Douglas Sirk movies: ‘Imitation of Life,’ ‘Written on the Wind’
Douglas Sirk is Turner Classic Movies’ Director of the Evening. The German-born (April 26, 1897, in Hamburg) filmmaker has developed a cult following in recent decades after his “women’s pictures” were reappraised by some critics as works of profound social criticism filled with auteuristic touches.
Why it would take years (or decades) for people to realize the obvious is a little mind-boggling, until you remember that movies about women and their issues have been, for the most part, relegated to the sidelines. A stupid prejudice that continues to this very day. My statement, by the way, has nothing to do with yikesy political correctness; if you don’t believe me, just check out the Best Picture Academy Award winners or Palme d’Or winners or Golden Lion winners or Golden Bear winners of the last three or four decades. See how many of those films revolve around female characters.
Douglas Sirk: 1950s melodramas
Anyhow, I’m a little late posting this: Magnificent Obsession – a remake of an old Universal sudser starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, and a huge box office hit upon its release in 1954 – has already been shown. Jane Wyman earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman who loses her sight but gains the love of a hunky playboy (Rock Hudson) – who just happens to be person that led to her blindness to begin with. Oh, but wait! There’s more: Said playboy redeems himself by becoming a doctor who will then … Well, let’s just say that Magnificent Obsession is a hoot.
Stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson would be reunited the following year in the truly good class-conscious drama All That Heaven Allows (1955) – possibly Douglas Sirk’s best movie. Unfortunately, it’s not part of TCM’s Sirk schedule. Of note, this second Wyman-Hudson pairing inspired Todd Haynes’ 1950s-set Far from Heaven (2002), starring Julianne Moore in Wyman’s Middle-Class Mom role, Dennis Haysbert in the Hudson role (not only a gardener, but a black one to boot), plus Dennis Quaid as Moore’s gay husband. Talk about the good old days, before the vile, godless, hedonistic ’60s destroyed families everywhere.
‘Imitation of Life’: White was the new part-black
Imitation of Life (1959) was, along with Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957), the biggest box office hit in Lana Turner’s career. This tear-drenched Douglas Sirk extravaganza is the kind of movie that will likely leave viewers in hysterics, alternately cracking up and sobbing uncontrollably.
A remake of another Universal hit, this one featuring entrepreneurs Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers in the roles inherited (with major alterations) by Turner and Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life is all gaudy colors and costumes and temper tantrums. Lana Turner gives her all to the role – at a difficult time in her life, too, as her daughter Cheryl Crane had stabbed to death Turner’s gangster lover Johnny Stompanato. Compared to that, life in Imitation of Life is much simpler: Turner’s daughter, played by Sandra Dee, is merely in love with her mother’s studly boyfriend (John Gavin).
Of note: Susan Kohner, unlike the 1934 Imitation of Life‘s Fredi Washington, is not part black. Instead, Kohner is the daughter of actress Lupita Tovar, who turned 103 years old this past Sunday, and of producer-turned-agent (including Lana Turner’s) Paul Kohner. Susan Kohner also happens to be the mother of Paul Weitz (American Pie; About a Boy, with Hugh Grant) and Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson; A Better Life, with Best Actor Oscar nominee Demián Bichir).
Douglas Sirk: ‘There’s Always Tomorrow,’ ‘Written on the Wind’
The black-and-white melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) offers a superb performance by Barbara Stanwyck as The Other Woman in married man Fred MacMurray’s life. As The Wife, Joan Bennett is good, too, but unfortunately in what amounts to a supporting role. For me, the key problem with There’s Always Tomorrow is that you have to sympathize with MacMurray’s character; I was totally unable to. In my humble opinion, the film would have worked much better had Joan Bennett hooked up with Barbara Stanwyck.
Written on the Wind (1956) belongs to Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, who steals the show from stars Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson – and from Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Robert Stack. Check out Malone’s mad, mad, mad, mad mambo.
Shockproof (1949) was partly written by future tough-guy filmmaker Samuel Fuller. This crime melodrama stars Cornel Wilde and off-screen wife Patricia Knight, who had an all-too-brief movie career in the late ’40s/early ’50s. Not a great movie, but perfectly watchable all the same.
Reportedly due to ill health and a desire to return to Europe, Douglas Sirk moved to Switzerland after finishing work on Imitation of Life. He died on Jan. 14, 1987, in Lugano, Switzerland.
5:00 PM MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954). Dir.: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, Barbara Rush, Gregg Palmer, Paul Cavanagh, Sara Shane, Judy Nugent, Rudolph Anders, Helen Kleeb, Mae Clarke. Color. 108 min.
7:00 PM IMITATION OF LIFE (1959). Dir.: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore, Robert Alda, Dan O’Herlihy, Karin Dicker, Terry Burnham, Ann Robinson, Troy Donahue, Jack Weston. Color. 125 mins. Letterbox Format.
9:15 PM THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956). Dir.: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, William Reynolds, Pat Crowley, Gigi Perreau, Jane Darwell, Paul Smith, Helen Kleeb. Black and white. 84 mins. Letterbox Format.
11:00 PM WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956). Dir.: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith, Grant Williams, Edward Platt, Harry Shannon, John Larch, Barry Norton. Color. 99 mins. Letterbox Format.
1:00 AM SHOCKPROOF (1949). Dir.: Douglas Sirk. Cast: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight, John Baragrey, Esther Minciotti, Howard St. John, Russell Collins, Charles Bates, Richard Benedict, Argentina Brunetti. Black and white. 80 min.
Douglas Sirk schedule via the TCM website.
Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Karin Dicker in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life image via TCM.