Dark Victory. Now Voyager. The Great Lie
Women's pictures and the
perfect moment

by Deborah H. Holdstein

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 22-24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

"What more damning comment on the relations between women in America than the very notion of something called the 'woman's film'? And what more telling sign of critical and sexual priorities than the low caste it has among highbrows? … As a term of critical approbrium, 'woman's film' carries the implication that women, and therefore woman's emotional problems, are of minor significance."
— Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape[1]
[open notes in new window]

Molly Haskell's 1974 book clearly "defined" woman's pictures in terms which, beforehand, women spectators perhaps only inferred unconsciously about woman's image in melodramatic film.[2] Haskell points out that "there are as many kinds of women's films as there are kinds of women" (p. 160), but that the more popular woman's films have aspired to the fiction of the "ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary" (p. 161). Further, Haskell cites four thematic categories of women's action or situation within the genre: sacrifice affliction, choice, and competition (p. 163).[3] Many other critical analyses of films within the genre alternately called "weepies," "melodramas," and, most often, "woman's films" stem from these identifiable appellations of the main woman character's situation.

Yet while women's films come in many varieties (the sudsy, stilted "weepies" with Kay Francis, for example, versus the more visually polished and situationally complex films featuring Joan Crawford or Bette Davis), the common ground between representative films of the genre comes from their use of these standard situations. The way melodramatic films present these situations can be described in terms of a critical model which I'll call the "perfect moment": an all-encompassing, life-stilling, inert spot of time to which the woman's film heroine aspires. For this moment of communion with a man, woman will sacrifice individuality, suffer nobly through affliction, trounce "evil" (often, competition in the form of another woman), and choose to renounce career or emotional independence.

Transferring the concept to film, I borrow the term "perfect moment" from its original source, Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea.[4] In this novel, Sartre's characters exhibit narrow, culturally imposed definitions of what men's and women's life goals should be, mimicking stereotypes to which men and women aspire:

"I would also like something unexpected to happen to me, something new, adventures … I am generally proud of having had so many adventures" (pp. 35-36) — Antoine Roquentin

"I recognize her love of perfection there. She always wanted to have 'perfect moments.'" (p. 62)  — Antoine, speaking of Annie

Sartre condemned those who sought only to fulfill society's plan for them, sacrificing individuality. And he offers a significant notion in Nausea that robust, lively, strenuous adventure marks the ideal for man, while the perfect moment — an epiphany of romantic communion — provides woman's sole focus. Indeed, Sartre's narrowly-defined caricatures seem to derive from the same structural, if not critical model, as do many women's pictures. But Sartre condemns his characters. If I use a critical concept derived from Sartre's negatively presented characterization, must I hate similar characters found in a popular cinematic genre, popular especially among women? Since affairs of the heart or women's problems become categorized as "indulgent" or "insignificant" by male critics, the pejorative term "woman's picture" has no male counterpart. In fact, a film that focuses on things "male" is called a "psychological drama" (Haskell, 154). The closest is what critic Raymond Durgnat called "male weepies," the male adventure film.

But the woman's picture combines the two oppositions by uniting domestic and romantic adult fantasies. In the films I'll discuss, the woman (central character and ever victim) defies all on the home front so her man can have his "adventures" (or profession, or satisfy longed-for interests). While middle-class marriage forms the ideal, perfect moments, preferably along with wedlock, will substitute perfectly well. Thus, Sartre's work falls in the "psychological drama" category. The useful term he creates — "the perfect moment" — takes on other resonances in the woman's film.

Some representative films of the woman's film genre have the perfect moment as their foundation. We can use a three-part critical model to describe the moments which sum up the aesthetic-emotional strategy of the film as a whole: Periodic moments characterize those films in which the heroine is rewarded for passivity by perfect moments that occur periodically throughout the film. Delayed moments characterize those films in which the deserving heroine must wait until the end of the narrative for her perfect moments, meeting and matching obstacles throughout. Almost-moments typify films in which the heroine — often one who was assertive, but is now passive — pays for her life of independence and self-sufficiency and interest with moments that are never quite blissful or perfect, and whose true perfect moment comes when she is in solitude at the end of the film.

To establish this Sartre/film parallel, I turn to three of Bette Davis' strongest vehicles: DARK VICTORY (Edmund Golding, 1939), NOW, VOYAGER (Irving Rapper, 1942), and THE GREAT LIE (Edmund Golding, 1941). These films are structured by not only the situations of sacrifice, affliction, choice, and competition, but also by woman's goal: attainment of perfect moments. Davis plays characters whose waiting period often involves the desired man, offscreen, tending to his worldly garden. He may be securing world renown as an architect (NOW, VOYAGER); or he could be the dashing airplane aficionado lost in the jungles of South America (THE GREAT LIE); or he may psychologically struggle with his own medical genius, attempting to conquer new frontiers in brain surgery (DARK VICTORY). And our heroine, somewhat patiently, but often combating other females and her own ever-present, psychological discomfort, awaits the man's company, love, or medical cure. She hopes to share in his celebrity. Of course, she has given him the strength, know-how, or reason to conquer the world in the first place. In Hollywood terms, the narrative can take our "deserving" heroine only to her romantic, still-life ideal: that point in the film where all life seems to stop for a moment of static, romantic bliss. In these melodramas, defiant women become muted (or, in fact, die a rather painful death). Passive ones are rewarded, but with their perfect moment as the only medal worth coveting, the "bait" which secures woman's place within the domestic sphere, and thus holds her within the patriarchy and an economic structure.

Oddly enough, we, the audience, can be convinced through cinematic convention and our own need for romantic fantasies that a scene depicting Paul Henried lighting two cigarettes certainly offers enough of a consummation, his whole life's commitment — more than enough for a woman to be satisfied with. Davis' character, Charlotte Vail, tells us so in NOW, VOYAGER: as she and Henreid turn to the window to view the heavens in silent, ecstatic communion, she tells him: "Let's not ask for the moon; we already have the stars." And while this perfect moment might seem empty and shallow (and yet somehow "wonderful"), it still provides the basis for the film's narrative resolution.

Within the genre as a whole, audiences are somehow convinced that stereotypes are valid. We are to assume that the narrative structure's perfect moments offer the female protagonist her just and coveted rewards for her having been "good," for choosing to survive in a world of narrow cultural definition. At its best, woman's pictures

"pay tribute to the power of the imagination, to the mind's ability to picture a perfect love triumphing over the mortal and conditional" (Haskell, p. 188).

The genre not only shows us the image of woman striving for static, picture-perfect, passive moments of bliss. Another rule of the genre, especially in the films discussed here, prohibits successful interaction between women who are peers. Only certain women, after all, get to have perfect moments; they are the ones who from the middle class on up seek the unity of child, woman, man, and home. (The sets they inhabit are lavish, as are the costumes, often by Adrien, that they wear.[5]) In DARK VICTORY, Davis' Judy Traherne's closest friend is Anne, obviously well-educated and of the upper class. She becomes Davis' loyal confidante only because she's her secretary, relegated to being slightly beneath Davis, the protagonist, in power or importance—information conveyed through context as well as composition. (The protagonists, too, are often visually and narratively set apart from the other women characters.)

In THE GREAT LIE, Hattie McDaniel, the servant as always, interacts beautifully with Davis. But Mary Astor, Davis' social equal, must take an adversary role, that of treacherous vamp. In short, the genre seems to indicate that women cannot treat another woman as friend, especially if she's similar in position or lifestyle. In effect, perfect moments stand as a hallmark of class-consciousness in these films. Only upper class women get to have them, and only if they subject themselves to rigorous social and patriarchal patterns of control. When the woman protagonist can give up her silly notions of personhood, she gains a running start on cinematic perfection. DARK VICTORY's Traherne is humbled by a man and an illness. NOW, VOYAGER's Vail lifted from the social doom of spinsterhood by two men (her therapist and married lover), gratefully accepts the vestiges of an independent life within structures of middle-class self-sacrifice. And THE GREAT LIE's Maggie, upon threat from a careerist "vamp," goes to extraordinary lengths to defend home and husband. Each woman, in her own way, earns "moments" within a category best suited to the nature of her sacrifice or affliction.

DARK VICTORY, an exemplary film in the "almost-moment" category, illustrates what becomes of women who seek individuality beyond home and child, Judy Traherne seems a stereotype of the reckless, carefree heiress. Defined in a newspaper in terms of her late father's identity ("daughter of the late sportsman and wire manufacturer"), she follows his path as an amateur sports enthusiast and competitor. The film's narrative penalizes Judy for being active, for not seeking a quiet, obedient life or the perfect moments that should reward her within it. After she has a horseback riding accident, she finds out she has an incurable brain tumor, and that trial offers her both punishment and reward — i.e., a man to control her. Indeed, George Brent, the young physician persuaded to try to cure her illness, prescribes the first dose of passivity: "No exercise, tobacco, alcohol, horses, dogs, shooting, or gossip."

Cinematic style reinforces Judith's transformation from a "doer" into a "passive sufferer" and accepter of romance in DARK VICTORY. Although she says, "I'll never take orders from anyone," while she is shot in shadowy profile, the visual style indicates the opposite of those words. She becomes compliant, giggly, and pliable rather quickly, and every moment she shares with her doctor/lover becomes an inquisition. Even the sequences of Brent and Davis' personal time together seem clinical, and not just in the medical sense. The characters are shot as if in "near" perfect moments. They do few things. Their time seems empty, rather than spiritually fulfilling. Perhaps the visual emptiness implies that Davis is empty, devoid of the true, proper conduct of a "real woman." Instead of romantic passion, we see sterile "over the shoulder" shots of Brent's head near Davis'.

In yet another clinical scene, the camera looks down on Davis as she sits on the examining table; later, in a chair in the doctor's office, she is diminished by her doctor's findings. The use of even, low-contrast lighting and classically balanced composition reveals the "making-her-passive" status of how the film depicts Judy's plight. The lighting emphasizes grayness, stasis, and inaction. There are few variations in camera angle in these doctor/ patient, paternal/ feminine" sequences. Such "flatness" underscores Traherne's immutable place within cinematic (and societal) convention, especially in contrast to earlier high-key, sun-drenched sequences of free, spirited motion (Judy at parties, Judy on horseback, etc.). A rebellious heroine, it seems, cannot earn perfect moments, nor can altering the errors of her ways redeem her. Judy is "tamed" by the narrative. The film only allows her a static series of moments, uncomfortable and stifling in composition, lighting, and content, and often tightly framed and "confined."

And so in DARK VICTORY, the surgeon continues to work his miracles of patriarchal socialization. In an early hospital scene, the old family doctor remarks (with appropriate amazement), "Why, she's never given in to anyone before." When Davis asks about her illness, Brent replies, "That's my worry," and Davis rejoins, "I put myself in your hands." Before, Davis had not lived by the rules, either in cooperation with a man or under his thumb. And although the doctor Brent accompanies her as a lover on her way to death, he cannot go all the way. As a woman, she still must continue to sacrifice for him. She sends Brent off as she begins to go blind — the "sign" that death is near. We see the screen go dark as she does. Just before that, it shows the sunny, high-key, loosely-framed outdoor shots, which, ironically, made Judith seem the reckless, spoiled heroine at the start of the film. Now, it connotes that as she's nobly attained the perfect moment of death, she has it all to herself.

Before Brent leaves, unaware of her crisis, Judy likens the outdoors to her life with him and also to her death; it is "shining and quiet." Only in heaven will she have their eternal, still, perfect moment, for "what we have cannot be destroyed." Since her other moments have been "almosts," her moment of bliss comes in solitude at the very end of the film. She has the promise of enduring, freeze-frame stasis, eventually shared with her loved one.

Other dialogue throughout the film reveals Judy's new perceptions of herself, and her debt to the joys of female submission. In DARK VICTORY, woman has been given "spiritual" life (and a short-term lease on her physical existence) by a surgeon who will make her the kind of woman she "should" be by marrying her. The dialogue celebrates Judy's patriarchal lobotomy:

  • "What that doctor's done for your manner." (Anne, her secretary, speaking)
  • "I've been a good girl 'til today; I've practically been your slave!" (Judy to the doctor)
  • "You did that [gave me life]; you should be very proud of yourself." (Judy)
  • "For the first time, I wake up with something to live for." (Judy speaking)

DARK VICTORY, like many melodramas, also gives numerous indications about what "inappropriate womanhood" might be. In the stable scene with Humphrey Bogart, playing horse-trainer Michael, mise-en-scene finds both characters at eye level, but with Judy literally backed against the wall. Michael talks about their similarities, about how much she "is like a man." Judy is again trapped through framing, illustrating that a perfect moment between her as "manlike" and a working class man would not form an acceptable part of the scenario. As Judith's "manhood" is inappropriate, so, too, is her womanhood. The film permits no mention of Judith's mother; moreover, the older physician in the hospital sequences keeps repeating, "I brought her into this world." In not one of these films do we see a successful mother-daughter relationship. Instead, woman's films reveal a warped view of how these all must have been.[6] The obvious absence of warm, supportive mothers, perhaps done for the sake of melodramatic conflict, affirms in still another way that women cannot be a source of strength or redemption for one another.

From DARK VICTORY's "almosts," NOW VOYAGER's heroine moves from experiencing time as confinement to experiencing it as a noble, eternal moment — Charlotte Vail's ultimate reward for passivity, In DARK VICTORY, we (and Sartre) might actually admire Judy for meeting her existential responsibility — taking her perfect moment upon herself. In fact, Judy is a paradoxical Hollywood product who chooses not to share that moment with a man.

Charlotte Vail in NOW, VOYAGER, moves in the opposite direction from Judy. Stifled by her overbearing mother, Charlotte is a spinster, independent of men and convention, but passive and insecure. She's been made mentally ill by an alienating, asexual lifestyle. NOW, VOYAGER's mise-en-scene emphasizes imprisonment. An early scene shows Charlotte, her sister, and mother in three-shot, with Charlotte symbolically between them both, between the worlds of action and stasis. Her inflexible, blue-blooded mother in fact imprisons her psychologically and physically.

Such a characterization appeals to the side of every woman socialized to feel insecure and socially inept, strong yet unassertive. Charlotte's the ugly-duckling stereotype, as seen especially in her first meeting with her future lover Jerry. As part of her "recovery," Charlotte had been placed on a cruise by her sister with an elegant wardrobe that transforms her immediately into a glamorous woman. We see her "strike an impression" in a doorway of an elegant lounge. Yet, Charlotte's spiritual and sexual self -assuredness grows only with Jerry's guidance. Showing him a photograph of her family, Charlotte calls herself the "spinster aunt — every family has one"; she says "Miss" with great, hissing shame. She makes constant negative reference to her glasses; we learn that even her fancy evening cape had had "instructions" pinned to it by Charlotte's sister on how to dress properly. Only Jerry's reassurances finally make her feel like a real woman.

But what earns Charlotte her many perfect moments in the film is her noble self-sacrifice. She inspires Jerry to pursue his dream career as an architect. She also teaches him about loneliness, which he in turn tries to teach his mentally disturbed daughter. But Jerry wants to prove to Charlotte that she's "not immune to happiness." By being responsible for her new life, he directs her. She agrees "not to struggle with him," just after he had asked, "Do you believe in immortality? A chance for happiness to be carried on?" Charlotte cries "tears of gratitude, an old maid's attitude." Perfect moments result from Charlotte's transference of her servitude from mother to "master."

What's especially intriguing about NOW, VOYAGER is that we have a series of double perfect moments in the film because Charlotte befriends and takes into her mansion Jerry's troubled daughter. When Charlotte can't be with Jerry, she can care for the youngster, which substitutes for moments of romantic bliss. When Jerry witnesses Charlotte's kindness to his daughter, we see the three of them on the opulent staircase in Charlotte's home; she is on the highest stair, the child in the center, Jerry at the bottom. When he says "I love you," he ostensibly says it to the girl, but really to them both — and both women glow. Jerry created for Charlotte a romantic fantasy-identity: he calls her Camille, as does his daughter. Haying already inspired Jerry to the zenith of a new career, Charlotte gets to share with him the bond of his child, something she calls "stronger than both of us together."

That will keep Charlotte in perfect moments for life, relegated happily to a "narrow strip of territory that is ours." Devoting herself to his child, the Jerry-substitute, Charlotte will also have him when he can steal away from his wife to visit his child. He and Charlotte will then share blissful, static, asexual moments. In her mansion, the two again share the famous communion-of-the-double-cigarette-by-the-window, as stars twinkle in the darkness. For her bargain to opt for static and eternal love for a sexually unattainable man, Charlotte wins "periodic moments" of romantic perfection.

Rather than the "almost moments" of DARK VICTORY, and the frequent, or "periodic moments" of NOW, VOYAGER, Maggie, the heroine of THE GREAT LIE, must wait most of the film to achieve her true perfect moment, an example best called the "delayed moment." In this case, the delay comes from one of melodrama's preferred adversaries—other women. THE GREAT LIE pits women against each other. The other woman stands as the roadblock preventing and obstructing the path to the great moments our obedient heroine deserves. Hollywood suggests that women from the same social class will compete for the perfect moments that the right man can bring them. The "winner" of the male and maternal spoils is, of course, not the career woman, but the compliant homebody, diligently protecting the heterosexual couple and the family against all threat. Especially heterosexuality is insured if women are made to feel constantly threatened and at odds with one another. Heroines can be feisty, but only for the righteous protection of their men and the material interests men provide.

In THE GREAT LIE, Sandra (Mary Astor) plays a cold, self-absorbed concert pianist who threatens Maggie's (Bette Davis) emotionally and financially rich homemaking marriage to Pete (George Brent), the pilot-adventurer. The plot is complex. The two women hide the fact that Pete and Maggie's child is really Pete and Sandra's (Pete had the earlier marriage annulled, you see). Sandra and Pete had parted after her career and his sudden awareness of his feeling for Maggie, a former love, came between them. The sultry Sandra is visually and narratively depicted at the start of the film in "manly," "action" terms. As a sexual woman, she's the prima donna, refusing the guilt and country home which should go with marriage. She prefers the late night hours of the city.

Cramped in the left side of an early shot in the film, Sandra agrees, under fire, that she should have "been a dutiful wife." The film offers no middle ground; it implies that women exist with coldness and freedom or passivity and warmth. Sandra says she's "been a bachelor," with the connotations that she's cold, unnatural, and undeserving of happiness. After Pete and Maggie reunite and marry (and win their first, minor perfect moment of bliss together on the porch after their wedding, gazing into the heavens), Sandra lets Maggie know that she, Sandra, plans to win Pete back — and, oh, by the way, that she's "going to have his child."

Pete now literally removes himself from the scene for South American Adventure at the bidding of none other than the United States Government. Meanwhile (literally "back at the ranch"), the women wage a psychological war for the spoils — an eternity of static, perfect moments with The Man. Maggie nobly cares for pregnant, nasty, uncooperative Sandra in a hideaway 'midst the sagebrush of Arizona. The film's architectural and spatial metaphor shows what extraordinary lengths Maggie will go to to keep her man — she will assume his "turf," the wild west, keeping Sandra out of her element and Maggie in tough, directive, domineering control.

Sandra, in these scenes, is childish, immature, "unwomanly," given her condition; she wants to be cared for but rejects the care when offered. She eats the wrong foods — in short, she is downright "anti-motherly." In contrast, Maggie exercises an androgynous, maternal/ paternal control at the ranch, a place where both women are away from the "norm." The harsh, shadowy lighting underscores the atypical "strangeness" of their arrangement. Maggie makes the bargain to keep the child when it's born, claiming it is hers when her adventurer/ capitalist/ conqueror hero returns (for a while, we fear that he's been lost): hence the film's title "the great lie." Predictably, when the truth is revealed, Pete decides to stick by true-blue Maggie (reaffirming the unbreakable bond of marriage). Sandra relents. Within this context, the high-ceilinged freedom and loosely-framed composition of the Arizona landscape — its high-key lit celebration of the "atmosphere" of the family — seems to indicate that Maggie will, of course, win out.

THE GREAT LIE illustrates some key issues of the woman's picture's perfect moments. The melodramatic heroine faces obstacles to and psychological conflicts surrounding her reward, yet her nobility and devotion to her man and home let her finally achieve its promise as a "delayed moment," but only at the denouement. The protagonist is tested: Job, now a woman, has "gone Hollywood."

THE GREAT LIE also propagates the "woman against woman" syndrome, in which women of the same carefully delineated, upper-middle class cannot be friends or confidantes. They are doomed to compete for men and the reward of the perfect moment. The choice of an upper-middle class background seems so "regular" that most of us rarely notice it; however, it provides a crucial context for melodramatic narratives. The Hollywood audience certainly isn't conditioned to — nor is it really interested in — the psychological dimensions of the life of working class women. Perhaps the drama of psychological warfare between women would be less appropriately set in such a context. It would be more difficult to trump up dissension between women whose less privileged positions in society find them with far greater things to do than work only towards moments of bliss, stasis, and inaction. And since Hollywood cinema, in its mise-en-scene, always provides a kind of material wish-fulfillment in its sets and costumes, the material spoils of such an inter-woman conflict would be less satisfying. Appropriately for the genre, then, Maggie's confidante in the film is played by Hattie McDaniel, a commonsense, real woman (a maternal, bossy "Greek chorus" of accurate feelings about various characters and situations), her maid. However, McDaniel is asexual and in class terms represents no psychological or economic "threat," so harmony between them reigns,

Wearing Pollyanna costumes to underscore her role, Maggie is demure, always supportive of Pete and the things he's "best at." Sandra is talented, temperamental, sexy, manipulative; undoubtedly, then, Sandra wants to control Pete. She is the strong, sexual, sequined feline we find fascinating, threatening, and, in part, what we wish we could be. It's in man's interest to stifle Sandra, to give her no redemption. Even the names — connotatively rich, white, Protestant — reinforce perceptions of good versus evil. Davis is good, wholesome "Maggie"; Brent is macho, but down-to-earth "Pete"; Astor, meanwhile, is the devouring "Sandra."

The woman's film has been publicized as a merely entertaining genre. But, in fact, these films are political, both in what they contain and in the way many women use them. It is our responsibility as feminists as we enjoy them to perceive them that way.

Surely there are extreme stereotypes in THE GREAT LIE; women are either madonnas or whores. In Hollywood we find little middle ground. Ideologically, in many cultural spheres, we see women treated as if they and their interests lacked depth and complexity. Ideology simplifies. Cultures need people to be predictable, at least in terms of their prescribed places in society. As Sartre created his narrow characters for the purpose of illustrating a negative example, perhaps the film critic can do the same. In Sartre's terms, action is complex and powerful, full of choice and freedom. He associated action with men. Stasis is controllable, predictable, receiving, and passive — seemingly female. What can be a feminist critical justification, therefore, for supporting a genre which emphasizes and perpetuates elitist class distinctions, pits woman against woman for men's benefit, and propagates a myth which equates men with thought and action, and which allows women justifiable desires only if they seek inactive, static moments of bliss?

Everyone loves a good story, so perhaps whatever potential for injury there is in the woman's picture is not in the entertainment value of shedding a few tears as Judith dies peacefully in DARK VICTORY, fade to black; or in our suspense as we wonder which woman Pete will "choose," Sandra eventually getting trounced by True Love in THE GREAT LIE; or in our admiration for Charlotte in NOW, VOYAGER as she comes out of her old maid shell, albeit with Jerry's tutoring. Women's pictures deal with emotions — very real emotions. Because the films center on women's emotions, they capture viewers with the same emotional strength that in the past caused male critics to dismiss them. Yet unless we see the films as more than entertainment "fluff" of the forties, the subliminal messages — the dangerous ones that limit and defile women — perpetuate themselves. It can be injurious for life to imitate Hollywood art if the latter purports to show us how things are and should be, and if the explicit, exploitative, social implications of these films go unrecognized after the lights go up and our teary eyes clear.[7]


1. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 153-54. Other references to Haskell 's book will be cited in the text.

2. Some valuable early resources on the woman's picture are two anthologies: Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary's anthology of feminist perspectives, Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1977); Patricia Erens' Sexual Strategems: The World of Women in Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1979); and Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1973). An important collection of articles which deal with women and the family and the melodrama MILDRED PIERCE is E. Ann Kaplan's Women in Film Noir (London: BFI Publishing, 1980). Also see "Women in Film," Film Library Quarterly, 5, No. 1 (Winter, 1971-1972); "Women in Film," Take One, 3, No. 2 (February 1972); Jean-Loup Bourget, "Romantic Dramas of the Forties: An Analysis," Film Comment, 10, No. 1 (January-February 1974).

3. In his textbook, Masters of the American Cinema, Louis Giannetti offers his own damning explanation of the features of the woman's film (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981), pp. 46-47:

"The production values in women's pictures tend to be glossy, the costumes chic and numerous. The woman's picture seldom explores the male psyche in much detail." [Should it?]

"For the most part, men are conventionalized and kept at the fringes, the unworthy but grateful recipients of a woman's gift of love."

It's interesting how any film that does not keep woman at the fringes but at the center of the action becomes trivialized in this definition.

4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions, 1964), pp. 35-36. For a more complete discussion of Annie, see pp. 141-154. Much of the book concerns Antoine's discovery of his notions of adventure. He notes, "I am the one who splits the night" (p. 54). His heart swells … with great feeling of adventure." In all, his essence is to seek power through action; hers, to seek an internal stasis.

5. See the special issue of Film Reader, No, 5 (1982) on feminist film criticism, especially the article entitled "Hildy Johnson and the 'Man-Tailored Suit': The Comedy of Inequality," by Jane Marie Gaines and Charlotte Cornelia Herzog.

6. See "Woman's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir," by Sylvia Harvey, in Women in Film Noir. Also see articles about the family and MILDRED PIERCE: Pam Cook, "Duplicity in MILDRED PIERCE," in Women in Film Noir. Chuck Kleinhans' article, "Notes on Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism," Film Reader, No. 3 (1978).

7. As a woman viewer raised in a lower middle class environment, I loved these films on TV. I was immersed in their romance, and my interpretation, of course, works off my early — and since "reworked — responses. I recognize and respect that not all women respond to these films as romance; in particular, the "consonance" between these films and the wish-fulfillment they represent for someone of my background has been the lure of the Hollywood film. Other people might never have been "immersed" in women's films; their variant readings, even among feminist critics, indicate the wide range of viewpoints about these films. (See, for example, an analysis of NOW, VOYAGER in Camera Obscura by Lea Jacobs, entitled "NOW, VOYAGER: Some Problems of Enunciation and Sexual Difference," No. 7, Spring 1981.) For example, the criticism of Raymond Bellour doesn't take into account woman's lived experience and reads aspects of the text from a male point of view. Bellour's analyses of the mechanisms of sexual oppression assume a unitary, or single type of, spectator; in this, I'd like to allow for pluralistic perceptions of these melodramas, and acknowledge the cultural influences that have helped me arrive at mine.

The author wishes to thank Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, Julie Siegel, and Roger Gilman for their insights and suggestions. Thanks to Jack Snapper for talking about Sartre with me and piquing my curiosity just before I viewed DARK VICTORY, and whose ideas helped me form mine.