Review of Gaslight Melodrama: From Victorian London to 1940s Hollywood , by Guy Barefoot.

Eras Journal – Freame, J: Review of “Gaslight Melodrama: From Victorian London to 1940s Hollywood”, Guy Barefoot

Guy Barefoot, Gaslight Melodrama: From Victorian London to 1940s Hollywood
Continuum, New York, 2001
Isbn: 0826453333

Guy Barefoot’s Gaslight Melodrama is an interesting and illuminating analysis of a particular film genre that emerged in both the United States and Britain between the late 1930s and early 1950s. While film noir is remembered as the quintessential Hollywood crime genre of the time, located on the mean streets of contemporary American cities, Barefoot argues that ‘gaslight melodramas’ were equally significant in their evocation of a British mystery tradition. Characteristics of the genre included their late-Victorian London setting, their melodramatic style and variations on a basic narrative that involved the crime of a man attempting to turn an innocent woman insane for devious purposes. As Barefoot illustrates, this scenario was commonly referred to as ‘gaslighting’ in the 1940s, indicating the symbolic importance of gaslight itself as representative of an era on the edge of modernity. Barefoot aims to investigate the significance of this largely overlooked genre, both in relation to the context in which the films were produced and exhibited, as well as their period settings and the connotations those settings had in the 1940s.

Beginning with Gaslight, MGM’s 1944 classic ‘gaslight melodrama’ starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in her Academy Award winning performance, Barefoot systematically analyzes several films representative of the genre. Through this analysis he attempts to identify what he terms ‘a broader pattern spanning literature, the theatre, design, art-works, furnishings, and collectibles, and the responses to these different objects, productions and processes’ (p.1). Thus, he includes chapters on a wide range of topics that often deviate somewhat from the alleged focus on 1940s films. Issues addressed include the significance of gaslights in the nineteenth-century imagination; the development of the various sources of the 1940s films including literature, the stage and art; the Gothic tradition that was invoked in the films; the combination of the revived interest in and reaction to the Victorian era that took place from the 1930s onwards; and the relationship between the melodramatic narratives of the films, their period setting and the characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema. In the conclusion, Barefoot attempts to bring together these varied discussions in order to explain the particular significance of the melodramatic narrative style, the period settings and the differing views of the past identified in the cycle of 1940s films he has termed ‘gaslight melodramas’.

The very broad approach that Barefoot adopts has both positive and negative results. On the one hand, it enables him to identify the complex relationship between a cycle of films that appeared at a specific time and place and the historical traditions from which they emerged. This leads to some rather insightful conclusions regarding the multiple and often unexpected influences that can impact upon the type of films that Hollywood produces, and audiences enjoy, within a particular cultural context. On the other hand, however, this breadth tends to detract from any strong central argument because it takes Barefoot too far away from the 1940s films that should be his focus. While the cultural context of the films is clearly important and certainly interesting, when it is the sole focus of the analysis it becomes extraneous to the discussion of ‘gaslight melodramas’. I would have preferred a stronger sense of the relationship between the diverse issues raised and the cinematic genre that gives the book its title. Having said that, Barefoot justifies his broad approach when he states that his intention was to move ‘away from an exclusive emphasis on textual analysis and toward a concern with film’s historical base’ (p.180). Though perhaps taken too far in this case, Barefoot’s approach represents a significant shift within film studies that has the potential to expand our understanding of the dynamic relationship between film and history.

Jessica Freame

Department of History, University of Melbourne