The dilemma is as rcal, and as compelling. as it was for thc Helen Kelley Back in the apartment the contained emotions of the courtroom explode. Betty is
of the trial. convinced that her friends will have read their story in thc newspapers and that she
In the third scquence, wc arc hack at the Club. Thc womcn introducc themselves cannot go back to school. In a scene of mercurial emotions she and Mary bicker, then
to the "chumps" who have come to be bilked of their money, then two of thelll sing collapse weeping in each other's arms; again it is the women's exploitation and despair
songs compounded equally of cynicism and sentiment. Mar}' picks a man named that is forced on our attention.
Crawford who pays for his gambling losses with a bad check. leaves with Mary and is In the next scene we discover Betty sitting alone in the apartment, obviously
tailed to his hotel by Vanning's men. Mary rcturns to her room and is surprised by the unhappy. Emmy Lou enters and invites her to a party at Vanning's where, under the
visit of her innocent kid sistcr, Betty, in town for a football game. As the girls help Mary spell of liquor and gaiety, Betty acccpts thc advances of an experienced lecher. When
in her explanation that she is a fashion-model, the police enter with the ncws that she returns to the apartment with a onc-hundred-dollar bill, Mary knows where she
Crawford has been killcd and that Mary is implicated. All of the womcn are taken in, has been and is furious. Betty says that she is no dIfferent from Mary. that she has the
including Bctty. right to lead the same sort of life. Thcn shc goes back to the party.
Entcr David Graham (Humphrey Bogart), a jejune. dedicatcd prosecuting attorney On a balcony, against a background of drunken high life, she is again cornered by
who tells his chief that he thinks hc can get Vanning with the aid of the womcn hcr would-be scducer. As shc struggles to escape him, Vanning comes out and strikes
implicated in thc murder. He takcs Marl' to his office and thrcatcns to indict her if she her for "putting on an act." Betty falls, hits her head and is killed. Emrny Lou, the only
210 Charles Eckert r The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film 211
sympathetic witness, is warncd to keep her mouth shut. Mary learns of Betty's disap- word to those dames. If they talk, sure as my name's Johnny
pearance from the party and confronts Vanning, with a threat to "gct" him if anything Vanning, I'll get 'em.
has happcncd to Betty_ She then gocs to Graham-now reluctant to trust her-and
says shc will provide cvidence against Vanning. While they talk Graham receives a In a brief scene, the women, who have been imprisoned for their own protection,
report that Betty's body has becn fishcd from the rivcr. look out the window and sce one ofVanning's hoods staked out in the street. Then we
Graham comes to thc women's apartment and pleads with them to help him and are in the courtroom again. One by one the women take the stand and delivcr damning
Mary proscute Vanning. But the women feel that the law isn't for thcm; besides. anothcr evidence against Vanning and his men. Mary is the last, and as she recounts the details
gangster will take Vanning's place_ Shortly after Graham leaves, defeated, Vanning of her beating, she huns the right side of her face toward the camera. We see why she
cnters. In thc film's mast powerful scene Mary accuses Vanning of Betty's death and had scrcamed so desperately in the earlier scene: Gharlie has cut an X in her cheek-
swears she will tell the Dk Vanning calmly orders the other women into thc next room, Vanning's mark for those who double-cross him.
nods SIgnificantly to his strong-arm man, Gharlie, and follows the women out. The verdict is assured, but Graham's summation and appeal to the jury remain to
It would seem that the melodrama can no longer be plal'ed out in tcrms of glacial bc heard. The speech obviously transcends its function in the trial and is directed at the
confrontation. And yct it is. The camera stays in the room with Vanning and Mary's audience as a kind of thinking through of all of the issues presented in the film.
friends. First. in a long shot, we sce a picture jump on the wall from thc violencc of the You should consider not only Vanning the murderer, but also Vanning the Vice
beating in the ncxt room. As the beating continues, then is followed by a silencc cut by Gzar, who at this very moment is exacting his staggering tribute from a supine
an anguished scream, we move from one woman's face to anothcr--each an ambigu- and cowardly city.. . Out of all thc teeming millions of this great city only five
ous study in fear. rage and acceptance_ Quite fnrccfully we are rcminded that the girls had the courage to take thcir very lives in their hands and accuse Johnny
women have no strength of thcir own, no recourse for help, and no choice but to Vanning. In spite of all the threats of reprisal. __ they were ready to appear
accept his denigration by the men who cxploit them. But it is their condition, not the before you to testify. And let me be the first to admit the truth of the accusations
cruelty of Vanning, that thc visual treatmcnt underlines. that were brought against these girls in a desperate effort to discredit them.
Frankly they're. they're everything the defense has said they are. Their
Graham thcn sets out on a scarch for the only witness he can hope to shake. Emmy
characters are questionable, their profession unsavory and distasteful. Oh, it's
Lou. Vanning learns of Graham's scarch and sends his men to get her first. In a
not been difficult to crucify them. But it has been difficult to crucify the truth_
melodramatic chase scene, Emmy Lou escapcs from her pursuers. In the following And that truth is that these girls in the face of sheer, stark terrorism did appear in
sequcncc we are in a hospital room with Mary and her three remaining friends. Mary court, expose themselves to the public gaze, told the truth about themselves,
is wrapped in bandages. her face swollen and her eyes bruised. Her friends assure her told the world what they really are_ Well, then, surely you must believe that they
that she will be all right and that her scars can be disguised. Her reply is onc of thc most were telling the truth when they testified that Johnny Vanning was responsible
telling lines in thc film: "I got things wrong with me that all the doctors in the world for the death of Betty Strauber.
can't fix."
As Mary tells hcr fricnds that she can't pretend the beating didn't happen, Emmy In two short scenes the jury returns a verdict of guilty and the judge pronounces a
Lou enters. Both she and Mary weep as they recall Betty, and Emmy Lou agrees to talk sentence of 30 to 50 years, with the warning that if anything happens to the women the
to the DA- One of thc women argues against provoking Vanning: "You want to kcep on full sentence will be served. As reporters rush toward Graham, the five women rise
living, don't you?" Mary, her voice partly mufAed by her bandages. says, "If this is wbat slowly from their seats. "Well, that's that," Mary says_ "Game on kids. Let's go." Then
you call living, I don't want any part of it. Always being afraid. . Therc must be they walk unnoticed from the courtroom. As the women descend the steps, Graham
some other way for me to live. If there isn't, I-well, I'd just as soon put a bullet in my appears at the door. He calls Mary back.
bead right now and end it." A powerful Angst pcnetrates this scene, for which the Graham: You're the one who should be getting the congratulations, not
physical metaphors are Mary's battered face and listless voice. At this point Graham me.
cnters the room and is told that all of the women are ready to testify. Mary: Urn um. I don't want them.
We are next in Vanning's jail ceiL Gordon tells him he mnst makc a dcal, but Graham: But where will you go?
Vanning says that he doesn't make deals_ Then he launches into a speech that indicates Mary: Places.
to us that madness and the blindness of thc gods have descended upon him-that hc is Graham; But what will you do?
now marked for destruction. Mary: Oh, I'll get along, I always have.
Graham: Mary, I'd like to help you.
Vanning: You think 1 care for money? All] care about is to make people do Mary: (curious, .. and interested) Why?
what I tell them. Graham: Why. . because I ... because I think you've got a break
Gordon: You're crazy, Johnny. comin' to you.
Vanning: Yes. maybe I am. Maybe I ain't. [ just know one thing. J ain't Mary: (still curious) And?
gonna let no five crummy dames put the skids under me now. Get Graham: And I'd like to see that you get it.
2/2 Charles Eckert r The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film 213
Mary: (suddenly dejected) What's the use of stalling? We both live in women's questions; the intense confrontation with reality leads only to a stifling seman-
different worlds, and that's the way we've got to leave it. tic cul-de·sac from which they-and we-must escape. And the escape is exhilarat-
Graham: I don't want to leavc it that way. I once said to you that if you ever
ingly easy: we merely Icap into the alternative reality of the melodrama.
started helping yourself I'd be the first onc to go to bat for you,
This leap is typical of what are usually call cd "proletarian" or "socially conscious"
am] that still goes. No mattcr what you do or where you go. we'll
meet again. films of the thirties and very early forties. One can specify the exact moment at which
Mary: Goodbye, Graham. I'll be seeing you. they occur in such films as Public Enemy, Crime School, Dead End. Angels with Dirty
Faces. Invisible Stripes. The Big Shot. They Drive by Night and othcrs. The leap is by
Mary descends the steps to join her friends as a melancholy blues theme swells on Its nature dialectical (from one ordcr of experience to an opposite order); and we
the sound track. As they walk into the engulfing fog, the camera picks thcm out in a thereforc encounter a scries of inversions To return to our immediate example,
senes of close-ups. The women stare straight ahead. their faces crased of all emotion, Marked Woman. we fiud, lirst of all, an inversion of emotions: from scenes of wceping,
almost of lifc-walking deliberately toward the fog as if they accepted it as their natural dcpression, and apathy wc move to melodramatic sccnes in which thc characters
element. Behind them, in the bright doorway, there are voices: "How about a couple of project the sort of controlled affect cpitomized in the terms "tough," "smart," and
pictures of our next OAt· "what do you mean, DA? If he isn't our next governor, he "smooth." Spontancity has no place in this world; if the face breaks at all, it is into a
ought to have his head examined," smirk or a Icer; and the expression is as calculated as a grammarian's comma. There is
also an inversion of activities: from circular. frustrated behavior wc move to highly
motivated actions, saturated with purpose. One is out to serve one's interests, to rid
society of corruption, to "gel" somebody.
Structure Obviouslv all activities and emotions at this level are surrogate. And any return to
the depictio~' of real conditions may bring this fact home to the audience and destroy
the illusion, and the function, of the melodrama. In Public Enemy, Grime School, and
similar films the depiction of real conditions is limited to the first third or half of the
1'v1arked Woman is vintage Warner's cinema brut-aesthetically film. These depictions oftcn function as explanations. and partial cxonerations, for
spare, almost devoid of metaphoric effects achieved with thc camera or lighting. Any criminality. Once the melodrama asserts itself strongly, howcver, thcre is no break
veneer of mcaning upon that projeetcd by the faces and words of the actors most likely while it runs its coursc.
originates in our empathy for the women's conditions and the sense that these are But it is precisely this e1ear function of the melodrama that is lacking in Marked
mirrored in the barren mise-en-scene. Because of this aesthetic minimal ism, the struc- Woman. Not only do the real conditions assert themselves in scenes throughont the
tural split that I have outlined in the previous summary is all the more forcefully film, they dominate the crucial final scene. The dialectic eomcs close to being a
experienccd. One sct of scenes develops a standard melodrama concerned with the contradiction as we realize that the cxpected denouement of the melodrama has been
outrages and the eventual destruction of a stereotyped villain. Another set, composed frustrated. There is also. as a e10se viewing of the film would demonstrate. occasional
of Mary's outbursts to her friends and 10 Graham, her quarrels with Betty, the study of penctration of the attitudes typical of the real conditions into the melodrama-
the women's faces while Mary is bcing bcaten. Mary's thoughts of suicide. and thc alienation, apathy, and confusion. As I will show in the ncxt section, the whole ethos
striking eonelusion (all of them strongly affective), comprises a separate order of experi- of the melodrama is affected-thc women are not altering their conditions. and the
ence And yet there secms to be somc necessitous link between the two orders. as if one destruction of Vanning does not accomplish anything.
gave rise to thc other or W,IS a precondition of its cxisting: how else could Ihey maintain Gcrtainl>' the massive dose of reality infused into thc film by its topical sources
so dialectical a relationship throughont the film? could bc responsible for these effccts. But there are other and more proximate causes.
Perhaps we can begin to understand the rcasons for the split by looking closely at Through analysis of passages in which thc ethos IS developcd we can perhaps come
the scencs concerned with thc real conditions of the women's lives. Each of these closer to them.
scenes is characterized by forceful emotion and some attempt to eonceplualize the
dilemmas that the women facc. These attcmpts, as [ shall show in dctail later, arc
frustratingly confused: there is no clear analysis of their situation or the causes of then
misery, but rather a muddled pointing at this, that. or m'lybe that-an obfuscation that
paralyzes the mind. At this Icvel the exploitcd have no cxploiter-or. at best, a faceless
one called "life" or "the way things arc," The true exploiters-the capitalist system.
sexism. pcrnicious ideologies-are vaguely immanent in sOllie of Mary's outbursts, but
reeedc likc ghosts as quickly as they are glimpsed. The degree of emotion in these Sincc every ethos presents itself as a unified body of polarized
seencs secms directly related to their dead·enderlncss. There are no answers 10 the conceptions we need for our analysis a mcthodology attuned to polarity. The form of
214 Charles Eckert The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film 215

structural analysis developed by Levi-Strauss, although idealist and limited in vision, witty people people who lead the right life
can help us here. Two of Uvi-Strauss's insights are specially provocative: that a [modern people] old fashioned people
dilemma (or contradiction) stands at the heart of every living myth, and that this sophisticated people common people
dilemma is expressed through layered pairs of opposites which are transformations of a swing music, risque jokes the m usie of bi rds
primary pair. The impulse to construct the myth arises from the desire to resolve the wreath of holly garden
dilemma; but the impossibility of resolving it leads to a crystal-like growth of the myth [nightclub life] home life
through which the dilemma is repeated, or conceived in new terms, or inverted-in
short, subjected to intellectual operations that might resolve it or attenuate its force. All of these are rather obviously transformations of a simple, more basic pair, city
We can best locate the important ethical dilemmas in Marked Woman by close inspec- life:small town life (with agrarian overtones). This opposition is amplified in the film
tion of individual scenes. through the use of many codes of dress, speech and taste. Working-class apartment
In preparation for what follows, an extensive structural analysis of Marked Woman decor clashes with penthouse decor, Mary's plain dresses with her silver lame hostess
was made, the recounting of which would demand more interest and patience than I gown, Emmy Lou's curled blond hair with Betty's plain brunct, Craham's law-school
can presume in a general audience. The method, however, is illustrated here. My English with Mary's terse vernacular. The cily:small town opposition. which has a
selection of only a few passages for analysis is motivated by an additional consideration: long history in the Hollywood film, turns up frequently, and somewhat unexpectedly,
the fact that Marked Woman, like most works of popular art, relies upon a few in many gangster films. For instance, it utterly polarizes such films as The Roaring
dilemmas and a limited number of transformations of them. It is initially difficult to Twenties, King of the Underworld, High Sierra, and It All Came True; and it has
grasp the relationships between transformations and to find one's way to the crucial crucial functions in Little Caesar, The Big Shot, Public Enemy and others. We can
dilemmas. Only concrete examples will illustrate what I mean. Let us begin with a return to this opposition later; for the moment I merely want to define the primary
very simple but typical transformational set found in a song sung by one of the women opposition that thc song transforms into many pairs, As we look over these oppositions
in an early nightclub scene (the two songs in the film, by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, we note that all of them are simple transformations, with one striking exccption-the
seem expressly written to reAect the women's attitudes, or chosen because of their opposition "witty people":"people who lead the right life." We can reduce this to the
content). crucial terms "witty" and "right." The opposition is at first sight illogical. "Witty"
demands as its antonym a term that implies witlessness: the common adjective "dumb"
City people pity people (dumb cop, dumb blonde) is perhaps the propcr one. "Right," of course. demands
Who don't know a lot "wrong." As we rcad the opposition, then, we take "witty" as a metonym for "wrong"
About the night life, and "right" as a metonym for "dumb." Because the opposition demands interpretation,
But they are wrong. it is the most foregrounded and active in the song; and because of its doubled
Though they may be witty people, metonymic character it comes across as a pair of dilemmas: why, we ask, is wittiness
They don't know that folks wrong? Why is dumbness right? These simple dilemmas are, by context of the song,
Who lead the right life related to the primary opposition of city lifc and small town life. Before analyzing this
Still get along. relation let us note the appcarance of these dilemmas in other parts of the film.
Mary Dwight's first outburst directed at Vanning contains these lines directed both
To a plain old fashioned couple at Vanning and at her conditions: "I know all the angles. And I think I'm smart enough
Let me dedicate my song. to keep one step ahead of them until I get enough to pack it all in and live on easy street
the rest of my life.. , I know how to beat this racket." Mary's concerns, seen in the
They're not sophisticated people,
larger context of Amertean puritanism, are self-centered and hedonistic, and therefore
And though they're only common folk,
"wrong." If we miss the pomt hcre, we cannot miss it in Graham's remarks to Mary just
You don't know how [ envy people
Like Mr. and Mrs. Doe. before they receive news of Betty's death (a kind of moral punishment for Mary): "You
know what's right and you know what's wrong. You know bettcr but you just won't do
They don't know much about swing music, anything about it. You choose to think that you can get through the world by outsmart-
They wouldn't care for risque jokes, Ing it. Well, I've learned that those kind of people generally end up by outsmarting
But every morning birds sing music themselves." And, finally, there is an almost syllogistic example in the argument
For Mr. and Mrs. Doe. betwecn Mary and l1etty:
Betty: 1£ 1 can't live one way I can live another. Why not? I'm young and
The lyric continues, devcloping variations on the basic oppositions found in these pretty and.
stanzas, so that we wind up with the following essential pairs (in the following analysis Mary: And dumb!
a colon means "is opposed to" and brackets indicate an implied term): Betty: But you're smart! You can teach me the rest.
216 Charles Eckert
f The Allatomy of a Proletarian Film 217

There are other examples which show the dilemma bound up in the use or disuse Class consciousness (and class prejudice) figures strongly in this complex, however
of one's wits. But how is it related to the regional opposition representcd by citpmall tritcly conceived. And we are suddenly made aware of the absence of class oppositions
town' More spcci fica lIy, is either opposition seminal for the other and therefore the of this sort in thc song previously cited, and in the film as a whole. Prostitutes, the song
"crucial" dilemma we arc seeking? We should first recall some key refercnces: Mary reminds us, follow their trade, like thc Helen Kelley of the trial, "to solve an economic
and Betty came from a small town; Betty feared returning because of a scandal; and the problem." Only Mary's early allusions to making "twelve and a half a week" and going
women in the Luciano trial were threatened with exposure in their home-town l1eIl'SI)<1- hungry two days out of seven strikes at the heart of her dilemma-and the force of this
pers. Mary's wrong use of her wits should prob'lbly bc secn, thcn, as a city-orientcd passage is vitiated by the immediate characterization of Mary as grcedy for "easy street"
trait, somcthing she has learncd through contact with mcn like Vanning. Bul there is luxuries to be won b}' the (wrong) usc of her wits. Or at least it apparently is, since our
something recessive about the city:small town opposition, and it seems more in keep- attention is shiftcd to the ethical (and implicit regional) dilemmas defined earlier. This
ing with the cmphasis in thc film to see thc right:wrong opposition as seminal. If we movement from incipient class or economic protest to ethical dilemma can bc found
did, we would <1frive at a familiar characterization of the film; we would sec it as a kind elsewhcrc, and in crucial scenes: in Mary's cncounters with Graham in his officc, in
of exemplum or moral fable. And yet such a definition would have to ignore the scenes Graham's visit to the apartment, in the hospital scene, and in the obtuse summary for
lhat seem most striking-those in which the 1I'0men are depicted as disconsolate, angry the prosecution. But all of this only compounds our problem: what do wc have here-
or apathetic. Thesc are not morally toned attitudes as arc those of hedonistic ambition merely obfuscation as the result of ccnsorship, or another form of transformation?
and egotism. If there were a primary pair to which all the oppositions we have so far O~dl1ction has probably taken us as far as it can, so let us proceed inductively. If we
mentioned were relatcd, as well as the opposition between real conditions and melo- posited that the roots of Marked Woman arc in class opposition and that its ethos is the
drama, one would feel that the analysis was more true to the whole film and that it product of "displacement" as Freud defines this term (the substitution of an acccptable
respected the complex interaction bctween ideas and cmotions that the film maintains. object of love, hate, etc., for a forbidden one), we would be able to sce thc relation
For a fresh start. let us look at a quite different set of oppositions, one found in a between class opposition and ethical dilemma as both the product of censorship and as
song sung immediately before thc one already analyzed: transformational. The irresolvability of crucial dilemmas in myths leads to their trans-
formation into other dilemmas. The intent is to resolve the dilemma at another level,
Ain't it funny that paper money or to somehow attenuate its force. If elass opposition is regarded as seminal, its
Don't seem like genuine jack? displacement into ethical, regional and other oppositions can be sccn as both the result
And every check has the knack of conscious censorship and a myth-like transposition of thc conAicl into new terms.
Of jumpin' and humpin' and bouncin' back' The latter is an unconscIOus or less conscious procedure whcrcby the force of the
I like nothin' but silver dollars opposition is diminished while its form and some of its substance are retained.
And I've collected a few. The effect in thc film is for the ethical and regional dilemmas to function as
When silvcr starts in ringin', displaced. and partly defused, class oppositions. They can still feel like class opposi-
It rings so true. tions and be treated as such by the writers and director; the city with its penthouses and
limousines can function as reified capitalism; wittiness can be allied to the manipula-
My silvcr dollar man, tions of financiers; all of this can be given high resolution by the use of visual coding-
He ain't a tic-and-collar man. skyscrapers, tuxedos, one-hundred-dollar bills; but every thrust of class or economic
A rough and rcady man, protest is sufficiently blunted to avoid breaking the skin.
But hc's a mighty steady man. But all of the relations I have examined need a more exact formulation, one that
And though he can't supply must include a major figure that I have so far only mentioned-the gangster. As the
A lot of luxuries that J dcmand, autarch of the universe the women inhabit, his class affiliations, his goals and his
he never leaves me till he leaves psychology need close examination.
A bit of silvcr in my hand.

Obviously the major function of the song is to valorize the poor: the poor man is the
true man; shc would love him even if he had no money (his povert)' and his class The Gangster
valorize him), But there is more at work in the song. The principle oppositions are:

rough and ready man tic-and-collar man
silver dollars papcr money Unquestionably Marked Woman, like many films of its genre,
[sufficiency] luxury transmits a sense of compassion for the poor and the exploited. But at the level of real
218 Charles Eckert The Anatamy of a Proletarian Film 219

conditions we cannot tell why the poor are poor nor who their exploiters are. Instead of him as a killer Jiving on Manhattan's east side, but rather a broker with an apartment
real opposition and conAict we encounter substitute formations-principally dialecti- on Park Avenue."s And of Monte Blue in Skin Deep (1929), "The gangster chief is
cal movements betwcen such feeling states as anger and apathy or despair and scnti- always to be seen attired in excellent taste. . . . Curiously enough, the master mind's
mentalism. Sentimentalism scems to function as the most retrograde of the many henchmen are usually the lowest underworld types, presenting a ludicrous contrast.,,9
possible states. As 'I tendency toward passive compassion, toward meditative solipsism, Curious indeed, but not inexplicable. So much did the gangster resemble a blue-blood
it contains nothing insurrectionary, no components of hostility or criticism. It cannot financier that he needed crude, proletarian sidekicks to make his criminality manifest.
be a coincIdence that so many proletarian films head unerringly toward sentiment in The physical image, demeanor and speech were most important, but, in addition,
their final reels. When, in The Roaring Twenties, Eddie (Jamcs Cagney) lies dying on the early gangster was often an explicit capitalist in his methods. Huston, in The
thc steps of a church while "Melancholy Baby" is heard on the sound track and his Ruling Class (1931), headed what he called a "board of directors" who received checks
motherly friend Panama weeps over him, a lumpen pieta mitigates whatevcr social according to what they had accomplished. And this whole group of gangsters fre-
criticism the film has made. quently dealt in "gilt-edged securities," diversified their interests, and invested in
Opposition is only fully manifested when we make the leap into melodrama. This businesses. Their principal occupation, of course, was bootlegging, an activity that
leap is subjectively fulfilling and clarifying: the exploitcd now have an exploiter in the required organization, the careful division of "territories," and legal and political
gangster-a figure subjected to an almost cosmic overdetermination. If displacement is manipulation.
the principal Freudian mechanism at work in the ethos, it is largely condensation that Class eonAict and implicit criticism of the world of business and finance are
produces the gangster. Condensation, to give it its simplest definition, is a process unmistakable in these films, lying so near the surface that they frequently shoulder
whereby a number of discrete traits or ideas are fused in a single symbol. Each their way free. It is interesting that films of this era dealing directly with capitalists and
component is usually an abbreviatcd reference to something larger than itself, a sort of "millionaires," of which there were a great many, took the uncontroversial form of love
mctonym that must be interpreted properly if we are to understand its discrete signifi- romances, fantasies (inheriting a fortune) or comedies. The mask of the gangster film,
cance as well as its relation to other components in the symbol. By 1937 thc figure of fragile as it was, seems to have provided the right degree of displacement needed at this
the gangster had acquired a remarkable symbolic richness. Every personal mannerism time for class criticism.
and every artifact of his world resonated with meaning. And he had also become a vade While this first generation of gangsters still dominated the screcn, the second had
mecum for anyone in search of a scapegoat. The judge, in his presentence speech to made its appearance in the person of George Bancroft, the star of Underworld (1927),
Johnny Vanning, pronounces him "a low and brutal character, an unprincipled and Tenderloin (1928), Thunderbolt (1929), and The Mighty (1929). Bancroft's lower-class
aggressive egotist." Vanning is guilty of "every vicious and reprehensible crime." origins were egregiously conveyed by his simpleton grin, his oversize hands and nose,
Such attcmpts to blame the gangster for all important civic ills werc, of course. his rough vitality and illiteracy. He is the most important progenitor of the type
abetted by the tabloid exposes of criminals like Luciano. But it would be shortsighted, elaborated by Cagney, Robinson, Gable, Raft (in his early films), Carillo, Muni,
and ultimately confusing, to look to real criminals for the prototypes of Johnny McLaglen, and Eduardo Cianelli (Vanning). The shift in type must be the result of
Vanning. We must start with thc gangsters found in the films themselves and note their many forces. Before the stock-market crash the aristocratic gangster may have absorbed
most common traits. Althougb the discussion will initially take us afield, it should lead some of the resentment normally directed at the wealthy; but public attitudes were
us to a more exact understanding of Vanning, his relation to the women he exploits, suddenly less mild; they were, indeed, sour and embittered. Instinct and a sense of the
and his function in the structure I have outlincd. In a film made up of many spc- audience's mood must have played their parts, along with the rise of proletarian
cificities, he is the most generalizcd, and traditional. objcct. sympathies, the clamor against glorifying the criminal, "Latinizing" as a method of
We must distinguish, first of all, between two almost antithetical images of the rendering the criminal comic (Raft, Carillo) or of making him an acceptable scapegoat
gangster. The first obtained between 1927 and 1931 and was projected by such actors (Cianelli), and other factors.
as John Gilbcrt, Conrad Nagel, Walter Huston. William Boyd. Lowell Sherman, The end result, howevcr, was to invert the class image in terms of pbysical appear-
Richard Dix and Monte Bluc. The type is basically Anglo-Saxon, aristocratic, polished ance and life-style and to bring the forces of displaccment and condensation into full,
in speech and bearing. and dressed in the formal clothing of the wealthy (often whitc compensatory action. In general, the gangster retains his taste for formal dress, silk
tic and tails or morning suits). Thc same actors could, and did, readily play thc roles of scarves and spats, but he usually looks arriviste or anthropoidal when wearing them.
artistocrats and pillars of the community. Walter Huston. for instance, appcared as a His capitalist affinities are more covertly projected by his language. his philosophy and
bank prcsidcnt in American Madness (1932) and as the Presidcnt of the United States his methods.
in Gabriel Over the White House (1933). The advent of sound, of course, makes displacement into language possible and
The elass image of this species of gangster was frequently commented on by revicw- somewhat lessens the need for forceful visual coding. The gangster's speech, however,
ers. Speaking of Johll Gilbert III Four Walls (1928) the New York Times reviewer said, is not simply a substitute code-it is a partial disguise. The accent and vocabulary tell
"Mr. Horowitz is so careful regarding the cut of his elothes, the selectioll of his necktie, us that he is lower-class, and yet a lexicon of business terms surrounds him like an
the spotlessness of his linen and the combing of his hair that one could never imagine afAatus: "I got a ;ob for you," "I own city hall," "This is a business," "Let's give him the
220 The Anatomy o{ a Praletarian Film
Charles Eckert 221

business," 'The business end of a gun." When, in The Roaring Twenties, a young madness. The Charles Poster Kanes of Hollywood have their Aaws, but they die in beds
lawyer tells Cagney, "This isn't my kind of law. I started out to be a corporation reeking of mystified capital, reverentially pitied by those they have exploited, awesome
lawyer. ,. Cagney, who has invested his bootlegging profits in a Aeet of 2, 000 cabs, says, to the end. Only obfuscated capitalists like Vanning arc sent to prison-or die, like
"This is a corporation. We're making money." In the opening scene of Marked Woman Little Caesar. in the litter behind a billboard.
Vanning strolls about the Club Intimc giving orders in his broken Italianate English
that demonstrate his organizational astuteness even as they reveal his illiteracy. But
there is no need to elaborate this all too familiar element. What is Important is its
function as one trait in thc condensed figure of the gangster. Conclusion
Equally active are the conceptions that the gangster is egotistic, ruthlesslyacquisi-
tive, and ambitious to control or torment other people. The formation is. of course,
the classic I'reudian anal-sadistic. These two traits, when they appear In adults. arc
usually fused. It is important, therefore, to note that they are frequently presented as Throughout the analysis I have attemptcd to stick to the task of
separate poles of the gangster's character, between which a contradiction may arise. A applied criticism. I have dcliberately slighted discussions of methodology because the
clear statement of the contradiction is Vanning's "You think I care for money? All I prospect of validating the several methods I cmploy and then pushing all of that
care about is to makc people do what I tell them." The formulation is at least as old as abstract lumber ahead of me through so lengthy an analysis was, frankly, overwhelm-
Little Caesar: "Yeh, money's all right, but it ain't everything. Naaa, be somebody. ing (it would also make a monograph of what was intcnded to be an article). I trusted, [
Look hard at a buneha guys and know that they'll do anything ya tell'cm. Have your hope correctly, that the many methodological articlcs now appearing in film magazines
own way or nothin'. Be somebody!" would provide a rear-projection against which my analysis would seem to move. My
The anal-sadistic formation is, of coursc, appropriate to the rcal capitalist character, essential ingredients are Marxist, Freudian, and structuralist; but I would argue that
but the emphasis upon sadism to the cxclusion of acquisitivcness has an obscuring the mixture is not heretically eclectic: structures and their permutations are central to
effect upon the gangster's identity, since it tells us that the formal clothes, limousincs each form of analysis, making them complementary and intrinsically suited to the task
and penthouses arc not his goals in lifc. Capitalists, in popular mythology, may be of illuminating a work rooted in class eonAict. The idealist tendency of structuralism
predominantly intcrested in controlling people, too, but they are always intcrested in docs not, I believe, invalidate it for a specific role in an ongoing materialist criticism:
wealth, and their sadism is not self-destructive or insane. Their cruelty reAects their the description of transformational operations. The substallce, causes, and significance
alienation and loneliness-they are men who can possess Xanadu but not Rosebud. of these operations must, of course, be sought for in the material realms of history and
This pernicious conception, designed to placate the dispossessed, is also latent in those psychology-and I have, at least, begun this search.
scenes in which the gangster finds himself alone; but it is not central. The sadism of the But I have not yet sorted out the relations berwcen the levcls of opposition that were
gangster functions morc as a device than a trait: when it asserts itself we know that he is defined in the discussion of the ethos. The analysis of the figurc of the gangster serves, I
marked for destruction and that the melodrama will shortly complete its course. believe, to support the contention that Marked Woman is rooted in class conAict. It
Robert Warshow's wcll-known analysis of the tragic arc of the gangster's life is would be absurd to argue that this insight exhausts the film; but it does satisfy the
germane here. 10 The dcfinition is, however, almost exclusively formal and generic; requirement for an optimal criticism: one that illuminates the aesthetics, form and
although it accounts well for the gangster's function in the melodrama, it misses an content of a work, as well as its relation to its era and to its creators. Class opposition, as
important function of the melodrama itself. The class criticism displaced upon the we have seen, IS displaced into a number of surrogate eonAicts, most of which obtain at
gangster's mcthods, tastes and acquisitiveness is obscured by his transformation into a the level of the melodrama where the exploited face an unequivocal exploiter. Ethical
sadistic villain who deserves his death solely for his cruelty. His exploitative methods, dilemmas appear first. The intensity with which they are expressed seems proportion-
unlike those of the wealthy, are ultimately crude and palpable, and he can be brought ate to the intensity of the real-life dilemmas they displace; and their muddled logic
to thc bar of justice or shot like a mad dog without guilt. reAects, in part, a struggle between desires to articulate and to repress class eonAiets. As
Clearly, many more forces impinge upon the portrait of a gangstcr like Vanning we move up the chain of displacement to the regional oppositions, class conAict is
than upon his aristocratic predecessors. The total effect is to almost obscure his signifi- more covertly represented; as a result, there is less need for obfuscations and the
cance bchind a semantic welter, making him both exploiter and one of the exploited, oppositions arc clearly and richly developed through the use of many codes. There are,
indeterminatc in class, after money but contemptuous of it, descrving of his death but in addition, toual overlays (toughness, sentimentality), which cover the film like a
somehow pitiable. His most important function, however, is to be the exploiter, to skin, masking the real and substitnte conAicts alike, and enticing the audience into
cause civic corruption, and to create the existential hell that Mary Dwight and her solipsism and false emotion.
friends awaken to every morning. Vanning's penthouse is Ihe reified suffering of his Marked Woman was produccd toward the end of a rather bone-weary tradition. It is
enslaved "girls," and his white silk scarf is the badge of his class. But Jest we smcll oul often mindlessly trite and perfunctory. But its makers had read their way through a
his precise identity, we are faced with his illiteracy, his disinterest in money, and his depressing court record of real exploitation and suffering, and they approached the task
Charles Eckert The Anatomy of a PmletoT/oll FIlm 223
of making the film somewhat as adversaries. If, limited by ability, temperament and
studio realities, they could only produce another melodrama, they could at least'denv
it a ful/life. By centering their attention upon the women, they mitigated some of th~
worst effects of the melodramatic form-and most certainly lessened their personal Addendum: Shall We Deport Levi-Strauss?
sense of venality.
As the women descend from the courthouse steps we know that they face a world
without Vanning, but one in which they will still be exploited. If their exploitation is
not analyzed, it is at least acknowledged and located in the real world. And yet-and In a recent artiele, "The English Cine-Structuralists" (Film
Comment, May-June J 973), I reviewed Ihe work of a group of English critics whom
yet-the melancholy blues theme rises on the sound track. Sentimentalism beckons;
I designated "auteur-structuralists." faulting some of them for what I considered an
after all they are only women and their lot is suffering. Suddenly evcrything that has
improper and unproductive application of thc structural method of Levi-Strauss to
been gained seems perilously compromised. But against the music the camera pits the
the study of directors. I also dcscrihed Levi-Strauss's method and discussed its applica-
faces of the women. Bette Davis and the other actresses, who must have understood it
tion to other areas of lilm study (really my principal interest). My artiele was
all better than the men they worked for, cut through the swelling mystification with
intendcd to he an informative survey of what had been done and a suggestive prole-
tough, implacable expressions. Let the Warner's music weep; the women me as alien-
gomenon to what might be attempted. The article has now received attacks (consider-
ated as the street, and they wil/ not be sentimentalized.
ate, but damaging) from Ceoffrcy Nowell-Smith and Brian Henderson, both of
whom point up what can only he called the assIduous naivete of portions of my
article. I Perhaps I shouldn't bother to respond. but I fcar that if I don't, my artiele
will continue to stand in opposition to their criticisms; and I would like to rise in my
Notes pew and acknowledge this Rosemary's Baby-after all, acceptance hrought Mia Far-
row some measure of peace.
My artiele was written at a moment whcn I was only half-emcrged from a
fetishistic attachmcnt of Levi-Strauss's method. My infatuation had no grounds in
I. Readers familiar with Althusser's "The 'Piccolo Teatro'; Bertolazzi and Brecht" reprinted in
theory; it was merely idolatry, deriving from a long-standing interest in myth and
For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster ( ew York: Random House. 1969), will recognize both my
indebtedness to this essay and the many ways in which I deviate from it. I have also benefited ritual and my sense that Levi-Strauss had provided the logico-mathematical tools by
from Karyn Kay's study of iVfarked Woman. "Sisters of the ight," The Velvet Light Trap, Fall which they werc henceforth and forever to be comprehended. Films were like myths,
1972. pp. 20-25. I rcasoned, since they were communal in origin (Hollywood, or a given studio, could
2. The New York Times, May 26. 1936. p. 2. f follow the Times account throughout because of constitute a community-why not?); and directors might function as creators of
Its immediacy. There are more elaborate reports in Hickman Powell, Ninety Times Guilty myths (l adduced Renoir and othcrs on the subject of thc artist as myth-maker). But
(New York; Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1939), and in issues of Liberty magazine published soon after the article was sent off I cncountered Marvin Harris's destructive expose of
soon after the Irial. Warner's acquired the rights to the Liberty material (which was based on Levi-Strauss's idealist premises in his The Rise of Anthropological Theory. Harris, a
interviews with only two informants, "Cokey Flo" Brown and Mildred Harris) and used it as Marxist anthropologist, meets Levi-Strauss on his own grounds and demonstrates that
the ostensible basis for the film.
3. Ibid.. p. 2. his almost cxclusive concern with mental structures arose from his early grounding of
4. Ibid.• p. 2. kinship structure in the theory of reciprocal gift-giving. Levi-Strauss reasoned that
5. Ibid., May2), p. 4. mcn exchange gifts (the most important being women) bccause of a universal psycho-
6. Ibid., June 8, p. 8. logical need arising from "certain fundamental structurcs of the human mind." But,
7. IbId., June 13, p. 6. Harris asks, Candide-like, "if reciprocity is so fundamental to the human psyche,
8. The New York Times Film Reviews, t (New York Times and Arno Press: New York 1970) p why do we have the ancient and contemporary condition of the opulent and powerful
465. ' •
haves (possessing, among thcir valuables, more than their share of women) and the
9. Ibid, p. 558. miscrable havc-nots?" In gencral, Harris argues, "Levi-Strauss's picture of the human
10. 'The Gangster as Hero" in The Immediate ExpeTlellce( ew York: Doubleday and Co., J962), psychological landscape is . . . noteworthy for its disregard for the biopsychological,
pp. 127-H.
emotional, and affcctivc drives and instincts. Hunger. sex, fcar, love, are present, but
they seem to be periphcral. More important for the French structuralist program is
thc basic propensity of the human mind to build logical categories by mcans of
hinary contrasts. For Levi-Strauss such oppositions or dualities lie at the bottom of
large portions if not the totality of sociocultural phenomena."z Harris's entire discus-
224 Charles Eckert The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film 225
sion, which surveys the history of idealism in French anthropology, should disabuse severs films from their existential roots, obviates the need for an abundance of facts,
anyone of Levi-Straussian hero-worship. and makes the relining of concepts both easy and seemingly important.
J still felt, however, that my article had value as a survey of a group of English A less simple issue is the status of Levi-Straussian "dilemmas" of the sort that I
auteur critics united by their use of structural method. But my unambitious history-of- isolated and discussed in my recent article on Marked Woman (Film Quarterly, Winter
ideas approach ( lowell-Smith begat Wollen begat Lovell) turns out to be inadequate 1973-74). In the conclusion I stated that "The idealist tendency of structuralism does
because it is, as Nowell-Smith patiently demonstrates, "empiricist idealist"; because I not. I believe, invalidate it for a specific role in an ongoing materialist criticism: the
was ignorant as to why this group of critics was attracted to structural method; and description of transformational operations." I was forced into this pragmatism by an
because my provincial Indiana situation led me to presume that English critics con- awareness of a methodological split that had devcloped in the process of writing the
tacted each other's ideas (as [ do) by reading criticism. But, owcll-Smith informs us article. Beginning with an idealist structural analysis of Marked Woman I found that
(in a passage as full of surprises as a pinata), the critics concerned were not attracted to the transformations I was dealing with could only bc comprehended through the Freud-
structuralism because they wanted to import Levi-Strauss into film study, but rather ian operation of displacement, and accounted for by a recourse to the Marxist notion of
because they were seeking in the notion of structuralism "a materialist (or if you prefer class conRict and its censorship in ideology. Since both Freud and Marx are structural-
objective) basis for the concept of authorship" redefined "as to take account both of the ist in the broadest sense of the term (they deal in polarities and their structured
specifics of film production, which seem at first sight to deny the concept of the author! relationships), I reasoned that I was merely being eclectic in wedding them to Levi