Sunday 7 May 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed (4) - Sirk at Universal, 1951-53

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of an expected twelve part series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The previous parts were published on 

22 April 2017  (Introduction)
27 April 2017  (Notes on the Weimar and Nazi years)  
2nd May 2017 (The American independent years, 1943-51))
Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

Bruce is a long time cinephile, scholar and writer on cinema across a broad range of subjects. The study being posted in parts is among the longest and most detailed ever devoted to the work of Douglas Sirk. In the following text films in Italics are regarded as key films in the director’s career. References to authors of other critical studies will be listed in a bibliography which will conclude the essay.        

In 1950 Sirk joined Universal-International where he spent the rest of his American career. He said he remembered nothing about some of the first seven assignments at Universal (up to Take Me to Town) which are “best forgotten.” His first assignment, Mystery Submarine (1951), is a routine war story with “a poor script.”. Thunder on the Hill (1951) has recurring Sirk themes of the uncovering of reality masked by pretence and deceit in the story of a woman (Ann Blyth) sentenced to the gallows after having been wrongfully found guilty of murder and a nun's (Claudette Colbert) belief in her innocence. Sirk was adamant that he “wanted this picture to have nothing to do with religion,” with the entire focus to be on the Ann Blyth character and that the religious aspect was forced upon him by the studio and the producer “who blew most of the 'A' budget building a fantastic convent in Hollywood when we could have gone on location somewhere.”

Sirk was then assigned two romantic comedies – The Lady Pays Off (1951) in which a widower and a widow (Steve McNally and Linda Darnell) meet by chance and become a couple in a comedy with “an uncomfortably sour ending.” Weekend with Father (1951) with Patricia Neal and Van Heflin is wittier but still permeated with disquiet, a family comedy “in which the parents rather than the children are in need of protection.” The couple are nevertheless able to build a warm relationship (perhaps attributable at least as much to the casting of Neal and Heflin as to the writing)  amidst the grotesqueries of the bourgeois household. Sirk said he had little feeling for these films and although he had to stick to the rules of family entertainment, he restructured them with an emphasis on the situation rather than the resolution. Sirk also came up with the idea of creating comedie humaine or contes moraux (tales about peoples' morality) centred on “average people - samples from every period of American life”. Tom Ryan terms the above two pictures and the earlier Slightly French, “uncomfortable comedies.”  

The third comedie humaine, Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952) is a light fable set in small town America in the twenties which plays on the distance between a narrative situation and a character (Charles Coburn) excluded from the action of which he would like to be a part. It was Sirk's first film in colour and the first of his eight films with Rock Hudson. It was also James Dean's first film appearance briefly making his mark in about a minute on-screen. Sirk was the first to identify Hudson's star potential while he was an anonymous bit player. Despite his lack of engagement with these assignments they do presage the 'happy unhappy end' in his melodramas.  As Tom Ryan points out, the superficially happy endings in the comedies are “unsettling” to the extent that the underlying issues remain unresolved, none more so than in the most 'uncomfortable' of the series, No Room for the Groom (1952), a savage satire, “an excruciating comedy to watch” in which the forces of greed and hypocrisy appear victorious with the extended family in small town America monstrously intruding on Tony Curtis/Alvah's repeated attempts to consummate his marriage with Piper Laurie/Lee in his own house.

Sirk told Halliday that he had “no memory of it at all,” but after a re-viewing felt it held up “never becoming doctrinaire” with Tony Curtis representing the antithesis of the negative forces, if only by default. Like Kyle Hadley (Written on the Wind), Alvah is unable to act out his repressed sexuality. In contrast to Groom, Sirk's final assignment of the 'series' is a musical comedy also set in small town America, Meet Me at the Fair (1953), in which, according to Howard Mandelbaum  (quoted by Stern), Sirk “neither deepens nor counteracts the heavy sentiment of the script.”  It's main significance for Sirk would seem to be the first notable appearance of a black character (a boy in the orphanage) in his films.  See Tom Ryan's discussion of “the uncomfortable comedies” online in Senses of Cinema 74.

What was ignored in the Cahiers and Screen Sirk issues, as Jean-Loup Bourget points out, was the relationship between the auteur, the studio and the genre. While Sirk directed 8 features in Germany between 1935-7 and 29 features in Hollywood between 1943-59, it is the melodramas of the late American period at Universal beginning with All I Desire (1953) and ending with Imitation of Life (1959) that constitute a coherent and structured body of work thematically and stylistically. This was made possible by the team of collaborators at the Universal studios, what Bourget called “the Sirk ensemble.”  Sirk was nevertheless, by his own account, very much a 'hands on' if quietly authoritative director, evident in his reference to “my cutting and my camerawork” (author's emphasis). He favoured a mobile camera in longer than average takes which the Studio “didn't interfere with.”  

His most important ongoing collaboration was with cinematographer Russell Metty on 10 features, with whom Sirk seems to have had an almost symbiotic relationship on the set describing Metty to Halliday as “a man with a great eye for detail and an appreciation of what I wanted. Bourget notes that “ one of the innovations of the 'Douglas Sirk' ensemble is the creative, near systematic use of colour, and, to a lesser degree, of the widescreen. Bourget further notes that there were precedents in such use of colour, notably in John Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1945), “with the same use of violent colours, symbolising the world of the characters, as are used in Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.” Metty was also a master of chiaroscuro - he photographed The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958) for Orson Welles. Metty was celebrated as “a sculptor of darkness with the camera (Sam Staggs, 220).” As characters move around the room, in a Metty photgraphed film, they often move in and out of shadowed areas in a way unusual for a Hollywood film (Michael Walker in Film Dope).  Sirk's  collaboration with composer and arranger Frank Skinner began on the comedies to which Sirk was assigned shortly after commencing with Universal in 1951 and continued on most of Sirk's films from Magnificent Obsession, high points being the scores for All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind.  Russell Gausman (set decorator) and Alexander Golitzen (set design) worked on the design and art direction for all Sirk's films after Magnificent Obsession.  Both spent a considerable part of their careers with Universal, specialising in historical or fantastic decors in colour. European décor was another strong point, both working together in Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) which has been described as  “the most European film ever made in Hollywood.”  

Golitzen in an interview in 1990 acknowledged that Sirk “was very conscious of the physical domain around him” and his penchant for making films “entirely within interiors ...meticulously designed...(but he) didn't interfere at all with the actual design” beyond making minor suggestions when it was submitted to him. Ross Hunter, according to Golitzen, exerted more visual control on a Sirk-Hunter film than the director” (Staggs, 223). Hunter also greatly involved himself in the wardrobe and “loved to have a white set in the picture.”  Golitzen emphasised that “when the picture started shooting it was Sirk. Period.” This was confirmed by Betty Abbott Griffin, the script supervisor on many Hunter-Sirk pictures.  Sirk. like John Ford, was a very economical director who shot very little excess footage. He had a productive relationship with writer George Zuckerman working with him on three adaptations, most productively on Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. Sirk spoke of his preference for working with flawed or otherwise limited material for adaptation rather than fully realised novels which leave the filmmakers with “nowhere to go.”

Sirk had the benefit of the relatively small number of stars under contract to Universal allowing greater flexibility in casting as the studio would sign up major stars for one or two picture contracts 'borrowing' actors for lead roles, such as, Barbara Stanwyck for All I Desire, Stanwyck and Fred McMurray for There's Always Tomorrow, Jack Palance for Sign of the Pagan and Lana Turner for Imitation of Life. Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone are the actors most identified with Sirk at Universal. Sirk first identified Hudson's star potential but was aware of his limitations as an actor in relation to Sirk's ongoing interest in divided characters which were best served by Robert Stack's persona and his ability to project barely repressed neurosis.

Take Me to Town (1953) with Ann Sheridan in what was, Sirk noted, “something of a farewell to cinema for her...she had real presence...there was some sadness about her underlying the gaiety of the part” playing a woman with a past on the run from the law.  She encounters a part-time preacher and widower (Sterling Hayden) with three young sons. Her relationship with him and his sons is played with real warmth and naturalness by Sheridan, Hayden, and unusually for Sirk, delightfully by the three young boys. Stern describes it as a “melodramatic of Sirk's most likeable forays into nostalgic Americana” much of it shot on outdoor sets and locations marked by “an openness which is atypical of Sirk's work. Characters are free to recreate their lives...A picture of Eden before the fall...Sirk's looking back at an America he once imagined.” Robert E. Smith notes that the couple played by Hayden and Sheridan “are able to bridge a social gap unthinkable in any other of Sirk's films in America. Captain Lightfoot and Take Me to Town are the most successfully lyrical of Sirk's films. He said that he had “very happy memories of this picture” which he described as “a lyrical poem to the American western's past.” This was the first of his films produced by Ross Hunter and photographed by Russell Metty evident in the signature low key lighting in some interiors. The relationship with Hunter resulted in Sirk's all-important switch at Universal from comedies to melodrama with All I Desire the transition film with a similar plot to Take Me to Town, the last of Sirk's 'moral tales' set in small town America.

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