Domestic Melodrama Since World War II (Discussion)

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Pre-War vs. Post-War Melodrama

Lady Bird (written and directed by Greta Gerwig, 2017)

  1. Compare/contrast Lady Bird with Imitation of Life. How does Lady Bird use (or not) themes from 1930s melodrama? How does it compare/contrast with Ordinary People?
    • Groups 3 and 4: How is the relationship between parents (especially mothers) and children represented? Since Lady Bird is told from the perspective of a child, compare and contrast its protagonist with the three other teenagers we've seen: Conrad (Ordinary People), Peola (Imitation of Life), and Jesse (Imitation of Life). How do you interpret the film's final montage?
      • How is the theme of maternal sacrifice represented?
    • Groups 5 and 1: There isn't really a conflict between domestic love and romantic love in Lady Bird, but how would you say it represents romantic, adolescent love? Is it contrasted with mature, adult love? Compare/contrast Lady Bird's romances with Conrad's and Jessie's (we don't see Peola in romantic situations; but the 1959 version highlights her counterpart's boyfriend).
    • Groups 6 and 2: Lady Bird is largely a film about social and economic classes. How is the iconography of the upper middle class home represented? What does this iconography mean? Does it illustrate Elsaesser's comment: "Melodrama is iconographically fixed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the bourgeois [i.e., middle-class] home and/or the smalltown setting..." (p. 62)? Is Sacramento a "small town," do you think, in this regard? And how is New York City represented?
      • Does John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath somehow connect to the film's narrative/themes?

Christine Gledhill

  1. Groups 3 and 4: How did melodrama become "respectable" in academic circles? In particular, what does it mean to "read" a film "against the grain" (p. 6)? What do you think the "grain" of Imitation of Life is? How might one read against that grain?
  2. Groups 5 and 1: What four "points of tension" does Gledhill see in 1970s film criticism about melodrama?
  3. Groups 6 and 2: Gledhill discusses Coma, Witness, and The Color Purple as melodramas descended from silent melodrama such as Way Down East (1920). What key aspects of melodrama (e.g., "scenarios of persecuted innocence") does she see in these newer films? Can you think of recent films or TV programs that also contain these aspects?
  4. All groups: What were "patent theaters"? How did "illegitimate" theaters get around the restrictions of the patent system? When were restrictions lifted in England and France?

Thomas Elsaesser

Pronounced "ell-SASS-sir".

  1. Elsaesser's article has two goals:
    1. Tracing the "melodramatic imagination".
    2. Searching for "some structural and stylistic constants" in the melodrama, 1940-1963.
  2. Considering #2 above: What does Elsaesser mean by melodrama's "expressive code" (p. 51)? In particular, what does he mean when he says that melodrama contains "a sublimation of dramatic conflict into decor, colour, gesture and composition of frame" (p. 52)?
    • The melodramas we've seen so far (Ordinary People, Imitation of Life, and Lady Bird) mostly do not illustrate his point. Can you explain why they do not? We will have to wait until the Sirk version of Imitation of Life to see this sublimation in action in the melodrama, but how might this same point be made about film noir?
  3. Elsaesser uses numerous Freudian concepts in this article, especially in the section titled, "Where Freud left his Marx in the American home" (p. 58-). Can you define any of these and can you explain how Elsasser is applying these concepts to melodrama?
    • Fehlhandlungen, or Freudian slips (from Psychopathology of Everyday Life)
    • Displacement
    • Condensation
    • Manifest dream content
    • Latent dream content

External links

  1. Lady Bird illustrations.
  2. Juno illustrations.


  1. Molly Haskell, "The Woman's Film," in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin, 1974; revised edition 1987) 153-188.
  2. Christine Gledhill, "The Melodrama Field: An Investigation," Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: British Film Institute, 1987) 5-39.
  3. Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: British Film Institute, 1987) 43-69.