Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk
(December 23 – January 6) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York gathers a substantial number of the German auteur's classic films together with more obscure titles, some of which may deserve elevation into the higher ranks of his oeuvre. Already, in the past few years, There's Always Tomorrow
(1956) has crept up the league table of Sirkian melodrama, mainly because it became easier to see and people recognized that it could stand comparison with All That Heaven Allows
(1955) and Imitation of Life
(1959), or nearly so.
Some Sirk movies will, however, never be quite respectable, but in a way I love them for that. His period movies often dive headlong into Hollywood kitsch in a way that his once-despised weepies mainly avoid. There's a trio of movies playing with George Sanders which exemplify this in their different ways.
Summer Storm (1944) was Hollywood's first attempt to adapt Chekhov (source: The Shooting Party), and its odd blend of Russian exoticism and melodrama is a trifle leaden, though it stretches Sanders outside his usual comfort zone, which is always interesting. Although, in fact, Sanders really was Russian. Lured, from 1947, might as well have been called Lurid: taxi dancer Lucille Ball goes undercover to catch a serial killer who chooses victims from the personal ads. Boris Karloff turns up as a red herring, and Sanders as a suave nightclub manager is both leading man and prime suspect. This one decidedly does not stretch the Sanders persona: within seconds of appearing he has described himself as "an unmitigated cad."
Lured/Lurid is outrageously enjoyable, and the only thing that lessens it for me is that it's almost a shot-for-shot remake, from the opening credits on, of Pièges, a 1938 Robert Siodmak thriller made in France, which stars Maurice Chevalier, who really is pushed beyond his usual range.
Sanders flanked by the unforgettable Skelton Knaggs.
So my guilty-pleasure-favorite Sirk-Sanders pairing is A Scandal in Paris, a 1946 adaptation of the memoirs of François-Eugène Vidocq that errs on the side of making shit up wholesale. Vidoq was a remarkable figure, a master-thief who reformed and became Paris' police chief, using his criminal knowledge to catch criminals. Sirk's film is an origin story, tracing the rake's progress towards a slightly shaky redemption. Sanders, droll as ever, is accompanied by a sidekick, Akim Tamiroff, sporting a ludicrous spirit gum monobrow and clearly getting in shape for his stint as Welles' Sancho Panza.
Screenwriter Ellis St. Joseph wrote very little for the movies before plunging into TV, but he provides an extremely witty voice-over for Sanders to purr, or maybe it's just that Sanders makes everything sound witty. No, this stuff's good: "Like most great men, I came from a poor but honest family; a little poorer than honest. The difference accounted for my being born in prison." The tone touches on the dry cynicism of Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is saying something.
The reason the film isn't more respected as an interesting outlier in the Sirk canon may be to do with kitsch irruptions like the musical number performed by Carole Landis in a night club, wearing eighteenth century ruff and beauty spot as part of a blatant 1940s burlesque costume. This rather breaks the flow of a film which had, until then, a kind of Hollywood History fauxthenticity going for it.
Then there's a certain unevenness of tone: Sanders/Vidocq is pursued by the fine comic actor Gene Lockhart, who played the flustered, blustering sheriff in His Girl Friday and basically plays the same here. Sanders eludes him, cuckolds him, and eventually drives him literally insane. And then he takes his job. The fact that this creates an unease which we then don't know what to do with seems to be intentional, and yet it's a very odd effect for a forties Hollywood film to aim for. And this perhaps situates the film closer to Sirk's later melodramas than is initially apparent.
Oh, the film also features a charming monkey called Satan, which is an excellent name for a monkey. Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind (1956) and Magnificent Obsession (1954) contain no monkeys whatsoever, so purely going by the monkey angle this may be his most important film.