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At the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, 1957, Dorothy Malone won
the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her torrid, over-the-top
portrayal of a spoiled heiress of a Texas oil tycoon in WRITTEN ON THE
WIND. The 1956 potboiler, adapted from Robert Wilder's novel , was a
veritable three-ring-circus showcasing alcoholism, greed, impotence and
Malone's performance as Marylee Hadley , a lonely rich girl who picks up men to assuage the pain of rejection from a former childhood sweetheart, was representative of the movie as a whole. Mesmerizing to watch even as it resorts to the "lowest -common- denominator" melodrama, WRITTEN ON THE WIND is ultimately the work of one man, the incredibly gifted director Douglas Sirk, an émigré from pre -World War 2 Weimar Germany who left his European theater heritage behind to pursue a career in Hollywood.
An extremely erudite man, Sirk made a name for himself in the 1950's as Universal Studios' reliable director of lavish soap operas, most notably with Ross Hunter's productions of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION , ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and IMITATION OF LIFE . Independent producer Albert Zugsmith offered Sirk the opportunity to work outside the limiting constraints of Universal's demure entertainments and create a more adult , "sensational" product , hence the sultry WIND and its follow-up, 1957's TARNISHED ANGELS, both released under the Universal International banner. It's anyone's guess why Sirk didn't pursue loftier themes, but apparently directing these exaggerated dramas appealed more to his artistic sensibilities. WRITTEN ON THE WIND could be considered Sirk's epic soap opera ; indeed, it is so rife with human vulnerability and neurosis as depicted among the very rich that it is as compelling to watch as any real life domestic squabble among the rich and famous, perhaps more so. Robert Stack (not an actor typically known for over -emoting) nearly matches Malone in intensity with his offering of the weak- willed brother Kyle Hadley, a mere shadow of his patriarchal father. When he finds out that he is unable to impregnate his new bride ( a beautifully leonine Lauren Bacall ) , Hadley goes off the deep end, escalating an already serious drinking problem with a "secret " gun fetish that threatens to make him a human time bomb. Both brother and sister, as venal and unlikeable as they are, are presented as victims of their past, giving them a human quality that makes them seem less monstrous ( and far more interesting than the 'good" side of the family, mainly Bacall and the impossibly handsome Rock Hudson , young Hadley's old boyhood friend and business associate, a surrogate son to the old man and Malone' s unattainable object of desire. ) Despite all the domestic co-dependency on display , it's not so much the story that is memorable here as the way it is filmed. With a real panache for pictorial composition and editing, director Sirk draws his audience into this picture with the most heightened Technicolor cinematography imaginable : every single shot in this film is an eye-filling canvas of saturated colors, from the sight of a tank-like pink Cadillac pulling up to an enormous mansion's front doors to the garish decor of a luxury Miami hotel , a spectrum of hues almost blinding in their diversity. Action and dramatic scenes feature Sirk's adept use of tilted camera angles , shadowy lighting and cross-cut editing , shown to greatest effect in the scene where a rebellious , drunken Malone dances uninhibitedly in her upstairs bedroom to the loud blaring of a record player while her stricken father precariously ascends the huge staircase ; the scene is so riveting that you swear you are experiencing a great oedipal drama unfold. What you're really watching is trash of an enormously entertaining kind, gussied up in lurid Technicolor and polished to perfection by a visual genius.
What can you say about "Written on the Wind," other than this is where the
genre of overproduced, inane Hollywood melodramas teeters into the realm of
genuine art. Every aspect of this highly artificial concoction is fully realized, an amazing example of the whole becoming far more than the sum of its parts.
Elements that are, considered separately, laughable (the abundance of
Freudian symbols, the hyperrealistic colors, the over-the-top acting, the gushy soundtrack) all strangely combine into a hypnotically watchable masterpiece. Clearly there's a genuine artist (director Douglas Sirk) at work here -- someone who can take all the usually misused contents of the 1950s Hollywood big
studio toolbox and create an astonishing work of art.
Robert Stack never really got over losing a Best Supporting Actor Oscar
for his role as Kyle in "Written on the Wind" to Anthony Quinn's
12-minute performance in "Lust for Life." Stack plays the deeply
disturbed, alcoholic son of an oil tycoon. He has lived his life in the
shadow of the friend with whom he was raised, Mitch, played by Rock
Hudson. They both love the same woman, Lucy, (Lauren Bacall), who
becomes Kyle's wife. Kyle's sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), is a
drunken slut who's in love with Mitch. Their story plays out in
glorious color under the able direction of Douglas Sirk, who really
dominated the melodrama field with some incredible films, including
"Imitation of Life," "All that Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession,"
and many others.
Make no mistake - this is a potboiler, and Stack and Dorothy Malone make the most of their roles, Malone winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. There's one amazing scene, mentioned in other comments, where she wildly dances to loud music as her father collapses and dies on the staircase. We're led to believe that Marylee sleeps with everyone, including the guy that pumps the gas, because she's in love with Mitch. Mitch wants nothing to do with her. He's so in love with Lucy that, out of loyalty to Kyle, he wants to go to work in Iran to avoid temptation. I doubt he'd be so anxious to get there today no matter how much in love he was.
Hudson and Bacall have the less exciting roles here - Hudson's Mitch is the good guy who's been cleaning up Kyle's messes for his entire life, and Bacall is Mitch's wife who finds herself in a nightmare when her husband starts drinking again after a year of sobriety. Sirk focuses on the more volatile supporting players.
In Sirk's hands, "Written on the Wind" is an effective film, and the big scene toward the end in the mansion is particularly exciting. The director had a gift for this type of movie, and though he had many imitators, he never had an equal.
Director Douglas Sirk once said `there's a very short distance between
art and trash, and trash that contains craziness is by this very quality
nearer to art'. This statement defines his cinema perfectly, a very unique
body of work that includes classic stage adaptations, adventure and war
films, westerns and of course, his famous melodramas.
Sirk's melodramas were, as the very word signifies, dramas with music. The music sets the tone for his masterful style, and every stroke of his brush (Sirk was also a painter) leaves a powerful image on the screen-turned-canvas. But this ain't life but its representation, an imitation of life. Sirk never tried to show reality, on the contrary. None of the directors of his generation made a better use of all the technical devices provided by Hollywood (most notably Technicolor) to distinguish the artificial from the real thing. Let's remember that his golden period coincides with the time when Hollywood films turned its attention into the social drama (Blackboard jungle, Rebel without a cause). Sirk always knew that cinema was meant to be something else.
Another of Sirk's statements summarizes this: `You can't reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself your fingers only meet glass'. I defy anybody that has seen Written on the wind to count the amount of mirrors and images reflected that appear on screen. One ends up giving up.
Therefore, we are in a hall full of mirrors where there's no difference between real and its false copy. Nobody can say that the Hadley are real people. That town ain't real either, with those hideous oil pumps all over the place. So in this realm the acting is affected, the decore is fake, the trick is visible. Everything is pushed a little bit off the limit (the sexual connotations of Dorothy Malone with the oil tower, for example). Sirk was criticizing and theorizing at the same time.
`The angles are the director's thoughts; the lighting is his philosophy'. In Written on the wind we follow the fall of a traditional way of life both in a geometrical way and in terms of light and shadows. The Hadleys house, with its different levels connected by the spiral staircase operates in a strictly metaphorical way. A house that resembles a mausoleum, that no party can cheer up. As tragedy progresses from luminous daylight to shadowy night, Sirk's photography becomes an extension of the inner state of his characters, and so are the colours of the clothes they wear. Drama is thus incorporated to every element at the service of the director's craft.
Sirk considered himself a `story bender', because he bended the standard material he was assigned with to his style and purpose. Written on the wind is a good example. It wouldn't work in any other hands.
The other director that was using similar strategies was Frank Tashlin, who was for 50's comedy the same that Sirk was for melodrama. Their films are full of the machinery of american life -advertising, TV sets, jukeboxes, washing machines, sport cars, vacuum cleaners- to depict its emptiness and decay. I'm inclined to think that their films were regarded in a different way by their contemporary audiences. The game was played by both sides, so it was camp. Now we regard them as `cult' or `bizarre', because we are not those spectators anymore. That is why Todd Haynes's homage `Far from heaven' turns into a pastiche, because it reproduces Sirk's work nowadays as if nothing happened in between. Then Sirk turns exactly into that painting hanging in the art gallery that Julianne Moore and the gardener discuss in the aforementioned film.
Sirk understood the elements of melodrama perfectly. There were always immovable characters (Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall here) against which he could assemble a series of split ones. His balance through antithesis is remarkable and not surprisingly we root for the split characters, because these are the ones Sirk is interested in too. When Robert Stack flies the plane and `tempts' Lauren Bacall with all sorts of mundane comforts of the world below them (obvious Faustian echoes) we are strangely fascinated with him too, as we are when the devilish nymphomaniac little sister painfully evokes her past with Mitch alone by the river.
In the Sirk's universe the studio often-imposed `happy ends' have no negative impact. In fact they worked just great. Sirk was fond of greek tragedy and considered happy endings the Deux ex machinea of his day. Thus the final courtroom scene fits well and one must also remember that the whole film is told in flashback, so we know from the very beginning that tragedy will fall nevertheless over the Hadley feud.
It was pointed out the many similarities between Written on the Wind with the Godfather saga. I absolutely agree and I'm sure the parallel is not incidental. Both share the theme of the old powerful father head trying to keep his empire going while protecting his family. The temperamental son portrayed by Robert Stack has an amazing physical resemblance with Jimmy Caan's Sonny Corleone. The action of fighting her sister's male friend is symmetrical. The non-son in which the old man put his trust is also common in both films, as the fact that both families carry the names of their town. Even details as the gate that gives access to the property, and the surroundings of the house covered by leaves, suggest that Coppola had Written on the Wind in mind while setting his masterwork. Because both films deal with the subject of Power: the acquisition of power, its manipulation and legacy (even Kyle Hadley's sterility, the event that hastens the turmoil, is an issue easily tied to the central theme of Power, in this case, a weakness in sexual power). The other great film that deals with power and uses american life as its representation is Citizen Kane. One wouldn't think at first of similarities between Welles and Sirk's films but there are a good many, starting with the petrol business as the origin of the family's fortune and ending in the fact that Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), as Charles Foster Kane, was adopted by a tutor, having his own father alive. Amazingly, the same actor (Harry Shannon) perform both Wayne and Kane's fathers. This detail is cannot be a coincidence.
Written on the Wind is a masterpiece in every aspect, in execution and vision, in style and technique, a highlight in the career of this wonderful director. Some say that this is his best film. In my opinion, `Magnificent obsession', `All that heaven allows', `There's always tomorrow' and `Imitation of life' are just as good. And for those who put Sirk in the level of Dallas or Dinasty I wish them no happy end.
It is ironic that during the '50s, when Douglas Sirk was at his most
successful in terms of audience appeal, he was virtually ignored by the
He is now seen, however, as a director of formidable intellect
who achieved his best work in melodrama
"Written on the Wind" is about the downfall of a Texan oil dynasty surrounded by worthless reputation, alcoholism, and nymphomania It is about the twisted, fatal connections between sex, power, and money...
Stack draws a compelling portrait of a tormented drunken destroyed by frustration, arrogance, jealousy, insanity, and some deep insecurities
Dorothy Malone succeeds as an attractive woman with an excessive sexual appetites, degrading herself for Hudson and to other fellows in town Her best line: "I'm filthy." In one frantic scene, we see her shaking, quivering and sweating to a provocative mambo In another weeping alone over a model oil-derrick at her father's desksymbol of excessive wealth and masculine tyranny
The frenetic atmosphere is both made palatable and intensified by Sirk's magnificent use of colors, lights, and careful use of mirrors
One of the most oddly colored (violets,bright yellows and reds) wildly flamboyant films made in the 50's, expatriate German director Douglas Sirk made this as a soap opera with a nasty satiric bite. Although Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson as staid camp followers of a wealthy Texas family are the "stars", it's the perverse characters played by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone who make the film such a vivid nightmare of the Eisenhower era of outdoor barbecues and post-war wealth. Malone in particular, playing a nymphomaniac oil heiress who dances wildly while her father dies of a heart attack, breaks the mold of the sexually sequestered decade.
Rich, alcoholic Robert Stack falls in love with secretary Lauren
Bacall. He marries her and is so happy he stops drinking. However,
Bacall is secretly loved by Stacks' best friend, Rock Hudson. And
Stacks' nymphomaniac sister, Dorothy Malone, lusts after Rock. Throw in
a few complications and the movie goes spinning out of control (in a
Very glossy movie in beautiful Technicolor with jaw-dropping fashions and furnishings (check out Bacall's hotel room at the beginning). Everybody looks perfect and dresses in beautiful, form-fitting clothes. Basically this is a soap opera with grade A production values. The story itself is lots of fun and some of the dialogue at the beginning is hilariously over the top. The acting by Hudson, Stack and Bacall isn't that good, but seeing them so young and glamorous is great...especially Stack...when he smiled my knees went weak! Dorothy Malone, on the other hand, is fantastic--she deservedly won Best Supporting Actress for her role. She's sexy, violent, vicious and sympathetic...all convincingly.
Fun, glossy trash. Don't miss it!
Channel-surfing earlier today I was passing the A.M.C. site and there was
"Written on the Wind" already underway. I'd seen it during its first-run
theatrical release (and not since) and was mildly surprised to observe how
vividly I recalled its unfolding.
I rarely submit to watching anything on A.M.C. these days because this once watchable venue has deteriorated into nothing more than a merciless marketplace. Strings of commercials endlessly interrupt every broadcast; virtually all films are shown "formatted" to fill non-widescreen TVs (A.M.C. frequently showed widescreen films in letterboxed broadcasts in the past but not anymore, with the recent exception, I noticed, of a Bruce Lee martial arts festival, of all things!); and then there are A.M.C.'s promotions for its upcoming schedule which are usually outrageously, stupidly silly (and boringly repeated ad nauseum). That said... (once more, I might add...)
This luridly Technicolored "triumph of trash" (not photographed in CinemaScope at a time when that process was Hollywood's way of luring us from our home black-and-white boob tubes) again grabbed me with the same stupefied amazement that fascinated me as a comparatively sheltered young teenager. Douglas Sirk's subversively manipulative direction, Russell Metty's opulent cinematography, the eye-filling and fairly luxurious art direction, and the turgidly expressive musical score all add up to what "over the top" really means. And the cast, assembled with an eye to populating this fantasy with near-godlike creatures (even the African American servants at the Hadley mansion are played by handsome and elegantly capable actors) was a cut above those assigned to most of the Universal-International product of that era.
It was surely Dorothy Malone's finest hour and her supporting actress Oscar was a popular choice among her peers and with the audiences of the day. Robert Stack, before he became such an ossified stiff in the years that followed, deservedly earned his own supporting actor Academy Award nomination. Rock Hudson hadn't yet managed to show his mettle as an actor of some range, though his performance in "Giant" released about the same time gave him a better opportunity to escape the oft-repeated complaint that he was "wooden" and nothing more than a slab of beef(cake). Lauren Bacall, though, was credible as an object of desire for two rivals and her soigne presence was a nice counterpoint to Malone's well-heeled tramp.
All in all this kind of moviemaking is rarely attempted today and the presumed tastes of today's audiences would, were a story like this mounted with a suitable budget and an equivalent cast, most likely be swamped with a degree of tastelessness that would be much less palatable than this example of Sirk's mastery of melodrama was when it was released. It's the cinema equivalent of those new calorie-laden ice cream treats that the dietary watchdogs are so assiduously warning us about now, but I doubt that it's as deleterious for our mental and emotional health. Sure hope not, 'cause I savored every frame!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Once again, I must dissent. I think this film reeks.
Roger Ebert described it as "a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama...in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath." I think he was being very generous.
I've always found Robert Stack to be a second-rate actor and just a little creepy. Here he outdid himself -- I found him to be a third-rate actor and really creepy...especially when he was looking directly at Lauren Bacall. Made me shudder. He gets killed off in the movie...it didn't come a minute too soon.
I usually find Rock Hudson to be a rather appealing actor, but I didn't find him or his part to be a bit appealing here...perhaps more later in the film. Lauren Bacall, not usually one of my favorites, did about the only really decent acting here, though I have seen her better in a few other films. Dorothy Malone never quite made it to the top ranks either, although in a number of films I found her quite appealing...but not here.
And, I have found some films directed by Douglas Sirk to be right up my alley -- especially "Magnificent Obsession", "All That Heaven Allows", and "Imitation of Life" -- but not this one. It took me 3 nights to wade through this, and several times I almost turned it off completely. I should have...my time would have been better spent whittling...and I don't even whittle! It seems that almost everything in this film is overdone. Over-acting. Overly dramatic music. Too much of a bad thing. I recommend you skip it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's the 1950's in the town of Hadley, Texas, and the town's namesake
and resident oil baron Jasper Hadley (Keith) has about all he can
handle with his business and two adult children, Kyle (Stack) and
Marylee (Malone). Kyle has just met Lucy Moore, (Bacall) an advertising
executive's secretary who was introduced to him by his best friend
Mitch Wayne (Hudson) after they had only just met themselves. Kyle
sweeps Lucy off of her feet and after a one-day courtship end up
eloping, much to Mitch's chagrin since he's in love with Lucy himself.
Meanwhile, Marylee, who is the resident town tramp, is becoming
increasingly aggressive in her pursuit of Mitch, who wants nothing to
do with her. When Marylee plants the idea in Kyle's head that Lucy and
Mitch are having an affair (at the time, untrue) in a sick attempt to
break up the couple in order for her to have Mitch there for herself,
Kyle goes on a bender. Lucy, meanwhile, discovers from the doctor that
she is pregnant, the father definitely being Kyle. That night, after
Kyle returns home drunk, she tells him the news and he hits her,
knocking her to the ground, assuming that it is Mitch's, and leaves the
house after Mitch throws him out, threatening to kill him if he
returns. He of course does return, and tries to shoot Mitch, but
Marylee sneaks up behind him and grabs the gun, causing Kyle to shoot
himself instead, not before finding out that he indeed was the father
of Lucy's baby, which was of course, miscarried.
"Written on the Wind" was one heck of a movie. Directed by the great Douglas Sirk, it is high melodrama and camp at its best. (Worst, depending on how much you like this kind of film.) Lauren Bacall, who has been quiet and dignified in every film I've seen her in, carries that demeanor through to this film, but it seems grossly out of place. Dorothy Malone, an actress I have heard of but haven't seen in a film that I can recall, is so tanned she is orange, and has a bad brassy blonde dye job, and practically spits out her lines, she is so evil and childish. Rock Hudson stays pretty true to character, playing the big lug who is generally a good guy, and Robert Stack, who I honestly only remember seeing in Unsolved Mysteries, is a riot as a drunken playboy. The story is nothing better than your average nighttime soap opera fare, and as stated earlier, the ending is sewn up a little too nicely and easily to be believed.
What the film does have, however, is style to spare. In classic Douglas Sirk fashion, the vibrancy of the colors in the film is astounding, and the lush scenery and costumes are beautiful. One scene in particular that actually left me kind of breathless was a pivotal scene in the film where the father, Jasper, dies. Marylee has just picked up another guy, a gas station attendant this time, and was brought home by the cops. After marching upstairs defiantly, she puts on a Latin-style "cha-cha" type album with screaming trumpets and turns it up very loudly, while dancing around in her bedroom with this flowing dark pink nightgown on. We see the father walking up the stairs resolutely, but weakly, to confront her about it, but when he reaches the top of the stairs he collapses and falls down the entire staircase. Meanwhile, we still hear the music shrieking, and the shots of the father are intercut with his daughter dancing furiously and kicking her legs around in this pink gown. It is a stunning scene that lasts for only about 20 seconds, but was enough to make me sit up and take full notice. The melodrama factor in "Written on the Wind" is about as high as I've seen short of a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis film, and it is pretty delicious. Much like the great "deer scene" at the end of "Magnificent Obsession", "Written on the Wind" has its own overly done final scene. Marylee, left alone in the family house now that Kyle and her father are both deceased, watches Mitch and Lucy leave from her father's office window. She turns around and is wearing a prim suit (first time we've seen something like that on her) and as she sits at her father's desk, she clutches a model of an oil tower, mirroring the portrait of her father behind the desk. It is an absolute riot, pure and simple.
"Written on the Wind" begins with the film's near conclusion, and the wind blows the pages of a day calendar back to show what happened in the preceding year leading up to the events. Unfortunately, the characters in the film were so shallowly presented, with little background, that I didn't feel a whole lot for them. However, that is not to say that the film is not well done or enjoyable. If anything, Douglas Sirk shows that he can take bland fare and turn it into a film that is both well-presented and easy to watch. It isn't remotely boring, nor is it believable, but it is great escapist cinema. Watching this film is like watching a good episode of Dynasty, or in recent programming, Desperate Housewives. I actually had a pretty low opinion of it on a surface level, but after reconstructing it in my mind I could not deny that the film was exactly what it set out to be, and that I had actually really enjoyed it for its extravagance. If you don't have an appetite or appreciation for this kind of drama, don't bother with the film; you'll hate it. If you do like and appreciate this type of film and subsequently, the work of Douglas Sirk, don't miss this one because it is actually a lot of fun. 6/10 --Shelly
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