The European filmmaker directed a series of deceptively complex melodramas in the 1950s.
“This is the dialectic – there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art” – Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk was born in Germany in 1900, and began his career in the early 1920s working in theater. In 1922, he directed his first production – an adaptation of Hermann Bossdorf’s Stationmaster Death, and from then on he became one of the most respected theater directors in Weimar Germany. Then, in 1934, he took a job as a film director at Ufa, the biggest studio in Germany at the time.
In 1941, Sirk left Germany and began working as a director in Hollywood. His early films, such as the WWII drama Hitler’s Madman (1942) have largely been forgotten. These early films varied in genre – he directed war films (Mystery Submarine), historical dramas (A Scandal in Paris), film noirs (Lured and Sleep, My Love), and even a musical comedy (Slightly French). Even though these films did not achieve massive critical or commercial success, they still represent Sirk’s growing talent as a filmmaker working within the Hollywood studio system. By 1950, he had been signed to Universal International, and began working on films with bigger budgets and with A-list stars, such as Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, and Lauren Bacall.
From 1954 to 1959, Sirk directed a series of Technicolor melodramas for Universal that were considered “weepies” or “women’s pictures”. The most famous of these melodramas (and the ones I will be focusing on) are Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). The term “women’s picture” was used to refer to Hollywood melodramas, usually stories filled with romance, tragedy, soaring music, and lots of on-screen crying. It is a derisive term used to dismiss cinema thought to appeal to women, as these films are considered frivolous, unrealistic, and overly emotional. The way that melodramas/women’s pictures were looked down upon is similar to the sexist way that modern-day soap operas and “chick flicks” are dismissed and mocked, mostly by men.
However, as Ken Feil writes in his article “Ambiguous Sirk Camp-Stances: Gay Camp and the 1950s Melodramas of Douglas Sirk”, in the 1970s, critics began to re-evaluate Sirk’s films, elevating him to the status of brilliant auteur, rather than simply a director of worthless women’s pictures. Feil notes that these auteurist critics – such as Andrew Sarris of Screen magazine – focused on Sirk’s camerawork and editing, ignoring the female-centric stories and identifying only with the straight, white male director. By focusing only on Sirk’s technical brilliance, the 1970s critics engage with the misogynistic hierarchy that sees male auteurs as creators of “high art”, and women who enjoy melodramas as lovers of “low art”.
The critical re-evaluation of Sirk’s films continued throughout the 1980s, with feminist critics who began to shine a spotlight on these melodramas, and their female protagonists. Laura Mulvey writes that feminist critics worked to reclaim the genre of melodrama, with its focus on interiority, domestic spaces, and female sexual desire. Ken Feil notes that along with feminist critics, queer critics began pointing out the campy aspects of Sirk’s films, as well as the possible homosexual subtext surrounding Rock Hudson’s performances. What these critics did was bring attention to the subversive aspects of Sirk’s melodramas that are not immediately apparent. He covertly critiqued the Hollywood system from within, using over-the-top images, stories, and sounds to both distract audiences and call attention to the way Hollywood films work.
In 1969, Cahiers du Cinema critics Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni wrote their famous essay, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, outlining the different ways ideology works within cinema, and how directors and critics can work against it. They divided films into a number of categories, based on their relationship to the dominant ideology of Hollywood/America as a whole. Category A is the most common – these are films completely imbued with the dominant ideology, seemingly unaware of this fact. These films embrace the established mode of depicting “reality”, and are not critical or even aware of this fact. Category B denotes films which attack their ideological assimilation through both form and content (usually the content is political and the form is more experimental).
The most interesting category, and the one relevant to this discussion, is Category E. Comolli and Narboni write that Category E films seem at first sight to be firmly within the dominant ideology and under its sway, but on second glance are ambiguous and critical towards dominant modes of representation. These films throw up obstacles in the way of ideology, and cause it to swerve off course. The authors write that “an internal criticism is taking place which cracks the film apart at the seams” – if one looks at these films obliquely, one can see past the apparent formal coherence and see the “cracks”. Category E filmmakers corrode ideology by restating it in the terms of their films – they disrupt its reflection. Comolli and Narboni name Carl Theodor Dreyer, John Ford, and Roberto Rossellini as Category E filmmakers. Douglas Sirk fits perfectly into this category as well.
In 1954, Sirk directed Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession, which had previously been made into a film in 1935. This Technicolor drama tells the story of Helen Phillips (Wyman), whose husband dies of a heart attack due to the reckless actions of a local rich man named Bob Merrick (Hudson). He attempts to make amends with her but ends up accidentally causing her to walk into the road, where she is hit by a car and blinded. Since she cannot see, Merrick uses this to his advantage and becomes close to her, and the two eventually fall in love.
This is obviously a melodramatic story, and Sirk brilliantly directs this tale of betrayal, heartache, and romance. Wyman’s character, typical of a Sirk protagonist, is strong-willed and independent. Her resiliency and intelligence represent one of the “cracks” within this standard Hollywood picture. Sirk always makes sure his films focus on women who know what they want, follow their desires, and never give up or complain when extraordinarily dramatic things happen to them. Even though Helen was recently widowed, she allows herself to fall in love with the mysterious stranger she meets when she is blinded. This is undoubtedly a standard heterosexual Hollywood romance, but Sirk slightly subverts the norm by allowing his female character to be an agent of action and desire.
Mulvey notes that after the relative success of Magnificent Obsession, Universal International provided Sirk with bigger budgets and more creative freedom (well, Hollywood’s conception of “creative freedom”, anyway). Sirk’s next film was All That Heaven Allows, also starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as Cary and Ron, respectively. Personally, this is my favorite Sirk film, as well as one of my favorite films of all time. Similarly to Magnificent Obsession, the film focuses on female desire and a woman falling in love after being widowed, although this time Wyman plays a character who is quite a bit older. It is totally subversive that Sirk made a film about an older, country-club attending woman falling in love with a younger man who works as her gardener.
Cary is the quintessential independent, strong-willed Sirkian woman. She faces ridicule and vicious comments from her affluent neighbors and friends, as well as her own children, who make her life miserable simply because she has chosen to spend her time with a man from a lower social class. Eventually she breaks things off with Ron, but only when her daughter claims it would ruin her life for her mother to marry a younger, poorer man. Here Sirk critiques expectations placed on women (specifically older women), as well as classist snobbery. He does so within the genre of melodrama, and therefore dialogue is delivered in a heightened manner, with lush orchestral music underscoring the most dramatic scenes.
The film is also visually incredible. It is as though Sirk has turned the volume up to 11 on everything in front of the camera: the mise-en-scene is incredibly bright and rich, and on-screen, colors are almost saturated, such as Cary’s red lipstick and dresses, and the golden leaves on the tree in Cary’s front yard. The winter scenes are filled with deep blue skies and bright white snow. The lighting is often warm and colorful, such as in the scene where Cary’s daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) cries to her mother, and the stained glass window in her room reflects colored fragments onto her bed and her walls. His frames are also full of mirrors, with characters seeing themselves and each other through their reflections. Sirk heightens everything to both dazzle his viewers and to call attention to the artificiality of this form of representing reality.
The visual confections continue in Sirk’s 1956 feature, Written on the Wind. Perhaps even more melodramatic than Obsession or Heaven, this film tells the story of Texas oil baron Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith) and his spoiled, alcoholic children Marylee (Dorothy Malone) and Kyle (Robert Stack). Marylee has been in love with close family friend (and geologist for the company) Mitch (Rock Hudson) for years, and becomes wildly jealous when her brother marries Lucy (Lauren Bacall), who in turn becomes close to Mitch. All of the characters in this film are deeply damaged and tend to keep secrets from one another. Marylee is a drunken nymphomaniac who threatens to exploit Mitch after an accident causing her brother’s death. In one unforgettable scene, she frantically dances in her bedroom while draped in orange veils, as her weak, elderly father’s heart gives out. It is as though his children finally killed him.
Mirrors in this film represent characters’ secrets and multifaceted identities. Sirk focuses on the contrast between Marylee and Lucy, and the two are often seen in front of mirrors, or looking at each other’s reflections. This film is also filled with bright colors and melodramatic music and dialogue, as these formal aspects were becoming a standard part of Sirk’s filmmaking. This film in particular critiques notions of masculinity – Sirk calls attention to the way men are valued through their ability to father a child, and their professional ambitions. For example, Kyle is driven to drink and behave angrily and abusively because he cannot get Lucy pregnant. Although the story may seem over the top, the melodramatic content of the film reveals truths about the societal expectations placed on both men and women in 1950s American society.
Ed Gonzalez writes in Slant Magazine that Sirk’s background in German theater sharpened his ability to use Brechtian techniques of distanciation and alienation, particularly in 1959’s Imitation of Life. German playwright Bertolt Brecht believed actors should call attention to the theatricality of their performances, so that audiences would be emotionally removed and more likely to be critical of what they are seeing. As I have previously discussed, Sirk’s dialogue, actors, images, and sounds all work together to call attention to the artificiality of film, and Hollywood cinema in particular. Gonzalez writes that every image and line of dialogue in Imitation of Life has a double meaning, and beneath the glossy surface of the film lies Sirk’s critique of American society.
Imitation of Life tells the story of Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), an aspiring actress who struggles to take care of her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). The film portrays various periods of Lora’s life and career, and focuses on her relationships with her various men, Susie, her incredibly faithful housekeeper Annie (Juanita Moore) and Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Gonzalez writes that Sirk brings attention to white America’s difficulty in relating to Black people – specifically Black women, in this case. Lora clearly loves Annie and Sarah Jane, yet, as Gonzalez notes, Sirk points out that this love is self-centered. Lora does not seem to know anything about Annie’s personal or internal life. The film also deals with Sarah Jane’s discomfort with her race – her mother is Black but her father was white, and her skin is light enough that she can pass for white, which she does at every chance she can.
Gonzalez notes that this film, and its characters, are obsessed with surfaces and appearances. He cites the opening credit sequence – diamonds falling from the top of the screen into a glass – as the perfect synthesis of this obsession with surfaces. Sarah Jane struggles her entire life because of her appearance and the political and societal implications of being a Black woman in 1950s America. In one heartbreaking scene, Sarah Jane’s white boyfriend becomes violent towards her when he finds out she is half Black. Towards the ends of the film, her mother forces her to look in the mirror at her reflection to help her accept her identity. Of course Sirk, a white male, cannot understand the experience of being a Black woman, but he clearly believed it was important to call attention to white America’s issues with race. What is seemingly a “weepie” or a “chick flick” features complex political issues beneath its dazzling surface.
Douglas Sirk directed some of the most fascinating, visually enchanting films of the 1950s. What sets Sirk apart from other directors of Hollywood melodramas is that Sirk meticulously crafted his films to feature covert critiques of 1950s American society. He focused his films on women, their interior lives and desires, and the expectations and pressures placed on them in both their domestic and professional lives. The rich and beautiful images almost break the fourth wall in that they are so over the top that they call attention to the constructed nature of cinema. Sirk was a master at critiquing the system he worked in from within. His films appear to be formally innocuous, but there is always more happening beneath the surface. Critics will likely be reading different theories and critiques into Sirk’s films for many years to come.