Posted by Susan Doll on December 30, 2013
Though quite popular among film-goers from the silent era through the 1950s, the melodrama has rarely gotten much respect from critics and scholars. A slippery genre to define, it is usually identified through its excessive emotion, suffering heroines, focus on relationships, and foregrounding of female interests, points of view, and values. During the Golden Age, movie reviewers—most of whom were male—regularly dismissed “weepies,” or women’s films. Today, melodrama has completely disappeared from the big screen, and the word “melodramatic” is often used as a pejorative term. Melodrama would likely not appeal to young audiences jaded by the computer-generated imagery of fantasy films or to mature audiences accustomed to serious dramas in the realist style. The artificiality that defines the acting, plotting, and visual style of melodrama is antithetical to today’s natural acting styles and realistic storylines.
While Golden Age stalwarts such as Stella Dallas, Now Voyager, Dark Victory, or The Women, get their due as classics, lesser-known melodramas like The Secret of Madame Blanche might be a harder sell. But, Madame Blanche, which airs on TCM this Thursday at 4:45pm, is a solid example of both the melodrama’s conventions and strengths. Viewers should not be put off by the genre’s peculiarities or artifice.
Set in 1897, The Secret of Madame Blanche stars Irene Dunne as American entertainer Sally Sanders who travels to London with a troupe of performers to play the Gaiety Theatre. Wealthy, spoiled heir Leonard St. Johns woos Sally, expecting to set her up in an apartment for his pleasure. Insulted, she refuses, and her strength of character leads Leonard to fall in love with her. Leonard lives off his family’s money, but when his aristocratic father, Aubrey St. John, learns his son has married “a chorus girl,” he cuts off his allowance. Defiant, Leonard refuses to give up Sally, and he tries to make a living for them by gambling in Monte Carlo. But he loses their bankroll, and the sheltered heir discovers that he is completely incapable of living in the real world. He returns to his father on the condition that money be sent to Sally. After securing his father’s promise, Leonard shoots himself. Sally, who is pregnant, learns of her husband’s suicide in a French newspaper. She goes to work in a cheap café until her son is born. Later, she earns a meager living by singing bawdy songs in a dive bar. Aubrey, who goes back on his word to his dead son, keeps tabs on Sally’s struggles from afar. When a private detective finds out that she works in a disreputable establishment, St. John—who has powerful connections—is able to take the baby away from her on the grounds that she is an unfit mother. Fast forward to 1918: Leonard, Jr., is a young soldier serving in France during WWI, while Sally has transformed herself into tough-talking Madame Blanche, the owner of her own restaurant and bar, with a few rooms upstairs to rent by the hour. Under his grandfather’s tutelage, Junior has turned into a cad who thinks women are cheap and exist for his pleasure. The paths of Sally and her son cross when he brings trouble to Madame Blanche’s establishment.
Opera-trained Irene Dunne was well on her way to becoming queen of the weepies when she was cast in The Secret of Madame Blanche by RKO. A few years later, she would enjoy greater success as a star of screwball comedies. Because the character of Sally Sanders is an entertainer, Dunne had the opportunity to perform several songs in the film. Most reviewers liked the early light-hearted scenes in which Dunne sang and danced at the Gaiety. Personally, I am not a fan of Dunne’s, and I detest her operetta-style singing, so I had the opposite reaction to the film. I disliked the early scenes in which Dunne was supposed to be a musical star, and I preferred the heightened emotion of the later melodrama. Though Dunne may seem too classy and sophisticated to carry off the role of a turn-of-the-century vaudeville singer, RKO knew what they were doing when they cast her in the part. The classy nature of her star persona helps the viewer accept that Sally is different from the other girls in the acting troupe (like her friend Ellen, played by Una Merkel).
Though not a fan, I was nonetheless impressed with Dunne’s performance. Typical of melodramas, the level of emotion runs high once Sally marries Leonard, and his father objects. It reaches a crescendo in the final sequence, when Madame Blanche attempts to make a sacrifice to save her son’s future. Dunne handles the artificiality and intensity of the melodramatic style of acting with aplomb, and she is downright heartbreaking in the scene in which Madame Blanche first recognizes her son: She turns from hard-hearted proprietress to loving mother in the blink of an eye.
Most melodramas require viewers to suspend disbelief. Their narratives depend on outrageous twists of fate, unlikely coincidences, and unpredictable destinies. But, like television soap operas (of which I am also a fan), it’s not the storyline that is important. It’s the moral choices that the characters make in the face of misfortune. A popular plot device in 1930s melodramas featured a working-class heroine who makes a gut-wrenching sacrifice regarding her child in her struggle for financial security or social acceptance, often losing her child in the process. Examples include Stella Dallas, Madame X, Confession, The Sin of Madelon Claudet as well as The Secret of Madame Blanche. Though dressed up like high-strung melodrama, these storylines reflected a reality familiar to Depression-era audiences in which parents strained to keep their families together. Many lost the battle: Children were sent to live with relatives; single mothers lost or gave up their children; parents abandoned children to orphanages or the streets. “Orphan Trains” filled with abandoned and orphaned children chugged into the heartland where the kids were dropped off at farms to serve as laborers in exchange for room and board. Though reflecting a tragic part life during the Depression, melodramas like Madame Blanche did offer cathartic, emotionally satisfying conclusions in which the mother is eventually reunited with her child, proving that her sacrifice was not in vain.
In Depression-era melodramas, the wealthy are often presented in a negative light, but The Secret of Madame Blanche goes further than most. For example, all three generations of the St. John clan callously exploit working-class women as sexual toys to be dallied with and then tossed aside. At first, Leonard, Sr., assumes Sally has no sense of morals, because after all, she is “only an actress,” an attitude that had been passed down from cold-hearted Aubrey St. John, who continually refers to her as “a common little tramp.” Out on his own after defying his father, Leonard, Sr., soon discovers, “I don’t know how to work,” making him useless to mainstream society. He is incapable of facing his problems, or standing up to his father, so he shoots himself. Spoiled, egotistical Leonard, Jr., calls women “dirty cheats” and abandons a sweet farmer’s daughter when she refuses to spend the night with him. The depiction of males in this film seems to go beyond just skewering the wealthy. There are no positive depictions of men of any class to balance the St. Johns. Throughout the film, working women must navigate a financially unstable world where men seem to have power or control over them—whether they are wealthy aristocrats, cranky bosses, or ill-mannered beaus. The women are exploited for sex and abandoned when the men cannot face their financial or emotional responsibilities; the men fail as both fathers and as useful contributors to society. I can only imagine the difficulties faced by single working-class women during the Depression, who could easily end up in poverty or prostitution if they put their trust in the wrong men. The Secret of Madame Blanche seems to illustrate their plight and sympathize with their point of view via Sally’s experiences.
From the Depression-era themes and subtext to Irene Dunne’s performance, there is a lot to recommend in The Secret of Madame Blanche.
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