They called them “women’s pictures” at the studios, but to the world at large they were soaps or soap operas—a term derived from the fact that radio dramas of this kind were almost invariably sponsored by soap manufacturers on the theory that women were the market for soap products. They were also called “tearjerkers,” “weepies,” and “three-handkerchief pictures.” (Sometimes handkerchief was abbreviated, but for personal reasons, I won’t go into that.) By whatever name, movies of this sort were in theory designed to appeal to a female audience. In essence, they’re the logical ancestor of the so-called “chick flick”—or are they?
Ever since I watched Mitchell Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946) the other morning, I’ve been thinking about this much-maligned genre and my personal relationship with it. Back when I was working my way into movies through that most common medium for my generation, television, there wasn’t much in the way of a guide apart from TV Guide. People didn’t write much about movies—certainly not older movies. That left you with the possibility of someone telling you about a movie or just reading the information in TV Guide—both pretty perilous propositions.
Back then, TV Guide mostly broke movies down into the following genres: drama, comedy, musical, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery and melodrama. You’ll immediately notice the lack of a horror category. For some inexplicable reason, all horror pictures were melodramas. In fact, I don’t recall anything else being called “melodrama.” Beyond that, you got a few star names and a Twitter-length plot synopsis that was rarely enlightening and often just plain wrong. (I still recall the synopsis for a British cheapie starring Arthur “The Street Singer” Tracy called Command Performance  that claimed Tracy played a singer disfigured in a fire, which had nothing whatever to do with the movie.)
By far the biggest dumping ground was the drama. Anything that didn’t fit elsewhere was a drama—and to my youthful mind that meant it was probably going to be boring. My notion of what constituted a drama was was Robert Wise’s Executive Suite (1954), which bored me to death around the age of 12 (I’m not exactly keen on it now, come to that). So I steered clear of those out of a keen sense that I wouldn’t like them. This means I didn’t see anything that could qualify as a soap—exempting my mother’s short-lived addiction to TV soaps like As the World Turns and The Edge of Night, which ended when I was about six—for some considerable time.
This changed when I made friends with a kid my own age (13) whose tastes were unusual to say the least. Oh, he liked horror movies well enough and mysteries and comedies and some musicals. His big interests were Doris Day (dear Lord), the Perry Mason TV show, Julia Child’s The French Chef and, for whatever reason, Charles Boyer. I have no idea where he came up with Boyer, though my suspicion is the TV series The Rogues, but that’s mostly because that’s all I knew Boyer from at the time. Regardless, he convinced me to watch John M. Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes (1939) on the late show. Could there possibly be a soapier title than When Tomorrow Comes? And it was certainly soap.
A story about a concert pianist (Boyer) who falls in love with a waitress is one thing. When the waitress is played by Irene Dunne (Irene Dunne as a waitress is kind of like casting Garbo as a car hop) it’s another. When the love of waitress and pianist can never be because he has a mentally unstable wife (Barbara O’Neil) it transforms yet again. But then when the big set piece features Boyer and Dunne trapped in the organ loft of a church while floodwaters rise around them? Well, we’re talking absurdist nirvana here. We’re talking about being able to wash your clothes, your car, your dishes, take a bath and still have suds left over. In other words, I absolutely adored this movie. And it started me on the road to liking classic soap operas.
Strangely, I have never seen When Tomorrow Comes since then. It’s simply become one of those films that has slipped through the cracks. Well, there’s no Irene Dunne or Charles Boyer cult and Stahl’s reputation has suffered because the bizarrely lionized Douglas Sirk remade three of his films—Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935) and this one (as Interlude). I’ve never understood why people are ga-ga over Sirk. His films seem like typical glossy 1950s Ross Hunter productions to me. I see no significant difference between the films Sirk directed for Hunter and those helmed by David Miller (who remade Stahl’s 1932 Back Street for Hunter in 1961) and Michael Gordon. But Sirk gets the box set and Stahl gets the shaft. His Imitation of Life comes as a double feature with Sirk’s version. Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession is an “extra” thrown in as a bonus on the DVD of the Sirk remake.
All that apart, I started seeking out films of this sort after seeing When Tomorrow Comes, and the next one to cross my path was another Stahl film, Imitation of Life, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t put this fact together at the time. (The idea of paying attention to directors hadn’t sunk in at that point.) Now, in its own way, Imitation of Life isn’t a lot less absurd than When Tomorrow Comes—at least on the surface.
If you don’t know the film, it charts the fortunes of Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a young widow who is trying to support herself and her daughter in the midst of the Depression by taking over her late traveling pancake syrup salesman husband’s accounts. When this isn’t working out so swell, she hits on the idea of opening a pancake restaurant on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City where her black maid, Delilah (Louise Beavers), will prepare her apparently irresistible pancakes. This is a success, but it’s nothing compared to what happens when Bea stakes a hungry man, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), to a second stack of pancakes in exchange for “a hundred thousand dollar idea,” which is summed up in two words, “Box it.” And so Aunt Delilah’s pancake mix is born and the two women become fabulously wealthy. In the midst of this Bea meets and falls in love with dashing icthyologist (I am not making this up) Steven Archer (Warren William). Unfortunately, Bea’s now grown daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with him, too, and fancies he reciprocates her affections, and so Bea has to give him up—at least until Jessie gets over her crush (or so it’s implied).
Now, I don’t care how well-written, well-acted and well-directed that is—and it is very well done on all scores—it’s still on the preposterous side. But I’ve left out the secondary plotline and that’s the one that makes the film considerably more significant. Delilah has a light-skinned daughter named Peola—so light in fact that people think she’s half white, which makes it hard for Delilah to get employment. In fact, Bea is at first uneasy on this score. (The extra prejudice over a child of mixed race is kind of a sub-subtext.)
Peola learns she can pass for white and does so at school till the day Delilah accidentally “outs” her, causing an outburst with Peola claiming she “won’t be black.” By the time Peola (now played by Fredi Washington) is old enough, she brutally disowns her mother (“Am I not white?”) and runs away, breaking Delilah’s heart and her spirit. She comes back just in time to see her mother’s funeral procession, whereupon she breaks down, throws herself on the coffin and begs her mother’s forgiveness. That may sound melodramatic in print.On the screen, it is heart-breaking and shattering.
None of this takes into account the subtext of the film that constantly depicts Delilah as happy to be subservient. Even when they’re rich, she insists on living in less grand accomodations below stairs in the house “Miss Bea” buys. She has flashes of shrewdness that indicate that she’s not meant to be dumb, but she still seems to feel she “knows her place” and feels a keen racial divide. (When Peola disowns her, Delilah wails, “I’m your mammy, child. I ain’t no white mother.”) Whether this depiction of inequality is intentional or not—and it may well not be—it gives Imitation of Life an extra dimension, especially since all this wealth wouldn’t exist without Delilah’s pancake recipe.
The point I’m trying to make here is that not only can soap be entertaining, worthwhile and exquisitely moving, it can also be quite powerful and it often addressed issues that other forms of drama tended to ignore. Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat was essential soap, as was the stage show that turned into a musical. At bottom, it’s a musical soap. And it, too, deals with racism and miscegenation in its subplot. James Whale’s 1936 film version of Show Boat really drives it home through his direction of that material. When Steve Baker (Donald Cook)—who has cut his racially-mixed wife’s (Helen Morgan) hand and swallowed some of her blood—avows he’s got “more than a drop of Negro blood” in him and underscores it by saying, “That’s how white I am,” it’s Whale’s decicision to cut to a close-shot of a shamed and saddened Paul Robeson on that line that gives it its power.
Similarly, there’s Gregory LaCava’s Private Worlds (1935), another almost completely forgotten and rarely shown film. It’s a fairly simplistic take on the material—and it’s very much a soap opera—but it is probably the first film to deal with the subject of mental illness on a serious level. Previously—and mostly subsequently—mental illness was played either for thrills (the homicidal madman) or for laughs (the genial comic lunatic). Private Worlds took the topic in a wholly different direction. So, for that matter, did Stahl’s aforementioned When Tomorrow Comes.
Take a look at the film that spawned this column, Mitchell Leisen’s To Each His Own. Aside from providing two hours of truly solid entertainment and filmmaking with great performances and moments of absolute beauty—and a witty screenplay—it is surprisingly blunt in its condemnation of a society that looks down on unwed mothers and illegitmate children. At no point are the morals of its heroine (Olivia DeHavilland) questioned by the film, but the fact that she has to pretend her child isn’t hers so that he won’t be ostracized as “the town bastard” (a phrase removed from the screenplay during production) is unquestionably looked at as immoral in itself.
The truly funny thing about the disdain with which the soap opera is viewed isn’t just how very good a great many of them are, but the surprising number of films that aren’t lumped in with the genre, but in actual fact most certainly qualify. In terms of content, a great many of the films of Frank Borzage are clearly soap. Certainly 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and History Is Made at Night (1937) qualify, but we respect them too much to call them soap. Even his film version of Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (1930) fits the bill, even if it adds fantasy and allegory to the mix. What is it at bottom, but the story of a woman (Rose Hobart) who stubbornly loves and believes in the pretty worthless title character, even though his mistreats her, batters her, and leaves her pregnant with his child when he kills himself rather than be arrested for a botched robbery. If that ain’t soap, I’m betting you could still wash up with it.
And what of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927)? We don’t call it soap. In fact, a lot of people call it the greatest movie ever made, but look at the story. Here we have a hunky, but not terribly sharp farmer (George O’Brien) who is besotted with a city woman (Margaret Livingston), who talks him into drowning his wife (Janet Gaynor). But when it comes down to it, he can’t and the bulk of the film involves them reconciling on a trip to the city, until on the way back their boat capsizes in a storm and the wife is presumed drowned—only to be found later held afloat by the reeds he’d meant to use to save himself after murdering her. Artistry and emotional honesty make it something far more than a soap opera.
The qualities of artistry and emotional honesty are the key to good soap as well. That, I think, is why I don’t admire the Douglas Sirk/Ross Hunter soaps of the 1950s. The mechanics are there, but the emotional honesty isn’t. If anything, these films are not only emotionally dishonest in their post-modern smart-assery, they feel contemptuous of both the audience and the material in their ironic detachment. They have an unpleasant undercurrent of the cynicism of putting out a product that the filmmaker feels superior to.
This is also part of the reason why the modern “chick flick”is a wholly different proposition than the classic soap. It doesn’t help that the romantic drama is all but dead. All that seems to be left are adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels, works so sappy, stiff and just plain bad that they make the works of Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst and Lloyd C. Douglas look like truly great literature. I suppose a truly pathetic case can be made that the Twilight series is a teenage variant on the soap, but soap operas get enough bad press without throwing that burden on them.
Though it’s more than a soap opera, the only English language film of recent vintage that comes to mind that has strong elements of classic soap is Chris and Paul Weitz’s About a Boy (2002). Yes, the film is more complex and layered than a soap, but some its plot devices—the suicidal mother, the redemption of the callow playboy—would hardly be out of place there. That About a Boy virtually defies genre classification makes it all the less surprising that it might incorporate elements of yet another genre. (I fervently hope that it wasn’t this non-specific genre attitude that prompted Chris Weitz to fritter away his talents making The Twilight Saga: New Moon.)
If you really want to see the modern equivalent of the classic soap you have to go to Spain and Pedro Almodovar. On the surface, Almodovar’s brightly colored fantasias with their heightened reality, bizarre and even farcical situations might seem to have more to do with the Sirkian soaps of the 50s than they do with classic soaps. That’s on the surface, though. While Almodovar does poke fun at the genre conventions of the soap opera by taking them to extreme—often unthinkable—extremes, he never approaches the resulting material as if he’s better than it. More importantly, his characters are always treated with a degree of respect, regardless of how ridiculous they might be. In that regard, he not only resembles Stahl more than Sirk, he resembles Jean Renoir more than anyone. I can think of no other filmmaker less judgmental of his characters.
So there you have some fairly random thoughts on the soap opera—and hopefully a few reasons why you might want to rethink this particular type of film, if you haven’t already. And I send out my personal thanks to the guy who got me to watch When Tomorrow Comes, wherever he is.