Monday, January 04, 2010

Douglas Sirk Retrospective 1 - HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL (1952)

Douglas Sirk was a Danish boy raised in Germany, who was forced to leave his successful career in European cinema in 1937, eventual finding fame as the director of melodramas for Universal in the 1950s. His films raked in the phat cash - women loved the soupy romances with strong women triumphing over parochial social mores to find love and sometimes wealth. But, in contrast to fellow emmigres, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, Sirk's films were critically panned. After all, the 1950s was a decade in which European directors were stripping back cinema to deal with supposedly more authentic real people in real situations. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette were the heirs of Italian neo-realism. There movies featured improvised dialogue, jump cuts and existential angst. The characters in the Nouvelle Vague films were the kids of the bourgeois middle-aged women featured in Sirk.

But history sometimes redresses past slights, and Sirk is now as beloved of the self-appointed guardians of taste as the French auteurs. Directors from Fassbinder to Tarantino cite him as a key influence. The references are subtle (in PULP FICTION, Mia Wallace orders her "Douglas Sirk steak, bloody") or complete, as in Todd Haynes' homage, FAR FROM HEAVEN. Contemporary critics thought Sirk's lavish use of colour, sets and costumes was superficial and pandering to the baroque tastes of his audience. They failed to see that Sirk was using lavish interiors and costumes to show the oppression of his characters by their surroundings. The suburban house, filled with life's accumulated wealth, comes to symbolise the staid restrictions of country club society. Characters are frequently shown imprisoned by window panes and reflected in mirrors. Sirk may have given Lana Turner the most expensive costumes in cinema history for IMITATION OF LIFE, but that was for a greater reason than to dazzle his audience. It was to show quite literally the price she had paid for happiness.

I must confess that before this retrospective, I'd never seen a single Sirkian movie, and I was shocked at how explicit they were in tackling social issues such as race and sexual conventions, but also how fresh they seemed in tackling still relevant issues about a working woman's ability to successfully raise a family. On one level, Sirk's movies are absurd to modern eyes - can you really imagine a whispering campaign against a middle-aged widow because she wants to remarry a younger, poorer man? No. But one can certainly see how selfish children can stifle a mother's happiness in any age. And so, on to the marathon!

The first film is HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL? Unusually for Sirk, this is a costume drama, set in the 1920s, with a very light tone. Our heroine, Milly (a shockingly young Piper Laurie) is happily courting Dan (Rock Hudson) until eccentric and wealthy Sam Fulton leaves her family $100,000. Newly rich mother Harriet now wants Milly to marry a socialite, fit to match their new mansion and new friends. It plays almost like a musical without songs - or rather with only one song - the opening number. There's plenty of screwball comedy and tongue-in-cheek aw-shucks feel to it. But even here, the familiar Sirkian style and themes are familiar. Style-wise, the colours are bright and brash and the sets are lavish and cluttered. Characters are defined by their environments - the pharmacy with the soda-stream is beautifully recreated, and the movie is essentially the story of a family who move to a nicer house. It is, then, the familiar Sirkian battle between true love and bourgeois convention. And most importantly, the movie features strong woman - first Harriet, who is wrong-headed but a matriarch, and then Milly, who is equally strong-headed. The husband and beaux are merely victims of their caprices. Even Milly's little sister bosses around the rich Sam Fulton, dragging him round like a puppy! No wonder women loved this film!

HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL? was released in 1952.

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