Douglas Sirk at Universal-International, Part 1: The Studio

How the merger of Universal with International studios in 1946 set the stage for Douglas Sirk, two decades into his career, to flourish.
Blake Lucas

Douglas Sirk at Universal-International is a two-part overview by Blake Lucas. Part 2 can be found here. MUBI's series, In the Realm of Melodrama: A Douglas Sirk Retrospective, is showing April 2 - June 20, 2018 in the United Kingdom and many other countries.

It is often felt that in an ideal world, film directors—or artists of any kind—might carve out their own bodies of work, in freedom, without any interference, beholden to nothing but a personal vision that they labor to express.  In movies, it has often not worked that way, and in Hollywood in the years of the studio system especially, directors worked within conditions.  One of these was the studio itself, generally conceded to have its own style, and so many other defining aspects—genre preferences, contract players and craftsmen, contract producers with power of their own.  But a fair number of directors now widely considered among the very greatest were contracted either through most of their careers or for crucial periods at various studios, for example Raoul Walsh (Warner Bros.), Josef von Sternberg (Paramount), Henry King (Fox), Frank Capra (Columbia) and Vincente Minnelli (MGM), and their artistry thrived in the circumstances of these contracts.   The tenure of Douglas Sirk at what was then Universal-International is comparable but different in significant ways, with a special character all its own.  

The commonality of those other directors is that they were either at or near the beginning of their careers and established their reputations with studio nurturing or already had imposing reputations and were greatly valued when their contracts were initiated.  In 1950, after two decades of film directing, this was not the case with Sirk.  With the greater knowledge we now have of him, it is easy to appreciate the uncommonly cultured man (born Hans Detlef Sierck in Germany, of Danish parents, in 1900), conversant with all arts, music, drama and literature as well as cinema, and with his own conscious aesthetic and dramatic theory, who made a strong mark in German theatre in the 1920s and brought his innate gifts to cinema in the 1930s, though shadowed by Nazism that finally provoked his exile.  But in Hollywood, that reputation was little known, if at all, and whatever their merits, his 1940s American movies had not made him a major director in his adopted country’s eyes.  Universal, merged in 1946 with the smaller independent company, International, that had made only a handful of films, had liked one of those movies, A Scandal in Paris (coincidentally from that same year), and felt he could be a director of comedies for them, but the literary bent and irony of that film is not what they were looking for from Sirk.  It seems perhaps that they took him on without really knowing why. 

So he began there inauspiciously, and without high expectations on his part or theirs.  That has conditioned a long-held perception that Sirk somehow developed a personal style and became a master of melodrama against the grain of the studio ethos—he is seen as in some way isolated, as if he were somehow transcending filmmaking conditions rather than being stimulated to his full creativity within them.  It’s a view that is exacerbated by long held perceptions of the studio itself as crassly commercial, unworthy of any sustained critical attention on its own, though another view of it hopefully may now be emerging (as with other less reputable studios like Republic, currently celebrated at MoMA this year), and some Sirk critics, like Michael Stern in his book on the director, do take a positive view of Sirk coming to U-I in the 1950s as fortuitous and a direct stimulus to his full flowering as an artist.   It is this more celebratory view that is the premise of the present piece, in which I want to more deeply consider the full context of this special director/studio relationship. 

This means first considering Sirk and the studio separately and how their histories converge.  Briefly as to Sirk, as I’ve touched on this and it’s better known, the most important thing about his earlier films was a natural inclination toward melodrama that was always there.  In Germany, his Ibsen adaptation Pillars of Society (1935) goes decisively in this direction, as do his two excellent Zarah Leander movies, To New Shores (1937) and La Habanera (1938), but it’s especially true of Final Accord (1936)—extreme, improbable, and crucially inflected by the part of its story tied to music; this was perhaps the best of his movies before the 1950s and could have naturally paired on a double bill with Magnificent Obsession (1954), so much do they reflect the same sensibility.   Among the 40s ones, of three films with the great George Sanders, Summer Storm (1944) is based on Chekhov, so again there is a prestigious literary source, but it is again pushed to be melodrama and best appreciated that way.  Prejudices against “melodrama” as a genre in movies are partly tied to patronizing or openly derisive attitudes toward so-called “women’s pictures,” “soap operas” or “tearjerkers,” but in the interview book Sirk on Sirk by Jon Halliday, Sirk straightforwardly breaks it down into its original meaning—the Greek “melos” being music—so, music plus drama.  He is aesthetically grounded in that, and the heightening that comes with it also often inflects his work with the ambiguous religious elements that play so interestingly in his one independent feature of the 50s made before the U-I contract, The First Legion (1951), as well as the studio films as early as Thunder on the Hill (also 1951).

In Halliday, Sirk also says this about coming to Universal:  “…Of course, I had to go by the rules, avoid experiments, stick to family fare, have “happy endings,” and so on…Universal didn’t interfere with either my camerawork or my cutting—which meant a lot to me…” These statements are important, even profound, considered in relation to auteur theory and what it means to have truly creative conditions.  Given a choice between what Sirk describes and its alternative—no restrictions on the kind of movie that a director might make but ruthless control of the same director’s camerawork and cutting, what purposeful, serious director would not choose what Sirk evokes?  Control of mise en scène gives a director all they need to truly create, and to make whatever material is the starting point, whether promising or not, a vehicle for realizing their vision to the extent they will fully engage it.  It has been the story of so many movies, enough to be an axiom of cinema.

So in considering Universal—the place it became as Universal-International—I am not willing to disparage their ideas of the movies they chose to make; on the contrary, the genres they excelled in so often seem just right for the directors, the ones I admire most especially.

Universal had been around since silent days, and with an impressive history when everything is taken into account, one not easily dismissed.  Just to hit a few high points, John Ford began his career there with Harry Carey Westerns, as did Erich von Stroheim, also in silents.  In the 1930s the studio was home to John Stahl, who made some beautifully wrought melodramas, and to James Whale, widely revered especially for his horror movies (a special genre for the studio), and in the 1940s it was home base for Robert Siodmak, a defining figure for film noir.   It’s also true that Universal saw more than its share of reversals, coming close to bankruptcy more than once (Deanna Durbin, then Abbott and Costello, saving it), with a natural enough consequence of a number of management changes over time.

The Universal that merged with International had come to mostly concentrate on low-budget movies (there were always exceptions, of course) and the merger was initially intended to upgrade from that, so that any movie might pass at least as a programmer “A” rather than strictly a “B” (running times now were suppose to be at least 70 minutes), but the studio really only seems actively prestige-seeking in its first few years in the late 40s—a substantial number of its movies then were made by for the studio by independent production companies (Rampart, Diana, Wanger, Fairbanks, among them) with some ambition, though they shared the studio’s artisans and craftspeople with the more mainstream movies and so are reflective, in a positive way, of the evolving studio style; compare the credits of what is arguably the greatest U-I film of these years, the Old World romantic melodrama Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, directed by Max Ophüls as a Rampart production) to any of the studio’s other films and this is evident from that example.  But these more prestigious movies were less successful commercially than the initiating post-merger studio productions, The Egg and I (Chester Erskine, 1947) and Buck Privates Come Home (Charles Barton, 1947), so it is not surprising that by 1950 they are virtually gone.  In the meantime, Leonard Goldstein, associate producer on The Egg and I, became the studio’s most prolific producer, spinning off Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) from that film into their own series among other things, and in 1950, Robert Arthur, producer of that Abbott & Costello hit, is also a major presence.  So the studio came into the 1950s with little artistic pretension but very confident about what would work for it in genres.  Westerns, characteristically strong, would be a mainstay—the first director Goldstein brought in with Black Bart (1948) was the gifted and still underrated George Sherman, and this was also the first U-I production in Technicolor—and comedies of all kinds, always with significant returns to service comedies after the success of the original Buck Privates (Arthur Lubin, 1941).  Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948) effectively jolted the traditional horror cycle to an end, but it would come back in another way, attuned to the times, with a brilliant cycle of science-fiction/horror films in the 1950s.  There were also fantasy and adventure films (the Arabian Nights genre, important in the 40s, was resurrected).  And there were always some melodramas—not necessarily audacious ones, usually more somber and characteristically in black and white as this decade began.

Even with internal changes, Universal-International lasted until the MCA takeover in the early 60s (the last U-I films were released in 1963), but the 1950s are definitive for it: it was then that it had its deepest identity, was fully productive and each of its genres fully evolved.  For the decade, there were 20 directors who I will call core directors, making 4 films or more under contracts of varying durations: Joseph Pevney (25 films), Douglas Sirk (21), George Sherman (19), Charles Lamont (16), Jack Arnold (15), Frederick de Cordova and Jesse Hibbs (11), Budd Boetticher (9), Jerry Hopper and Arthur Lubin (8), Abner Biberman, Nathan Juran and Harry Keller (7), Rudolph Maté (6), Richard Bartlett, Hugo Fregonese and Anthony Mann (5), Blake Edwards, Charles Haas and Kurt Neumann (4).  There were similarly 10 core producers, making 7 or more films:  Leonard Goldstein (40), Aaron Rosenberg (32), Howard Christie (30), Ross Hunter (21), William Alland, Robert Arthur and Albert J. Cohen (20), Ted Richmond (19), Albert Zugsmith (14) and Gordon Kay (7).  One of the important things about the core directors and producers were relationships and partnerships formed among them, which could help a director’s career move in a positive direction, as well as play a role in the evolution of genres.

I don’t propose any challenge to auteurist hierarchy in my view of these directors. I consider Sirk U-I’s very best director, and arguably the greatest the studio ever had under a contract that lasted as long as his, the full decade.  The one other who I consider to be top tier and comparably great is Mann, but his contribution, though an outstanding one that includes three key Westerns, is much more limited, 5 films of the 17 he made in the 1950s and all of them produced by Rosenberg and starring James Stewart.  Beyond them, Jack Arnold was also brilliant and holds a special place in the science-fiction genre, arguably its finest practitioner, while along with Sherman, directors like Bartlett and Fregonese are still looking for more of the critical recognition they deserve. 

But generally, I take a positive view of the other directors besides Sirk—most of them have more checkered bodies of work and rise and fall according to which genres and stories they feel affinity for, but they generally did their best (a few like Boetticher and Edwards hit their career highs later, but do have a few U-I gems), knew how to work with the studio style and the generally exceptional collaborators they had, and could at times rise to something memorable.  A good example is Pevney, the one director with more films than Sirk over that period of time (though his tenure ends in 1958 and he was also loaned out once, while Sirk never was)—he does not engage an exotic fantasy as imaginatively as someone like Maté might, but if it’s a more sober or contemporary subject, say a marital melodrama like those written by Ketti Frings (Because of You, 1952 or Foxfire, 1955), or even a comedy (the charming Capraesque It Happens Every Thursday, 1953), he can be impressive.  But what is most interesting in comparing Sirk to the others is to look at the part he plays as the genres the studio worked with evolved through the decade.  There are so many instances of things in his films that make his style and sensibility stand out, but nothing develops as purely Sirkian.  A good example of a film that preceded him at the studio is Family Honeymoon (Claude Binyon, 1949)—the pairing of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in this comedy may evoke The Egg and I, but the somewhat acerbic view of marital romance and families is suggestive of what Sirk did well in his comedies, and the closing shot of a huge toy panda bear is the kind of image one can easily imagine in his films.  On the other hand, it’s hard to think of any of the other directors composing a fairly elaborate visual dramatic moment with the grace and beauty of an image in Sirk’s Weekend with Father (1951), with the children hidden in one corner of the frame while in expansive long shot and different light the adults talk among themselves in another.

As Sirk settled in with what were mostly those unpretentious domestic comedies, usually in black and white though the studio was inclined to color for period films and musicals, affording him his first chance with color in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), U-I arguably excelled more in other genres, especially those almost always in Technicolor.  It’s difficult to imagine him belonging as much to those, not only the Westerns of Mann and others, but the vibrant maritime romance of The World in His Arms (1952, directed by Raoul Walsh in one of three beautiful films for the studio), or the Arabian Nights interiors of The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), made into a mesmerizing dreamscape by Maté, or the elegant Early California adventure of the unusual, imaginative Mark of the Renegade (Fregonese, 1951).   There is a kind of rich-velvety texture, especially when seen in good prints, to both the studio’s color films and its black and white ones, whether made on the back lot or sound stages (the studio is characterized for that) or on location (there was more of this than is generally acknowledged and no monotony of look over a range of films).  Initially one sees this texture more in a director like Maté, whose The Mississippi Gambler (1953) could kind of stand as exemplary of the studio glow.  But Sirk could move between genres too. As he edged toward melodrama in the crucial year of 1953, forging an association with Ross Hunter as the other was just beginning as full producer with the Technicolor frontier musical Take Me to Town and then with the deep melodrama of the black and white period story All I Desire, Sirk’s two best films to date, he also had the confidence to direct a costume adventure—the marvelous Irish-set Captain Lightfoot, 1955—as well as a more characteristic Western (than Take Me to Town) of the sympathetic 1950s Indian cycle the studio played such a strong role in with Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and an imagined historical drama Sign of the Pagan (1954), even as the success of Magnificent Obsession at this time showed his true way.

A relatively brief consideration of where the studio was going in the early years of the 50s cannot begin to show its real range, nor the contributions of all of its directors and producers, not to mention all the cinematographers, art directors, set decorators, costume designers, composers, and contract players, leads and support, I would like to name.  But hopefully, some clichés about the studio might at least begin to die as the greater context is discovered.  Douglas Sirk is not a great director somehow finding his way in a studio that specialized in Abbott & Costello, Francis the Talking Mule, and Ma and Pa Kettle (though I wonder how many who like to say this have ever seen an entry from either of the latter series, or even very much from that long-lived comedy team).  There is a lot going on with Universal-International in the 1950s from the first year when Sirk and four other of the core directors were taken under contract.  Sometimes, even when the aesthetic aspects seem always to be strong—making a virtue of artifice, among so many other things—the stories seem weaker, at times hand-me-down.  But at other times they could be stimulating too, and given the decade’s own impulse to melodrama, which would thrive especially in its second half, and the allure it increasingly had for the studio and key producers as well as for Sirk, U-I was coming to even better days, the director himself a stimulus but also the beneficiary.

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