Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

Nov 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 4

Douglas Sirk

In Praise of Melodrama

by Kathleen C. Fennessy

"Long live melodrama, and let us stress the quality of Douglas Sirk."
David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Although his directorial career lasted for over 40 years, including the German films he made in the 1930s and 1970s, Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) is best known for the American melodramas he made for Universal between 1954 and 1959. These include such enduring classics as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959). (Both All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.) This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t other entries in his extensive filmography that are worth a look (like 1949’s Samuel Fuller-penned noir, Shockproof), but few are as well known or as widely appreciated.

If it could be said that any one person did everything they could to give melodrama a good name, it was Douglas Sirk. As Todd Haynes (Poison, Velvet Goldmine) explains in the production notes for his unapologetically Sirkian new film, Far From Heaven, "While the look and style of those 50s melodramas are anything but realistic, there’s something almost spookily accurate about the emotional truths of those films. They are hyperreal, that’s why we call them melodramas. Because they are about the kinds of things that are close to our private, personal lives, like falling out of love with somebody." Since Sirk’s heyday, unfortunately, melodrama has, for the most part, fallen into disfavor. Nowadays, to describe a film as "melodramatic" is to imply that it’s over-done: the acting too "big," the music too loud, and the storyline ridiculous, if not completely implausible. In the 1979 BBC documentary, Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk (portions of which can be found on the All That Heaven Allows DVD), the director agrees when host Mark Shivas suggests that Sirk meant the term literally: to describe a marriage between music and drama, as opposed to drama that is, much like the title of Nicholas Ray’s scathing 1956 attack on middle-American complacency: Bigger Than Life. The All Movie Guide goes on to describe melodrama as a genre that focuses on "human emotion, illness and physical hardship." Further, it is often "critical of social and political climates and mores but can include domestic portrayals which are romanticized." D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1914) and Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart (1944) are cited as examples. It’s also noted that, "Lucid distinctions exist between good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong, and rule oriented society." Fortunately, however, such distinctions aren’t always so clear in Sirk or in the films of those he has inspired.

Born in Hamburg in 1900 (or 1897 according to some reports) to Danish parents, Claus Detlev Sierck moved to Munich to study after the First World War, then later to Hamburg. His life as a director began in Germany; first in theater, but then in film once the Nazis began to exert their censorious ways (his theatrical background should come as little surprise; Sirk’s work has always been very "theatrical" - in the best sense of the word). Along the way he changed his name to the more Teutonic-sounding Detlef Sierk. In 1934, he was hired by legendary movie studio, Universum Film AG (UFA), and released his first feature (April, April!) the following year. But then, in 1937, the left-leaning Sirk and his Jewish wife, Hilde, would flee Germany altogether for short sojourns in France, Holland, Spain, South Africa, and Australia, eventually settling in the United States where his directorial reputation preceded him. That Sirk would go on to make some of the most quintessentially American pictures of the 1950s is not what makes him unique. (That, once ensconced in the States, he would change his name to something less Germanic isn’t either.) The same could just as easily be said of his German-born UFA compatriots, Billy Wilder and, to a lesser extent, Fritz Lang (not that Lang was a lesser director, just that "quintessentially American" are two words that don’t fit the monocle-sporting Lang or his expressionistic work quite so comfortably). But Sirk wasn’t an auteur to the same extent that Wilder and Lang were, which may go some way towards explaining why his significance and influence have taken so much longer to grow and to take root in the work of Fassbinder in the 1970s and Haynes in the 2000s. In that sense, Sirk would almost seem to have more in common with French-born B-movie maestro, Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie). Like Sirk, Tourneur wasn’t known as much for his taste in material as for the stylistic miracles he worked with the scripts he was given such that he could, time and time again, make one cinematic silk purse after another out of the many studio-generated sow’s ears that came his way. That said, Sirk would, like Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity, go on to work with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in 1956’s There’s Always Tomorrow (one of non-fiction filmmaker Errol Morris’s all-time favorites).

As with Tourneur, Sirk wasn’t known for casting the biggest stars, or at least the most critically acclaimed (Tourneur’s stellar noir, Out of the Past, with Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, is a rather notable exception to the rule). This isn’t to take anything away from the handsome Rock Hudson (Magnificent Obsession) or glamorous Lana Turner (Imitation of Life), but Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman they were not. (Then again, it’s hard to imagine those Hitchcock faves fitting as neatly into the overt artificiality of a Sirk production.) On the other hand, although Turner (Lora) is on screen more than anyone else in Life, which was remade (like Magnificent Obsession) from John M. Stahl’s 1930s version, and gives one of her best performances - it’s the lesser-known Susan Kohner as the light-skinned daughter of Lora’s black maid (Juanita Moore) who steals the show. Consequently, she and Moore would garner the film’s only Oscar nominations. (Surprisingly, Kohner would not capitalize on that early success. Her post-Life filmography may be sparse, but her writer/director sons, Paul and Chris Weitz of American Pie and About a Boy fame, seem fully prepared to make up for that). Further, prolific (and openly gay) producer Ross Hunter was behind these films and many of the others that Sirk, (the closeted) Hudson, and Turner made, whether together or separately (including Hudson’s Pillow Talk and the sub-Sirkian, Madame X, one of Turner’s last juicy roles). Sirk and Hunter made a total of 10 films in tandem, many shot by Sirk’s "secret weapon," Russell Metty, including Imitation of Life, his last American film and biggest commercial success. Meanwhile, Sirk’s films with Hudson total an impressive eight. While he can’t lay claim to having discovered the former Roy Harold Scherer Jr., many have credited Sirk for Hudson’s matriculation from contract player to lead.

Sirk was preparing to direct another film with Turner and Kohner when he was beset by health problems and the production was shelved. Instead of remaining in Tinseltown to while away his days by the pool, he returned to Germany where his health improved, leading to speculation that the refined intellectual - who hasn’t just been described as "Brechtian," but who actually worked with the progressive playwright early in his career - had literally grown sick of Hollywood. And he never looked back (he would eventually exchange Germany for Switzerland, where he spent the last several years of his life). But 1959 was an odd time to retire, just as his work was being embraced by the influential critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave, like Fran�ois Truffaut. Although they wouldn’t burnish his reputation to the same degree as that of Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, or Alfred Hitchcock, the seeds were planted for a full-blown critical reassessment. As Truffaut wrote about the Technicolor extravaganza, Written on the Wind (from the essay collection, The Films in My Life), "This is moviemaking unashamed of what it is, with no complexes, no hesitations, simply good workmanship." Like American film critics Thomson and Andrew Sarris, he was also fond of Sirk’s 1940s potboilers with George Sanders, but feels he really blossomed in the 1950s (much like that lilac bush in 1944’s Summer Storm) and was impressed by his bold use of color. "They are," he theorized, "the colors of the twentieth century, the colors of America, the colors of the luxury civilization, the industrial colors that remind us that we live in the age of plastics" (and with that, he would also predict affluent 1960s America as depicted in The Graduate). In the pages of the same journal, Cahiers du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard would commend 1958’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (as excerpted in Barbara Klinger’s Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk) for his "delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied Cinemascope." In Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Placing Movies, the Chicago Reader critic claims that this Sirk film would, in turn, become "an important source for Les Carabiniers (1963), particularly the shooting of a partisan woman who denounces her assassins (a Russian peasant in Sirk’s film, a French girl quoting Mayakovsky in Godard’s)."

The British caught on in the 1970s and began to sing Sirk’s praises in the pages of Screen, via a retrospective at the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival, and in the publication, that same year, of Sirk on Sirk. Around this time, more significantly, he was discovered by young German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. As Thomas Elsaesser elucidates in his essay, "A Cinema of Vicious Circles" (from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1997 Fassbinder compendium), "Fassbinder’s discovery - documented in an essay he wrote in 1971 on six Sirk films he had just seen - proved momentous; it rehabilitated a then almost-forgotten director and renewed interest in a genre that was to gain considerable critical prominence in subsequent years: the Hollywood family melodrama." Regarding Written on the Wind, his favorite of the six, Fassbinder sums up his attraction as follows: "The good, the ’normal,’ the ’beautiful’ are always utterly revolting; the evil, the weak, the dissolute arouse one’s compassion." (Gosh, it almost sounds as if he’s describing his own work.) About Dorothy Malone’s Marylee, a "bad girl" with heart, for which she would receive an Oscar, he wrote, "I love her as I rarely love anyone in the cinema" (Robert Stack, who found a new kind of fame in the 1990s as the ghoulishly stone-faced host of Unsolved Mysteries, would also receive a nod). About The Tarnished Angels, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s Pylon (which featured many of the same actors and was shot in black and white Cinemascope), he wrote, "Sirk looks at these corpses with such tenderness and radiance that we start to think that something must be at fault if these people are so screwed up and, nevertheless, so nice. The fault lies with fear and loneliness. I have rarely felt fear and loneliness so much as in this film." Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, released the same year as this essay, was his first to fall directly under Sirk’s sway. He would even go on to work with Sirk after his return to Germany to teach (Elsaesser goes so far as to describe Sirk as "the perfect elective father for the fatherless Fassbinder," insofar as his biography is concerned). With 1973’s Ali, Fear Eats The Soul, Fassbinder would up the ante by taking on All That Heaven Allows. In the original, an upper class widow (Jane Wyman) falls for a younger man (Rock Hudson), who just happens to be her gardener and a bohemian. Her college-aged children and country club associates do all they can to put a kibosh on the affair. What is her (individual) happiness worth as compared to their (collective) reputation? Very little, apparently. In Ali, Fassbinder complicates the matter further by adding race to the mix (the younger man is an Arab).

Which brings us to the present and to the work of Pedro Almod—var, Fran�ois Ozon, and Todd Haynes (who, unlike Hudson, have made little effort to disguise their sexual orientation, but then, they grew up in very different eras, let alone countries). In Elvis Mitchell’s New York Times review of Spanish director Almod—var’s latest, Talk To Her (Hable con ella), he notes, "Mr. Almod—var’s purview started out as a lewd, slapstick version of the heightened melodrama of the 50’s director Douglas Sirk: if Magnificent Obsession had starred a sexual Lucille Ball. But the director has moved past candy-colored Fassbinder with a sense of humor." (And Ball really did once star in a Sirk picture: 1947’s Lured.) Mitchell seems to feel that Almod—var has only really come into his own by moving away from the frenetic Sirk-isms of his early work and, since I’m also more enamored of his recent efforts, The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto) (1995), Live Flesh (Carne trémula) (1997), and Oscar-winner All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre) (1999), I’m inclined to agree. But really, I think it’s more that Almod—var has thrown off the freneticism, never a part of Sirk’s oeuvre anyway, while hanging onto the rest: the focus on women (often those of "a certain age"), brilliant use of color, etc. All About My Mother, after all, much like Imitation of Life, revolves around an actress/mother and the women in her life, but it could still be argued that Sirk’s influence has been more of a boon for Ozon and Haynes.

Although French director Ozon’s most recent effort, musical murder mystery 8 femmes (8 Women), is adapted from an obscure 1960s stage play (by Robert Thomas) that feels a lot like Agatha Christie, it sure looks like Sirk, right down to the deer in the snow at the beginning (an obvious tip of the beret to All That Heaven Allows, which Ozon has claimed to adore). As he explained to Paris Expatriate earlier this year, "I love his movies. They are very simple but very stylish. I love the color, the mise-en-sc�ne. He makes a Greek tragedy out of a simple story." It doesn’t hurt that one of Ozon’s previous films was a set-bound adaptation of Sirk acolyte Fassbinder’s play, Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes) (1999), or that he had already made another, Sitcom (1998), about a seemingly perfect suburban family with some rather serious problems (dad’s a giant rat!). Granted, the latter is more black comedy than melodrama, but the idea of a beautiful home that is more prison than refuge provides a link with Sirk. The 1950s-set 8 femmes, with its kitschy jewels-and-flowers opening montage (with all the words in pink script), a reproduction of the famous falling-diamond intro to Imitation of Life, vibrant costumes (including furs and leopard-print coats), and immaculately-coiffed divas (Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert in the Agnes Moorhead role, etc.) merely serves to confirm the link. And the comparisons to Almod—var don’t hurt much either.

Then there’s Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which brings us full circle. As for sexual orientation, Sirk, who is also worshipped by gay filmmakers John Waters (All That Heaven Allows is his favorite film) and The Deep End’s Scott McGehee (a big fan of Written on the Wind), may not have been gay himself, but as Haynes joked to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this fall, "he was a German intellectual, so he was close, I guess." (He adds that producer Hunter was "a flamboyant gay fellow in that period.") Although Haynes takes Fassbinder’s lead in using All That Heaven Allows as a jumping-off point, his film is even less of a remake. As he explained to eye Weekly prior to its famously sold out screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (after winning a clutch of awards in Venice), Heaven "is not about the ’50s in America. It’s about filmmaking in the ’50s in America and the language of Hollywood filmmaking at that time. Everything is filtered through a California-sound-stage mentality." Haynes re-teamed with a blonde Julianne Moore (Safe) for the story of Cathy, a well-off housewife living a life of "quiet desperation" in 1950s Connecticut (my hometown of Hartford, to be exact) until confronted by the sexual confusion of her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) and a "forbidden" attraction to her sympathetic black gardener, Raymond (24’s Dennis Haysbert). As Haynes has acknowledged, "Creating a ’50s-era melodrama today and playing it straight, smack in the midst of this pumped-up, adrenaline-crazed era, might seem a perplexing impulse. Yet the strongest melodramas are those without apparent villains, where characters end up hurting each other unwittingly, just by pursuing their desires. To impose upon the seeming innocence of the 1950s themes as mutually volatile as race and sexuality is to reveal how volatile those subjects remain today and how much our current climate of complacent stability has in common with that bygone era." And yet, by making such a film in the 2000s, Haynes is able to tackle these subjects with a greater degree of, well, frankness (hence the name of Quaid’s conflicted character) than Sirk or his 1950s contemporaries George Cukor or Vincente Minnelli ever could, including an on-screen kiss between Quaid and a male paramour. It goes without saying that that would have been unthinkable during the Production Code-era in which Sirk produced his most lasting works. By reviving his legacy with such obvious affection, while commenting on it at the same time, an acknowledgment that many of Sirk’s best films were commentaries to begin with, Far From Heaven seems likely to stand as the ultimate tribute to the man. If it encourages even a few curious viewers to seek out All That Heaven Allows, let alone other Sirkian delights, Haynes will have done more than enough. That it seems destined to stand as one of the year’s best is the coconut-covered icing on the red velvet cake.

To be sure, there will always be those who write off Sirk as glossy and insubstantial, while others revel in his work merely due to its perceived "subversiveness" (as if everything must have a hidden meaning and nothing can be taken at face value). But as Sirk once said, "There is a very short distance between high art and trash." I prefer to think his true worth lies in the way he transformed that trash, or "rather impossible" material, as he more graciously put it, into art. As Fassbinder exulted in 1971, "I’ve seen six films by Douglas Sirk. Among them were the most beautiful in the world." And in that beauty, that "artifice," he found truth. As Andrew Sarris predicted in The American Cinema, "Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk as it has already vindicated Joseph von Sternberg. Formal excellence and visual wit are seldom as appreciated at first glance as are the topical sensations of the hour." Clearly, that time is now.

Kathleen Fennessy writes about music and film for Amazon.com, The All Music Guide, and Tablet. She considers Safe one of the finest films of the 1990s and wouldn’t mind if Todd Haynes worked as often with Julianne Moore as Douglas Sirk did with Rock Hudson.

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