Monday, May 22, 2017

Written on the Wind: Soapy and Subversive

Written on the Wind: Sirk du Soleil!

What more can I write about Written on the Wind? So much has already been said about the films of director Douglas Sirk. The super soap opera about superrich Texans was a big hit in 1956 and a cult favorite to boot. What gives Written on the Wind staying power is Sirk’s subtle critique on post-war America and strikingly visual storytelling style.

Dorothy as Mary Lee works those arched eyebrows in this sexy Texas saga.
Sirk is the model of storytelling economy, epitomized in the opening credits of Written on the Wind. Over the sweet sounds of The Four Aces, the story is succinctly set up: Rich boy Kyle Hadley is drunk and racing his sports car back home, for a showdown with his best friend, Mitch Wayne, who booted him out. Roaring into the driveway, he smashes his bottle against the brick mansion. Waking the servants, alerting his sleazy sister, Mary Lee Hadley, long-suffering wife Lucy, and pal Mitch, the plastered prodigal son has returned. Door left wide open, Kyle lumbers into the library. His sister flits down the staircase and follows. From outside, a gunshot is heard, Kyle Hadley staggers out, and collapses in the driveway. The camera cuts to his bedroom, where his wife faints, and a calendar’s pages fall back to the story’s beginning. All this in just three minutes and six seconds!

Douglas Sirk’s postwar films are the ones on which his reputation rests. On their surface, Sirk’s cinema seems over-the-top glamorous, slickly soapy, and artificially emoted. Audiences then and even now take such films as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life at face value, as guilty pleasure wallows. Others have deconstructed the work of Douglas Sirk, for what lies beneath his glossy facades, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Malone as Mary Lee, seeking comfort with a miniature oil derrick ?
Still, moviegoers today easily see that there is more than meets the eye to Sirk’s ‘50s films. I’ll never forget watching Written on the Wind with my folks and its infamous finale—the rich sister all alone, caressing her father’s miniature oil derrick—Mom and Dad burst into laughter. Sirk took the disadvantages of censorship and confining studio system film making and worked it to his advantage. Social and sexual issues were played out in the guise of a soap opera: The older woman-younger man relationship of All That Heaven Allows; the disillusioned breadwinner of There’s Always Tomorrow; the hedonistic playboy in Magnificent Obsession, or the racial issues of Imitation of Life. Written on the Wind tackles unchecked wealth and power, sexuality and sterility.

Mary Lee Hadley's mambo of death.
Some of the cited examples of Sirk’s genius can be a bit of a reach. One such claim is that Written on the Wind’s visuals were deliberately and blatantly artificial. To me, Wind doesn’t look any different than other ‘50s films. Rear projection, matte scenery, backlot outdoor sets, and interior sets were all standard issue then. Sirk skillfully used the devices in his films, heightened with his expressive lighting and camera angles.

Rock Hudson in leading man mode as Mitch Wayne.
Written on the Wind is twice the soap, in half the time, as Giant, George Stevens’ take on Texas, also came out at the end of ‘56. The two epics have interesting parallels. Rock played steady Eddie Bick Benedict in Giant to James Dean’s Jett Rink, the wildcatter who cracks up. In Written on the Wind, Hudson’s Mitch is a strait-laced version of Jett, the outsider looking in. And Robert Stack’s dissolute rich jerk Kyle is how Jett Rink ends up in Giant.

The eternal triangle, as viewed by Douglas Sirk in 'Written on the Wind.'
Since the release of Written on the Wind, many film critics, fans, and historians criticized Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall as boring, while praising Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone for their showy performances. I beg to differ. If all four stars had engaged such scenery chewing, the Hadleys’ mansion would have been reduced to rubble. Somebody had to be the straight man—ironically, that fell to Rock Hudson. As Mitch Wayne, Rock meets the pre-requisites for a top tier leading man: Hudson is at his handsomest, along with his warm personality, intelligence, and one of the best speaking voices of his movie generation. Robert Stack, who had the killer role of Kyle, later praised Hudson for not pulling rank as the star and ordering Stack’s star-making role reduced. Frankly, I think Rock might have played the rich boy better than stone-faced Stack.

Lauren Bacall as Lucy, pondering her future as wife of a rich playboy. 
Instead of playing her usual snarky tough cookie here, Lauren Bacall is Lucy, the leading lady—which I found a refreshing change of pace. Watching Bacall, chic in a grey suit during the film’s NYC scenes, I thought it a shame Alfred Hitchcock never gave Betty Bacall the nod as one of his famed blondes. Naturally, not the fragile ones of Vertigo or Marnie, but Bacall would have been the bomb in North by Northwest with Cary Grant. My sister, when watching Hollywood movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, has commented how matronly the shellacked hairdos and cartoonish makeup makes the leading ladies look. In Written on the Wind, Lauren Bacall sports stylish hair and makeup, but it’s subtle, and she rarely looked better onscreen after her sexy starlet days. Lauren Bacall brings her usual pragmatic personality to Lucy, but it is tempered with warmth, something that wasn’t always present in her screen roles.

Even Kyle's sister snidely comments on his 'electric personality!'
I’m not the first to point this out, but the big problem with Written on the Wind is why anyone would put up with Kyle Hadley for a New York minute. As the poor little rich boy given to grand gestures, he flies from Texas to the Big Apple for lunch. This is where Robert Stack’s Kyle meets Bacall’s Lucy, snagging her away from Hudson’s Mitch. Kyle is drinking and showboating, which puts Lucy off. She attempts to get away from him, but the rich kid reveals his real self, which makes the city girl view him in a different light. The problem is Kyle, as written and performed, does not inspire awe or sympathy. Kyle is either drunk and obnoxious or sober and morose. 
I grew up watching Robert Stack sporting a trench coat and acting like a dull detective in Unsolved Mysteries. Stack was a grade B Charlton Heston, deadpan sneer and broadcasting boom of a voice. Robert Stack gives his all as the lost soul playboy, but that’s not saying much. He does have his moments. One that I found affecting is when wife Lucy tries to find out why Kyle is back on the bottle, after a year of sobriety. When Kyle feels he’s failing Lucy as a husband, Sirk cleverly makes sterility Kyle’s issue, though a probable closet case might be closer to the truth. Sitting at his bedside the morning after, she asks, “Do you love me?” Stack as Kyle replies, “I don’t even love myself.” With that, he rolls over and pulls the covers over his head—a stunning moment for a he-man actor in a ‘50s movie.

Like Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone spent over a decade paying her showbiz dues. As Mary Lee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Malone plays the “nymphomaniac” rich girl who pines for Hudson’s Mitch, a childhood friend to both her and the brother. She resents Kyle for “taking away” Mitch as they grew up.

What would a Douglas Sirk movie be without a mirror scene? Sisters-in-law Malone and Bacall having a catty reflection.
As Mary Lee, Dorothy Malone cashes in on her showy role and pulls out all the stops. Whether taunting her family, picking up men in dive bars, getting the dirt on others, or dancing with deadly abandon, Malone is all sexy moves and mugging. Unlike stone-faced Stack, Malone was an expressive actress who could be just as stunning when she took it down a few notches. Her scenes of expressing her unwavering love for Mitch are touching. The big courtroom scene, with Malone as Mary Lee in a big black hat, gives Stack’s Kyle a moving epitaph: “He was sad, the saddest of us all. He needed so much and had so little.”

Douglas Sirk suddenly retired after his biggest hit, 1959’s Imitation of Life. I wonder how Sirk would have fared in the ‘60s, when realism in film quickly became the norm. My guess is that had Sirk stayed in Hollywood, he would have struggled much like Hitchcock, who found his similarly stylized storytelling obsolete by the middle of that decade. Still, Hollywood was cranking out glossy soap operas well into the 1960s. Some featured past Sirk collaborators like producer Ross Hunter and aging star Lana Turner. For those who think Douglas Sirk overrated, compare Imitation of Life to Ross and Lana’s Madame X. Or compare Sirk’s work to director Delmer Daves, who picked up the soap mantle when the veteran director retired—Magnificent Obsession or Youngblood Hawke? And all those sexy ‘60s soaps with Liz Taylor, Carroll Baker, Ann-Margret, etc. offer none of the emotional impact for their stars or audiences. 
Douglas Sirk was obviously doing something more than blowing cinematic soap bubbles.

High octane melodrama: Note the monogram on Mary Lee Hadley's caddy car door.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Rick!
    I've only seen this film once, but the strongest memory I have echoes your comments regarding Robert Stack: he kinda works my nerves. I recall thinking it was beautiful to look at, and that (as you note) it was nice to see Bacall playing softer than usual.
    I enjoyed Dorothy Malone's performance, her being the kind of Neely O'Hara of this overheated soap.
    I've not seen many of Douglas Sirk's film,s but I've seen enough '50s movies (like Minnelli's "The Cobweb", or the James mason film "Bigger Than Life" to think you are right about this movie, for all its visual panache, looking a great deal like a lot of others released during this time. Thanks for yet another enjoyable article, Rick! Looking forward to seeing what film you train your eye on next!

    ReplyDelete
  2. What's amazing was that Kyle's sterility was discussed directly, when just a couple year's earlier, The Moon is Blue was considered shocking for use of the word virgin!

    And Mary Lee's character was picking up men and trying to bed them at motels and backrooms of bars! In 1956!

    There's some pretty strong stuff in Wind, with none of the last reel moralizing typical of the era.

    Thanks for checking this out, Ken!
    Rick

    ReplyDelete
  3. I had the best time watching this on the big screen once. We howled at the bedroom mambo scene but were riveted by great storytelling. In glorious color and everyone looks so gorgeous. I love these kind of movies and reading this was a blast.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great Malone waaay over the top but i thought Stack captured pathetic Kyle very well I think he got an Oscar nom for this. Inlove the song and Lucy's cashmere!😉

    ReplyDelete