“This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”
The above quote from French critic and film maker Jean-Luc Godard, sums-up the approach of one of cinema’s most underrated directors. Douglas Sirk – who came to prominence in Hollywood during the 1950’s – though loved by filmgoers, was widely derided by critics at the time for his overtly sentimental and vibrantly gaudy work. Like many artists, it was only following his death in 1987 that he became seen as one of the most revered practitioners of the Hollywood melodrama, garnering appreciation from film experts for the depth and underlying genius of his depiction of the emotions bubbling beneath the surface of small-town America.
The difficulties faced by outsiders in their battle for acceptance within close-knit communities, formed a basis for many of Sirk’s most memorable films. What is seen now as his uncanny knack for capturing this on the screen may arise from his own background and the obstacles he himself encountered as an outsider in the oft closed world of early Hollywood.
Born to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany, Hans Detlef Sierck was raised in Denmark before returning to Germany in his teens. University educated, Sierck started his career at the Weimar Republic theatre directing productions like The Threepenny Opera, but was forced to flee Germany for America in 1937 due to his political leanings and Jewish wife. By 1942 he had changed his German name to Douglas Sirk and moved to the West Coast where he soon found work in Hollywood putting his ant-Nazi sentiments to good use in such obscure films as war drama Hitler’s Madman (1943) starring John Carradine.
Not until the mid 1950’s did the films which encapsulated his most memorable trademarks begin to emerge, namely the drama of family and interpersonal relationships (particularly highlighting social and class divides), his dramatic use of technicolor and CinemaScope and regular casting of a small core of stars, including perhaps most significantly Rock Hudson, in central roles.
As mentioned much of Sirk’s most popular work was set in small town America, against a backdrop of white picket fences, smart lawns and twitching curtains which many of his audiences could relate to. This is best seen in perhaps the most famous of these, All That Heaven Allows (1955), an unapologetic weepy which sees rich widow Cary Scott, played by Ronald Reagan’s first wife Jane Wyman, overcome the prejudices and bigotry of her family and friends to fall in love with her groundsman played by Hudson. The central core that true love overcomes all obstacles resonated with an audience still recovering from the effects of a devastating world war and seeking escapism through the medium of cinema.
Film’s like Written on the Wind (1956) on the other hand depicted a lifestyle many of the same viewers could not hope to emulate, but in doing so provided them with a few hours break from reality. The opulence and intrigue here surrounded a Texan oil dynasty, and the influence of Sirk’s mini ‘soap operas’ on television series like Dallas has not been lost upon students of the genre (perhaps significantly as well, Hudson and Wyman would go on to star in two such shows, Dynasty and Falcon Crest, respectively).
Where Sirk played heavily on underlying nuances for his film’s messages, any such subtleties were swept aside visually as he painted the screen in vibrant technicolor shades. This, along with his frequent use of the wide-angle CinemaScope method of filming, added fantasy to his storytelling with a visual style capable of encompassing wide vistas which drew audiences into the film – his sweeping camera at the opening of All That Heaven Allows gives a panoramic view of a small town, setting the scene against which the ensuing drama unfolds.
The other prominent feature of Sirk’s work was his casting of Rock Hudson as leading man. Together they made nine films for Universal between 1952 and 1958, and Hudson’s rugged good looks along with his wholesome ‘Americanism’ were perfect for the environment Sirk depicted. The fact that Hudson was (though never publicly admitted) gay, in all likelihood gave him the subliminal ‘safeness’ which so often attracts women to homosexual men, making films he appeared in popular with female audiences. Hudson’s appearance in Sirk’s films along with other regulars like Jane Wyman and Dorothy Malone, gave them a continuity which attracted audiences – they knew what to expect which is always appealing.
Sirk was very much of his time, and by the early 1960’s his over-the-top visuals and sentimentality were largely out of vogue with cinema’s new style of grittier, kitchen-sink realism. Departing filmmaking and Hollywood Sirk returned to Europe where he died almost thirty years later in Lugano, Switzerland, with only a brief return behind the camera in Germany during the 1970’s. Leaving on a high (as many astute artists do) was perhaps Sirk’s most canny career move, as the fans of his now forgotten America far outweigh his critics.