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Weep Show

The History of Histrionics

Chick flick, soaper, melodrama, woman's film. Whatever you want to call it, the weepy is easy to spot. A genre all its own, it shamelessly appeals to our tear ducts with traumatic, woman-centered tales of dashed romance, family turmoil, or dire illness. Then there's the soundtrack: not one emotionally-fraught moment slips by without a swell of violins and cellos.

That's the way it's been since the silent era, when director D.W. Griffith cast Lillian Gish in such expressive melodramas as 1919's True Heart Susie and Broken Blossoms. These early classics set the themes for the heyday of the weepy in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, when a slew of women's films, the best of which were directed by Frank Borzage, John Stahl, and Douglas Sirk, examined the distinctly female predicaments of self-sacrifice and repression.

The plots of these vintage gems — many of which involve illegitimate children and illicit sex — are a hoot. Take, for example, Now, Voyager (1942), in which spinster Bette Davis checks into the sanitarium, undergoes a glamorous makeover, sets sail on a cruise, meets a charming married man, falls in love, accidentally kills off her mother, returns to the sanitarium, and rescues her paramour's miserable daughter.

Still, no matter how implausible the storylines, these films vicariously liberated women. The plots may have punished their heroines for straying too far from the kitchen, but, in their outlandishness, they let women sidestep the morality that governed real life. And as anyone who's sat trickling tears in a darkened theater knows, nothing is quite as cathartic as a good weepy.

Says Jeanine Basinger, author of A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, "In the old days, a woman's film was one that was about women, but not necessarily just geared to a female audience. The studios believed a mature woman's problems were interesting to everyone."




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