*. Camp? And by that I mean, is it a joke? Perhaps not intended as a joke — camp doesn’t allow for too much of that — but a joke nonetheless.
*. So: camp? Damn, it’s a hard label. For one thing, is it a judgment that we can only make in hindsight? Did audiences in the ’50s, who made this movie a hit, think it was camp? Or does it just seem ridiculous in retrospect? Or, another possibility, do we take it more seriously today? Douglas Sirk’s stature as an auteur has certainly grown, especially after being adopted by the European art house. At the time this film was made he was generally thought of as a hack.
*. Perhaps another word fits better. Kitsch? J. Hoberman: “Written on the Wind is not simply kitsch — it has the lurid classical grandeur that suggests Norman Rockwell redecorating Versailles.” Not simply kitsch then, but something more and something different. As Hoberman concludes, “Written on the Wind is not simply epic trash, but meta trash.” What non-meta label fits it then?
*. Well, here’s another word: melodrama. I think we can almost all agree that Written on the Wind is melodrama. It is melodrama writ large. But is melodrama by definition kitschy? Campy?
*. David Thomson is sensitive to the cultural cachet of the genre. Indeed in his entry on Douglas Sirk in his Biographical Dictionary of Film he even says that melodrama contains “the roots of cinema”: “Cinema — as an entertainment, an art form, an academic topic, or an institution — is addicted to melodrama.” Ergo Douglas Sirk is an absolutely essential filmmaker.
*. An aside: is this still true? While melodrama may have been the soil that cinema sprang from, is it still addicted to emotion and feeling? We live in a heartless age.
*. There’s also an uncomfortable gender angle to the genre argument. Melodrama is primarily a form of romance, and Written on the Wind is clearly a woman’s picture. Indeed the overly emotional script make it play like a kind of flip book of Lichtenstein’s True Romance blow-ups: frames of what might be comic-book panels, with bright colours and beautiful faces delivering dialogue bubbles containing such corny lines as “I love you, Mitch. I’m desperate for you.” “Please don’t waste your life waiting for me,” “I’ll wait, and I’ll have you — marriage or no marriage.” “Somebody just stole my magic dancing slippers.” “You’re a filthy liar!” “I’m filthy, period.” And so on and on.
*. So that’s another label, albeit one that nobody at the time or, I think, ever since, has argued against. Even the internal studio memos were clear that the movie “should be largely geared toward woman appeal” (because of the appearance of hearthrob Rock Hudson). And it’s worth keeping in mind that as ridiculous as so much of the romance claptrap is in this film, it’s no more ridiculous than a lot of action conventions or horror clichés. In looking down on such pictures we may be guilty of a little sexism as well as snobbery.
*. But without its camp value would a movie like this have any value at all? Who among us would want to watch a run-of-the-mill mid-’50s soap opera? Are there half as many fans of Magnificent Obsession out there as there are of Written on the Wind? This movie is often seen as the precursor to TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, but who on earth watches them today? The reason this film has lasted is because it’s so crazily over the top that it becomes, another magic label, subversive.
*. Of course, you have to read it ironically. This is what makes everyone, or nearly everyone, see Sirk as a subversive artist. You can’t believe in his vision of America. It’s so obviously not real. There’s no need to call in Brecht: we know we’re watching a play. Nothing could be more artificial than those pink hallways in the Florida hotel, the silly toy cars the Hadley kids drive, the old swimming hole set, or all those painted backdrops. It doesn’t even matter that the cars (Kyle’s is a 1953 Allard J2X and Marylee’s a 1953 Woodill Wildfire) and the grotesque flowers in Marylee’s room (anthuriums) are real. They look plastic and fake.
*. And this is not to mention the film clichés you have to laugh at: the pages from the calendar being blown backward (over a whole year’s worth!), or the jukebox that plays throughout the fisticuffs at the diner. I wonder what the first film to do that was. Probably some Western with a player piano.
*. And yet. Roger Ebert: “To appreciate the trashiness of Written on the Wind is not to condescend to it. To a greater degree than we realize, our lives and decisions are formed by pop clichés and conventions. Films that exaggerate our fantasies help us to see them — to be amused by them, and by ourselves. They clear the air.”
*. But do they clear the air? Or do they feed the heart on fantasies? I wonder how much our sweet tooth for such confections is born of nostalgia, and how much of it expresses a desire to believe in this kind of nonsense: the god-like wealth, the celebration of privilege and materialism that comes complete with the darkies serving dinner (Sam) and drinks (Ben). This was the American dream, and it’s become our dream of the American ’50s.
*. I want to stick with this point about fantasy and realism for a moment. When you watch a lot of these kinds of movies, from this period, you’ll probably notice how tacky their sense of luxury was. This could be the result of several things. In the first place, the art director might be consciously going for an artificial or tacky look. Here, for example, Julia Heron, one of the set decorators, “had to deliberately use some bad taste” (according to a studio press release) to make the Hadley home look more vulgarly ostentatious. Another possibility is that the 1950s really were a tacky time, or at least they look that way to us. We can notice the same thing in movies set in the 1970s. But I prefer a more basic explanation: that in the 1950s production design just wasn’t ruled by the same canons of verisimilitude. You weren’t trying to design a home or an office or a restaurant that looked “real.” I don’t think this was peculiar to Sirk either. It was the Hollywood studio aesthetic.
*. Here’s Ebert again: “Films like this are both above and below middle-brow taste. If you only see the surface, it’s trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration and the satirical humor, it’s subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.” I think the line that this is both above and below the middle-brow is key. It is trash and meta trash. I just have a lingering, uncomfortable feeling that this kind of thing can be taken more seriously than critics might want us to believe. That is, audiences can and do take it as real.
*. In brief, it’s a movie that can be read on different levels. Trash or meta trash, sentimental or subversive, fake or symbolic. Those plastic cars and flowers are obvious character keys: yellow for Kyle, glistening red for Marylee. Texas is a Wild West state where everyone is quick to draw their pistols. The bartender draws his to break up a bar fight, and Jasper even pulls one out of a drawer with the cops — albeit his cops — right there in the room.
*. But Kyle’s pistol is a shiny, pearl-handled lady’s gun, and he sleeps with it tucked under his pillow. When Lucy finds it, she takes it from him and throws it away. No missing the symbolism there!
*. Or take this reading (courtesy of Peter William Evans) of the pink corridor in the Florida hotel, another bit of bright phoniness that triggers our symbol-radar: “The watery setting of the hotel and the oneiric, shocking-pink-lined passage invite speculation on notions of rebirth, of intrauterine memory and of a motherless son’s search for an absent mother.” Phew! And I just thought it was a vagina.
*. How much is being repressed? Thomson: “surely Sirk, who made eight films with Hudson, knew his innermost yearnings. And thus the real secret text in the film is the unspeakable attraction between Stack and Hudson, and the relative emotional homelessness of the women.” Personally, I didn’t think this was all that clear. Mitch is in love with Lucy and Kyle seems more envious and resentful of Mitch. Apparently, however, Sirk had wanted to make Kyle’s homosexuality more explicit but couldn’t because of issues with the censors.
*. The incest angle is also hinted at, but again I didn’t get the sense that there was much to it. Mitch says he loves Marylee like a brother, and I suppose we’re left to wonder just what that might mean. And Marylee warns Kyle that if Mitch steals Lucy then the two of them will be left alone to wake up to one another. But the siblings don’t seem to have any erotic connection, and Mitch is so asexual you don’t feel the spark of anything indecent coming from him.
*. The theme song, music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn and performed by The Four Aces, is justly celebrated. For some reason it’s been stuck in my head for years, the fitting melos to this drama. And yet do the lyrics mean anything? Who is the faithless lover whose kiss is written on the wind? Isn’t the problem that everyone in this movie is too damn faithful?
*. How dull both Mitch and Lucy are. Kyle and Marylee are the only people we want to watch (just as James Dean remains the only reason to watch Giant, even with Elizabeth Taylor in full bloom and throttle). The freaks fascinate us, getting to chew all the drapes and smash all the china while even Hudson was put off by playing yet another square. Stack and Malone would both get Oscar nominations, and Malone would win (a contemporary contra opinion can be seen in Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, which called both their performances “absurd”). Meanwhile, the leads were justifiably ignored. I like Lauren Bacall, but when she wasn’t motivated she could really mail it in. And what was there to motivate her in this part?
*. The original script made it clearer that Marylee — yes, Marylee! — is going to take over running Hadley Oil at the end of the movie. That’s what having her sit under the giant portrait of her father while picking up the model of the oil derrick (Hadley No. 1) was meant to signify. I was shocked when I found this out. I don’t see Marylee as running anything.
*. Presumably the company will now be run by a trust while Marylee is left to fondle that golden dildo as a substitute for losing the one true love of her life. I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, but in fact she’s a lucky girl. Mitch didn’t deserve her. Now she has her money and her independence, a good toy is all she really needs.