Sunday 14 May 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All That Sirk was Allowed (5) - Sirk at Universal 1953-57

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. 

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.        

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)
Taza Son of Cochise (1954) is Sirk's only western, a film he wanted to do, the beginning of his collaboration with writer George Zuckerman. It was shot in 3-D by Russell Metty. Rock Hudson plays Taza who fruitlessly argues for peaceful co-existence with Washington; Sirk described him as “my most symbolic in-between man.” Praised as “one of Sirk's most beautiful films” Taza was filmed on location in Utah with two tribes of Apaches providing the extras in well-staged battle scenes. Sirk “thought the film caught the lyricism of the Indian love affair” (between Hudson and Barbara Rush). Despite the limitations of Hudson in the lead as a man between worlds, Taza was a significant addition to the 'revisionist' westerns on the Indian question in the early-mid fifties. Sirk spoke to Halliday about his love for the western, for John Ford and Budd Boetticher (who “had a completely new, fresh modern approach to the Western”) while rejecting the “psychoanalytic approach” in westerns like High Noon and Hud which he summarily dismissed as ”nonsense.” See Tom Ryan's discussion of the film online in Senses of Cinema 66.

Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman
Magnificent Obsession (1954) is a 'remake' of a 1935 adaptation of Lloyd C Douglas's novel, first directed by John Stahl for Universal. Sirk did not know of its existence and did not view it before directing the film which Jane Wyman proposed to Ross Hunter who remembered “weeping” through the Stahl movie many years earlier. He had an outline prepared based on the original script.  Sirk read the novel which he found “terrible and confused” but came around to Wyman's idea that the film could be a success. He told Halliday that he was “attracted by something irrational” in the script, “something mad, in a way – obsessed.” He realised that the secret to making the film was “to make no attempt to subdue the 'craziness' of the script” but instead embrace it. Sirk mined the material by bringing out the irrational aspect – the obsession with vision at different levels. Sirk said he had “always been intrigued by the problems of blindness.” Irony here results from a playing on oppositions and contradictions such as 'one dies so another can live'. This also meant developing “a system of signs,” as Michael Stern puts it, “that stand for an absurdist vision” - non-naturalistic lighting, violent colours, restless camerawork and unconvincing back projection which heightens the inability of the main characters to act in a positive and potent manner, an expression of Sirk's own sense of drama “that is impossible today.”

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.

Jack Palance
Following Magnificent Obsession Sirk was handed a script of an historical epic for which Jeff Chandler had refused to play the part of the Attila the Hun whom he saw as the villain. Sirk proposed an alternative story: Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, a play loosely based on the life of a central Asian emperor, Timur, but the proposal was turned down by Universal. The studio wanted religion in the drama but did not accept the religious element in Marlowe's play which, with its “baroque Renaissance quality,” Sirk found much more interesting than the one in Sign of the Pagan (1954) “simply the antithesis of the immovable church and the conquering lust of Attila.” The title was chosen by Sirk for what he considered was his worst film. The first of four films he directed in Cinemascope, Pagan was greeted as “first class hokum” enhanced by Jack Palance's dominating performance as Attila, for Sirk “the only interesting thing in the story... one of these characters turning around themselves that I like...but a violent deviation from my gallery.” Sirk had been warned to expect trouble but found Palance “most pliable.”

Rock Hudson (centre)
Captain Lightfoot (1955) was filmed entirely in Ireland. Set in the 19th Century, it is centred on the adventures of a young revolutionary played by Rock Hudson, a light treatment of a serious theme, scripted by W. R. Burnett from his own novel. It shares a lyricism, a sense of freedom with Take Me to Town that is not to be found elsewhere in Sirk's work. Hudson was playing comedy and Sirk “realised that his talents might lie there.” Sirk loved shooting in Ireland describing the country as “a weird combination of religion, violence and alcohol.” He felt that “the constant change of light in Ireland in a way matched the course of the story. The good are the bad and the bad are the good.” Like The First Legion and Taza Son of Cochise, it was almost entirely filmed on location. He and his cinematographer, Irving Glassberg, made handsome use of the soft light (“it was almost all filmed in drizzle”) on the widescreen, finding a lens that “would best get the light and depth of field needed.” See Tom Ryan's discussion of the film in Senses of Cinema 66.

Jane Wyman
All That Heaven Allows (1955), the third of Sirk's 'woman's melodramas' with Hudson and Wyman again in the leads, is more restrained in style, on the surface more naturalistic and socially observant of the mores of middle class America but in essence along “with Imitation of Life Sirk's most sustained dissection of pretence connected with class” (Halliday).  Sirk's continuing interest in physical illness is paralleled by his interest in social illness. His mise en scène uncovers something of the paradox of middle America - gleaming surfaces masking a crisis in values - by using elements of the genre from within. While Sirk found the script “much too was extremely rich in ironic events [ finding that he was able] “to use the beautiful, bright colours and deliriously mix the Middle Ages and modernity, sentimentality and subtlety, boring compositions and reckless camerawork.”  This film and Written on the Wind are the most unequivocal examples of Sirk's strategy in his melodramas of placing 'a split character' like Cary against a stable one like Ron Kirby, the subtle nuances of Jane Wyman's performance contrasted with the limited range of Rock Hudson as an actor to render Kirby almost as 'an immovable object'. “Cary would be as intolerable as her friends, neighbours and children were it not for the tenderness and longing she radiates” (Robert E Smith). Sirk ameliorates his pessimism through the beauty of his images. He briefly admits the possibility of romantic love that vanishes in the films to follow except briefly, impossibly, in A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

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
Sirk's next film, a remake of a 1934 Universal production directed by John Stahl, There's Always Tomorrow (1956), is in black and white looking at the film it is easy to disagree with Sirk's feeling that itneeded colour” - went further down the path begun in All I Desire, of blending naturalism and melodrama although, taking up the suggestion in the ironic opening titles (“Once upon a time...”) Jeanine Basinger characterises it as “a dark fairy tale [that] ends with the Sleeping Beauty having kissed the prince who awakes into his own fantasy world...her kiss...a romantic curse.” It is a remake of a 1934 film of the same title directed by John Stahl. Norma Miller (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman from his past, reconnects with owner of a successful toy business Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) reawakening possibilities for him, taken for granted as he is by his wife (Joan Bennett) and his children.  Sirk's mise en scène – the expressive deployment of design, lighting, camera movement and placement– brilliantly underlines Cliff''s crisis.  Basinger points out that the two roles played for Sirk by Barbara Stanwyck “the physical embodiment of a Sirkian universe” (1, see End Note) - Norma Murdoch (All I Desire) returning a failure to the “fishbowl of a small town” and Norma Miller returning as a success to the anonymity of Los Angeles - N.M. and N.M.- both reflect and reverse each other.”

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 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
Widely seen as the apogee of Sirk's fifties melodramas, Written on the Wind (1957) fearures excess in the portrayal of crises in a strata of American society centred on the children of a family made wealthy by Texas oil and finds issues of repressed sexuality centred on the oedipal crisis and fear of impotence of the son Kyle (Robert Stack) and the sexual frustration of the daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) expressed through defiant promiscuity.  The 'stable bourgeois couple' are Lucy (Lauren Bacall) drawn into the family by marrying Kyle, and Mitch (Rock Hudson) who, for the family patriach, has assumed the 'carer' role for many years in the contradictory position of looking after Kyle while containing Marylee who has desired him since their childhood years.  Marylee is frustrated by Mitch's apparent 'castration complex' (fear of female sexuality) until meeting Lucy. Sirk told James Harvey that he and Zuckerman designed the character played by Hudson, as an ambiguous figure. Although “an American good boy” attractive to much of the audience“he is a negative figure,a man who does not really have helpful feelings toward Stack and a didactic way it's a parody.” Sirk saw the Hudsonand Bacallcharacters as “coldish people and not very interesting.”

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)

Rock Hudson
Battle Hymn (1957) is based on the true story of Colonel Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) who, as a pilot in WWII, accidentally bombed a German orphanage and tries to atone during the Korean War by airlifting hundreds of orphan Korean children to safety. Finding Hess “an interesting character,” Sirk was ambivalent about the casting, He felt that Hudson was not suitable for playing “a split character.” Hess was both a combat flyer and a preacher, but unaware of the contradiction, unable to find his identity. Sirk considered an actor like [Robert] Stack with the persona to play such split characters in Written on the Wind and subsequently in The Tarnished Angels “would have been much more fitting.” Sirk had his Universal team evident in the production values - this was last of his ten films with Russell Metty who again excels with the use of light and shadow in the interiors, here on the widescreen. The exteriors were shot in Korea.  Sirk's problem was not only the lead casting but an excessively sentimental screenplay. He was obliged to have Hess, whose autobiography was published simultaneously with the film's release, on the set supervising the film for “accuracy.” See Tom Ryan's much fuller account of the film in Senses of Cinema 66

June Allyson, Rossano Brazzi
Interlude (1957), Sirk's second 'remake' of a John Stahl film, When Tomorrow Comes (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, was handed to him as an assignment by the studio. Sirk's lack of engagement is evident. Of all his films (except for his Columbia pictures) Sirk said this is the one with which he had least involvement in its development - it was made under more time pressure than usual. Both films are credited as being based on a short novel, Serenade, by James M Cain published in 1938. Sirk said that neither film has much to do with the novel except for “the scene in the flooded church” in the Stahl version. In Sirk's version the romantic drama involves Rossano Brazzi playing an orchestral conductor (an unwelcome irony was  that, according to Sirk, Brazzi had “no sense of music at all”) and June Allyson (her contract with Universal was soon to expire), as an American woman visiting Munich; originally the film was to re-team Hudson and Wyman  (presumably Rock would have played the doctor not the conductor). While Stahl's film follows the conventions of romantic melodrama, Tom Ryan in his detailed unravelling of the adaptation and making of these two films, considers that “it is possible to see Cain and Sirk as kindred spirits in their subversions of genre” most notably “in the ironic distance both create between the protagonists and their reader/viewers,” although Ryan also makes the point that “Sirk's films are generally warmer in the way they embrace their characters yearnings at the same time as they scrutinise their circumstances.” See Tom Ryan's discussion of the adaptation and remake of Stahl's When Tomorrow Comes and Sirk's Interlude online in Senses of Cinema 70.

End Note

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.”

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