Melodrama: The Unloved Genre

The Arts


There are only a few categories of film that can be guaranteed to draw fire from critics. Satires, westerns, musicals – and melodramas. This last one has long been out of favour. Historically, a melodrama was a serious play interspersed with  music accompanying the action. Now it means a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.

red_barn01Which sounds like the last multiplex blockbuster you saw, or anything by Michael Bay. While melodrama can thrill, it usually has no other purpose but to entertain through the use of sensation.

It’s associated with a particular brand of Victorian declamatory acting, as in ‘Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls’ and ‘Maria Marten – or The Murders in the Red Barn’.

It’s a term that could be applied to almost anything that comes to be regarded as unsophisticated. These days the term is nearly always pejorative. It suggests a lack of subtlety and poor character development. It’s one of the main genres used in massively popular Latin American TV serials.

melodrama-factsMelodrama teeters into camp because it deals with big emotions. ‘East Enders’ moved from neo-realism to melodrama, meaning that now every storyline has to feature a death or an explosion. But it’s hard not to think of many Victorian novels as melodramas, especially Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘East Lynne’ by Ellen Wood.

Popular again after WWII in films by Douglas Sirk and books by Grace Metalious, melodrama has lately undergone a revival in films from Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. Australia is rather good at it, with books like ‘Careful He Might Hear You’ and films like ‘The Dressmaker’. In the former a cold-hearted stepmother wrenches a child away from a loving family and suffers a miserable fate. In the latter, Kate Winslet returns to her old hometown in a slutty red dress and burns the whole place down. Of course the critics detest most melodrama because it’s about excess, not reticence.

The-Music-Lovers-3-1Ken Russell’s entire career was based on melodrama. Watching ‘The Music Lovers’, his life story of Tchaikowsky, our emotions are heightened by excessive, lurid and frequently absurd imagery – but Russell was a passionate music lover himself, and his films were often attempts to define exhilaration , one of our chief responses to music. The critics still clutch their handkerchiefs to their noses when considering Russell, but he remains one of the few British directors who truly understood film while the rest were doing their best to avoid the creation of powerful imagery.

The critics adore ‘The Shape of Water’ (and rightly so; its intricacies reveal themselves on subsequent viewings) but detested the film ‘Brimstone’ a few months ago. At least, US critics did – the UK ones have been much more appreciative, and it’s a hit with audiences. ‘Brimstone’s is worth looking at because it combines melodramatic outrage and feminism, but director Martin Koolhoven has made his life especially difficult by also making this the world’s first Dutch western and by publicly saying that he has no interest at all in working in Hollywood.

Brimstone_Still_2‘Brimstone’s villain is insanely villainous and its heroine put-upon beyond all endurance. It has an epic sweep and a broad story arc that takes in every western cliché going. But why shouldn’t we consider the use of the broad gestures, non-naturalistic dialogue and the sweeping, wild use of colour and sound to convey something more than space operas? It has always worked (to a point) in films by the undisciplined Quentin Tarantino.

As for novels, the New York Times bestseller list is full of melodramas tastefully reimagined as multi-generational novels of discreet but overwhelming emotions. US bestsellers are often beautifully written but suffocating. At the other end of the scale, the pulp novels of the seventies and eighties were often poorly written but once in a while were capable of producing masterpieces. Many of these wildly imaginative leaps in which ambitious creeps murder heiresses and devils possess children are back in fashion.

When you’re finding out what you like to read, it’s very important not to become a book snob; read anything and everything, and set it down as soon as it bores you. I became a long-time fan of melodrama and am currently working on writing one, so we’ll see what happens…


11 comments on “Melodrama: The Unloved Genre”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    “and am currently working on writing one” so the book will come with that label attached?
    The third photo down is doing the ‘how narrow can we squeeze the image’ thing. What is that all about? Often the picture that squeezes is the one at the top of the post and it will sometimes squeeze and sometimes not.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    So critics would hate above all a melodramatic, satirical, musical western with musical interludes. ‘Blazing Saddles’?

  3. admin says:

    Nice try. It was a comedy, and anything goes in a comedy.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    The above begs the question, which I believe used to be/is an essay topic at media schools: “Is comedy a genre, or does it only exist because it parodies other genres?” eg, farce is really tragedy played for laughs.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    The king of the movie melodrama was surely Tod Slaughter. His scenery chewing was a thing of wonder. Hammy, certainly, but great fun. His imposing frame made him menacing – in fact, in the movie ‘The Face At The Window’, he’s actually quite alarming. If you’re not familiar with him, then mentally picture the kind of villain that would tie a young lady to a railway track – dark clothes, including a cloak and top hat, who twirls his moustache as he plans more villainy. Thats him. Add a stentorian delivery of lines to complete. I love his movies, as they are so over the top. In today’s world, where only the prettiest become big stars, the big, bulky, loud Mr Slaughter might come as a shock to modern viewers. And yes, he was a big star. Tod Slaughter. Once seen, never forgotten.

  6. Roger says:

    You’re mistaken, Brian. Tragedy is farce that doesn’t get the laughs because it’s badly-acted.
    Donald Sinden said tragedy was easy: you just had to speak the words clearly and the playwright did all the work. Comedy you had to work on.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Didn’t one of the great actors of the 18th/19th century (I have a feeling it might have been Kean) say on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” ? I have also heard the following: Tragedy + Time = Comedy. Given the propensity of the average Brit to make a joke, or laugh at one created by some terrible disaster, very soon after the event, I’d say that was true.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    Isn’t the problem with and the utility of genre and genrification that an entertainment predominantly of one genre is enhanced by seasoning with a sprinkling of another. A comedy gains depth and meaning from a dash of satire. A satire is lightened and made digestible with a splash of comedy. Musicals are .. well I’ll not go into musicals. A touch of melodrama can be like those tiny lumps of white paint in a Rembrandt portrait, little, bright reflections that give a sort of human emotion and a reality.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    You’ve got a point there, Roger. Having at one time done amateur dramatics which included farces in the repertoire, all I can say is, you must have seen us in action. Looking back, I’m glad I was advised not to give up the day job.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I live my life as comedy/farce with a touch of melodrama. A bit rough on the neighbours, though.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Gothic tales have always been ripe, Uncle Silas is great fun. Romance and crime mixed tend towards melodrama, and tend to have overtones of the gothic. Some of the vampire/werewolf romance novels fall into this, teenage girls seem to be the target for these and as such are really denigrated by critics.

    Tod Slaughter is splendid, his Sweeney Todd is splendid, especially his catch phrase, ‘I’ll polish him off.’

    I recently watched, ‘Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte ‘and ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ both splendid melodramas with Bette Davis.

    Bollywood makes some splendid melodramas, even has the music, whatever a Bollywood horror film where they stop for a song is one of the oddest things to see.


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