Thursday, 7 April 2011

Framing Incandescence: Elizabeth Taylor in JANE EYRE (1944)

"In a world of flickering images,
Elizabeth Taylor was a constant star.

This video offers an audiovisual introduction to issues of film performance, cinematic staging, and gender in relation to Elizabeth Taylor's brief, uncredited role as doomed-child character Helen Burns in the 1944 film Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Stevenson, and adapted from Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel of the same name.

Film Studies For Free was far from home, just over two weeks ago, when the remarkable film actor and person Elizabeth Taylor passed away. It was very sorry not to be able to respond to this event as soon as it might have liked. Taylor was FSFF's author's favourite Hollywood star by some distance.

David Hudson has worked hard to gather links to an astonishing range of online tributes to Taylor. FSFF wanted to add to these, but not simply with its own customary list of links to any related (in this case, rather scant) online scholarly resources.

It decided upon the creation of a relatively self-contained audiovisual memorial in the form of the above contemplation, Framing Incandescence - the second in FSFF's new, video primer series.

As befits a 'Primer', rather than aiming to generate completely new insights, this 'rich text object' attempts, within the time-space of the average YouTube fan clip, to assemble and combine quotations from existing film scholarship on its topic with sequences from the film in question in order to provide a meaningful, scholarly and affective, immersive experience. Making fair use of the possibilities for moving image studies offered by online accessibility, video primers might well profit from feeling a little like fan videos and introductory film studies all at once.

Framing Incandescence certainly comments on the fetishism and fetishisation of the star image of Elizabeth Taylor at the same time as it willingly deploys that fetishism in its own rhetoric and, indeed, it practices tactical forms of 'possessive spectatorship', such as those Laura Mulvey points to, in her recent work, as characteristic of film viewing in the digital age.

For the quotations in this particular study, FSFF is especially indebted to the work of film scholar Gaylyn Studlar in her brilliant essay on Taylor's performances as a child actor in her three 1944 films (Jane Eyre, The White Cliffs of Dover and National Velvet). This essay appears in Tamar Jeffers McDonald's fascinating 2010 collection Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film (Wayne State University Press). Other sources and related texts of interest are listed below.

The makers of Jane Eyre cast two further, wonderful, child stars from the 1940s in more central roles than that of Taylor: Peggy Ann Garner (featured extensively in the video primer) and Margaret O'Brien. If you are interested in the concept, practices and history of the child actor/child star, and issues of juvenile performance more generally, you may well want to know about an upcoming conference precisely on this topic. Please scroll down further in this entry to find out more. 

Further related reading and texts cited by the 'Framing Incandescence' video primer:
  • David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)
  • Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic  (Manchester: Manchester University Press,1992)
  • Richard Dyer, White (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) [Dyer's reference to tuberculosis as 'White Death' is on p. 209)
  • Delphine Letort,' Diverging Interpretations of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): Franco Zeffirelli’s and Robert Stevenson’s Screen Adaptations', Revue LISA/LISA e-journal online here
  • Susan McLeland, ''Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood's Last Glamour Girl', in Hilary Radner and Moya Luckett (eds), Swinging single: representing sexuality in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
  • Jane O'Connor, Cultural Significance of the Child Star (London and New York: Routledge, 2008)
  • Jane O'Connor, 'Beyond Social Constructionism: A Structural Analysis of the Cultural Significance of the Child Star', Children and Society, Vol. 23 (2009), pp. 214-225
  • Momin Rahman, '[Review] Jane O'Connor, The Cultural Significance of the Child Star...', Canadian Journal of Sociology 33(3) 2008, pp. 752-754: online here
  • Diana Serra Cary, Hollywood's Children (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1978, 1997)
  • Gaylyn Studlar, 'Velvet's Cherry: Elizabeth Taylor and Virginal English Girlhood' in Tamar Jeffers McDonald (ed.), Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010)
  • Emma Wilson, Cinema's Missing Children (London: Wallflower Press, 2003)

Child Actors/Child Stars: Juvenile Performance on Screen
A conference co-hosted by the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland, and the School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex. 
To be held at the David Puttnam Media Centre, University of Sunderland
8-9 September, 2011
 This conference seeks to build on recent scholarly interest in screen performance by focusing on the contribution of child actors to the history of international film and television. From the popular child stars of Hollywood to the child actors working in popular television and the non-professional children ubiquitous throughout ‘world cinema,’ the child performer is a prominent figure across a diverse range of media. However, the child actor is rarely considered in discussions of screen performance or of the representation of childhood: this conference will be the first of its kind to be focused exclusively on the work of children in and for film and television. We welcome papers that discuss particular child stars and performers and/or particular performances by children, as well as papers that consider more general historical and theoretical questions related to the child actor’s presence on the screen and their position in film and television cultures and industries. 
Confirmed Keynote Speaker: Dr. Karen Lury (University of Glasgow), author of The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairytales (2010).
Confirmed Special Guest: Jon Whiteley, the former child actor, will talk about his film career and his experiences making Hunted (Charles Crichton, 1952), The Little Kidnappers (Philip Leacock, 1953), Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955) and The Spanish Gardener (Philip Leacock, 1956).
(Further Speakers/Special Guests to be announced)
The conference will comprise both traditional panels (consisting of papers of 20-25 minutes) and workshops (consisting of 10 minute long position papers that outline a key idea/theme/ argument or offer close analysis of a moment of child performance in film). Please clearly mark your submission ‘panel’ or ‘workshop’. We hope the conference will both represent existing scholarship and inspire and encourage further work, and so we welcome contributions that are speculative and experimental.  We are interested in papers on the following topics but would also welcome proposals on other areas as well:
the training and schooling of child actors; the craft and labour of the child actor; notions of agency and control; different traditions of child acting and how child acting operates within different national/historical/cultural contexts and on the small (tv) as opposed to big screen (cinema); the critical reception of children’s performances/the child as actor; the relationship between child acting and child stardom (e.g. the contribution that performance makes to the formation/articulation of child star identity; the notion of the child star as performer); the child actor’s transition to child star; the transition from child to adolescent (or adult) performer; adolescent performances in film and/or television; how child performance operates within the context of genre; the child’s voice as an aspect of performance; voice/body relations in child performance; the dynamics involved when children perform with adult actors/stars; the work of the child actor in children’s vs. non-children’s cinema/television;  children performing with animals; ensemble child acting;  the performative spaces in which children find scope to act; child acting during the silent vs. sound era;  the notion of the child as performer in the animated film;  collaborations between child actors and particular directors or stars;   professional vs. non-professional child acting.
 It is hoped that selected papers from the conference will be published in the form of an edited book collection. Please send abstracts (no more than 250 words) to our conference email address by 15 April 2011. Pre-constituted panels of 3 speakers are welcome. Acceptance notices will be issued by 6 May 2011. Our conference website is available at and will be updated with registration and other details in the coming weeks. 
Any general enquiries should be addressed to the conference co-organisers: Susan Smith and Michael Lawrence.


Luke said...


Your intentions are noble, but although the Internet is international, copyright law is geographically specific, and there is no provision for 'fair use' in UK law. What the UK has is 'fair dealing' - specifically sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. S. 29 is Research and Private Study; S. 30 is Criticism, Review and News Reporting. S. 29 is cited when copies of part of a copyright work are photocopied in a library, but it does not cover film or sound recordings (something highlighted in the recent Gowers Review on Intellectual Property, which recommended a change to make the exception non-medium specific). S. 30 is closer to what you are doing. Though some are trying to argue for a UK fair use provision (see responses to the ongoing Hargreaves review,, we don't have it in UK or EU law. (Of course, the interpretation of what is 'fair use' is highly contentious)

What I think you are doing is showing copyright film clips for the purposes of criticism and review, which is a legitimate defence in UK law. Your claim of fair use, however, is meaningless.

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to comment, Luke. I very much respect your opinion as one of the UK's leading film and moving image curators and scholars. As the posts at this blog will testify, I have been following Fair Use and Fair Dealing debates for some time now, and also intervening in them with my video essay work, and it's good to see that we share an understanding of the current UK situation.

I know I must obey the laws of the land in which I live, and as you concur, I believe I am doing that.

But it is far from 'meaningless' to assert 'Fair Use' in this case. Apart from the fact that the video and this blog are hosted on US owned websites where the DMCA (with its current Fair Use exceptions) is relevant, Film Studies For Free is primarily a political, and hopefully also a persuasive website. It campaigns in both national and, given the majority of its readership, international spheres for both Open Access to and Fair Use of copyright, Creative Commons (as well as completely Public Domain) materials for the legitimate purposes of scholarship, criticism, and review. I believe Fair Use to be an easily understandable concept and thus one of much greater utility in these matters, in the actual practices of criticism, review and scholarship than, say, Fair Dealing (see the useful campaigning arguments and advice available at the US based Center for Social Media).

By the way, I am not just showing film clips, but transforming them (this video is highly edited as anyone who knows the film will attest). And again, the transformative character of these new digital works is one of the key elements that Fair Use campaigners and scholars are working with.