Anthology Film Archives' recent "Imitations of Life: Stahl vs. Sirk"
series demonstrates that, though John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk both labored in the fields of the Universal melodrama, they don’t have much in common from a stylistic point of view.
Stahl’s inclination is to stand back. He maintains a stable, slightly remote camera style, and makes sure that even his most emotion-battered characters are presented as part of their environment. One of his visual tropes is to put his protagonist in the midst of a sea of humanity, with the crowd filmed so that it fills space at the top of the frame as well as the bottom: Fredi Washington at the funeral in Imitation of Life, Irene Dunne meeting the boat at the start of Magnificent Obsession, Dunne in the union meeting in When Tomorrow Comes. Often he introduces his stars with cutting or staging that makes them interchangeable with supporting players: Claudette Colbert is first seen in the reverse shot of a cross-cut in Imitation of Life; Dunne in a reaction shot in When Tomorrow Comes, after an unnamed waitress has already been honored with the first of his elegant, environmental reverse tracking shots. Weather and ambience always get extra attention in his films, with the spectacular storm and the mud-spattered return trip to New York in When Tomorrow Comes the most glorious example. Note, though, how the snow and rain in Stahl’s Imitation of Life are visually and aurally persistent, whereas the snowstorms that Sirk’s characters walk into in the remake are visual effects, placed in the service of a story-based emotion and quickly discarded.
With Stahl’s visual reticence comes a distinct emotional chill. Like Dreyer, the major director he most resembles, his ominous stasis is next door to horror. The deathbed scene in Imitation of Life is played in an unnerving long shot that Stahl holds even as Louise Beavers breathes her last; and Stahl follows up with the memorable, morbid medium shot of the black daughter trying to communicate with her mother’s coffin. In his Magnificent Obsession, the doctor's death is communicated to us by bit players in long shot, before the protagonists get the news; and the implacable reverse-shot closeup of Dunne staring at Robert Taylor as she learns his identity is more unnerving than any outburst. The threat of the storm in When Tomorrow Comes is rendered quietly, with a Langian shot of water seeping soundlessly through a closed door; and the lovers’ somber farewell dinner is terminated by a waiter who remains mostly outside of the frame, his hands and face appearing briefly to signal the end of the movie.
By contrast, Sirk, at this point in his career, is in the process of deciding to work with the emotionality of melodrama instead of against it. Where Stahl uses restraint, stasis, and ellipsis to keep the raging plots of these three movies under control, Sirk wants to see if he can make an interesting movie while delivering the emotions that the material mandates. The revelation of the doctor's death in Magnificent Obsession, mostly elided in Stahl, is expressed in Sirk through the stricken reactions of Wyman and Barbara Rush; the bad news from the team of European eye doctors is received more emotionally by Wyman than by Dunne. Both scenes are punched up with melancholy piano music: the studio and Sirk seem to be on the same page. There is an equivalent transformation of the classroom scene of the black daughter being outed in Imitation of Life.
Along with this overt emotionality comes an interesting tendency to lean hard on theme points. Sirk wants to build statements of theme into style peaks, into small flares of stylistic assertion. Sometimes the assertion is accomplished through performance alone – as when Juanita Moore looks skyward as she describes her husband reverently in Imitation: “He was practically white.” But often Sirk infuses the image with color, plays with foreground and background in disorienting ways, or creates other experimental effects out of thematically overt material. A few examples out of many: in Obsession, Rock Hudson hands a bright yellow “Danger” sign to Otto Kruger toward the foreground of the image; in Imitation, a red fire hydrant and red Christmas tree sign dominate the foregrounds of the shots when mother and daughter flee the classroom; in the same film, the grotesque heads of old men loom in the foreground of low-angle shots as Susan Kohner performs in a vaudeville joint. One of the most startling style-theme flares in the Anthology series occurred in Interlude (and unfortunately was cast upon the barren ground of that film’s uninteresting character conflicts): June Allyson receives a piece of bad relationship news from a maid who is simultaneously covering a birdcage with an inky black cloth that gradually erases almost half of the frame. The spirit of these style-theme flares is not so far from the aesthetic of musical numbers, where thematic content is often represented in broad terms. For me, the effect is rather aestheticized, as if theme loses its original function in the transformation to style.
While the Stahl films in the Anthology series are fairly similar in tone and style, the Sirk films vary quite a bit in their approach: perhaps because of Sirk's evolution, perhaps also because of the different demands of the troublesome adaptations, whose overt melodrama is the least of the problems they pose. The aesthetic payload of Obsession is the considerable beauty of its art direction: as the love story blossoms, Sirk lingers first in a darkened, flower-strewn Vienna hotel room lit by sunsets, and then in the shadowy spaces of a New Mexico clinic with melancholy desert vistas. The directness of the film’s visual and emotional appeal, and the note of tranquility that sounds beneath the turbulence of the plot, are nowhere to be found in Imitation, where plastic beauty is inseparable from a persistent exaggeration of effect. The pathos of Sirk's last film goes hand in hand with a corrosive attitude, and these qualities would not blend so well if they were not both writ large by means of brisk pacing and demonstrative performances. There is an interesting scene midway through the film where Lana Turner, reunited with John Gavin after many years, invites him to join her theater friends to wait for opening-night reviews. The romantic emotion between the two is broadly expressed; but, before Gavin has a chance to answer, there is a cut to Robert Alda announcing the group's departure in a theatrical manner, after which Turner joins Alda in the frame and leads the exit. The second shot effectively undercuts the romance of the first and adds to the film's criticism of Turner's theatrical ambition. All the two shots have in common is rhythm and expressive boldness; yet this is enough to give the scene a feeling of consistency despite its weird internal dissonance. (On the large scale of story structure, the same observation applies to the film's strategy of balancing the discredited Turner story line with the more sympathetic passions of Juanita Moore and Kohner.)
If, in my opinion, Stahl came off better than Sirk in the Anthology series, it's partly because Stahl's solemn detachment gives him needed distance from dubious material. Despite his reputation as a subversive director, Sirk essentially commits himself to the emotions that his authors and producers are trying to project - a much trickier game.