MelodramaMELODRAMA AND MEANING
MELODRAMA AND FILM STUDIES
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN FILM THEORY
Few artistic movements have provoked such strong emotions as has melodrama over the years. From sneers of derision to tears of empathy, melodrama has the peculiar facility to divide and polarize popular and critical opinion. The study of the origin and influence of melodrama in cinema has likewise generated more heated and contradictory debate than perhaps any other area of enquiry within film scholarship and criticism. Melodrama cannot be defined simply as a genre, as it frequently defies attempts at generic classification. Rather, the history of the term's use in film scholarship demonstrates many of the debates and limitations of genre theory.
Melodrama is a word with at least three distinct meanings and there has been a tendency in critical debate to slip from one context to another in using the term.
First, melodrama refers to a specific theatrical genre that emerged in Europe, especially France and England, during the late eighteenth century and became extremely popular during the nineteenth century. The term was originally used by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) to describe his play Pygmalion (1770). Rousseau wished to distinguish between the staging of his own production and the popular Italian opera, using the term "mélodrame" to describe a form of drama where music would accompany the spoken word to embellish and accentuate the emotional content of the dialogue. While Rousseau's dramatic innovation was a short-lived phenomenon, it eventually provided the name for a new and popular theatrical genre that emerged as a consequence of licensing legislation introduced for the regulation of theater in the two countries. A further distinction began to be made during the late eighteenth century between the licensed, "legitimate" theater that was legally able to stage plays and the "illegitimate," popular theaters where the spoken word was not permitted. It was in such theaters that a new form of entertainment started to emerge that combined music, dance, drama, and older folk entertainment forms such as pantomime, circus, and harlequinade in ever more sophisticated and spectacular forms. Thus the melodrama was born.
At a narrative level, the melodrama of the period was marked by its concern with complex and sensational narratives involving devices such as mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, stolen inheritances, star-crossed lovers, and the eternal struggle between good and evil, often represented by the virtuous poor being oppressed by decadent aristocrats and, increasingly during the nineteenth century, by the heartless industrialist. Although the licensing acts that contributed to the emergence of melodrama were repealed during the final years of the eighteenth century in France and the early nineteenth century in England, melodrama's popularity was such that it became perhaps the most ubiquitous of theatrical forms during the nineteenth century, developing, during the course of that century, an increasingly sophisticated formal language. Elaborate staging techniques, including the development of technological innovations that enabled rapid scene changes, the use of revolves and pulleys (to produce the effect of parallel action and scenes) and, above all, the use of spectacle became central features of theatrical melodrama. All of these narrative, stylistic, and technical devices, well established by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, clearly influenced the development of early narrative cinema, which drew very clearly on the established and popular theatrical genre of melodrama. The work of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), for example, is clearly indebted to theatrical melodrama; indeed, several of his films, most notably Orphans of the Storm (1921), were adaptations of popular theatrical melodramas.
Second, melodrama and "melodramatic" are terms that have a popular, common-sense usage as pejorative descriptions usually relating to a specific performance or narrative style regarded as artificial, excessively emotional, unrealistic, or anachronistic. This use of the term sees melodrama as formulaic, sentimental, old-fashioned, and inferior to "serious" drama; it is often equated with soap opera. This value judgment regarding melodrama has frequently been applied to cinema aimed at a female audience and/or films featuring female protagonists. There is a clear yet problematic link made in such usage between excessive emotion, sentimentality, and the feminine or feminine concerns. This is an issue that many feminist film scholars have discussed, most notably Christine Gledhill, Pam Cook, and Laura Mulvey, all of whom have noted that ostensibly male critics and directors have designated the many so-called "woman's films" of Classical Hollywood as melodrama and as a consequence have diminished the female point of view and the concerns that such films attempt to address. Stella Dallas (1937), for example, and Mildred Pierce (1945), both regarded as "maternal melodramas," tell stories of mothers who struggle to achieve financial and social acceptance and security primarily for the sake of less than grateful children. Now, Voyager (1942), Dark Victory (1939), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) are archetypical examples of the woman's film as melodrama, with their suffering heroines, themes of lost or unrequited love, and overt emotional appeal. While such films at points perhaps have lacked critical respectability, they have been consistently popular with audiences and closely associated with a group of female stars who continue to epitomize a very particular stylized and emotional performance style associated with film melodrama. Successful actresses such as Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990), Lana Turner (1921–1995), and Jane Wyman (b. 1914) consolidated their careers starring in such films. Likewise, a succession of directors became associated with the woman's film, including George Cukor (1899–1983), Max Ophuls (1907–1957), Irving Rapper (1898–1999), John Stahl (1886–1950), King Vidor (1894–1982), William Wyler (1902–1981), and Mervin LeRoy (1900–1987).
Melodrama is also a term that has currency within film studies debate that has a sometimes uncomfortable connection with the two understandings of the term already discussed.
The term entered the lexicon of film studies initially through auteurist interests in the work of European émigré directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s, particularly a group of films made by Douglas Sirk (1897–1987) during his years as a contract director at Universal, among them Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk used the term melodrama to describe a form of drama characterized by high emotion and its affective qualities in an unambiguous and rather ironic manner in order to articulate his own distaste for their overtly sentimental plots. Melodrama at this point was seized upon by a generation of scholars to describe this "rediscovered" form of cinema, and Sirk's films were regarded as the epitome of a newly identified, though far from clearly defined, genre that was more complex ideologically than previously had been thought.
In 1971 Thomas Elsaesser, taking Sirk's lead, argued that the focus of film melodrama of 1950s Hollywood is the bourgeois family and that it is distinguished by a strong sense of ideological contradiction reflecting wider uncertainties, fears, and neuroses prevalent in postwar Eisenhower America. For Elsaesser, this ideological contradiction is expressed in the family melodrama primarily through mise-en-scène, music, and performance. From this perspective, mise-en-scène is perhaps the most important melodramatic device, filling in the gaps, as it were, between what the characters are unable or unwilling to express. For Elsaesser and other scholars such as Paul Willemen and, later, Thomas Schatz, the mise-en-scène in melodrama becomes overburdened with meaning. Anxieties and contradictions not explicitly expressed within the narrative are displaced onto objects, constructing the bourgeois home as a stifling environment for its inhabitants, as in Sirk's and Vincente Minnelli's films. Later in the 1970s Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Laura Mulvey expanded on this argument, suggesting that the ideological contradictions contained in the family melodrama were so marked that at moments of high tension, narrative coherence breaks down. In effect, they claimed, these contradictions become so intense that they actually ruptured the cohesiveness of the classical narrative structure. As Nowell-Smith notes, "The undischarged emotion which cannot be accommodated in the action, subordinated as it is to the demands of family/lineage/inheritance is traditionally expressed in the music and in the case of film in certain elements of the mise-en-scène" (Nowell-Smith, p. 73).
b. Detlef Sierck, Hamburg, Germany, 26 April 1897, d. 14 January 1987
No other director has been more closely associated with the concept of melodrama in cinema than Douglas Sirk. His best known and most financially successful films, produced by Ross Hunter for Universal Studios during the mid-1950s, have become for critics and scholars the archetypical examples of what Thomas Elsaesser describes as family melodrama.
Born into a middle-class family in Hamburg at the turn of the century, Detlef Sierck began his career in the German theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, directing plays by Bertolt Brecht, Georg Kaiser, and Kurt Weill, among others. He became involved in the cinema working as a director for the state-run studio Ufa, directing such notable works as Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937) and La Habanera (1937). While many of his contemporaries fled Germany under the Nazi regime, Sierck did not leave until the end of the 1930s. Arriving in Hollywood at the start of the 1940s, Sierck (now known as Douglas Sirk) initially worked for Columbia before becoming a contract director for Universal in 1946. As one of Universal's house directors, he worked on a diverse range of projects ranging from war films and thrillers to westerns, comedies, and musicals, but it was the films he made with Hunter in the 1950s that established Sirk's reputation as the quintessential director of Hollywood melodrama. Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959), featuring lavish production design and convoluted narratives concerning doomed romances, improbable coincidences, and tear-jerking denouements, made stars of Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone as well as consolidating the careers of Jane Wyman and Lana Turner.
While popular with audiences, Sirk's films were often condemned by contemporary film critics as examples of the sensationalism and sentimentality of popular cinema. However, in France, the critics of the influential Cahiers du Cinèma, notably François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, praised Sirk's distinctive visual style. In the early 1970s a new generation of film scholars, notably Thomas Elsaesser, Paul Willemen, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and Fred Camper, "rediscovered" Sirk's films, hailing them as supreme examples of a subversive critique of postwar American society expressed through stylized mise-en-scène drawing on irony and Brechtian alienating devices. Sirk's work has influenced many subsequent filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, Jonathan Demme, and Todd Haynes.
Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937, as Detlef Sierck), La Habanera (1937, as Detlef Sierck), Hitler's Madman (1943), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), Imitation of Life (1959)
Halliday, Jon. Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday. London: Faber & Faber, 1971.
——. et. al. Douglas Sirk. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1972.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, critical discussion of film melodrama was constrained by two theoretical paradigms, psychoanalysis and neo-Marxist ideology, framing debate around the terms of reference, concerns, and generic features of melodrama for nearly thirty years, as well as Sirk's preeminent place as director. This critical view of melodrama has additionally had a significant influence on a generation of filmmakers who emerged during the period when film theorists were rediscovering Sirk's work. The most prominent figure to have been influenced by this theoretically informed notion of melodrama was the German New Wave director, writer, and actor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982). Legend has it that Fassbinder first saw a retrospective of Sirk's Hollywood films at a festival in Berlin in 1971 and was so inspired that he instantly drove to
Switzerland to speak with the retired director in person at his home in Lugano. It is certainly true to say that Fassbinder's work demonstrates some degree of debt to the stylization, alienating devices, and subversive social critique that critics attribute to Sirk's films. This influence is very apparent in films such as Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) often, incorrectly, seen as a remake of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, in which a socially unacceptable relationship between an older woman and a younger man causes disruption. However, in Fassbinder's film the older woman is an elderly cleaner (Brigitte Mira) who falls in love with a Moroccan laborer (El Hedi ben Salem) rather than Jane Wyman's glamorous widow falling for Rock Hudson's brooding, free-spirited gardener, as in Sirk's film. Throughout Fassbinder's short but extremely prolific career (he made nearly forty films in less than ten years), Sirk's Hollywood melodramas were to become stylistic touchstones that provided a rich source of inspiration. Sirk's use of reflections and onscreen space, for example, are apparent in Fassbinder's Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, 1972) and Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976), the garish use of color is evident in Lola (1981) and Querelle (1982), ironic social criticism is evident in Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1972)and Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975) and the suffering female protagonist in Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982) and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979).
Sirk's melodramas have also been cited as influences on the work of an even more disparate range of directors, from Martin Scorsese (b. 1942) to John Waters (b. 1946). In recent years the work of the internationally acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949) clearly demonstrates the influence of Sirk's films through the use of lavish stylization, lurid color schemes, convoluted narratives, and mannered performances. In films such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988), La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret, 1995), and All About My Mother (1999), Almodóvar shows himself to be the natural successor to both Sirk and Fassbinder through his interest in female protagonists and highly emotionally charged and lavishly mounted productions. Todd Haynes (b. 1961), one of the leading figures of the so-called New Queer Cinema and another figure inspired by both Sirk and Fassbinder, gained commercial and critical success with his own revision of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows with Far from Heaven (2003). For the problem of class, the obstacle that faces the lovers in Sirk's original film, the film substitutes the even more problematic and inflammatory issues of race and sexuality, subjects that the production code would have made it impossible for Sirk's source text to discuss.
Christine Gledhill's forensic introduction to her 1987 edited collection of essays on melodrama, Home is Where the Heart Is, outlined the range of debate on the subject until that point and began to open up the possibility for a reconsideration of film melodrama. Primarily, Gledhill discussed the feminist intervention in the debate and pointed to the largely unsuccessful attempts to reconnect film theory with the historical roots of theatrical melodrama. She noted that film studies' notion of melodrama, which is concerned primarily with the domestic and the feminine, has little in common with the theatrical genre of melodrama, which is focused on action, incident, and jeopardy. She called for a more progressive and encompassing engagement with what melodrama is and does in cinema, a call that initially remained largely unanswered, as the model of family melodrama remained entrenched.
By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, such theorists as Linda Williams, Steve Neale, and Rick Altman, as well as Gledhill herself, revisited melodrama to examine these generic assumptions. Steve Neale, for example,
investigated the uses of the term melodrama in the trade press during the Classical Hollywood period in order to find evidence of the term being used to describe the same films that scholars now identified as melodrama. His findings suggested that the term usually was not applied to films set in the domestic environment, with feminine concerns, as it is today. In fact, when the term was used it was typically to describe action-orientated films such as those that would now be called gangster films or thrillers. Second, Neale noted that the so-called "woman's films" of Classical Hollywood were not, as had been suggested, considered inferior to male-oriented genres but often were regarded as serious, high-quality dramas in contemporary reviews. Neale thus called the Film Studies account of melodrama as a genre into question, an issue that he expanded upon more fully in a chapter dealing with the problems of identifying melodrama and the "woman's film" as genres in Genre and Hollywood (2000). There Neale called fundamental debates around the notion of genre into question by arguing that film scholars should return to industry-based genere definitions and categorization. While the issues that Neale raised are of considerable importance for the development of film scholarship, their implications seem to be opposed to equally important scholarship.
This point was made by Rick Altman, who questions Neale's approach to genre and suggests that his reliance on industrial classification limits the ways in which films can be read and understood. Altman notes that Neale's research is based on a study of the trade press and not of the film industry itself, which Neale seems to regard as interchangeable. Rejecting Neale's idea of relying on industrial classification as the way to identify genre, Altman argues that film scholarship should open up cinema to interpretations that are not limited by industrial factors. For Altman, melodrama is one of the best examples of a category largely constructed through film scholarship that has enabled critics to discuss a range of otherwise disparate films. Altman also usefully argues that while film theorists may have formulated the notion of the family melodrama, this idea is not antithetical to the more traditional notion of melodrama based on high drama and action that Neale notes was the industry-based classification. Altman's arguments about melodrama and questions of genre more generally open up a far more inclusive and sophisticated notion of both theoretical terms, which acknowledge that different groups (the film industry, film critics, scholars, audiences) have different conceptions of genre and that specific film genres can be understood only by recognizing them all. Barbara Klinger builds upon this idea in an analysis of Sirk's "classic" melodramas (1993). She suggests that
b. Lester Anthony Minnelli, Chicago, Illinois, 28 February 1903, d. 25 July 1986
Minnelli began his career in the 1930s as a theater costume and set designer in Chicago and on Broadway. The exuberant love of theatrical spectacle, evident in all of Minnelli's work, led to his early employment as a set designer for Busby Berkeley and others before he gained his first chance to direct with the musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). Minnelli is perhaps best known to a wide audience as a director of some of the most successful Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including An American in Paris (1951), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Pirate (1948), The Band Wagon (1953), Kismet (1955), Gigi (1958), and Meet Me in St Louis (1944), the most famous of several creative collaborations with his wife, Judy Garland.
In addition to his considerable popular reputation and commercial success as MGM's premier director of musicals, Minnelli also made a series of dramas that many critics have seen as typifying Hollywood melodrama, including the sensationally lurid The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) is an overheated depiction of of the Hollywood film industry, while The Cobweb (1955) is set in a mental institution and stars Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, and Lauren Bacall in a complex love triangle. Others include the family melodrama Home From the Hill (1960); Some Came Running (1958), with Frank Sinatra as a disillusioned writer returning to his hometown following the war; and the notorious Tea and Sympathy (1956), a tellingly repressed and neurotic depiction of homosexual confusion in a boys' school.
Minnelli's films, especially his melodramas, have been the focus of attention for film theorists for a variety of reasons. For some, the rhetoric of Minnelli's musicals exemplifies the stylistic and narrative strategies of the genre; while for others the filmic devices of both Minnelli's musicals and his melodramas demonstrate repressed ideological conflicts and tensions that erupt at moments of high drama through music and mise-en-scène. From this perspective, the films may be read through recourse to the psychoanalytic concept of conversion hysteria, which accounts for the excessive and stylized quality of Minnelli's work. For still others, Minnelli stands as a good example of the distinction between the auteur, whose work possesses and is governed by a consistency of artistic vision, and the stylist or metteur en scène, the category that Andrew Sarris claims Minnelli typifies.
Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Clock (1945), The Pirate (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), The Cobweb (1955), Lust for Life (1956), Tea and Sympathy (1957), Some Came Running (1958), Home from the Hill (1960), Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Fordin, Hugh. The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Kaufman, Gerald. Meet Me in St. Louis. London: British Film Institute, 1994.
Minnelli, Vincente with Hector Arce. I Remember It Well. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Naremore, James. The Films of Vincente Minnelli. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
there is no single definitive meaning to any film or group of films, that in fact all films operate in a "network of meaning" based on the discourses within the film industry and among scholars, film critics, and audiences alike.
The most significant contemporary developments in the melodrama debate have been offered by Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, both of whom have made an invaluable contribution to understanding of the form, particularly as it relates to issues of feminism. The work of both theorists is informed by Peter Brooks's important study of theatrical and literary melodrama, The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), which argues that melodrama is a rhetorical strategy that articulates the struggle between moral forces in the modern world. For Gledhill and Williams, as for Brooks, melodrama is primarily concerned with morality and uses a heightened emotional, visual, and stylistic language to convey and articulate moral dilemmas. Both Gledhill (in Reinventing Film Studies, 2000) and Williams argue that it is necessary to look beyond generic boundaries to discuss melodrama and suggest that it is more useful to think about melodrama as a "modality" or an "expressive code." Melodrama is thus more than a genre and is not confined to the established categories of the "woman's film" or the family melodrama, but is a narrative and stylistic register that appears across a wide range of cinematic texts. Williams (1998) goes even further by claiming that melodrama is not merely one of a range of rhetorical devices, but is in fact the dominant mode of American filmmaking.
Williams argues that melodrama is a central feature of American cinema and American culture more generally and can be traced from its roots in the theater through nineteenth-century sentimental and romantic literature, through early cinema in the work of Cecil B. De Mille (1881–1959) and D. W. Griffith and Classical Hollywood, to the contemporary work of directors such as Francis Copolla and Steven Spielberg. As examples, Williams analyzes Vietnam films such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986) as contemporary articulations of the melodramatic mode. This encompassing notion of melodrama opens up a far wider range of texts for analysis as examples of melodrama, enabling the discussion of action films such as Die Hard (1988) and Gladiator (2000) with their male protagonists and seemingly masculine concerns, within this context. This wider view of melodrama also makes it possible to look outside mainstream Hollywood cinema to find melodrama in, for example, popular Hindi cinema, Chinese cinema, and cinema aimed at marginalized groups in society such as gays and lesbians, testifying to the form's continuing influence and relevance as a distinctive form of cinematic expression.
Altman, Rick. "Reusable Packaging: Generic Products and the Recycling Process." In Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, edited by Nick Browne, 1–41. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Byars, Jackie, ed. All That Hollywood Allows: Re-reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama. London: Routledge and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Cook, Pam. "Melodrama and the Woman's Picture." In Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama, edited by Marcia Landy, 248–262. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
Gledhill, Christine. Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film. London: British Film Institute, 1987.
Gledhill, Christine, and Linda Williams, eds. Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold, 2000.
Mulvey, Laura. "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama," Movie 25 (1977): 53–56.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
——. "Melodrama and Tears." Screen 27, no. 6 (November–December 1986): 6–22.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. "Minnelli and Melodrama." Screen 18 (Summer 1977): 113–118.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Williams, Linda. "Melodrama Revisited" in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, edited by Nick Browne, 42–88. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
mel·o·dra·ma / ˈmeləˌdrämə/ • n. 1. a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions. ∎ the genre of drama of this type. ∎ language, behavior, or events that resemble drama of this kind: what little is known of his early life is cloaked in melodrama. 2. hist. a play interspersed with songs and orchestral music accompanying the action. DERIVATIVES: mel·o·dram·a·tist / ˌmeləˈdrämətist/ n. mel·o·dram·a·tize / ˌmeləˈdräməˌtīz/ v.
Recorded from the early 19th century, the word comes via French from Greek melos ‘music’ 7plus; French drame ‘drama’.
Hence melodramatic XIX.