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Melodrama Films are a sub-type of drama films, characterized by a plot to appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodrama, a combination of drama and melos (music), literally means "play with music." The themes of dramas, the oldest literary and stage art form, were exaggerated within melodramas, and the liberal use of music often enhanced their emotional plots. Often, film studies criticism used the term 'melodrama' pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences. The sub-genre is typically looked down upon by critics and elitists.
There are many names for melodramatic films - 'women's pictures', 'weepies', tearjerkers, soap operas (or soapers), and more recently, 'chick flicks'. O Magazine compiled their 50 Greatest Chick Flicks in their July 2004 issue.). See Filmsite's own Memorable and Great "Chick Flicks."
Pure melodramas reached their pinnacle in the films of the 50s by director Douglas Sirk. See also this site's extensive, illustrated compilation: Greatest Tearjerker Films, Moments and Scenes. (Entertainment Weekly's November 28, 2003 issue listed their choices for the Top 50 Greatest Tearjerkers: each one "involves a terminally ill loved one, or an impossible love, or a giant robot that dies for our sins.") However, not all melodramas are tearjerkers, but more like heightened dramas.
Melodramatic plots with heart-tugging (literally tear-jerking), emotional plots (requiring multiple hankies) usually emphasize sensational situations or crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, loss (the death of a child or spouse), neuroses, or emotional and physical hardships within everyday life. Victims, couples, virtuous and heroic characters or suffering protagonists (usually heroines) in melodramas are presented with tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, improbable events or difficulties with friends, community, work, lovers, or family. The melodramatic format allows the character(s) to work through their difficulties or surmount the problems with resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery.
Melodramas were the prime form of dramas until they were overtaken by straight-forward, realistic dramatic forms in the 50s and afterwards, although they continue to occasionally appear into the present. Even today, horror films, adventure pictures, war movies, thriller films, and even westerns (such as Fred Zinnemann's psychological western High Noon (1952) and Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma (1957)) are described as melodramatic.
Directors that have often been associated with melodramas include the following:
Tragically-realistic films were a big part of the silent film era - the silents naturally lent themselves to melodrama. The only means by which an actor or actress could communicate meaning and feelings was through facial expressions and gestures. One of the earliest melodramas was director Frank Powell's silent film (based upon a stage play) titled A Fool There Was (1915), with Theda Bara (in her star-making film debut) cast as an evil, dark, wicked and mysterious vampire who seductively lures a weak-willed family man away and controls his heart with her sexy wiles.
The master of silent melodramas was director D. W. Griffith, who featured the innocent heroine Lillian Gish in many of his films, such as True Heart Susie (1919), with Gish as a long-suffering plain country girl who painfully sacrifices herself for her neighbor boy-lover - who eventually marries someone else. In Broken Blossoms (1919), she portrayed a fragile and waif-like daughter of an abusive prizefighter. Further Griffith films included the melodramatic epic of the French Revolution Orphans of the Storm (1922) and of World War I Hearts of the World (1918). In Way Down East (1920) Gish starred as a naive and wronged woman after being seduced, made pregnant, and abandoned. Small-town prejudice sends Gish into a death-threatening blizzard and entrapment on an ice floe. King Vidor's WWI epic The Big Parade (1925) featured melodrama within the romantic subplot between a French girl (Renee Adoree) and an American doughboy (John Gilbert). One of the earliest, most influential romantic melodramas of the era was the classic silent masterpiece from F. W. Murnau titled Sunrise (1927). Another was director Erich von Stroheim's silent masterpiece Greed (1924) - a marital drama about an avaricious couple.
Fannie Hurst's best-selling, tear-jerking novel of an ill-fated romance and sacrificial love was remade numerous times: John Stahl's Back Street (1932) with Irene Dunne and John Boles, Robert Stevenson's Back Street (1941) with Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan, and David Miller's Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward and John Gavin.
Melodramatic Tales of Fallen and Liberated Women:
Before the Production Code Administration in 1934 clamped down with strict censorship codes, Hollywood produced a number of frank and sordid melodramas featuring tough, sinful, bawdy, naughty and fallen women, pleasure-loving golddiggers, prostitutes and ruthless divorcees - some of whom were repaid for their sinfulness and indiscretions by rejection, drug-addiction, death, or anonymity. The silent Madame X (1920) was one of the first of such films - in which a woman (Pauline Frederick) was separated from her legitimate child, and then defended by her unknowing, grown-up son when wrongly accused of murder.
Norma Shearer won the Best Actress Oscar for MGM's The Divorcee (1930) as a recent divorcee who finds revenge on her faithless husband by becoming a philanderer herself. Cecil B. DeMille directed the outrageous Madam Satan (1930) about a wealthy socialite (Kay Johnson) who pretends to be a sultry French vamp in order to seduce her own husband away from his mistress. (The film featured an infamous debauchery scene - a masquerade costume ball aboard a zeppelin dirigible above New York harbor.)
Gloria Swanson (in Manhandled (1924), and in Sadie Thompson (1928) as a fallen woman of loose morals), and liberated sexy screen siren Clara Bow (in My Lady of Whims (1925), Mantrap (1926), Dancing Mothers (1926), the star-making light comedy It (1927) ("It" means sex appeal), and Hula (1928)) emerged as the newest stars of melodramatic pictures in the 20s. Liberated females (society women, stenographers, actress/starlets) were the main characters in pre-code melodramatic soap operas, including MGM's pre-censorship era Three On A Match (1932) featuring three girlhood friends - a working girl stenographer (Bette Davis), a bored society dame and rich man's wife (Ann Dvorak) and a jaded showgirl/actress with a gangster boyfriend (Joan Blondell), and What Price Hollywood? (1932) with Constance Bennett as an aspiring young Hollywood starlet (later remade three times as A Star is Born in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor), 1954 (with Judy Garland), and 1976).
One of the only female Hollywood directors in the 1930s was Dorothy Arzner, who made Katharine Hepburn's second film, giving the actress her first starring role in Christopher Strong (1933), a tale of a daring female aviator who fell in love with a married British statesman. Margaret Sullavan starred in her first role as an unwed mother (with an unknowing father) in Only Yesterday (1933).
In Chinese cinema, one of the best "fallen woman" melodramas was director Wu Yonggang's (his debut film) silent melodrama The Goddess (1934, China) (aka Shen nu), about social injustice and maternal sacrifice - a tragic tale about the hard-times of a 1930s Shanghai, China prostitute (a "fallen woman") known only as 'The Goddess' (Ruan Ling-Yu). The single mother-streetwalker was raising her son in the hellish and foul city (in the midst of a civil war). [Note: Stanley Kwan's biopic Center Stage (1991, HK) (aka The Actress, or Ruan Lingyu) was the life story of Ruan Ling-Yu, portrayed by Maggie Cheung.]
By 1934, explicit tales of fallen women involved in dangerous or disastrous relationships with men came to be banned or rigorously censored by the Production Code censors.
The 30s "Weepies":
Hollywood cranked out women's pictures (or 'weepies' as they came to be known, or are now known as "chick flicks") with excessive emotional fervor in the 1930s and after. In part because they contained few strong male characters and matinee idols suitable for swooning, they were films created for the female segment of the audience. Producers thought women would be more interested than men in relationships, love, and marriage, thereby escaping from their own problems, and empathizing (and weeping) with the on-screen sufferings of strong female protagonists. Female audiences would be attracted to plot lines that included doomed love affairs, infidelity, unrequited love, various family crises, or marital separation. The protagonists of women's films would often overcome stereotypical gender roles, and the films would examine the strong achievements of these characters.
Five female actresses were known for their redefinition of feminine roles in the 1930s (both pre- and post- code):
Maternal Melodramas: Definitive Examples
Maternal melodramas featured plots with sacrificial, selfless mother-loving figures who suffered hardships. They were a popular tearjerker (or 'soaper') sub-genre requiring multiple hankies to make it to the emotional finales. Maternal characters were cruelly neglected and scorned by their children, or separated from their children for any number of causes (social pressures to give up the child, financial destitution, scandal or a moral lapse, etc.). However victimized, they would often become heroines by sacrificing themselves for their children.
Many exceptional films are noted for being definitive, mother-love 'weepies':