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Melodramatic Noir: Advertising the Generic Duality of The File on Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own

Exploiter la dualité générique du mélodrame noir : une étude de la promotion de The File on Thelma Jordan et No Man of Her Own
Steven Cohan


Cette étude de deux films de Barbara Stanwyck sortis en 1950, The File on Thelma Jordan et No Man of Her Own, montre à quel point le film noir et le woman’s film peuvent facilement s’articuler dans des productions construites autour d’une star féminine de premier plan. Ces deux films témoignent, narrativement et stylistiquement, de la porosité et de l’instabilité génériques du film noir, et leur promotion s’appuie sur, et exploite, cette ambiguïté générique. L’image de Stanwyck, fortement associée à la fois au woman’s film et au film noir, se trouve au cœur des nombreuses publicités pour ces films, qui étaient alors publiées dans les journaux. Cette étude de cas illustre ainsi le fait que le mode mélodramatique est à la base du film noir.

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1Two Barbara Stanwyck films released in 1950, The File on Thelma Jordan (1949, when it was copyrighted) and No Man of Her Own (1950) illustrate the ease with which film noir and the woman’s picture could be mated in vehicles built for a major female star. These were two of five films starring Stanwyck that came out that year, Thelma Jordan opening in the US in January and No Man of Her Own in May. Both films were produced for Paramount by Hal Wallis, who had previously made two noirs with Stanwyck, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Wallis also produced a Western with Stanwyck, The Furies (1950), that was released in the summer a few months after No Man of Her Own. Stanwyck’s two other films in 1950 were from MGM, a studio better known for glamourous visual treatment of female stars: the glossy woman’s picture about an adulterous affair with Stanwyck as the wronged wife, East Side, West Side (1949), a Christmas release in New York and Philadelphia in 1949 that went wide the following January and February, the same time Thelma Jordan opened across the country; and the romantic drama To Please a Lady (1950), an October release that paired Stanwyck with Clark Gable in which she played an influential newspaper columnist and he a racecar driver.

  • 1 For this case study I have looked at ads during the first-run of The File on Thelma Jordan and No M (...)

2In contrast to the highly polished style of the two Metro films, the generic fluidity of Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own is more visually and narratively evident; it was also a feature of Paramount’s advertising.1 Centering this rabbit/duck duality in the numerous newspaper ads was Stanwyck’s star text through her already strong identification with both woman’s pictures and film noir. The promotion indicates an intentionality on the part of the two films with regard to their generic ambiguity, though without attributing this understanding to any individual. As a case study, then, these two films narratively and through their promotional campaigns register the generic instability and porousness of film noir.

Melodramatic Noir

  • 2 I say “almost” because some scholarship has revived thinking about male action films as melodramas. (...)

3The generic duality of Mildred Pierce (1945), legible as woman’s picture or film noir, has been well recognized by now. However, little scholarly attention has been paid to the hybridity of films noirs overall, especially those headlining female stars, although reviewers at the time did call many of them “melodramas.” Steve Neale (2000) and Rick Altman (1999) each consider the “woman’s picture” to be, like “film noir,” not an industrial label but a critical category belatedly applied to a specific canon of films. However, I have found the term “woman’s picture” used in some trade ads going back to the 1930s; and in 1950 Paramount not only used “woman’s picture” to promote Barbara Stanwyck’s No Man of Her Own in Motion Picture Daily, but that paper’s reviewer used the term too (Franke 1950:3). As for the label “melodrama,” as Neale points out, it had a protean history during the era when film noir and the woman’s picture were produced in considerable numbers. “In film reviews,” he writes, “‘melodrama’—and the shortened and slangier ‘meller’—were by far the commonest terms used to describe what are often now called noirs, whether they were hard-boiled detective films, gangster films, gothic thrillers and woman’s pictures, paranoid thrillers, psychological thrillers, police films or semi-documentaries” (1993:180). Today in scholarship “melodrama” describes woman’s pictures almost exclusively.2 Yet during the studio era, a “woman’s picture” was just as generically diverse; built around a studio’s female stars, it could apply to a drama, biopic, romance, comedy, mystery, even a musical.

4While as a genre “melodrama” is now used interchangeability with the woman’s picture and not film noir, when understood as a narrative mode the term is more fluid and encompassing. As Linda Williams once argued, “[the melodramatic mode] is the foundation of the classic Hollywood movie” (1998:42). Consider how many Hollywood movies compose their narratives out of the four elements that Williams identifies with the melodramatic mode, regardless of their genre. Briefly, these are (1) the significance of a film beginning and characters wanting to end in “a space of innocence,” a space usually emblematic of “home”; (2) a focus on “victim-heroes” with the obscured or belated recognition of their virtue orchestrating a sense or semblance of moral legibility; (3) the trajectory by which that recognition or a restoration of home happens “too late” or “in the nick of time,” thereby arranging “a dialectic of pathos and action”; and (4) characters embodying “primary psychic roles” in Manichean fashion, working out “a conflict of good and evil” (2001:28–40).

5The woman’s pictures of classic Hollywood follow this pattern rather directly. These films focus on a central female figure, usually played by a major star in a vehicle designed around her persona; and her character confronts “emotional, social, and psychological problems” peculiar to her being female (Basinger 1993:20). These “womanly” problems move yet also block or retard the narrative, and they make her a “victim-hero” whose innocence or moral legibility is at issue, underlining the narrative’s action with pathos. Often, too, she is torn between a good and respectable suitor and a sexy but dangerous lover. By the same token, a woman’s picture as typically derives the conflict arising from a woman’s passions as well as her “problems”—sexual desire, maternal love, marital infidelity or loyalty, professional ambition—and such driving passions can easily turn the female protagonist into the femme fatale of film noir.

6As for film noir, James Naremore has described it as “both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past” (2008:11). Film noir has thus been defined from several different perspectives, each reconfiguring noir somewhat according to its own template: noir has been analyzed, anatomized, and canonized as a style (low-key lighting, a shadowy mise-en-scène, unusual camera angles, night-for-night shooting, uncanny attention to domestic objects such as telephones or windows covered in Venetian blinds); as certain types of narrative (crime, investigative, or police/FBI procedural plots involving gangsters, corrupt politicians, good and bad cops, returning soldiers, and/or private eyes, with dangerous women often betraying the protagonist, who is typically damaged psychologically, marginalized from respectable society, and/or trying to beat the system); as vehicles for certain stars (for example, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, Burt Lancaster) or directors (for example, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang); or as a movement or cycle occurring in a specific historical period (1944–1958, give or take a year or two on either end). However defined, film noir is customarily considered a male-centered and masculinist genre, a “man’s picture,” as it were, the opposite of a “woman’s picture.” Women appear in film noir to be investigated, pursued, fetishized, worshiped, and/or eliminated.

7Significantly, Naremore states as well that noir is “a type of modernism and a type of commercial melodrama” (45), also calling it, borrowing from Graham Greene, “blood melodrama” (45, 48). Whether approached as a style, narrative type, star or director vehicle, or movement, film noir is likewise told in a melodramatic mode, albeit perhaps more indirectly to today’s eyes due to its masculinist ethos. Noir usually focuses on a central male figure, a “victim-hero” overwhelmed in some fashion by “emotional, social, and psychological” factors peculiar to his male-centered world of crime or gambling or dishonest police or bad luck or destiny—not to mention his being duped by that seductive yet treacherous woman. As Julie Grossman notes, “in classic film noir, the hardboiled detective traditionally pretends to be worse than he is… only to have the films reveal the male protagonist’s virtue or incorruptibility (often registered by his getting rid of the femme fatale)” (2020:86). Recognition of the victim-hero’s moral legibility typically happens “too late” or “in the nick of time,” which makes the aim of his returning “home” as a restoration of lost innocence an elusive or illusory goal. In its tales of urban corruption, moreover, noir, like the woman’s picture with its focus on female problems, thrives on “a dialectic of pathos and action.”

The File on Thelma Jordan

8The File on Thelma Jordan certainly looks like a noir thriller through and through, or at least it has been categorized as such considering the previous films of director Robert Siodmak. (Interestingly, the “content analysis chart” in the PCA file classified it as “Drama-Social problem.”3) The adulterous lovers played by Stanwyck and Wendell Corey meet furtively at night. The murder scene, which occurs midway through, begins with a shot displaying a note Thelma Jordan (Stanwyck) has written to her elderly aunt, saying she is going away for the weekend, as shadows from the curtains on an open window beat over the paper. This note means to give Thelma her alibi, for she intends to rob the wall safe and possibly to murder her aunt, just as it may encourage a viewer to believe (at least for a while) in her innocence and sincerity in planning a weekend getaway with Cleve Marshall (Corey). Siodmak then cuts to the aunt asleep, the curtains’ shadows blowing back and forth over her in the darkness as she rests uneasily, the music reinforcing a sense of menace or dread. Awakened by a pounding noise, the aunt calls for her niece, who does not reply. Hearing someone below, the aunt, her body in the shadows, goes downstairs to the dark ground floor, where she takes a gun from a bureau. She walks into the room which holds the safe and from off-screen a gun fires, its discharge flashing a spark of light that momentarily illuminates the darkened doorway. In addition to prior attention to the billowing curtains and spinning fan overhead as the aunt made her way downstairs, now the camera moves from the doorway to focus on the telephone as it rings, the shrill sound breaking the silence. A cut to the estate’s caretaker answering the phone in his nearby cottage and a second cut to Cleve on the other end of the call, his body cloaked in shadows as he asks for Thelma, begin the series of events that will jeopardize her alibi.

9When Cleve calls again, Thelma answers this time and tells him, “something has happened,” as the caretaker listens in on the extension. Cleve and Thelma then meet outside the house, where she tells him she has found her aunt’s body. She explains to Cleve that, panic-stricken, she has rubbed off all the fingerprints in the room, which he says will be suspicious since one would expect the occupants’ prints to be there; so he leads Thelma back inside to restage the crime scene. Momentary eruptions of illumination—when Thelma switches on a light downstairs as the couple enter the room, only to be ordered by Cleve to turn it off immediately, or again upstairs as she searches for that now-obsolete note to her aunt in order to destroy it since she has to modify her alibi—emphasize how the couple is otherwise moving through darkness as they obscure evidence of the murderer. When the phone rings again and Cleve goes up to the aunt’s bedroom and tells Thelma to answer, the couple is again bathed in light while the caretaker is in shadows as he takes the call, this one from the aunt’s doctor. Listening in, Thelma hears the caretaker say he will go to the main house to check on the aunt. Thelma now pleads with Cleve to leave before he is discovered and they run down the dark staircase. The suspenseful music speeds up, punctuating a tense deadline as the caretaker is slowly walking across the estate grounds while Thelma hurriedly replaces her fingerprints on the window frame and Cleve makes his getaway, only to realize he has forgotten something in the room that might identify him: the pencil with which he lifted the gun. The caretaker finds the body and then sees in the darkness the back of a man as he climbs out the window and runs away. The next morning, Thelma’s reply to Cleve’s second call, which the caretaker will report to the police, confirms her presence in the house during the murder, making chief investigator Miles Scott (Paul Kelly) question why she did not answer the first telephone call and it will cause him to wonder, too, about the identity of the man who was phoning her and who ran away, referred to afterward only as “Mr. X.”

  • 4 The reviews from the weekly edition of Variety, Daily Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and Motion P (...)

10Despite the crime narrative with its dark and shadowy mise-en-scène and obsessive attention to ordinary objects like the telephone and billowing curtains that give them an uncanny resonance, as Michael Walker commented about The File on Thelma Jordan, “it grafts a woman’s picture discourse onto a noir story,” and he goes on to note parenthetically that “it is the first of Siodmak’s films noirs to be scripted by a woman” (Walker 1992:150). The scripter was Ketti Frings, who based her screenplay on an unpublished story by another woman writer, Marty Holland, author of the novel that became the film noir Fallen Angel (1945). Trade reviews nonetheless classified Thelma Jordan as a “melodrama” because of its crime narrative.4

11But whose melodramatic story does Thelma Jordan tell? While a vehicle for Stanwyck as the title character, narratively speaking its protagonist is ADA Cleve Marshall whose story is at once that of a male domestic melodrama of the sort that will become more frequent in the 1950s and a noir thriller in which he falls for Thelma, who exploits his infatuation. Unhappy in his marriage, Cleve in the opening scene gets smashed on the night of his anniversary dinner party and refuses to go home. He confesses to Scott that he is “fed up” with his wealthy father-in-law’s meddling in his marriage. “I like doing things myself,” he states, angry that the father-in-law bought the very anniversary present that he had planned to buy for his wife. After Scott leaves, Cleve meets Thelma accidentally when she wanders into the office looking for Scott to establish a record of alleged burglary attempts at her aunt’s house as the set-up for the robbery she plans to commit, and the couple quickly drift into an adulterous love affair. Gradually, Thelma entangles Cleve in a web of lies about herself as he, still believing in her innocence, not only helps her cover up her involvement in her aunt’s murder, but when she goes on trial for that crime, arranges to prosecute her with a strategy of covertly manipulating an acquittal, which he succeeds in getting. With its lush score by Victor Young—at times romantic, at other times ominous—Thelma Jordan is concurrently a male domestic melodrama about an adulterous affair that goes bad (at the end Cleve is disbarred and estranged from his wife, and Thelma dies), and a film noir about a devious woman trapping a hapless man to serve her criminal designs, while he persists in believing her innocent despite the evidence stacked against her.

12Throughout the film, the veracity of Thelma’s guilt or innocence is never entirely certain. Nor is the sincerity of her love for Cleve. She claims that she only intended to steal the valuable emerald bracelet and not shoot her aunt. Or did she plan on pulling the trigger? Vindicated by the trial after Cleve throws the case, Thelma tells him, “I killed her. I’d like to say that I didn’t intend to kill her. But when you have a gun you always intend if you have to. And you were the fall guy, Cleve, right from the beginning.” Too, does Thelma intentionally muddy the crime scene in order to make Cleve complicit or was she being careless in the execution of the burglary and murder? Yet before she dies, Thelma refuses to name the man who helped her cover up the murder because, she confesses with her last breath, she loves him. Her death-bed confession refutes her earlier rejection of Cleve when he confronts her and her one-time lover, bad boy Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), in her late aunt’s house after her acquittal. While she and Tony had worked hotels and casinos as a pair of con artists and gamblers, and they had planned for Thelma to serve as her aunt’s companion so they could steal the emerald bracelet from the safe, Thelma claims not to have known she is heir to the older woman’s estate; and although it appears she wants to forsake her past life as a flashy blonde with Tony—because she allegedly finds comfort in being what she refers to as “the pleasant, refined Miss Jordan,” the invented persona she presents to Cleve and which their affair spices up—that inheritance pulls her back into her former lover’s orbit. Her only escape, finally, is to kill Tony, by blinding him with a cigarette lighter that causes a car crash which immediately takes his life and results in her fatal injuries.

13In short, overlapping the noir drama of an unhappily married man caught in a dangerous relation with a devious and duplicitous woman is an implicit woman’s picture with Thelma as protagonist, a victim-hero trying to escape an unfaithful lover, Tony, and her own shady past to become “respectable”—this is actually the bare plotline of No Man of Her Own, too, as we shall see. The File on Thelma Jordan, the title alluding to the dossier about Thelma’s sordid past that the investigation prepares but that Cleve ignores, condenses this inchoate woman’s picture into the question of whether Thelma is “a lady in distress,” as a very drunk Cleve refers to her on their first meeting, or a “dame,” as he also implies. Inviting her to go for drink, he explains, “I was just about to go out and find myself a dame.” “I’m no dame, remember,” Thelma scolds him, when she agrees to go once he offers to fix her parking ticket; but as they subsequently kiss when she returns him to his office, she changes her tune: “Maybe I am a dame and just didn’t know it. Maybe I like being picked up by a guy on a binge.” Then she pushes him away and tells him to get out of her car, expressing her regret—although she will look for him the next day.

Figure 1

Figure 1

1. Detroit Free Press / 2. New York Daily News / 3. Kansas City Star / 4. San Francisco Examiner.

Figure 2

Figure 2

1. Philadelphia Inquirer / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3. Los Angeles Times / 4. Arizona Republic.

Figure 3

Figure 3

1. Kansas City Star / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3. Chicago Tribune.

14Paramount’s advertising exploited this blending of two genres, which encouraged audiences to view Thelma Jordan with a sort of double vision. To start with, while in the film’s credits and PCA file the official title is “The File on Thelma Jordan,” which suggests that Thelma is an object of legal scrutiny and investigation, only her name was used in the poster art, press book, and most of the newspaper ads, implying that “Thelma Jordan” is a subject in her own right, a woman whose problems derive from her gender, and not from being a dossier. The most common advertising art was generically vague, enabling the film to be read as either noir or a woman’s picture. Ads in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for instance, showed the adulterous couple in profile with a tag line quoting Thelma: “Maybe I am just a ‘dame’ and didn’t know it.” Variations of this type of ad appeared on opening day or as advance promotion a day or two before the premiere in major cities such as Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Detroit. With a photo of Stanwyck’s head and upper torso in a strapless gown, a smaller photo of Corey’s profile lurking behind her, and suggesting the film is about a woman expressing her sexuality despite cultural constraints, this ad also quoted Thelma’s confession that maybe she is “just a ‘dame.’” However, in most cases this ad directed attention to the quote’s noirish implication by including in smaller type: “Nothing stops Thelma Jordan… She’ll lie… kill… or kiss her way out of anything--.” Some of these ads, with or without the additional text, featured a drawing of Stanwyck and Corey kneeling over what looks like a corpse. Various ads before or during the film’s run in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis and San Francisco used just that second description for the tag line, with a San Francisco ad placing the drawing of the couple and the body in a prominent position.

15The opening day ad in Chicago amplified this second tag line by elaborating upon its noirish sense: “Dangerous [!] Treacherous! Yet fascinating… irresistible! She’ll kill even if she had to kiss for it!” On the other hand, with a photo of Stanwyck’s head and shoulders, another set of ads—this one appearing on opening day or in advance promotion in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City papers—displayed Thelma Jordan as more of a woman’s picture, by quoting her saying, “I’m no good for any man for any longer than a kiss” or by exclaiming, “Most men have known at least one Thelma Jordan!”

16A few ads featured texts that specified more information about the film’s narrative. “She was known as THELMA JORDAN,” said an ad in Kansas City the day before the film opened at the Paramount theatre there. “A wrong girl who met a weak man and carried him to his destruction because he loved her!” Illustrating this description is a photograph of Corey holding Stanwyck’s face in his hands, with the small drawing of the couple crouched over a body superimposed on the top of Stanwyck’s hair. Is this ad promising a film noir about the murder, as the drawing intimates, or a woman’s picture about a disastrous love affair, as the description and photo of the lovers indicate? The ad on opening day, however, inverted the one from the day before, declaring (with a bow to Walter Neff’s famous remark about murder in Double Indemnity [1944]), “IT TAKES NERVES TO WATCH THIS STORY OF A WRONG WOMAN TAKING A RIGHT GUY DOWN THE LINE…” The small print then qualified that statement, aligning the film more with the plot of a woman’s picture, albeit from a man’s point of view: “And you’ll say he was a right guy—married, nice wife, kids, a successful career—everything… Then he fell in love with Thelma Jordan… it will test your nerves to watch what she does to him. Could it happen to you?”

17As a companion to this type of promotion, another ad, this one in New York City and Rochester papers, exclaimed, “Thelma Jordan is Something to Talk About!” The text then amplified what makes her the subject of such rampant talk, in language that to my mind evokes Stella Dallas once she and her husband separate and she makes a spectacle of herself at the resort:

She is the kind of gal every man meets at least once in his lifetime… and whether he loves her or hates her, he can never forget her.
That’s Thelma. No one—man or woman—who crosses her path will ever be able to ease the indelible imprint she leaves on the mind. Because Thelma is something special—the most extraordinary woman of her kind you’d ever be likely to meet… on any street in the world.
Barbara Stanwyck is even more exciting than in “Sorry, Wrong Number,” whose producer, Hal Wallis, now bring you an even higher-pitched story of love-torment and suspense. Wendell Corey is superb as the man who falls for her… into the depths of disaster.
You will find Thelma Jordan something to talk about… for a long time.

18Most indicative of the film’s generic duality were ads in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. When Thelma Jordan premiered in mid-January at the Goldman theatre in Philadelphia, one could easily suppose it was a woman’s picture. “Confessions of Thelma Jordan,” stated the ad on both opening day and the day before. “She is the kind of girl every man meets at least once in his lifetime… and whether he loves or hates her, he can never forget her.” Then we “hear” from Thelma Jordan herself, “MY BEAUTY TRAPPED ALL MEN AND FINALLY—ME TOO!” Along with Stanwyck’s upper torso, small photos expanded upon this narrative, now indicating the dark melodrama of a woman trapped by her own beauty: “I lured him for his help. But he wanted my love. Then murder struck. And the nightmare began.”

19When Thelma Jordan opened the first week of March at the RKO Albee in Cincinnati, on the other hand, it looked like a different film. “TORN FROM POLICE FILES!” the opening day advertisement shouted, above a clipping ripped from a newspaper with the headline “Thelma Jordan Case” and a photo of Stanwyck in prison garb being interrogated by Corey and Paul Kelly. “NOW COMES THE STORY OF THELMA JORDAN,” we learn from text beneath the clipping. “…TOLD WITH HEADLINE REALISM! SMASHING THE SCREEN WITH DOCUMENTARY FORCE!” A similar ad appeared the day before, this time with the boldface tag line, “MOST STARTLING STORY EVER RIPPED FROM POLICE FILES!” and a photo of Stanwyck, again in prison clothing, standing with Corey in front of a jail. “Smashing the screen with documentary force comes the story of Thelma Jordan… and with headline realism!” we discover from a panel below the photo, this second text printed over a blurred newspaper page and with a second picture of Stanwyck looking serious and emotionless. Significantly, too, both ads now amended the shorter title by adding in small letters “The File On” to “Thelma Jordan.”

20It is worth noting that The File on Thelma Jordan was a vehicle for a major star but it was still ordinary studio product; its status as a single feature or the top half of a double-bill depended on the standard booking policy of a particular city: in Pittsburgh, for example, it was a single, as was the custom for most first-run pictures downtown there, whereas in Boston it was atop a double, as was the custom in the Hub. With the exception of very large metropolitan areas like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago, moreover, and unless the chain had a move-over house, Thelma Jordan stayed only a single week downtown before subsequently opening in urban neighborhoods and suburban regions, and this was the case with most studio fare. It is also worth observing that most of the ads described above appeared when the film went wide during the month of January. The difference between the ad in Philadelphia and the one in Cincinnati two months later, with its new emphasis on the film’s “documentary force” in being “ripped from police files,” may well have had to do with disappointing box-office returns in January; the title was already amended to include “The File on” in small letters when the film opened in St. Louis in February and when it went on the Loew’s neighborhood circuit in New York as the bottom half of a double bill in March with this tag line in parenthesis: “The most startling story ever ripped from police files.”

21Truth to tell, most of the theatres playing Thelma Jordan were part of the Paramount chain, which accounts for the sameness of many ads even given the variety, and one also cannot determine the role that management of a particular house owned by an independent chain, as in Philadelphia, or a rival circuit, as in Cincinnati, played in manipulating or manufacturing their ads (many of the ads described here are not in the portions of the pressbook I have been able to find). Even so, a studio’s publicity department designed and gave theatres many options and suggestions for promotion, and they all had a signature style allowing one to distinguish a Paramount film of the period from one made by MGM or Twentieth Century-Fox or Warner Bros. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for studio advertising to play as many cards as possible when promoting a film in a press book, so it should not be surprising that in some cities Thelma was promoted as more of a melodramatic woman’s picture one day and a film noir crime melodrama the next day, or that when displaying text that branded it as a woman’s picture it should also address “you” as a male viewer who could identify with Corey’s “weak” male character being victimized by Stanwyck’s “wrong woman.” The opening day ad in Minneapolis tried to have it both ways, with the tag line on the left informing potential viewers that, evoking Stanwyck’s other noirs, Thelma will lie, kill, kiss her way out of anything, and the tag line on the right reminding them of the star’s woman’s pictures by stating that most men have known at least one Thelma. Interestingly, the film was simply advertised as “Thelma Jordan” on opening day, but the day before the ad copy had added “The File on” in small letters above the character’s name, which alone is in quotation marks.

22When these various advertisements are taken together in conjunction with Paramount’s decision to promote the film as, simply, “Thelma Jordan,” the ad campaign’s variety calls attention to the picture’s generic duality, clarifying how it has to be viewed simultaneously as film noir and a woman’s picture. I am not making this claim to imply that The File on Thelma Jordan is generically muddled, nor do I believe that this is a singular instance of a postwar crime drama claiming to be two different genres. Rather, I have been arguing that narratively and stylistically, Thelma Jordan reveals the melodramatic mode that, especially when designed as a vehicle for a major female star as the promotion makes evident, film noir shares with the woman’s picture, making generic distinctions at the time (is it a crime film? is it a woman’s picture?) hard to parse.

23That generic duality implies how we may reposition Stanwyck as Thelma in the narrative. The ad for the film’s opening day at the Roosevelt theatre in Chicago notes in the lower left hand corner: “BARBARA STANWYCK—more exciting than in ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’ and ‘Double Indemnity,’” thereby reminding potential viewers of her affiliation with crime thrillers as the devious femme fatale in the second film but also as the victim-hero in the first. But as I have shown, Paramount’s ad campaign also links the film, if somewhat less directly, with Stanwyck’s numerous woman’s pictures; in these, even when her character will “lie… kill… or kiss her way out of anything,” she does so because she won’t be defeated by hard circumstances or because she learns how to manipulate her way through patriarchal and sexist power structures.

24If Stanwyck’s woman’s pictures as diverse as Baby Face (1933) and My Reputation (1946) each have her playing a woman who resists sexual and social regulation, so do her films noirs. The duality of Thelma Jordan—in terms of her character, of the film’s narrative, visuals, and music, and of the studio’s promotion—enables us to appreciate not only Thelma as a femme fatale with murderous intent in the tradition of Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity but also as a woman struggling against restrictive conventionality like Jessica Drummond in My Reputation; in their different ways, both Stanwyck characters are frustrated by domestic confinement because of their gender. Indeed, the generic duality I have been discussing makes one realize, too, how “you”—the male-oriented viewer who sympathizes with Cleve because what happened to him could happen to “you”—can only deal with a woman like Thelma—and “you” have apparently all known at least one person like her—by casting her as a “dangerous” and “treacherous” femme fatale, as a “dame” and not as “a lady in distress.” Can’t we therefore see Thelma Jordan implicitly asking us, why is a woman “a dame” if she defies respectability by going drinking with a man on a binge, and what then drives such “a dame” to devious stratagems that result in so profound a betrayal of her lover? If film noir portrays Thelma as a villainous femme fatale from the victimized man’s point of view, the woman’s picture views her more sympathetically as a woman trying to be both sexual and respectable, carnal and romantic, conflicting motives that end up trapping her in “a nightmare,” just as the Philadelphia ad exclaimed.

No Man of Her Own

25By comparison, No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck’s May release for Paramount, looks like and has been classified as a straightforward woman’s picture. Unwed, a pregnant and broke Helen Ferguson (Stanwyck) assumes the identity of another pregnant woman, Patrice Harkness, whom she meets on a train shortly before the latter and her husband die when the cars crash in a dramatic wreck. Mistaken for Patrice and thus receiving first-class treatment as she gives birth and recovers from her injuries in the hospital, Helen decides to continue with the masquerade in order to give her illegitimate baby a name; but it also affords her the familial love and security she has never known—until the plot abruptly veers into film noir territory when she is blackmailed by her former lover and the baby’s father, Steve Morley (Lyle Bettger), once he discovers her impersonation. Though much of the middle section of the film when the Harkness family all assume Helen is Patrice, whom they had never met, occurs in daylight or inside the spacious middle-class home in the evening, No Man of Her Own is styled with tropes (Stanwyck’s voice-over, a flashback frame, the turn to blackmail and murder, dim lighting and shadows in the final act’s nighttime scenes) now associated with film noir; and until the final moments one does not know if Helen murdered her former lover to escape his grasp or was his victim. On the other hand, the family has also made Helen a major heir of their estate, and her unsuccessful effort to convince them not to include her in the will tests and proves her virtue—to us and to the surviving Harkness brother, Bill (John Lund), who has been suspicious of her from the start. By that point, though, Bill and Helen have fallen in love—but is it “too late,” as she fears, or “just in time,” since she thinks Steve was already dead when she arrived at his place and pulled the trigger, and Bill not only disposes of the dead man’s body but tells her he has known of her pose, and he doesn’t care about her past?

  • 5 In I Married a Dead Man, Helen’s surname is “Georgesson.” Helen Ferguson was the name of Stanwyck’s (...)

26Is No Man of Her Own a woman’s picture dressed up as a film noir, or is it really a noir only cloaked in the feminine garments of a woman’s picture? Whereas The File on Thelma Jordan draws on an unpublished story by a woman writer, Sally Benson’s and Catherine Turney’s screenplay for No Man of Her Own is based on I Married a Dead Man by William Irish, a pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich, whose other novels became notable films noirs.5 The novel ends with Helen, now fully inhabiting the identity of Patricia, and her husband Bill each thinking the other must have murdered Steve. Helen knows that because of their secret one day either she or Bill will have to leave their home, which is not as stable and happy as appears on the surface. The film has Helen expressing such doubt in her opening voiceover, which repeats much of the novel’s closing language as she laments that this home we see, “warm and friendly as a home can be,” is “not for us.” With its revelation that Steve was already dead when Helen shot at but missed his body, and that the gun she used was a different caliber than the murder weapon, the film, in contrast with the novel, restores that “warm and friendly” home to her and Bill, for each knows for a fact that the other is innocent of Steve’s murder.

27Furthermore, as in the novel, in the last section Bill’s mother, who has come to love Helen, sends her son to help this woman she supposes to be her daughter-in-law. Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl), the family matriarch in ill health, has accidentally overheard Helen’s despair in the background of a phone call Steve makes to the Harkness residence; having threatened exposure as his means of forcing her to marry him since she is now an heiress, Helen reluctantly agrees to the union and he hangs up before saying much. Realizing that, upon returning home, Helen took a gun with her and departed again, the mother, who has already had several heart attacks, writes a death-bed confession that she herself killed Steve. When the police arrive some time afterward in the film’s present day, the now married Bill and Helen each fear that an arrest of one of them is imminent: this is what colored the resigned tone of her voiceover in the opening. Bill wants to use his mother’s letter but Helen refuses to do so, declaring that Mrs. Harkness was the only mother she had ever known. Whereas in the novel Mrs. Harkness writes a second letter just to the couple declaring her own innocence, leaving open the question of Helen’s or Bill’s guilt, the film invents a character, Steve’s other cast-off mistress, who killed him, relieving for Helen and Bill the undercurrent of marital tension and worry expressed by her voiceover in the opening and belied by the deceptive appearance of the bourgeois home’s “perfect peace and security.”

Figure 4

Figure 4

San Francisco Examiner.

Figure 5

Figure 5

1. New York Daily News / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3–4. Philadelphia Inquirer.

Figure 6

Figure 6

1. Chicago Tribune / 2. Los Angeles Times.

28Paramount’s advertising for No Man of Her Own builds on memories of Stanwyck’s pre-Code woman’s pictures from the 1930s and her later ones like My Reputation. Ads prominently featured Helen’s predicament at the film’s start: “NO MAN OF HER OWN… To Give Her Baby a Name!” screamed an ad in Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Rochester, and Kansas City. “Forced to take another woman’s identity,” it continued in smaller print, “…only to see her desperate lie boomerang into MURDER!” In illustration, the ad featured Stanwyck cradling an infant in her arms, the child swaddled in a blanket; below her image are smaller pictures of Bettger grabbing her from behind, Stanwyck kissing Lund, Lund tossing a body over the rail bridge, and Cowl looking pensive or confused. Furthering linking No Man of Her Own to the star’s woman’s pictures, some of these ads account for Stanwyck’s anxious expression in the large picture: “FRIGHTENED… DESPERATE… PENNILESS.” A variant of this ad appearing in Boston and Salt Lake City featured the same large picture of Stanwyck and the baby, along with smaller headshots of her two male costars, but it replaced the text with Helen’s quoted voice: “That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve… and tell him that I was going to have a baby. He hung up—without even a goodbye!” A San Francisco ad used a shorter version of the quote.

29Other ads exploited the unwed mother angle, even though at forty-two Stanwyck might have seemed a bit long in the tooth to become pregnant (although of course it can happen). Nonetheless, the text in these ads depicted her as girlish. “AS FRANK AS A MOTION PICTURE DARES TO BE!” exclaimed the ad for the film’s preview day at the Paramount in Times Square. “A drama of a woman’s battle to give her baby an honest name. A story mincing no words when a girl’s past suddenly demands payment in full for her one mistake.” On opening day, the ad continued with this declaration of “frankness”: “IT HAPPENS A HUNDRED TIMES A DAY… EVERY DAY IN THE WEEK. IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE… ANY PLACE… TO HOME GIRLS… GIRLS ‘SMART’ AND INNOCENT… Here Is The Full, Frank Story Of Such A Girl… Battling To Give Her Baby An Honest Name!” Yet other New York City ads emphasized the film’s noir aspects, too. As well as including in small text the account of “a woman’s battle to give her baby an honest name,” in larger font this version of the ad shouted: “THE LIE SHE LIVED… GREW INTO BLACKMAIL… AND ENDED IN MURDER!” When the film then moved to the Brooklyn Paramount, the noir melodrama displaced the unwed mother angle: “Betrayed by one man… afraid to take the love of another!”

30A second type of ad ignored the unwed mother story altogether, and forwent or significantly reduced the picture of Stanwyck and the infant, emphasizing instead her character’s masquerade as a result of the train wreck. “CRASH!” cried the ad in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, with variations of this same text appearing in Los Angeles, Kansas City, St. Louis, Rochester, and Phoenix. “…AND FATE GAVE HER THE CHANCE TO LIVE ANOTHER WOMAN’S LOVE.” In much smaller size, we learn, too, that “She made love’s greater mistake!” The art in larger versions depicts Stanwyck in a strapless gown above the crashed train and a smaller image of Bettger trying to pull her away from Lund, as if this triangle were the instigation of the narrative. But this account distorted the plot by implying either that Helen’s masquerade affords her the ability to love Patrice’s husband (and not her brother-in-law Bill) or to take Patrice’s baby as her own (as opposed to passing off her and Steve’s child as a Harkness baby).

31The consequences of Helen’s assuming Patrice’s identity following the train wreck led theaters in San Francisco and Chicago to include more of the noir elements of No Man of Her Own. The opening day ad in San Francisco showed images in a strip of celluloid: “EXCITING SCENE DIRECT FROM THE FILM TRACK!” Using the same images of the crash, Stanwyck and Bettger, Stanwyck cradling the baby, and Lund tossing the body, the accompanying text tells us, “A crash in the night changed her life… Trapped in a relentless web of blackmail… She battled to give her baby an honest name. Would murder bury her shame?” When the film opened in Chicago, one side of the ad pushed the unwed mother angle with the same text as other ads and the image of Stanwyck and the infant, but the top portion emphasized the crime aspect, with Stanwyck made out as the victim, somewhat like her role in Sorry, Wrong Number: “A MAGNIFICENT MASQUERADE that explodes in MURDER! Betrayed—abandoned—she steals another woman’s life—another woman’s love—till a wild kiss and a violent killing trap her!”

32In Philadelphia, by comparison, at the same theatre that had played Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own seems to be only a film noir, with Stanwyck’s character apparently modeled after Phyllis in Double Indemnity or Thelma herself. The day before the film opened, the ad showed Stanwyck wielding a revolver with text describing her as “FEMALE DYNAMITE! You can’t cheat your way out of every jam… even if you’re easy to love… and willing to MURDER!” Smaller text at the bottom refers to the picture of the train crash beside it: “TERROR IN THE NIGHT… A TRAIN CRASH FOLLOWED BY A LIFE OF LIES!” This theme continued on opening day, where the ad shows Stanwyck having fired the gun: “BETRAYAL! VENGEANCE! VIOLENCE! Tough, hard-boiled drama of hot suspense and cold MURDER!” The Philadelphia ads hit hard the noirish elements of No Man of Her Own, a perspective hinted at in the other cities’ ads with their tag lines about blackmail and murder.

33Even though “film noir” was not a legible generic category in 1950, while “woman’s picture” would have been the more viable generic label, Paramount was obviously cashing in on the postwar popularity of crime dramas, fittingly so given the source of No Man of Her Own in a Woolrich novel. At the same time, the advertising did not disguise the film’s premise about an unwed mother, a woman abandoned by her lover, which, more than the crime films she had made at Paramount in the forties, evoked Stanwyck’s woman’s pictures of the 1930s. Yet the middle-aged Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own is more passive and victimized than many of the star’s pre-Code characters. Nonetheless, as the voice over frame, implications of Helen’s guilt, and the blackmail plot indicate, and some of the ads highlight this, the film heavily relies on what came to be known as “film noir” too.

34In this respect No Man of Her Own is the reverse image of The File on Thelma Jordan. On one hand, as the victim-hero of a woman’s picture Helen is acted upon by other characters (Bill, Steve, Mrs. Harkness, even Patrice who instigates their meeting on the train and, moments before the crash, who places her wedding ring on Helen’s finger for safekeeping while she washes up as the two women chatter in the bathroom of the train) or circumstances (Helen does not initiate her masquerade but is mistaken for Patrice by police, hospital workers, and the doctors because of the ring on her finger; Steve happens to have already been murdered when she goes to kill him; Mrs. Harkness accidentally overhears her despair when Steve calls the house; Bill happens to pass her and Steve returning from the justice of the peace and follows them; and Bill decides to toss the body from the train to protect her from incrimination). Helen, in sum, suffers and feels guilty for her impersonation, and her guilt and dread in her opening voiceover color our sense of what she will do to maintain her masquerade until the ending reveals her innocence.

35On the other hand, as the noir ads emphasize and the framing device works to trigger memories of Stanwyck’s crime films, Helen’s passivity may hide her assertiveness, as evident in the beginning of the flashback when she stands outside the locked door of Steve’s apartment, crying and shouting for him until a neighbor orders her to shut up, and as confirmed by her determination to murder Steve later on as her only way to keep her masquerade from being exposed. Helen may lack the calculating coldness of Thelma Jordan but as that character does with Cleve, she likewise implicates Bill in Steve’s murder since he disposes of the body to preserve her reputation. The real killer invented for the film, the woman who replaced Helen in Steve’s affections, is Helen’s double who absorbs Helen’s own murderous impulse and detracts from the fact that her impersonation is never publicly exposed. Nor ever made public is Bill’s complicity in removing the corpse, which has had the satisfying effect of delaying the police from identifying the body and locating the murder scene. If The File on Thelma Jordan is an inchoate woman’s picture inside a film noir, then No Man of Her Own is a nascent film noir inside a woman’s picture.

36As in the case of Thelma Jordan, the generic duality of No Man of Her Own suggests a possible critique of the cultural conditioning of an independent woman’s limited choices in a patriarchal culture, dramatized here by the extent to which aggressive men, Bill and Steve, cue Helen’s actions while positioning her as a “dangerous” and “threatening” female insofar as she deceives the former and wants to murder the latter. As Jeanne Basinger notes, when commenting on the physical similarities of the actors playing Steve and Bill, the two characters, one refined and the other brutish, are cut from the same cloth: “Both men are blond and fine-featured, and both of them seem perfectly willing to use women for their own end” (Basinger 1993 :403). Whereas Helen feels constrained by convention in order to appear respectable and she decides she must eliminate Steve in order to keep secure that false appearance of restraint and domesticity, Bill’s confidence in “male power, economic security, and status” lets him feel “free to break laws as necessary for his own personal happiness” (402-3). Thus he knowingly allows Helen to continue with her masquerade after he discovers it early on and decides to dispose of Steve’s body in order to save her from incrimination after she fires the gun.

  • 6 Interestingly, Paramount’s publicity stunt in New York City played up the independence of a single (...)

37The woman’s picture angle motivates Helen’s actions in reaction to the aggressive domination of those two men.6 As Basinger also observes, “This type of story reinforces the sense of desperation that women have when men desert them and they have a child to care for. It shows how limited their options are once they leave the restrictions of polite society behind. Cut loose from secure places, their lives inevitably become crackpot plots.” (Basinger 1993 :401) The “crackpot plot” of No Man of Her Own spins out from the train crash, which seemingly resolves Helen’s desperation by offering her new, less limited “options” as she decides to continue with her masquerade in the Harkness household. Yet as Helen indicates in her voiceover, her masquerade always has the potential to destabilize the otherwise “warm and friendly” bourgeois Harkness home; it enables a viewer to pay more attention to how much that “warm and friendly” home, managed and dominated by Mrs. Harkness and her housekeeper, can only domesticate those aggressive men by infantilizing them: Bill is boyish and rambunctious and Mr. Harkness vapid and ineffectual.

Concluding Thoughts

38What may be most revealing about the ads I have analyzed here is Stanwyck’s face in them, regardless of the generic pitch. As Thelma Jordan, she is sexy and seductive in most of the ads, her head tilted, her neck and shoulders exposed by her strapless gown, or she is shown in profile in a clinch with Corey. The text of the ad copy then indicates how to view the repeated imagery in generic terms, though the genres themselves may differ or get meshed together, depending on the discourse in the ad. This is even more pronounced in the ads for No Man of Her Own; here Stanwyck’s face mostly shows anguish or a sense of peril. But it also seems to matter little in the promotion if Stanwyck holds a baby or aims a gun because the different styled ads use the same drawing of the star’s face, her expression wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Only one or two of the ads show her in a strapless gown, possibly indicating that for these ads the worried Helen’s head may have been pasted onto the seductive Thelma’s body; and only a few show her clutching the infant in desperation. On one hand, the reiteration of the same image of her face in the promotion of each film identifies each as a Stanwyck star vehicle; on the other, it reflects how the same film can be legible as a noir thriller or a woman’s picture depending on how a particular advertisement discursively frames that film—and the star’s face.

39The generic duality that I have analyzed in the promotion and narratives of The File on Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own may well have resulted from Paramount’s uncertainty in 1950 about Hollywood’s reliable audience after the box-office fallout beginning in 1947 and the federal government’s disaggregation of the studios from their profitable exhibition chains in 1948. Paramount was the named party in the anti-trust suit and consent decree, and it was the first major to spin off its theatres, the largest chain in the country. By comparison, MGM—the other studio releasing Stanwyck films in 1950—was the slowest of the majors to change in response to the industrial transformation begun after the consent decree and the last to finalize its divorce from Loew’s theatres. It was in 1950, for instance, that Balaban & Katz, a Paramount subsidiary until 1949 and the dominant theatre chain in Chicago, began opening most A pictures like No Man of Her Own atop a double bill at their downtown houses in an effort to woo people back to the movies.

40Aside from those industrial circumstances, moreover, Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own were still readily viewable as melodramas (in either the older industrial or contemporary scholarly sense of the term) because of Stanwyck’s powerful and layered star text in 1950, which brought to these films’ plots and their promotion her already strong identification with woman’s pictures and crime films. I suspect the writers knew this when crafting the screenplays around her persona, and the people designing the promotion at Paramount must have shared this awareness as well. The ad campaign sells Stanwyck as the central element of both Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own, much as the studio had previously done with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number. But Stanwyck was 42 in 1950; she would turn 43 on July 16. While she could still be convincing as the seductive Thelma Jordan, middle-age may have cast a shadow on her playing outright a hardened and sexy femme fatale as in Martha Ivers. And Stanwyck’s age may have raised eyebrows about her playing a guileless, unwed, and pregnant woman who accidentally takes on the identity of a young bride in No Man of Her Own. If nothing else, the promotion of the two films, which casts each as both a crime film and a woman’s picture, may have been intended to balance out the unequal equation of Stanwyck’s age and her character. Still, Stanwyck was always up front about her age. After Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own, in fact, she would begin playing characters more in keeping with her own age as a matter of course, just as she would continue to make woman’s pictures, crime films, and Westerns, playing wronged women, unfaithful women, and bad women.

41Although I wrote this essay as a case study of Stanwyck’s two crime films from 1950 it has wider implications about film noir that will be worth pursuing in my future research. The promotion of The File on Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own offers a lens for viewing how each is in effect working out what a female-centered film noir looks like according to the melodramatics of the woman’s picture; this approach, reading noir narratives alongside their promotion, can offer additional revelations about the melodramatic basis of Stanwyck’s other crime films from the ’40s and ’50s, as well as those starring other actresses now identified with film noir as its icons, like Joan Crawford, Lizabeth Scott, and Gloria Grahame. Similarly, it will be worth doing the same with these stars’ more straightforward woman’s pictures in order to see how or if noirish elements seep through in the promotion or the plots—as happens, for instance, in Universal’s Sirkian melodrama, All I Desire (1953), when Stanwyck again shoots Lyle Bettger, albeit accidentally.

  • 7 For a very useful overview of promotion of key films noirs from the 1940s (Double Indemnity, Murder (...)

42From another perspective, it will be illuminating to look at these ad campaigns to see which studios seemed more invested in selling the crime films of those iconic actresses as both woman’s pictures and noirs, and which studios refrained from doing so.7 Were some studios like Paramount with Stanwyck and Warners with Crawford doing this as product differentiation and company branding or was it done on a film by film or star by star basis? Or as already suggested, was this mainly a late 40s and early 50s phenomenon responding primarily to the divorcement of theatre chains, attendance fall-off, and loss of profits? If that is the case, did other studios also register their own anxiety about the industry by hybridizing some generic formulas like the woman’s picture or the crime film?

43Finally, this kind of analysis ought to offer some fresh insights about the melodramatic basis of male-centered films noirs, too. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s many crime films were produced with masochistic plots pivoting upon victim-heroes and sadistic villains, with both figures played by leading male stars or actors who would become major (Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan), so film noir was already becoming evident as something distinctive even though it had yet to be named. Placing the narratives of male and female star vehicles alongside their promotion and studio affiliation will, I think, more clearly trace the industrial transformation of the 1930s crime film and woman’s pictures into the melodramatic noir of the postwar era.

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Altman Rick (1999), Film/Genre, London, British Film Institute.

Basinger Jeanine (1993), A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930–1960, Hanover, Wesleyan University Press.

Eagle Jonna (2017), Imperial Affects: Sensational Melodrama and the Attractions of American Cinema, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Franke Charles L. (1950), Rev. of No Man of Her Own, Motion Picture Daily, 21 February: 3.

Grossman Julie (2020), The Femme Fatale, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Haralovich Mary Beth (2013), “Selling Noir: Stars, Gender, and Genre in Film Noir Posters and Publicity,” in Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson (eds.), A Companion to Film Noir, Wiley Blackwell, Malden, MA, p. 245–63.

Naremore James (2008), More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Neale Steve (1993), “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press,” Velvet Light Trap, 32 (Fall), p. 66–89.

Neale Steve (2000), Genre and Hollywood, London and New York, Routledge.

Walker Michael (1992), “Robert Siodmark,” in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Book of Film Noir, New York, Continuum, p. 110–151.

Williams Linda (1998), “Melodrama Revisited,” in Nick Browne (ed.), Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History, Berkeley, University of California Press, p. 42–88.

Williams Linda (2001), Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, Princeton, University of Princeton Press.

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1 For this case study I have looked at ads during the first-run of The File on Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own in the following newspapers: Atlanta Constitution, Arizona Republic, Boston Globe, Brooklyn Eagle, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Detroit Free Press, Kansas City Star, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Miami News, Minneapolis Star, New York Daily News, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Telegram, San Francisco Examiner, St. Louis Post Dispatch, and Syracuse Post-Standard. With the exception of the New York Times (accessed through ProQuest), the archives for these papers were all available at A sampling of the ads I discuss are in subsequent sections of this essay.

2 I say “almost” because some scholarship has revived thinking about male action films as melodramas. Williams 2001 has looked at how popular culture in the US constructed racialized narratives in melodramas focused on male protagonists, and more recently, Eagle 2017 discusses the melodramatic basis of many Westerns and war films.

3 The PCA file on Thelma Jordan has been scanned by the Margaret Herrick library: (accessed March 6, 2024).

4 The reviews from the weekly edition of Variety, Daily Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and Motion Picture Daily were clipped and included in the PCA file.

5 In I Married a Dead Man, Helen’s surname is “Georgesson.” Helen Ferguson was the name of Stanwyck’s close friend and publicity manager. Was the name change a friendly shout-out by the star, suggested as such a nod by Benson or Turney, or possibly by director Leisen, or an in-joke, or just a coincidence? The Harkness surname was also changed from the novel’s “Hazzard.”

6 Interestingly, Paramount’s publicity stunt in New York City played up the independence of a single woman yet still objectified her. A classified want ad in the May 2 issue of the Daily News called for “Beautiful Bachelor Girl who has ‘NO MAN OF HER OWN,’” with instructions to report to the Paramount theatre for an interview; prizes would be awarded “to the five most beautiful.” The bachelor girls would have no man of their own but they would still be judged for their physical attributes by men, which implies that having “no man of her own” is a bachelor girl’s liability rather than an asset.

7 For a very useful overview of promotion of key films noirs from the 1940s (Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, Gilda, and Out of the Past), one that takes into account the role that the gendered images and generic associations of male and female stars played in them, see Haralovich 2013. I also wish to thank Shelly Stamp for our conversations at various conferences about film noir advertising and for sharing her work in progress on the specific address to women in the promotion of many noirs from the 1940s.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende 1. Detroit Free Press / 2. New York Daily News / 3. Kansas City Star / 4. San Francisco Examiner.
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre Figure 2
Légende 1. Philadelphia Inquirer / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3. Los Angeles Times / 4. Arizona Republic.
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,2M
Titre Figure 3
Légende 1. Kansas City Star / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3. Chicago Tribune.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Titre Figure 4
Légende San Francisco Examiner.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
Titre Figure 5
Légende 1. New York Daily News / 2. Cincinnati Enquirer / 3–4. Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Figure 6
Légende 1. Chicago Tribune / 2. Los Angeles Times.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
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Steven Cohan, « Melodramatic Noir: Advertising the Generic Duality of The File on Thelma Jordan and No Man of Her Own »Genre en séries [En ligne], 16 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Steven Cohan

Steven Cohan is Dean’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University and a former president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. His books include Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties (Indiana UP, 1997), Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical (Duke UP, 2005), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (BFI, 2008), Hollywood by Hollywood: The Backstudio Picture and the Mystique of Making Movies (Oxford UP, 2018), Hollywood Musicals (Routledge, 2019), Sunset Boulevard (BFI-Bloomsbury, 2022), and On Audrey Hepburn: An Opinionated Guide (Oxford UP, forthcoming 2024).

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