Lea Jacobs has labeled as ‘the fallen woman film’ a set of Hollywood melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s that narrate the story of a woman ‘expelled from the domestic space of the family’ due to sexual transgression, either actual or perceived (Jacobs x). The formal, emotional and moral structure of the fallen woman film is presaged upon an opposition between the security and stability of the home and the unwanted mobility thrust upon those women who are exiled beyond its walls. The spatial figure of the threshold is central to the narrative and visual organization of these films; doorways and windows function as sites of exclusion and exchange between two clearly demarcated worlds, the interior security of the domestic and the precarious spaces of public life.
Drawing on phenomenological understandings of cinematic and lived space, this paper will interrogate the fissures evident when film strives, through narrative and visual structures and motifs, to produce a cinematic image of the home as a bounded space, qualitatively distinct from the world beyond its doors. Through a detailed analysis of 1931’s East Lynne (Frank Lloyd), this paper will argue that character and camera movement in the fallen woman film is designed to produce an embodied experience of the domestic as an organic and coherent space which persists through time. However, although the image of the home as refuge from the flux of public life is central to melodrama as a literary and dramatic genre, it is necessarily problematized by the medium of cinema, which through its material nature as moving image necessarily introduces dynamism and change into the domestic spaces that it depicts. As such, our embodied relationship to the domestic on screen is expressive of more fundamental tensions in our experience of the home as a lived space of belonging.