7 Classic Melodramas

Great Tearjerkers Sure to Tug the Heartstrings

Wuthering Heights
United Artists

A subgenre of drama, the melodrama was a popular form during the classic era where the stories were enhanced and sometimes exaggerated in order to tug at the audience’s heartstrings and maximize their emotional experience. Typically, these films focused on sensational plots revolving around tragedy, loss, and unrequited love, and featured long-suffering protagonists, almost always female, trying in vain to overcome impossible odds.

In the wrong hands, the melodrama had the potential to be campy and over-sentimental, leading to a negative perspective on the genre. But skilled directors like George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, and William Wyler made a number of excellent melodramas and helped make it one of the more popular genres in the 1940s and '50s. Here are seven great examples of the melodrama.

Also one of the great literary adaptations of all time, Wuthering Heights was a sweeping romantic drama about class division and love doomed to tragedy. Directed by William Wyler from Emily Brontë’s classic novel, the film starred Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, a former orphan who has been taken into a wealthy family and grows to love his foster sister, Cathy (Merle Oberon). Though she feels the same, Cathy doesn’t want to give up her well-to-do lifestyle and goes off to marry a wealthy neighbor (David Niven), leaving a jealous Heathcliff with no choice but to leave. Returning as a wealthy man years later, Heathcliff still obsesses over Cathy, but vengefully marries her husband’s sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in an attempt to rile her jealousy. Meanwhile, Cathy grows deathly ill and Heathcliff grows into a bitter old man, only to suffer his own tragic fate. Wuthering Heights was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

While most saw her as Fred Astaire’s dance partner, Ginger Rogers possessed Oscar-worthy dramatic chops in this adaptation of Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel. Told in flashback, as many melodramas do, the film starred Rogers as the titular Kitty, a saleswoman with dreams of making it on her, but nonetheless marries Wyn Strafford (Dennis Morgan), only to be spurned because of class differences. She runs into the arms of a young doctor named Mark Eisen (James Craig), then turns tail again when she agrees to marry Wyn after he comes back. But the class differences remain and Wyn’s family doesn’t like her while he refuses to give up his family’s fortune for Kitty. Kitty leaves Wyn and learns that she’s pregnant, but is too proud to go back to him. In the end, she suffers through a stillborn birth and goes back to her sales job while agreeing to marry Mark. ​Kitty Foyle had all the wild ups and downs of a classic melodrama, which allowed Rogers to deliver a sterling performance that earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Directed by Irving Rapper, Now, Voyager was the ultimate weepie movie starring the queen of the melodrama, Bette Davis. Davis played Charlotte Vale, a woman suffering lifelong repression thanks to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) who finally starts to break free at the behest of her new psychiatrist (Claude Rains). She does, in fact, take a voyage across the sea, where she meets devoted father and loveless husband, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who’s married to a jealous and manipulative woman. As Charlotte tries to pull Jerry’s emotionally disturbed daughter back from the brink, she enters into a relationship with another man (John Loder) which fails to push Jerry out of mind. Though she doesn’t quite get her man, Charlotte does become more confident and self-assured, as Now, Voyager ends on a hopeful note with the famous classic line, “Don’t ask for the moon, we have the stars.”

A blend of film noir and melodrama directed by Michael Curtiz, Mildred Pierce was an exceptional film that won Joan Crawford her career’s only Academy Award for Best Actress. Crawford played the titular Mildred, a struggling waitress who struggles to provide a good life for her two daughters after divorcing her philandering husband (Bruce Bennett). With the help of a sleazy real estate agent (Jack Carson), Mildred becomes a restaurant owner and quickly grows her business into a successful chain, but struggles to keep her oldest daughter, Vera (Ann Blyth), happy. She then enters into a loveless marriage with the formerly wealthy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) in order to improve her standing and win back the estranged Vera. But Monte enjoys the lavish playboy lifestyle and drains Mildred of her money, leading to her impending financial ruin and his murder in a hail of bullets. A big critical and box office hit, Mildred Pierce successfully combined two popular genres while reviving Crawford’s flagging career.

Directed by David Lean from Noël Coward’s critically acclaimed play Still Life, Brief Encounter was a beautiful, but heartbreaking drama about two people destined to live unhappy lives. The film starred Celia Johnson as a married woman who has a chance meeting with a doctor (Trevor Howard) in a train station after catching a cinder in her eye. He removes it for her and other sparks begin to fly, as both meet at the station once a week to enjoy each other’s company. Both share everything about themselves and eventually come to realize that they love each other deeply. But that realization leads to the tragic notion that both are unable to leave their families, leading to unrequited love and lives doomed to unhappiness. Johnson and Howard were undeniably brilliant in their roles, with Johnson earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Lean snared his first nod for Best Director.

Based on Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square, The Heiress was billed as “a truly great motion picture” and earned its star Olivia de Havilland the second and final Oscar of her career. Directed by William Wyler, the film starred De Havilland as Catherine Sloper, the homely and ungraceful daughter of a wealthy, but domineering doctor (Ralph Richardson). She falls in love with a handsome young man, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), but her father sees that he's out for her money and threatens to cut off Catherine’s inheritance. Taking a stand for the first time in her life, Catherine insists that she marries Morris. But instead, Morris cuts out on Catherine and leaves her bereft, while her father comes to realize how much he has harmed his daughter. Years later, Morris returns and Catherine again agrees to elope, only this time she turns the tables on him and shows that she won’t allow herself to ever be manipulated again.

Long before the drama series Dallas depicted the sordid lives of Texas oil tycoons, there was Written on the Wind, the quintessential melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk. Adapted from the 1945 novel by Robert Wilder, the film starred Robert Stack as Kyle Hadley, the insecure alcoholic son to a millionaire oil baron (Robert Keith). Along with his nymphomaniac sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), Kyle’s self-destructive lifestyle makes him unable to sustain a meaningful relationship. He does manage to marry Lucy (Lauren Bacall), a level-headed advertising executive, and quits hitting the bottle for a spell. But his inability to sire a child leads to falling off the wagon and accusing childhood friend Mitch (Rock Hudson) of having an affair with Lucy when she becomes pregnant, resulting in Kyle’s death and Mitch on trial for his murder. Unabashedly lurid, Written on the Wind was made during the height of the genre’s popularity, which began to give way to more realistic dramas later in the decade.