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Magnificent Obsessions: A Century of Film Melodrama

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

Adored by audiences but often scorned by critics, the melodrama or ‘women’s picture’ may be the most popular genre in film history. From the divas and Latin Lovers of the silent screen to the glamour of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, from the lush Technicolor of the 50s to the Post-Modern pastiche of today, melodramas tell stories of suffering, passion and heartbreak. Come and explore them with clips from around the world!

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No previous knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. "This Is Tosca’s Kiss!"

Defining melodrama as a genre, linked to its roots in theatre and opera.

2. The Silent Opera

Examples of early film melodrama - Hollywood, Italy, Russia and Denmark.

3. Girls Will Be Boys

Androgyny and sexual identity in 20s and 30s melodrama - focus on Valentino, Garbo and Dietrich.

4. Transformations I

The Lady of the Camellias - the supreme melodramatic heroine, evolving through different periods in film.

5. More Than a Woman

Domestic melodrama in the 30s and 40s - focus on Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck in key roles as struggling female protagonists.

6. Freud Meets the Femme Fatale

Kitsch, exoticism and film noir - cross-cultural focus on the 40s, including British Gainsborough, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Hollywood exotica.

7. Transformations II

The many faces of Carmen another classic melodrama heroine, evolving through different periods.

8. Deconstructing the Dream

Melodrama in 50s America - social critique in Sirk, Minnelli and Ray.

9. Reinventions I

Melodrama in international art cinema - focus on Ophuls, Visconti, Demy and Fassbinder.

10. Reinventions II

Melodrama today: Post-Modernism and pastiche - focus on Haynes, Ozon, Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou.

Teaching method(s)

Lecture based with film excerpts and class discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Locate a film within its specific national and cultural context;

  • Describe the similarities and differences between various periods and countries;

  • Relate a film to a wide range of social and ideological debates;

  • Use film as a vehicle for questions of social exclusion, gender and marginality.


Core Readings


  • Basinger, Jeanine (1994) A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, London, Chatto & Windus.

  • Landy, Marcia (ed.) (1991) Imitation of Life: Reader on Film and Television Melodrama, Wayne State University Press.

  • Mercer, John and Shingler, Martin (2004) Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility, London, Wallflower Press.


  • Byars, Jackie (1991) All That Hollywood Allows: Rereading Genre in 1950s Melodrama, London, Routledge.

  • Haskell, Molly (1987) From Reverence to Rape: Treatment of Women in the Movies, Chicago University Press.

  • Klinger, Barbara (1994) Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

  • Lang, Robert (1989) American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli, Princeton University Press.

  • Roen, Paul (1994) High Camp – Volume I, San Francisco, Leyland Publications.

  • Roen, Paul (1997) High Camp – Volume II, San Francisco, Leyland Publications.


The ten key films below are mainly US films and do not reflect the cultural diversity of the clips to be shown in class. However, these ten films are all easy to access independently and give an indication of the content for each session.

  • Jezebel, 1938, William Wyler, USA.

  • Broken Blossoms. 1919, D W Griffith, USA.

  • Flesh and the Devil, 1927, Clarence Brown, USA.

  • La Traviata, 1982, Franco Zeffirelli, Italy.

  • Mildred Pierce, 1945, Michael Curtiz, USA.

  • Blanche Fury, 1948, Marc Allegret, UK.

  • Carmen, 1983, Carlos Saura, Spain.

  • Imitation of Life, 1959, Douglas Sirk, USA.

  • The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany.

  • Far from Heaven, 2002, Todd Haynes, USA.

Class Handouts

Handouts will be provided.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.