“a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama in which you can find the seeds of Dallas, Dynasty, and all the other prime-time soaps. Sirk is the one who established their tone, in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath . . . 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. His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony – he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he’s not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style . . . 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. William Inge and Tennessee Williams were taken with great seriousness during the decade, but Sirk kids their Freudian hysteria.”
– Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times
Written on the Wind (1956) is widely recognised as the stand out film from Douglas Sirk’s repertoire of 1950s bright, excessively colourful melodramatic masterpieces. His absorbingly camp films were noted for their glossy and excessive style and exaggerated emotions. I was particularly struck by the way Sirk used melodrama as a structuring device that glosses over the deviance of his content. The cinematography of this particular film is what I find most interesting, as the characters inhabit their environments like cartoons; with lighting that highlights and exasperates the onscreen presence of the lead actors. Written on the Wind, produced in 1956, entered onto the screen as Sirk’s most confident and playful title. Robert Wilder wrote the novel in 1945, and George Zuckerman brought it to life within his screenplay—a spectacular tale about the spoiled and venomous brood of fictional oil magnate Jasper Hadley. Drunken playboy Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and his promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone, in her Oscar-winning performance) live in their father’s mansion. Both live in the shadow of family friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), their father’s right-hand man who was all but adopted by the Hadleys when they were young. Kyle could never keep it together like his pseudo-brother, while Marylee’s hopeless infatuation with Mitch grows increasingly desperate as time goes on.
Melodrama literally means a combination of melody and drama, which suggests a bold if emblematical way of storytelling. Surely this does not suggest melodramas are musicals, rather today’s definition is fairly conceptual in its explanation. Of course, music plays a significant role in creating the lofty dramatic points in such a story, allowing the audience to become involved because of the score’s elucidation of an emotional moment. But beyond that, melodrama is defined by lucid and emphatic narrative structure, complete with heavy rises and deeply affecting falls. From its origins in medieval morality plays to its breakthrough in French opera, the melodrama has evolved and been oversimplified throughout the centuries, and now is somehow cheap and unrefined in its soap opera classification.-Brian Eggert, http://www.deepfocusfilm.com
Sirk’s film is an exercise in style; he creates an archetypal genre and enhances it by subverting metaphors like mirrors and flowers, figurative uses of color, and unrelenting irony. He concealed this satirical edge with all the trickery offered by a Hollywood studio, He managed to produce popular and vital art under the noses of his producers, who were just happy the director’s films performed at the box office. In 1950’s Society Sirk’s films were widely popular although during his career he achieved little industry acclaim because his melodramas focused primarily on strong female leads, in a way that no other director of the period had. Douglas Sirk’s interest in melodrama was not fuelled by a devoted interest in the genre’s stories; rather quite the opposite. The freedom of melodrama for Sirk, an artist otherwise suspicious of straightforward and one-dimensional narratives, rested in the potential for the double meaning he imbues onto every plot twist, every synthetic setpiece, every line of dialogue bubbling with parody yet unreserved gravity. His inventory of melodramas with Universal represents an incomparable collection of films writhing with undertonal importance, but also constituting a model for future explorations of the genre (such as television’s Dallas or any relative hanging on to the aesthetic value of Sirk’s structure).