Douglas Sirk: An Introduction

[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]

Written on the Wind
Written on the Wind

Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.

Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirk’s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.

Born Claus Detlev Sierk in 1900 to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany, Sirk was a rising star of avant-garde theater who, ironically, turned to cinema as the Nazis cracked down on his left-wing plays and became one of UFA’s most successful directors. He fled Germany with his Jewish wife soon after the finishing La Habanera (1937).

Initially brought to Hollywood for a remake that never materialized, he made his American directing debut with Hitler’s Madman (1943) and impressed producers with strikingly stylish low budget projects such as Summer Storm (1944) and A Scandal in Paris (1946), the latter with George Sanders bringing a mix of bemusement, blasé, and aristocratic poise to the role of suave con man and criminal mastermind Vidocq. The cramped but richly sumptuous sets gives the production the look of a half-scale model of Paris, and Sirk keeps the film bubbling with droll playfulness and continental wit.

Sirk moved across genres (including the Gaslight-lite Sleep, My Love with Claudette Colbert and the noirish Shockproof from an original script by Sam Fuller) and studios until the continental sophisticate found his métier at Universal with, curiously enough, good-natured Americana. Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), his first film with a rising young contract player named Rock Hudson, was the first stand-out in what Sirk called “comedie humaine,” films about average Americans, “not so much moral tales, as tales about people’s morality.” The bright little jazz-age comedy, starring Charles Coburn as a rascally millionaire who poses as an eccentric boarder to watch the effects of an anonymous bequeath, was Sirk’s first color film and he made the most of it, filling the film with period flavor and colorful detail. The same bubbly energy and light touch for comic situations lifted up subsequent small-town Americana comedies No Room For the Groom (1952) and turn-of-the-century Meet Me at the Fair (1953) and Take Me to Town (1953).

The dark corners in Sirk’s America are first explored in All I Desire (1953), a turn-of-the-century small town melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck as an actress in a seedy traveling company who returns to the family she abandoned and finds a hostile reception. The innocence of previous small town snapshots has become a smothering little world poisoned by gossip, social prejudice and double standards, and Sirk found its visual equivalent in the claustrophobic set of her once happy home. It was the first of a long string of films Sirk made with producer Ross Hunter, a marriage made in Hollywood‘s dream factory version of heaven. (Stanwyck and Sirk teamed up for one more outing, the underrated B&W melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) a suffocating look at suburban middle class life with Fred MacMurray in the traditionally female role of the dreamer who sacrifices his dreams for family.)

Magnificent Obsession (1953) followed, the first of his glossy, Technicolor scrubbed soapers and a massive hit that made Rock Hudson a beefcake star. He plays a self absorbed, thrill chasing millionaire playboy who rejects his irresponsible lifestyle and transforms into a soft spoken saint after his reckless ways leave bystander Jane Wyman’s life a tragic wreck. While never a slave to realism, Sirk really uses the studio resources and the Technicolor palette to transform the screen into a canvas of exaggerated sets and artificially recreated settings painted in unreal hues. His lighting is not expressive of the physical world but of the emotional temperature of the scenes, rising and falling like the lush score. It also established Rock Hudson as the great Sirk hero: pretty, bland, and all surface, whether a preening, self-obsessed playboy, soulful nature boy or stealth philanthropist. Such stolid performances (repeated by the even prettier cardboard leading man John Gavin) make the leading men the equivalent of the Bond girl. In the best of Sirk’s films, the women are the dynamic characters and the studly but stiff and flat men the objects of their desire.

"All That Heaven Allows" and mother nature's son
All That Heaven Allows

Case in point: All The Heaven Allows (1955), which charts the “forbidden” romance of middle class widow and society matron Jane Wyman with her much younger gardener, the beefcake naturalist Rock Hudson, who is intensely serious and colorlessly handsome as the strapping son of mother nature living the Henry Thoreau dream in a rustic country cabin by a bubbling brook. She spurs gossip among her neighbors and her grown children are appalled at her scandalous behavior, who try to bribe her back into invisible conformity with a television. Sirk’s cinema eye flourishes here, transforming Hudson’s world into a utopian Eden, open and lush in contrast to Wyman’s drab, confining house and sterile suburban street. (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who appropriated both Sirk’s style and use of melodramatic structures, remade Heaven as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul with the added dimension of race.)

More perverse and nightmarish is Sirk’s baroque masterpiece Written on the Wind (1956), with Robert Stack as a souse of a playboy, always in motion in an effort to outrun his under-achieving shame, and Dorothy Malone as his flamboyantly tawdry sister. These millionaire siblings stew in self pity while Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall serve as both self-sacrificing guardians and saintly reminders of their failings, which only drive them into greater acts of self-loathing. Tarnished Angels (1958), a B&W fable of husband and wife gypsy fliers (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) at a Mardi Gras air show and the romantic newspaperman (Rock Hudson, in his best Sirk performance) who falls in love with them, is a dark, desperate vision of the Depression in shadowy black and white CinemaScope. It’s a kind of baroque noir where the grotesque Mardi Gras costumes add a weird undercurrent to the bleak beauty and the film where Sirk openly lets us in on his secret: he loves all his tawdry, tortured characters.

Imitation of Life
Imitation of Life

Sirk left Hollywood on the biggest hit of his career. Imitation of Life (1959) is ostensibly the drama of the rise of an ambitious actress on the New York stage (Lana Turner, in a career reviving role), but it’s the story in the shadows, so to speak, makes this glossy melodrama so memorable and resonant. Susan Kohner plays a little skinned African-American girl who turns her back on her mother (Juanita Moore), who is Turner’s loyal, maternal maid, and denies her race to pass for white. It plays its themes closer to surface than many of his films, making it easier for audiences to see the intentions under all the gaudy melodramatic trappings.

The term “subversive” gets bandied about too easily when talking about Sirk. He indeed snuck in sly comments on middle class malaise, discrimination, racism, ageism, class distinction and the gap between the ideals of the American dream and romantic love and the realities of 1950s America into his soapy, sudsy melodramas. But that kind of subversion was lurking all through the cinema of the 1950s, in the works of Sam Fuller and John Ford and Nicholas Ray, in the westerns and the women’s pictures and the crime films we’ve since collectively recognized as film noir. The most subversive thing one could say about Sirk and company was not that his message was politically daring, but that he snuck it into pictures without the flashing lights and self-congratulatory commentary of the more obviously socially conscious dramas of the time.

Sirk never denies the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality of these films; he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses. It’s oddly appropriate that Sirk’s popular hits were critically snubbed on their release. That’s not to say that middle class crowds and sobbing housewives saw past the glossy surfaces to see the Brechtian engagements with middle class malaise and the crumbling ideals of the American dream underneath. But they understood his films in ways that critics, looking for Meaning (with a capitol M) in “important,” high-minded dramas, completely missed at the time. Sirk’s films are an imitation of life, to be sure, but they are most surely about the people trapped beneath the surfaces and social masks, and his style – impeccable compositions, portentous angles, gaudy color, and performances that ping-pong between simmering repression and overwrought emotional turbulence – tell the stories in these pulp fictions.

For more reading:

– Bruce Reid’s “All the Genre Allows,” an appreciation of Douglas Sirk written to celebrate a 1999 Sirk retrospective in Seattle and published in The Stranger.

– Tom Ryan’s overview in the “Great Directors” section of Senses of Cinema.

– Also in Senses of Cinema, Tag Gallagher’s essay “White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk.”