The Best Melodramas of All Time – 10 Great Melodrama Movies

Since its inception, cinema has had the ambition to strongly affect the emotions of the viewer. In turn, the melodrama proved to be an incredibly popular genre, evoking genuine emotion and reverie over the unfortunate fate of the characters.

Melodrama is one of the oldest film genres, which very quickly gained great popularity in almost every latitude. In its early development, the true master of the convention was David Wark Griffith, casting his beautiful muse Lillian Gish in tearful stories. Melodramas also created other great stars, we can mention such celebrities as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, for example.

In a classic film with a melodramatic plot, we are dealing with an unhappy love story, very often ending in the death of the heroine. Later, however, other thematic variations began to emerge, such as dramatic stories about motherhood and fatherhood. Melodrama played a big role in pre-war Polish cinema, as it was the most popular film genre next to comedy, with Jadwiga Smosarska and later Elżbieta Barszczewska becoming its stars.

The Best Melodramas of All Time

1. “Out of Africa” (1985)

Melodramas - Out of Africa

Out of Africa” (1985) is one of the most beautiful film-melodramas in the history of cinema. The work, directed by Sydney Pollack and based on the autobiographical novel by Karen Blixen, is not only a love story between two white people in the Black Continent, but also a moving portrayal of an Africa that both delights and terrifies. Starring in the lead roles were Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. They created a pair of lovers who, despite the differences that divide them, happen to be genuinely fascinated and passionate – against conventions and social expectations.

Sydney Pollack’s work won as many as seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was also recognized for its wonderful music by John Barry or cinematography by David Watkin. “Out of Africa” is a moving story about a woman who finds her own path in life and the strength to pursue it. A Danish writer betrayed by her husband has to face running a coffee plantation in Kenya by herself. Unexpectedly, however, she sees qualities in herself that she did not expect. She shows not only courage and determination, but also openness to another culture and customs.

Under these conditions, a woman’s passionate and deep feelings for a handsome hunter are born, and he reveals to her the secrets of a magnificent continent. This melodramatic story is not coincidentally set in the Black Continent. The land of the untamed power of nature is the setting symbolically associated with the female element. At the same time, we are dealing here not only with an erotic story, but also with a great romance between a European woman and the wild and captivating Africa.

2. “The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)

The best melodramas - The Cranes Are Flying

The Cranes Are Flying” from 1957 is a Soviet film by Mikhail Kalatozov, made during the political thaw. The melodrama depicts the unhappy love story of Veronika (Tatiana Samoylova) and Boris (Alexei Batalov), separated by the war. The girl, convinced of the death of her beloved, marries his brother. This highly lyrical film was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. “The Cranes Are Flying” is certainly a multi-layered cinematic masterpiece.

Kalatozov’s movie was one of the first Soviet pictures to de-legitimize the history of World War II. Instead of the story of Stalin’s heroic victory over fascism, we have ordinary human dramas in the foreground. The war destroys everything that is most precious to man, above all the innocence of the first deep feelings. It forces you to make cruel choices, to rape your own soul in the name of biological survival. It forever changes human ways and hearts, and the only method of defense available to the human psyche is oblivion. For, as one of the characters in the film says, “such is the human fate that one must forget a lot”.

3. “Broken Blossom” (1919)

The best melodramas of all time - Broken Blossom

“Broken Blossom” (1919) is a great work of silent cinema directed by David Wark Griffith, the father of film melodrama. The film tells the love story of a young Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) for a young girl (Lillian Gish) who is the victim of a cruel father. The Broken Lily viewed today glaring a bit sentimentalism and pathos, but it remains the first true melodrama in the history of cinema. It tells the story of the pernicious influence of Western civilization on moral values.

In a way, “Broken Blossom” promotes the progressive, for its time, idea of love overcoming racial divisions. This is significant because the action takes place in England, the home of imperial white colonialism. The film is notable for its excellent acting, although Lilian Gish herself protested against being cast as a teenager. As usual, however, she charms on screen with her ethereal and fragile beauty. The melodramatic effect is also enhanced by the amazing out-of-focus cinematography by Billy Bitzer.

4. “Camille” (1934)

Best melodrama movies - Camille

Camille” (1934), on the other hand, is a famous melodrama starring Greta Garbo. Directed by George Cukor, the film is an adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas’ son. It tells the story of the luxurious courtesan Marguerite, who, thanks to her love for a young man – Armand Duvall (Robert Taylor) – has a chance to regain her lost dignity. “Camille” brought Greta Garbo her third Oscar nomination and the New York Film Critics Award.

The main character of “Camille” was modeled on an authentic character, Marie Duplessis, mistress of Alexandre Dumas and Franz Liszt. The famous French courtesan, as well as an expert in art and fashion, owed her nickname to her habit of decorating her outfits with camellia flowers. Marie died at the age of just 23 from pulmonary tuberculosis. Greta Garbo created one of her most outstanding creations in Cukor’s film. She conveyed the complex personality of the tragic Margeurite – at once beautiful, ethereal, arousing desire, and at the same time a shrewd and at times cruel woman who, in order to survive in an unforgiving world, must make courageous decisions.

Garbo’s biographer, Barry Paris, wrote of her performance: “Camille” was Garbo’s first, last and only purely classical role – her most lasting contribution to film history, a character given the chance to express an unparalleled range of emotions.”

5. “Waterloo Bridge” (1940)

The best of romance and melodrama movies - Waterloo Bridges

Waterloo Bridge” (1940) is a touching movie telling the story of a couple in love separated by World War I. Beautiful ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), convinced that her beloved Roy (Robert Taylor) has died at the front, is forced by difficult living conditions into prostitution. Unexpectedly, however, after several years she meets her chosen one. The film still makes a huge impression today and certainly ranks among the best melodramas of all time.

Leroy’s film earned two Oscar nominations: for Herbert Stothart for best music and Joseph Ruttenberg for his beautiful black-and-white cinematography. The film clearly echoes the strict, still pre-war morality, according to which a woman’s bad conduct, even justified by such dramatic circumstances as the specter of starvation, forever derails a woman’s social standing. Nevertheless, even decades after the premiere, the actors defend their characters on screen through the truth of their feelings. Especially phenomenal here is Vivien Leigh, who, as usual on the big screen, creates an unforgettable, almost iconic performance.

6. “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)

top melodramas - The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) is a remarkable work by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood also plays one of the main roles here – a photographer who comes down to a provincial town to take interesting pictures. Unexpectedly, when Robert meets a seemingly ordinary housewife – Francesca (Meryl Streep), one of the ordinary trips of a well-known artist unexpectedly transforms into the romance of a lifetime. The melodrama tells the story of a wonderful, mature love and fascination that have no chance of fulfillment.

When Clint Eastwood ended his career as a “Hollywood tough guy” and stood on the other side of the camera, he became known as a director with an unheard-of sensitivity to existential problems. What “The Bridges of Madison County” is undoubtedly one of his best films, in which he managed not to cross the thin line that in melodrama runs between pathos and truth of feelings and sentimental kitsch. The work is a penetrating portrait of the province and the fate of an ordinary woman who devotes almost everything to her children and family. This role is so exhausting that there is very little space left for herself – only as much as she can fit into her inner life, invisible to others. But it is there that Francesca’s inner life manages to reach Robert, a worldly artist who travels all over the world to find the love of his life in the most ordinary village.

7. “Casablanca” (1942)

10 best melodrama movies - Casablanca

Casablanca” (1942) is a cult film by Michael Curtiz, set in the eponymous Casablanca during World War II. Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a nightclub owner, accidentally meets his beloved Ilsa (Ingrid Berman), lost in the turmoil of war. Unfortunately, she is married to Victor Laszlo (Paul Hendreid), a well-known resistance activist. Rick, in spite of his own feelings, decides to help the couple escape overseas. Casablanca is one of the classics of world cinema, combining features of melodrama and cinema noir.

Therefore, we have, on the one hand, the characteristic melodramatic fatalism, and, on the other hand, an admittedly wartime, but crime story-like plot. Significant is the peculiar atmosphere of nightclubs and gambling, which is all the more asking for an unhappy love to happen. Humphrey Bogart created here an unforgettable romantic hero who sacrifices everything for his beloved. The magnificent music from “Casablanca”, especially Herman Hupfeld’s song “As Times Goes By…” The scene of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye in the evening at the airport drowning in fog, on the other hand, is almost a symbol of film melodrama. The film’s immense popularity also made “Casablanca” itself famous, and it became a popular holiday destination.

8. “Splendor in the Grass” (1961)

10 must-see melodramas - Splendor in the Grass

Splendor in the Grass” (1961) is also a film that cannot be missing from the ranking of the best melodramas. Elia Kazan’s work still exudes unheard-of eroticism and truth of feeling. Instead of sentimental tenderness, Kazan touches the viewer’s authentic emotions, building a love story of two young people from different social strata, separated by parents fearful of misalliance. The leading roles were played by Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.

The film’s Oscar-winning screenplay was written by prominent writer William Inge. The spring exuberance of the grasses with the title motif taken from a poem by William Wordsworth is the story of a great lost love, told with unheard-of sensitivity and subtlety. The crystalline purity of the first feeling juxtaposed with the brutality of the world and the rules that govern it inspires genuine defiance and regret. And the wisdom that comes with experience cannot make up for what has been irretrievably lost. For as the words of a work by a Romantic poet proclaim: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass “.

9. “Cold Mountain” (2003)

The best melodramas list - Cold Mountain

Anthonny Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” (2003) is a melodrama of a highly epic nature. The story is set during one of the bloodiest in the history of the Civil War in the United States. The work shows how the lyrical pre-marriage meeting of Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law) turns into love, which is the strongest motivation to survive the war hell.

This movie is not only a gripping romantic story, but also a thoughtful and interesting portrayal of the everyday life of Americans during the Civil War. It is significant in this context that the performer of the supporting role, Renee Zellweger, was awarded an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA statuette for her performance. The love plot itself, on the other hand, is a picture of the highest order. Between the first and the next meeting of the lovers, almost everything changes: the world goes up in flames, the young protagonists have to fight for survival and mature at a rapid pace. Their idea of the nature of man and the relationships he creates will also undergo a thorough metamorphosis. If anything can emerge victorious from this trial, it can only be a deep faith in love.

10. “The Notebook”

Top melodrama movies list - The Notebook

Nick Cassavetes’ 2004 movie, “The Notebook”, is a beautiful and gripping melodramatic tale. The romantic love story even exudes the heat of first feelings and the desire to realize them. Noah is a poor sawmill worker living in the province. One summer a beautiful girl comes to his town to spend the vacations with her family. Allie, initially treating the boy with disdain, gradually begins to take an interest in him, and eventually develops an unusually deep affection for him. Standing in the way of the young’s happiness, however, are the girl’s wealthy parents, who cannot imagine that their only daughter could commit such an infamous misalliance. So they send Allie to an elite school, as far away from Noah as possible….

The success and popularity of “The Notebook” is certainly due in large part to the actors playing the main roles. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams played their characters wonderfully, and you can sense the incredible chemistry between them on screen. Shy, intelligent Noah, madly in love with Allie, and then years longing for her and successively realizing her deepest dreams, arouses vivid sympathy. In turn, McAdams’ charming heroine, who, despite the luxury in which she lives, is able to see in an ordinary sawmill worker unique qualities and endow him with sincere affection, captures the audience by the heart. Interestingly, however, “The Notebook” is not just a melodrama for young people, but a universal film about love that will appeal to viewers of all ages.

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