07 August 2008

The Welcome Demise of the Epic Soap Opera

There was a style of film prevalent in Hollywood from the 1940's through the 1960's that I'm frankly glad has fallen out of fashion. I refer to what I call the Epic Soap Opera. It includes such titles as King's Row (1942) East of Eden (1955) and the forerunner and grandaddy of the genre, Gone With the Wind (1939).

The story was usually based on similarly sprawling novel, usually a best seller. There was a large cast and Hollywood lined up as many A list stars as it could along with a big name director. The movies were at least a couple of hours long and featured dramatic musical scores befitting the story's grand scale. The movies had rural settings and some use was always made of horizon shots, tree-lined streets and valleys or dells.

The stories concerned a family or more often several families and were often multi generational. They usually began when the featured players were children and of course they foreshadowed future tragedies or romances.

Great fortunes were amassed, bequeathed, lost, re-gained. Money was an important symbol and audiences were to understand the possession of it was not itself a virtue but could provide an opportunity to do good.

There were horrible tragedies. Accidents, suicides, murder. Terrible scandal abounded though often they could only be vaguely hinted at due to their sexual content (you want the details, read the book).

There was at least one epic love in the picture. This was a love between two people that was pristine. None of us mere mortals in the audience could boast a love to match these two people who were destined to be together. The audience could only hope with all its might that the lovers could overcome all obstacles (so many of them and so formidable!) and realize their dream together.

There was a central character (maybe two or three) who was good and honest and pure to the core. There were a couple of others that were as rotten as sin. Many more with a bit of shading were scattered about as well. Count on a kindly old doctor, or, lawyer or banker whose been close to the family for a zillion years. There was a little bit of Charles Dickens to the stories along the lines of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, but lacking the adventure, humor and eccentric personages.

I watched one of these Epic Soap Operas today, King's Row. Such melodrama you've never seen. Charles Coburn was just an awful sh*t. Bob Cummings was Christ like. Ronald Regan was in it too, clearly saving any acting ability for later in life when he went into politics. The lovely Ann Sheridan (pictured above -- ain't she gorgeous?) was earnest. Oh so very earnest. Her character had all the dimension of an ironing board. Claude Rains played a troubled doctor and clearly his character was far too interesting to be much featured. He lasted for less than half the film. His complexities were only either hinted at or related after the fact.

After watching the movie I subsequently read that it greatly watered down the novel upon which it was based. There is perhaps the crux of the problem with the Epic Soap Opera. They were made in the era of production code enforcement.

Subtlety and nuance are wonderful in their place but when you have to guess a character is gay based on his lifting an eyebrow in one scene, you've lost the plot. After all, a shocking revelation is not shocking if only vaguely hinted at.

Orson Welles actually made a quite good Epic Soap Opera, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It would have been even better but the studio took a set of pruning shears to it. "Nothing bold for this type of film, thank you," was their clear message.

A recent epic soap opera was Atonement (2007). One can't imagine what Hollywood censors would have done with the story (also based on popular book) 50 years ago. How on earth would they have changed the crucial reference to a slang term for a woman's vagina? They'd have done it though. Imagine!

I've made quite clear my love for films of Hollywood's Golden Age. The Epic Soap Opera is a notable exception.


Anonymous said...

Gone With the Wind should have been made 30-40 years later. Without the Code and the restrictions. It is a really great book! Much more than just an epic love story and similar to the movie you were writing about, it watered down the novel. I wonder whether you have read it and what you think about it in comparison to the movie!

R. D. Finch said...

Somehow I never thought of the type of film you describe here, the sprawling multi-generational saga, as a genre, but in reading your post I recognized exactly what you were talking about. Two of the movies you mention seem to have something extra going for them. "Ambersons" is really an elegy for the passing of an era and the inevitability of change disguised as the type of film you describe. It's a very melancholic movie even in its ultimate form. And "Atomenment," which doesn't duplicate all the subtleties of the novel, deals with the subjective nature of perception, the role of real experience in writing, and the ability to atone for causing pain by creating false happy endings in fiction. An intriguing analogy to Dickens in your post too.