Monday 7 March 2022

A new publication - An excerpt from HOLLYWOOD'S MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: Film Noir, the Western and other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s by Geoff Mayer

Editor's Note: This is the Preface to Geoff Mayer's new book HOLLYWOOD'S MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: Film Noir, the Western and other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s. The book is published by McFarland in the US and is available locally at a number of bookshops including the online service  BOOKTOPIA 

A second excerpt from the Chapter titled Film Noir, Virtue, the Abyss and Nothingness will be published here shortly

Thanks to Stephanie Nichols of McFarland and to Geoff Mayer for assistance in preparing these excerpts for publication here .


Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, The Maltese Falcon (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

Not everything in the Hollywood cinema prior to 1960 was melodrama.Yet it is the foundation of the American cinema. It is not a singular genre; it is more expansive as it functions as a “genre-generating machine” responsible for a wide range of Hollywood genres. Above all else it dramatizes a world with (ethical) meaning as opposed to, for example, the nihilistic universe portrayed in Dashiell Hammett's Flitcraft parable in The Maltese Falcon. The Introduction, Chapters One and Two focus on the characteristics of the most popular form of melodrama, sensational melodrama. This type of melodrama offers the visceral pleasures of spectacle, con-frontation, high emotion and performance embedded in a bipolar clash between good and evil.

Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

This book stresses, however, that while the function of melodrama is to identify the existence of a moral universe, the social and political terms of this universe are not decided by melodrama. They are culturally determined.This is shown through a wide range of examples, from the “populist” westerns of the 1930s, to William Randolph Hearst's 1917 propaganda serial Patria and the “Yellow Peril” fiction of Sax Rohmer as well as President Roosevelt's response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7,1941.

Chapters Two and Three examine different types of melodrama produced in Hollywood in the 1930s for different audiences. The series western appealed to rural, small town and provincial audiences. These films, exemplars of sensational melodrama, were different aesthetically and thematically from the small number of A-budgeted westerns produced by the major studios. On the other hand,the “sophisticated melodramas of passion” favored by the major studios for their first run theaters in large urban centers were often anathema to rural and small-town audiences. 

Jeanne Eagels, Herbert Marshall, The Letter (Jean De Limur, 1929)

Chapter Three focuses on this type of melodrama and examples are drawn from W. Somerset Maugham's short stories “The Letter” and “Miss Thompson” (retitled“Rain”). Particularly important is the comparison between the 1929 film version of The Letter starring Jeanne Eagels and the 1940 version starring Bette Davis, the same story with different outcomes, largely as a result of different institutional and social factors. Unlike the morally “subversive” 1929 version, the conservatism of the 1940 film was primarily determined by Hollywood censor Joseph Breen's systemic application of the principle of compensating moral values.

Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)

Chapter Four focuses on the “problematic”world of  film noirs, a world often presented as traumatized protagonists struggling to survive in an arbitrary universe. This chapter traces the shift from the gentleman detective formula to the hard-boiled variation, James M. Cain's extravagant melodramas of violence and passion and the importance of the gothic tradition in the 1940s crime/suspense film.Despite claims that film noir subverted  the moral and formal basis of the  Hollywood system, this chapter includes a wide range of examples to demonstrate that while there were notable shifts in the crime/suspense film in the 1940s, most Holly-wood films, especially A budgeted films from the major studios, retreated to the ethical world of melodrama. 

Particular attention is directed to the ramifications of John Huston's decision not to film the final scene in his script for The Maltese Falcon along with Billy Wilder's elimination of the gas chamber sequence from Double Indemnity. On the other hand, Out of the Past and Criss Cross represent  rare examples of studio films that challenged the world of melodrama. This deviation from Hollywood's determining  dramatic mode was even  more pronounced  in a number  of low budget films such as Detour and Decoy where the financial risks were minimal. 

The book concludes with a comparison between two seemingly similar films starring Robert Mitchum: Where Danger Lives and Angel Face. This follows an earlier comparison between two films directed back to back by Joseph Lewis in the mid-1940s:  My Name Is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night. Only one film in each example is a melodrama.

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