This evening, BAMcinématek will screen Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, about a modern-day enchantress who uses magic to make men fall in love with her. In the film, Biller — who we praised in our list of must-see horror movies directed by women — pays tribute to and subverts the pulpy novels of the 1960s and stirring Technicolor melodramas.
The melodrama film has a largely negative reputation as an irrational, moralizing, joyless “women’s picture.” But the unreality of these movies and all they offer has been given new consideration in recent decades — and not all melodramas are hysterical soap operas. Rainer Werner Fassbinder praised the characters in Douglas Sirk’s films, a director he emulated throughout his career. “Women think in Sirk’s films,” he once explained. “Something which has never struck me with other directors. None of them. Usually women are always reacting, doing what women are supposed to do, but in Sirk they think. It’s something that has to be seen. It’s great to see women think. It gives one hope. Honestly.”
Here we present 50 melodramas, ranging from the ridiculous to the transcendent.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
From Criterion, about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, which usurps its Sirkian influence in a story about a World War II widow and her rise through the social ranks in the aftermath thereof:
The melodrama that has been established with all the tricks in the book is then immediately destroyed again by Fassbinder. Irritating camera movements that allow expectations to build but then disappoint them, and above all the obtrusive ‘background noise’ that asserts itself in the foreground, prevent any form of blissful identification with the heroine from occurring. The dialogue is overlaid with political speeches from the radio or the battering of a pneumatic hammer that heralds reconstruction and prosperity. The multilayered sound collage is artfully tied in with the plot, especially in the final sequence.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Douglas Sirk’s tearjerker about small-town conformity depicts the relationship between a wealthy widow and her young gardener. She falls for him, much to the chagrin of her spoiled children and superficial country club companions. The film inspired Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Imitation of Life (1959)
The New York Times on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, which follows two widows and their daughters as they struggle against racial prejudice:
Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life is among the most closely analyzed films in the Hollywood canon, a Lana Turner soap opera turned into an exercise in metaphysical formalism by Sirk’s finely textured and densely layered images. Less well known is John M. Stahl’s first film version (1934) of this Fannie Hurst novel about the complex bond between an enterprising white businesswoman (Claudette Colbert) and the black woman (Louise Beavers) who becomes her housekeeper and supplies the secret formula for pancakes that becomes the basis of Colbert’s character’s empire. That was the year that Hollywood began seriously to enforce what had been the largely toothless Production Code, which, among its many nefarious effects, would result in the near disappearance of socially engaged films for the next two decades. But Stahl’s Imitation of Life still benefits from the frankness and skepticism of the early Depression years. Though hardly free from stereotyping, it stands today as perhaps the most powerful Hollywood film about race until the civil rights movement of the 1950s.
The Lady from Musashino (1951)
Kenji Mizoguchi’s tale of adultery, honor, sacrifice, and morality in postwar Japan.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Unconsummated love in the British burbs between strangers at a railway station. Pop Matters writes on the David Lean’s exploration of morality in romance:
The adulterous relationship is never presented from the perspective of the faithful husband because Laura’s story is enacted as a form of pleading confession or psychiatric therapy session. She wants the audience to understand her point of view while she debates the twists and turns, but she also craves acceptance that in the end she made the right decision. Gerald Pratley’s book, The Cinema of David Lean, notes that Lean himself had stated: ‘What is there to say about the human condition which hasn’t been said already? [….] I’m putting into pictures something that’s already there […] Something I agree with and feel concerned about.’ With Brief Encounter, Lean was not creating new social orders, rather he was reflecting emergent concerns with the social injustice of transgression, as his two lovers are forced apart by an ideological regime which fails them when they are complicit with it, and punishes them when they are not. Taken as the central drive of the film, it is not surprising that some critics, such as Richard Dyer, have also considered gay audience readings of the film.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nobody did weepy domestic camp like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. The star’s burdened character has a hell of a time after her husband turns up dead, her daughter turns into an A-class bitch, and the money comes and quickly goes.
Man Bait (1952)
Hammer Films dished up this saucy noir title starring Diana Dors as a sexy blonde embroiled in a blackmail scheme. Terence Fisher, who was a key creative force behind the studio’s heady visual style, directed the film.
A poor railroad worker shacks up with Beverly Michaels’ femme fatale, who has other plans for her new husband — plans she’s making with her lover. A tawdry noir tale from Czech actor turned filmmaker Hugo Haas.
A widow becomes a bar hostess to make ends meet and struggles against social constraints. From Criterion, on what makes Hideko Takamine’s character different from other women featured in typical melodramas:
We respect her stubbornness and resilience, yes, but what keeps this quintessential woman’s picture from descending to weepy melodrama is the objectivity brought to bear. Part of it comes from the detached point of view in Keiko’s own voice-overs, part from the careful plotting that makes each successive outcome seem plausible rather than operatic, and most of it from the visual style, which records the drama in evenhanded, worldly fashion.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Being a sister-wife sucks in Warlord-Era China when you’re the concubine of a rich guy who thinks women are disposable. The film, known for its visual splendor, was banned in China.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Werner Herzog transforms the bizarre story of Kaspar Hauser, prime material for a melodrama, and imbues it with considerable beauty and mysticism.
TCM on this Mexican cinema classic:
The cabaretera style of Mexico co-existed with the American film-noir thrillers and served much the same purpose, providing thrills and suspense with a cynical social commentary that could be missed by the less-observant patrons. The different slant of cabaretera comes with the inclusion of music, juxtaposing Latin musical numbers, often in florid costumes, with sex and touches of sadism. The greatness of Aventurera is in spotting another important difference from film noir – the stronger emphasis on women – and using this melodramatic story to expose the injustice and hardships encountered by Mexican women. With a central performance by Sevilla that is both provocative and emotional, campy musical numbers and a briskly paced plot, Aventurera is immensely entertaining while pointing forward to the socially conscious American melodramas of Douglas Sirk in the late 1950s.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
William Wyler takes on Emily Brontë’s tale of tragic love and dials it up to 10. The film received eight Academy Awards, winning Best Cinematography, but lost Best Picture to Gone with the Wind. Fun fact: Vivien Leigh wanted the lead in Wyler’s movie.
From AMC on George Cukor’s Alexandre Dumas, fils adaptation:
Camille is one of the most romantically-atmospheric films ever made. It is a tearjerker classic — a well-known, lavish, luxuriously-mounted, melodramatic love/tragedy of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Director George Cukor’s film, his first with Greta Garbo, was also the first talking version of the content. It was adapted (by Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, and James Hilton) from Alexandre Dumas Fils’ (the Younger) 1852 novel/play (La Dame aux Camelias) of the doomed romance of a tubercular courtesan/demimonde of ill repute in 19th century Paris. [Verdi wrote the opera La Traviata based upon this play.] Thirty-seven year old producer Irving Thalberg died shortly before filming ended for his last project with MGM. Garbo’s portrayal of the beautiful but sickly Parisian courtesan, who fatefully falls in love with a young French nobleman (25 year-old Robert Taylor), is widely considered the definitive version of the Camille story. Garbo’s first talkie film, Anna Christie, was advertised with the promotional line: ‘Garbo Talks!’ — so naturally, jokes at the time suggested that this film should be advertised as: ‘Garbo Coughs!’
From the Village Voice on Jacques Demy’s debut film:
A musical without music set in the port city of Nantes — stars Anouk Aimée as the title character, a cabaret singer awaiting the return of Michel (Jacques Hardin), her long-absent lover and the father of her child. Michel went to America seven years ago and promised to return when he became rich. In Michel’s absence, Lola is being courted by her childhood friend Roland (Marc Michel) and American sailor Frankie (Allan Scott). At some point, it seems that Lola will settle down with one of them, but her heart still belongs to Michel. The film is dedicated to Max Ophüls and the film title obviously alludes to Ophüls’ Lola Montes as well as to the heroine of Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Marc Michel makes a reference to his unrequited love towards Lola when he reappears in Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
The Women (1939)
From Only the Cinema about George Cukor’s movie about the dramas between interconnected women:
George Cukor’s The Women is an overwrought, bitchy melodrama in which, true to its title, the male presence is entirely eliminated in order to focus on the gossip, backbiting, betrayals, and catfights that go on among a group of society women. The film, adapted from a successful play, is a deliberately high camp satire. With its ripe, hilariously barbed dialogue, it perfectly captures a certain kind of shrill, endlessly chattering upper-class milieu, with women so isolated from their husbands and the male world in general that the men in their lives need not even appear in the film. Cukor went to great lengths to ensure that there was no male representation onscreen, even casting female animals for the scenes where dogs, horses, and monkeys appear.
This is Bette Davis in her first Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic actress who returns to the stage only to prove that she’s still a destructive force. The part secured Davis’ reputation as a complex femme fatale.
The Little Foxes (1941)
Bette Davis plays the conniving member of a wealthy Southern clan in the grim family melodrama The Little Foxes. The behind-the-scenes climate of the film was equally acidic since Davis and director William Wyler constantly battled about creative decisions.
Stella Dallas (1937)
Barbara Stanwyck plays a party girl from the wrong side of the tracks who struggles to give her daughter a promising future. Stanwyck pulled a Marlon Brando and transformed herself physically for the role to fit her character’s so-called vulgarities, even going so far as to stuff her cheeks full of cotton.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
From Slant on the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr film:
Often regarded (or dreaded) as the ultimate chick flick, due in no small amount to its fetish-object role in Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember deserves better than to be the receptor of Meg Ryan’s crocodile tears. A remake by Leo McCarey of his own 1939 classic Love Affair, the film progresses as a graceful switch from romantic comedy to weepie melodrama, reflecting the director’s deep-rooted belief in the intricate bond between laughter and tears. As world-famous playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and professional singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) meet, banter, and flirt aboard a transatlantic cruise, the story revives the comic vitality of McCarey’s ‘30s pictures, gliding along to the stars’ impeccable, often improvised repartee. The frivolity begins to deepen once the ship docks at Madeira and the couple visits Nickie’s grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt); the two have fallen deeply in love by the time they reach New York City, setting the stage for the tragedy that will separate them in the film’s heartbreaking second half.
A catatonic woman wandering the streets of Los Angeles tells the story of her life, which is colored with obsession and murder. Star Joan Crawford spent time observing mentally ill patients while preparing for her role.
Bad Blonde (1953)
Barbara Payton plays the scheming blonde who seduces a young boxer and tricks him into murdering her wealthy husband. This was another one of Hammer Films’ bad-girl ‘50s melodramas that advertised raunchy taglines like “Sure, I accept favors from men!”
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
From Senses of Cinema on the Max Ophüls movie based on the novella of the same name by Stefan Zweig:
Melodrama evokes a precise world, one where ordinary gestures are taken with deadly seriousness and meaning is inscribed in its silent outbursts. It is, after all, a world since inhabited by the 19th century figure of the hysteric: a body presented as a readable surface of symptoms that must be deciphered. Here, the film itself enacts this hysteria, presenting us with a predetermined universe, tensed to convey meaning.
Written on the Wind (1956)
Douglas Sirk does scandal down South. From Roger Ebert’s 1998 review:
Opinion on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk has flip-flopped since his key films were released in the 1950s. At the time, critics ridiculed them and the public lapped them up. Today most viewers dismiss them as pop trash, but in serious film circles Sirk is considered a great filmmaker — a German who fled Hitler to become the sly subverter of American postwar materialism. One cold night this winter, I went up to the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, north of London, to see a revival of a restored print of Sirk’s Written on the Wind. This is a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama in which you can find the seeds of Dallas, Dynasty, and all the other prime-time soaps. Sirk is the one who established their tone, in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath.
Loving Couples (1964)
The film marks the feature debut of Swedish actress and filmmaker Mai Zetterling, whose story about three expectant mothers who recall the details of their sex lives has often been compared to the works of Ingmar Bergman.
A Woman’s Face (1938)
Ingrid Bergman plays the bitter, disfigured leader of a gang of cons. From Slate: “The plot is corn heaven, enough for Joan Crawford, the queen of melodrama, to have remade it three years later. But where Crawford attacked the role with her usual hysteria, flashing her eyes the size of dinner plates, Bergman’s Anna was subtle and quietly mean.”
Ava Gardner’s femme fatale nightclub singer falls in love with James Mason’s mysterious ship’s captain. The mystical romantic melodrama features the legendary Jack Cardiff’s beautiful camerawork in stunning Technicolor, heightening the fantasy elements of the story.
The Law (1959)
Gina Lollobrigida’s village woman deals with small-town corruption (with a very sharp knife!) and turns the tables on all the men. Gritty Italian neorealism meets noir meets musical numbers meets comedy, from blacklisted director Jules Dassin.
From Fandor on Margarethe von Trotta’s film:
Two sisters share a complex and compelling relationship in the well crafted film about sibling rivalry. Anna seems dependent, emotionally and economically, on Maria. Successive inward turns of the screw reveal them, Siamese twin-like, bonded to one another, so that eventually it is uncertain as to who exploits and dominates whom. Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness probes into psychic extremes, it is both tender and violent, delicate and melodramatic.
“Melodrama has a bad reputation because it has been abandoned to schematic and conventional interpretation.” — Luchino Visconti
The Stray Bullet (1961)
Fandor on South Korean filmmaker Yu Hyun-mok’s critically acclaimed film:
This classic piece of Korean cinema depicts the life of a public accountant who struggles with money and the social upheavals of a changing society. Burdened with the responsibility of supporting a mentally troubled mother, malnourished pregnant wife, troublesome younger brother and a sister who is prostituting herself to American soldiers, he cannot even afford to visit the dentist and find a cure for his constant toothache. Yoo Hyun-Mok’s gritty drama, banned on its initial release in 1961, is frequently listed as one of the greatest Korean films of all time.
Pier Paolo Pasolini directed opera diva Maria Callas in her only film role, retelling the ancient myth of Medea. From DVD Talk:
The great Italian poet, filmmaker, and provocateur extraordinaire Pier Paolo Pasolini, who once famously embraced (apparent) contradiction by publicly declaring, ‘I am a Catholic. I am a Communist. I am a homosexual,’ made no less seemingly contradictory choices when it came to translating literary texts into cinema. His notorious final work, Salo, was his rendition of de Sade, but he had previously put his stamp on St. Matthew, Chaucer, and Boccaccio while bringing them to the silver screen, so an adaptation of Medea, the myth cemented for the ages by Euripides in 431 BC, was hardly out of character, and Pasolini presented his take on the ancient text in 1969 with the tempestuous opera diva Maria Callas as the character — the eternal symbol of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ — from which the play derives its name. If Pasolini reworks Euripides’s version in some ways to a point beyond recognition, his aim is to convey the essential, shattering, inconsolable anguish of the story, and the slightly uneven but fascinatingly unique result of the experiment makes clear how rich and ripe the material was for mining by Pasolini’s febrile, probing sensibility.
A married American woman and an Italian man (the latter played a very American Monty Clift, doing his dang best) carry on a love affair, set in a Rome train station. Italian neorealist master Vittorio De Sica makes his foray into romantic melodrama territory.
The Way Home (1967)
Set in Tennessee during the early 20th century, a family grieves after the sudden loss of their father. A life of heartache follows. From Pauline Kael’s review:
This adaptation of the Tad Mosel play, set in Knoxville in 1915 and based on James Agee’s semi-autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, is terribly earnest, pictorial, and well-intentioned. And a terrible mistake. Robert Preston had been a favorite actor of Agee’s, but he’s clearly in the wrong age bracket to play a young married man, and even the lovely Jean Simmons can’t do anything to save her role as his wife, who soon becomes his widow. Michael Kearney is extremely unengaging as the bereaved child.
From eroticage.com on Joe Sarno’s free-love film:
Acclaimed soft-core director/screenwriter Joe Sarno expertly crafts a highly absorbing and arousing soap opera-style small-town slice-of-life melodrama which not only delivers the expected sultry and alluring goods (the sex scenes are fairly explicit and steamy, but never too graphic or sleazy), but also serves as a perfectly trenchant and provocative critique of very conservative and puritanical small town mores (best represented by the frustrated Priscilla and the unhappy Alice Ann), hypocrisy (Priscilla’s friends Lila and Tracey blithely partake in Abigail’s lascivious fun and games despite the fact that they are both married), and repressed passions and desires (Priscilla pines for Chester, but is too timid to pursue her romantic interest in him).
High Heels (1991)
Pedro Almodóvar’s film was inspired by classic Hollywood mother-daughter melodramas, including Mildred Pierce. From Roger Ebert’s 1991 review:
But now here is High Heels, a film of great color and vitality, and while it is transcendentally silly, I rather enjoyed that quality. It’s a tongue-in-cheek melodrama of cheerfully ridiculous implausibility, involving the lurid lives and loves of a flamboyant actress, her emotionally fraught daughter, and the people in love with them. But even in that sentence I have played a little trick, since the ‘people’ in love with them are fewer than it seems, through a surprise that I will not destroy for Almodovar.
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Indeed, this sort of story line recurs in classic Hollywood melodrama, where a selfish mother is the worst kind of villainess, like the parasitic Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager, nagging Bette Davis into a wreck who winds up physically resembling Ullmann in Autumn Sonata, right down to the wire-rim glasses. Watch Autumn Sonata and other movie mothers may start to drift through your mind: Mary Astor, the pianist in The Great Lie, leaving her baby behind with Davis, then embarking on a world tour because (no other reason is plausibly suggested) she’s a heartless bitch; Davis — now the bad mom — in Mr. Skeffington, abandoning her lovelorn husband and daughter so she can pursue flirtations, lunches, and shopping; Lana Turner lighting up more for her show business pals than she does for her daughter in Imitation of Life (which Charlotte’s phone call to her agent echoes). It may seem quixotic to bring up these films when discussing the resolutely un-Hollywood Ingmar Bergman. But these old studio tropes reflected attitudes, they did not produce them, and those attitudes cross borders more readily than even cinema itself. In Autumn Sonata, there’s the essence of many a maternal melodrama, concentrated by telescoping events into a couple of days, and deepened by Bergman’s ability to find reasons within reasons for what people do.
A svengali hypnotizes an artist’s model and transforms her into a great opera singer, but not without great consequence. The film is based on a novel by George Du Maurier. Star Donald Wolfit does his best Bela Lugosi impression.
The Wicked Lady (1945)
Studio Gainsborough Pictures produced a slew of postwar melodramas that broke British box office records. In The Wicked Lady, Margaret Lockwood plays an anti-heroine who steals her BFF’s husband, gambles like crazy, and hits the road in a mask and cloak as a desperado highway robber. She falls for a fellow crook and evades the police for the thrill of it all.
Gates of the Night (1946)
A tramp who claims to be destiny predicts a love story and a horrible death, which guides a cast of players on the path to their fate. From poetic realism icon Marcel Carné.
Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
David Lean’s take on Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. Pauline Kael famously hated it: “Gush made respectable by millions of dollars tastefully wasted.”
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The myth of the happy homemaker taken to terrifying extremes. From David Edelstein’s review: “I’m not sure if that ’50s never-never land existed (it was at least partly a construct of the government and entertainment industries). But the longing for it was real and powerful enough that feminists could take Levin’s outlandish melodrama as a cautionary tale.”
The Truth of Our Marriage (1952)
A woman looking for love finds a wealthy man looking for fun. He pays the price for his roving eye years later at the hands of his once devoted wife.
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Read Roger Ebert’s 1967 analysis of the film he wrote and created with sexploitation icon Russ Meyer: “What we have here is a dirty soap opera. It is dirty because it intends to be, but it is a soap opera only by default. It tries to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography, but fails. And it is dirty, not because it has lots of sex in it, but because it firmly believes that sex is dirty.”
Terence Fisher directs for Hammer Films once again. A down-on-his-luck American in London makes a lucrative deal to marry a mysterious blonde — a union that leads to murder.
Madame Freedom (1956)
Han Hyung-mo’s extramarital melodrama speaks to the changing social dynamic in Korea during the 1950s.
Hitler’s Children (1943)
If the absurd poster and title of this RKO Radio Pictures propaganda film doesn’t hook you, nothing will.
Far from Heaven (2002)
From an interview with director Todd Haynes in American Cinematographer:
Why did you want to recreate a Douglas Sirk melodrama in 2002? Todd Haynes: I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Officially the most depressing musical of all time. From Senses of Cinema’s review of Lars von Trier’s big downer:
Dancer in the Dark, when recounted in the twists and turns of its plot, is pure melodrama. Björk plays Selma, a hardworking Czech migrant who works in a factory in small town, Washington State. She lives in a caravan with her ten-year-old son Gene (Vladica Kostic) rented to them by an all-American couple, local policeman Bill (David Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour) in whose backyard they live. As Selma struggles to make ends meet, she lives concurrently in two worlds. The first is a world of darkness – she is partially blind with a hereditary illness that will also rob her son of his sight unless she can afford to pay for an operation. Selma keeps this a secret but works night and day, allowing neither Gene nor herself any small reward, saving every penny toward his operation. But the secret becomes a terrible burden as she must pretend to the world – to her fellow employees at the tool-and-die factory, her friends and family, and, more humorously, her fellow cast members in an amateur production of The Sound of Music — that she has the ability to see. Amid these hardships, she descends into the imagined second world – a world of light — in which she sings and dances in the musical numbers that she has always loved. In these magical sequences, Selma can never quite escape her surroundings and both the music and her imagined dances are strongly affected by the real world. Rather than the tinkle of pianos and harps, Selma’s songs are punctuated by the clattering of machinery or train engines. These songs (sung by Björk and orchestrated in her unique style) are Selma’s escape. So, as the events around her begin to descend steadily into tragedy, greater are her escapes into musical fantasy.
Gone Girl (2014)
Matt Zoller Seitz writes about David Fincher’s part melodrama, part cultural/media satire:
It is a metafictionally-minded version of a bloody domestic melodrama that actually uses the word ‘meta’ (in a scene where Nick and the cops discuss his bar, which is named The Bar). It ties much of its mystery plot to an anniversary scavenger hunt with clues enclosed in numbered envelopes marked ‘clue.’ Key scenes revolve around public statements that are in some sense performances, and that are evaluated by onlookers in terms of their believability. And yet it never crosses the line and becomes too much a deconstruction or parody. It’s a plot-obsessed picture that’s determined to stay one step ahead of the audience at all times, and cheats when it feels it has to. It is a perfect example of a sub-genre that the great critic Anne Billson has labeled ‘the preposterous thriller,’ in which ‘characters and their behavior bear no relation not just to life as we know it, but to any sort of properly structured fiction we may have hitherto encountered.’