By Alan Hurst
I’ve been looking for a reason to write about two of my favourite Douglas Sirk films and, with Valentine’s Day around the corner, the timing is perfect.
When Sirk hit his prime in the mid 1950’s his films were major money makers for Universal but they were not critically well received, particularly a series of so-called “women’s films” that started with All I Desire (1953) and ended with Imitation of Life (1959). But, with the passage of time, there has been a positive re-evaluation of his work and he’s now recognized as one of the most influential directors of the era.
Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) are probably my favourites of his from this period and both star Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. For me these are two of the most purely “Hollywood” films of the decade and by that I mean glossy, beautifully designed, slightly melodramatic, and visually holding up the fifties ideal of absolute (and unattainable) perfection. But underneath, Sirk’s images are filled with symbolism as he gently skewers the notions of convention, class, and materialism. You can watch any of his 1950’s melodramas multiple times and still pick up some new subtle message or visual clue as to something deeper he’s trying to convey. That’s not to diminish his skills as a strong story teller. Both of these films are shamelessly entertaining stories built around somewhat unconventional (for the fifties) love stories.
Magnificent Obsession is based on an old novel that was filmed once before with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne in 1935. In the 1954 version Rock Hudson plays a self-centred playboy who recklessly gets into a boating accident and is hospitalized, requiring a resuscitator to save his life. Concurrently Jane Wyman’s husband – a well respected and philanthropic doctor – has a heart attack and needs the same machine. He dies. Because of her husband’s generous nature Wyman’s character is left with very little money (despite a fabulous house on the water). A short time later, Hudson’s character is out driving after having had too much to drink at a party. His car hits Wyman who is blinded, and Hudson turns his life around by going to medical school so he can operate on Wyman to restore her sight. Along the way he befriends Wyman, who doesn’t know he’s the guy who hit her, and they eventually fall in love. And, of course, he does restore her sight. I’m almost groaning as try to write this plot summary, but doesn’t Sirk somehow make it all palatable and ultimately quite moving.
Visually, the film is beautiful. Everything is right out of “House and Garden” and “Harper’s Bazaar” and saturated with stunning technicolor.
Wyman and Hudson make a good team, with Wyman in particular doing her best to make this believable with an optimistic, sincere approach to her character. Wyman found herself in the running for the Best Actress Oscar that year for her performance. For his part, Hudson doesn’t show much depth, but he’s suitably spoiled at the beginning and intensely dedicated by the end. And he’s also stunningly handsome. Agnes Moorehead shows up throughout the film and is a welcome presence – adding a slight dose of reality with some keen observations.
Because of the success of Magnificent Obsession, Universal brought Sirk, Wyman and Hudson back to the fold again the following year for All That Heaven Allows, one of the best films of the decade.
All That Heaven Allows is a little less subtle in holding a mirror to society as it tells the story of a widow (Wyman) who slowly stumbles into a romance with a younger landscaper (Hudson). Although the slight age difference between Hudson and Wyman wasn’t addressed in Magnificent Obsession (in reality Hudson and Wyman were only eight years apart), it’s a central plot point here. Her friends assume she’s attracted to the younger man because of his rugged physique. They also assume he’s a fortune hunter out for her money. Her children don’t approve, she becomes the talk of her upper middle class social set, and there’s a disastrous party where she tries to introduce him to her friends. She can’t handle the pressure or attention, so she calls it quits. She’s ruled by societal norms, but Hudson’s character isn’t – he’s presented as more of a free spirit, he lives more simply and his friends are a lot more fun. Wyman, of course, eventually comes around, but not before a near tragic fall for Hudson.
The love story here is very strong – you can see why each of these people are attracted to the other. Although the ending is visually right out of a Currier and Ives painting (complete with an ice covered pond and a deer at the window), you’re pleased when Wyman finally gets her priorities straight.
Again, both Wyman and Hudson are good with Hudson showing much more confidence and depth in this film. Agnes Moorehead also shows up again as Wyman’s best friend and she gives the film a bit of a comical jolt – it’s a really good supporting performance.
Unfortunately All That Heaven Allows didn’t get any attention from the Academy Awards that year. I would like to have seen both the film and Sirk among the final five nominees for Best Picture and Best Director. I think you can make the case that this is his best film, and it was a major influence on other filmmakers, particularly Todd Haynes who fashioned the wonderful Far From Heaven (2002) with Julianne Moore as a tribute to Sirk and this film.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.