|1953 Allard J2X roadster classic|
|1955 Woodill Wildfire roadster|
|Lauren Bacall on the set of Written On The Wind|
|Dorothy Malone with her Oscar|
|Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson carrying Robert Stack, Robert Keith|
WRITTEN ON THE WIND B USA (99 mi) 1956 ‘Scope d: Douglas Sirk
Our night of stolen bliss was written on the wind. —movie theme song by The Four Aces, The Four Aces - Written on the Wind (1956) - YouTube (2:59)
A trashy soap opera probably viewed much differently when it was released, something of a shocking provocation, resorting to hyper-expressive theatricality while offering damning commentary on obscene wealth with no moral compass, leading to misguided love gone terribly wrong in the great state of Texas, a B-movie companion piece to the sprawling oil epic of George Stevens’ GIANT (1956), both set in Texas, both starring Rock Hudson, yet this film is overwhelmed by the endless presence of oil derricks, as far as the eye can see, the only real landscape of the film, ultimately becoming a prominent phallic symbol that stands for virility and manhood, so obviously overused that it truly becomes laughable. Watching this film in a crowded theater, the patrons will be howling with delight, as this isn’t just over the top, but perversely over the top, so artificially exaggerated that, though made decades earlier, it becomes a wildly subversive parody of popular primetime soap operas like Dallas (1978–1991), Knot’s Landing (1979-1983), or Dynasty (1981–1989), which are already driven by formula and cliché’d stereotype. Tennessee Williams has got nothing on this ultra repressive drama, as Sirk never shied away from taboo subjects, with this film featuring alcoholism, promiscuity, murder, adultery, impotency, and more, with a dark undercurrent of incest and homosexuality. According to Sirk, “There’s a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Sirk’s critical reputation rests heavily on four 1950’s melodramas, All That Heaven Allows (1955), WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956), THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957), and IMITATION OF LIFE (1959). Largely dismissed and overlooked as “women’s pictures,” they exist in the delirium and hysteria of artifice and exaggeration, where Sirk’s visual style points to the psychological parameters of the characters’ lives, providing wry commentary on the stifling complacency of American bourgeois culture in Eisenhower’s era of the 1950’s while offering a scathing critique of the rich and spoiled. Suggesting freedom has its limits, this film features an oil-rich family with insatiable appetites, including two hideously self-destructive children, spoiled rotten by Daddy’s millions, where they are laughably repulsive, turned into deranged psychopaths, having no moral boundaries whatsoever, greedily excessive in everything they do. Their immense antebellum estate starts to resemble a prison, as the giant staircase and ornate décor comes to dominate the screen compositions, often shot through mirrors and reflections, where the children are forever making jail breaks before returning back to the horror-filled disapproval of their patriarchal father who they are forever disappointing. Based on Robert Wilder’s often out-of-print 1946 novel by the same name, never widely known, George Zuckerman, a purveyor of low-budget schlockmeister films who owned the rights to the novel, adapted the screenplay, while Russell Metty shot the film using a wildly exaggerated Hollywood studio style. The lurid story is actually based on the death of millionaire tobacco heir Zachary “Smith” Reynolds, a 20-year old playboy with no interest whatsoever in the family business, yet he retained an inexhaustible allowance as the youngest son of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds. An aviator as a hobby, Smith pursued Broadway actress Libby Holman around the world in his plane, literally stalking her until she agreed to marry him in 1931. At an alcohol-fueled 4th of July birthday party the next year at the family estate that lasted for days, Libby announced she was pregnant, and in the drunken confusion Smith was shot in the head, with Libby and Ab Walker, her close friend (rumored to be her lover), indicted for murder. The story made front page news, creating a scandal, with his family quietly persuading authorities to drop the charges, as his death was ruled a suicide. His fondness for aviation and the mysterious circumstances of his death are transferred to this film, with the family tobacco fortune transformed to oil tycoons while the setting is relocated from North Carolina to Texas.
A story of frustrated desires and long-standing resentments, with a stellar cast of Dorothy Malone, who’s stuck on Rock Hudson, who’s in love with Lauren Bacall, who marries Robert Stack, who becomes obsessed with drinking himself to death, this is a mystifying choreography of detoured love gone wrong, yet absent Bacall, the same players are utilized again in Sirk’s next picture, THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957), which may be his darkest (in black and white) and most devastatingly bleak. This may be his raunchiest, where only exploitation films match the titillating taglines of sensory overkill in this film, like “Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy fancy cars and a whole lot of alcohol,” “The story of a family’s ugly secret and the stark moment that thrust their private lives into public view!” or “Come for the hot rods and dysfunctional sex-crazed alcoholic Texas oil billionaires, stay for the Cha-Cha-Cha,” Mambokat Mash-Up! Rock Hudson & Dorothy Malone dance ... YouTube (38 seconds), so it defies belief that it opens with such a sappy song over the opening credits, The Four Aces - Written on the Wind (1956) - YouTube (2:59). Yet what follows is equally mindblowing, as it recalls the death of James Dean the year before at the age of 24, still fresh on the minds of the public, dying in a car crash while driving his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder to a road race in Salinas. Robert Stack is Kyle Hadley, millionaire son of Texas oil magnate Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith), owner of all the surrounding oil wells in the vicinity, with his Hadley label identifying the company, the oil tanks, their fleet of cars, and even the name of the town. As if breaking from the mold, Kyle is seen at the outset recklessly driving a 1953 bright yellow Allard J2X roadster classic (1953 Allard J2X — Audrain Auto Museum) while chugging down a fifth of corn liquor, screeching to a halt when he pulls up to his home, shattering the empty bottle against the brick exterior before stumbling into the house, leaving the door swung wide open. With leaves blowing into the main entryway, a shot rings out, with Kyle stammering back out the door carrying a gun, falling to his death. The film backtracks a year and is largely told in flashback, starting in a high-rise advertising office in New York City, with Bacall as Lucy Moore setting up an advertising display as the new executive secretary. Hudson as Mitch Wayne wanders in, immediately taken by her, but he plays second fiddle to best friend Kyle Hadley, who they meet for lunch, with Kyle making all the right moves, flying her down to Miami Beach with Mitch in tow, hoping to knock her off her feet with all the deluxe accoutrements, but she skips out, refusing to be just another token purchase. Racing to the airport he hopes to catch her, finding her on the plane ready to embark, but pulls her off, hoping she’ll give him a second chance, proposing love and marriage right there on the spot. It’s a bit mesmerizing with the accelerated speed of it all, with Mitch looking on in bewilderment, having seen it all before, apparently, growing up in the Hadley home, where the two are like brothers, while the uncontrollable wild seed of the family is Kyle’s nymphomaniac tramp of a sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), who drives a 1955 flashy red Woodill Wildfire roadster (1955 Woodill Wildfire Roadster - Heacock Classic Insurance), dressed in hot pink dresses and blazing, platinum hair, picking up guys in dive bars, constantly degrading herself with tawdry encounters with lower class men, only to force her family to come rescue her from scandal. Seen throughout the film dancing wildly to rock music, viewed at the time as corrupting America’s youth, it was also blamed for juvenile delinquency, which was all the rage in 50’s films. Mitch is the calming influence, used to getting Kyle and Marylee out of trouble, as he’s the one sent in to handle the dirty business. A geologist by trade, his job is finding where to dig for oil, an invaluable asset to the company, loved and admired by Jasper Hadley as the son he wished he had, as his own two kids are nothing but trouble. Flipping the script on the American Dream, Sirk reveals the muddy underside of wealth and success, not only suggesting emptiness, but moral rot, literally opening Pandora’s Box.
While marriage seems to have calmed the nerves of Kyle, no longer sleeping with a gun under his pillow, he remains sober the first year, which comes as a major surprise, while Lucy is welcomed into the family, adored by Jasper Hadley, who remains suspicious about his son. Marylee’s promiscuity, on the other hand, is lethal, sexually charged like a ferocious animal, completely lacking in remorse, willing to cross every moral line to get what she wants, eventually reaping disastrous consequences for the entire family. Her obscenely flirtatious portrayal earned her an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind YouTube (2:20), while later receiving top billing in the first prime time soap opera, Peyton Place (1964-69). Both Lucy and Mitch are measured and level-headed, given intellectual interiority, while Kyle and Marylee are carelessly impulsive daredevils, never giving a thought to their actions, operating on primal instincts, desperately lost and alone, terribly insecure, filled with self-pity, literally without friends, so they draw attention to themselves by forcing their way into other people’s lives. Much is made of Marylee’s childhood memories, with fond recollections of going “back to the river,” with suggestions of nudity and free-wheeling sex, which certainly drives her unabashed need to be with Mitch, literally wanting to possess him all to herself, like a prized trophy, yet on Kyle’s drunken benders he makes similar references to the good times, where a homoerotic connection between he and Mitch is pretty clear (then throw sex-crazed Marylee into the mix!!), but he grows deliriously out of control and untrustworthy when he learns he may be impotent (while fixated on having a child), as if any stain on his manhood is certain death to a boy from Texas, where virility is all that matters. That starts his nonstop drunkenness, utterly incapable of anything else but drinking his troubles away. Mitch’s blatant rejection of Marylee sends her into high gear, planting Iago-like seeds in the mind of her hysterical brother, suggesting Mitch is having his way with his wife. Like a bull in a china shop, he grows seething with anger and resentment, on a warpath destroying everything in his way. So when Lucy announces she’s pregnant, rather than express anticipated joy, he just assumes the worst, that Mitch has been cheating on him, accusing his best friend of lies and betrayal, turning on him with a vengeance, while slapping his wife senseless, without a care in the world, completely out of his mind, capable of doing anything, which is what’s behind that drunken ride shown at the outset of the film. While he’s raving mad, searching for a gun his father always hid, the ultimate showdown is cast in ambiguity and intrigue, entering a bottomless domain where rationality ceases to exist, literally a shadow world. What follows is Marylee playing her trump card, implicating Mitch in his murder unless he promises to stay with her, a truly reptilian reaction to her own brother’s death. It was Marylee’s promiscuity that likely caused her own father’s fatal heart attack, returned home by the police after another scandalous affair, heard with the volume turned way up in her room, filling the entire house, a hellcat provocatively performing a demonic mambo dance, a gyrating picture of sin, disgusting her father who is sick of her excesses, using rapid intercutting to show he died while climbing the stairs trying to reach her room, while her slanderous meddling into her brother’s affairs got him killed as well, so she has Hadley blood on her hands, left longingly stroking a model oil derrick that was in her father’s office, a perverted symbol of her own foul wretchedness. There’s a bit of pandemonium as newspapers get a whiff of scandal, creating chaos in the courtroom, but like other Sirk films, the world shifts on its axis and there’s a tacked-on happy ending revealing the virtuousness of noble heroes, which may be what audiences want, but feels like a fatal exercise in futility, as nothing makes up for the sniveling snakes these two children turn out to be, audaciously bad to the bone, emphasizing the amorality of the super wealthy, existing in a class all their own, incapable of connecting to another living soul, cold as ice, synonymous with human depravity, totally outside the laws of man, existing only for themselves, living in a world of their own making that answers to no one, constructing their own personal highway to hell.