By Sean Axmaker
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 to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany, 1900, Sirk was a rising star of avant-garde theater who, ironically, turned to cinema as the Nazis cracked down on his left-wing plays. He became one of UFA's most successful directors when he fled Germany with his Jewish wife soon after the finishing La Habanera (1937), his final German film until he returned over 30 years later.
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 looks 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 a series of works marked by 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 of $100,000, 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 black and white 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. Think of it as a rough draft for his masterpieces to come, a handsome but staid and arch production where the melodramatic excess has yet to be matched by an appropriately baroque visual style. It did, however, establish 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.
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