DOUGLAS SIRK (1897-1987)

Scorned by the taste mongers of his era as a mere director of soap opera, Douglas Sirk had the last laugh as his preposterous cinema was embraced by American audiences for its passion and sense of beauty and by European critics for its irrationality and bald-faced irony. A sophisticated Dane weaned on American popular culture and movies, Sirk was careful not to condescend to the filmgoers of his adopted country while creating a body of work which expertly blended kitsch with social criticism.

Unlike those modern masters of film irony (Kubrick, David Lynch, The Coen Brothers), Sirk never stood on the sideline to smirk at the foolishness of his protagonists. Sirk’s noble heroes and heroines throw themselves with abandon into their livelihoods and affairs of the heart and, to discerning audiences, they look all the wiser for doing so.

Born in Hamburg to traveling Danish parents, Sirk returned to Germany during the war years to study the law, philosophy then dabbled as an artist before finally settling on the theatre as a career. The young prodigy found backstage work in many of the smaller German outposts and soon became a noted director of expressionistic and experimental plays.

Sirk’s first major break would come in 1930 when he was installed as director of Leipzig’s Altes Theatre. There, he befriended the city’s mayor Carl Goerdeler who would later be executed by the Nazis for his participation in the July 1944 assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler. The left-leaning Sirk credited Goerdeler for letting him fly under the radar during the early years of Hitler’s regime and when the director insisted in staging controversial material and plays written by Jews.

In 1934 Sirk was invited to Berlin to direct Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and while there he was contacted by UFA executives who inquired if he was interested in pursuing a career in film. Sirk jumped at the chance to escape the heavily censored national theatre and took up commercial filmmaking with a vengeance. Somewhat surprisingly, most of Sirk’s professional cohorts at UFA were unaware of his politics and the young director kept a low profile by taking on projects of little controversy.

Yet, from the get-go it was evident Sirk had great chops as a filmmaker. Drawing from his experience as an artist and choreographer in the theatre, Sirk’s UFA films were all visually striking. He developed unusual camera angles, graceful tracking shots and an expert sense of shade and light; techniques exploited to the limit in his film noirs and Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s.

Sirk’s first feature April! April! is a breezy comedy of mischief owing much to the early sound films of Rene Clair and Ernst Lubitsch. Here, a buffoonish macaroni magnate is bamboozled by his friends into believing a rich baron wants to bless his home with a visit. The April Fools’ joke goes awry when the real baron shows up unexpectedly leaving the merry pranksters to eat humble pie.

This polished and clever comedy of the social classes was also shot in a Dutch version (now lost) to take advantage of the popularity UFA films still had in the continent.

Based on a short story by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlof, Das Madchen vom Moorhof is the story of Helga Christmann (Hansi Knoteck), a pregnant teenage maid who wins favor in her Northern Germany farm community by not allowing her lover to admit to his indiscretions and libel himself. After giving up her suit against her former employer Helga is left bereft until she finds a noble benefactor in the handsome Karsten (Kurt Fischer-Fehling) who hires her as a housemaid.

Not surprisingly, Helga falls in love with the kind farmer but the pretty maid’s attentions to her employer draw the ire of his fiancee Gertrud (Ellen Frank) who schemes to evict Ellen from the premises as the wedding day approaches. A drunken incident postpones the wedding and causes the participants to re-examine their feelings. The fetching Knoteck turns in a fine performance as the selfless maid willing to sacrifice herself to the deeply flawed men she loves in this heartfelt rural drama.

Based on a play by Henrik Ibsen Stutzen der Gesellschaft finds Sirk in his element in the kind of social drama he would specialize in during his Universal years in Hollywood. Consul Bernick (Heinrich George) has become the pre-eminent citizen in his Norwegian fishing community by ruthlessly exploiting the local industry to pad the pockets of the laissez-faire bourgeoisie and himself. But Bernick’s empire is little more than a house of cards which tumbles down when his long lost brother in-law (Albrecht Schoenhals) returns from America and sets to fixing his damaged reputation.

The conflicted Consul Bernick is an early example of Sirk’s protagonists of duality—a self-proclaimed pillar of the community to many but a Machiavellian businessman with at least two dark secrets to conceal from those who know him best.

For Schlussakkord Sirk was given a bigger budget to shoot his most grandiose UFA film, a melodrama about a German mother who gives up her illegitimate baby to adoption then moves to the United States with her new husband. When he commits suicide the devastated Hanna (Maria Tasnadi Fekete) moves back to Germany to try and reconnect with her young son.

Keeping her identity secret from the boy’s new parents (Willy Birgel and Lil Dagover) Hanna moves into the Garvenberg household as a nanny but her hope of getting into the good graces of her son is thwarted by a jealous house matron (Maria Koppenhofer) and the feckless Mrs. Garvenberg.

Sirk hung many splendid ornaments upon the threadbare plot including a marvelous studio recreation of New York’s Central Park and 5th Avenue. Several stirring performances of classical music, compliments of conductor Garvenberg’s symphony orchestra, go far in turning Schlussakkord into an appealing entertainment.

Following in the footsteps of its ambitious predecessor Das Hofkonzert is another musical feast set in 19th century Mittel-Europe and starring operetta star Martha Eggerth as a lovely chanteuse in search of her father.

The slender thread of a story exports the common Christine (Eggerth) to a twee principality where she falls in love with a dashing Lieutenant (Johannes Heesters) to the consternation of a disapproving court of aristocrats. Summonsed to sing at the palace, Christine’s angelic voice rings a distant bell in the subconscious of King (Otto Tressler) who recognizes this young woman to be the child of his deceased, beloved wife.

Sirk labeled Das Hofkonzert a “Viennese truffle” yet this film, made during the heyday of Hitlerism, is chalk-full of delightful performances and cinematic flourishes from a director who was proving far too accomplished for the feather-light projects he was taking on.

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Just as the Nazis were ready to usurp UFA Sirk’s status at the studio took a turn for the better. He was allowed to travel abroad to make Zu Neuen Ufern, the first of two excellent films he made with Swedish chanteuse Zarah Leander. Bearing a keen resemblance to fellow Swede Greta Garbo, Leander lent sophistication and world-weariness to the role of Gloria Vane, a London music hall singer wrongly convicted of forgery and sent to work on a bleak Sydney prison farm during the 1840s. The true culprit is her lover, Sir Albert Finsbury (Willy Birgel), a wastrel officer in the glorious Ophuls tradition.

Feeling pangs of guilt, Finsbury follows Gloria to Australia but he is unable to arrange to have her freed from prison without scandal and loss of face and rank. Gloria is saved from her penury by local farmer Henry Hoyer (Viktor Staal) who selects her at a cattle call marriage fair to be his bride. On the way to Hoyer’s farm Gloria confesses to she still loves Finsbury then escapes to resume her affair with the dissolute Major. Gloria is soon devastated to learn of Finsbury’s upcoming betrothal to the Governor’s daughter.

Stranded far from home Gloria takes a job as a beer hall singer to make ends meet. But her artful style doesn’t take with the local yokels who boo her off the stage. Gloria is consoled backstage by Finsbury who learns, all too late, of the depth of her commitment to him. In perhaps the only honorable act of his career Finsbury commits suicide before the day of his wedding and Hoyer returns to Sydney to reclaim his broken bride.

    To the end of the world.

The second of the Leander features, La Habanera, is the most well-known film Sirk made at UFA. While visiting Puerto Rico on holiday, the impetuous Astree Sternhjelm jumps her ship back to Sweden to stay on and marry the dashing but cruel Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian). Ten years later, Astree’s old flame Dr. Sven Nagel (Karl Martell) arrives to investigate an infectious disease plaguing the island and becomes horrified when he finds Astree and son Juan are being held as virtual prisoners by the jealous Don Pedro.

The bizarre subplot about the epidemic ruining the Don’s business only fuels his rage against the steely-willed woman who has come to hate her Caribbean home.

These two odd, artful melodramas remain memorable for their early examples of impulsive Sirk women who leapt before looking. As the situation in Germany grew less hospitable to artists and free-thinkers like Sirk he secured a passport to scout locations for the Leander films and skipped the country soon after.

    Irony dressed up as Romanticism.

Feeling unsafe in fascist Italy, Sirk relocated in France then Holland where he directed Boefje, a low-budget effort about the regeneration of a Rotterdam street waif. Shot around the streets and canals of the handsome Dutch city—soon to be bombed into oblivion by the Nazis—the film is vibrant with low life as befits this story of a teen age hustler who dreams of moving to America and become a gangster. After being caught stealing, Jan Groverts (Annie van Ees) is taken under the wing of a Pastor (Albert van Dalsum) who thinks the young rascal is worthy of rehabilitation.

At turns, resembling Boys Town or any number of Dead End Kids movies Boefje has more grit than its American cousins but the grating performance by the forty-six year old actress van Ees in the lead makes it hard to feel much sympathy for Jan’s plight.

Sirk didn’t stay in Holland to oversee the editing of Boefje. With the threat of a European war looming he and his wife had already booked passage to America.

Upon arriving in Hollywood Sirk accepted an invitation from Warner Brothers to direct a remake of Zu Neuen Ufern. The project fell through and with no other offers on the horizon Sirk retreated to the California countryside where found solace in becoming a chicken farmer. After struggling to find affordable labor Sirk sold the farm and signed a screenwriter’s contract with Harry Cohn at Columbia.

Unhappy with his lowly situation at the studio Sirk got permission from Cohn to direct Hitler’s Madman, a low-budget and haunting wartime drama about a Czech village that rises up to assassinate their oppressor, the Nazi tyrant Commander Reinhard Heydrich (John Carradine). Allocated just one week of shooting time, Sirk coaxed excellent performances his ensemble cast and mounted the chilling destruction of the town of Lidice with the help of non-credited cinematographer Eugen Shuftan.

Although Sirk claims he intended the film to have a documentary-style look, the true to life events of Hitler’s Madman took on a poetic-lyricism owing more to Jean Renoir than Hollywood films made about the war.

Based on The Shooting Party by Chekhov, Summer Storm found Sirk teaming up for the first time with his favorite muse of this period, George Sanders. Updated to the years surrounding the Russian Revolution, haughty George shines as Petroff, a jaded magistrate who risks his status in his small Russian community by taking up with a commoner, the sultry and greedy Olga (Linda Darnell). Petroff’s fiancee Nadena (Anna Lee) suspects he is having an affair with Olga and calls off their engagement.

   Civilized people don’t obey their baser instincts.

In the meantime Olga has committed to a loveless marriage and entered into another fling with Petroff’s sidekick in mischief, Count “Piggy” Volsky, played by Edward Everett Horton with lecherous aplomb in perhaps his quintessential screen role. Olga’s machinations lead to Petroff’s fall and Piggy is left to pawn off his memoirs to Nadena, now an important newspaper publisher.

   You don’t achieve anything by upsetting people.

The second Sirk-Sanders collaboration, A Scandal in Paris, is a fanciful but delightful spin on the life of the legendary criminal-turned-cop Eugene Francois Vidocq. The suave Vidocq (George Sanders) and his amoral sidekick in crime Emile (Akim Tamiroff) flee a Parisian jail for Marseilles where he makes a conquest of a sexy cabaret singer (Carol Landis) and gets the attention of her fiancé, the bumbling inspector Richet (Gene Lockhart).

Vidocq settles in the countryside where he is soon beguiled by Therese (Signe Hasso) the pretty but suspicious daughter of a Marquise. Hoping to win her love he decides to go straight much to the consternation of Emile and a band of lowlifes the duo recruited to rob a Paris bank. With Richet closing in Vidocq comes clean about his past to Therese and the Marquise, but the angry Emile corners the turncoat, forcing Vidocq into a fight to the finish.

Wrought with gentle irony and photographed in shimmering beauty by Guy Roe and Eugen Shuftan, A Scandal in Paris is easily Sirk’s most European American film. Sirk’s first three overlooked and underrated American films were rich with witty characterizations and brooding psychological insights, turning the simplest genre assignments into mood-drenched, art house cinema.

    Only the heartless succeed in crime – as in love. 

Still, the talented and profitable filmmaker wasn’t getting much love from Harry Cohn, so Sirk had to put together projects outside of the gates of Columbia Studios in order to survive.

Sirk’s exceptional talent for light and shadow made him a natural for film noir, but his humanist flair made for a less fatalistic vision of the world.

Lured is a shaggy-dog murder mystery featuring Lucille Ball as Sandra Carpenter, a smart-alecky American hoofer stranded in London who goes undercover to help Scotland Yard track down a serial killer. Along the way she is nearly recruited into a white slavery ring and then succeeds in getting herself engaged to the famous entrepreneur Robert Fleming (George Sanders), who happens to be the major suspect in the murders.

The Leo Rosten penned screenplay is stronger on personality than plot and Sirk gets wonderful performances from Ball, Alan Mowbray as a lecherous butler-pimp, Boris Karloff as a demented dress designer, and especially Cedric Hardwicke as the mousy barrister with a dark secret.

    Out of the box in old Blighty.

Sleep My Love (also written by Rosten) opens with the woozy, well-to-do Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) on a train to Boston with her husband’s gun in her handbag. Foggy about the events of the past few days, Alison is accompanied back to Boston with an infatuated friend of a friend (Robert Cummings) and together they unravel a murderous plot set in motion by her controlling, unfaithful husband Richard (Don Ameche).

The light personalities of the three stars mutes much of the menace of the complicated plot but set designer Howard Bristol’s richly atmospheric recreation of Manhattan’s east side, a delightful ensemble of sundry character actors, and Sirk’s unerring eye for the sinister help make for a savory brew.

    Uptown intrigue.

Based on an original story by Samuel Fuller, Shockproof follows the exploits of recently paroled convict Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight). Hoping to keep his attractive new client out of the clutches of her gambler boyfriend Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), parole officer Graff Marat (Cornel Wilde) arranges for Jenny to live in his house and care for his blind mother. Looking to blackmail Graff, Wesson talks Jenny to marrying the smitten cop but the reformed ex-con has a change of heart, leading to a shooting and life on the lam for the newlywed couple.

The film’s hard-bitten scenario is full of doomsday poetry which reaches its crescendo when Jenny, fraught with guilt and paranoia, is ready to confess all to the cops.

Unfortunately, Cohn and Columbia chose to take a pass on filming Fuller’s fatalistic finale with Graff shooting it out with the police for a tacked-on happy ending that rings completely false. Weary of this sort of post-production meddling and sick of Hollywood in general, Sirk soon moved back to Germany where he hoped he would find more artistic freedom.

  Do-gooder gone wrong.

Sirk’s exodus was short-lived as he soon found the war’s Allied liberators had gutted UFA beyond repair. So, with no other compelling options abroad he returned to California and signed a contract with Universal Studios.

Sirk’s new studio had fallen on hard times since the halcyon days of the 1930s, but its lowly status turned out to be a godsend for a much traveled filmmaker looking for a home. Still, it would be several years before Sirk found his niche at Universal and in the meantime he took on several earnest and nostalgic projects that fleeting opportunity to display his prodigious talents.

Shot on location at a Jesuit monastery in California, The First Legion pits Charles Boyer as the progressive Father Marc Arnoux against Peter Morrell (Lyle Bettiger), an agnostic doctor who allows the unexpected recovery of an ancient monk to pass as a “miracle” in order to fuel resentment towards the church. Although Sirk had difficulty in convincing local Jesuits of his sincerity, the messages from both sides of the aisles were delivered and The First Legion holds up as a thinking man’s take on belief.

Set in an English monastery as a frightening storm threatens the local community, Thunder on the Hill quickly switches gears from a petty in-house bitch fest between the righteous Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) and the convent’s resentful nurses to a full-blown murder mystery. When convicted murderer Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) is forced to spend a night at the convent, Sister Mary sympathizes with the strange young woman convicted of killing her difficult, composer brother and, in the brief time allotted her, tracks down the real murderer.

A noir-melodrama with a surprising amount of feeling, Thunder on the Hill transcended its potboiler blueprint to become one of the more intriguing Sirk films during this bleak period.

    Sister flatfoot.

At Universal, Sirk had the pick of the litter where stories were concerned and his films took on a nostalgic wrinkle that was often critical of his adopted country. Set in the early 1900s, the charming Meet Me at the Fair finds a rascally carnival showman Doc Tilbee (Dan Dailey) entrusted with the care of a runaway (Chet Allen) from an orphanage. The kid begins to grow on Doc and emboldened by the love of pretty local do-gooder (Diana Lynn) the cynical medicine man leads an unlikely fight against corrupt politicians to reform the local orphanages.

At first glance Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, a cautionary comedy about the evils of money, seems to be warmhearted fun in the Lubitsch tradition. Sickly New York-based millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) decides to leave all of his fortune to the family of a woman who had rejected him for another man forty years ago. When his lawyer suggests he visit the Blaisdell family in his Vermont hometown to see if they are worthy of such a gift, Fulton disguises himself as an artist and moves into their house.

Life is idyllic until a $100,000 check from an unknown benefactor turns mother Harriet (Lynn Bari) into an upwardly mobile monster. Painfully aware of her nouveau riche status in the community Harriet moves the family into a mansion they can’t afford, breaks up daughter Millicent’s romance with a local soda jerk (Rock Hudson) and arranges Millicent’s marriage into an old money family.

   Money spoils everything.

A particular favorite of Sirk’s Take Me to Town revisits ground staked-out by Meet Me at the Fair in slightly saccharine story of Vermillion O’Toole (Ann Sheridan), a showgirl on the lam from the law who is recruited by a trio of moppets to become the wife of their upstanding pa, Will Hall (Sterling Hayden).

    Poem to the old west.

Small town mores and hypocrisy play a large role in All I Desire, the first major Sirk “woman’s film”. Set circa 1910, struggling 30something actress Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her conservative Wisconsin home town to see her teenage daughter’s debut in a high school play. Ten years before, Naomi had abandoned dull husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and her three children to pursue a life on the stage, but she remains too proud to tell anyone she has been reduced to playing vaudeville.

Her return raises eyebrows around the suspicious town and causes a great divide within her family driving Naomi to take a desperate stand.

    You can’t go home, again.

Sirk’s leftist sensibilities ran in contrast to bunkered-down America of the 1950s and the superficiality of the Hollywood scene left him longing for Europe and Old World culture.

Hoping to duplicate the box office success of John Ford’s Irish valentine The Quiet Man Universal sent Sirk to the Emerald Isle to direct Captain Lightfoot, a fanciful take on a local insurrection against British rule in 1815. Rock Hudson plays the aptly-monickered Lightfoot, a highway robber recruited into a clique of rebels led by the legendary Captain Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow). The two men pose as respectable pillars of society while they fleece aristocrats of much-needed funds to keep the rebellion afloat.

    When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey.

Sirk’s talent for romantic sweep and the luscious, seaside locales go a long way in helping this bit of blarney come together in an entertaining fashion. Lightfoot and Thunderbolt were exceptions to the typical male action hero. Unlike the Waynes, Mitchums, and Fondas who fought valiantly at Iwo Jima, Normandy and the Bulge, Sirk’s soldiers strike a more conscientious note. These men whose psyches and souls were damaged by the spoils of war seek re-birth through God, family and redemption.

    Robin Hood rebels.

Battle Hymn is based on the true story of WWII Air Force pilot Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) who accidentally dropped a bomb on a German orphanage killing thirty seven children. Years later, the tormented civilian offers his services to the Korean War effort as a pilot trainer but he neglects to tell his plebes the former “Killer” Hess is now a man of the cloth. Hess finally finds peace of mind by defying orders so he can transport several hundred North Korean orphans out of harm’s way and into a new home.

    Redemption time.

Far and away the best film based on an original work (Pylon)
by William Faulkner, Tarnished Angels is a masochistic masterwork which still packs plenty of wallop.

   You don’t love because: you love despite.

World War I flying ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is the curious object of fascination, and worship, from his long suffering wife LaVerne, his loyal mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), and Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), a hard-drinking New Orleans newspaperman. Now a struggling carnival pilot, the heartless Roger drags LaVerne, their young son and Jiggs from town to town to race against up-and-coming local pilots.

Burke approaches the beautiful LaVerne for a story on the war hero but her pitiful tale of unwavering devotion, while bearing the brunt of unspeakable cruelties, wins the reporter’s heart and causes Roger to finally take a hard look into his black heart.

 We have to start teaching ourselves not to be afraid.

Based on a novel by Erich-Maria Remarque, A Time to Love and a Time To Die is a bittersweet romance set among the ruins of a bombed-out German town in 1944. Earnest Ernest Graeber (John Gavin) is a German infantryman returning home on a three week furlough after two years at the Russian front.

    Whoever is perfect belongs in a museum. 

After finding his childhood house blown to bits and his parents gone missing, Ernest bunks in with a fellow group of homeless soldiers. While combing the city for his family he meets and falls in love with Elizabeth (Lisolette Pulver), the exquisite daughter of a dissident doctor. The star-crossed pair makes the most of their brief period together, visiting old haunts and cozying-up in abandoned museums. They decide to marry and set up house in a kindly old woman’s attic.

In time, Elizabeth and Ernest’s old professor Pohlmann (Remarque), who has fallen out of favor with the local Nazis, help the young soldier see the folly of war and the evil behind the German war machine. The air of gloom hangs heavy over the lovers before Ernest leaves Elizabeth at the train station to meet his fate back at the front.

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Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, the notorious “trash” films that condemned Sirk in the eyes of the era’s serious critics, are among the director’s richest and most personal works. Sirk was drawn to melodramatic material and implausible scenarios, favorably likening the meltdowns of pampered sons and lonely housewives to the classical tragedies of Orestes and Richard II.

Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life were actually old Universal properties directed with verve and sensitivity by John Stahl in the 1930s. Sirk claimed to have never seen the originals and, indeed, his takes are more expressionistic—thanks in part to Russell Metty’s stark color cinematography—and psychologically perverse than the Stahl films.

    Superb Stahl.

Based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession finds Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) returning home to her lake front home only to learns her near saint of a husband has died of a coronary. The news takes a cruel twist when she is told the respirator kept in her home for Dr. Phillips’ personal use had been borrowed to revive reckless playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) after he wrecked his high-speed boat in the lake.

   This is a damned crazy story if there ever was one.

While recovering in Dr. Phillips’ hospital insincere Bob tries to make amends by offering money to the attractive, grieving widow. Turned away, Bob goes on a bender and crashes his car in the yard of Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), an artist who takes the unhappy miscreant in and teaches him the virtues of selflessness. After Bob’s good intentions lead to a freak accident that blinds Helen, he devotes his life to secretly bringing her happiness and saving her sight.

He finally gains Helen’s trust and the unlikely lovers withdraw from the world until Bob’s noble gesture deals her a bitter blow, leading to separation and a miraculous regeneration.

    Craziness is important.

Sirk would segue to a culture of selfishness when Wyman and Hudson would return to play a socially-stigmatized couple in the sublimely ironic soaper All That Heaven Allows. Lonely widow Cary Scott (Wyman) does her best to avoid her small town’s shallow social circuit while gently discouraging a well-to-do suitor (Conrad Nagel). In the meantime an idealistic gardener Ron Kirby (Hudson) has melted Cary’s reserve and swept her off her feet, setting the local gossipmongers’ tongues a-flappin’ with spiteful insinuation.

Cary’s status conscious college-age children pressure their mother into sacrificing her future happiness by dropping the unacceptable Ron. Finding her Doll’s House life empty, Cary returns to her lover in his greatest time of need.

As in Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows follows a lofty through-line (the writings of Thoreau) in getting to the essence of a life lived with purpose. Trapped in a narrow New England community Cary and Ron are nearly crushed by the rigid roles they are expected to adhere to, only re-connecting when it seems like the embers of romance have nearly flamed out forever.

   I don’t apologize for wanting you. 

An explosive melodrama about a dysfunctional Texas oil family, Written on the Wind is Sirk’s most stylistically spectacular film and, arguably, his masterpiece.

Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), the charming yet troubled heir to his father’s fortune steals good girl Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) from his best friend and long-time family employee, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson). Mitch silently suffers as Kyle marries Lucy and brings her to the family ranch to meet his father (Robert Keith) and black sheep sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone).

Since Marylee’s love for the stalwart Mitch goes unrequited she scandalizes the family by sleeping with just about every available man in town. Kyle is beaten up after trying to defend Marylee’s honor then goes on a bender that is further exacerbated when he finds he may be sterile. Kyle and Marylee’s antics drive their despairing father to the grave and Mitch to accepting a job with the company in Iran.

When Lucy announces she is pregnant the humiliated Kyle assumes Mitch must be the father and drunkenly confronts his trusted friend at gunpoint. The twisted and tortured Hadley children live fast amidst the ugliness of their father’s refineries until the consequences of their selfishness shoots down the family empire.

  To beauty, to truth which is anything but beautiful. 

Sirk’s adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel, Imitation of Life turned out to be his swan song to American film.

    Little chance to succeed.

Struggling single mom Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) takes on a black maid Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her light-skinned daughter Sara Jane to help look after her own child Susie while Lora looks for acting work. Determined not to let anything stand in the way of her fledgling career Lora discards her beaus and loved ones as soon as they ask too much of her, in affect leaving much of Susie’s upbringing to Annie.


Meanwhile, Sara Jane (Susan Kohner) has adopted a white lifestyle, lying to boyfriends about her parents and running away to join a chorus line in Los Angeles, sending brokenhearted Annie into a downward spiral from which she will not recover. When word reaches Sara Jane that her mother is dying she rushes back to New York to make amends but she only arrives in time for Annie’s elaborate New Orleans-style funeral. Sara Jane prostrates herself on Annie’s coffin asking forgiveness of the one person in her life who offered selfless, unyielding love.

Turning the hackneyed material on its head, Sirk created an emotionally naked work which did a far better job in capturing the second class status of black people in America than any number of critically-lauded and Academy Award winning films of the era (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sounder, The Great White Hope, etc.).

  How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt? 

Imitation of Life was Sirk’s biggest box office hit, but he soon retreated to Europe to nurse a nagging injury and his Continental soul. Sirk’s sporadic attempts to get back in the film business were half-hearted and aside from a few short films, sponsored by his favorite student Fassbinder, the great Dane receded into a long retirement.


Books on Sirk:

Sirk on Sirk – Jon Halliday ****1/2 This rare series of interviews conducted by the author with Sirk in 1970 makes for a provocative and articulate examination of the career of the influential cult director. Sirk’s spot-on analysis of his Hollywood directing contemporaries is a true delight. Given the director’s excellent reputation with filmmakers and feminist critics it’s odd so little has been written on him over the years.


Films by Sirk:

1935  April! April! ***1/2
1935  Das Madchen vom Moorhof ***1/2
1935  Stutzen der Gesellschaft ***1/2
1936  Schlussakkord ****
1936  Das Hofkonzert ***1/2
1937  Zu Neuen Ufern ****
1937  La Habanera ***1/2
1939  Boefje (Wilton’s Zoo) ***1/2
1943  Hitler’s Madman ***1/2
1944  Summer Storm ****
1945  Scandal in Paris ****
1947  Lured ***1/2
1948  Sleep My Love ***1/2
1949  Shockproof ***1/2
1949  Slightly French ***1/2
1950  Mystery Submarine ***1/2
1951  The First Legion ***1/2
1951  Thunder on the Hill ***1/2
1951  The Lady Pays Off ***1/2
1951  Weekend With Father ***
1952  No Room for the Groom ***1/2
1952  Has Anybody Seen My Gal ***1/2
1952  Meet Me at the Fair ***1/2
1953  Take Me to Town ***1/2
1953  All I Desire ****
1954  Taza, Son of Cochise ***1/2
1954  Magnificent Obsession ****
1954  Sign of the Pagan ***1/2
1955  Captain Lightfoot ***1/2
1956  All That Heaven Allows ****1/2
1956  There’s Always Tomorrow ***1/2
1957  Written on the Wind *****
1957  Battle Hymn ***1/2
1957  Interlude ***1/2
1958  Tarnished Angels ****1/2
1958  A Time to Love and a Time to Die ****1/2
1959  Imitation of Life ****1/2
1979  Bourbon Street Blues ***1/2 (short)

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