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Analyse The Relationship Between Style and Commentary in The Hollywood Melodramas of Douglas Sirk

Analyse the relationship between style and commentary in the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
“…there is only one way out, the irony of the ‘happy end’.” – Douglas Sirk.

Douglas Sirk can be credited with igniting the debate surrounding Hollywood melodrama, and his work remains at the heart of those debates to this day. Born in Hamburg as Dietlef Sierck, Sirk was an intellectual educated in art and philosophy whom achieved success in expressionist German theatre, before turning his hand to directing for UFA, before fleeing Germany at the end of the 1930’s and eventually arriving at the forefront of mainstream Hollywood. Critical interest in melodrama widely rests on the five films émigré Sirk directed for Universal between the years 1954 and 1961; Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Tarnished Angels (1956), Written on the Wind (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959). This condensed body of work is the first port of call for anyone concerned with the stylistic characteristics of melodrama in cinema, and collectively defines what is understood by the term melodrama in film studies.

These films were initially delivered as ‘women’s pictures’, ‘weepies’ or family bourgeois melodramas, and these modes in which he demonstrated his mastery were not particularly critically reputable. There may have been a trend of sniggering at the excess of the bourgeois melodrama (there still somewhat is), but nonetheless it did not, and does not, equate to diminished popularity and thus social importance, nor the genius of Sirk.  The ‘genius’ of Sirk being the nature of the relationship between style and commentary in these films – a close, and crucial one in which his subversive talent could show itself through masterful mise en scene.  Sirk was not completely dismissed prior to major critical re-evaluation in the 70’s, first being acknowledged by Cahiers du cinema during the late 50’s, with reviews by critics such as Francios Truffaut pointing to a singular cinematic style. Truffaut recognising Sirks particular stylistic ability, argued his work was neither “empty formalism nor self reflexive aesthetic”[1], but provided a startling commentary on the ‘modern condition’.  Andrew Sarris then identified Sirk as auteur in 1968, in keeping with the new critical emphasis on the “operation and ideological effectivity of aesthetic form.”[2] The most significant year for Sirk was 1971, when arguments by Paul Willemen, Fred Camper, John Halliday and Sirk himself, turned to the way he used melodrama to “disclose the distortions and contradictions of bourgeois ideology…formal criticism through parody and stylistic excess”.[3]  Sirk embraced film studies, and as Camper states “no critic has been as perceptive as Sirk himself in articulating some of his themes.”[4]  And as Christine Gledhill observes, “through discovery of Sirk, a genre came into view”.[5]

‘Sirkian style’ is now widely realised through these key works that managed at the same time “both huge commercial successes and surreptitious social critiques…through the use of complex and symbolic mise en scene, irony and pathos and alienation devices”.[6]  The developed view of Sirk’s films is that they do not in any way belong “blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them”[7], but that they are rife with irony and contradictions upon textual analysis, and thereby undermining the typically required ideological coherence within popular film form. Laura Mulvey argues that ideological contradiction has always been the specific content and intent of the melodrama, and therefore is not to be viewed as a special unconscious aspect that is to be revealed through a certain critical progress. She states that every ideology provides an outlet for its inconsistencies, a safety valve of sorts for any contradiction, which would lead melodrama with no room to be viewed as progressive.[8]  Yet the ‘unconscious aspects’ of Sirk’s work were revealed through a critical process. This process led him to be labelled as a ‘progressive’ auteur for the way he self consciously utilised his elaborate, ironic mise-en-scene within the conventions of Hollywood cinema to produce subversive commentaries on, post-war American society. I understand it could be presumed a text should defy unity and closure to be considered progressive – not provide a ‘happy ending’, yet here lies the beauty in Sirk’s films – his ‘happy’ endings are some of the least believable – they are ironic endings, requirements, not truths.

Now to turn an analysis of the relationship between style and commentary – the way Sirk uses his style to create his resounding commentaries in three of his key texts – All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind.  Sirk’s 1955 ‘female weepie’, has become the touchstone for anyone wishing to witness Sirk’s filmic ‘handwriting’. The film was essentially conceived as a project to ride on the coattails of the great success of Magnificent Obsession (both feature the same leads), and has a deceivingly simple narrative, yet on an aesthetic level Sirk created something elaborately stylised and complexly structured. This ‘handwriting’ as Sirk described it during a 1979 BBC interview is his use of symbols, mirrors, frames etc. as he puts it “I was trying to give that cheap stuff a meaning…it came off, I believe.”[9]  All That Heaven Allows key stylistic techniques and narrative preoccupations perfectly emit the repressive and oppressive world of small-town America Sirk seemed intent on elegantly subverting his mode to show us. Our point of identification is middle aged widow Cary (Jane Wyman), living in her fancy suburban home afforded to her by her late husband’s social standing, her children away at college, with the remainder of her life prearranged by social values and conventions. That is until she falls for a younger man considered of lower class…her gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and attempts to break free of her oppressive isolated state – the trappings enforced on her by her peers, her family and even herself.  The classic formula of the happy ending is of course obliged by Sirk, but it is one of his most forced, and most ironic.

Cary’s home is being preserved as a tomb for her dead husband’s possessions, her included as a social object. This is made overt in the conversation Cary’s daughter Kay has with her mother, telling her ‘I don’t subscribe to the old Egyptian custom of walling the wife up with the rest of the dead husband’s possessions…of course that doesn’t happen anymore’. Cary responds ‘doesn’t it? Well perhaps not in Egypt’, an extremely telling remark, she obviously has some awareness of the archaic social conventions confining her to loneliness, yet alone would not know how to begin to challenge them. Her oppression is lucidly expressed through the films overall mise en scene and within her home, namely the use of reflections and mirrors in which she is observed, trapped and doubled, “always finding only herself wherever she looks.”[10] Her home is her prison, and it would seem the cold hard reflective surfaces are conspiring to force her to continue to keep looking upon her cold existence. A vast marbled mirror covers the whole wall surrounding the domineering fireplace, her children are first introduced to us as trapped in a mirror frame, and instead of a music stand on her piano there lies another mirror which reflects her in her isolation.

Ron is offered as representing an alternative life, one of warmth and love, a sense of ‘going back to nature’ if she was to embrace his love. Yet Cary is “unable to break with the dictates of society.” The lighting throughout exemplifies the division upon which the film rests, cold hard light whenever Cary is in her repressive lonely environment, and the warmer softer light of hope, emotional freedom and sexual satisfaction she could experience with Ron.[11] After this, Cary having given up Ron is provided a television set as a shallow substitute for her lost love. This provides the cruellest reflection of the film, Cary’s distraught face staring into the void t.v screen. And as Fred Camper rightly suggests, it is “one of the most chilling moments in any film, we have a complete representation of the movement of the film as a whole, the attempts of the other characters to reduce  the apparently more real feelings she has.”[12]   

Just as all hope seems lost, Sirk reunites the couple through an act of god. Ron falls off a cliff edge, and the accident causes Cary to shake her conformity.  The ‘happy ending’ is given to us and to her mechanically, revealing Sirk’s pessimism – only a random shock event has been able to force a change in the society.[13] Cary returns to Ron with a swift change of heart, presumably now forgetting the “insurmountable obstacles of social convention and class difference that had separated them.”[14] The nature of their reunion is hardly ideal, and as Mulvey expressed she is now with Ron in more socially acceptable role of ‘mother’ to him now he is bed-ridden. She asks, “How can a mother of grown children overcome the taboo against her continued sexual activity in ‘civilised society’ when the object of her desire is reduced to child-like dependence on her ministrations?”[15] Sirk cleverly and obviously undermines his happy ending by choosing such a dismal event to draw narrative closure. As the shutters are opened on the reconciled couple the next morning, the light presumably washing away Cary’s reservations, a deer appears in the window, to cement Carry’s natural union with Ron, with love, nature – as if it all came naturally. Yet the camera lingers on the delicate animal long enough to watch it scarper, and you cannot help but think maybe Cary is too weak to not to the same.

Sirk plainly states of his 1957 family melodrama Written on the Wind, “a condition of life is being portrayed and, in many respects, anticipated, which is not unlike today’s decaying and crumbling American society.”[16] He navigates the tensions within the wealthy bourgeois family, through the narrative device of flashback, underlining the complexity of the characters emotional and social network and highlighting the “absence of possibility of self determination within that network.”[17]   The isolation of the characters is expressed in this narrative structure, generated by their incomplete comprehension of the dramatic situations they are implicated in.  Alcoholic and impotent oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) marries the decent Lucy (Lauren Bacall), a woman whom his loyal best friend Mitch (Rock Husdon) is in love with – the man Hadley’s sister nymphomaniac Marylee (Dorothy Malone) unrequitedly desires. Locked within the confines of the bourgeois patriarchal family, the film channels its protagonist’s limited and hopeless desires, which eventually result in Hadley’s unnecessary and tragic death.

Yet again, the highly expressive mise en scene projects the inner turmoil, wants, emotions and characteristics of the characters.  The film is frequently noted for its baroque colour scheme, on which Sirk commented he used to “bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters, which is all inside them and can’t break through.”[18] A garish expressionist use of primary colours is chosen, with Sirk stating “he used deep focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours.”[19] This emphasis on surface conveys the centrality of materialism to the film…the cold opulence of the Hadley home…the vivid yellow of Hadley’s sports car and the provocative red of Marylee’s – a symbol of her sexual aggression along with the vibrant hues of her clothes. The two morally/socially ‘intact’ characters, Mitch and Lucy wear a wardrobe of subdued and muted colours in contrast. Naturalistic lighting is cast aside in favour of lighting which represents the mood of the characters e.g. the vivid blue light which radiates Mitch’s cold response to Marylee’s misguided advances. The emotional distance present between characters is also presented in physical terms, such as Mitch’s lack of sexual interest in Marylee being illustrated in a mid shot through her windscreen in which the characters are forced to either edge of the frame.[20]

Written on the Wind shows a world dominated by physical and psychological violence, “marked by an emotional excess which threatens to overturn the stability of the established order.”[21] Feminine sexuality is represented as in excess of the social system, the conflict and desire of women seemingly cannot be successfully channelled due to the passive function patriarchy has resigned it to having.[22]  Marylee’s father, after discovering his daughter’s sexual nature, falls to his death on the stairs dying of shame, this being cross cut with her performing an erotic swirling dance to modern music. Sirk exemplifies with this climatic scene implying melodrama/America only has an understanding of sexuality as violent threat to stability. Marylee’s nymphomania can be considered “symptomatic oedipal protests against the oppressiveness of the family structure in the 50’s…a critique of familial repression under patriarchy.”[23] As for the fate of Marylee’s brother, Laura Mulvey puts forward that it is in dealing with the male unconscious that Sirk manages to achieve complexities which turn melodrama toward tragedy. The “over valuation of virility under patriarchy causes social and ideological problems”[24] and creates a melodrama articulated by male oedipal problems. “Hadley is tortured and torn by accoutrements of masculinity, phallic obsessions which caricature actual emotional dependence and fear of impotence, finally bringing death.”[25] The death as used here is a rare insight into not woman as victim in patriarchal society, but man, plagued by a castration anxiety not personified by any woman but as inevitable and without discrimination.

Regarding this most tragic of his works, Sirk expressed a passion for the study of failure, stating that he was “not interested in failure in the sense given it by the romantics who advocate the beauty of failure. It is rather the kind of failure which invades you without rhyme or reason”[26] – the kind of failure that Mulvey rightly describes as creating “irreconcilabilities which put up a resistance to being neatly settled in the last 5 minutes.”[27] Hence one again, an ambiguous happy ending, Mitch and Lucy driving away together with only tragedy to build a relationship on, and Marylee having lost everything caressing a phallic model of an oil pump, “a rather frightening symbol of American society”[28] beneath a portrait of her father, the dead patriarch. An ambiguity which reinforces the fact Sirk never had intention of reproducing ideological stability within a country it seemed he regarded as having none.

Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk’s final film, is another in which he himself professes “you don’t believe the happy end, and you’re not really supposed to.”[29] There needn’t be much explanation as to why Sirk has told of how he “would have made Imitation of Life…in any case, for the title” – after all his work shows the way everybody is merely living an imitation of life.  As previously mentioned, Sirk is seemingly fascinated by a use of mirrors, and the idea that our existence is only a reflected one. His mirrors are placed to reflect those fractured, split, and confined within themselves, a display of how his characters are in a sense not totally being human.[30] In Imitation he broadens this reflective and broken scope to reveal “that it is the total society that causes us to only imitate life.”[31]

The film charts the lives of two single mothers, the white Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), the black Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), and their two respective children Susie (Sandra Moore) Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). All are playing at ‘imitating life’ in some way or another, (e.g. Laura is ‘playing life’ as an actress)  but the most interesting angle is Sarah Jane’s play acting at life – ‘passing’ as white and refusing to accept a subordinate status as black for the fact she doesn’t look it. Sirk agreed, “the only interesting thing is the Negro angle: the Negro girl trying to escape her condition…the imitation of life is not the real life…a very cheap imitation…choosing the imitation of life instead of being a Negro. The picture is a piece of social criticism – of both black and white. You can’t escape what you are.”[32]  All of the characters in Imitation are metaphorically lost, and this is displayed as a spiritual condition encouraged by “a filmic space that lacks any sense of wholeness”.[33] The effect of which makes the scenes within the Meredith home appear as if it is happening in an unfamiliar place (e.g. lack of establishing shots, Sirkian angles designed to confuse interior space) which reinforces “the lack of grasp on life that all the characters share.”[34]

Sarah Jane eventually wholly rejects her mother, and only returns weeping to seek refuge the make shift family unit of the mother daughter couplings for the occasion of her mother’s funeral.  The elaborate funeral as the ending scene, which maid Annie has saved up for is a grand spectacle that suggests that only in death can a black woman achieve recognition that the whites around her have achieved in life. This climax of the Sirk’s film, “sounding notes in a singly in a grand procession, building a detailed summary of all the mistaken perceptions, lost chances, beautiful moments, and unfulfilled desires that characterize his world”[35] pay heed to Sirk’s aesthetics in his last directorial moments. The imagery of death to end, and that familiar resounding feeling that “everything seems to be OK, but you well know it isn’t”[36], creates Sirk’s frozen swan song to melodrama, in which he provided us a last shallow imitation of happiness to mask his profound pessimism as to American society as a whole – the perfect last ironic note of his career.   I feel the purpose of that melancholy conclusion is to cement the ironic relationship between beautiful Sirkian style, and ugly critical Sirkian commentary that I have found present at the heart of all his works.   














[1] Klinger, Barbara, ‘The “Progressive” Auteur, Melodrama, and Canonicity’, in Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p.4

[2] Gledhill, Christine (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, (London: BFI Publishing, 1987) p.7

[3] Gledhill, p.7

[4] Klinger, p.1

[5] Mercer, John and Shingler, Martin, Chapter 2 – “Style”, in Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (London and New York: Wallflower, 2004) p. 38

[6] Mercer and Shingler p.41

[7] Mulvey, Laura, “Notes on Sirk and Melodrama”, in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1987) p. 75

[8] Mulvey p.75

[9] Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk, a 1979 BBC documentary

[10] Cinema Texas Program Notes on All That Heaven Allows, Vol. 12 No. 4, April 11 1977, http://www.cinematexasnotes.com/PDFs/v12n4.pdf p. 75

[11] Mulvey p.78

[12] Mercer and Shingler, p. 66

[13] Cinema Texas Program Notes on All That Heaven Allows, p.75

[14] Mercer and Shingler, p. 68

[15] Mulvey p.79

[16] Sirk p. 130

[17] Rodowick, David N., “Madness, Authority and Ideology: The Domestic Melodrama of the 1950’s”, in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1987) p. 275

[18] Elsaesser, Thomas, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama”, in Marcia Landy (ed.), Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film & Television Melodrama (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991) p. 68

[19] Elsaesser p. 68

[20] Mercer and Shingler p. 53

[21] Cook, Pam. “The “Progressive” Auteur: Douglas Sirk”, in Pam Cook (ed.) The Cinema Book, 3rd edition, (London: British Film Institute, 2007), p. 453

[22] Rodowick p.272

[23] Klinger p.57

[24] Mulvey p.76

[25] Mulvey p.76

[26] Sirk p. 133

[27] Mulvey p.76

[28] Mercer and Shingler p. 46

[29] Sirk p.151

[30] Cinema Texas Program Notes on Imitation of Life, Vol. 17 No. 2, November 8 1979, http://www.cinematexasnotes.com/PDFs/v17n2.pdf p. 48

[31] Cinema Texas notes on Imitation of Life p. 48

[32] Mercer and Shingler, p. 48

[33] Stern, Michael, “Imitation of Life”, in Fischer, Lucy (ed.), Imitation of Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991) pp. 287

[34] Stern p. 287

[35] Stern p. 288

[36] Sirk p. 151

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