Back in the studio era, Hollywood film production never really stopped. Studios invested money in sets and paid technicians, writers, directors, and actors a salary meaning that they were expected to be productive in order to recoup costs and turn a profit for studio bosses. While it may be tempting to look upon this era as an age in which films were mass-produced to a series of proscriptive genre templates, studios actually provided creatives with a surprising amount of creative leeway. In fact, one of the great joys of Golden Age Hollywood is spotting quite how many subversive ideas were smuggled out under the auspices of disposable star-vehicles.
One area where amazing work was done right under the noses of studio bosses was in films aimed primarily at a female audience. Commonly viewed as low-status and often treated as little more than a training ground for up-and-coming starlets, women’s films habitually raised vital questions about the nature of American society and the challenges facing ordinary women. Despite the Women’s Film genre being associated with the work of such luminaries as Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, and Josef von Sternberg, its output was frequently dismissed as either insubstantial fluff or disposable melodrama. Sadly, little has changed in this regard.
Last summer, Lionsgate films released a trailer for John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film written by Nick Hornby and based upon a novel by Colm Toibin. Despite boasting some very significant talent, the film’s trailer made it look like an ugly heap of melodramatic clichés involving warm-hearted Irish people, home-sickness and true love. I remember seeing the trailer at a rural cinema and its saccharine tone prompting groans of disgust from the assembled audience. This, it transpires, was an absolutely stupid response on my part as while Brooklyn is undeniably a film about love, feelings, and a woman’s place in society, it approaches these topics with levels of grace, intelligence, and social awareness that are entirely consistent with some of the very best works in the Women’s Film genre. Brooklyn may be a film with tears in its eyes but its soul is molten steel.