Douglas Sirk Box Set
February 14, 2011
Whilst the idea behind Valentine’s Day might be to me quite perplexing, the idea behind giving someone a gift loaded with sentiment and love is not. With that in mind, there are few things of such ilk that you can readily fit into a 21.5 by 15.5 by 5 box. Yet, somehow, the good people at Madman have managed it. At a combined 869 minutes of melodramatic bliss, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set is an object of just those dimensions and, whether you’re interested in buying a gift for your Valentine, yourself or anyone with even an ounce of good taste, then might I suggest that you buy this. Aside from making your heart swell and your lips curl themselves into an incredibly frequent wry smile, the only side effect will be your calling everyone “Darling” for a week or two in the interim which, in all honestly, is such a warm and endearing term that it ought only to work in one’s favour.
Of course, as is often the case with a director box set, there are one or two films that seem to be at slight tonal odds with the rest of the collection. However, for anyone who cares to take even a moment to reflect, these anomalies are only really bound by the confines of genre and narrative; their thematics and auteuristic world view more than consistent with their company. To this end, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set offers a gentle critique of American aspirations; all the way from early settlement to the at the time modern-day model of white, heteronormative, familial life. It suggests, rather boldly for its time, that defining one’s own aspirations against and attempting to achieve them within such relational societal constructs is anything but simple, anything but stark, and, never – even when the picture itself might be – black and white.
A classic example of screw-ball comedy, No Room for the Groom sees Alvah Morrell (Tony Curtis) try desperately to consummate his too much trouble marriage to Lee Kingshead (Piper Laurie). A quality comedy that is short and to the point, No Room for the Groom plays with gender stereotypes and the pressures of marrying into a family when all you want is to be in love. Humourously acknowledging and explaining its own causal paradigm, “It’s called cause and effect”, and displaying just enough cynicism to rouse a giggle out of its audience, “marriage is keeping your mouth shut”, Sirk skillfully shows both parties in a marriage to be annoyingly and endearingly constricted by social pressure, “Should a girl have to tell a man when she wants to be kissed?” A fantasticly light-hearted start to an epic journey of melodramatic discovery.
This is as close to perfect as film gets for lovers of romance. Barbara Stanwyck is simply sensational as Naomi Murdock, a woman who has left her family to fruitlessly pursue her personal dreams and to escape the scandal of an affair in a small town. One of many of Sirk’s films to show how deeply an individual can wrestle with their own complex emotions and conflicting desires, All I Desire a beautiful story that allows things to somehow work themselves out. It is also surprisingly progressive for its time, exploring the subjectivity rather than the guilt of a woman whose choices may not have always been entirely moral or selfless.
Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) is model woman, wife, (step)mother, friend and professional. In fact, even when life is cruel to her, she remains poised, gracious and strong. Losing her eyesight she is lured into a love affair that she actively refused when she could see. Her ultimate lesson, and the lesson that her suitor Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) learns too, is that true enlightenment in such a dark world can only come from shutting off your expectations of others. When you are willing, even blindly so, to let others in and to behave towards them truly selflessly, only then will you find in yourself profound peace and happiness. A moving, heartwarming tale.
Although Taza, Son of Cochise is a generic diversion for Sirk (predominantly it is a western), it doesn’t fail to reiterate his concerns for familial obligation and the complexities of love. Taking things a psychoanalytic step further, Sirk explores ideas of totem and taboo within a tribal context as they pertain to the increasingly obtrusive All-American way of life. Stars Rock Hudson as Taza and Barbara Rush as Oona.
Probably Sirk’s most famous melodrama and the primary inspiration for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows is a remarkable film that uses colour and lighting to exemplarily create mood, silhouettes and shadows to express subtle subtext and overt reference to psychoanalysis (namely Freudian) to explain character motivation and action/inaction. Heavily critical of American upper class social decorum and the sort of repression such false exclusivity necessarily harbours, All That Heaven Allows is a stunning, deeply affecting and astute cinematic work.
The mesmerizing Barbara Stanwyck returns in There’s Always Tomorrow as the spirited Norma Miller Vale who has chosen career over family. Still in love with Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) who is under appreciated and somewhat unfulfilled, the two attempt to bring their disparate lives together but soon learn that the confines of morality and the boundaries of their emotions can never allow for such a union. Easily the most heartbreaking film in the box, There’s Always Tomorrow leaves a stunning air of desperation, hope, inevitable resolve and disappointment in its wake: “Darling, if life were always an adventure it’d be exhausting.”
The second generically anomalous work in the set, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is still a melodrama, but is set against the very real backdrop of post World War II Germany. Wistfully explicating how the past absolutely permeates the present, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is as much about ethical behaviour as it is morality; always suggesting that the two are in no way necessarily linked: “Murderers are never murderers twenty-four hours a day.” Ultimately, Sirk seems to posit that love and death – natural drives and inevitable occurrences in human life – present themselves in relation always to anOther.
Exploring both the limits of friendship and the product of loyalty, The Tarnished Angels examines the types of social contracts individuals enter into and what happens to those contracts at the hands of the passage of time. Suggesting love is built upon so much more than just emotion and desire, The Tarnished Angels is another fine example of Sirk’s ability to produce performances of great depth and dimensionality. Stars Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Jack Carson and Dorothy Malone.
Well, if the eight fantastic films that came before it didn’t win you over (who are you and how is your heart colder than mine?) then Imitation of Life most certainly will. A story loaded with issue and inference at every turn, Imitation of Life reveals a plethora of absurdities that constitute “life” through performativity. From the overt (literally acting) to the ideological (gender, family, class, race), Imitation of Life breaks down many of the ways in which life is constructed and the “roles” each individual assumes; sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes born of personal desire. Constructing life through the dot points that are “the great events of life” such as marriage and death, Sirk shows how we “measure” abstract notions such as “achievement”, “happiness”, “fulfillment” and “success”.
Though there is infinitely more to be said about Sirk and each of these films, the very best way to discover such sound, intelligent and genuinely marvelous films is to open up your own very beautiful box set and let the melodramatic bliss wash over you like so many emotions and so much of life itself. Not just a gift for Valentine’s Day, this is an absolute must-have for cinephiles and cine-lovers alike. Darling, do yourself a favour and let Douglas enlighten you.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.