After the institution of the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, the diversity of on-screen opportunities available to female characters began to shrink. Gone were the free-wheeling women of the pre-code era, who drank and caroused and cheated their way through a wild four-year period of Hollywood history when just about anything went. However, as the winds shifted and studio heads, facing pressure from Catholic groups threatening boycott and the looming specter of government-imposed censorship, every effort was made to put on-screen women back inside the house where many felt they belonged.
The era’s new focus on the so-called ‘traditional’ role of the woman gave rise to a cinematic genre that would come to be known in retrospect as the maternal melodrama. Often derisively called ‘weepies’ by studio heads and reviewers, in an effort to trivialize their seriousness and critique their presumed audience – a movie house full of hanky-wadding housewives – these pictures stood in stark contrast to the raucous pre-code films that had characterized the first half of the decade. In her analysis of King Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas, feminist film scholar Mary Ann Doane says that “the maternal melodrama is usually seen as the paradigmatic type of the woman’s film,” 1 and calls it that genre’s “exemplary film” 2. In Stella Dallas, the eponymous heroine, played by Barbara Stanwyck in one of her signature roles, struggles through a quickie marriage to and subsequent estrangement from a small businessman with big dreams. Her initial reluctance to settle down to married life and maternal responsibilities gradually give way to increasing devotion to her daughter, culminating in an act of selfless sacrifice that offers a hope that the future might be better than the present.
While the maternal melodrama flourished in the 1930s and continued into later decades, experiencing periods of high and low interest from filmmakers and audiences alike, the genre earned a new derogation, ‘chick flicks,’ which replaced ‘weepies’ as the industry’s and audience’s chosen term of dismissal. At the center of the maternal melodrama is the notion of sacrifice; the mother at the film’s core must make a crucial, heart-wrenching decision to abdicate her maternal responsibility so that her child (usually a daughter) may live a better life than she can provide.
This scene occurs at the climactic moment of Stella Dallas, where Stella (Stanwyck) stands outside the beautiful, luxurious home where her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) now lives with her father and step-mother. A few scenes (but a few years in narrative time) later, Stella has pushed her daughter away, knowing that Laurel is better off in a rich home, separated from her. In the film’s final scene, she watches longingly through the bay window as Laurel is about to marry her fiancé, the cold rain splashing down on Stella’s face as she wells up inside, overcome with the happiness she feels for her daughter, but mournful that she cannot be inside to share in the moment directly.
She knows that if she crosses the threshold and enters the home, Laurel will want to return to her; Stella must remain a mystery, a figure at the margins of Laurel’s life, so that Laurel can build her own secure, stable future. As Stella grips the bars of the wrought-iron fence that separates the sidewalk from the brownstone where Laurel is getting married, she feels maternal pride in the daughter she raised, but struggles against the knowledge that her sacrifice of their relationship is what has made this moment possible. When she is shuffled along by a police officer, protesting that she only wants to see the new husband and wife kiss, she walks down the street, a pained smile crossing her face. Despite what she has surrendered, she is happy. The loss follows her, but she has gained the certainty that Laurel’s life will not be like hers. She has sacrificed so that Laurel might not have to.
Embedded in this idea is the promise of generational change. Stella believes that once she has given Laurel over to her husband Stephen (John Boles) and his wife Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil), a woman of means, her life will be secure. Stella has endeavored to stop the line of working-class succession that characterized her own family, shown in the film’s first act as scraping by through difficult economic times. Against the backdrop of Stella Dallas, of course, is the ongoing economic calamity of The Great Depression. Though Stella’s own working-class sensibilities and occasional gauche upper-class pretensions cause Laurel embarrassment in front of her teacher, schoolmates, and social circle, it is Stella’s struggle to provide an ideal life for Laurel that leads her to give her over to Stephen and Helen.
The film presents this act of sacrifice as something uniquely shared and understood by women; when Laurel initially resists moving in with Stephen and Helen, because it will mean leaving her mother, Stella pretends she has taken up once again with Ed Munn (Alan Hale), a lecherous drunk who makes Laurel exceedingly uncomfortable (a scene midway through, in its implicative Production Code-era way, suggests the possibility of sexual abuse). Unable to stomach the thought of Stella with Ed, Laurel returns to Stephen and Helen in tears, and Stephen is perplexed at Stella’s actions. Helen, however, understands entirely. The maternal bond that she and Stella share offers Helen unspoken access to Stella’s motivations, as impenetrable as they may seem to Stephen and Laurel. Stella knows that Helen can provide Laurel a better life, and Helen knows it too. As mothers, they agree to share the communal responsibility of raising this young woman into an adult, herself capable of these same maternal impulses.
Wendy and Lucy: filming The Great Recession
However, from a cinematic perspective, the concept of generational change is much more complicated. The context of The Great Recession of 2008 gives rise to yet another maternal melodrama which follows the same narrative structure as Stella Dallas, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. This quiet drama, directed by Reichardt in her signature spare, contemplative style, follows the eponymous duo Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy, her dog (an analog for her child, for whom she provides food and safety), as they become stranded in a poor town near Portland, Oregon, when Wendy’s car breaks down while they make their way north to Alaska on the vague promise of a job. The film is typically elliptical for Reichardt, with many of the reasons for Wendy’s journey left implied. Her estrangement from her family becomes clear in a desperate moment when she makes a long-distance phone call to her sister but refuses to ask for any money. The film also hints heavily at a history of sexual assault in Wendy’s general reluctance to engage with a mixed-gender group of strangers sitting by a fire early in the film, and especially so when Wendy is forced to sleep outside alone while her car is behind the fence of an auto repair shop, and a strange, drunken homeless man happens upon her improvised shelter. As her fear escalates, a passing train becomes deafening, its lights casting through the narrow trees. She escapes before being attacked, running to a gas station bathroom in a panic. In this moment, Reichardt’s direction and Williams’s performance hint at Wendy’s suffering without directly saying what caused it.
This crucial scene retroactively explains the bond between Wendy and Lucy, the dog who goes missing early in the film when Wendy is arrested for shoplifting a can of food for Lucy to eat. As Wendy is hauled off to jail for the afternoon, Lucy is left barking outside the grocery store, tied to a concrete pylon. When Wendy returns after paying her fine, Lucy is gone. With the generous help of a local drugstore security guard who offers her the use of his cell phone, Wendy tries to find the dog by posting signs and visiting the local pound. Without Lucy, Wendy is adrift. But crucially, Wendy may have Lucy as one means of protecting herself against the predatory advances of men. When Wendy is alone in the woods, she is vulnerable. Lucy offers her some measure of security.
It is this security that Wendy decides to surrender when she, like Stella, chooses to leave the recovered Lucy at her new foster home. Shot through a chain link fence that recalls the wrought iron bars in Vidor’s film, Wendy sticks her hands through the wire, touching Lucy’s face but prevented from fully embracing the dog. As Wendy looks around at the fenced-in yard, and speculates aloud about the homeowner’s good-heartedness, she begins to make her decision. Lucy, like Laurel, is better off in this place where other caregivers in more stable economic positions can provide security (at least) and offer the opportunity to flourish (at best). The final images of Wendy and Lucy follow Wendy aboard the train, a dominant and recurring image throughout the film that emphasizes the inevitability of mobility, just as Stella is seen in her final moments walking away from Laurel’s wedding inside the warm home she shares with her father and step-mother.
Both Stella and Wendy make their respective sacrifices as a result of their precarious economic positions. In the context of The Great Depression of the 1930s, author Christian Viviani sees the maternal melodrama as a vehicle for its central female characters to do their sacrificial part to aid in economic recovery: “Integrated into the world of work, she unconsciously participates in the general effort to bring America out of the crisis” 3. He argues that by the time of Stella Dallas’s release in 1937, a sea change in the mother at the center of the maternal melodrama had taken place. In his reading of the genre throughout the 1930s, some women of the earlier maternal melodramas were “lacking in energy or decisiveness,” but “it was imperative to people them with more stimulating, combative heroines” 4 in an effort to align their sacrifices with larger national responsibilities. It is through their renunciation of the maternal role that “[t]hese films recount the tale of a woman’s loss due to a man’s lack of conscience and show her reconquering her dignity while helping her child re-enter society thanks to her sacrifices. It is a clear metaphor for an attitude America could adopt in facing its national crisis” 5. Overall, “The maternal melo in its American vein is an apologia for total renunciation, total sacrifice, and total self-abnegation. Melodramatic exaggeration, of course, but still transparent enough in a period when America really needed to mobilize good will and dedication without promise of immediate recompense” 6. In these 1930s melodramas, women like Stella are the bearers of the dream deferred, willingly forgoing their own economic success and their connection to their children so that those children might have an opportunity to gain access to the upper-class life that has eluded them, despite their aspirations to it. Ideologically, these 1930s melodramas endorse the larger American ideal that asserts an image of a forever-progressing society that is always improving upon itself, building each generation’s lives on the sacrifices of the one that preceded it. Each successive group of mothers will sacrifice less for their daughters but find themselves united in their willingness to give what is asked of them.
It ought to be somewhat despairing then, given these idealized dreams of a better horizon ahead, that at the time of the recession’s onset in 2008, the economic conditions more or less the same (and may be even worse, from some vantage points) as they were in the 1930s. In addition, the use of the maternal melodrama as a generic structure has still not outlived its usefulness as a tool for exploring the difficulties facing women as they attempt to stake a self-determined economic position. The dream which Stella deferred has now seemingly been totally denied to Wendy; she travels north to Alaska in search of work, but her actual attainment of that job seems distant. Her promises to herself and to the few others with whom she speaks throughout the film’s running time about a better life up north have the air of wishful thinking. Wendy’s class position is perhaps even more precarious than Stella’s. In the 1930s, beset by total economic calamity, Stella begins the film in the working class and more or less remains there, but secures a better life for Laurel. On the other hand, in Wendy and Lucy, Wendy appears to be backsliding, unable even to hold on to her presumably middle-class background. In Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour’s book on Reichardt, they suggest that “[a]s a young woman in the mid-oughts, [Wendy] resonates with that new class of the downwardly mobile, raised on the dreams and habits of the U.S. middle class, but with none of the structures in place through which to achieve such dreams” 7.
From a formal perspective, Reichardt’s film is defined by such absence – in this case, the structures of melodrama make no appearance. The film owes more to the formal qualities of Italian Neo-Realism than Hollywood melodrama. She makes no use of traditional melodramatic techniques, such as the swells of music that accompany Stella’s final glimpse of Laurel’s wedding and guide emotional response from the audience. Nor does she include melodramatic formal strategies in an effort to ironize them, as do Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s. The film’s only music is a quiet, spare refrain, hummed by Wendy herself as a kind of coping mechanism to ward off her insecurity and anxiety. The colors are muted, the settings are naturalistic, and Williams’s performance is remarkably restrained, save a few key moments (including the aftermath of the encounter of the woods, which is a notable exception). Even her ultimate decision to leave Lucy behind is understated, as she speaks to the dog in tones that barely rise above a whisper and fights back her own tears as though she is sparing Lucy from having to see her cry. And yet, despite the absence of such melodramatic tendencies, Wendy and Lucy is built upon the fundamental narrative element of maternal sacrifice as a necessity.
In the context of economic distress, the mothers of these films are forced to choose between a certain future for their children, at the cost of their separation, and an uncertain future for them both, if they remain together. The discomfiting nature of this choice is outlined by E. Ann Kaplan in her analysis of Stella Dallas, in which she argues that such cultural dynamics advance the narrative that “career women immediately lose their warm qualities, so that even if they do combine mothering and career, they cannot be Good Mothers” 8. In other words, the irreconcilability of a woman’s economic self-determination and her maternal self-determination force her to renounce one or the other. According to Linda Williams, the resulting effect is that maternal melodramas use a “device of devaluing and debasing the actual figure of the mother while sanctifying the institution of motherhood” 9. These women are defined by their failure to provide a better life for their children, and punished by their economic circumstances to such a degree that they must abandon them.
If these two films diverge, it is in their final verdicts on each sacrifice. While Stella’s is presented as a kind of victory, with the emphasis firmly placed on the nobility of her decision as she walks away from the brownstone, her head held high, Wendy’s has no such clarity of purpose. Lucy’s future may be relatively secure, and Wendy has vaguely promised to return for her when she is financially able, but that eventuality is far from certain. As Wendy rides out of town alone aboard the freight train, she is without her child, who also doubled as protector. Lucy’s narrative position is more complex than Laurel’s, because Wendy and Lucy provide security and stability to each other. Wendy’s relationship to Lucy is rendered maternal throughout the film, but shares an added valence that underlines Wendy’s vulnerability to the predations of men. While the conclusion of Stella Dallas validates its heroine’s choice to surrender Laurel, in the final moments of Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s commitment to ambiguity reigns.
- Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 73 ↩
- Doane, p. 74 ↩
- Christian Viviani, “Who Is Without Sin: The Maternal Melodrama in American Film, 1930-1939,” Imitations of Life: A Reader on Television & Film Melodrama. ed. Marcia Landy. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), p. 176 ↩
- Viviani, p. 173 ↩
- Viviani, p. 178 ↩
- Viviani, p. 180 ↩
- Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour, Kelly Reichardt, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), p. 41 ↩
- E. Ann Kaplan, “The Case of the Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor’s Stella Dallas,” Feminism & Film, ed. E. Ann Kaplan. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 477 ↩
- Linda Williams, “‘Something Else Besides a Mother’” Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” Feminism & Film, ed. E. Ann Kaplan. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 308 ↩