It’s tricky enough to define what makes a melodrama at the best of times, but even more so when your eyes are misty with tears. Melodrama is better understood as a mode than a genre, as academic Linda Williams argued, and the meaning of the word has shifted over time: from an action-packed thriller to a heartbreaking drama.
In 1940s Hollywood, the privations of the war years and a disruption to gender roles led to the rise of a new female-led film. The woman’s picture, usually a three-handkerchief weepie, revolves around a powerhouse performance from a star actress. Despite stories filled with loss and sacrifice, the best of these melodramas provided a welcome rush of empowerment: audiences saw shadows of their real-life struggles on screen, and for mature actresses, they offered substantial, often award-worthy roles.
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Bette Davis lobbied Warner Bros to play the lead role of Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (1942), and her impeccable performance in this archetypal woman’s picture was rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination. Joan Crawford reignited her career with Mildred Pierce (1945) – and she did win the Oscar. As did many other stars of 1940s melodramas, including Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Wyman and Olivia de Havilland – twice. I’ve chosen only one film per actress for this list, which wasn’t easy. Davis and Crawford could fill the page alone. We can only sob over the absence of films starring Wyman, Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon, Susan Hayward, Joan Bennett, Jennifer Jones and Margaret Sullavan.
The 1940s melodrama gets even more interesting when it collides with other genres or modes, as in the great noir-melodramas, from Mildred Pierce to Leave Her to Heaven (1945) to Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). By picturing women fighting to find their place, these films appeal to all kinds of marginalised audiences. The woman’s picture can be subversive or conservative, gritty or camp, cynically sentimental or heartstoppingly poignant. There’s more to the 1940s melodrama than meets your brimming eye.
Kitty Foyle (1940)
Director: Sam Wood
Ginger Rogers is more renowned for her comedy and her tapdancing, but she won serious plaudits when she tackled this tragic role. Kitty is a working-class woman grappling with a romantic dilemma familiar to many a melodrama heroine: should she follow the man she loves most, even though he’s married and socially from another world, or accept a proposal of marriage from her less-romantic, totally available boyfriend? As Kitty tries to make up her mind, she recalls her painful romantic history in flashback, including divorce and a lost baby.
The film’s prologue puts Kitty’s story in a historical context, introducing the changing status of women in the early 20th century: no longer on a Victorian pedestal but newly enfranchised to vote, and expected to earn their own living. Kitty, who contemplates a life and motherhood outside marriage and expects to be punished for it, is a child of her time. But Kitty’s assertion about what women truly want is intended to be universal, and resonates through so many of these films: “It isn’t men, not really. It’s something down inside of them that’s the future.”
Penny Serenade (1941)
Director: George Stevens
Irene Dunne and Cary Grant had already made a hilarious couple, playing sharp-tongued estranged spouses in both The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). Their reunion was not such a cheery affair, though they play it beautifully. Dunne and Grant play a young couple whose dreams of starting a family suffer some painful setbacks – arguably it’s the suggestion of comedy (a napkin tied around an alarm clock while the baby sleeps, etc), and the natural chemistry between the leads, that makes the film all the more poignant.
Penny Serenade has an episodic structure, with each flashback linked by the playing of sentimental songs – a nod to melodrama’s etymological root as a “drama with music”. Dunne later said she loved the film because it reminded her of her own adopted daughter, while Grant – whose first and only child was born in 1966 – channelled his own broodiness into his performance, which he considered his best. It earned him his first Oscar nod.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Director: Irving Rapper
In this hit adaptation of an Olive Higgins Prouty novel, Bette Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a woman deemed too dowdy for romance but who ultimately becomes too good for it. She’s a lonely spinster, living with an overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper) who batters her self-esteem daily. Charlotte is just a hair’s breadth from a complete mental breakdown when kindly Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) takes her into his sanatorium, and gives her a mental health makeover – as well as a taste of freedom from her maternal tyrant.
It’s on board a cruise ship, reinvigorated and dressed for success, that Charlotte meets the love of her life, Jerry (Paul Henreid), but their relationship cannot survive on dry land. Before renouncing the role of mistress, Charlotte proves herself capable of being the perfect wife and mother. It’s a film packed with iconic moments, from the lovers’ shared cigarettes to Charlotte’s glamorous reveal underneath a wide-brimmed hat and her deathless line: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Director: William Wyler
Leads in 1940s melodrama often find the role of wife and mother a challenge, but Mrs Miniver, played with aplomb by Greer Garson, rises to any occasion. In this Oscar-winning wartime melodrama set in the English Home Counties but made in the States, Garson plays the plucky matriarch of a comfortable family of five. Her eldest son enlists in the RAF, and her husband (Walter Pidgeon) rushes to help with the Dunkirk evacuation, but Mrs Miniver has to contend with the home front, including a German pilot who holds her at gunpoint in her own kitchen – whom she disarms with impressive sang-froid, naturally.
Grief, and romantic subplots, make this a true tearjerker, but it’s the patriotic speech delivered by the local vicar in the bomb-damaged church that gave Mrs. Miniver irresistible propaganda value. Though the image of Garson reading aloud Alice in Wonderland to her children during an air raid didn’t hurt.
Director: George Cukor
The epitome of the paranoid melodrama, the better-known of two film adaptations of Patrick Hamilton’s play, and something of a period film noir, this is a psychological thriller set in Edwardian England. In this version Ingrid Bergman plays the young bride and Charles Boyer her cruel husband, who is determined to make her believe that she’s losing her mind, just to cover up his own murderous misdeeds.
Bergman’s performance of naive vulnerability, and her enjoyable final-act revenge scene, provide the heart in this chilling tale. The dynamic between her and Boyer, while part of a sensationalist murder plotline, is also a rather vivid depiction of domestic emotional abuse, and it’s no doubt due to the huge success of this film that the term ‘gaslighting’ is so widely used and understood. Don’t miss a young Angela Lansbury as the couple’s pouting housemaid.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz
If a film is told in flashback, chances are it’s a film noir or a melodrama, and this superb movie is both. It also gave Crawford a role to die for, and breathed new life into her career. James M. Cain’s source novel may have been attempting to show why women were better off at home rather than entering the workforce, but this triumphant role was exactly the kickstart the star needed. And she always argued that her tough upbringing improved her performance: “I think I was getting ready for Mildred Pierce when I was a kid, waiting on tables and cooking.”
Crawford plays the eponymous housewife, who goes back to work after separating from her husband. It’s a slog, but she builds up an impressive restaurant business to provide her daughters with everything they could ever need. But her vicious eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is far from content with what she has or grateful for the sacrifices her mother has made, and Mildred’s reign as mistress of her own life must come to an end.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Director: John M. Stahl
One of the bleakest of film noirs, but one photographed in lustrous, sun-soaked Technicolor too. Leave Her to Heaven is directed by one of the acknowledged masters of the melodrama: John M. Stahl had been making weepies since the silent era, and two of his films would famously be remade (or rather their source novels re-adapted) by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s: Imitation of Life (193⅘9) and Magnificent Obsession (1935/54).
Here, Gene Tierney turns in a bone-chilling performance as the antiheroine – psychopathic socialite Ellen. Far more sympathetic are her unlucky husband Richard (Cornel Wilde), and cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who’ll both face trial for her violent crimes. The melodramatic thread running through all this is Ellen’s psychological damage (she’s essentially riddled with jealousy), her determination to win independence at all costs and the tragic loss of innocent lives. Then there’s Richard, a melodramatic man trapped in a toxic marriage.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Barbara Stanwyck was a doyenne of melodrama, though perhaps her most iconic roles in this vein came in the 1930s (Stella Dallas) or 1950s (There’s Always Tomorrow). In the 1940s Stanwyck starred in a run of noir-melodramas, including this gritty saga written by Robert Rossen, in which she plays the title character.
It’s a luridly violent and cynical tale. First we’ll see Martha’s early years, under the guardianship of her bullying aunt – and the deadly night that changes the course of her life. Then Stanwyck enters as the adult Martha, rich and successful in business, but trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience to alcoholic attorney Walter (Kirk Douglas, brilliant in his debut role). When her childhood friend Sam (Van Heflin) drifts back into town, she has to confront the terrible mistakes she made and run the risk of repeating them. Can Sam give up the attentions of his new lady friend (Lizabeth Scott) to rekindle such a strange love affair?
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Director: Max Ophüls
One of cinema’s greatest evocations of unrequited love, Max Ophüls’ adaptation of a Stefan Zweig novella stars Joan Fontaine as Lisa, the ‘unknown woman’ of the title, who falls headfirst for Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a handsome concert pianist who lives in her building. We first hear her voice in the letter she writes to him from hospital: “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.” If the crisis in a woman’s picture is almost always a question of “if only” and “too late”, Lisa’s deathbed declaration of love may beat them all.
The setting is early turn-of-the-century Vienna, lavishly recreated on a Hollywood soundstage, and captured by Ophüls’ signature baroque camera movements. A collection of comic characters shake the sentimentality out of Lisa’s tragic tale, and Fontaine channels the same nervy youthfulness that she showed to great effect in Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943), though this performance was surely her finest and most purely poignant.
The Heiress (1949)
Director: William Wyler
The second Wyler film in this list and, frankly, there could have been many more. Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted their own play, which was based on Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square. In the vein of Charlotte Vale, the heiress in question is the supposedly dull and dumpy Catherine Sloper, who stands to inherit her cruel doctor father’s fortune – and is played by Olivia de Havilland.
When a handsome Montgomery Clift comes to court her, Catherine is swiftly besotted, but her father (a brilliantly spiky Ralph Richardson) pours scorn on the romance. It seems Catherine is destined to have her heart broken whatever happens, but perhaps there is a way that she can claim her independence and save her dignity instead. De Havilland is tremendous, the final scene is one of the greatest in golden age Hollywood, and the score by Aaron Copland is cleverly muted, minimalist and period-appropriate.
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