The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Cinema as a Stage: A Conservative Approach to the Medium | Introduction

The two essays in this section are linked by their approaches to the way that 1930s cinema critically engaged nostalgia and traditional values in a rapidly shifting socioeconomic and political climate. As Lara Ehrenfried’s essay in the first section of this issue demonstrates how sound changed the staging of film’s narrative possibilities, Nicole Flynn’s work in this section examines the transformative power of adapting a stage play for the screen. In her analysis of Clemence Dane’s 1921 West End play A Bill of Divorcement and its 1932 film adaptation for American audiences, Flynn engages in questions of how adaptations to the text’s medium, temporality, and geography stage ideological debates about family, marriage, illness, nation, and, especially eugenics. “‘My Wife’s Not My Wife, She’s My Daughter’: Relocating A Bill of Divorcement from Stage to Screen” examines the play and then the film in terms of the ideologies each promotes within the contexts of their time and place. Flynn opens discussion about the relationship between the theater and the cinema for the early twentieth century that carries implications about taste, class, and attitudes about the legitimacy of the cinema as high art. But most centrally, she shows that eugenics, which was wildly popular in the United States and the United Kingdom when framed as the social hygiene movement, is integral to the themes of inheritance and lineage in A Bill of Divorcement as both play and film. Flynn writes, “As [the narrative] migrates from drawing room to music room, England to America, stage to screen, the message becomes an uncomfortable marriage of regressive and progressive social views.”  In particular, her discussion of Katherine Hepburn’s face and body type as an eugenicist’s ideal makes for a compelling and dark intervention into analyses of the Hollywood star system and the film industry’s marketing and packaging of racial ideals during the 1930s.

In Claudia Kotte’s essay, “‘People coming, going. Nothing ever happens’: Hotels in German and American Interwar Films,” the stage serves as an apt metaphor for the role of the hotel. Kotte examines the transatlantic exchanges between German and Hollywood filmmaking in four hotel films made between 1932 and 1945. The hotel, as a kind of heterotopic space, serves as the stage upon which ideologies about nationality, race, class, sex, and gender compete during a period of sharp economic unease. Hotels supply a fantasy of escape and luxury for Depression-era audiences. Like Flynn, Kotte is interested in the tensions between traditional values and progressive ideas, and these swirl within the constant movement of many kinds of people from diverse backgrounds through Central European hotels. In her studies of Grand Hotel (1932), Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel; 1933), Hotel Sacher (1939), and Hotel Berlin (1945) for their representations of cosmopolitanism and opulence, misunderstandings and chance encounters, Kotte determines that there is a marked shift in the function of the cinematic hotel. By the end of the 1930s, she argues, the hotel in film becomes a site of “policing, othering, danger, and doom,” and no longer provides an escape from the traditional bourgeois home for financially strapped audiences. By tracking this shift through the four films and introducing us to key characters and scenes throughout, Kotte’s essay demonstrates the push and pull of tradition over progressivism—and eventually traditional values win out with the rise of the Third Reich, whose growing reach is palpable in the films under study.

Works Cited

A Bill of Divorcement. Directed by George Cukor, performances by John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Billie Burke, RKO, 1932.

Dane, Clemence. A Bill of Divorcement. The Macmillan Company, 1921.

Grand Hotel. Directed by Edmund Goulding, performances by John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Lewis Stone. MGM, 1932.

Hotel Berlin. Directed by Peter Godfrey, performances by Helmut Dantine, Faye Emerson, Andrea King, and Peter Lorre. Warner Bros, 1945.

Hotel Sacher. Directed by Erich Engel, performances by Willy Birgel, Sybille Schmitz, and Wolf Albach-Retty. Mondial-International Filmindustrie, 1939.

Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel). Directed by Victor Janson, performances by Dolly Haas and Harry Liedtke. Schulz & Wuellner, 1933.


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