In our regular feature Old v. New, Kimberly Marcela Duron compares a newer independent release with an older classic to see what similarities they share, how they diverge and hear what the conversation between the two films says about filmmaking as the art form continues to innovate and evolve.
Melodrama often gets a bad rap for its use of archetypes and emphasis on raw emotional appeal (as opposed to intricate narratives or sophisticated character arcs typical of straight drama). For instance, a story about an infertile wife adopting a child who she accidentally injures on the freeway—the scenario sounds unrealistic, melodramatic. Or that of a young man using Google Earth to locate his missing family on the streets of rural India. In some cases, the skepticism provoked by such a scenario is mitigated by those key words appearing after the opening credits: based on a true story.
This month we’re talking about two films that fall squarely along the melodramatic spectrum, each about orphaned children: Paula (1952) and Lion (2016). The former is an Old Hollywood film directed by Rudolph Maté, about a woman named Paula (Loretta Young). Paula has lost two babies already, and is heartbroken to learn that she’s unable to bear any more. She subsequently causes a traffic accident involving a young orphan, who is taken to the hospital and reported to be the victim of a drunk hit-and-run. Soon, Paula begins visiting the boy in his hospital room. The orphan’s injuries provide an opportunity for the woman to care for the child as if he were her own, with the boy needing daily speech therapy to learn how to speak again.
Told through the perspective of its namesake, the film is as much of a testament to the nostalgic notion that happy endings are attainable without too much effort as it is a testament the love between mother and son (biological or otherwise). Throughout the film, the only character with any real depth or a moral dilemma to ponder is Paula herself, who struggles with the guilt of knowing she caused the child’s injuries. The supporting characters do little to carry the emotional side of the film, including Paula’s husband John (Kent Smith) who shifts from not wanting a “freak” child to being a great dad in a matter of minutes. Alexander Knox, Paula’s stern doctor, serves as the moral compass in nearly every character’s decision-making, from Paula and her husband to the policeman working on the hit-and-run case. As such, the doctor becomes a classic deus ex machine, shaping the outcome of the film for the better.
One of 2016’s most powerful and acclaimed films was Lion, director Garth Davis’s adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home. Lion tells the story of five-year-old Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar) in India, who gets trapped on a passenger train for 1500 miles until he reaches Calcutta. Unable to communicate in Calcutta’s Bengali language about his hometown—or even the fact that he’s lost—a frightened Saroo navigates the streets until he’s taken to an orphanage, where he’s ultimately adopted by a loving Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, an older Saroo (Dev Patel) begins a quest to find his biological mother, siblings and the unknown town in India from which he came.
Lion makes significant departures from classic melodramatic stereotypes both characteristically and cinematically, beginning with the fact that it’s a true story. The portrayal of people around Saroo is not out of focus or static but filled with complexity, portraying a variety of different emotional responses characters have to orphaned or adopted children. This is seen in the way strangers pass by Saroo and dismiss him as just another street child, or how vulnerable and exposed a child is to human trafficking and its many players—such as a security guard who turns a blind eye, or a young woman who offers Saroo a hot meal and a bed for insidious reasons. These are the types of fraught narrative branches that are all but missing from a rather tame Paula, which omits the orphan David’s past altogether and replaces it with a safe, optimistic future.
Of course, most films from classic Hollywood are tame only in retrospect. But the 1950s included plenty of the unsavory and the bizarre, which films of the era struggled to represent. Take the “Baby Scoop Era” which spanned the mid-1940s until roughly the early 1970s, during which the worldwide rate of pre-marital pregnancies increased dramatically and with it, the number of babies given up for adoption or otherwise left without care. Who knows? In 1952 when Paula was released, maybe the idea of a random, unclaimed child wandering onto the highway at night wasn’t quite such a far-fetched proposition.
But just as societal trends can underpin the authenticity of otherwise “melodramatic” narrative inventions, so too can authentic personal experiences inform the actors’ performances. In Lion, Nicole Kidman plays Saroo’s adoptive mother. In a touching scene, Kidman’s character explains how she wasn’t infertile, but rather chose adoption as a first-and-only option. Kidman herself is the mother of four children, two of whom are adopted. For her part, Young—then one of Hollywood’s biggest stars—feigned the “adoption” of what was actually her biological son, who had been conceived under circumstances that might today be labeled date rape by an older, married co-star. Having watched other performances by Young, Paula truly seems to be an underrated star turn, one in which her emotional connection to the moral dilemmas faced by a woman of that era still resonate today.
Paula and Lion are both films about displaced children on opposite ends of the world in completely different cultures and time periods. What Paula lacks in supporting character arcs, including that of the orphan’s, it makes up for in Loretta Young’s performance. What Lion lacks in pacing leading up to its grand finale, it makes up in the depths of characterization brought to life by Patel, Kidman, Pawar and Pawar’s onscreen mother (Priyanka Bose) and brother (Abhishek Bharate). What resonates in both films is the connection they make—on levels that go way beyond mere melodrama—with their audience.
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