Essay. Melodrama in Hollywood and World Cinema Course. Convener, Prof. Laura Mulvey, School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media (MA), Birkbeck College, University of London, January 2005. Revised & edited September 2020.
Fallen Women of Hollywood Melodrama: 1930s-1950s
Keywords: femme fatale, fallen woman, melodrama, Hollywood, animus, anima, archetypal image, Jungian analysis, collective unconscious, projection, medium, moving image, film, myth.
Author: © Milana Vujkov
My interest in the idea of ‘fallen women’ was renewed during readings of texts on melodramatic form and, most importantly, on viewing Douglas Sirk’s masterpieces Imitation of Life (1959) and Written on the Wind (1956) again, after quite some time.
It seemed to me that the most compelling, vivid characters were not the protagonists of these dramas, but rather, the supporting players. They both kept the narrative in motion and were the bearers of the story’s hidden meaning. The characters of Sarah Jane Johnson (Susan Kohner) in Imitation of Life and Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone) in Written on the Wind respectively, were, furthermore, both of a certain type.
Trying to define the type, the phrase that first came to mind was ‘fallen women’.
At this point, it would be wise to give a brief definition of what this phrase even means, in the broadest sense. The term still exists in contemporary language, but it is, essentially, an anachronism, since the meaning behind it in modern Western society has radically changed, although, not in every social group, or locality. In the times this essay is referring to (and historically), the 1930s to 1950s in the United States, fallen were the women who, through circumstance or desire, fell out of the role a patriarchal society deemed to be ‘correct’ for its women. This is still the case in many societies that regulate womanhood around the world. These women were not monogamous, used sex as a currency and/or love as an excuse, abandoned family structures and virtues, chased after sexual pleasure and/or social ascension, acceptance and riches, and frequently begot illegitimate children along the way. Although the term was already beginning to lose its strictly negative connotations at the beginning of the 20th century, a whole cycle of films in Hollywood in the late twenties and early thirties was actually referred to as the fallen woman films.
There is a paragraph in Mercer & Schingler’s Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility that also confirmed my thoughts. It is from William Paul’s essay Distanciation and Douglas Sirk (1972:131), in which he talks about Sirk’s displacements and discontinuities in plot construction:
“[...] Sirk’s strategy of creating supporting characters in films that have a greater narrative significance than the lead protagonists [...] the ‘hidden’ leads of the film...”
Further examination of texts on melodrama left me in no doubt of the importance of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory in all the readings of melodramatic narrative I came across. What was increasingly becoming of interest to me was the almost exclusive use of one psychological outlook, one theory of the formation of human personality, however dominant it was, and continues to be in Western academic thought and cultural studies. Although I am certain that there must be works out there which view cinematic texts through other psychological outlooks*, I did not come across them in my research. This is perhaps because they are obscured by the predominance of the psychoanalytical point of view. [*Inevitably, I did come across them. See Film, the Alchemical Medium: Archetypal Enchantment and the Transformative Potential of the Moving Image.]
So, I found it a challenge to try and use another set of structures and rules in approaching my subject, for reasons, I hope, will become evident in this essay. Namely, the work and teachings of Carl G. Jung, which are overwhelmingly focused on archetypes, mythology, and the collective unconscious. And since one of the main areas of narrative interest in melodramas is, in fact, contemporary mythology, it seemed to be a challenge worth undertaking.
“[...] melodramas have a myth-making function insofar as their significance lies in the structure and articulation of the action, not in any psychologically motivated correspondence with individualised experience.”
Furthermore, Jungian theory is significantly more removed from the self-referential Eurocentric class-defined patriarchal world of Freudian theory (and of all derivates of his disciples, Jung being the renegade), and much closer to the heritage of storytelling found in indigenous cultures around the world, which, in turn, are harmonious with the subtle texture of the feminine, as they are in many ways matriarchal, themselves.
This notion inspired me to research the myth of the fallen woman of Hollywood melodrama in its cinematic form during the three decades of the 20th century (1930s-1950s), as this peak studio era was, in a way, the last stronghold of patriarchy, as well as the dawn of the increasingly sexually ambiguous modern times, as well as independent cinema. The path of inquiry led me to some, I believe, interesting conclusions. They will be presented at the end of this essay, in hope that cases I studied within it render the landscape of melodrama, and the point of view of the spectators of melodrama (both male and female), a little bit clearer.
Jungian Psychology and the Myth of the Fallen Woman
Woman hence stands in the patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of the woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of the meaning.
“[...] a culture which divorces the two aspects of erotic attraction debilitates the individual's capacity for all-inclusive erotic relationships.”
The ideology of melodrama is, in its essence, Manichean, the world is presented and viewed through the polarities of good and evil. Understanding the origins of allocated ‘demons’ in melodrama is, therefore, essential for the purpose of examining its mechanisms. The word demon, after all, derives from the Latin word daemon, meaning creative spirit, or urge. Furthermore, if in melodrama ‘we accept the part for the whole, if this is a convention of the form’, then it is also necessary to pinpoint exactly what these parts are. Following the sage Latin credo of nomen est omen, naming these parts, especially the one I will be referring to throughout this work, was, indeed, a sign.
To attempt to outlay, in depth, Jung’s theory of individuation and the workings of the fragmentation of the conscious and unconscious in humans would doom this essay from the start, as the scope of the work does not allow such diversions into a vast area of theory. What will be, I believe, sufficient for my purposes is to specify the fragments (parts) of the unconscious that are of interest in this work, and according to Jung, spill into our conscious lives, flooding them with images that significantly affect our outlook and actions.
Essentially, Jung’s theory on the process of individuation follows the hoped-for outcome of integration of all the fragmented elements of the psyche. The psyche in question being the complete sphere of the self, formed through the development of personality of the individual, to be in synch with the core, nucleus self. This nucleus is not so much a psychological category, but is, in most spiritual beliefs in the world, referred to as the soul.
One of the fragments of the unconscious that we will be paying attention to is the shadow, representing the unknown (unconscious) or little-known qualities of the ego (conscious personal), incorporated with the collective factors (forming the collective unconscious) that stem from a source outside the individual’s personal life. But, most importantly, we’ll examine our chief protagonists, the animus, the male personification of the unconscious in woman and, specifically, the anima, a personification of all feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche, and in many ways his connection to the unconscious. [During this archival road trip, we will also hopefully be led to understand just how much the anima presents the gates to the unconscious creative for every spectator, particularly for women, themselves – a stance of reassessing the potency of the archetypal feminine realigned through personal experience in the years following this essay.]
The main psychological mechanism, that will be referred to, is the mechanism of projection, certainly a very adequate term, as well, in discussing cinema. Projection is the psyche’s process of attaching, disowned and/or unconscious aspects of one’s own personality onto another person. Ideally, by facing one’s disowned qualities in another, however repugnant or alien to us they might seem, the process of acceptance and integration will be able to occur. This is the main function of the shadow self, but it is also the function of the animus and the anima, enabling the integration of the ‘primary hermaphrodite soul’. Matters are more complicated by the fact that, the projected animus and the anima cause feelings of extreme attraction to the projected subject, or rather objectified subject, along with the feelings of repugnance, rejection and fear (as is the case with the shadow). Hence the existence of so many love/hate relationships amongst individuals, individuals and collectives, and amongst various collectives, themselves.
The star of this work, however, is undoubtedly the anima, or more precisely, the negative anima – the ‘fallen woman’.
The predatory dark lady, an evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction, or more crudely, the whore, is among the oldest themes in art, literature, mythology, and religion in Western culture. She is as old as Eve, and as current as 20th & 21st century noir film, erotic anime, and procedural crime shows. She and her sister (or alter ego), the virgin, the mother, the innocent, comforting, nourishing, and redeeming, form the two extreme poles of the archetypal feminine. [The splitting of the two, the Madonna–Whore complex, has been the at the epicenter of the subjugation of women by men (and other women, entrenched in structures) in the last several millennia. It represents the dismemberment of the cosmic feminine at its core expression of pure divinity, earthly sensuality, its multilayered sexuality, as well as in all aspects of its creative being, except in the reproductive capacity. In effect, the entire value of femininity thus enslaved and forced merely to either produce masculinity, and/or entice it to reproduce. Through this chasm of offence against a complete human in a female body, not a single woman born in the last many thousand years could, in effect, achieve integration of self within patriarchal society, having to inevitably choose the one part of her psyche she will be allowed to embody. She would be desired and not respected, or respected, and not desired. The horror of this predicament still lingers as an ancestral wound in every modern woman’s psyche.]
It would prove useful at this point to mention several fallen figures from Judeo-Christian mythology, since we will be talking of Hollywood, a town virtually built on it. Other than the most obvious culprit, our collective grandmother Eve, the one that illegally obtained the fruit from the tree of knowledge, thus allegedly causing the downfall of all mankind, there are several other archetypal grandmothers we could mention. Lilith, of the Hebrew myth, for instance, growing in popularity in the last few decades with the emergence of radical feminism, the forgotten first wife of Adam, made not out of his rib, but of dust (or dung – depending on the source of the story), on the sixth day of Creation. Just like him. Apparently, Lilith did not care much for Adam’s claims of dominance over her person and fled. Adam then complained of this to God, and the Creator sent three of his angels to fetch the renegade, only to be rebuffed by the headstrong Lilith, who was, for her sins, turned into a demon-woman, forever doomed to haunt ‘legitimate’ couples and bear countless demon children, most of which were instantly killed. For the sake of characterisation in a hereby established, imaginal, fallen woman book of infamy, let us identify her as the ‘she-devil’.
Then there is St. Mary Magdalene, the ‘repentant sinner’, also a convenient patriarchal characterisation, the most famous of all, and the most referred to Christian archetype, along with the Holy Virgin Mary. Various historical and religious accounts position Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, or a wealthy, morally ambiguous benefactor (probably, a then rare woman of letters), or even the wife of Jesus of Nazareth. For our purposes, we will refer to her as the ‘penitent’, who, through the love of Christ and his teachings, repented for her sinful ways, became one of Christ’s closest disciples, and was the first to have a vision of him after the resurrection. Afterwards, she lived a devout life of solitude (or preaching, depending on source), which resulted Mary Magdalene being canonically sanctified. The official story is incredibly patchy in the case of the Holy Magdalene, and her contribution to Christianity severely downplayed. But this is the gist.
Another example of a fallen woman in Christian mythology which fits our storyline is princess Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod (Judea, AD 30). Apparently, feeling that her advances have been rejected by St. John the Baptist, who was held in captivity in Herod’s court, she orders that he is to be beheaded, and does so through standard temptress’ wiles. Asked by Herod to perform her dance of the seven veils for his enjoyment, she was invited to request for anything she might wish for in return. When Herod hears her wish, he is horrified, but complies, afterwards ordering soldiers to kill Salome. Which speaks for the relative importance or lust in the hierarchy of impulses. So, let us identify her as the ‘seductress’, offering sexual favours for personal profit.
Now, returning to the topic of film, and the genre of melodrama, we should note that the cinema screen is highly suitable for projections of the personal and the collective anima, so here we hope to prove that the melodramatic form is an appropriate vehicle (or rather, chariot), for this shady lady, created of mostly of fragmented desires, and then, internalised, ‘because everything, as Sirk said, happens inside.’
Thus, the most frequent manifestation of the anima, takes form of erotic fantasy. These fantasies might further be pursued by pornographic images and paraphernalia mirroring these fascinations as mental aphrodisiacs. The pornographic image is the crudest aspect of the anima, which becomes compulsive when a man does not sufficiently cultivate his actual feeling relationships, hence his attitude towards the erotic other remains infantile (and split).
The Melodrama Genre and the Archetype of the Fallen Women
Tracing the antecedence of the term ‘melodrama’, Rick Altman found it first used in connection to Rousseau’s play Pygmalion. This is a most illuminating piece of information, when connected to the place of the fallen woman in melodrama, in the sense of the act of ‘sculpting’ a woman by either a male protagonist, a male writer, or a male spectator, in order to project his fantasies on her, corresponding with widespread patriarchal projection of the male anima onto a female objectified subject.
Linda Williams in Melodrama Revised (1998) spoke of melodrama being primarily concerned with articulating moral values and establishing moral right. From this we might perceive the case of the fallen woman as being a perfect subject for a melodramatic narrative, since her contemporary two-dimensional presentation, juxtaposed with her existentially profound mythological, emotionally charged nature, solicits an essentially visceral moral response from the audience, yet still constrained within a worldview.
From the days of early cinema, to the 1970s, film studios used the term melodrama for action thrillers, with fast paced narratives, probably playing to the popular use of the word signifying dramatic, over-the-top, intriguing storylines. But, in the work of contemporary film critics, especially the feminist film studies of the seventies, the term ‘melodrama’ as a genre was reframed, implying that a true melodramatic narrative should be primarily concerned with emotion not action (bringing melos, i.e. music, to drama). This perspective, in effect, rescued the word from the proverbial gutter of misrepresentation. Also, importantly, this revising of genre terminology suited the feminist agenda, at the time, because the place of women in films, and women as spectators of films, needed to be reassessed.
Since the placement of women is so necessary to patriarchy as we know it, it follows that the displacement of women would disturb the patriarchal system and provide a challenge to that worldview.
The focus of the revaluation was, amongst other agendas, on perceiving melodrama as means of the patriarchal society to ‘sustain itself through a temporary and fictionalised acknowledgement of its repressive effects upon half the population.’ Interestingly, the fresh assessment of the genre, was in many ways similar to the Victorian literary notion of what constitutes a melodramatic story. And one of the most frequently met protagonists in the 19th century melodramatic fiction was the archetype of the fallen woman – as was in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux camelias (1852), Emil Zola’s Nana (1879), and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), to name a few. Naturally, all the aforementioned masterpieces were made into films. Some of them a repeated number of times, purposefully seeking versions of the old tales that would fit in with the ever-shifting mercurial zeitgeist.
Melodrama contrasted the innocent girl and the scarlet temptress, the platonic hero and the lecherous villain, the splitting was vicious in many ways, but the Victorians had a soft spot in their prudish yet lustful hearts for women who loved not wisely but madly, bore illegitimate children, or had ‘fallen’ by a cruel twist of fate, prostituting themselves while still maintaining a heart of gold (another enduring trope). However, these subjects could never be presented as to query the readers ‘extraordinary’ moral principles.
The historical currents of the 20th century altered the settings of melodramatic action significantly. Women’s place in the patriarchal order of life seemed to be forever changed. The suffragette movement brought women the right to vote, and be counted, politically, the First World War catapulted the pleasure-seeking flappers and gold-diggers, the Depression Era, inevitably, was the time for tough broads, independent women with a quip and a bite, likewise the Second World War, for the streetwise femme fatales, while the affluent fifties had somehow reversed the trend of subversive female empowerment, and in effect, the aggressive rise of the animus, offering us, at their best, the frustrated housewife. This was a high-strung, home-improvement obsessed, ‘castrating’ housewife, so after a couple of decades of hard-won cinematic semi-respectability in the Hollywood studio system, the rebellious woman was now back in her domestic cage, seething powerlessly, making it subliminally obvious to the female film spectator that something, somewhere, went terribly wrong.
At the peak of Tinseltown’s powers in shaping the social consciousness of Western society, the founding fathers of Hollywood were now facing a very real business-model problem: how to comfortably and profitably further promote family values and Christian morality, and still connect to modern audiences with transformed agendas, morals and concerns. That is, how to make money on sin, and not upset the established value system. So, recycling the old fallen woman tune in a new arrangement began. Appropriately, in the genre of the melodrama. However, ‘in the melodrama, the rhythm of experience often establishes itself against its value.’ Emotions are subversive, they always win.
The moguls were fighting a losing battle. One cannot bridle the pulse of life.
In conclusion, all the aforementioned femme fatales in film, Hollywood’s brightest celestial bodies since cinema began, were mostly highly stylised animas of the modern man, and his changing fortunes in the new century, yet could also very easily fit into the fallen woman definition given at the beginning of this essay.
Nevertheless, they also, inadvertently perhaps, ignited a entirely fresh outlook on womanhood by women, themselves. In other words, the ‘liberated woman’ of new is the ‘fallen woman’ of old. The bad girls on screen seemed to have all the joy.
Fallen women, of course, always held a considerable amount of fascination for their audiences, both male and female. Dark glamour, certainly, but irrepressible, nonetheless. The word glamour, itself, evokes enchantment, the bread and butter of the film industry, as fascination leads to fixation, fixation breeds compulsion, and compulsion can make the owner of the valued subject/object vast amounts cash.
Glamour, when deconstructed (if we allow ourselves such folly), consists loosely of settings, fashion, and the persona it infuses. While interest and pleasure in fashion remains ‘[not] entirely erotic – there is a strong element of social daydreaming – but erotic pleasure is always there’, the settings in which the fallen women were placed were almost always erotically charged. In the twenties they tended to be ‘mercilessly white, every bedroom a ballroom and every ballroom, a palace.’ The dawn of the Depression Era brought countless films dealing with the topic of class rise. According to Richard Griffith ‘the fallen woman cycle of the thirties addressed the wishes or fantasies of women denied material goods.’One would expect that it might have addressed the wishes and fantasies of men denied material goods, as well, but since they were mostly lacking the fairer sex’s ‘opportunities’ to acquire riches through sexual favours, their collective animas did that for them on the silver screen. The dramatic settings of such stories also provided an excellent way to experiment in modernist set design. ‘Modern spaces’ for ‘modern women’ on the make.
At the same time, such luxurious settings, cluttered with innumerable desirable trifles, probably mostly inadvertently, created the pressure that the suffocating décor and the symbolisation of objects conjures in melodrama, and makes its ‘discontinuities […] so effective.’
“[...] life becomes increasingly complicated [...] cluttered with obstacles and objects that invade [...] personalities, take them over, stand for them, become more real than the human relations or emotions they were intended to symbolise.” 
However, what constituted glamour most of all, were the charismatic personas of the film’s protagonists, inevitably portrayed by Hollywood studio stars.
“[...] The advertising network of the studio system, which promoted female stars on the basis of their clothes, cosmetics, and jewels, gave institutional support to the aura of glamour which surrounded the fallen women.”
In the apparatus theory, the star is an element of the signifying system of a film, ‘a secondary cinematic identification.’ But in textual analysis, the star is a function of the narrative and visual system at work within the film, ‘perhaps inflicted by the aura of the star constructed outside the film, but nonetheless contained by that system.’ The lives of stars, whether real, or fabricated by their agents and the press, affected the spectators reading of the film, and sometimes this was a saving grace for the studios faced with the prospect of censorship of their fallen women films. Motherhood, for instance, had a strategic value, as was in the case of Marlene Dietrich, especially during the media furore over her role in the Blonde Venus (Joseph von Sternberg, 1932). The steady media ‘attention in fan magazines to her role as devoted mother and hausfrau at heart was a means of managing her provocative image.’
Inconsistency, change, and fluctuation are characteristic of star images, as if the ‘real’ person constituted by ‘star charged’ publicity is as open to change as the actor’s roles themselves.
The storyline of the Blonde Venus was also re-edited to emphasise the woman’s motherly and wifely sacrifice in her fall as a ‘kept woman’, all to save her husband’s health and provide for her child. In this, she is certainly a ‘Magdalene’ type, and is duly redeemed at the end of the film, being re-united, albeit in a strained way, with husband and child. Von Strenberg was certainly of a Sirkian school of thought in that you do not ‘believe the happy ending and you’re not really supposed to.’
Because ‘life imitates art (and vice versa) syndrome is a crucial component of the construction of star personae’, many a Hollywood star of the golden era were given roles that addressed the public’s perception of them. Hollywood producer Arthur Freed’s anecdote, concerning the casting of Ava Gardner in Showboat (George Sidney, 1951), confirms this:
“Dinah Shore [who was] to play Julie, the tragic half-caste […] She asked me point-blank why I didn’t give her the part, I said ‘Because you’re not a whore. Ava is. When she sings Bill, she’s every streetwalker you ever saw.’”
If the ‘god-like quality of the star is simultaneous with the commodity of the star’, then it was of utmost importance to the studio’s bank accounts that the stars, like the gods, should be publicly forgiven for their ‘transgressions’. They were, after all, divine. Quo licet Jovi, non licet bovi. And when in Rome. The colourful lives of stars such as Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, or indeed most of the Hollywood leading ladies, were carefully handled by the press departments of studios, and often quite sinisterly abused and modified for the studios’ own ends. If a star’s life is made to resemble a melodrama, and her star persona is used as a function of the film’s narrative, then her real life ‘transgressions’ can be publicly forgiven, for she will be certainly redeemed by the end of the film.
Even stars that defied publicity departments with overtly public scandals, such as Elizabeth Taylor did, got their Hollywood redemption. Taylor’s comeback was Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960); a story of a call girl salvaged by true love (another Magdalene).
Phases of Representation of the Fallen Woman in Hollywood Melodrama, 1930s-1950s
Falling in love seemed to have been the ultimate cause of the fall of woman in Hollywood melodrama, as often as it was their salvation. From the survivalist gold-diggers that ended their profitable careers for love in the early thirties, to vengeful femme fatales that killed, and were killed, for love in the forties, to the angst-ridden wives and daughters that fell out of the good graces of society, in search of love, in the fifties, the question of romantic love was very often a matter of life and death for women. Which, in turn, for once, mirrored life, exactly. Thus, their trajectory was of utmost importance to the studios – without the very real appeal of these characters, many of these films would not have seen the light of day.
The MMPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association) was formed in 1922, under the leadership of Will Hays. The star scandals of the twenties instigated the opening of a public relations department, although the organisation was initially constituted to tackle matters of censorship. The Studio Relations Committee was the division of the MMPDA responsible for the administration of censorship and was later restructured as the Production Code Administration, in 1934. Before the Depression Era set in, and morals of society were still relatively loosened by post-war jubilation, the Studio Relation Committee’s job was mostly to ensure that whatever the film in question portrayed – there would be no incriminating scenes, and that the film’s ending must, in some way, condemn the immoral behaviour of its characters. This frequently resulted in denunciation and/or ending scenes that disrupted the natural flow of the narrative, causing ‘abrupt shifts from rise to fall, warnings to the heroine without prior motivation, and endings [that] often appear stressed and arbitrary.’ Interestingly, the narrative of films made after 1934, as a result of the strict rules of the Production Code Administration, was ‘more unified and harmonious’, since the film censors were now ‘primarily concerned with the structures of narrative – the nature of endings, motivation of action, patterns of narration.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers’ calculated narrative disjuncture, the innuendo and moral ambiguity of the gold-diggers, will briefly resurface in the savvy, quick-witted dark dames of film noir, followed by those foul-mouthed time-bombs, the subversive fallen woman in fifties family melodramas.
Much of the ‘gold-digger films’ are classified as comedies by genre, such as Red Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932), Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933), Bed of Roses (Gregory La Cava, 1933), and all of the Mae West vehicles. With comedy taken out of them, their stories might have appeared quite melodramatic, but comedy was often used ‘for strategic purposes, as a means of justifying otherwise unacceptable material.’ In Red Headed Woman, Jean Harlow, a sex-symbol, and therefore a usual suspect in the fallen women films, plays Lil, who has affairs with married men, sleeps her way into society, shoots her husband, has an affair with his chauffeur, and ends up married to a marquis.
The heroine did not suffer the moral consequences of her immoral actions, and did not end up in the gutter, but rather, in Paris. Hence, the film was widely attacked by religious groups, rejected by censor boards in various US states and abroad, and eventually, MGM pulled it out of distribution.
Most of the gold-diggers were essentially Salomes, in that they were ‘seductresses’, who usually got what they wanted, but suffered some sort of consequences. They were seldom killed off, but somehow, still managed to get their comeuppance, as was the case with Lily in Baby Face (1933), who has her fall cushioned by ending up with a true love, albeit penniless. Baby Face is a difficult film to place genre-wise, as well, because of its comedic references to Lily’s ‘rise’ through the sexual manipulation of men, but her fate is thoroughly melodramatic, as is indeed the ‘fate of the men who are her victims.’
In Possessed, Joan Crawford, as Marion, is another ‘small-town gal on the make’, for whom the fall is ‘no longer a question of the corruption or debasement of innocence, but rather a stroke of good fortune for a poor girl.’ The fact that she actually falls in love with her sugar daddy, Clark Gable’s character, Mark Whitney, has probably something to do with her happy ending.
The MMPDA asked for such ‘temptresses’ to be punished, but the ‘studios preferred [them] to renounce [their] riches for ‘true love.’ So, although the censors would rather chose ‘a Salome fate’ to a ‘Magdalene fate’ for Hollywood’s scarlet women, the studio’s better understood the marketing value of a story of redemption and love – that ends happily.
Bona fide prostitutes’ significantly superior treatment in melodramas echoes the Victorian soft spot for the ‘unfortunates.’ Their downfall was attributed to their horrid poverty, and a foolishly good heart, in contrast to the cold, calculating, greedy logic of the gold-diggers. In the adaptation of Eugine O’Neil’s Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930), Greta Garbo, as Anna, the down-and-out prostitute visiting her estranged father, says to her sailor suitor (Charles Bickford): ‘Would you believe it if I tell you that loving you has made me clean?.’ And he does, but somehow the happy ending, although implied, seems ambiguous. More convincing is the scene between Anna and the sympathetic old tramp, played by Marie Dressler, ‘you are me, forty years from now’, says Anna to her.
In Red Dust (Victor Fleming, 1932), Jean Harlow plays Vantine, a prostitute, stranded in Indochina on a rubber plantation, owned by Clark Gable’s character Dennis Carson. After they have an affair, he falls in love with a married woman, but changes his mind about breaking up her marriage, settling with Harlow. The film was later remade, and became Mogambo (John Ford, 1953), with Gable now playing a big game hunter in Africa, while Harlow’s role went to Ava Gardner. This time, Honey Bear is a chorus girl, not a prostitute, but this was the fifties.
After the establishment of the Production Code Administration in 1934, following the increasing public pressure against the film industry, especially from organisations such as the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Payne Fund Studies, films about seductive social climbers and ‘tarts with hearts’, ending up happily married, significantly dried out. As the after-effect of the Great Depression, the collective negative anima had to be tragic, for those were hard times, and happy endings in life were scarce. A truly melodramatic era, with its hard-luck turns of destiny, social anxiety and poverty-stricken masses, the Depression bred tragic heroines out of fallen women as in Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935) and Camille (George Cukor, 1936), both with Greta Garbo as the lead. Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration stated:
“The illicit sex affair must be shown affirmatively to be ‘wrong.’ It must not be ‘condoned nor justified, nor made to appear right and acceptable’, and the sinners must be ‘punished.’”
In Camille, Duma’s story of a consumptive Parisian courtesan, the ‘lady of the camellias’, Marguerite Gautier, falls in love with a relatively humble admirer, Armand (Robert Taylor). But she makes him leave her by returning to her rich lover, for ‘her past not to stain his future’, as his father puts it to her. The lovers are reunited on her deathbed, and Marguerite dies in Armand’s arms, a ‘Magdalene’ with a rushed ending. Although Marguerite is clearly marked a prostitute, the sexual consummation of her love affairs is not made obvious in the narrative.
In Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), a family melodrama, Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella is not a regular fallen woman type. But the ‘stain’ of her being a ‘social climber’ and, therefore, somehow promiscuous, is represented in her clothes and movement:
“[…] the preponderance of black net in Stella’s costume, the sheer ostentatiousness of the display, and the exaggerated movement of the actress’s hips and arms when she walks, recall the look of a streetwalker.”
Dress code references to a woman’s fall were frequent in Hollywood melodrama, the ‘red dress’ often symbolising the temporary ‘fall’ of characters that could not simply be filed under the fallen woman category, such as Bette Davis’s dress as Julie Morrison in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara defiant ‘scarlet woman entrance’, in Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). , the 1980s cartoon apotheosis of the Hollywood femme fatale, seems glued into her red dress for animated eternity. Jessica Rabbit, the 1980s cartoon apotheosis of the Hollywood femme fatale, seems glued into her red dress for animated eternity.
It is appropriate that with Jessica we enter the phase of the film noir representation of the fallen woman and the hereto elusive archetype of ‘Lilith’ the ‘she-devil.’ Neither Jessica, nor her flesh and blood forties predecessors were, entirely, of a ‘Lilithian’ type. The advent of the Second World War, and the demonic nature of the conflict, witnessed the World’s collective shadow, suddenly, and overwhelmingly spilling into humanity’s consciousness. The projections of the shadow on the silver screen were, therefore, bound to be severe, and one of the primary characters, emerging from the darkness, was the most seductive and lethal of negative animas, the femme fatale, the French phrase referring to a symbol of the ‘death demon.’ So enticing, and so malicious, to be deliciously deadly.
“The sexual, dangerous woman lives in this darkness, and is the psychological expression of [man’s] own internal fears of sexuality, and [his] need to control and repress it.”
Ironically, there were not many periods in cinema history, until the film noir, in which ‘women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality.’
Perhaps this is because, Lilith, the first wife of Adam, did not show her true face until now, serving her infernal time as the archetypal ‘wicked witch’, a way for patriarchy to thwart her highly sexually charged, independent and powerful persona. Because, ultimately, ‘men need to control women’s sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it.’
Nevertheless, the social structures of patriarchy were set to be irreversibly changed: men went to war, and women, not for the first time – to work. As Western society had become highly industrialised, someone needed to keep the mills running.
In critical quarters, film noir is hence viewed as an antithesis of the melodrama genre, the ‘man’s picture’, melodrama being the ‘woman’s film.’ But the ‘dark Goddess’ who first appeared in these films, did not disappear when the war ended – she re-emerged in the family melodramas of the fifties, albeit in closeted form. In the late sixties and seventies, she fully fled her cage, not spawning countless demonic children, but becoming the new, somewhat liberated woman, the true shape of which is only partially visible today.
A few films of the film noir genre, or rather ‘cycle’ will be mentioned here, although quite many have an inherently melodramatic form.
The two voices, male (film noir) and female (melodrama), according to J.J. Bachofen’s study of ancient myths and symbolism, indicate ‘the historical transition of mother-right to father-right’, the existence of a ‘matriarchal society which preceded our patriarchal system.’ However, Veda (Ann Blyth), Joan Crawford’s daughter in Mildred Pierce, is a clear projection of her mother’s desires. ‘She’s gonna become a ballet dancer, so you could be proud of yourself’ says Mildred’s husband back at her. Talking to her friend Ida (Eve Arden) Mildred says that Veda is ‘a part of me.’ Mildred became a self-made woman after the demise of her marriage, shunning the structures of patriarchy. Veda ‘deceitful, promiscuous, greedy and hysterical’ is the negative anima, a Persephone to Mildred’s Demetra, and a projection of Mildred’s shadow self. She represents ‘the consequences of this retreat from patriarchy […] the excess which Mildred’s discourse calls into being and which [it] cannot resolve.’
In Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), Rita Hayworth as Gilda, the ‘seductive victim of male contempt’ sings ‘Put the blame on Mame, boys….’, indicating that every natural and economic disaster to befall mankind has to be traced to a sexually explosive womankind.
The content of the song, together with its privileging mise-en-scène, points to the illegitimacy of men blaming women, where film noir seems concerned, on the surface of things, to assert just the opposite. The second, public rendition of Put the Blame on Mame becomes a song of defiance, not just a trapped wife against her husband, but of a woman against the male system.
It is no wonder, then, that the US military GI’s nicknamed the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb after Gilda, referring to Hayworth’s ‘sex-bomb’ status, but most likely inadvertently delivering an incredibly cruel parallel.
In the film we are told what to think of Gilda through Johnny’s (Glenn Ford) voice-over, but throughout the story, ‘an exact reciprocity in the exchange of looks between Johnny and Gilda’ makes both, in turn, the objects of each other’s desire. Johnny, as an object of desire for Gilda, is also, along with her, an object of desire for Ballin (George Macready), Gilda’s husband, and his boss. The homoerotic elements of the story are covert but help make Gilda a special case for the identification of the ‘controlling gaze’, that traditionally fixes women as cinematic objects of pleasure. Additionally, Gilda dances, and does so for her own pleasure, not just for the male spectators. Film critic Majorie Rosen remarked, that, for the first time, a heroine seemed to say, ‘This is my body. It’s lovely and gives me pleasure. I rejoice in it just as you do.’
In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey suggest an opposition between stasis and movement in relation to sexual objectification. The former fixes or controls the object of desire for the pleasurable gaze of the spectator, whereas the latter ‘escapes’ this control.
In yet another aberration from the rules of the film noir genre, where a woman’s role is to present the eternal, fatal, unknowable – here ‘it is difficult for a femme fatale to be unknowable and absent, when incarnated by someone so known and present as Rita Hayworth.’
Furthermore, by the end of the film, Gilda’s character is entirely redeemed. Far from being a treacherous, self-absorbed harpy Johnny’s voice-over implies, thus ‘deserving’ his demeaning treatment of her – it becomes clear that her ‘sinning’ was only just an act, in true anima style, for the ‘paranoid fantasies of her true love, Johnny.’
Gilda, therefore, becomes a template for the formation of a different kind of woman, an actual woman, since through the force of her own humanity, she ceases to be an object, still retaining all her wildness, independence, sexuality, tenderness, and love.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), Lana Turner’s scheming Cora seems to act out a plethora of various animas at once in ‘a remarkable series of unmotivated character switches and roles’ from ‘sex-bomb’ to ‘ambitious woman’ to ‘loving playmate’ to ‘cold murderess’ etc.
Representing a potent mix of all major anima fantasies and nightmares rolled into one, she has got the totality of the ‘elements’ which could help her be integrated into a ‘whole’ subject, an integrated self, something her noir predecessors were not able to achieve, numerically. But none of the parts manage to reflect the whole, or gel into an authentic humanity – thus making Cora almost the final victim of male ‘dispersion’ and inevitable ‘annihilation’ of the highly artificialised femme fatale in the film noir cycle.
After the Second World War, the men returned home, only to find their workplaces occupied by their wives, daughters, sisters, and girlfriends. The relative independence enjoyed by women in the war years needed to be substituted with something of value, or else a serious unemployment problem of war-weary males would potentially be generated. So, women were encouraged to return to more traditional roles of wives and mothers, by all media means necessary. The three main sources of media influence, before the advent of television, in the late fifties, were the press, the radio, and the cinema. Cinema being the most glamorous, and hence, subliminally, the most persuasive of the three.
Fallen women had to, often literally, take the ‘back seat’ in narratives of the fifties’ family melodramas, making way for the ‘decent’ women who knew their ‘proper’ place in society. Cleverly, these ‘proper’ ladies were not made to be simpletons, or else they would never have had the chance to appeal to a female audience that increasingly grew in sophistication. So, it was in the ‘indecent’ supporting characters, sprinkled over the glossily packaged fifties melodrama, like ‘black rain’, where the women of the film noir resurfaced, in true ‘Lilithian’ way, bringing discord, shame, and angst to their disapproving, conformist families. We will discuss just a few of those characters here, but such ‘black sheep’ can be found in many a family melodrama, if only we purposefully search for them. They are antidotes to the vague character of the bubbly showgirl so many fifties films introduced in order to substitute for a lack of a viable ‘Magdalene’ figure – since neither their sinning, nor redemption (inevitably, through marriage), was taken seriously by the filmmakers, or the audiences. The immortal Marilyn Monroe was ironically often assigned such characters throughout most of her career, her real life far more resembling the fallen woman tragic route. Except for Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953), where she was an incredibly overlooked femme fatale, she only twice plays a real Magdalene, River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954), and her last completed film, The Misfits (John Huston, 1961).
Otherwise, the range of indecency of the 1950s ‘black sheep’ characters goes from one extreme to another – that of the truly malevolent character of the mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet) in East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955), a ‘rare gem’ of a pure Lilith one can ever hope to find in film, to a relatively benevolent Luz (Carroll Baker) in Giant (George Stevens, 1956), the Salome-ish daughter of a rich family, causing mild embarrassment and complications with her caprices. Kate in East of Eden is precious, not only because she embodies ‘original sin’ and ‘true evil’, but because she did not stay with her man Adam, rather, as Lilith, fled him, and became a brothel madame, instead. A good businesswoman, too, she was, ‘One of the best, son’ Kate tells James Dean‘s Cal, her desperate abandoned child, suffering the elusive mark of ‘the sin of the mother.’
Somewhere in between these two extremes are the two extraordinary characters from Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Marylee in Written in the Wind, and Sarah Jane in the Imitation of Life. So, we come full circle.
‘I love her as I’ve seldom loved a person in a movie’ said Fassbinder of Dorothy Malone’s Marylee, a ‘nymphomaniac’ daughter of an oil tycoon, desperately in love with Rock Hudson’s Mitch, a long-time childhood friend of the family, who instead of ‘waiting for him’ to love her back, as a man, not as ‘a brother’, embarks on a series of short-lived affairs with strangers. With this behaviour, she brings upon the downfall of her family – namely by ‘causing’ her father to have a heart-attack, after he was confronted with one of her one-night stands, calling Marylee ‘a tramp.’ In a memorable scene of Marylee’s almost pagan dance to the tune of Temptation, after she was discovered with the man, and brought back home by the police, Sirk’s frantic montage juxtaposes her sexually excessive, hysterical dance, with her father’s efforts to climb the sweeping staircase to her room, and confront her. He suffers a heart attack, falling down the stairs, while Marylee, in turn, falls into a sofa with her legs, frenziedly, in the air.
Marylee’s sexual energy (and implied nymphomania) was a subject that a 1950s film could not possibly depict naturalistically. It is, therefore, transformed in this extraordinarily extreme scene, into a frantic dance that not only disrupts family harmony, and causes the death of her father, but also creates an excess that disrupts the conventions of cinematic realism.
This excess presents the ‘safety valve’ of melodrama that siphons off the pent-up emotions of human frustration and helps maintain the dubious status quo of a bourgeois household that the genre depicts so often. Fallen women in fifties melodramatic narrative are, almost to a fault, used as such a ‘valve.’ Since they are the film’s ‘hidden protagonists’, it implies that their characters’ view is the ‘hidden’ point of view’ of the films.
It is as though having a female point of view dominating the narrative ‘produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. […] the escape is closer to daydream than a fairytale.’ (Mulvey 1987:82)
And the fallen women in melodrama do daydream. Marylee does so in a scene by the lake, where she reminisces of the times in her childhood when marrying Mitch seemed a reality. Sarah Jane’s whole cabaret existence is a daydream, a prolonged illusion that she can pass herself off as white, and gain the position in society denied her by her skin colour.
The two, like the ‘proper’ women in melodrama, use substitutes for their desires, but these are not masses of household objects, suffocating them in their immobility against the passing of time, but rather, daydreams, or ‘real illusions.’ A movement, however wrongfooted, towards life.
“And at the end, when Dorothy Malone, as the last remnant of the family, has this penis in her hand [a miniature oil-well], that's at least as mean as the television set Jane Wyman was given for Christmas [in All That Heaven Allows].”
Sarah Jane’s life, of all the characters in the film, according to Sirk (1997:148), is probably closest to the definition of the substitute for life, the Imitation of Life, that the title implies. Born of a black mother (and a missing father), her skin is white, but in the segregated society of America in the fifties, she is viewed as black. Although her mother raises her as such, into a world of limited opportunities, Sarah Jane is an early rebel, fighting against her predicament, and tragically, at the same time, her own identity. In one scene, she vehemently discards a black doll she has been given to play with.
Violently rejected by her white boyfriend, Sarah Jane decides to leave her surrogate family, and head for the sleazier parts of town – the cabaret stage. There she can trade on her appeal to white men, on her identification with the ideal of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’– the one of a sexually attractive white girl, and ‘forge’ her life thusly.
Truth, always close by, in Sara Jane’s case is in the form of Annie (Juanita Moore), her black mother, that holds on to her daughter, not allowing her the freedom of the fall, and follows her to every bar she works in, blowing her cover.
In the one of the most heart-breaking scenes I’ve ever seen on film, Annie, knowing she is dying, comes to see Sara Jane for the last time, in her dressing room, at the Las Vegas review, and her daughter rejects her again, ‘defending herself against her mother’s terrorism, the world’s terrorism.’ Desperately clinging onto her ‘white’ reflection in a mirror, ‘framed’ with her black mother in the background, she screams: ‘I’m white!’
Sirk has suggested that mirrors interested him ‘because they produce an image that seems to represent the person looking into the mirror when in fact what they see is the exact opposite.’
This scene is oddly reminiscent of the one in Mildred Pierce, where Mildred follows her daughter Veda into a dressing room in a similar night-club to the one Sara Jane first performs in. Veda’s showgirl friend says to her, on seeing Mildred appear: ‘I didn’t know you had a mother.’ In a distorted echo of that sentence, Sara Jane’s colleague says to her, after Annie has left, ‘I didn’t know you had a Mammie.’
Unlike Veda, Sara Jane repents, at the end of the film, albeit in a strained manner, at her mother’s funeral, clinging much the same way to Annie’s coffin, as Marylee to that miniature oil well, at the end of Written in the Wind. Equality can only be found through death, for Sarah Jane and Annie, just as love can never be found in reality for Marylee, only through daydreaming.
These two characters are neither a ‘Magdalene’, nor a ‘Lilith’, nor a ‘Salome’. They are all of them, or rather they are forever cinematically caught between these archetypes, allowing for glimpses of the real state of womanhood in mid-twentieth century America.
They were the harbingers, signalling that the animas of old projected onto the silver screen have become less two-dimensional, and more human, and most importantly, less projections of fallen women, and more images of complete, flawed, and so often tragic human beings.
One of the ‘main’ protagonists of this essay, announced in the introduction is, quite obviously, missing. I believe the elusive figure of the animus was not mentioned once more, till now. This was not done entirely on purpose, but as a consequence of fully unpacking the enigma of the anima, the preponderance of anima projections in cinema, and its dominance in the unconsciousness (and consciousness) in both men and women in patriarchal society. All of which is logical, given that patriarchy signifies the rule of the father, with the mother, the giver of life to us all, in a state of implicit devaluation.
Also, the missing animus helped animate the underlying truth that female projections of the male other were sorely missing in the part of cinematic history this essay refers to. In order to project, one must have a lens to look through. Sexualised bad boys on screen came much later, probably starting with a highly attractive, yet an essentially wife-beating, rapist character that Marlon Brando plays in a Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951).
Women were not given many opportunities to view their animus projections on screen, nor was the female point of view properly represented. The structures of male-dominated society, and the overwhelming number of men filmmakers and screenwriters, nipped any such attempts in the bud. Another matter, entirely, is the question of whether the change of position of women in society, in the second half of the 20th century, marked the rise of the animus on screen, and off, as well as ‘woman’s point of view’ in the cinema.
If, as Jung said of the animus, it ‘does not so often appear in a form of an erotic fantasy or mood; it is more apt to take the form of a hidden ‘sacred’ conviction’ just how often could we see women’s convictions represented through female writers and filmmakers in mid-twentieth century Western cinema? Considering the unfortunate fact that women are rarely admitted the opportunity to helm pictures, even today, in a supposedly enlightened atmosphere of political correctness, the answer is: not very often. The question of ‘what does she want?’ remains today as relevant as it ever was.
With the ascension of camp melodrama, and filmmakers that are openly homosexual, such as Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and John Waters and, therefore, presumably, ‘more sympathetic’ to women’s issues than their ‘hetero’ counterparts, does not alter the fact that they are still, men. In order for the female spectator not to be forced to view figures in the cinema through a man’s lens, ‘restless’’, tapping into her male constructed anima, or identifying with male, or ‘masculinised’ female figures to ‘secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoy the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides’ – cinema must open its doors to more women filmmakers, for it is a cultural necessity, and a true marker of equality.
This is not to say that either sex is incapable of switching its point of view for a person to be able to better understand the other, especially in the gender fluid atmosphere of newly established identities, evolving in the cultural landscape of contemporary sexual politics. The conceptual or perhaps actual existence of the archetypal patterns of the anima and animus, i.e. the masculine and the feminine in all of our psyches happily makes this a natural ability for everyone. But rather, this is to underline the fact that until the long cycle of the male gaze, or rather the controlling frame of a male dominated culture is closed, and women filmmakers’ POV is not given its rightful place in our cinema culture, we will still be watching one another through the ‘kaleidoscope’ glasses of fragmented projections on screen, through a dominant narrative and a homogenised perspective.
It took me many years to come across works of women like Jane Campion, Liliana Cavani, and Maya Deren, and their themes of female sexuality and mystical, moody erotica, to be able to understand, shocked as I was, that I finally saw on screen scenes similar to the way I framed visual pleasure in my life. Up to then, I have been gazing at the screen through a masculinised perspective, without really realising this, except viscerally, always feeling I have been somehow denied a key ingredient to unlocking a medium.
It’s strange just how much our intellect can be distracted by entertainment, while our senses remain hungry for what truly satisfies them.
In conclusion, I believe the fallen woman of the 1930s-1950s melodrama had one most important function, and this was not so much to present the negative embodiment of the fragments of the male psyche on screen, while teasing and gratifying (and terrifying) the male spectator. The major gift of the femme fatale, the gold-digger, the seductress, the fallen angel, the furious housewife, was the opportunity to subversively connect to wild, dark repressed feminine in female spectators, not only bringing about the ‘rise of the animus’, but connecting us to a hidden narrative current underneath the official one, our own dispossessed femininity, debased, fragmented and demonised, yet so powerfully vibrant and creative.
“[...] emotions of those women accepting ‘masculinisation’ while watching action movies with a male hero are illuminated by the emotions of a heroine of a melodrama whose resistance to a ‘correct’ feminine position is the critical issue at stake.”
These wonderfully bold women on film, in effect, helped bring forth modern womanhood, with a new set of challenges to face, but never again in the dark.
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 Wayne, 2004 p.141.
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 Fassbinder, 1992, p.88,89.
 Caughie, Kuhn (ed), 1995, p.54.
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