Editor’s Note: This is the fifth part of an expected thirteen 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)
7th May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1951-53)
Click on the dates to access the earlier posts.
Between 1953-59 beginning with All I Desire, Sirk began a series of six family melodramas, plus Magnificent Obsession, on which he acknowledged he was given pretty much a free hand by the studio. At the time of release, Bourget suggests that rather than being recognised as “parables with a symbolic perspective which “contains” the subject,” they were mostly dismissed, even scorned, by mainstream reviewers for their thematic and stylistic excesses in what was seen as a ritualisation of the cliches of the woman's picture
All I Desire, All That Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow are Sirk's most intense investigations of the possibilities of happiness and meaningful love. On happiness Sirk said: “if you try to grasp happiness itself, your fingers only meet a surface of glass, because happiness has no existence on its own, and probably exists only inside yourself.”
|Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Carlson|
All I Desire(1953) is the most optimistic of Sirk's family (melo)dramas. It is set in small town Wisconsin in the early nineteen hundreds with Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) returning home to the husband (Richard Carlson) and children she had abandoned some years earlier “with all her dreams” after a scandalous affair. Her career in vaudeville has left her with “not much to look forward to.” Returning to a small town with dreams of forgiveness and welcome, Naomi is greeted with some excitement as a celebrity, turning on the charm while attempting to deal with the mixed reception by her children and her husband struggling to come to terms with her return as Naomi's scandalous past begins to catch up with her. The house (designed by Russell Gausman) is a claustrophobic maze of staircases and corridors that play a central role in Sirk's framing of the drama.
The title of the novel, on which it is based, Stopover, is in line with the downbeat ending which Sirk wanted (Naomi leaves town) but Ross Hunter was insistent on “a happy ending.” Michael Walker in a close analysis of the film in Movie 34/35 argues for the 'compromise' ending, although late changes left some loose ends. Walker argues for the script as “considerably more interesting” than the book and “a brilliant piece of adaptation.” As Lucy Fischer puts it “Stanwyck slides from showgirl to bourgeois queen...She deserves more at the end as her stopover becomes a makeover and her masquerade a permanent 'Imitation of life'.” Sirk came around to accepting this view following a viewing after the Halliday interview for the first time in many years. Walker also concludes that All I Desirecontains a concentration of Sirkian themes and motifs relating back to the comedies (Take Me to Townis essentially a comedy version of All I Desire) while also looking forward to the circular structures of the darker melodramas beginning with There's Always Tomorrow. All I Desire, Walker concludes, is packed with incident in its 79 minutes, “a film of extraordinary density in which everything locks together so that each moment could be explored backwards and forwards for its resonances elsewhere in the narrative.” Walker notes that the only disappointing aspect of the film is that in contrast to the subsequent melodramas the music score was not specially composed for the film but “apart from one musical theme was cobbled together from bits of pre-existing scores in a crude and irritating way,” the only indication in the finished work of its close to 'B' budget status.
|Rock Hudson (l)|
|Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman|
The music score for Stern acts as “an off-screen voice abstractly describing the spiritual tone of the drama” heightening the absurd and tragic gap between appearance and reality which is a central theme of Sirk's work and is visualised in his use of mirrors and scenes shot through windows – and by his preoccupation with characters who are blind. One of his most ambivalent films to come to terms with, far from being transformed into “an hilarious comedy” as Sarris initially characterised it, absurdity in Magnificent Obsession is “laced with classic motifs and patterns.” Sirk's melodramas are not “deconstructive” in an anti-generic sense but purposefully often involve “transfusion of classical structures and devices into otherwise flabby stories.” Stern compares Sirk melodramas with Budd Boetticher westerns in their assumption of a meaningful “ritual quality” or what Paul Willemen refers to as an “intensification of generic conventions.”
A psychoanalytic stripping away of Magnificent Obsession's plot reveals what Laura Mulvey refers to as “an unusual reversed Oedipal fantasy.” (Melodrama p.128) Both the implied father/son (Phillips/Merrick) and the sub-text of 'forbidden' love between Phillips's widow and Merrick, the latter's desire internalised, are in an idealised upper middle class small town setting, as Mulvey points out, “atopian rather than social.” In the follow-up melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, the incestuous frame of reference implied in Hudson-Wyman relationship is not repeated in the older woman-younger man love story, the movement of desire explicitly delayed by class. The theme of blindness in Magnificent Obsession is a mask under which the widow can illicitly fall in love recurs in Sirk's work, taking a different metaphorical form in Imitation of Life, for example, in which Lora (Lana Turner) is blinded by her ambition to emotional events around her.
|Rock Hudson (centre)|
What is cogent, is the claim by the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Laura Mulvey (Movie 25) for the role of Sirkian covert irony in inflecting Ross Hunter's requirement for a happy ending. Fassbinder commented that “in Sirk, people are always placed in rooms already marked by their social situation. The rooms are incredibly exact. In [Wyman's] house there is only one way in which one could possibly move. Only certain kinds of sentences come to mind when wanting to say something...When Jane goes to another house, to Rock's, for instance, would she be able to change?... That's why the happy ending is not one. Jane fits into her own home better than into Rock's.” This question of ironically happy endings in Sirk's melodramas, of which this is perhaps the most ambiguous, is further discussed below. Warmly celebrated in Take Me to Town, with All That Heaven Allows Sirk closes the door on love as a meaningful - at best only a fleetingly transformative - force. See also Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (1): All That Heaven Allows and Sirkian Melodama in, Film Alert 101.
|Joan Bennett, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck|
While claiming limited recollection of the film, Sirk recalled his interest in the MacMurray character “who couldn't break away from either of his women-or his past.” He described it as an “if only” film “a series of choices that, had they been made at some time in the past, would have made everything fine, manipulate the audience's feelings – a pornography of feeling.” Michael Stern calls Sirk's chronicling “of petty tragedies...the folklore of the middle class...an expression of his belief that the modern world – at least American civilisation – has been drained of the potential for stories of true tragic dimension.” Sirk said that “there is always in the films a dialectic – between the imprisoned group, and the one that wants to come inside, Stanwyck in All I Desire...In There's Always Tomorrow, it is from outside the house to that goddamned plane at the end.” (Stern interview). He further commented to Halliday that “in tragedy life always ends...the hero at the same time (is) rescued from life's troubles. In melodrama he lives on - in an unhappy end.” John Flaus I think rightly recognises There's Always Tomorrow as more social drama than melodrama: “the characters' motives and situations... obey the probabilities of everyday domesticity; their living space is documentary material for social historians; and flawless performances restrain the dialogue which occasionally pushes a stop over the realistic.”
|Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone|
The film was independently produced by Albert Zugsmith from a screenplay by George Zuckerman with whom Sirk had worked well on Taza and subsequently on The Tarnished Angels, also produced by Zugsmith who gave Sirk a pretty free hand on both films. In a 1979 BBC interview Sirk described Wind as “a drama of psychic violence [portraying] the suffering ones [in] a twilight of the soul.” Camera angles are frequently tilted from below. “The excessive look of the film functions as in a dream or - as in surrealist art - to conjure states of being below the level of consciousness” (Sirk to Halliday). In this, Sirk seems to complement Stern's view in saying that “almost throughout the film I used deep focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colors. I wanted to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can't break through.” For Stern “the direct relationship between obsession with sex and impotence is the dialectic of the film,” and “the sexual nature of the plot and characters is woven into a metonymic pattern of signs, gestures and rhythms all of which function as a sexual language.”
It is in the character of the daughter Marylee that the conflict between society's repression and individual needs is most clearly focused by Sirk's mise-en-scène, intensifying the genre's conventions in such a way as to make the contradictions unusually explicit. The final scenes - the inquest and after - virtually form an epilogue which brings out ambiguities in how Marylee is to be seen in relation to the colourless bourgeois couple, an example of how Sirk used the convention of the happy ending to open up a gap between credible resolution of conflict and the apparently irreconcilable. There is just the hint of a smile on Marylee's lips (being alone a release?) as she grasps the model derrick while Mitch and Lucy drive away in seeming escape from devastating circularity. In the trial scene it appears that bourgeois morality has triumphed over the decadence of affluence. But this is brought into question by the inconsistency of Marylee's actions both in her sudden change of heart and in the final shot of her at the desk having “lost everything.” Christopher Orr in his extended analysis of Marylee's position in the film raises the question of “closure and containment.” Is it not the bourgeois couple and the audience that is “locked out” rather than Marylee necessarily “locked in?” Once again does Sirk come down on the side of ambiguity?
J Hoberman suggests that “the movie is both overexcited and detached, embodying a distinctive modern attitude that some call postmodern.” He further suggests that Written on the Wind is “not simply epic trash but meta trash. As the pulp poetry of the title suggests, it is about the vanity of trash, set in a world that Sirk finds poignantly innocent.”
Referring to the 'craziness' of Magnificent Obsession Sirk told Halliday that “this is the dialectic...there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” (110)
|June Allyson, Rossano Brazzi|
1. Sirk told James Harvey that Stanwyck “gets every point, every nuance without hitting on anything too heavily. She is more expressive and resonant than almost any other actress I worked with.” Andrew Klevan in his recent book on Stanwyck comments that she “plays off other actors brilliantly when she has the opportunity – her four films with Fred MacMurray are her strongest...In There's Always Tomorrow...the dance of desire and restriction is played by Stanwyck in a truly rhythmic way.” For Klevan “Stanwyck is an ideal Sirkean actor – a hard shiny exterior hiding emotional depths.”