Friday, January 24

The Directors: Douglas Sirk

It was only appropriate that I latch on to director Douglas Sirk because his biggest films came in the 1950s, the decade that my romance with movies began.  I saw all of  his films from that decade, not necessarily because I rushed out to see them but because Mama wanted to see them and if she wanted to see a movie, we packed up and headed out.

Sirk was primarily a director of soap operas and they were an acquired taste for me in those days although I grew to include them on my growing list of film genres to smarten up on.  Soap operas are about feelings and women.  We mix those two together and add a dash of colorful drama and there's no doubt as to why Mama needed to be in attendance.

I don't wanna go too girlyman on you here but his films were pretty.  Every damn one of those 50s offerings were striking in their use of color and the elements.  The wind was a frequent costar in Sirk productions.  When he was serving you a particular visual confection, it could be noted the music was also swelling.  He was the conductor and he knew where he was going and how to get you there.  He took up painting as a youngster and would approach his films as a painter first puts brush to canvass.

A woman usually suffered at the hands of love.  She wasn't murdered (I had my film noirs for that) but she was unhappy.  Of course, Sirk's heroines cried but they generally triumphed in the end.  They were at least a bit well-to-do, wore pretty clothes and lived in nice homes.  The women themselves were pretty, if not downright beautiful.  That goes for the men, too.  Nothing too horrible about looking at Rock Hudson or John Gavin, although weren't they rather bland?  As with the women, I sense Sirk was scouting for a look rather than thespian gods and goddesses.  Some certainly could act.  Dorothy Malone would win an Oscar under Sirk's direction.  But Sirk was more interested in the look of his films and I think his actors were simply another part of the overall landscape.

Douglas Sirk was born Hans Detlef Sierck to Danish parents in 1900 Hamburg, Germany.  He fell in love with movies as a child but gave no thought to making it a career so while attending college he studied law.  To make ends meet, he worked as a newspaper journalist, his father's profession.  Ultimately he did decide to pursue some sort of career in the theater.  He ventured into directing and before long garnered a name for himself, ending up directing for the movies in Germany, mainly musical-comedies but also some short subjects.

By 1937 he had married his second wife, an actress and also a Jew, and he was aware of the political climate in Germany so they elected to immigrate to the U.S.  Oddly enough his first American film was called Hitler's Madman.  I didn't discover his 40s films until after I became aware of his 50s work.  But I had also discovered film noir and in an effort to see everything I could of that genre, I was surprised to learn that he turned out three pretty decent film noirs in the 40s.  Lucille Ball gave a wonderful dramatic performance as a woman infatuated with a serial killer in Lured; Claudette Colbert has amnesia in Sleep, My Love, and real-life marrieds Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight run afoul of the law in Shockproof.

Sirk would wind up at Universal-International.  Before he would quit working and leave America, Sirk was the go-to director at the studio and generally got his way.  That studio's reputation in those days and Sirk's penchant for glossy melodramas are likely why the critics never took him seriously, although the public flocked to his films. 

His earliest work at the studio included such silliness as Weekend with Father, No Room for the Groom, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Captain Lightfoot, Meet Me at the Fair and Take Me to Town.  Lurking in there with those films is 1954s Taza, Son of Cochise, starring Rock Hudson as a very tall Indian.  I thought it was pretty routine and therefore find it interesting that it was the director's favorite.  He would wind up working with Hudson nine times, the same number he would enjoy with producer Ross Hunter with whom the director was sympatico.  To keep that look Sirk insisted upon, he generally used the same cinematographer, Russell Metty, and art director, Alexander Golitzen.

Those fabulous soapers commenced with 1953s All I Desire, the first of two with Barbara Stanwyck (There's Always Tomorrow would come three years later).  She was a smalltown, turn-of-the-century wife and mother who leaves her family to pursue the stage and is now back for a visit with the usual complications.  I still love this one. 

Universal was looking for a property to elevate the status of Hudson and they certainly found it in Magnificent Obsession.  The story of a playboy who accidentally causes the blindness of a woman he is fond of and then becomes a doctor, without her knowledge, to restore her sight.  It was filmed most successfully years earlier with another male hearththrob, Robert Taylor.  It was believed this would be a winner for all concerned and it certainly was.

The pairing of Hudson and Jane Wyman in Obsession was so successful that everyone scrambled to find another property for the unlikely duo and their director.  The result was All that Heaven Allows (what a title... are you blowing the suds away?).  The story of a widow who takes up with her years-younger gardener would cause much aggravation for her spoiled college-age children and most of the town.  It, too, was wildly successful with the ticket buyers and Sirk realized he had found his niche.

With apologies to the director and to Taza, I think his greatest work was 1956s Written on the Wind, a fabulous soaper about a wealthy oil family and its two self-destructive grown siblings who also ruin the lives of those around them.  Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone were rightfully Oscar-nominated as the siblings and she would win.  (Wyman, Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner were the other performers Oscar-nominated for roles under Sirk's direction).  Hudson and Lauren Bacall, while top-billed, had the less showy parts.

This film was Sirk at his very best.  It had all those parts that made his best movies sparkle like a jewel... beautiful actors, great clothes, beautiful sets, the wind (upon which things were apparently written), nonstop drama and the title tune showcased in all the right spots. 

Hudson, never the most confident actor, likely requested Sirk for a true-life war drama, Battle Hymn, and both reunited with Stack and Malone for the barnstorming aerial drama, The Tarnished Angels.  Both films did nicely but not as nicely as his soapers.  A soaper called Interlude was filmed with June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi but fizzled. 

John Gavin was brought on board at Universal probably as a threat to Hudson who was by now getting to be Mr. Big Deal.  (Away from Sirk, Hudson had made Giant, the most successful film of his career and containing his best work.)  Gavin, who could put an insomniac to sleep despite that matinee-idol face, was starred in a project Sirk was enamored of.  It was Erich Maria Remarque's famous WWII romance drama, A Time to Love and a Time to Die.  It depicted the horrors of nazism in Sirk's homeland.  It was not a great success at the time but has become more highly regarded in ensuing years.

Surprisingly, Sirk would retire from the movies after his next film and move to Switzerland.  That film would be the most financially successful one the director would ever have, a remake of Fannie Hurst's enduring tearjerker, Imitation of Life.  I recently discussed it in my piece on Juanita Moore.  Gavin costarred with two Hollywood super blondes but not particularly super actresses, Lana Turner and Sandra Dee.  Like most of Sirk's films, it would find a soft spot in the hearts of the public, but the critics were lukewarm.

Douglas Sirk left Hollywood as a competent director who did as he was told and was certainly not in the same gold-plated company as some of his contemporaries.  His soap operas were regarded as competent but routine.  And then something happened.

A typical Sirk small town

In the 1970s nostalgia swept the country and Sirk's work was among some that was re-evaluated.  Film historians and academics in the U.S. but also in several European countries concluded the man knew what he was doing.  Their chief discovery was that couched in the visual panorama of his films was a man who was one of filmdom's great ironists.  That is to say that his characters often dealt with situations in ways that were quite different from how the audience perceived things.  There was the great incongruity between what is expected and what occurs.  What others thought, what society or the town thought, was often a part of what Sirk wanted to show, especially highlighted against the behavior of the protagonist.  This re-evaluation of his movies brought about an obvious fact.  Sirk's work dealt a lot with sex and morals and was infused with much symbolism.

They saw that he took soap operas to an art form; they weren't routine at all.  There were layers to be pulled back and considered.  Over the years his work has been newly appreciated, lauded, copied.  The great French director Jean-Luc Godard called A Time to Love and a Time to Die the director's masterpiece.  Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder came to see Sirk as an auteur and put pieces of Sirk's magic in his own films.  Such acclaimed directors as Pedro Almod√≥var, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier and even John Waters have paid homage to Sirk.  The one I was most impressed with was Todd Haynes whose Far from Heaven with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid could have been filmed by Sirk himself and his cameraman Metty... the look, the colors, the small town, the costumes, the manner.  It was also a tribute to All that Heaven Allows.

I did my own homage to Sirk and Haynes as well a while back when I watched All that Heaven Allows and Far from Heaven as a double-bill with some homemade popcorn.  It was an awful lot of heaven.

Sirk said he was in poor health when he left the U.S. although he would live another 30 years.  The truth is that he never really liked the U.S., saying he was never very comfortable here.  Too bad.  He only made 29 films.  It would have been nice had he made 29 more.

He Said, She Said

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