Thursday 24 April 2014

1950s American Beauty - The films of Douglas Sirk

Jane Wyman in A Magnificent Obsession.

 Douglas Sirk's 1950s classic melodramas are the epitome of fifties suburban design with beautiful colouring and stunning cinematography.

I have chosen these to inspire the next collection of floral dresses all with a fifties silhouette and theme. So what is it that makes Douglas Sirk's films so special?

Douglas Sirk was born in Hamburg, Germany. Already a well regarded director Germany he came to the US fleeing Nazi oppression like many of Hollywood's great artists.
Following a successful but altogether uncomfortable career at Universal, never gaining the critical and intellectual acclaim he deserved, Sirk retired in 1959 from directing in America and moved to Switzerland.
He became greatly admired in Europe soon after with critics casting him as one of cinemas great ironists and auteur's. He now inspires many of the modern directors and has a loyal cult following.
Douglas Sirk died in Switzerland 1987.

All that Heaven Allows

All that heaven allows

All that heaven allows. That window is wonderful!

Rock Hudson and Otto Kruger in Magnificent obsession. Again a huge window in the artists studio. All the nicest characters in Sirk's films have great open windows. 

His films are absolutely stunning to look at with sumptuous colouring, huge bouquets of flowers and sets interior designers today would die for. Set decorators Julia Heron and Russell A. Gausman worked with Sirk on many of his films. As a keen painter himself, this creative style was rich throughout.

Alexander Golitzen (Born Prince Alexander Alexandrovich Galitzine of Moscow) was the legendary Universal studios art director on many of Sirk's films contributing to their look. Read more here in the Guardians Obituary of Golitzen.

The television reflection in All That Heaven Allows

Television. All that heaven allows.

Sirk's use of windows, mirrors and reflection add to the drama and audiences viewing of the characters. This is especially noticed in the famous television scene in 'All That Heaven Allows' (1955) where Jane Wyman sees herself reflected and alone.

Magnificent Obsession. This white gown is stunning. Jane Wyman and Agnes Moorhead.

All that Heaven Allows. 

The costumes are divine. So divine are the scenes combined with these fabulous 1950s gowns that you just sit open mouthed gasping dress after dress. My favourite film for costume is 'Imitation of Life' (1959). Bill Thomas was responsible for all the gown design in Sirk's American films and they really are some of the best at the time.

Magnificent Obsession.

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman appear together in a number of Sirk's films. Rock Hudson really might be the most handsome man on screen and plays the characters in Sirk's films with such elegance. Together Hudson and Wyman work onscreen so brilliantly you find yourself willing them to make it. They both star in 'All that heaven allows' and 'A Magnificent Obsession'.

Knowing more about the private lives of Hollywood actors after their deaths really doesn't affect the enjoyment or believability of their roles. A good film only lets you think about what's on screen.

Town talk in All that Heaven Allows.

All that Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman in snood. 

All that Heaven Allows. 

All that Heaven Allows. This scene has beautiful colouring from this window. 

Sirk's films are said to be overly melodramatic and soapy but this isn't a weakness. He took inspiration from the melodramas of the great story tellers, Shakespeare and Faust. He manages to tackle the issues of small town society, civil rights from the characters perspective and the American health system all in mainstream romantic cinema. Yes indeed Sirk was raising a mirror to societies oppression in the 1950s and he did it all under the cloak of a happy ending and beautiful cinematography.

All that Heaven Allows, snow.

All that Heaven Allows. Rock Hudson in the snow. 

Christmas looks like the Christmas cards you find in your Grandparents houses, the type printed on thin paper and folded twice. Saturated in blues, black and white and it always, always snows. Lights come on in houses and everyone wears red plaid.
It really is that wonderful in the land of Douglas Sirk's characters just like 1950s America wanted it to be. But Sirk knew this overt prettiness makes the sick nature of the society they live in all the more ugly in contrast.

All that Heaven Allows. Rock Hudson's character has a big window. 

What I really love about Sirk's films are that they fill you with hope and make you cry genuine old fashioned romance tears.
The stories make you angry that people could be so backward (and sadly still are today) and do make you imagine idyllically what if society could be so wonderful and good, what if we really did get happy endings? Some stories, especially Imitation of Life hit very close to the bone with such precise in-depth understanding of Sarah-Jane's character.

I recommend getting a box set or at least Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind and hibernating one weekend for a Sirk quadruple bill.

Further Reading
Senses Of Cinema 
They Shoot Pictures Don't They 
Bright Lights Film: An interview with Douglas Sirk

Further Watching

All the films of Douglas Sirk 
Far From Heaven - a tribute to Douglas Sirk's style. 
Mad Men - the early seasons have taken great influence from Sirk's films
Tim Burton's 1990's films and John Waters have both been influenced by Douglas Sirk's work along with Martin Scorsese who is a great admirer.