Posted by Susan Doll on July 25, 2011
During post-WWII Hollywood, film noir emerged to reflect, represent, and even romanticize the corruption, dissatisfaction, and cynicism lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy and optimism that America so desperately clung to after a hard-fought war. A pessimistic genre that is dark in theme and visual design, film noir critiqued or challenged America’s social institutions—law and order, the justice system, marriage and family—in contrast to most genres, which support or propagate them. But, the world of film noir is a man’s world; the male protagonist investigates crime outside the home, through the dark streets, and into the seedy clubs and businesses of the city. His prowess as a man and his judgment as a detective are challenged as the genre plays with traditional gender roles and reveals an unstoppable social and political decay; in other words, if the corruption doesn’t get the ill-fated protagonist, the femme fatale will.
With its similar visual style, casts of twisted individuals, and perverted male-female relationships, postwar melodrama is a kind of doppelganger genre to film noir. The primary differences are in the settings and in the gender of the protagonists. I had never really compared the two genres until my friend Lisa Wright and I took a class this summer titled “Home Noir: Domestic Melodramas of the 1940s.” The class was part of Facets Film School, which offers a variety of six-week film courses on specific topics, and it was taught by film scholar Therese Grisham. Therese was terrific at offering just the right amount of lecture to stimulate the class’s powers of observation and interpretation, so the discussions after the movies were lively, spirited conversations. As Lisa noted, “. . .we live in a time where we are used to seeing films mostly alone or with a friend or spouse. Getting so many interesting and diverging opinions about what we saw enhanced the enjoyment.”
The premise of the class was to explore the domestic melodrama as “the other noir,” a phrase borrowed from noir scholar Pam Cook. In melodrama, female protagonists struggle with issues of identity, entrapment, and marriage within the environment associated with women—the home and family. Many of the typical noir conventions (the detective figure, the femme fatale, exterior urban settings of streets and seedy neighborhoods) are absent or marginalized in the melodrama, but the dark, expressionist visual style, the fatalism, the focus on themes of entrapment and corruption, and the unhealthy, unfixable male/female relationships are similar.
The class began with Craig’s Wife, starring Rosalind Russell as Harriet Craig, whose compulsive devotion to her perfectly kept house reflects her attempts to clean away a childhood and past she hated. In Sorry, Wrong Number Barbara Stanwyck is Leona Livingston, an invalid trapped alone in her house who uncovers plans for a murder about to take place nearby. The most familiar film on the syllabus, and one most of us had seen several times, was Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford in her most famous role. Two of the films, The Heiress and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, took place in the past or at least harkened back to it, offering an opportunity to compare gothic imagery and Victorian values with modern ones. The class concluded with The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls, which starred Joan Bennett as a woman who must perform the roles of both husband and wife in a chaotic house where the husband is absent.
Viewing the melodramas with the noir visual style in mind emphasized key recurring ideas, particularly the depiction of the home as the exact opposite of the safe haven of security and unconditional love we might expect from classic Hollywood films. If the house or home represents an extension of the wife that she has invested in her family or marriage, then it can also be a trap from which she cannot escape. Members of the “Home Noir” class became quite adept at interpreting the meaning of set decor of the domestic spaces depicted in the films. In Craig’s Wife, the perfectly balanced décor, white walls, columns, and statuary were reminiscent of a mausoleum or ancient Greco-Roman structure. The set design suggested that Harriet was so obsessed with her perfect house and so compulsive about evicting any object or person that spoiled it that she was entombed by it. The tomb motif fits the conclusion in which Harriet, who has rarely been shown outside the house, is alone in her empty home.
Craig’s Wife aside, expressionism dominated as the preferred visual style for melodramas of the late 1940s. Low-key lighting, bar shadows, and web designs made for fascinating interiors that were at once beautiful and stylish but also somber and melancholy. The Venetian blinds and staircases cast bar shadows against the wall, painting the home as a jail or trap for the women protagonists who struggled for control, respect, or a sense of identity within its walls. Sorry, Wrong Number, in which the main character—an invalid who can’t get away—discovers she is to be the victim of a murder plan, provided a perfect example of the home as a trap. Likewise, The Reckless Moment, in which the protagonist is overwhelmed by the demands of her loving but selfish family, echoed this idea. In German Expressionism, the staircase was generally a symbol for chaos or disorder. That motif and its meaning were picked up by the noir and melodrama directors of the 1940s. In Sorry, Wrong Number, directed by Anatole Litvak, the home is “out of order” because of the gender dynamics between the men and women in the storyline; in The Reckless Moment, the protagonist’s household is noisy, chaotic, and labyrinthine.
Among the ideas introduced by instructor Therese Grisham was the difference between Victorian/gothic styles and modern ones—an important factor in interpreting some of the domestic spaces in the films. There was a shift in thought regarding the home between the Victorian era and the modern one, and this shift becomes part of the subtexts of the melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. In a Victorian view, the home was a place of moral education for the family, a kind of walled garden against outsiders and outside ideas that might interfere with the moral development of the family. The house was divided into public and private spaces: Guests were received in front of the house while the family’s private life was conducted in back or upstairs. The library—filled with books, maps, artifacts, and specimens—was an important room in the Victorian home where family members received instruction or could learn or read on their own. In contrast, the modern home featured manufactured knick-knacks and reproductions, not hand-made ornaments or unique specimens. Homes become more convenient for the wife or woman of the household. The domestic space was scaled down and more open, with nooks, built-in shelves, sunrooms, and pass-throughs more common than libraries, sitting rooms, or verandas. In the films, Victorian vs. modern décor is used to suggest contrasts or conflicts: traditional values vs. modern ones, male vs. female, or upper class vs. middle class vs. working class. In Sorry, Wrong Number, Leona’s father is always shown in his Victorian-style library with its mounted trophies on the wall, suggesting tradition, masculinity, and upper-class values. After noticing the décor, the viewer realizes that the character treats his daughter as just another trophy. In The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, the title character, played by George Sanders, and his two sisters are the last of a family who had dominated the small town of Corinth during the previous century, but in the modern era, they are merely remnants of another time. Their Victorian home traps them in the past, with its old-fashioned views on class and women’s roles, particularly for sister Letty, who has an unhealthy dependence on her brother Harry.
I enjoyed all of the films shown in class, but I was most surprised at how much I got out of Mildred Pierce, a film I had seen many times. Mildred’s journey from spurned house wife to working woman to businesswoman is depicted through the domestic spaces she inhabits. Happiest in the beginning as a housewife in a modest suburban home, Mildred moves to more modern-looking spaces when she grows rich from her business and marries Monty, the worthless son of old Pasadena money. Monty’s family home is Victorian in style, suggesting the idea of “old money” is an outdated one in an era when a working-class woman can become rich and powerful through her own efforts. In contrast, the home that Monty and Mildred inhabit is bright, clean, and free of the old-fashioned curios and ornaments of his family home. Most modern is their beach house, where the murder takes place; it’s the epitome of contemporary style, with its open spaces, white walls, and lack of bric-a-brac. However, the high-contrast lighting throws ominous shadows across the rooms and creates chaotic patterns on the clean walls. The expressionist style gives this domestic space a treacherous look, so it’s not surprising that the most heinous act in the film—the murder—occurs here. A murder in the most modern-looking domestic space gives a negative connotation to the modern idea of women thriving in the man’s world of business and power.
Mildred Pierce and its contradictory subtexts involving working women, motherhood, and male/female relationships offer a good example of one the main ideas of the class. During the 1940s, traditional views of gender roles were thrown for a loop by World War II. Women not only worked outside the home in the defense industry, they also worked as cab drivers, truck drivers, and at other jobs traditionally held by men. Government propaganda encouraged women to help in the war effort by working outside the home while newspapers, magazines, and other information outlets supported this view by printing articles about how well suited women were to certain jobs. After the war, the propaganda turned in the other direction, chiding women for taking jobs from returning servicemen, suggesting that prolonged absences from the home by women were detrimental to families, and luring women back into domestic “bliss” by touting new appliances that made housework much easier. The melodramas of this decade—the so-called women’s film—reflected the contradictory and ambivalent attitudes toward women, their roles in the home, and their roles outside of it. Most of this was subtextual and not always intentional. The films did not offer solutions to problems, difficulties, and issues caused by these social changes. Instead, they reflect and reveal a society and culture in flux over gender issues—and maybe in distress about them.
A bonus to the class was watching the major female stars of the Golden Age playing interesting and complex women. After seeing Craig’s Wife again, I was so impressed with Rosalind Russell that I will go out on a limb and call it her best performance, because of the way she balanced contradictory facets to the role. Though an unpleasant character, Harriet Craig nonetheless elicits sympathy from the audience at the end, and, though Harriet Craig fit Rosalind Russell’s star image, it was unusual for her to play such an unlikable woman. Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Olivia DeHavilland commanded the screen, and I had forgotten how much I liked Joan Bennett until I saw her in The Reckless Moment. Actresses in secondary roles were also terrific, including Eve Arden spitting out her wisecracks with razor-sharp timing in Mildred Pierce and Miriam Hopkins as the older woman who still believes in the power of romance in The Heiress. Again, my friend Lisa summed it up best, “It’s gratifying to see women of that era in such strong roles when now we do not get that kind of female representation in film. Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck could kick any almost any leading lady’s ass in terms of acting. . . .”
As a movie lover, I know I am lucky to live in a city where I can take a class such as “Home Noir.” All the students thoroughly enjoyed the films and the discussions. Though I am partial to Facets, it isn’t the only place in Chicago to take noncredit film classes for personal edification. I recommend the experience for movie lovers of all ages; it’s worth the money and the time.
And, thanks to instructor Therese Grisham for a great class.
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