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Torrid passions and doomed desires

Main image of Melodrama

Melodrama as a cinematic form has its roots in 19th century theatre. Plays such as Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn, and theatrical adaptations of novels such as East Lynne and Oliver Twist were preferred by mass audiences in the Victorian period. Thus melodrama was, from its inception, tainted by its aroma of the popular. As British film melodrama developed, it became increasingly regarded as the domain of the feminine, because it was mainly attended by female audiences. Melodrama's lack of critical status can be attributed to this popular/feminine bias. Its concentration on taboo, ritual, rage and desire - all expressed without restraint - meant that most male critics, who preferred emotions to be spoken sotto voce, found melodrama to be tasteless. It is no accident that all the critics who have dealt seriously with the genre have been women.

British film melodramas, like their theatrical forebears, favour spectacle and avoid realism. They forsake the wider social stage for the intimate familial one, and concentrate on the body rather than the body politic. Although melodrama is primarily a mode, with a high emotional temperature, it is also a style. In cinematic melodrama of the sound period, the music track plays a crucial role; it does not dominate the film, but it always leads it. This is because music is a language with easier access to the emotions. A second characteristic of melodramatic style in the cinema is the body language of the protagonists, who always deploy the resources of gaze and gesture in an expressive way. A third aspect of film melodrama is that it favours visual procedures which are powerful without being subtle. The camerawork and lighting in The Third Man (1949), for example, are intended to evoke extreme anxiety in the audience, rather than carry complex ideas. The costume designs in melodramas often carry subliminal messages about the sexual desires of the protagonists, and they set up a complex costume narrative which countermands some of the potential absurdities of the script.

These stylistic characteristics obtain throughout British film melodrama, but of course the genre ebbs and flows according to historical period. In the silent period, melodrama constituted a small but significant part of overall output, with many old stage favourites being revived; East Lynne was filmed 15 times in the silent period. Modern-dress melodrama also flourished with films starring Ivor Novello, such as The Lodger (1926). It is arguable that the gestural resources of silent cinema, which relied on broad, expansive movement and gaze patterns, was conducive to melodrama.

In the 1930s film industry, the big producers such as Alexander Korda and Michael Balcon avoided the genre, whereas a significant number of 'quota quickies' (cheaply made to fulfil the requirements of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act) were melodramas. George King developed the themes of taboo and excess in such films as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) which starred the eye-rolling, lip-smacking Tod Slaughter. There were other, more domestic melodramas such as Loose Ends (1930), and musicals starring Gigli and Tauber, such as Forget-Me-Not (1936) and Blossom Time (1934) in which the tenor voices intensify the emotional pitch of the films to melodramatic levels.

In the 1940s, a richly variegated melodramatic film culture developed in Britain. There were the cheap-but-cheerful melodramas made at Gainsborough between 1942 and 1948, which fell into two categories: costume films such as The Wicked Lady (1945), which concentrated on female venality, and contemporary melodramas such as Love Story (1944), which dealt with female desire. There were the expensive, ambitious melodramas such as Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950), which were a sustained meditation on society's difficulty in accommodating female sexuality. The narrative of some melodramas was led by the music: Brief Encounter (1945) and The Glass Mountain (1949), for example. Many of them, such as Hatter's Castle (1941), looked directly at patriarchal power and its abuse.

Between the wartime and post-war periods, there were rapid changes in women's social lives, and producers used melodrama inventively, to address the consequent anxieties. The richness of 1940s film melodrama was testament to the industry's flexibility. In the 1950s, however, everything changed. The big production/distribution combines (Rank, British Lion, ABPC) disliked melodrama, and only independent producers attempted them. George Minter's Svengali (1953) and Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) were opulent, and emoted in the old barnstorming style, but they were exceptions. In the USA, by comparison, the 1950s was the great decade for grand melodrama, notably with the films of Douglas Sirk.

To all intents and purposes, melodrama was a minority strand in British film culture from the 1950s. There were melodramatic elements in subsequent films, but little outright melodramatic excess. Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was too reverential to be characterised as a melodrama, and Doctor Zhivago (1965) too painterly. The 'heritage' films of the 1980s were too emotionally restrained to even approximate the genre. The only consistent producer of melodramas was Hammer Studios, where, from the late-1950s, a series of costume frighteners were made which celebrated aspects of Romantic culture. Films like Dracula (1959), She (1965) and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) explored audience anxieties about the body, by broaching and then breaking taboos about its wholeness and inviolability. In these films, a contradiction is set up between what the audience knows at a rational level, and what it fears at a subliminal level. The audience is thus stimulated in a number of ways - visually, emotionally and intellectually. It is Hammer's concentration on stimulus and excess (with an overt musical accompaniment) which marks it out as the inheritor of the melodramatic impulse.

Sue Harper

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