Published On: Sun, Dec 15th, 2019

Melodrama Classic Film Genre Makes Useful Cinematography Study

Melodrama came to its peak in the late 1930s, with King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), and was supreme in the 1940s. It is an important genre not only because of the huge audiences it attracts, but because its stylistic and thematic influence have perpetuated throughout the conventions of television drama.

The genre orchestrates gender conflicts on a highly symbolic level to produce a clash of identities that may obscure its moral universe, suggests Christine Gledhill. Naming this genre has been problematic, especially since the original audience for it was general, not specifically women, so ‘woman’s film’ is not accurate.

Melodrama Classic Genre for the Film Program

Criteria for intellectual scrutiny of this genre involve straightforward textual analysis of both discourse (what the characters care about) and visual technique (how the camera conveys meaning). The melodrama’s diegesis foregrounds lack in the heroine’s life, hence tears, outbursts, and hysteria feature in it, giving rise to the nickname ‘weepie’. She is the ‘wishing woman’ crippled by her desire for:

a home or control over her own home
family membership
his love (usually a lover or husband)
a child’s or children’s happiness

Melodrama typically deals with extreme situations and sensational affect but is potentially subversive, feminist film critics suggest, with its forms of expression catering to women and their desires. Deferral of the gratification of the central character’s desire (and attendant suspense) constitute a great part of the pleasure for the viewer.

Tips for Cinematography Study of Melodrama

Melodrama Classic Film Genre Makes Useful Cinematography Study

A history for the melodrama film category follows it through the era of silent film into the era of sound, with a number of mainstream film directors regarding the genre a worthy part of their repetoire. Its style cannot be called realism, although it may seem naturalistic at times. Storytelling by melodrama is all stylised, and the Hollywood convention of male producers and directors constructing women for audience consumption is at its core.

Mise-en-scène is predominantly domestic and focuses on excess in interior decor and fashion. Interiors are of an imaginary home or series of homes or hotels, often grand houses or fashionable apartments. As professional cinematography developed visual technique in Hollywood, excessive domestic interiors such as the palace in the Scarlet Empress (1934), directed by Josef von Sternberg, gain narrative power created with a play of light and shade and distortion of scale.

Film School Guide to Identify a Classic Melodrama

Blending of generic signifiers is usual in melodrama, making it even more problematic for critics to categorise. Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) stands alongside Now, Voyager (1942) which is a romantic triumph over both disaster and moral convention, just as the 1954 western, Johnny Guitar was also a melodrama with film noir overtones, and Mildred Pierce (1945) is equally classified as a murder mystery in film noir style.

A generic checklist would include analysing for mise-en-scène, and being alert for the following criteria, with the note that the genre is never confined to the concerns of only young women:

Woman and her needs is central to the diegesis
This woman has a real choice in what happens to her
She is distanced from the viewer by time, place, and/or class
There is a search for identity for the woman that is resolved to her satisfaction

The genre was subtly subverted into social commentary questioning how society positions women by the European but Hollywood based director Douglas Sirk in the post war period, typically in his aesthetically significant All That Heaven Allows, (1955) and Written On The Wind (1956). In the 1980s Desert Hearts (1985) and Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), for instance, explore its expressive potential while Terms of Endearment (1983) and Steel Magnolias (1989) renewed mainstream Hollywood engagement with the genre.

Television overtook cinema in popularity in the mid-1950s, so this genre could be considered to have evolved into small screen drama, notably the never ending domestically based narrative, soap opera. The trials and conflicts of soap opera characters could usefully be examined in the light of film school teaching on the melodrama category.

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