The Siren's been thinking about this most excellent observation (made on behalf of Million Dollar Baby, for the record) for the past few days, as the film blogosphere has one of its periodic kerfuffles. Remember when the Siren got rather worked up over the Oscar writer who dissed Sunrise right before the cinematography award? That was nothing compared to what Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times dished out last week.
"Sunrise" is paper-thin, hilariously schmaltzy. All three primary characters are cartoonish clichés and their performances 3-inch slices of honeyed ham.
Mind you, I'm the kinda guy who'd normally side with the weepie. On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." But I just can't shed a real tear when the farmer in "Sunrise" decides that he just — by golly! — can't off his sweet, dimpled wifey-pooh, after all. Nor could I cheer the scenes of the couple back together, all giddy smiles and kisses, posing for photos like newlyweds, dancing a happy peasant dance, joyous once he decided not to wring her scrawny little neck and hurl her over the side of the row boat.
What corn pone! Smothered in Cheez Whiz! "Wings" ain't Shakespeare or Scorsese, mind you, but it's better than that!
If hearing this gleeful philistinism from the paper of record in the world's movie capital depresses you, the comments section will cheer you up. This silent classic has far more fans than the Oscars may have led us to expect. The Siren isn't taking on Mr. O'Neil, not when he's been filleted for frying by the best, including Filmbrain and Glenn Kenny. At this point, as Molly Ivins used to say, it's called piling on, and there's a fifteen-yard penalty for it. No, instead the Siren wants to talk with her esteemed readers about melodrama, a word Mr. O'Neil's commenters use several times. Films labeled melodrama are too often maligned, but have a fine pedigree in the American cinema. And Sunrise is not schmaltzy (overly sentimental) nor is it purely a melodrama.
When the Siren's mother dispensed nasty-tasting medicine, she always gave a chaser, so here's our chaser, from The Parade's Gone By. Kevin Brownlow called this chapter "The Golden Path; or, The Curse of Melodrama":
Reassured by the belief that their prime duty was to entertain, film makers bought material of great potential and intelligence, stripped it of motivation and complex overtones, and reduced the action to basic, easy-to-follow melodrama.
Even the dictionary defines melodrama with a certain distaste: "Drama marked by crude appeals to emotion."
The purveyors of entertainment find melodrama an invaluable asset. It requires not the slightest effort on the part of the audience. They are not required to think, they merely watch. They will not miss any subtlety because there will not BE any subtlety. The values are simple, the threat is clear and
the resolution action-filled and straightforward. There is seldom any characterization in pure melodrama, never any complex motivation. Life is reduced to the infantile level of an adventure strip.
Brownlow was writing about the silent cinema, where what he called "the lashed-to-the-tracks, saved-by-the-dog pieces of unabashed nonsense" of the early days eventually gave way to more sophisticated plot drivers. The early silents gave us melodrama on its most basic level. But does anything Brownlow says make you think of Sunrise? No motivation or complex overtones, crude appeals to emotion, no effort required and no subtlety?
Melodrama relies heavily on plot, but Sunrise does nothing of the sort. It's the characters who tug at your heart, if you've a heart to tug. Janet Gaynor cringing away from the husband she loves might strike some as melodramatic in the worst sense. But the mere presence of strong emotion, conveyed in the most nakedly apparent way, doesn't add up to melodrama. Where Mr. O'Neil saw schmaltz, the Siren saw primitive fear, Gaynor showing us the physical terror women have felt down through the ages from certain men, even men they loved. And George O'Brien's torment shows how that violence cuts men off from the love and comfort they crave. You may call it melodrama, but the Siren calls it a conflict more ancient than the Greeks.
Pulling out the stops to draw strong emotions from your audience doesn't make something a melodrama in the Brownlow sense. If, however, you want to expand the definition to include plot-driven pictures, that still have strong motivations and well-drawn characters, and are designed chiefly to give us a good, cathartic burst of emotion, then you get something closer to what Marilyn Ferdinand defends. And the Siren thinks you also run into some of the finest pictures classic Hollywood has to offer. Check out this fine article on Greencine, which lovingly details what the Siren is talking about although it uses the perjorative "weepie," a term the Siren loathes from the depths of her movie-loving soul. Filmsite.org also has a good article on melodrama, where you'll find a list that includes a lot of masterpieces.
In fact, just skimming the list on Filmsite--Caught, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Bad and the Beautiful, Greed, Some Came Running, Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, Camille, The Old Maid--makes the Siren wonder if there is some stealthy prejudice at work in the very fact that these are labeled melodramas at all. The appeals to emotion in these films are not crude, unless you consider any appeal to romance or sentiment to be crude. If you want blood-pumping appeals to emotion, without complex motivations or nuanced character development, then the genre that frequently offers that isn't the women's picture or a fable (a term the Siren is borrowing from Todd Holmes) like Sunrise.
You should look right here.