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Written on the Wind (December 4, 2008)

What was it in my life that led me to presenting classic films at the Saugatuck Douglas Library? When I was a high school student in the suburbs of Chicago in the early 70s I would trek into the loop to see the movies at the Clark theater, which was a fleabag movie house, near Clark and Madison, where a bank now stands. The Clark would run films in a repertory schedule, maybe six or eight films repeating all day, with a common theme, director or star. I remember watching Citizen Kane (1941) there, sitting near a young lady who was there to experience that great film, while a couple of rows away a derelict was loudly snoozing. I saw Ingmar Bergman movies there. I remember catching a double feature of a couple of his less cheery classics –Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Seventh Seal (1957) --- not what you’d expect a teenager to be watching on a sunny afternoon. But (on another visit) I also saw Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948), maybe the most confused genre picture ever.

When I got to the University of Chicago, they were showing movies nearly every night. They presented movies in series -- the European classics as well as the great treasures of Hollywood. I remember seeing nearly all of Preston Sturges’ hilarious comedies in the Law School Auditorium. And I remember that someone from Doc Films, which showed movies at Quantrell auditorium in Cobb Hall, thought well enough of Douglas Sirk, tonight’s director, to show all of his movies.

Sirk was born in Hamburg in 1900 to Danish parents and had a career directing for the stage and later for the big German studio, UFA. He left in 1937 for the United States and directed in Hollywood. He became well-known for his lush melodramas made for Universal in the 1950s – including All I Desire (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck, Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) both with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, this picture (from 1956), and Imitation of Life (1959) with Lana Turner.

Sirk’s movies didn’t receive critical acclaim when they were released. They were pictures focused on women and domestic issues, clearly melodramas, with a style that could be seen as overblown. They were clearly Hollywood pictures and nothing in their marketing suggested that they were important in any way. It was only some time after their release that they began to receive critical notice for their stunning, sometimes artificial, visual style, which often commented, in an ironic and critical fashion, on American society. Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director, wrote "This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope." Roger Ebert, the film critic, wrote "To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message." Leslie Halliwell, the British film book writer, called this movie “The sheerest Hollywood moonshine: high-flying melodramatic hokum which moves fast enough to be very entertaining.” The movie was released in December 1956. Dorothy Malone, who plays the millionaire’s wild-living sister, won an Oscar for best supporting actress, and Robert Stack, who plays the millionaire, was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar. The title song by Victor Young (who had just died) and Sammy Cahn, was also nominated.

I try to show a lot of comedies, because, well, if you’re going to get out and drive to the library on a night like this you need to be entertained, and laughter is good for the soul. This movie, though not a comedy, has a lot of attractive features that makes it interesting to watch on a lot of levels. It might say more about being a woman in the 1950s, or at least how Hollywood saw it, more than any of the other films in this series, so I hope you enjoy watching it tonight.