Douglas Sirk at Universal-International, Part 2: The Films

How a great director engaged with the aesthetics, talents and desires of a Hollywood studio to produce his best work.
Blake Lucas

Douglas Sirk at Universal-International is a two-part overview by Blake Lucas. Part 1 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.

Is a great director like Douglas Sirk apart from the world he is in, a subversive artist in social critique as well as in his engagement with studio aesthetics and intentions? In truth, that argument is both superficial in its view of filmmaking and patronizing toward audiences. The idea that anyone would actually set out to make a complacent film comfortably validating everything about its present world really doesn’t even make sense. Who would be engaged by seeing it, for one thing?  I was around in the 1950s, and whatever repressions or suppressions there were, I can assure that people had plenty of tension, melancholy, alienation and even despair living with them, just as you would expect, lived in consciousness of those feelings, and looked to cinema partly because those movies, not only Sirk’s but others, even many less consummately artful than his, were so expressive of those things

Sirk has his own special gifts though, some long critically acknowledged, others still calling for deeper consideration.   He is an artist of the reflection, the surface, the character trapped in the image, and makes these things expressive within an unusually rich style.  And there can be an extra layer of irony at times just because of this, but it is at one with melodrama.  Along with that Sirk understands in a sophisticated way the concept of the happy ending.  Endings in melodrama are arbitrary, sometimes reversals of what seems to be the dramatic thrust of the material—and Sirk knows how to fully express this with the means at hand, with the actors, the music, the sets and lighting.  So as Mitch (Rock Hudson) and Lucy (Lauren Bacall) leave beneath a painted sky in Written on the Wind (1956), headed for a serene life together, this could be a happy ending if they commanded the deepest feelings of the viewer, but more likely, one is back with Marylee (Dorothy Malone) caressing her model oil well and with the now dead Kyle (Robert Stack), who had always been so sympathetically troubled and haunted.  It is the same with the reassuring looks of the surviving characters in the car at the end of Imitation of Life (1959)—the palpable anguish of Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) clutching the white flowers on the casket of her rejected mother Annie (Juanita Moore) will not be so easily put to rest.

But just as Sirk’s description of his tenure at U-I in Sirk on Sirk (despite the real value I have given it) likely overstates his formal freedom a little, it also simplifies that “happy ending” formula.  All That Heaven Allows (1955) may reconcile the lovers for a near miraculous happy ending (in Technicolor), echoing that of Magnificent Obsession, but There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), his next film (in black and white), contrasts in holding the protagonist (here male, even if it’s a “woman’s picture”) within the life he yearned to escape.  Sirk did not consider this a happy ending, nor would anyone else, even at the time of the film’s release.  It is, after all, especially indelible for that image of Cliff (Fred MacMurray)—a grave, sad figure deep in the background as gray, moody weather from outside is reflected on the ceiling and Rex the Walky Talky Robot makes that chilling walk down the table into the foreground.

Going back to Sirk’s relation to the studio style and ethos and how each evolves helps to understand the flexibility from one of these two movies to the other, so alike in some shared aspects—in both, older but still immature children are as insensitive to individual need as the broader society, and it is the individual’s heart that has the film’s sympathy.   In the earlier All I Desire, which as noted is the first U-I movie to find the director comfortably situated in melodrama, Sirk would have liked the ending of the source novel Stopover; instead, the unsettled heroine Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) finally decides to return to the home she had once abandoned.  It may be a happy ending on its face, and possibly could even be plausible, but of the characters (who are all well-drawn here) Naomi is especially complex.  The counterpoint between melodramatic illumination of a possible course for her and an opposing sense of how difficult it is to still some aspects of a free-spirited inner self so that others might thrive artfully addresses concerns that women surely felt in the era the film describes, in the era in which it was made, and in a still different way, in a continuing present.  So, rather than embrace the narrative exactly as laid out, the film encourages a response to that complexity and this remains no matter what kind of ending it has.

All I Desire, a modest work in some ways, displays the essentials of Sirk’s perfected style—dramatic high-contrast lighting (which he retained, unlike most directors, in his color films, as well as in later black and white ones), deep focus compositions which permit remarkably intricate staging in long takes, a sharp foregrounding of objects or effective placing of actors in diagonal patterns, supple camera work combined with a considerable amount of movement within the frame, and unashamedly emotional acting so marked by sincerity that it never feels unnatural.  This last is true not only of Stanwyck, of whom one would expect it (her gift for projecting an aching vulnerability betraying itself within an aura of independence and self-possession has never been more expressive than here), but of contract ingénues Marcia Henderson and Lori Nelson, who thrive as the adult daughters.

All of this is Sirkian mastery, and surely more evident now than it was then, when this was just one more movie, and Universal-International melodrama was not much cherished.  But we need to go beyond all those things to see how he really sets himself apart.  For the look, sound, ambiance and texture have much in common even here with other works in the studio.  And it makes sense that they would.

For one thing, though Sirk was a cinema veteran, producer Ross Hunter—after half a dozen films as associate producer with Leonard Goldstein, with whom he shared billing on the previous Take Me to Town—did have some ideas and talents of his own that he contributed when they worked together.  A movie he had loved was Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1939), also with Stanwyck, and Hunter wanted to make a movie he felt was in that vein.  And following this, he was able a number of times to bring female stars not under contract to the studio for a film or two—Jane Wyman was one of these for her two Sirk movies, and later Lana Turner.  Also, it has been said that Hunter had his own ideas of sets and décor, on the plush and glamorous side, and had an influence on this aspect; what is more important is the specific ways Sirk used these sets once he was filming within them, the staging with the actors, their postures, movements and relationship to these interiors; the tones of voice and the pace of the action; the mirrors and other objects given prominence or made part of a dramatic moment.  

In general, it was a good partnership because what the producer wanted from these projects, a few hours of beauty and maybe some well-earned tears, may have been more simple than the elaborate inner design of Sirk but is never really at odds with it and really has the right counterpoint to Sirk’s artistically sophisticated view of things.  It should be said that Sirk worked with four other of the core producers—Ted Richmond, Albert J. Cohen, Robert Arthur and Albert Zugsmith—mostly happily, and Zugsmith, arguably the real standout producer at the studio for the level of his 14 movies in a three year period, contrasts most for his willingness to be provocative and do unusual and compelling things: The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957) and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) most obviously along with Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels (1958).

Sirk’s breakthrough, commercial as well as artistic, Magnificent Obsession, follows the 1953 films by a year and evokes many significant things about the studio present and past.  In addition to strengthening the relationship with Hunter, Sirk helped his cachet with the studio by taking Rock Hudson, whom he had directed twice before, to another level as a star, helping to assure the production of some of the masterpieces to follow (ones to which the actor was either ideally suited, or, in the case of The Tarnished Angels, worked effectively for the range needed).  It also showed off the creative harmony with the art directors (Bernard Herzbrun and Alexander Golitzen were department heads who overlapped in the 50s, and others, like Emrich Nicholson here, were important too), set decorators and costume designers who helped define the look for all U-I movies but gave special beauty to Sirk’s, and especially cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner.

Metty was one of the greatest of all cinematographers, the most distinguishing aspect of his work being that he would light for color in much the same way as he would for black and white, rather than just accepting color as making its own contrast.  So, his color work is filled with characters filmed in black shadows, or in and out of shadows, and it’s most conspicuous in his Sirk films, just as the director also conceived scenes, exquisitely realized by Metty, in which color was employed for artificial changes that would still feel natural (partly because of the full conviction in melodrama)—as in All That Heaven Allows when Cary (Jane Wyman) and Ron (Rock Hudson) move from warmth to tension within a scene, the warm moments finding them cloaked in a vibrant burnt orange and those of conflict given an icy blue.  For the aesthetic moment that encouraged this kind of mise en scène, the studio, helped by Sirk and Metty, was making a radical transformation.  It had used color almost entirely used for genres that traditionally called for it—Westerns and other period films, exotic adventures, the relative few musicals the studio was making.  Magnificent Obsession changed this, and color became a common option for contemporary-set melodramas of all kinds.  The earlier mentioned Foxfire directed by Joseph Pevney is one example, and so are such very interesting, less expected late 50s melodramas as the thoughtful psychosexual thriller The Unguarded Moment (1956), a memorable U-I debut for director Harry Keller and producer Gordon Kay, and the absorbing portrait of a likeable opportunist with the mercurial Tony Curtis as Mister Cory (Blake Edwards, 1957).  At the same time, other melodramas still remain in black and white, sometimes the beautiful format of black and white Cinemascope, like the noirish The Tattered Dress (1957; Arnold) or the Inge-like The Restless Years (Helmut Kautner, 1958) or the intimate, tragically tinged The Midnight Story (1957)—the finest movie of Pevney, with Metty’s gifts much in evidence—and especially The Tarnished Angels, one of the peak works of the format for all cinema, with Sirk getting as much from Irving Glassberg as he always had from Metty.

But all these aesthetic currents do not happen just because of one key work in which Sirk and Metty encouraged each other.  Sirk had always been developing these ideas, and Metty’s lighting with shadows in color is magisterial in other films around this time—a startling extended erotic love scene in the Western Four Guns to the Border (Richard Carlson, 1954) is one of the best examples.  At the same time, other U-I cinematographers could work on their own on the evolving visual texture of the films—Carl Guthrie is completely at home with Sirk in the black and white of All I Desire and in 1954 could even give impart a strange, unexpected mood to the middle location passages in the color Western Dawn at Socorro (George Sherman) and later help Keller realize another Western—the haunting, still little-known Quantez (1957), with its Sirk-like audacity in opening and closing in natural settings in daylight but setting the nocturnal action in a ghost town on soundstage exteriors and interior sets.  So, again, the studio aesthetic, even if Sirk encouraged it and gave it the fullest measure of artistry and resonance, may be felt in many other movies then, while the serious aspect of engagement with pervasive values, perceptions, anxieties and conflicts of those years is also shared in some of these underrated works.

As for Frank Skinner, given the “music plus drama” that so rightly and profoundly underlies melodrama for Sirk, the composer, long at the studio, seems in some of the films almost a soul companion for the director.  The love of classical music Sirk had no doubt inflected the scores of Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, and he surely played a part there, but Skinner seamlessly integrates those themes from Chopin and Liszt into his own music, helping to give the films the kind of musical flow they have even when music is not there (and it should be added that sound department overseer Leslie Carey and music director Joseph Gershenson were also vital for the studio, and they too are important to Sirk’s artistry as it evolved through the decade).  And when it is on Skinner to compose most of the music himself, he is just as “Sirkian”—the playing in of a stark “Sarah Jane” theme from the character’s childhood in Imitation of Life helps the movie to build in the way it does, contrasting to the warmer music of the score, including his use of the great Fain/Webster title song, that is surely the peak of Skinner’s whole career. 

Finally, Magnificent Obsession relates also to Universal’s past, the first of three 1930s movies directed by John Stahl to be remade by Sirk and Hunter.  These provide an ideal beginning for what really distinguishes Sirk’s artistic vision both in his transformative approach to these projects and the way he realizes the other films of his maturity in the second half of the decade.  Stahl had a style of impressive gravity that could make a melodrama serious even for those disinclined to the genre (this shows especially in the great first version of Back Street, 1932), but the full effect of melodrama as Sirk conceives it derives from a constant contrast of tones: strong effects, vivid and sometimes audacious, alternating with subtler passages that do as much to carry the flow of movie.  Though much critical writing on Sirk concentrates on what might be called signature moments, where visual strategies for heightening are most evident and it is easy to readily identify his hand, what really elevates the director is the sophistication with which he conceives of the organic whole.

For example, in Written on the Wind the entrance of Marylee in a road house pickup after 30 minutes of the film finally recovers a full measure of melodramatic vibrancy suggested in the pre-flashback credit sequence—the suddenly more shocking colors, loud music, jolt of physical energy in the action (her harsh scraping of the table with a beer opener is an especially great touch) all work together to pitch things into a different mood, and it’s wonderfully effective, but the following scene of Marylee and Mitch riding in her car against a back projection screen takes it down a notch—relative to the previous scene, the dialogue is almost reflective and both actors impressively restrained in their ways, linking the film back to the more quiet, however dramatic, earlier scenes with Mitch, Lucy and Kyle.

And it should be emphasized here—and cannot be emphasized enough—that Sirk was able to make a virtue of having studio contact players while also asking for those who were not if he especially wanted them.  This was the case with both Stack and Malone, awesome under his direction—and the success of Written on the Wind enabled him to recast them, again with U-I’s own Hudson, in The Tarnished Angels, to tremendous effect.  This adaptation of Sirk’s cherished project of Faulkner’s Pylon, which he had wanted to do back in the 1930s in Germany (and which screenwriter George Zuckerman, happily, also wanted to do when they were given this choice of projects by the studio) shows most that having come into his own, Sirk could not have been at a better place (and according to Zuckerman, production head Ed Muhl did consider Sirk their best director).  Could this movie ever have been as great anywhere else, with any other collaborators on both sides of the camera?  And again, it is especially Sirk’s command of the intimate moments that most elevates it—the way Malone walks across a room as Laverne and Burke (Hudson) talk about her Nebraska youth and Cather’s My Antonia, the light catching her so poetically, and the echo in Hudson’s quietly plaintive “Farewell to you, my Antonia” much later, which he says to himself, confined to one corner of a beautifully staged composition, not to mention the final moments of Roger (Stack) and Laverne in which that rare break into consciousness for the characters poignantly inflects the melodrama in a transcendent way.

The simplicity of image and more reflective mood Sirk could come to is also evident in A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), in which those strong, immediately striking moments are not absent but one is more likely to remember the beautifully and at times quietly played intimate love scenes between Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver).  And in Imitation of Life (1959), though the most piercing of all Sirk’s mirror shots is of a despairing Sarah Jane and Annie in their indelible last meeting in a dressing room, Sirk stages, composes, and edits most of the scene for direct emotional effect, with the film’s first large close-ups of the two actresses as they embrace (the close-ups repeated later with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee for pointed contrast, given the different situations of the characters).

That dressing room prompts me to want to add one thought—and that is about “tearjerkers” but really, more simply, about tears.  Is a movie in some way less of a work of art because it can bring a viewer to tears?  It seems that to really connect to a movie the opposite is true.  I would say that Sirk uses a lot of strategies to bring some needed dispassion to his melodramas, but it’s not to drain them of emotion or to suggest any superiority to the characters.  Life might not be melodrama, but people tend to think of it as if it is.  And Sirk’s characters and their worlds are meant to be moving partly because of this.  So, his aesthetic strategies, even if tangential to that at times, have it in mind.  I believe there’s something to provoke one’s tears in a scene early in All That Heaven Allows, but not because there is anything happy or sad or even very dramatic about it—this happens with Ron and Cary having coffee at a table outside her house, and the restrained, beautifully played exchange of lines, the carefully deliberated color, the way the music comes in, all play a part in making one react so emotionally just to the beauty, but also to the intimation of where the movie will go.  But on the other hand, the directorial strategies and command in the dressing room scene of Imitation of Life are plainly deliberately meant to, for this moment, make this what one can call a tearjerker—far from diminishing the movie, this elevates it and I will simply remind that more than any soberly intended racial drama of the civil rights era, this U-I melodrama actually did speak to something deeply felt in the Black experience and remains resonant of that.

The great years of melodrama were ending as the 1950s ended, though would linger somewhat in Hollywood’s last classical years in the early 1960s.  But for Sirk and for his studio, things changed quickly and profoundly then.  Financial reversals caused Universal-International to close down production early in 1958—most of the contract directors and producers I cited before were let go, not to return.  In 1959 and afterwards until the MCA takeover, the number of releases each year was less than half of what it had been through the decade.  Along with Sirk for Imitation of Life, Arnold, Keller and Edwards made films once production resumed, but only Keller remains as a contract director in the 60s, and among the producers only Hunter, Arthur and Kay.  Though it’s not really certain just what Sirk’s contract was in 1959, it is certain that he is the one director to ever suddenly retire at the peak of commercial success while clearly also at a height of artistic mastery.  We know the studio valued him and would surely have wanted to keep him.  That his decision to leave his career then may actually have been a good one is something that would take a separate piece, one about cinema in the 1960s, to fully address.

But if he was gone, and the great days of the studio where he worked were over, the glory of a fulfilled style of cinematic melodrama remains, Imitation of Life being an ideal climactic moment both for U-I and for Sirk.  That imagined world was perhaps something like the brightly reflected jewels (real or glass?) that fall to fill the frame as the credits play in that film, not to be taken as literal reality, but still palpably real in a deeper and more eternal way.

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