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Archive for the ‘Family melodrama’ Category


Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2009

Ealing Studios 1952.

Directed Alexander Mackendrick: Produced by Leslie Norman: Script by Jack Whittingham, Nigel Balchin from the novel by Hilda Lewis. Photography by Douglas Slocombe. Art Direction by Jim Morahan: Music by William Alwyn: Edited by Seth Holt.

This is a fine, classic production by Ealing and reflects many of the values of the studio and its members. It is a family melodrama but also falls within the social problem movie genre.

Harry and Christine [Kit to her husband] Garland have a baby daughter, Mandy (Mandy Miller). Gradually they come to realise that she is deaf. Rather than place her in an ‘institution’ for deaf children, they move into the home of Harry’s parents, where a home tutor attempts to teach Mandy sign language. Christine becomes increasingly desperate about her daughter’s disability and consequent isolation from other children. The grandparents exacerbate the situation, with the father-in-law remote and unsympathetic and the mother-in-law exercising undue influence on her son.

Partly instigated by her friend Lily (Eleanor Summerfield] Christine visits a residential school, for the deaf headed by Dick Searle (Jack Hawkins). Against the wishes of Harry, Mandy is placed in the school. She makes little progress at first, so Christine moves to a flat in the area and Mandy becomes a day pupil. She also receives extra tuition in the evenings from Dick Searle. Now she starts to make progress, to lip-read, relate to other children and eventually to articulate sounds and words. The most powerful moment is when she says ‘mama’ to Christine. Significantly it is Dick who is present on this occasion rather than Harry.

A sub-plot deals with antagonism between Searle and one of the school governors, Ackland (Edward Chapman). This leads to accusation that there is an affair between Searle and Christine.

The climax has Harry taking Mandy home from the flat at night. Christine and Dick arrive at his parents’ home next morning and an argument begins between the two men, with the women left standing in the hallway. Whilst this takes place Mandy visits the room of her grandfather who is poring over his chessboard. He suddenly realises that she is articulating the letter ‘p’. He goes downstairs and resolves the argument, convincing Harry that Mandy is benefiting from the school. Meanwhile Mandy wanders from the garden to a nearby wasteland where other children are playing. As Christine and Harry watch she tells the other children her name and joins in the play.

The final long shot from Mandy

The final long shot from Mandy

Whilst the film involves family and romantic melodrama the main focus is on the struggle of the mother to free her daughter from the chains of deafness and muteness. There are a number of sequences where we watch the teachers and the deaf children in class and play activities. Dick Searle is given several scenes where he holds forth about the progressive way to teach deaf children and the liberation this can bring. He is supported by retired previous head teacher, Miss Price (Nancy Ellis), who is herself deaf.

In his excellent study Ealing Studio, Charles Barr discusses the film in some detail, drawing particular comparisons with another film by Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit. That was a film about an inventor and the disruption he brings to a cotton factory in the north of England. But Barr convincingly argues that the film actually comments on the limitations and repressions of wider British society. He comments on Mandy:

“Though the film is certainly ‘about’ the education of the deaf in a serious way. its reference is wider: Mandy stands for all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation, all of whom have, after all, to learn to com­municate and to relate to others.”

In his analysis he traces the fears and repression that frustrate the struggle of Christine and her daughter. He draws out the repressive relationships in the film:

“it works towards an image of the repressive structure of the family. The centre of gravity again shifts back, from the confused father to the grandfather­, semi-invalid, a force of inertia, but still retaining authority. (He is played by Godfrey Tearle, a magistrate in his previous Ealing film and a bishop in his next one.)”

These family structures are re-inforced visually in the film. There are constant reminders in the way that Christine and Mandy are framed and restrained within the film. There are a number of shots of them from behind bars, including Mandy’s playpen, and also through doorways and windows. Early in the film we see the family in their own home, a compact but comfortable middle class house of the period. The move to the home of Harry’ parents introduces us to a stately mansion. It is less integrated into a community and the family is given rooms at the top of the house, farther away from others. And there is close-up of Mandy behind the playpen bars, darker than the earlier shot in her own home. At the rear of the house is a garden, fronted by a wall, top by barbed wire. It feels that it is forbidden to cross it. Beyond this is an open area, presumably resulting from war damage, where other children play. Early in the film Mandy ventures out here and narrowly misses being knocked down by a passing van. It is here, at the climax that her final re-integration into the child community occurs.

Barr describes this moment,

“Moving from dark to light, it conveys Harry’s enlightenment, the release of seeing.”

In fact, light and darkness also form a visual motif in the film. A subtle precursor of the ending occurs when Christine is trying to ascertain if Mandy cannot hear. She opens and shuts her nursery door and Mandy appears to respond to the noise. Then Christine realises that it is actually the change from shadows to light. As the problems and desperation of Christine increase there are more frequent scenes cast in shadow. There is a distinct feel of the style of film noir in some sequences: in one scene of an argument Harry is lit from behind in stark silhouette. We also see Mandy’s travails in her early days at the school, when she wakens at night frightened in the school dormitory. The meetings between Dick and Christine, which give rise to the charge of adultery, are mainly at night. This includes going out for a meal and leaving Mandy with a child-minder: the very evening that Harry comes to visit.

The themes of darkness and entrapment, and of characters breaking free from their inhibitions and prejudices, gives great power to the resolution of the film. As Mandy ventures into the world of children Harry and Christine look on. The camera uses a reverse crane into a high angle shot. This provides the spectator with an omniscient view as both family and community harmony are restored.

One of the common resolutions to family melodramas is ‘Lets go home’. An erring or missing family member returns to the home and the larger unit. In Mandy the return home occurs before the final climax, and seems a negative experience. Harry bundles up Mandy and takes her home by the night train. When Christine appears next morning, accompanied by Dick, an argument immediately starts. Then, after the restoration of some sort of family harmony we follow Mandy as she joins the local children. Here, the story moves beyond the limited confines of the family to integration in a wider community. This is one aspect that seems to give so much force to the film’s closure.

It is important to note though that these positive values are set within the limitation of the 1950s British culture. In the film Christine is presented as a strong and committed character fighting for her daughter. It is her voice that introduces the story and presents the problem of the film Mandy’s deafness. But her voice over disappears early in the film, when we move to the institution. As a student pointed out, this could relate to Mandy gradually acquiring her own voice. However, it also can be related to the film’s ending. Harry in his comments, suggests that Christine tends to the hysterical and sees results that are not really there. Thus the final integration of Mandy seems an affirmation of Christine’s position. However, as Mandy approaches the other children Christine makes to follow her, in a protective manner. It is Harry who stops her, saying wait and placing restraining hand on her arm. H repeats the gesture when Christine makes to follow Mandy as she joints in the children’s’ play. The resolution of the film would seem to re-affirms the dominance of masculine power, both in the person of the grandfather and then of the husband. In fact, once the grandfather has stirred himself to reassert some authority then Harry follows his example. Pointedly, Dick Searle, who whilst an abrasive character, is the most progressive male in the film, becomes redundant. He smiles on the liberated Mandy and her parents, then turns to go. His own problems with the trustees of the school are left unresolved, though the audience can assume they will be sorted in his interest. Partly because of these contradictions Mandy remains a moving and powerful parable, and also an interesting reflection of 1950s British culture.

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Sisters on Film

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2009

Juliette and Lea meet

Sisters Juliette and Lea.


This was a study day at the National Media Museum with a screening of the recent French success I’ve Loved You So Long / II y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008). The study notes provided have been amended to include comments that were made by the tutor and by students during the discussions.

Family dramas are a staple of books, plays and films. The small, closely-knit group provides a fertile space for emotions and conflicts. And the characters and their stories often stand in for wider social issues. Television soaps would be a good example from contemporary culture. We are familiar with some recurring characters: the authoritarian father, the self-sacrificing mother, the rebellious son and his devoted sister.

In the study day I wanted to focus on the relationships between sisters rather than with other family members. The selection of extracts demonstrates that sisters can be found across a variety of genres. This means that there is not just one standard, recognisable figure in popular films. I wanted to suggest that melodrama provides one way of studying such characters and their varying situations. Strictly speaking, the term refers to “drama with music: the music marking the points of high emotion.” [Peter Brooks, 1976]. But the term also refers to a dramatic form that flourished in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Charles Dickens novels, for example Oliver Twist, would be one type, where Oliver is at the mercy of evil men but is rescued by a virtuous one.  This can be distinguished from a more psychological novel like George Elliot’s Middlemarch, where Dorothea and Lydgate come to realise their own weaknesses and mistakes. The characteristics of melodrama include:

Strong emotion

Moral polarities, i.e. characters are good or evil

Evil villains who persecute good characters

Virtue frequently misrecognised, partly because it remains dumb

At the end virtue usually rewarded

Extravagant and inflated expression

Cliff-hanger plots, full of incident and co-incidence.” [Brooks, 1976].

Clearly some film dramas fit this set of characteristics fairly neatly; this was especially during the silent era. Sergei Eisenstein writes compellingly of the parallels between Dickens and the US film pioneer D. W. Griffith. In Orphans of the Storm [1921] Lilian and Dorothy Gish are adopted sisters, Dorothy is blind, separated and menaced by the events of the French revolution.

Such dramas continued with the arrival of sound cinema and there were genres such as the ‘woman’s picture’ and the ‘family melodrama’. The woman’s picture offers a female centred narrative where the heroine frequently comes into conflict with dominant [and male-centred] values. Brief Encounter (1945) dramatises a married woman’s illicit affair. The family melodrama focuses on an enclosed society and their intense emotional interaction. Mandy (1952) dramatises the problems for a family with a deaf-and-dumb daughter. In both genres the problems that confront characters are most likely caused by social mores and the happy endings have to either reconcile characters to these or offer a new and changed environment. Laura (Celia Johnson) in Brief Encounter accepts the restriction of married and domestic existence: Mandy’s parents learn to accept their daughter’s situation.

At a more general level melodrama ‘became a “meta-genre” infusing and structuring different genres. The latter might include film noir, “viewed as a fusion of melodrama (dealing with desire) and the crime film.”  Westerns are also fairly melodramatic, whilst action movies often contain one or more melodramatic scenes.

Students identified a number of ‘emotional characteristics that seem to be common to dramas that focus on sisters. These included:

Affection …. Protection

Rivalry ……. Jealousy

Family hierarchies

Devotion (to father, to brother) to elder sister)

The study used a series of film extracts to provide a context for discussion.

AN UNSEEN ENEMY July 1912 Biograph. Black and white, with Intertitles.

Directed by D. W. Griffith. Cameraman G. W. Bitzer.

Cast: Dorothy and Lilian Gish – the sisters; Elmer Booth – the brother; Grace Henderson – maid; Harry Carey – accomplice.

This early one reel drama has a completely melodramatic plot, with the sisters menaced by burglars and saved by a rescue dash by their brother, which Griffith intercuts with the threat to the young women.

One aspect we noticed was that the sister played by Dorothy protects that played by Lilian Gish. It is also Dorothy who takes action to thwart the burglars. This seems to have set their personas for their careers. Lillian Gish was clearly a strong woman, producing some of her later movies, but she almost always plays a victim. Dorothy is sometimes a victim, [as in Orphans of the Storm], but quite often she is very active and even tomboyish, [as in Hearts of the World, 1918).

 Little Women, 1933, RKO, black and white.

Director George Cukor: screenplay Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, from the novel by Louisa May Alcott: photography Henry Gerrard: music Max Steiner.

With Katherine Hepburn as Jo: Joan Bennett as Amy, Frances Dee as Meg and Jean Parker as Beth. Academy Award for Best Screenplay, adaptation.

We watched the scene early in the film where we see the mother and four sisters at home. First they read a letter from their absent father, then they sing together round the piano.

There was a clear sense of traditional values embodied in this middle class family.

Meet Me in St Louis, 1944, MGM Technicolor.

Director Vincente Minnelli; photography George Folsey;

Judy Garland as Esther, Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, Leon Ames as the father, Mary Astor as the mother.

The film is set on the eve of the St Louis Exhibition of 1903. The family are threatened with upheaval as father decides to move to New York for a better job. The outburst by the youngest daughter is the climatic point that achieves a change of heart.

We watched the scene where Esther sings Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas to the younger Tootie. This is followed by Tootie’s outburst as she rushes into the garden and smashes the snow family, dressed in the garb of various family members. This seems to be a return of the family’s repressed emotions and persuades the father to relent and stay in St. Louis.

 They were Sisters, 1945, Gainsborough, black and white.

Director Arthur Crabtree; screenplay Roland Pertwee and Katherine Streuby from the novel by Dorothy Whipple; photography Jack Cox;

Cast James Mason – Geoffrey; Dulcie Gray – Charlotte; Phyllis Calvert – Lucy; Anne Crawford – Vera.

Three sisters have very different experiences of marriage. James Mason is the sadistic husband of Charlotte.

We watched a scene where Geoffrey persecutes Charlotte. Later Lucy visits her and realises she has become a secret drinker. It was pointed out that Charlotte’s room is at the top of the stairs, almost in an attic, which suggests madness: shades of Bertha in Jane Eyre.

The Dark Mirror 1946, International, black and white.

Director Robert Siodmak; screenplay Nunnally Johnson; photography Milton Krasner; music Dimitri Tiomkin.

Olivia de Havilland plays identical twins; Lew Ayres is a psychiatrist who has to decide which one is a murderer.

I had to leave this extract out, but is interesting, both because de Havilland plays two parts, and also because one sister is psychotic.

The Silence – 1963, Tystnaden Svensk, black and white.

Director Ingmar Bergman. Photography Sven Nykvist. Ingrid Thulin as Ester; Gunnel Lindblom as Anna. To sisters in a largely deserted hotel in an unnamed country working out their emotional conflicts.

Again I had to leave this out. As you would expect with Bergman this film is a dark psychological study rather than melodrama.

Hilary and Jackie 1998, Intermedia / Film Four, colour Panavision.

Director Anand Tucker; screenplay Frank Cottrell Boyce; photography David Johnson.

Emily Watson plays the renowned cellist Jacqueline de Pré, Rachel Griffith her sister.

The traumas of celebrity are worked out in these family relationships.

This is also a psychological study but the film does have moments of melodrama. The scene we watched was a flashback that showed a key scene where Jackie disrupts Hilary’s family life. In the first part of the film we see events from Hilary’s perspective: later we revisit events from Jackie’s perspective.


Resources: Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, Yale UP, 1976. Also Michael Walker Melodrama and American Cinema in Movie issue 29/30 summer 1982. See also Home is Where the Heart Is Studies in Melodrama and the woman’s film, edited by Christine Gledhill, bfi publishing 1987.


I’ve Loved You So Long / II y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008, colour and widescreen 1.85:1).

This film circulated in both a High Definition digital print and a 35mm print: we viewed the latter. There has been some discussion about the differences, [see ITP World]. I think the celluloid print brings out better the changing colour palette of the film. The plot shows us the central character, Kristin Scott Thomas – Juliette, recovering from a fifteen year jail sentence for the murder of her own son. I noted an increasing warmth in the colours as the film progressed, which seemed to correspond to Juliette’s increasing warmth as she rebuilt relationships with other people. The changing colour palette is paralleled by the mise en scène, with the characters’ position in the frame and to other characters also dramatises this development. And the performance and staging is emphasised by the use of long shot and close-up.

The central relationship is with her sister, Elsa Zylberstein – Léa. Both actresses have deservedly received praise for fine performances. In the film Léa is a younger sister who has carried a love for her elder all through the years of separation. This love is one of the strongest factors in Juliette’s opening up to the world. Two other important characters are Léa’s husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), and Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Léa who becomes romantically interested in Juliette.


Music has an important function in the film, underlying emotional points between characters. It is also used in the plot [diegetically]. Twice we see Juliette at the piano: once with her adopted niece and once with her sister. The song, A La Clare Fontaine, has a line that provides the title to the film. This also ties in with another recurring motif in the film, water. The latter has association with cleansing and rebirth. Emotional weight is added when we discover that Léa has given up playing the piano. This parallels her avoidance of childbirth: she and her husband Luc had adopted children, even though there is no medical bar to pregnancy.


The film ends on the climax of the story as Julliete finally explains to her sister about the death of her son. It was a mercy killing for an incurable decease, which Juliette, as doctor, was able to diagnose. This final scene starts on the staircase, often a site of emotional transition, and then moves to the upstairs bedroom. After an emotional exchange the sisters sit side-by-side on the bed. The front door opens and someone enters.  A voice calls out twice, “Its Michel – anyone home?” At the second time Juliette answers, ‘Yes, I’m here’, and repeats it to her sister. This works as a variation on one of the commonest final lines in family melodramas, ‘lets go home’. And, as in those other movies, it signals Juiliete’s rehabilitation into the family and the wider society.

The way that the film achieves this closure is problematic. We have been told earlier in the plot that Juliette was tried, found guilty and sentenced. Her husband and her parents disowned her because of what was seen as a heinous crime. During the trial Juliette had refused to speak about the killing or its circumstances. This appears to have included the lawyers appointed to defend her. This is an example of the ‘heroine’s silence’, a frequent trope in melodrama. However, it is difficult to believe that, for example, there would not have been an autopsy, which would have revealed the incurable decease. Some people found this almost mechanistic plot device unsatisfactory. Other, probably because of the effectiveness of the film and the actresses, found it moving and compelling.

As you might expect there was not a complete consensus on the film. However, most people found it moving, and also offering social comment. The use of the concept of melodrama and the common motifs found in that form were also helpful in analysing the film. Clearly it offers a number of tropes common to the form and its treatment of female siblings. The silence of the heroine: the intense emotion between the younger and older sister: the reconstitution of the family: and the family itself becoming a site for wider social issues.


The film is available on a Lionsgate DVD in French with English subtitles.

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