silent film: Melodrama analysis

#Choosing a film
You must choose a silent film to work on (you are welcome to use the same film for both Silent Film Analyses, if you would like to). You can choose almost any silent film made between the 1910s and the 1930s. However, there are a few rules:
• It may NOT be The Goddess or Metropolis, because we will be studying them in class.
• It must not be Way Down East, because I use it as my example of melodrama in class.
• It must be at least 45 minutes long.
• It must be fiction, NOT documentary, and it must be live-action, NOT animation.
Apart from those exceptions, you may choose any suitable film. Ask me if you’re unsure whether a film is acceptable. If you have no ideas yet, don’t worry – I will show clips from a lot of movies in class, so maybe something will spark an interest. You can find a list of all films mentioned in class at this link – Be aware that if you choose a film that I’ve shown clips from in class, you should not repeat at length the information that I gave about it, but rather offer your own findings.
Alternatively, you can find on Brightspace a list of silent movies that might be interesting to work on (but you are welcome to choose others if you wish).
#What you have to do
It goes without saying that the first thing you must do is watch the film. As you watch, think about the film’s plot and discuss whether it fits some or all elements of the definition of melodrama.
Remember that although ‘melodrama’ is often a negative term today, we are using the term in a neutral,
purely descriptive way, as was typical during the early twentieth century. You should analyse the film
according to the five-point definition that we used in class: (1) raw emotions are expressed by suffering
characters to provoke emotional responses from the audience, (2) sympathy is provoked by pathos,
that is the suffering of good characters at the hands of cruel ones (the victimization of the virtuous by
the villainous), (3) moral polarization of characters into extremes of good and evil, (4) ‘situations’ – that
is, plot points designed to evoke emotion from the audience, such as coincidences, strokes of bad luck,
cliffhangers and last minute rescues, (5) poetic justice, which evokes joy as the virtuous are rewarded
and the villains are punished or reformed.
Use these points to examine in detail how far your chosen film could be called melodramatic.
Remember that few films contain all of these features; melodrama is a case of more or less, not
If you’d like help with thinking about the film’s relationship with melodrama, look at Chapter 2 of Ben
Singer’s book Melodrama and Modernity (2001), which is available on Brightspace in the “Useful Stuff’
folder. I adapted my definition from this chapter, and although Singer sometimes uses different
wording for the concepts (he refers to ‘overwrought’ rather than ‘raw’ emotions, his point about nonclassical
narrative is not relevant to the films you are likely to watch, and he doesn’t mention poetic
justice), you might find it helpful to read his articulation of the ideas.
Because melodrama is tied to morality, you will probably find that you will need to engage in research
into whether the film’s attitudes were regarded as controversial at the time. For example, deciding
whether a character counts as ‘good’ may depend on whether the film is trying to change your mind
about what counts as ‘good’ (for example, in The Goddess, the filmmakers went against the prevailing
attitudes of the day by presenting a prostitute as a virtuous heroine). To avoid making anachronistic
assumptions, you may therefore need to research the filmmakers’ intentions and responses to the film
and incorporate that information into your analysis. There are some suggestions for research below.
Along the way, I expect you to make one or two comparisons with The Goddess and/or Metropolis, both
of which have strongly melodramatic elements and will be useful models with which to compare your
This section should end with a paragraph in which you come to a conclusion about how melodramatic
you consider this film to be, and also why you think the filmmakers didn’t want to make it fully
melodramatic (if you don’t think it is).
How much research is necessary?
As noted above, it’s possible that you may need to engage in some research into the filmmakers, the
cinematic movement, or the historical background to complete this assignment well. How much
research is needed depends on the film and what you’re saying about it, but here are some guidelines.
The main thing to remember is that you should not be relying on guesswork about the films and the
time period that you are studying. So, the rule is: if you find yourself making a definitive statement about something you don’t actually know much about, that’s when you need to start doing some research.
For this reason, I can’t tell you a specific number of sources that you must read; but I can tell you that
you’ll be marked down if your understanding of the historical background or of the cinema of the period
seems to be based on guesswork rather than knowledge. I am very happy to give advice on this and/or
suggest reading – just get in touch.
Citing your sources and the film that you studied
It is very important to includes a Works Cited list that includes the exact version of the film that you
watched, so that I am able to identify it. If you are unfamiliar with how to list films precisely, please read
the guide entitled How to Cite Moving Images, which you can find in the ‘Guides to Writing, Research
and Formatting’ folder on Brightspace.
All secondary sources should be cited clearly, using either Chicago or MLA style.

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