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Classic Films for Teenage Girls: A Deleuzean Approach to the “Woman’s Film” of the 1940s

Lecturer: Mairead Phillips

Originally Taught: Winter School 2021

The woman’s film of the 1940s has, over the years, gotten a bad rap. No more so than in feminist film theory of the 70s and 80s. The feminist engagement with this genre remains largely uncontested today, but does it accurately reflect the films it purportedly critiques? This course will acknowledge the legacy of this radical approach by offering an alternative way of viewing and appreciating this significant genre through the film-philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Shifting perspective from a textual analysis of narrative to a formal analysis of film images, we find rich material that engages with questions of how to find a meaningful orientation in a corrupt and deadly world. The ethical dimension of these films is not pejorative and directed solely at a female audience to denigrate and demean them as many feminist analyses would have you believe. Instead, we reimagine this critical legacy by returning to the films themselves and ask: what do these films say to us now?

I have a recommended viewing schedule for the 5 weeks and have shown where they are accessible for streaming. Further viewing material is also listed. I will provide relevant readings as the course progresses, but the films are the main texts.

Course Outline

This course is designed to open up a conversation around the meaning and relevance of the films under discussion. Thematic considerations allow us to group them into specific categories, but they overlap considerably: it’s hard, for instance, to separate the medical from the romance, the maternal from the melodrama, the crime from the domestic. The process will be one of a gradual circular examination as we investigate the films, the stars, the directors, the era, and the cinematic universe to which they all belong.

  1. A Gendered Genre

In our first investigation we take King Vidor’s Stella Dallas as our paradigm example of the quintessential “woman’s film”. It centres around the eponymous heroine who dreams of escaping the working-class milieu in which she’s raised. She can see her future in her mother’s situation and does everything in her power to transcend it. She marries a factory executive on the rebound but it’s not until her daughter is grown that Stella realises the vision that drove her as a young woman to imagine a life beyond the one she was fated to by circumstance of birth, class, and education.

The passionate sacrifices of women in these films, whether mothers, lovers, wives, or daughters, demonstrates that the while the milieu no doubt constrains the choices available to them, they are nevertheless able to exercise that choice in a special philosophical sense of the word: they choose to choose.

Recommended viewing:

Further viewing:

  • Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
  • Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
  • Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)
  • Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)
  • Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
  • Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
  • To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1946)
  1. Domestic Milieux

“What really was the woman’s film?” asks Jeanine Basinger in her 1977 article “When Women Wept”. Her definition is simple: “Basically, it a film in which the woman, not the man, was the central figure.” This lecture will explore questions of genre. We read the “woman’s film” into Deleuze’s definition of the realism of the action-image in his first volume of the cinema books, The Movement-Image. For Deleuze, Hollywood cinema as defined by the action-image constitutes the relation between a specific space-time (a milieu), and of affects and impulses incarnate in discrete actions (behaviours). Within this narrow definition, the “model which produced the universal triumph of the American cinema,” is the so-called “woman’s film” fundamentally any different from, say, the modes of behaviour and milieux that constitute the Western?

Lucia Harper, the mother at the centre of Max Ophuls’ 1949 film, must, on top of her everyday busy domestic duties, negotiate a blackmail threat from a local thug while her husband is away for work. When the woman’s film intersects with the crime film, the domestic domain of female protagonists become infiltrated with noir elements of the crime film. Cake baking becomes a prelude to murder, lace making stands trial for murder, love letters expose a motive for murder.

Recommended viewing:

Further viewing:

  • The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)
  • A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)
  • Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
  • Mildred Peirce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

3. Fatal Encounters

The next trope we explore is the undercurrent of death that underpins so many “women’s films.” This is where the action-image bumps up against the impulse-image in Deleuze’s schema. The murderous impulses threaten our heroines as they negotiate the situation they find themselves in. Marriage is the catalyst for many of these scenarios but sometimes it’s a jealous housekeeper or an evil twin sister. The milieux become infiltrated by the originary power of elemental impulses: jealousy, rage, greed, desire.

Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, Rebecca, generates a sense of dread and menace in what would otherwise be a romantic comedy. Gothic mansions, hallucinatory objects, eroticised obsessions, madness and murder find their way to the surface and haunts this cycle of films saturated by the death drive.

Recommended viewing:

Further viewing:

  • Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
  • Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)
  • Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourneur, 1944)
  • Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945)
  • Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946)
  • Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946)
  • The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)
  • Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947)
  • The Two Mrs Carrolls (Peter Godfrey, 1947)
  1. Medicalised Discourse

So many ailments! So many diagnoses! So many doctors! It’s tempting to make this session a supercut of doctors explaining all the ills that trouble the heroes and heroines of these 1940s melodramas from guilt complexes to amnesia. As the doctor from Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed remarks in an effort to explain the ballooning number of “manics,” “seniles,” “alcoholics,” and “schizos” finding their way daily into his wards, “this civilisation of ours is a worse disease than heart trouble or tuberculosis and we can’t escape it.”

For anyone interested in the modern obsession with attachment theory, you’ll discover many insecurely attached women of the anxious preoccupied or avoidant types which can be traced back to some childhood trauma. The men, if they are the patient of the story, tend to be shell-shocked and suffering from amnesia. It is in their amnesiac state that they find love; for the women it is love that usually makes them sick!

  1. Affairs to Remember

In our last session we explore the theme of love, marriage and adultery. Career girls get caught between married paramours and eligible bachelors; long lost loves return from war to find their betrothed is a kept woman; and, in the all-time classic of the era, the British drama Brief Encounter tracks the anguish, shame and guilt of two middle class people who find love in middle age but must renounce it. I like to think of these films as giving us a certain sensitiveness of vision to the suffering of others. Even as they tend to provoke scorn and parody, the camera-eye reveals, if we care to see it, an index of a secret grief which “manifests itself only for a fleeting instant, like the glimpse one may have of a man turning a corner and vanishing from sight.”

The film we look at in detail, however, is an amalgam of almost all the themes in this course. In Now, Voyager, the 1942 classic directed by Irving Rapper, Bette Davis is on the verge of a nervous breakdown having suffered a lifetime of tyranny under a controlling and dismissive mother. She undergoes psychiatric care and the romance of this film forms part of her recovery, following a “make-over” which is trumps any modern-day transformation.

  • Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
  • The Women (George Cukor, 1939)
  • Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood, 1940)
  • Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
  • Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)
  • Deception (Irving Rapper, 1946)
  • Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)
  • Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)
  • A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)