At first I thought that everything is wrong with Interlude or perhaps it is that nothing is right. Douglas Sirk told John Halliday that it was the film in which he had little chance to develop the project or contribute to the script and none of the characters excited him. It was supposed to be an update of a John Stahl film and more surprisingly a version of the James Cain story Serenade. When the shoot began Sirk was still in a plaster cast after his accident on the Battle Hymn shoot and he had no time to research locations which were all covered by an assistant and the cinematographer Bill Daniels.
An American woman from Philadelphia, Helen (June Allyson), arrives in Munich to work for the American ‘cultural agency’, America House (which I think is a government body). She claims to be looking for experiences and trying to see something of the world. Her parents have discovered that an American doctor, Morley (Keith Andes), the son of friends, is also in the city. He calls on Helen but she soon meets a famous Italian conductor, Tonio Fischer (Rossano Brazzi). She is unaware that he has a sick wife and accepts his invitation to suddenly drive to Salzburg in the middle of a grand house party. A romance ensues.
June Allyson was nearly 40 when she made the picture but the character seems to be written much younger. Allyson plays younger but she just doesn’t seem right for the role. Brazzi however does seem right for his role, except that, as Sirk points out, he has no sense of musical timing which caused headaches for the crew when he is seen conducting the orchestra. I don’t mean to criticise either actor but in June Allyson’s case her character doesn’t seem to make sense unless she is a woman who is younger and less experienced. Otherwise we keep thinking, “What did she do in Philadelphia/Washington DC for the last twenty years?” Jane Wyman was only a year or two older than Allyson when she starred for Sirk in roles which suited her – perhaps this is just a function of the period in that women are the same age for twenty years then suddenly ‘past it’? Helen calls herself ‘a girl’ at one point. I should also point out that Keith Andes’ doctor is also fairly long in the tooth for a visiting ‘research student’. The script by Daniel Fuchs and Franklin Coen seems confused.
Interlude is a Ross Hunter production in CinemaScope and Technicolor and it takes Sirk back to Germany and in a sense to Schlussakkord (Germany 1936) a Sirk melodrama with a great conductor as the male lead. Yet somehow it feels more like those 1950s Hollywood films in which Europe is at once both the ‘old world’, full of palaces and grand houses to be admired but also the front line in the Cold War with attempts to demonstrate to Europeans the ideals of American democracy. (‘America House’, like the British Council, is an agency meant to provide education and an introduction to American culture.) On the other hand, the cinematography creates not just beautiful vistas but also very pleasing ‘Scope compositions for a melodrama – with matching music (but an unconvincing title song). At moments it seems like a rehearsal for The Sound of Music (1965). The second half of the film did work for me and I found it both sad and moving, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.
I should mention two other aspects of the casting. The sick wife Reni is played by Marianne Koch (credited as ‘Marianne Cook’) who I first came across in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) as the German contribution to Sergio Leone’s first film in the trilogy of ‘No Name’ Westerns. Her aunt is played by Françoise Rosay, the veteran French actor who fled Nazi Occupation in 1940 with her husband Jacques Feyder. She appeared in two Ealing films in 1944. Her appearance in 1957 is as a formidable matronly figure from the Victorian era (she was born in 1891). These casting decisions alongside the Italian Brazzi seem to say something about the state of popular cinema in West Germany in the 1950s.
I’m trying to come to some kind of conclusion about this film. From the perspective of 2019 this melodrama does seem rather strange with Tonio’s sometimes quite brusque treatment of Helen and the latter’s difficulty in coming to terms with a sick woman as her rival. I’m wondering if women now would be more likely to react to Tonio’s behaviour and also more direct in dealing with what they discover about his circumstances. But perhaps I’ve got that all wrong? Perhaps I’m not giving June Allyson enough credit for representing a certain type of American woman in the 1950s credibly?
I’ve a feeling that Interlude is technically efficient as a romance/melodrama but I’m not sure that Sirk and his cast and crew were fully able to exploit its potential.
Trailer with French subtitles (includes SPOILERS) if you want to see the film first:
Lured is one of the films directed by Douglas Sirk in the 1940s after his arrival from Germany and before he began his long association with Universal. The production was put together by the independent producer Hunt Stromberg and distributed through United Artists in North America and the UK. Although filmed primarily on a studio lot in Hollywood, the film is in many ways a European production. It appears to be a remake of a French original Pièges (1939) directed by Robert Siodmak before he too went to Hollywood. The French film was given an English title of Personal Column and after its release, in the US, Lured was re-titled as Personal Column because the Production Code Office decided that ‘Lured’ was too much like ‘Lurid’! The UK release used Personal Column. Sirk judged that the title change was responsible for the film’s relative failure at the box office after a strong start.
Fortunately, the film has been restored and is now available on Blu-ray (along with A Scandal in Paris (1946), also by Sirk) from the Cohen Group (See the trailer below). It turns out to be highly entertaining and both witty and a genuine noir thriller. It features a lead performance by the fabulous Lucille Ball who has never looked lovelier or sparkled with such vitality and intelligence. She also gets to wear some great costumes. Stromberg surrounded her with an outstanding cast that would not have been out of place in an A List major studio picture. George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff are joined by several of the other ‘Brits in Hollywood’. The film is photographed by the great William Daniels and the music is by Michel Michelet from the French original. Production design is by the Russian Nicolai Remisoff and the script was adapted from the French by the Polish émigré Leo Rosten. The narrative is set in London with Sandra (Lucille Ball) down on her luck and working as a ‘taxi dancer’ in a seedy dance hall after her American touring theatre show (she was a dancer) collapsed. When her friend Lucy goes missing after answering a ‘personal ad’ in the newspaper, Sandra goes to the police and finds herself being offered a job as a police detective by Charles Coburn’s Inspector. A serial killer is sending poems in the style of Baudelaire to Scotland Yard and each one signals a young woman’s disappearance. Sandra must answer any personal ads looking for young women, in the hope of ‘luring’ the killer out. Officer Barrett (a nicely-judged performance by George Zucco) is watching her all the time. Eventually, Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders), a nightclub owner looking to expand his business. She’s already come across him as looking for girls for his club. Is he to be trusted? Sandra takes to him, but are we sure he is kosher?
Sirk liked this production very much. Stromberg gave him a free hand and Sirk appreciated all the talent he had to play with – and in return, Lucille Ball and Charles Coburn relished the chance to play roles in a crime film. Sirk had worked with George Sanders on two previous American pictures and Sanders and Ball make a good couple. Hardwicke is excellent as Fleming’s partner in the club business. The studio sets are beautifully lit and this works as a noirish London serial killer narrative with Gothic overtones, enhanced by the sequence featuring Boris Karloff. I have been able to view both the version on YouTube and the trailer for the restoration/new print on DVD and to watch a version of the film on Talking Pictures TV. This latter is odd in a couple of respects. First, it appears to have lost 5 minutes at the beginning but which turns out to be not particularly a problem. Secondly, and weirdly, all the newspapers, poems and handwritten notes in the film are in French. The film also ends with the traditional French ‘FIN’. I don’t understand this at all. The film does use some stock footage of Piccadilly Circus and a London bus but why substitute the English language close-ups of newspapers etc. with French versions? The only explanation I can think of is that Talking Pictures TV have got hold of a French release copy of the film with the subtitles removed? If anyone knows the real answer, please comment on this post.
None of the quirks of the version I saw on Talking Pictures TV spoiled the film for me. I found it well worth watching and Lucille Ball was wonderful. It wasn’t what I was expecting from Sirk, but it stands up as a stylish Sirkian production.
After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melo-noir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomised’ the noir intentions.
Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).
Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to noir‘s visual style, if not the narrative. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.
Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far to anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.
Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the era.
This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.
The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.
During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.
I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.
It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.
The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.
Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.
Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic:
Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.
Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.
Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?
Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’). Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.
‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.
The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.
Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.
All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.
Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.
Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.
Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.
This is the first title in Universal’s ‘Directed by Douglas Sirk’ box-set. After an unhappy time at Columbia, Sirk signed a seven-year contract at Universal and settled down to make a couple of pictures a year for the studio. He was generally happy at Universal but he understood that it was the smallest of the major studios (smaller than Columbia – Universal and Columbia were the ‘mini-majors’ during the studio period since they didn’t own any cinemas). Consequently, most of Sirk’s productions would be superior ‘B’ productions, going against trend in the early 1950s. This meant that the stars to attract an ‘A’ budget were not available to Sirk and the use of colour was dependent on genre.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal? was Sirk’s fifth Universal picture, a family comedy with several musical numbers making it eligible for Technicolor under Universal’s policy. The film is significant because it teamed Sirk with a young Rock Hudson for the first time (it also features a brief appearance by James Dean). Hudson gets top billing in retrospect and the film also appears in a Rock Hudson box-set – but he has only a supporting role. The central focus is on the veteran actor Charles Coburn (already in his 70s) with whom Sirk had already worked (on Lured in 1947). Coburn plays an eccentric millionaire in the early 1920s who decides to bequeath his wealth to the family of the girl he loved, but didn’t marry fifty years earlier. He inveigles his way into the Blaisdell family home under an assumed name and literally ‘checks out’ the family. Satisfied that they have the makings of acceptable beneficiaries he attempts to test them by arranging for them to come into a large sum of money. This will reveal that there is a weak link in the family group leading to a crisis. Universal’s rules meant that there had to be a happy ending, but Sirk did manage to expose some of the flaws in American bourgeois society even if the ‘feelgood’ aura round the film militated against the satire.
I enjoyed this film very much. Sirk whisks us through 89 minutes with hardly a pause for breath. Small-town New York state is presented in bright colours and the costumes of the women in the ‘flapper’ era add to the visual punch. Most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were Universal regulars whose usual commissions ranged across Westerns and Abbott and Costello movies, but they all put in good shifts for Sirk. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a similar background but also more chances to work on bigger budget films. He would become part of Sirk’s team over several films. Henry Mancini is listed by IMDB as a ‘uncredited composer’.
The film’s title comes from the song and there are other well-known songs sung by the cast including ‘The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along’. Piper Laurie at the start of her career is very good as Millicent, the Blaisdell’s older daughter and the grand-daughter of the woman the millionaire loved as a young man. Truly vivacious, Piper Laurie immediately recalls the impact of seeing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. (Laurie followed Reynolds into cinemas just a few weeks later). Her younger sister in the family, played by 9 year-old Gigi Perreau, is the other standout player. She was an established child star of the period and gives a lively performance – taking Coburn’s character at face value. Sirk told Jon Halliday that he couldn’t remember much about the film – apart from meeting Rock Hudson. I think he should have been pleased to make such a fresh version of a rather formulaic story. He was helped by a sharp script by Joseph Hoffman from a story by Eleanor H. Porter (best known for the 1913 children’s novel, Pollyanna). If you want some heartwarming entertainment, this fits the bill.
This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).
The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are. Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)
I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.
The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.
The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).
But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.
The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.