Wednesday 12 July 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed - Part 16 - Afterword: American family (melo)drama and comedy on screen. The forties and fifties

Editor’s Note: This is the sixteenth part of a 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)
14 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, 1953-57)
16 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, The Last Films, 1958-59)
17 May 2017 (Klaus Detlef Sierck, 1925-1944)
22 May 2017 (Critical Recognition, the Turning)
30 May 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part One)
4 June 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part Two)
12 June 2017 (Drama/melodrama/tragedy)
18 June 2017 (Post Sirk:Mass Camp; Genre and the Women's Film)
26 June 2017 The Critical Backlash
27 June 2017  The Legacy
4 July 2017  Sources

Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

To come shortly: Two further Afterwords

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. It is planned for the complete text to be published as an e-book.


The origin of the following scan of American cinema and television over seven decades stemmed from the sense I've had while immersed in “All that Sirk was allowed” that in fifties family melodrama, as has already been noted, Sirk criticism is attributed to giving birth to the genre. This may be true in critical awareness, where it has been most often discussed, almost as if it is an isolated phenomenon seemingly compressing the representation of American family life on cinema screens into a single decade.

Bigger Than Life, (Nicholas Ray)
Kinship is of course a pervasive element in drama. If melodrama is the base for Hollywood genres, by degrees it established its own generic meaning, the melodramatic style of much silent drama adapted to romantic narratives that came to be also pejoratively termed “woman's pictures” or “weepies,” a formula most often focused on star-crossed lovers or sacrificing mothers. The melodramatic mode has also been centrally deployed for engagement with more diverse social issues and scaled down to more naturalistic drama and comedy including those centred on collective family interaction. While the list below is not claimed to be anywhere near comprehensive, it represents a cross section of family centred drama and comedy coalescing in the selection from those made at the height of the studio system. In terms of their dramatic coding the forties melodramas most notably are The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), 193, King's Row (Sam Wood, 1942), Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) and The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949) as forerunners to the key films of Sirk, Minnelli and Ray – the decade of the family melodrama in the fifties identified by Thomas Schatz in his book Hollywood Genres.

In the silent cinema, The Crowd (1925), King Vidor's memorable family drama of a young couple struggling in modest circumstances in New York was well funded by MGM although the studio was hesitant about releasing it. What is more surprising is that Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) about unthinkingly callous family betrayal of their ageing parents, apparently an inspiration for Ozu's Tokyo Story, was made at all and released without studio interference.

Since You Went Away, (John Cromwell)
The forties began with a succession of stand-out family (melo)dramas intertwined with small town life : Our Town (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), How Green was My Valley (1941) (1), King's Row (1942), Shadow of a Doubt  and The Magnificent Ambersons (1943). Originally inspired by Mrs Miniver (1942) the influential portrait of a family in Britain during the first months of the war, is Selznick's personal contribution to the war effort, Since You Went Away (1944), a lavishly produced sentimentalised portrait of a mother and her two daughters with the father away at the war, based on a wartime memoir originally published in a women's magazine  The apparent idealisation of family life continued, but with an intimation of childhood nightmare included, in a sequence of Meet Me in St Louis (1944) while A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is grounded in the realities of growing up in an impoverished family in Brooklyn in the early1900s. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) shifts the emphasis from women in wartime to the problems of adjustment for three returning servicemen including one confiding nervously that facing his family again “feels like hitting the beach.”

Warm sentiment in the portrayal of small town family life in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is contrasted with a bleak possible vision of the future central to Frank Capra's fantasy-drama. Life with Father (1947) in which the patriarch of the family (played by William Powell) dominates this episodic comedy set in New York City in the 1890s, the wife holding her own if only through the strength of Irene Dunne's presence. I Remember Mama (1948) is a “smiling through tears” saga of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Fransisco.  Father of the Bride (1950) is a comedy about the trials and tribulations of a middle class family in small town America. Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) is based on an autobiographical account of the family of twelve children growing up in New Jersey from the 1920s. A trio of 'uncomfortable' comic takes on the middle class family -The Lady Pays Off (1951), Weekend with Father (1951) and No Room for the Groom (1952) - although assignments for Sirk before his teaming up with Ross Hunter - have some interesting portents of the melodramas to come. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) like the novel on which it is based, struck a chord with audiences in its portrayal of the conflict between the postwar demands of family life and those of corporate employment. (see also Revolutionary Road below). In Friendly Persuasion (1956) a family of Quakers in Indiana during the Civil War try to hold onto their pacifist beliefs.

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
About half the family dramas and comedies in the forties and fifties listed above are set in small town America. This continued with the family centred drama and comedy with more than half of them set away from suburbia, those in optimistic or celebratory mode also tend to be in period. Those in contemporary settings, even the apparently more optimistic films, as Thomas Schatz notes, often involved an underlying theme of the gradual erosion of cultural confidence in the nuclear family further developed in urban noir like Double Indemnity (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1946). In Desperate (1947), The Reckless Moment (1949), The Wrong Man (1956) and Cape Fear (1962), a middle class family is initially threatened from without and in Pitfall (1948) from within. Of the European emigres in Hollywood, Max Ophuls' direction has the greatest affinity with Sirk's. The Reckless Moment is the closest to Sirk's fifties melodramas, most notably There's Always Tomorrow, in the deployment of interior and exterior space in the staging to suggest the role of architecture in the breakdown of the nuclear family. Following Shadow of a Doubt and The Wrong Man as the third of Hitchcock's family centred (melo)dramas, all involving the catalyst of a 'visitation' threatening family complacency/security, in The Birds (1963) the attack from without leaves the dysfunction within and the very survival of the family precariously poised.

In offering reasons for why small town (non-urban) settings were disproportionately favoured for family drama, comedy and melodrama Schatz places all the emphasis on the negative - acute class consciousness, judgement by gossip and appearances, commitment to fading values and mores  (p.227) – which neglects the strength of small town life in the American imagination celebrated in Our Town and also recognised as the location of an alternative 'more natural' life style in All That Heaven Allows, for example. In the urban environment it is more the case of crisis arising from social and economic forces disproportionately aligned against the family unit as in The Crowd and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

As noted above, during the war the American family more often moved into star billing in becoming the centre for conflict. The allegorical flexibility of the western is tested in the way it can contain such conflict in, for example, The Furies (1950), in which the limits of the genre are  tested in an intense thematic reworking of Dostoevsky. In The Man from Laramie (1955), also directed by Anthony Mann, psychological action and moral complexity involving patriarchy are assimilated.  Racism threatens family unity in a manner unusual for the western in The Unforgiven (1959) and Flaming Star (1960). Shane and Hondo (both 1953) are interesting for the playing out of the arrival of the eponymous westerner in a frontier household, Hondo also incorporating the issue of race. Despite Sirk's curt dismissal of it (see note on Taza Son of Cochise, part 5), Hud (1962) is worthy of mention here, a western in a contemporary Texan setting striving for tragedy on the theme of the disintegration of a heritage focussed on the household of a family ranch. Then there is Track of the Cat (1954), a family melodrama and  psychological western with almost all the characters broodingly defined by their negative characteristics as if in a Greek tragedy, isolated in a snowbound interior opening out into ominously eerie snowscapes (colour used for black and white effect) inhabited by an unseen black panther.

In addition to Sirk's six 'family melodramas' at Universal in the fifties (he does not include All I Desire) Schatz identifies a total of  23 films of the fifties including most notably Cobweb, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Picnic, Giant and Bigger Than Life (1956), Peyton Place (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), A Summer Place and Some Came Running (1959), From the Terrace, Home from the Hill and The Bramble Bush (1960) (see 2 below). These are predominantly in or outside small town settings.

In the fifties melodramas of Minnelli, Ray and Sirk the crisis of patriarchy is intensified in a more direct criticism of American middle-class values. This is played out formally through a sophisticated mise en scène signifying interior emotions, a melos deploying colour, décor, camerawork and the the dimensions of the wide screen allied with performance and music score to signify and thematise subjective states. Bringing together these themes and elements, melodrama became a genre redolent of disintegration onto which a resolution frequently was required to be arbitrarily grafted when compared with the genres of order such as the classical western and musical.

In the sixties family centred melodrama largely vacated cinema screens for television or as Molly Haskell puts it “television took over the soap opera function of the woman's film” the latter having overlapped with family melodrama.  In this context, in their success with audiences, Sirk's melodramas were “the last gasp of the woman's film” and for auteurists the peak of family melodrama in the fifties shared with films directed by Minnelli and Ray in Scope. 

End Notes
How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
1. In noting the de-emphasising of the sociology of a Welsh mining village to meet the perceived requirements of an American audience, and initiated by Darryl Zanuck with an eye to the Oscars which it cleaned up at Citizen Kane's expense, Tag Gallagher offers a rebuttal to David Thomson's “slurry of tears and coal dust” dismissal of Valley. In his analysis of the narration, telling the story through the eyes of the boy Huw, Gallagher points to the rarity of such a narration, while commonplace in literature, being sustained throughout a feature film as it is in Valley. He argues that while “Huw's enchanted outlook is the myopia of innocence, the movie is actually a succession of frightening tragedies, failures, oppressions...arguably Ford's most cynical and pessimistic film...(recognisable) in part by the staggering disparity between events and Huw's innocence...a view remarkably distanced (by Ford) as Huw's assistant director so to speak... regimenting the material (here) into a mode of memory.” Such distancing by various means running through Ford's cinema is particularly interesting in light of the retrospective analysis of 'post Halliday Sirkians' in Screen as the key to Sirk's use of various distancing devices. As the 'Fordian dialectic' identified by Gallagher in Valley and other of Ford's films, there are paths to distancing of the narrative, even in the conservatism of  classical Hollywood, that do not require this invocation of Brecht. (See John Ford by Gallagher (1986), pp 186-199.

2. The other four on Schatz's list : Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas,1954), Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli, 1956), The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1957), Too Much Too Soon (Art Napoleon, 1958). 

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