The primary theme of those movie melodramas commonly referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures” is duty – specifically, the doing of one’s unpleasant, unavoidable, duty, in a dignified manner.
From the oft-filmed Madame X and Back Street, through any number of Bette Davis vehicles, the “weepie” portrays a stoic woman destined to suffer in silence for her sins (or somebody else’s), and cutting all ties to the one person she loves – a child, a married man – to spare them from sharing her shameful fate. During this exile, she is cruelly misunderstood by everyone around her, yet discovers previously unexpected depths of resilience, and finally, a kind of redemption.
For women in our “Girls Gone Wild” era, one’s “good name” and reputation seem more like liabilities than assets. Yet such old fashioned notions still appeal to sizable audiences, if only for the running time of Sense and Sensibility.
(Come to think of it: maybe those notions aren’t so “old fashioned” as much as they’ve been turned upside down. A bit like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, the melodramatic heroine often “profits” from her misbehavior, too. The difference is: the latter’s payment comes in the form of discreet semi-annual “allowances” via “the family’s” Swiss bank account, to keep her comfortably quiet, and invisible. Had such technology existed at the time, she’d have been paid not to tweet…)
Watching a retina-burning, carnival colored Douglas Sirk melodrama as the heroine (wearing “gowns by Adrian” and “jewels by Harry Winston”) gazes wistfully at the French Riviera vista from her marble balcony, we might think, “Hey, how can I get in on this ‘woman with a past’ action?”
Melodrama makes duty seem glamorous, or, at the very least, bracingly, beautifully austere, like a piece of Shaker furniture.
And not just if you’re female: Giving up the only woman you’ll ever love and joining the Resistance (thereby risking excruciating torture by the Nazis) seems pretty awesome if you get to hang out at Rick’s.
Alas, as we involuntarily encounter real life opportunities to “do our duty,” that promised glamor is missing.