Theorization of the melodrama, in its dramatic and literary forms as well as in film, has emphasized the importance of the domestic setting to its formal and moral structure. In Peter Brooks’ famous formulation, the domestic space of melodrama functions as a site of moral legibility in an era of social and economic flux. This is evident in the Hollywood domestic melodramas of the 1930s, which frequently take as both setting and object of narrative desire what Christian Vivaldi refers to as ‘the bourgeois Eden: the home’.
Despite the centrality of the home-space to the genre, there has been little detailed attention paid to the manner in which melodrama’s domestic milieu has been visualised onscreen, and the critical analysis which exists has tended to focus on the self-consciously excessive mise-en-scenes of the 1950s. Within melodrama, the home serves as a privileged space, as an image of stability and duration within a society increasingly characterized by change. Yet the very nature of the cinematic medium means that this image of order and permanence is conveyed through movement and change, through the camera and characters which ceaselessly circulate and produce melodrama’s domestic spaces. For Mary Douglas, ‘home starts by bringing some space under control’, and it is the manner in which domestic melodramas of the 1930s articulate the home-space through carefully controlled movement that this paper addresses.
To do so it offers a detailed analysis of camera movement and mise-en-scene in two melodramas directed by John Stahl, ‘Back Street’ (1932) and ‘Imitation of Life’ (1934). ‘Back Street’ can be considered an extended meditation on the failure to achieve domesticity, with its heroine forced to spend her life as the ‘other woman’ in a series of failed or inadequate home-spaces, which are recurrently penetrated by public space in a manner which precludes the experience of being-at-home. By contrast, ‘Imitation of Life’, from its opening scene, establishes the proper separation of the domestic from the public sphere of economic activity as its narrative goal. Drawing on Vivian Sobchak’s relation of camera movement and the embodied inhabitation of space, and focusing on two key scenes in the film, the paper argues that a properly regulated movement of camera and characters produces a spectatorial experience of the home as organic and coherent whole.