Now let me turn to another movie, similarly unconscious in its approach, but a movie that for me carries much fonder associations. 1971’s Melody (or Sealed With A Kiss–original UK title) is like a feral child scampering recklessly over its audience. The film paired then-child stars Mark Lester and Jack Wild, sort of fresh from their mainstream success with the oscar-winning Oliver, made three years earlier. Melody is set in contemporary London, as evidenced by an opening credits montage in which a camera pans over the Thames river, heading south towards a slumish neighborhood wherein the action will be set–probably someplace like Battersea or Lambeth. Viewers are introduced to the two male leads who are participating in something called Boy’s Brigade, a marching band. The character of Latimar, played by the angelic-faced Lester, seems sour and out of place. He mutters bitterly about his mother, who signs him up for activities like this without considering his feelings. At the end of the opening scene, said mother comes to collect Latimar and asks if he’s making any friends, at which point a boy named Hornshaw (Wild) opportunistically jumps into the back seat of their convertible. The characterization proceeds: the mother gives Hornshaw, a scruffy Jack The Lad type from the other side of the tracks, a sniff of class disapproval. Hornshaw winks precociously, begs a ride, and generally exhibits the rakish charm for which Jack Wild’s characters were briefly known in the sixties and early seventies. He is Mick Jagger to Lester’s John Lennon. The two boys later become friends, as it seems both are lonesome in their separate and wholly unexpressed ways. Meanwhile, back at the Latimar’s somewhat middle-class home, a rather contrived set of scenes follow in which social ambition, class snobbery, anti-Pakistani racism, and homophobia are feebly satirized. More successful, however, and certainly more fascinating, is the Oedipal drama that unfolds here. Latimar’s mother, who clings to her son in a manner that is subtly indecent, coos over his interests, especially his artwork, which include his debut efforts at painting a female nude. There is a hint of flushed response in the mother, who becomes tongue-tied and clumsy, breaking a model rocket her son has been working on. Young Latimar is passive and uncomplaining in this scene, yet he inexplicably shows his aggression when earlier lighting his father’s newspaper on fire.
Hornshaw, on the other hand, is strictly working class, and as such–it is implied–is spared such neuroses as those which afflict Latimar. Unlike his budding friend, he is not concerned with individuation; the struggle to become his own person despite the self-serving needs of a parent. For Hornshaw, such dramas are past him, if they ever did exist. Apparently orphaned, he seems to be the caretaker for a grandfather figure who is referenced in the film but not shown. His are the demands of day-to-day life–cooking sausages for his grandfather, cleaning up–interspersed with seized freedoms away from home. Thus, at school Hornshaw is a rebel, and not just against common authority. Throughout the film, Wild’s character acts out an objection to modern education, questioning the utility of Latin instruction (favorite line: “I couldn’t speak to a dead Roman even if I knew the bloody lingo, Sir”); the condescension of student/faculty social activities; the arrogance of state-driven religious instruction. Many of his peers are like him: rambunctious, violent; ever dashing around looking for someone to hit, something to kick at or blow up with a cherry bomb. As a post-mod rocker deprived of a hippy milieu in which to protest, Hornshaw is destined to revolution, even if it’s only with a headmaster’s stolen cane, or a firecracker thrown into the seat of a teacher’s car.
Latimar’s revolt is gentler and more romantic. Thrown into the mix is Melody, played by novice actress Tracy Hyde, who is as beautiful and blank-slate looking as Lester. First, it is he that looks upon her like Romeo seeing Juliet for the first time. For several more scenes, we watch as the two children, both likely aged eleven, possibly twelve, meet each others’ eyes, gaze, and wordlessly fall in love. Significantly, their first proper scene together features them saying nothing to each other, but instead playing their musical instruments in tandem: a recorder for her, a cello for him. It’s also significant that Latimar appears to have abandoned home interests that might be intruded upon by his mother. There are aborted attempts by the two would-be young lovers to connect, but at first it’s the pre-teen peer group that blocks them. After all, the boys still think girls are stupid, school dances are fledgling, painfully awkward events, and as one of the female extras laughingly quips, “I thought kissing made babies!”
Today, this kind of ignorance, or sweet innocence if you prefer, would likely seem unrealistic. Kids of this age group today seem far more, uh, knowledgeable than perhaps their counterparts were forty years ago. Back in the early to mid-seventies, when I first saw Melody, I felt like the characters in the film: gleefully mindless, playful and wide-eyed…unknowing. Of course, I had no idea what to make of Melody‘s various subtexts, whether intended by the filmmakers or not.
The character Melody’s drama seems positioned somewhere between that of the boys. Socioeconomically, she seems aligned with the Hornshaw character, as her parents, a shrill, pedophile-fearing mother, and a beer guzzling, oft-absent father (played amusingly by Roy Kinnear), also seem decidedly working class. Not that Melody seems preoccupied with these curious and largely unexplained elements. Indeed, her character seems the most cheerful–that is, the least disaffected–of all the children in the story, which is perhaps one of the reasons Latimar likes her (“my parents are such a misery”, he later complains). That said, her cheerfulness transforms later in the film to cool defiance, and of the three main characters, she seems the most sexually mature, despite Hornshaw appearing to be older.
The ultimate rebellion is hers and Latimar’s decision to elope, which leads to the climax of the film: an impromptu wedding ceremony, Lord Of The Flies-style, under a railway bridge, with all of the kids in the film acting as witnesses. It seems symbolic, if silly from a practical standpoint, that this wedding takes place during school hours, nearby the school and with all of the kids wearing school uniforms, rather than on, say, a weekend, with everyone in plainclothes. Predictably, the forces of evil–sorry, the teachers–combine with one or two parents, like Latimar’s mother, to try and stop this institution and society-threatening event. The attempt of the baddies fails, naturally. The wedding comes off without a hitch. A great, iconoclastic battle between youth and establishment ensues, which youth sort of wins. Teachers get their comeuppance, and Hornshaw gets satisfaction. But the real victory belongs to young love, which is all Latimar needs. He and Melody escape the scene and disappear into the somewhere-in-London sunset, serenaded by a Bee Gees song on the soundtrack.
Melody is like a blissful dream born of sixties zeitgeist and pubescent wonder: one of my favorite examples of sweet, naive filmmaking that captures a bygone time and sensibility. Once gone from my memory except in fragments, I’d rediscovered the film in recent years on You Tube, and later purchased the DVD, complete with the scratched celluloid that betrays not only the film’s age, but also its discarded, forgotten reputation.
I wish I could be twelve all over again.