Boy, was Douglas Sirk great! I’ve always admired how unapologetically soppy and melodramatic his films were. He was probably the most underrated and misunderstood of all directors, but I stand by him. I think he was fantastic. Rock Hudson was one of his greatest leading actors and the two of them gave us two of the best melodramas of all time: All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956).
In All That Heaven Allows, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a middle-aged widower living in the suburbs. Her two children are grown and she socializes with her group of friends on a regular basis. Her life isn’t massively exciting but she is quite content with it. She strikes up a friendship with her gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) and the two of them fall in love. He’s younger than her and when their relationship comes to light, her friends are quick to judge (it’s 1950s suburbia, what’d you expect?)
Written by Peg Fenwick, based on the story by Edna L. Lee and Harry, All That Heaven Allows is a product of its era but curiously ahead of its time. The small-town mentality and attitudes are dealt with in a way that almost feels like satire. There’s the detestable characters, especially Mona (Jacqueline De Wit), the instantly recognizable ‘judgemental frienemy’, there’s the whole thing about caring about what people think and then standing in the way of your own happiness in the process, and of course the standards and stereotypes that a 1950s society held dear. All of these and more are always made to feel like they’re being mocked. Cary is our main character and we’re totally, completely, almost devotedly on her side. In fact, she is so prominent that the light is never too far from her. There are hardly ever any moments or scenes in which her face is not lit. I’m not sure if that’s subconscious or not, but it works wonderfully. And then of course there’s Ron Kirby, the character we all want to be. He’s the only one who truly doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He’s true to himself and his love for Cary and that’s all that matters. All That Heaven Allows is beautifully understated and a stunning piece of romantic drama.
Written on the Wind is the more dramatic of the two films. Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) is a hard-drinking playboy and heir to the Hadley empire. When he meets Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), he pursues her and asks her to marry him. Little does he know that she’s actually in love with his best friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and that the feeling is mutual. On top of that, there’s also Marylee (Dorothy Malone in an Oscar-winning performance), Kyle’s sex-crazed younger sister, who’s been in love with Mitch all her life.
Written by George Zuckerman and based on Robert Wilder’s novel of the same name, Written on the Wind is over-the-top, melodramatic and fantastic. This is, to me, the quintessential Douglas Sirk movie. This is what he does best. Melodramas are usually frowned upon, and maybe with good reason, but if it’s a Douglas Sirk film, you know you’re in good hands. And once again, we turn to Rock Hudson for comfort. His performance as Mitch is a breath of fresh air, an unfazed character in an otherwise crazy world, and I think that’s what Sirk understood. This type of character is badly needed in melodramas. And that was the beauty of Rock Hudson’s partnership with Douglas Sirk. In their movies together, he always seems to play the most likeable characters, the ones we hold onto for security and comfort, because that’s what we need. Truly a great director/actor duo and one that should be more appreciated.