IS MELODRAMA A LEGITIMATE GENRE?
Melodrama in literature, theater, and cinema has gotten a bad name merely because there’ve been so many bad melodramas over the years. (Just as too many contrived happy endings have given happy endings a bad name.) Melodrama is a style open to abuse by hack writers.
But we forget that Charles Dickens wrote melodrama. Wilkie Collins wrote melodrama. Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas both wrote melodrama.
MELODRAMA IN FILM
One of the peaks of melodrama in art came more than thirty years after the end of the Victorian era– in Hollywood, care of Warner Brothers gangster movies. Fast-paced plot, with acting and dialogue completely over-the-top, accompanied by a blaring Warner Brothers soundtrack. The intent was to play on audience emotion– to give moviegoers cathartic release; escape from Great Depression life.
As with any genre created at a particular point in time, the output was uneven. At its best, when all the trademark studio elements properly meshed, the result was terrific art.
THE BEST FILM MELODRAMAS
There were quite a few good ones, but three of the Warners movies stand out.
“Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938)
James Cagney overacts relentlessly, with the Dead End Kids along as foils, Ann Sheridan as the girl, Pat O’Brien as a priest, and Humphrey Bogart as bad guy– a role he played in many of these stories, until World War II came along and– Rick Blaine-style– his characters switched sides.
Not a perfect film, but the story builds swiftly amid societal chaos toward a famous (or once-famous) conclusion.
“Each Dawn I Die” (1939)
Even the title screams with emotion. The ultimate prison film, as framed anti-corruption reporter Cagney is sent to prison, where he meets up with mobster George Raft. A ton of drama and violence follows. As good as it gets, except for–
“Kid Galahad” (1937, aka “Battling Bellhop”)
— the story and original title later used for a bad Elvis Presley movie.
The original version is terrific, starring Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson, with Wayne Morris as the nicknamed prizefighter, and a sneering Humphrey Bogart along for the ride.
“Kid Galahad” takes the genre to another level, with a theme of love, unrequited and not, underlying the violence, emphasized with a dollop of soft focus cinematography. The ending– the Bette Davis character staring at a poster– conveys waves of emotion. The culmination of an unceasingly melodramatic plot.
CAN MELODRAMA RETURN?
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. As we at New Pop Lit look for ways of reviving a stagnant literary art, we’ll add any weapon we can find to our arsenal of artistic styles. Fresh angles to throw at the world.
Which has resulted in our newest zeen:
Crime City U.S.A.
Available NOW! at our POP SHOP.