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Film and Stars (1937) - Why I Make Melodramas




What is Melodrama?

If I admit I prefer to make films that may be so classified I must first define it. Try to define it for yourself and see how difficult it is.

One man's drama is another man's melodrama.

In the Victorian theatre there were only two divisions of entertainment — the melodrama and the comedy. Then snobbery asserted itself. What you saw at Drury Lane was drama. At the Lyceum it was melodrama. The only difference was the price of the seat.

"Melodrama" came to be applied by sophisticates to the more naive type of play or story, in which every situation was overdrawn and every emotion underlined.

But still the definition is not universal. The "melodrama" of the West-end may be taken as drama in the Provinces. To some extent "melodrama" seems to be in the eye — and mind — of the beholder.

In real life, to be called "melodramatic" is to be criticised. The term suggests behaviour which is hysterical and exaggerated.

A woman may receive the news of her husband's death by throwing up her arms and screaming, or she may sit quite still and say nothing. The first is melodramatic. But it may well happen in real life. In the cinema a melodramatic film is one based on a series of sensational incidents. So melodrama, you must admit, has been and is the backbone and lifeblood of the cinema.

I use melodrama because I have a tremendous desire for understatement in film-making. Understatement in a dramatic situation powerful enough to be called melodramatic is, I think, the way to achieve naturalism and realism, while keeping in mind the entertainment demands of the screen, the first of these being for colourful action.

Examine what was popular in the provincial theatre before films and you will see that the first essential was that the play had plenty of "meat." It is to that audience, multiplied many times, we must cater in films.

But — and it is a difficult "but" — the same audience has been taught to expect the modern, naturalistic treatment of their "meaty" dramas. The screen has created the expectation of a degree of realism which was never asked of the theatre.

Now realism on the screen would be impossible. Actual life would be dull, in all but its more exceptional aspects, such as crime. Realism, faithfully represented, would be unreal, because there is in the minds of the cinema or theatre audience what I would call the "habit of drama." This habit causes the audience to prefer on the screen things that are outside their own, real-life experience.

So there is the problem — how to combine colour, action, naturalism, the semblance of reality, and situations which will be intriguingly unfamiliar to most of the audience. All these must be blended.

My own greatest desire is for realism. Therefore I employ what is called melodrama — but which might as well be called ultra-realism — for all my thinking has led me to the conclusion that there is the only road to screen realism that will still be entertainment.

Perhaps the strangest criticism I encounter is that I sometimes put wildly improbable things, grotesque unrealities, on the screen when actually the incident criticised is lifted bodily from real life. The reason is that the strange anomalies of real life, the inconsequences of human nature, appear unreal.

On the other hand, if they are real they may be too near the onlooker's experience and he does not go to the cinema to see his own troubles at closer range.

The man who understands the psychology of the public better than anybody else to-day is the editor of the successful, popular modern newspaper. He deals to a great extent in melodrama. The modern treatment of news, with its simple statement, which makes the reader "live" the story, is brilliant in its analysis of the public mind.

If the film-makers understood the public as newspapers do they might hit the mark more often.