- The Woman’s Film of the 1940s: Gender, Narrative, and History by Alison L. McKee
The woman’s films of the 1940s are an inexhaustible source of cinematic and scholarly pleasures, so it is no surprise that a recent book from Alison McKee, The Woman’s Film of the 1940s: Gender, Narrative, and History, revisits the classics despite some forty years of feminist work on the corpus. Positioning herself against the psychoanalytic frameworks that fuelled early feminist film theory’s re-discovery of the genre, McKee focuses on narrativity rather than visuality. According to the author, the woman’s films of the 40s make female desire their very object and confront it directly. While focusing on the flow of desire propelling the film’s narratives, McKee attends to what she calls “lost narratives”—personal tales that generate tensions and frictions within the narrative because they could not, yet must, be told. McKee thereby seeks to excavate gendered desires that have been partially suppressed by both classical Hollywood’s patriarchal mode of film production and film theory.
In the first chapter, McKee situates her work within and against the larger frame [End Page 70] of classic feminist film theory, advocating for the spectator’s identification with the flow of narrative movement rather than static positioning. Desire, the author asserts, is at the root not only of this narrative flow, but is in fact the real impetus and primary mover of the films in question. By anchoring interpretation and identification to narrative flow rather than subjects, Mckee makes desire, a force gendered “as sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine” and sometimes both (20). In the second—and strongest—chapter (a shorter version of which was published twenty years ago as “L’affaire Praslin”), McKee examines All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940) in conjunction with other accounts of the Praslin scandal to underscore the various, conflicting desires driving them. In addition to providing a novel and compelling interpretation of the film, the author highlights the conflict between “proper” historical accounts and melodrama, venturing that melodrama provides a venue for the expression of feminine voices that were silenced by traditional history, but are no less correct or accurate than history proper.
Pursuing the exploration of the discursive interconnections between narrative, desire, gender, and history in WWII and romantic ghosts films, the two middle chapters support rather than bring additional elements to the book’s overall argument. Chapter 3, “Melodrama, History, and Narrative Recovery,” looks at That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941) and Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942), reading them as lost (melodramatic) accounts of the Second World War, and emphasizing the oft-overlooked historical groundedness of many woman’s films. In “Temporality and the Past,” McKee then turns her attention to non-visual elements that propel narratives and express gendered nostalgic desire through an analysis of ghost stories—specifically The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947), Enchantment (Irving Reis, 1948), Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948).
The question of gendered desire resurfaces in chapter 5 with Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Here McKee argues that although these films articulate a desire that is explicitly gendered feminine, it is “experienced as both masculine and feminine by men and women alike” (9). This is done, McKee asserts, through an offering of multiple points of entry for male and female viewers. Although enticing, this proposition remains speculative, with McKee providing little discussion of spectatorship per se. It is in this chapter that androgyny makes its first fleeting appearance, to be elaborated on further in chapter 6, “Telling the Story Differently: Toward an Androgynous Spectatorship and Interpretation.” This last chapter breaks down the now commonplace masculine subject/feminine object binary to offer an admittedly quixotic vision of androgynous spectatorship. Films such as Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) and Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945) feature flashback sequences whose structuring gaze is possessed by neither male nor female character, only an androgynous camera (174). Rather than simply pointing toward subjective...