Lecture Notes


Melodrama: basic characteristics

Melodrama as a genre

1950s Melodrama: the genre comes of age

Melodrama: Sirk


2. Sirk's mise-en-scene: how it's manifested

3. style of acting

4. downplaying of heroes

5. choreography as a direct expression of char

6. theme of blindness

7. commenting on 1950's American society


All That Heaven Allows

History of production


1. steeple shots

2. party sequences

3. indoor/outdoor juxtapositions


Melodrama: basic characteristics:


1. Legibility: everyone can read it

2. Expressiveness: given to exaggeration:

everything brought into the open

3. Simplification of roles:

good and evil clearly delineated

4. Strong identification:

emotions alive w/high suffering

5. Devaluation of language:

language less important than mise-en-scene




Melodrama as a genre:

Thomas Schatz: melodrama: "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"

chars at mercy of social conventions (romantic comedy: chars scoff at proriety)

resignation of principals to constricture of social & familial tradition

(romantic comedy: lovers integrated into self-sufficient unit distinct from social world)




1950s Melodrama: the genre comes of age:

family as narrative focus:

clearest representation of America's patriarchal & bourgeois order

by mid-1950s: men returned from wars to alienating bureaucratic jobs

women caught bet. labor market & need to return home to raise families

families uprooted: greater mobility, educational opportunities:

beginning of disintegration of nuclear family

cultural factors coalesced: family melodrama began to take shape

family unit: provided locus for genre's chars & social world because:

1. central unit w/individual roles (father, mother, son, daughter, etc) that

carry large social significance

2. bound to its community by social class (income, type of home, etc.)

ideally, family unit is self-contained society: but this is undercut by family's

status w/i highly structured socio-economic world:

family roles that seem autnomous:

really determined by larger social community

American small town: acute class consciousness, gossip,

judgment by appearances, reactionary commitment to fading values

represents extended but perverted family: human elements have either:

solidified into repressive social conventions or disappeared

upheaval & change: but people acting like everything okay

emergence of family melodrama in 1950s:

films no longer just used familial conflicts to enhance external complication (war, crime, etc.)

instead, focused on family itself as basis for conflict

paradox emerged from this shift:

family crisis was dominant narrative conflict: but:

resolution had to be found w/i dominant social structure (family)

melodrama can function in 2 ways:

1. for patriarchal ends by bringing about narrative resolution of its contradictions

2. for women by offering satisfaction of recognition of these contradictions, which are usually suppressed

melodramas: successful: capacity to connect emotionally

also: socially self-conscious, covertly "anti-American":

moreso than anything else produced by H'wood

possible for melodrama: give access to truths about human existence denied to more culturally respectable forms

2. to be ideologically subversive

"weepies": critique of ideology hidden by escapist fare

popularity of melodramas plus surface-level simplicity:

discouraged looking deeper

but: w/certain directors: Minnelli, Ray, Sirk:

genre assumes ironic, ambiguous perspective

both celebrating and questioning basic values/attitudes of mass audience

1950s melodramas: elicit wide range of emotional/intellectual responses:

contemporary reviews:misunderstood films as confusion of fantasy/reality

there is confusion, but (with Sirk, Ray, etc.) chars, not director confused:

"Sirk's popularity seems closely related 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 fantasy."




Melodrama: Sirk:

manipulation of melodramatic form:

in filmmaking, camera & cutting take place of language:

"writing with the camera":

"angles are a director's thoughts, lighting his philosophy"

Bending the material:

distancing: as in didactic theater:

even tho Sirk's audience implicated in action on screen

(evidenced by abundant tears or self-protective laughter):

distance still exists in film itself


combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what is or what might be expected:

it's ironic that the firehouse burned down

irony produced by externalization of feelings into decor, gestures, & events:

objectifies & distances emotions

Euripidean irony: deus ex machina: the god in the machine:

tacked-on happy ending makes the crowd happy,

but, to a few, it exposes what's underneath:

Sirk: "... you don't believe the happy end, and you're not supposed to."



2.. Sirk's mise-en-scene: how it's manifested:

camera angles: thoughts:

unusual angles: make viewer reassess situations

lighting: philosophy: non-natural lighting:

doesn't come from where real light source would

placement of objects & chars w/i frame:

screens: block chars visually:

represent blocked communication

mirrors: seem to represent reality, but don't;

instead, present an opposite, "backward" reality:

flattened and w/o depth:

used at moments of self-affirmation: irony

Sirk: "The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows you your own opposite."

objects: significant use: patterns

significant to us because significant to chars: Wedgwood

chars placed in rooms heavily marked with their social situations

general flattening of the image:

preponderance of long & medium shots

b/g seems to have as much force (presence) as f/g:

f/g objects often placed to side: thus

larger spaces left in center of frame:

b/g seems to come forward, make itself felt:

all seems to fuse into single surface

but flatness doesn't preclude individual power of

specific objects or events:

sometimes: it seems like certain events cause flatness:

mirror shots: most common example:

presence of char & reflection both in frame:

reduces char to state of mere reflection

moving camera: expresses irony:

mobility of camera implicates viewer on emotional level:

yet camera distanced from chars: suggests detachment

Russell Metty: DP from 1952:

all important Sirk films (except TARNISHED ANGELS)

use of baroque color schemes: clothes, etc



3. style of acting:

delivery of lines: brings out hidden meanings

4. downplaying of heroes:

instead, Sirk most interested in ambiguous char:

one who is torn apart: split

ambiguous chars played out vs. more stable ones:

Cary Scott vs. Ron Kirby

5. choreography as a direct expression of char:

set piece

6. theme of blindness:

sometimes literal:

most often: blindness of chars to their situations

7. commenting on 1950's American society:

purpose of manipulation/distortion of genre







History of production:

Sirk's first big commercial success: MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION: Hudson

ATHA: concocted to cash in on success of MO

same production company:

Hunter, Sirk, Metty, sets, costumes, art direction

same cast: Hudson, Wyman, Moorhead

same elements of story structure:

older woman, widowed, falling for younger man



"flabbiness" of story allowed Sirk greater latitude:

1. steeple shots:

divide film into acts

seasonal divisions:

New England: church structures society

starting point for WASP America

home of Thoreau & Emerson: ideals

both America's past & T & E's ideals: now unattainable

because society has lost touch w/its past:

WALDEN: small town society has lost touch w/its principles:

Cary's world: church steeple oversees town:

specific components of her world:

home: a mausoleum/crypt: preservation of something dead

children: not a new generation, rather:

perpetuators of tradition & repression

therefore, both conservative & tragic

resent Ron on class grounds

fight to mummify their mother

"friends"/country club: same as kids

Sara: mediates repression w/intelligence:

she's worse than the rest

everyone has ideological stake in keeping Cary a widow

Cary is trapped by them all

steeples: represent overview of tradition & repression

contrasted w/Ron's world: sketched w/ease & simplicity

1st scene: Sirk est. 2 basic themes:

loneliness & repression

from then on: Ron tries to draw Cary out regarding:

both her bourgeois world & prejudices: education




2. party sequences:

3 of them: film built around them: they're centerpieces:

1. Cary & Harvey at country club

2. Cary & Ron at Mick & Alida's

3. Cary & Ron at Sara's

must be in this order:

Mick & Alida's party in between:

not just for narrative reasons:

we must see country club first: the norm Cary's coming from

we must see Ron at Mick & Alida's before we see him at Sara's

parties: introductions, music, dancing, chatter:

Cary's world: Ron's world:

class structure ethnic difference

city (suburbs) nature

non-acceptance acceptance

no meaningful shared experience a shared past

rituals: talking w/kids, martinis, etc. spontaneity

cocktails before:

Cary's world: Ron's world:

the Scott special (serious) the Anderson special (parody)


3. indoor/outdoor juxtapositions:

quite prevalent:

sequence inside followed by sequence outside:

structurally supports crux of narrative:

Cary's vacillation bet. Ron & world she lives in

Ron: not seen inside till we see him in greenhouse:

bringing outside (nature) inside

image of tame deer: important: bridges gap bet. worlds

mill: large window: used to combine indoor/outdoor idea:

scene of their heavy decisions

Xmas carolers: Cary pinned behind window:

seen from outside: only from outside can we see she's trapped


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