If there is any type of film that has thrived through film history, it is the melodrama. From silent films to Nicholas Sparks, audiences have flocked to theaters to have a good cry. In common with the movie-musical, the melodrama visualizes the internal urges that viewers wish to feel in dramatic moments. There are climactic moments in real life, but these films are supported by an extravagant Max Steiner score and chiaroscuro lighting.

The term, melodrama, is sometimes used by film critics pejoratively. Typically films that are extremely marketable aren’t associated with high-brow film. I disagree with the notion that melodramas are only a vehicle for stereotypes and predictability. There are countless melodrama films, or ones that are “melodramatic,” that contain subject matter of true value. Just because they are marketed towards women who are prone to crying in theaters, does that strip them of their artistic and social contribution to film? No one is questioning the marketing influence on western or war films, are they that much more valuable?

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

A marketing machine, these films embody theatrical impulse. Melodramas provide a prime example of films being escape mechanisms. Life’s transitions are illustrated in a romanticized and surreal manner.

Melodrama offers the hope that it may not be too late, that there may still be an archaic sort of virtue, and that virtue and truth can be achieved in private individuals and individual heroic acts rather than, as Eisenstein wanted, in revolution and change… The rescue, chase, or fight that defies time and that occupies so much time in the narrative is the desired mirror reversal of the defeat by time in the pathos of ‘too late’ (Browne, 74).

The most agreed-upon characteristic of the melodrama is the emphasis on domesticity and maternal family life. Since the typical audience for the melodrama would be adolescent and adult women, these themes are consistently relevant. Romance, therefore, is a starting point prior to family life that remains incredibly attractive in a melodrama narrative.

There is a standardized process in which this occurs:

The version that seems most common in Hollywood film holds ‘the bliss of genitality’ to be the end of desire. When the right man or woman is found and returns one’s love, the subject will be satisfied, will lack no more. But romance does not focus its energy on describing this bliss. Rather, romance seeks by almost any means it can to heighten desire. For this reason there must be obstacles to the couple’s union. Furthermore, other desire objects become associated with the couple such that we are enticed into not only sexual but other material kinds of desire” (Grant, 385).

The melodrama is responsible for enacting visual impulses of the audience. Without a sense of longing, viewers will not strive for the couple to resolve their differences. Without compelling music, audiences are less likely to buy into the sudden love at first sight that typically graces the screen of melodramas.

The proper mise-en-scene is imperative in creating an effective melodrama.

“The interrelation of music and the filmic presence of emotion create a textual complement to the film’s storyline. While virtually all conventional film narratives portray and generate emotion, melodrama not only emphasizes emotionally, but it must situate affect within a clearly delineated moral system” (Gehring, 286).

Melodramas provide an environment in which audiences can escape and experience a world of dynamic filmic elements. Through the characters, narrative, music, lighting, camera work, and most of all, the big finish, melodramas are quintessential in classic film.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)


Intolerance (1916)

Where Are My Children? (1916)

The Toll of the Sea (1922)

A Free Soul (1931)

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

Thirteen Women (1932)

Imitation of Life (1934)

Made For Each Other (1939)

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Kitty Foyle (1940)

The Little Foxes (1941)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Casablanca (1942)

Laura (1944)

Notorious (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Heiress (1949)

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Place in the Sun (1951)

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)



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