Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s Oppressive and Beautiful Worlds

That today’s viewers can’t easily fall into the fantasy of Rock Hudson as an “Indian” distances and underlines the themes that make a Douglas Sirk rampantly phony film.

Taza, Son of Cochise
Douglas Sirk
Kino Lorber
26 August 2020
All I Desire
Douglas Sirk
Kino Lorber
25 August 2020
There's Always Tomorrow
Douglas Sirk
Kino Lorber
25 August 2020

I’m unreasonable on the subject of Douglas Sirk, one of the most intelligent stylists of classic cinema, so I’m happy that Kino Lorber has graced us with three of his 1950s Universal productions on Blu-ray: Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). These films are clearly Sirkian products yet also boast intriguing differences from the lushly colored melodramatic soapers usually associated with the adjective “Sirkian”. Let’s explore.

Taza, Son of Cochise

In the first scene, Jeff Chandler makes an unbilled cameo as the dying Chiricahua Apache Chief
Cochise. He passes his leadership of the peace he arranged with “the White Eyes”, essentially the U.S. Cavalry, to his older son Taza (Rock Hudson) and younger son Naiche (Rex Reason, billed as Bart Roberts).

This part is historically accurate. What happened then is that within two years the tribe was moved to the new San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, and
Taza died of pneumonia on a visit to Washington D.C. in 1876. Naiche assumed leadership and eventually joined forces with Geronimo in several more years of resistance before surrendering in 1886. Naiche died in 1919.

You couldn’t know any of that by
George Zuckerman‘s script from a story by Gerald Drayson Adams, for what we get is pure Hollywood nonsense of two brothers in conflict over the leadership and destiny of the Apache, as symbolized by their rivalry for a woman (Barbara Rush) who loves one and despises the other. The brothers are conceived allegorically as different ways of negotiating with the White Eyes. To put it reductively, one believes in peace and the other in war, and each accuses the other of betraying the tribe.

Sirk would have known that the story was hogwash historically, or rather that it dramatizes an interpretive philosophical dialectic of history rather than mere facts, and he knew he’d be working with mainly white actors (and one Puerto Rican) in the major Apache roles. Yet as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he must have had the European fascination with American Indians exemplified by his countryman, novelist
Karl May, and his fascination leads to two decisions.


Rock Hudson Taza as in Taza, Son of Cochise (IMDB)

First, he grounds this fictitious or factitious story and its characters as naturally as possible, so that he presents anthropological details of horse blankets (rather than saddles), tents of animal hide, and costumes with what feels like some attention to history. For example, Naiche was known as a painter of flowers and animals, and he’s shown wearing a jacket with colorful designs of his handiwork. Nobody mentions this but it’s there for those who look.

Filming at Utah’s Arches National Park and other jaw-droppingly picturesque locations, almost constantly out of doors, Sirk surrounds the main actors with Navajo extras to play Apaches who observe and silently judge the antics of their leaders and the White Eyes. Sirk poses them in lines and groups against the ravishing skies and natural monuments to remind us they are there.

Here’s a picture directed by Sirk, produced by Ross Hunter, and shot by Russell Metty in Technicolor, and yet its colors and tone are notably more subdued and natural than the other Technicolor pictures they did together, with and without Hudson. This film avoids being “over the top” and perhaps that’s why it feels less immediately striking and entertaining than some would like.

The second and most important decision shows the difference between this film and other “Indian” dramas of the era, including two previous films starring Chandler as Cochise: Broken Arrow (1950, Delmer Daves) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1953, George Sherman), to which this movie functions as a sequel. In those films, top billing and audience identification went to the actor playing the lead white character who makes friends with Cochise, and those were acted by James Stewart and John Lund respectively. Even though a white actor played Cochise, the Apache leader was still second lead to the White Eyes.

In Sirk’s vision, the Apache are the important characters and their highly conflicted points of view dominate as they thrash out the simmering internecine feud about their traditions, their pride, and their options. The bland “white best friend” is played by third-billed Gregg Palmer as a Cavalry captain, and other white characters are basically arrow fodder in a movie with a few moments of surprising violence and even sadism, such as the heroine’s father whipping her or Naiche and cronies being strung up by their wrists.


Light bulb by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Let’s be honest: audiences went to Indian westerns craving lots of mayhem, even if it’s not seemly to admit this desire. A story in which everyone behaves in a peace-loving manner doesn’t draw audiences. Sirk knew this and therefore lets them (us) identify with the arrow-flingers directly and not through a displaced presentable white hero bringing “order” and “enlightenment”, and he shows that all this arrow-flying isn’t unreasonable behavior in the circumstances.

This item is exactly one film before Sirk and Hudson burst into major success with the same year’s Magnificent Obsession, the first of those gloriously over-the-top Technicolor melodramas to which we’ve alluded. For Hudson, Taza, Son of Cochise is the last of the string of second-tier Technicolor westerns he made as a Universal contract player in the ’50s. For example, in Budd Boetticher’s Seminole (1953), Hudson played the “white best friend” who got top billing over the Hollywood Indian (Anthony Quinn as Oceola).

As historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner state in their commentary, Hudson later expressed embarrassment and discomfort over his role as Taza. Del Valle observes that Taza’s ambiguous status as a chief and would-be groom whose authority is constantly challenged as he becomes a liminal figure, dressing in a combination of Cavalry bluecoat and Apache accessories as he tries to navigate two exclusive cultures, requires Hudson to draw upon his own “double life”. With the magic of hindsight, this theme is so prominent in so many of his movies, both drama and comedy, that you have to wonder how he thought about it.

This film, however, was Sirk’s only western, and he stated that he’d like to have made more. He did, in fact, make two more manly and vigorous action pictures, the Ireland-shot period piece Captain Lightfoot (1955), again with Hudson and Rush, and the extraordinary and fascinating Sign of the Pagan (1954), starring Jack Palance as Attila the Hun.

I can’t claim Taza, Son of Cochise among Sirk’s or Hudson’s best. Frankly, it’s in neither of their top ten, and it needn’t be to claim our attention. Sirk’s sense of composition and character schematics gives us, as ever, a good-looking movie with something going on through the clichés. Sirk couldn’t make a film that was actually anti-Cavalry, and he had to work in the problematic conventions (like casting) that came with Hollywood’s territory, yet he managed to make one whose only driving interest is how the Apache are doomed to tragic impossible choices.

He doesn’t use Brechtian alienation devices to make us think about this, yet many viewers will think about it and that’s probably intentional. And today, the use of white actors perhaps functions as an unintended alienation device that underlines the annexing of cultural and historical territory. In other words, the fact that today’s viewers can’t easily fall into the fantasy of Hudson as an Indian provides its own distancing and underlining of the themes that make it seem Sirkian, the rampant phoniness used as a vehicle for something true.

A special aspect of this release is that the film is offered in both 2D and its original little-seen 3D format. Gentle Reader, your reviewer doesn’t have a 3D TV and can’t report on how effectively things seem to fly past his head, but 3D maven Mike Ballew offers an in-depth (as it were) discussion of the film’s stereoscopic techniques in the extras. In general, Sirk avoided excessive “comin’ at ya” effects in favor of his handsomely designed panoramas, though a few items get thrown in our faces. And there’s always that whip.


All I Desire and There’s Always Tomorrow

Sirk and Hunter shot their two Barbara Stanwyck films in gorgeous black and white, reflecting their relative realism and subdued tones, and both are gripping and terrific. In both stories, Stanwyck’s career-gal heroine returns after an absence of years to examine the results of her choices and stir up emotions over the road not taken. These similar films come to intriguingly different conclusions over whether one can “go home again”.

Sirk had fashioned a string of light and lively musicals that were also slices of period Americana for Universal, and we could regard All I Desire as the last and darkest of these (without the songs), or we could call it the first of his melodramatic soapers for the same studio. Whatever the film is, it opens with lower-rung performer Naomi Murdoch working in some two-bit Vaudeville house and sashaying down to her gloomy basement dressing room like a floozie chantoozy such as Stanwyck had certainly played before, e.g. Lady of Burlesque (1943, William Wellman). Her husky voiceover tells us she’s been there, done that.

To her surprise, she receives a letter from one of her daughters, and we learn that ten years before, in 1900, Naomi abandoned her husband and three children to pursue a career as an actress after an unhappy infidelity. She may be surprised, but so is her older colleague (Lela Bliss) and so is the viewer. Such behavior feels striking for the 1950s, never mind 50 years earlier, and Hollywood certainly wasn’t in the habit of making films about heroines who made what would be considered immoral anti-family decisions. At the very least, Hollywood conventions required such women to be redeemed by a punishing martyrdom.

Among the film’s many surprises is how sensitive, subtle, and ambiguous is Naomi’s situation, her family’s responses at her return, and the vision of life in the stiflingly proper, picture-perfect town of Riverdale, Wisconsin. Naomi blows in on an inflated reputation as a celebrated actress, for these yokels don’t know the difference. The primary pot-stirring gossip is a malicious local yahoo (Guy Wilkerson) who makes some remark on how the ladies will be wagging their tongues before he sets about creating as much trouble as possible, mainly by baiting her former adulterous lover Dutch (Lyle Bettger), who immediately wants to pick up where they left off.

Those distressed by Naomi’s return are her husband Henry (Richard Carlson), a school superintendent, and oldest daughter Joyce (Marcia Henderson), who enjoys fussing over everyone as the surrogate mother and is subtly possessive of her father. Naomi’s cut-the-crap dialogues with her are excellent. Joyce belongs to Sirk’s long line of annoying children who disapprove of their parents and cramp their lives and romances.

In a decade discovering the box office appeal of young rebels misunderstood by clueless parents, Sirk consistently painted the children as clueless and the parents as misunderstood. We can see this even in a seemingly anomalous project like Taza, Son of Cochise, where one of the brothers is cast as the Cain-like disobedient son who disregards his father’s wishes. Sirk, by the way, lost his own son to the Nazi party and the war while Sirk fled to America with his Jewish second wife.

Lily (Lori Nelson), the budding actress who invited her mother to come watch her star in the school play, which is about a scandalous woman, turns out to be a manipulative bubble-head who can’t wait to blow this town and thinks her long-lost mom is her ticket to stardom. Lily’s subplot and Naomi’s profession belong to Sirk’s equally long line of movies about people who perform for a living, culminating in Imitation of Life (1959). Even when not on stage, one major point of Naomi’s existence is that she’s always “on” before the town’s judging audience.

Young son Ted (Billy Gray of TV’s Father Knows Best) has no memory of his mother, a glamorous charming stranger. He idolizes the man he doesn’t realize is mom’s old flame. As historian Imogen Sara Smith points out in her commentary, this opens the implication that Dutch could possibly be Ted’s secret father, although nobody in the movie ever hints at it. Sirk was good at setting up visual and emotional cues that imply more than could be stated.


Barbara Stanwyck as Naomi Murdoch in All I Desire (IMDB)

The whole movie is beautifully played, staged, observed. Carl Guthrie shoots with a mobile camera (lots of lovely crane shots) and high-contrast lighting that literally casts a shadow over this supposedly idealized town infested by intolerant gossips and their schadenfreude. Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Long, Lotte Stein, Dayton Lummis, Fred Nurney, Stuart Whitman and Guy Williams are among the populous townsfolk.

Smith expresses the opinion that Stanwyck’s Sirk films offer some of her greatest performances, and that’s saying something. Stanwyck embodies a paradox as a “wicked woman” who’s a genuinely good person and, to everyone’s surprise, a catalyst for others’ development. This is all the more surprising in that she’d expressed the philosophy that nobody ever gets what they want, or perhaps it’s that what they think they want isn’t after all what they get.

James Gunn and Robert Blees wrote a compact, complex script from the novel Stopover (1951) by Carol Ryrie Brink, most famous for the Wisconsin tomboy book Caddie Woodlawn (1936). Wikipedia’s page on this author contains the interesting revelation that she was orphaned at age eight, when her mother committed suicide, and that sounds like it could be a factor in writing a novel about a mother who abandons the family. According to Smith, the novel’s ending is different from the book, and producer Ross Hunter prevailed over Sirk in insisting on an ending that, while “happy”, also feels unconventional in rewarding the heroine’s scandalous behavior.

Although it’s never clarified whether the Murdochs are divorced or only separated (and this ambiguity must be deliberate on the script’s part), both this film and There’s Always Tomorrow end by allegedly affirming the integrity of marriage and family. However, the latter film, which perhaps has the ending Sirk might have preferred for All I Desire, presents this affirmation as a desolation of regret that promises no happy future for any of its trapped, isolated characters.

Once again, the middle-class family home is a world of shadows and imprisoning bars (especially stair balusters), not to mention empty materialist values. In a wonderful detail, Pasadena paterfamilias Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) is a toy manufacturer, and his mechanical toys are symbols of his small, repetitive, mechanical, essentially cheap and unadventurous existence whose function is to distract and entertain his kids.

Sirk can be subtle, but he’s also fearless about on-the-nose symbolism and over-the-top ironies that can be spotted from the cheap seats, so when Clifford is introduced holding Rex (as in king of his castle), “the walky-talky robot”, its symbolic association with him will be underlined and spelled out in capitals, both visually and in dialogue. To pick another example, the film begins with the fairy-tale statement “Once upon a time, in sunny California” before opening on a street in the pouring rain. The crying storm will return for the sad finalé after Clifford’s sunny vacation from family life.

Sirk’s go-for-broke manipulation of the tropes of melodrama may have some viewers weeping into their popcorn while others perceive such gestures as devices to alienate the viewer and comment upon the genre, and Sirk’s brilliance is such that it works both ways. As I’ve stated in “
The World Is Phony, the Pain Isn’t: Douglas Sirk’s ‘The Tarnished Angels'” (PopMatters, 10 April 2019), his characters’ worlds are artificial but their pain isn’t. If his mise-en-scène can be overwhelming and oppressive, it’s because his characters feel oppressed, sometimes by their plenty.

With its overhead beams and shadows, Cllifford’s toy company has the same mix of cheer and gloom as Naomi’s basement dressing room in
All I Desire. The film quickly establishes that Clifford’s attempts to have a romantic evening with his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) will be frustrated by their annoying, demanding, screechy, self-absorbed children, as it practically becomes a public service announcement for sterilization, or at least a fair argument for corporal punishment.

Most problematic is strapping, brush-cut Vinnie, supposedly in high school and looking every minute the mid-20s of actor William Reynolds. He’ll be the plot’s most hard-nosed tyrant as he jumps to conclusions about father. Ellen (Gigi Perreau) and Frankie (Judy Nugent) are budding divas approaching
All I Desire‘s Lily.

As the commentary for
All I Desire observes, the early scene of Stanwyck’s character gazing into the theatre-like home from out in the cold recalls the actress’ famous role in Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor). There’s Always Tomorrow focuses on the abandoned Clifford, emasculated in his frilly apron, as he opens the door to Stanwyck’s shadowy figure. He recognizes her as Norma Miller, a former employee of 20 years ago who’s moved to New York and made good as a fashion designer. After a failed marriage, her last name is now Vail, indicating mystery and a marriage veil and perhaps a homonyn with “fail”.


Barbara Stanwyck as Norma Miller Vale and Fred MacMurray as Clifford Groves in There’s Always Tomorrow (IMDB)

She’s as charming and vivacious a visitor as Naomi, and she’s just as driven by loneliness and her memories of a failed relationship. We gather that Clifford wasn’t romantically interested back then, but he’ll rethink that now as Norma pays him the attention he’s not receiving from his family. As Samm Deighan’s commentary points out, this is the rare “woman’s movie” that centers on a man at the crossroads of romantic and career choices.

Nominally, Clifford has it all, as he’s allowed to, yet he’s not satisfied. He realizes the emptiness of everything he has, and this is how it will be for the rest of his life if he doesn’t break out of it. Unlike Hollywood’s traditional attitude to women like Norma, who can have a successful career or a family but not both, and who are always dissatisfied over what they don’t have, Clifford occupies the dream’s privilege and still feels an aching void. Such is this particular vision of the American Dream as scripted by Bernard C. Schoenfeld from a novel by Ursula Parrott, whose biography sounds like fodder for her own woman’s movie, if not a mini-series.

As with several Sirk melodramas, this remade a previous Universal production. The 1934 version, directed by Edward Sloman, starred Frank Morgan and would have been a swell extra for comparison. Not having seen it, however, I can’t imagine it having a more ravishing visual pizzazz than Sirk, Hunter, and lustrous photographer Russell Metty have given the tale. This remake also has no trouble making us believe in the sparks between the former stars of Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder), another essay in middle-class life as a fatal trap.

Sometime femme fatale Joan Bennett — just check her out in Fritz Lang‘s Scarlet Street (1945) — here embodies the frumpy housewife with detached bemusement. She played the heroine in her share of suburban traps, most notably Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment (1949), in which she plays the more traditionally distraught wife who realizes her perfect life and home are a shambles, thanks largely to her offspring’s behavior. That film’s final shot uses the imprisoning balusters just as Sirk’s film does. If this weren’t a feature of home design, these filmmakers would have had to invent it.

By the way, Ophüls’ film is one of two women-centered noirs he directed that year. The other has the telling title Caught and focuses on a deadly marriage. Something about European émigrés fleeing Hitler — Sirk, Lang, Wilder, Ophüls — gave them a beady-eyed view of the American domestic scene and the dark expressionism to convey it. American cinema is the richer for it.

From these three Sirk films, we could move in several directions, such as Kino Lorber’s new Barbara Stanwyck Collection or another brilliant Sirk melodrama, the thriller Thunder on the Hill (1951), in their box Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II. The galaxy of classic Hollywood cinema is all related, especially when talking about one particular studio, in this case Universal. Keep watching this space.