Douglas Sirk, while discussing the 1955 melodrama he made starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, just one of several quintessential weepies he directed during that decade, explained to an interviewer: “[T]ake All That Heaven Allows: I just put this title there like a cup of tea, following Brecht’s recipe. The studio loved this title; they thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way round. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy.”
That anecdote cleverly points to the contradictions and hypocrisy Sirk explores in All That Heaven Allows — about a middle-aged widow who falls for her younger gardener, her burgeoning sexual confidence frequently undermined by oppressive middle-class conventions — and in many of his other lavish Eisenhower-era projects. Those canonical melodramas are merely one part of the Film Society’s 28-title salute to the director, an ample retrospective that also includes the movies he helmed, as Detlef Sierck, in his native Germany and the films he made in other genres — westerns and noirs among them — after arriving in the U.S. in 1940.
Born in 1897 in Hamburg, Sirk was a prominent theater director in Weimar Germany before being hired in 1934 by UFA, the country’s main movie production company. The floridly plotted La Habanera, from 1937 — the year the director ended all ties with the Nazi-controlled corporation and left his homeland — anticipates the byzantine scenarios that would define some of his Fifties movies. Set in Puerto Rico (here played by Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands), the film centers on Astrée (Zarah Leander, UFA’s biggest star), who, while visiting the Caribbean land from Sweden, instantly falls for and weds local tycoon Don Pedro (Ferdinand Marian). After a decade of marriage, though, she grows to despise her husband and life in the tropics: “Everything that seemed so charming ten years ago has turned repulsive.” Astrée trills about snow to her terrifyingly towheaded, Teutonic-looking son, and will soon be saved from oppressive heat and humidity by a Stockholm-based doctor on assignment in PR to investigate a mysterious contagion.
As outlandish and convoluted as that synopsis might sound — there’s also a subplot involving Don Pedro’s attempts to cover up the spread of the plague, for fear that the news of the outbreak will harm his fruit trade — La Habanera demonstrates where Sirk’s deepest sympathies usually lie: with women trapped in miserable marriages. That’s one way to describe the union between an adulterous Don Ameche and an unguarded Claudette Colbert in the night-terror noir Sleep, My Love (1948). He roofies her bedtime cocoa in an attempt to make her commit somnambulant suicide so that his hot-tomato mistress (Hazel Brooks, a scorching screen siren who had an inexplicably short career) can inherit his name — and her millions. Although Sleep, My Love is the rare Sirk crime thriller, the film prefigures one of the most significant motifs of his later melodramas: the opulent lodging as domestic prison, a discordance highlighted by staircases shot from disorienting angles.
The household structure has never been more luridly featured than in Written on the Wind (1956), in which Technicolor Greek tragedy meets the Texas oilfields. A black-gold baron — the father of two wildly spoiled and damaged adult children — collapses as he mounts the steps in his palatial spread, tumbling to his death while his nympho daughter (Dorothy Malone, whose strumpet performance is still unrivaled sixty years later) feverishly mambos in a pink negligee in her bedroom.
“I’ll wait, and I’ll have you — marriage or no marriage,” Malone’s character tells Hudson’s in Sirk’s most baroque movie. The actors, plus a third principal from Written on the Wind, Robert Stack, would re-team the following year for the monochrome The Tarnished Angels, the final of eight films that Sirk made with Hudson and one that evinces how much the director’s ornate visual style also flourished in black-and-white productions. Based on William Faulkner’s Pylon, this Depression-era love-triangle saga — Hudson, playing an alcoholic newspaper reporter, becomes smitten with Malone, who performs as part of an aerial daredevil duo with husband Stack — stands as another of Sirk’s compassionate portraits of wifely regret.
Sirk closed the 1950s — and his feature-filmmaking career — with Imitation of Life (1959), his most commercially successful movie. Its themes of mother-daughter love and abandonment, shame, and racial injustice provoked in many viewers at the time an endless flow of tears and can still bring on the waterworks today. I can’t recommend this or any of Sirk’s melodramas highly enough, whether for first-time or repeat viewers, especially since all the titles in the FSLC’s retrospective, save one, will be shown on celluloid. But the movie I’m most partial to from this incredibly fecund decade in Sirk’s oeuvre is one that’s often overshadowed by his Technicolor triumphs: There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as former toy factory co-workers whose ecstatic reunion twenty years later puts into stark relief just how isolated he’s grown to feel in his own marriage. It’s the atypical Sirk title that revolves around a lonely husband, though the film’s empathy is invested equally in both of these onetime colleagues. They both forswear happiness for good — the kind of ending that Sirk perfected.
‘Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
December 23–January 6
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