In Douglas Sirk’s world, romantic love doesn’t play much of a part. His characters are boxed into ruts which are ever-deepening; they cannot understand themselves or their desperate predicaments, let alone successfully reach out to others. But they do reach out, attempting through an oft-professed love to stave off the lonely alternative implicit in Sirk’s vision. An acute awareness of pain, failure, and death permeates Sirk’s films, and in such a vision romantic love can only take its place as a delusionary refuge from the inevitability of being ultimately alone. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack in The Tarnished Angels) is one of Sirk’s most tragic figures in that he understands this. Roger’s stoicism marks him as something very special in Sirk’s world of generally petty losers. In squarely facing the terrors of this world without the illusion of love, Shumann transcends uncomprehending human nature.
Clifford (Fred MacMurray in There’s Always Tomorrow) stands alone watching what he thinks is his last chance flying away. Laverne (Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels) goes out into the darkness alone; she boards a plane taking her back to a Nebraska which likely holds very little for her. Marylee (Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind) collapses against all she has left, an oil derrick, and Laura (Lana Turner in Imitation of Life) must face life with less, by far, at the end than she had at the beginning. “Facing life together” is clearly empty rhetoric to Sirk and there is little room within his vision for romantic illusions. Those few of Sirk’s characters who are perceptive enough to face themselves and life as Sirk sees it are consequently among the few really tragic figures of the cinema. Against an implacable destiny they throw themselves, being destroyed in the process but thereby attaining a nobility which makes them great.
Night falls slowly and majestically during the course of Sirk’s career. The man who saw such a terrifying lack of options in Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels and Imitation of Life did not always present the worst with such irrefutable logic. Indeed, through to the end Sirk shows a compassion and pity towards his characters which elevates him far above the level of a satirist or polemicist. The hint that the possibility exists for real and not illusory happiness and love appears fleetingly in a few of Sirk’s earlier Universal-International films. Amid the grotesquerie of its bourgeois family, Weekend with Father is genuinely tender. Despite trials which make the run of the arrow child’s play by contrast, Jean (Patricia Neal) and Brad (Van Heflin) are able to build a warm, affecting relationship. Similarly, in both Captain Lightfoot and Take Me to Town, characters exercise freedoms and feelings undreamed of in both previous and later Sirk films. Nature and a lack of physical and metaphorical obstructions go hand in hand in these lyrical works. Without screens, windows, mirrors and divisional architecture to contend with (the typography of the bourgeois life), Sirk lets his characters breathe. The fresh air that sweeps through this trio of films (also, though less successfully, in Taza, Son of Cochise) represents the epicenter in development of Sirk’s philosophy of love and relationships. Here we have the moment of perfect equilibrium before which is ironic contempt, after which is unthinkable despair. The knowledge of what follows gives these lyrical exercises an uneasy edge (as Marilee would say, “It can’t last.”), though nothing indicates such a course of action save awareness of the ever-deepening pessimism in Sirk’s career. What will prevent the beauty and liveliness of the Ann Sheridan/Sterling Hayden relationship (Take Me to Town) from becoming that of Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Carlson (All I Desire), or Joan Bennett and Fred MacMurray (There’s Always Tomorrow), or ultimately, Lana Turner and John Gavin (Imitation of Life)} stage marks an inevitable step downward towards plasticization and death. By the time we reach Lora Meredith (Lana Turner in Imitation of Life) pretense is all that remains. She has no existence beyond that icy facade.” Without that false front Lora would immediately disintegrate into the madness which is, alarmingly, one of the few responses awareness can evoke in late Sirk.
In the pointless world in which Sirk places his characters, love is an absurdity whose devotees are not always immune from the director’s scathing contempt. In this context it is difficult to take Mitch and Lucy seriously (Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind). Their bovine plasticity would be merely ridiculous if not for the contrast of Kyle (Robert Stack) and Marylee’s (Dorothy Malone) defiant suffering. The juxtaposition elevates them from the ridiculous to the contemptible. Even in a minor work such as Interlude, the striking madness of Reni (Marianne Cook) causes the perfectly innocuous romance of the principals (June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi) to pale to insignificance by contrast. Through such brutal juxtapositions, subversive Sirk calls into question the validity of his “normal” relationships. How can romance coexist in the same world with Kyle, Marilee and Reni? Through these contrasts what would ordinarily seem innocent becomes disturbing, almost sinister. When Sirk shock-cuts from the extremely brutal beating administered to Sara Jane (Susan Kohner) by her outraged boyfriend (Troy Donahue) to Lora, awash with pleasure as Annie (Juanita Moore), on her knees, massages the Star’s tired feet, the effect is quite the same. Lora becomes more than condescending and insensitive; she becomes monstrous. Similarly, Sirk’s romantic pairings take on unexpected overtones due to the wildly hopeless company they keep.
In the midst of the despair to which all late Sirk characters are subject, there is a legitimate place for tenderness, compassion and professions of feelings. In such a world concern is a method of defying and transcending a mean and pain-filled existence. Despite the futility of the gesture, characters reach out, offer compassion and love. For a brief moment in Sirk’s career characters overcome their limitations and become genuinely attractive. The combination of compassion and prejudice, honest feeling and artifice makes these characters fascinating. For example, replete with the most annoying bourgeois mannerisms, Cary (Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows) would be as intolerable as her friends, neighbors and children were it not for the tenderness and longing she radiates. It is difficult not to respond to her powerless misery. Throughout the film Sirk balances ironic contempt, directed at the life she is a voluntary part of, against her legitimate longings for romance and happiness, simultaneously maintaining a critical detachment from her society and compassion for her entrapment within it. Despite her unattractive characteristics, Cary feels and suffers. When she stares forlornly out of her frost-edged window, a discreet tear upon her cheek, or sees herself, removed, yet clearer than she has ever before (in the reflection of her new television set), or listens unhappily as Harvey (Conrad Nagel) tells her she is too old for romance and excitement, bourgeois mannerisms pale in the face of such suffering. Sirk the artist transcends Sirk the polemicist.
Similarly, the visual splendor of the images in All That Heaven Allows counters Sirk’s dour pessimism. The shot of Cary reflected in her dressing table mirror which also reflects the golden leaved branch given her by Ron (Rock Hudson) says more about the wondrous, joyous nature of romance than all the “it can’t lasts” in Sirk’s considerable repertoire of ironic comparisons, removed reflections and object lessons. This doesn’t make her romantic ideals any less illusory; indeed, Sirk continues that very shot out her bedroom window and down to the embrace of a young couple (Gloria Talbot and David Janssen), showing through the contrast that everybody starts out the same way and also ends up the same way. Sirk’s lyricism simply makes her dreams understandable and legitimate, no matter how elusive. There is beauty in the world; Sirk’s own ravishing images prove as much. There is beauty in Cary’s attempt to reach out, in her ambivalent, very real hesitancy eventually overcome by honest feeling and love. Compassion freely given is one of the most powerful means open to Sirk’s characters of showing their better instincts, of proclaiming their defiance. Ever so briefly, in Take Me to Town, Weekend with Father, Captain Lightfoot, and most memorably in All I Desire and All That Heaven Allows, the director admitted to the possibility for unqualified compassion given by one character to another — for love. This flowering admits of the only discussion of the role of romantic love in Sirk’s work. This sentiment is so qualified, so clouded over by irony, neurosis, pain and self-deception in the later films as to basically cease to exist as a meaningful force.
Love is flavored in Sirk’s earliest American films by the distinctive presence of George Sanders. His high-spirited irony underlies both Summer Storm and A Scandal in Paris. By qualifying this irony with obsessional passion and moral weakness, Sirk makes of Summer Storm the more complex, disturbing and consistent work. Sanders’ awareness of his own failure and his powerlessness in the face of Linda Darnell’s sensuality shows his irony for what it is: a self-protecting delusionary facade. At this early date in Sirk’s career (1944), sexual passion is still a powerful force, and Sanders disintegrates before it. As to love . . . the lack of all save physical passion renders this love affair as cold and refined as the images employed in filming it. Darnell’s sultriness is smothering and disturbing, elemental in the manner of King Vidor heroines. She is equated with the thunderstorm with its magical “heavenly electricity” which so memorably introduces and characterizes tier, and which prove to be her last words.
The somewhat cold and clinical delineation of relationships which is so characteristic of these early and generally personal works becomes less consistently stated as Sirk’s attitude towards the interrelationships of people develops and deepens. In his early Universal period, 1950-52, Sirk vacillates in a most fascinating manner between the relative tenderness of Weekend with Father and Take Me to Town, and the vicious contempt implicit in No Room for the Groom. These films purport to be light comedies, and while genuinely funny most of them also embody pointed condemnations of contemporary American society, condemnations which are primarily funneled through the shaping of central relationships. Those films associated with nature (the outdoors) present the most optimistic picture. (This includes Captain Lightfoot and Taza, Son of Cochise.)1
Take Me to Town is positively lyrical, Sirk’s most hopeful picture of life and love. Even the children, who get such a vicious going-over in most of Sirk’s films come off here as delightful and charming. The central relationship is convincingly warm; relative to Sirk’s attitude in other works it is little less than inspiring. Dance hall girl Vermillion O’Toole (Ann Sheridan) and preacher Will Hall (Sterling Hayden) are able to bridge a social gap unthinkable in any other work of Douglas Sirk set in America. By All I Desire, which follows immediately, the possibility of bridging such a gap and surviving the wrath of society is very doubtful. Even in the light musical Has Anybody Seen My Gal? one member of the romantic partnering (played by Piper Laurie) must lose a fortune, thereby descending to the economic and social level of her beau (played by Rock Hudson) before love can prosper.
The outcome of romance is very much tied up in the nature of the society Sirk places his characters in. Love can flourish in the outdoors, where there are no obstructions, no middle class mausoleums for homes, no triumphant busy-bodies, no dictatorial children, no imagistic constrictions and restrictions metaphorically standing in for a strangling society which boxes its inhabitants into sterile, inescapable molds. It is no accident that the love affair of Jean and Brad (Weekend with Father) prospers when away from such restrictions. Their greatest happiness is enjoyed in the absence of their children, a fact which characteristically they cannot see. Meetings in a sun-splattered park and evenings alone bring happiness which could not have survived the presence of their, and by implication all, children. When TV star Phyllis Reynolds (played by Virginia Field) adds her support to the anti-love faction, things look pretty grim. Despite the happy ending, those elements in Weekend with Father which are here played for comedy contribute to the no-way-out ambience characteristic of later Sirk. Here the kiddies can reform and pool resources to bring their parents together again.2 However, the time comes when these manipulations of other peoples’ lives and chances for happiness become less appealing, become in fact positively monstrous. Manipulation is dangerous; it can end just as easily with the equivocating ambiguity of All I Desire or All That Heaven Allows or the downright agony of There’s Always Tomorrow (above). A slight change in emphasis or attitude and disaster supplants cuteness. With the darkening of Sirk’s outlook, adorably manipulative children become very scarce after 1953.
The accoutrements of a material society begin their contribution to Sirk’s denial of romantic chances in an equally innocuous way. Field’s TV musical number (in Weekend with Father) is very amusing, a begrudgingly affectionate parody of, to Sirk, a typically insane form of American behavior. Just another funny and crazy element in contemporary society which becomes less funny as it affects the happiness of characters subject to its tender mercies. When huge close-ups of Field loom over the intimate dinner of Neal and Heflin, courtesy of the giant TV set in their restaurant, it is amusing and foreboding, pointing the way to the somber effects materialism will have on the delicate mechanism of romance. Marilee, with her oil derrick, is the ultimate end of the line for romantic delusions in the America of Douglas Sirk. The Lady Pays Off,3 Weekend with Father, and No Room for the Groom are the real antecedents for Sirk’s philosophical dissection of a grotesque society far more than the Europeanized pre-Universal films.
Only once during Sirk’s career can it be said that he lost his directorial composure and his cool surface detachment. This is not to say he didn’t make an occasional bad film. You will not find me extolling the virtues of Meet Me at the Fair, Thunder on the Hill, or Sign of the Pagan. However, even with Ludmilla Tcherina, the supposed sister of a Roman Emperor, doing a hot cooch for visiting barbarians (how obliging) in Sign of the Pagan, Sirk manages to keep a straight face, maintaining his dignity despite the material he was unfortunate enough to be working from. With No Room for the Groom Sirk was unable to maintain any semblance of detachment, objectivity or ambiguity. A torrent of contempt, hate, and almost hysterical invective pours out of this remarkable little “comedy,” destroying the characters and reducing the film to something Weekend with Father, Take Me to Town, etc., are not, a ranting (if effective) tract openly denouncing everything Sirk hates in American society. The American family is here a monstrous miasmic blob presided over by a tarantula (played by Spring Byington) of such cunning and malevolent selfishness as to make Caligula appear ingenuous by contrast. Technological progress has turned a town into a cement factory with smoke stacks belching fumes everywhere, and the citizens care only for material gain. The young lovers, Alvah (Tony Curtis) and Lee (Piper Laurie) are shown to be contemptible boobs too weak and stupid to effectively protest what is being done to them. Every pet Sirk dislike is here amplified and caricatured, the result being a one-dimensional blast, which stylistically is as subtle as other Sirk forays into fractionalized spaces and pointed divisional lighting. The love affair of the principles is additionally compromised since Sirk never lets them rise above one-dimensional sounding boards. What there is of a relationship is further corrupted by basing it upon ideals of the gooiest nature, which Sirk then proceeds to contemptuously reveal as pure hypocrisy. The reality consists of an overriding concern with the physical consummation of their aborted marriage.
The two decisive films in this critical period are All I Desire and All That Heaven Allows, which are similar in many ways, even to almost identical descending crane shots introducing the setting for both films. Both deal on the narrative level with the attempts of a woman to overcome social pressures and find happiness with a man quite different from herself. Thematically, Sirk clearly shows in both films, through cumulative and convincing behavioral and formal detail, that it just cannot work. In both instances social pressures are too strong, prejudices too deeply seated, the family too well-organized and retrenched in reaction and hate. Both films have “happy endings” tacked on, in which the clearly indicated pessimistic resolution which has been carefully prepared is turned upside down; hence the deus ex machina, the Euripidean irony so endlessly and boringly quoted. There are elements within both films which point faintly to a less clear-cut interpretation of the material and indications that Sirk had not as yet ruled out love as a viable force. Both films are graced with performances of warmth and conviction. Stanwyck’s Naomi Murdoch is a woman of integrity in All I Desire, and she infuses her philosophical love scenes, with an almost equally good Richard Carlson, with more feeling and urgency than irony or divisional obstructions can entirely overcome. Their rather extraordinary conversation upon the staircase with the shadow of a banister rail separating them indicates generally that things are not going to work out for them, and specifically, that they are two individuals who are still alive and real. Banisters, screens, metaphorical lighting, the architecture of the house which is divided by landings, staircases, and banisters into spheres of action (in preparation for that ultimate exercise in irrefutable misery, Imitation of Life) may separate them, but their honesty and intelligent, good intentions (and Sirk’s tendency to shoot them in two-shots) at least partly counters that. Stanwyck’s Naomi is no Lora Meredith; she is still a self-aware and courageous woman. There is a chance for Naomi and Henry to ride out the storm of public opinion, despite the evidence of the consistent formal treatment. The family, while clearly moving in the wrong direction since the sweetness of Take Me to Town, is at least beneficiary of a young boy who is not as yet prejudiced, and who can feel for more than himself. When Ted (Billy Gray) weeps on the lap of his martyred mother, it is real and very moving. This involuntary gesture of freely-given compassion is not the trapped white-hot agony of Susie and Sara Jane at that last stop on the line. While Sirk’s mind seems to be saying it cannot be, his heart, expressed through generous treatment of character, and lushly beautiful decor and photography, is still holding out the possibility, no matter how faint.
The final battle of this war is fought in All That Heaven Allows (right), where the repression so pervasive in All I Desire is immeasurably stronger, where the stylistic and metaphorical obstructions are immeasurably greater, where the principals are weaker and disturbingly ambiguous. Cary’s best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorehead) is always helping her to make the “right decisions,” which always lead to sterility and loneliness. Harvey (Conrad Nagel) talks of nothing but his doctors, cures and genteel companionships. Kay (Gloria Talbot) and Ned (William Reynolds) are obscenely vicious children who care only for themselves, for “tradition,” for “Father’s memory” and for the house that has been in the family for “I don’t know how long.” The society of these upper middle class horrors is iron-clad, with the town gossip its most powerful member, whose words can make or break anyone who transgresses one of the innumerable social taboos. Finally, this is all set in the most astonishingly beautiful never-never land of palatial bourgeois interiors of great beauty, but cold as death and utterly unlivable. Needless to say, decor consists of screens, window panes, doorways, banisters, mirrors and divisive shadows. At every turn, Cary is fractionalized, cut off, defeated by a formal development which leaves almost no way out. If that were not enough, Cary’s gentle and retiring personality renders her mince-meat in the hands of brutal “friends,” and Ron (Rock Hudson), her outdoorsman lover and Thoreau disciple, is tinged with just enough sanctimoniousness to make him seem not all that ideal an alternative. Cary does fight back. Sara’s advice over the coffee cups — “Dump Ron, what will people say, your GARDENER!!!” — is vigorously rejected. She will have none of it, she refuses to bow to the lowest instincts of people who are rotten to start with. After all, they will say the worst anyway, because that’s what people always say in Sirk films. But of course Cary does bow to just those instincts later. Alone, Cary can handle Sara, Mona the gossip (Jacqueline DeWitt), Harvey, or even that formidable duo of Kay and Ned, but together they are overwhelming. When Ned stands in the darkened threshold, a screen slashing the space between them, and accuses his mother of having the hots for Ron’s rippling muscles, it is too much for any mortal to withstand. She has no option but to surrender to just those lowest instincts. When society has won, it no longer cares. Cary is walled up in her tomb, alone and miserable, with mirrors, urns, her monstrous TV. set, and stained glass windows. Then we are given the happy ending which unites the lovers in the face of a weakened (through boredom) resistance. Aside from Cary and Ron’s goodness, there is little to indicate such an alternative to misery — save the physical look of the film.
The extraordinary beauty of All That Heaven Allows (right) is of course partly ironic. Contrasting the ravishing loveliness of this world with the misery man’s perverted social organizations have made of it is twisting the knife in the wound. But such beauty also provides a very powerful lyrical force which somewhat counters and qualifies the bleak development of the film. Again Sirk “fights” against what he knows to be the case. When Cary picks up the Wedgwood pieces, when the lovers recline before the fire, when they meet over that silver-tipped spruce, the effect is the same as in the more affecting moments of All I Desire. There must be a chance, however slight, because these people are not that far gone yet. They can still feel something and there is still lyric beauty in the world. Sirk’s agonizing over this issue in these two great films results in the creation of some of the most admirable of his non-crazy protagonists. But again, the progression is inexorably downward, stayed only by Sirk’s generosity and compassion towards his characters. With There’s Always Tomorrow Sirk at last closes the door. From this point on, love as a positive force is no longer a meaningful part of Sirk’s world.
- Which by being set outside bourgeois American society allows for far greater freedom in the development of a central love relationship. Nature is being equated with a lack of restrictions. Similarly, Taza, Son of Cochise is set outside white American society, though it is far more disturbing and ambiguous due to involuntary contacts between the two societies. [↩]
- Sirk liked the way Gigi Perreau did the same thing in The Lady Pays Off so well that he had her do it again here. [↩]
- . The central relationship in The Lady Pays Off (right) is one of extreme coldness. Deception and blackmail are the decisive forces in the establishment and maintenance of this love affair which approaches the abstract in its disdain for any attempt at behavioral willingness. The most you can say about Linda Darnell’s Evelyn Warren is that she has severe emotional problems and knows it. Instead of dealing with them as the center of a melodrama, Sirk opts (or more likely, was told to) for a “comedy” approach in which the resolution of a conventional romantic dilemma is tacked onto what is basically a study of sexual frigidity and hostility. When Darnell turns her fury onto the supposed “sophisticated other woman” (Virginia Field again), the wrath and viciousness of the blast demolishes the poor woman and the audience on the spot. Darnell’s character follows the proscribed formula from cold to warm, from aloof to loving, but the fervor she injects into her unreformed scenes is not matched in the more “amenable” passages of the film. [↩]