Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987)

The existence of the genre of the ‘woman’s film’ is a challenging one for feminist critics such as Doane, for while these films portray women in stereotypical feminised roles – mothers, lovers, hysterics, invalids or victims – they were hugely popular with female cinema-goers, who evidently enjoyed the films and identified (in some way) with the onscreen depictions of women’s experience. As a feminist, theoretical critic and psychoanalyst, Doane seeks to explain the anxieties underpinning these films and the ways in which filmmakers tried to get audiences to identify with the psychological behaviour of the screen characters.

 ‘‘before she dies she becomes pure gaze’ (p.122)

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy, 1940)

Inevitably she is building on Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which was published in Screen journal in 1975. (It was later revised for Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) pp. 833-44, which would provide a good background read for anyone approaching this topic.) Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ to discuss the concept of ‘scopophilia’, the pleasure taken in gazing at the passive female as an object – a notion she pursued using the language of voyeurism and fetishization. These are also terms employed throughout Doane’s book, for even though the idea of the women’s film might suggest a ‘female gaze’ – women in the audience watching women on screen – it is important to grasp that Mulvey’s male gaze had three perspectives – that of the filmmaker, the screen character and the viewer – and was never intended to suggest binary distinctions between biological gender. As Doane makes clear, most of these ‘women’s films’ were made by men and reflect typically masculine anxieties about female agency during the wartime period; the way in which women were portrayed onscreen – she argues – was in keeping with a particular agenda that sought to increase female identification with passivity, suffering and neurosis.

Cat People Cats In Film Cinema Women And

‘the compatibility and substitutability of feline and female’ (p.51)

Simone Simon in Cat People (Lewton, 1942)

By choosing to focus on woman’s films in the 1940s Doane lines up a marvellous array of classics movies with some of the era’s greatest actresses. We have Bette Davis in The Letter (Wyler, 1940) and Beyond the Forest (Vidor, 1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), The Locket (Brahm, 1946), Humoresque (Negulesco, 1946) and Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947),Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (Leisen, 1946), Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) and so on. Several of Max Ophuls’ films, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Deception (also 1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) are included, as is Gaslight (the Cukor 1944 adaptation, rather than the Walbrook one, alas) Secret Beyond the Door (Lang, 1947), Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) and many, many others – including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1946) just to prove the Forties weren’t entirely monochrome. So what does the author have to say about these films?

‘her daydream of happiness turns into a nightmare when she is unable to say “I do”‘ (p.148)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak, 1946)

At times, frankly, what the author wishes to say is not immediately clear, which is (sadly) perhaps what one should expect from a psychoanalytical theorist. Viewers who have watched these films many times and learned to relish Ophuls’ gorgeous cinematography, appreciate Tourneur’s masterly use of sound – or thrill to the soaring beauty of the music scores composed by Waxman for Rebecca or Newman for Leave Her to Heaven – may well feel disappointed by the downright ugliness of sentences such as ‘It is as though the historical threat of a potential feminization of the spectatorial position required an elaborate work of generic containment olation’ (p.2) that form much of the prose here. This is a shame, as the author has a great deal of perceptions observations to make, and readers who manage to persevere with the difficult language may find the author’s insights valuable in reshaping  attitudes towards this ‘golden age’ of movies.

For Doane, popular terms for women’s films such as ‘weepies’ and ‘tearjerkers’ indicate the narcissistic nature of female spectatorship and its over-identification with the emotional states portrayed onscreen. In most of these movies, women are only allowed to feel a passive form of sexual desire, and those who express – or worse still, act upon – an active desire are generally punished.  The author makes a forceful argument not only about the extent to which these films rely upon, and exploit, a range of psychical conditions associated with stereotypical femininity, but also the ways in which the actual visual imagery of these films and its effects are deployed in enforcing these constructs, and just how deeply these symbols are ingrained within the subconscious of both the watchers and the watched.

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‘the victim of desires which exceed her social status’ (p.75)

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) 

One trouble with the author’s emphasis on conceptual theorizing is that it seems to treat both the women in the cinema audience and those on the screen as ciphers of ideological concepts rather than real human beings. To me, the language of this sort of critical discourse is so far removed from everyday experience that it comes across almost as dehumanizing – achieving precisely the opposite effect of that intended by the author. Those seeking to learn more about women’s experience of cinema-going around this time might find Lisa Stead’s Off to the Pictures: Women’s Writing, Cinemagoing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016) far more engaging and convincing, because it is so deeply rooted in real voices and material ephemera.

This is the penultimate post in this summer’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge

Anton Artefact #6

It’s a delight to have my Anton blog back up and running again after a long hiatus, beginning with the next in the Artefact series, a programme for a screening of Michael Strogoff at the Stoll Picture Theatre in London.

 

Opened as the London Opera House in 1911, it was taken over by Oscar Stoll and converted to use as a cinema in 1917. As befitted a grand opera house, it had a spectacular design and lavish interior, replete with pillared galleries, carved facades and groups of sculpted figures depicting Melody, Harmony, Inspiration, Composition, Comedy, Tragedy, Dance and Song. Although Michael Strogoff is not a hugely popular film among Anton fans, watching the movie in such a setting must have been quite an experience.

We tend to forget sometimes that the 1930s moviegoers’ experience was quite different from our modern Odeons and multiplexes. This programme is for the week beginning Monday 9th August 1937, when Michael Strogoff was shown four times a day. As the page detail below illustrates, the film was not watched in isolation, but was an integral part of a twelve-hour continuous programme that included a live organ recital, orchestral music with comic performances and skaters, news bulletins and trailers, concluding with the National Anthem. (It was common for most people to make a dash for the exits during the end credits so they wouldn’t have to stand to attention for the anthem.)

 

Royal affairs were much on AW’s mind at the time, as filming of Victoria the Great had finished in May and everyone was getting ready for the premiere in September, which was held in Leicester Square. The Stoll Picture Theatre closed in 1940 and despite some postwar use as a theatre, was demolished in the late 1950s.

It was fifty years ago today…

AW in 1961

…that AW died at the home of his old friend, actress Hansi Burg, in Garatshausen, Bavaria, where he had been convalescing from a heart attack he had suffered on stage at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich at the end of March. I have written about this in more detail on previous anniversaries (see here and here.)

It had been my intention to mark this year’s special anniversary with the publication of my biography of the actor, but for various reasons this has not been possible. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the text is complete – watch this space for further news!

The website has been undergoing some behind-the-scenes transformations which have prevented me from uploading any new material in recent weeks, and again, I hope normal service will be resumed very soon. Thank you for continuing to visit the blog.

Anton Artefact #5

‘Mascherata’ (Milan: Edizioni, 1935)
This 64 page pocket-sized booklet is written in Italian and is an early example of a movie novelisation, albeit in miniature. King Kong (1933) was perhaps the first big sound film to be adapted into a novel, but Mascherata sits midway between a book length adaptation and the concise retelling of the story found in various cinema programmes and magazines of the period such as Illustrierter Film-Kurier or Le Film Complet. There are a couple of section breaks in the text but no chapters and the entire narrative is covered in about 8,000 words. These cineromanzos remained popular for many decades, developing into a glossier magazine format in the 1950s and 1960s, although as a genre they have received scant critical attention.

Anton Artefact #4

AW as Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara (1533-97), patron of the poet Torquato Tasso, from a theatre programme for a performance of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso ​at the Sächsische Staatstheater, Dresden, in February 1930.