Comfortable and Furious

Written on the Wind (1956)

Directed by Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind is one of the most melodramatic films ever made; trashy, preposterous, and laughable on its face, yet so damned delightful that I’d rank it among the best films of the period. Surely any story involving drunken oil men, miscarriages, a pounding piano score, bleach blond bimbos, and Rock Hudson can’t be dismissed outright, and whenever a wide-eyed, hysterical Robert Stack is added to the mix, the proceedings practically scream classic. A film like this — campy, bitchy fun, though slyly self-aware — could never be pulled off today, except as the sort of stunt.

Todd Haynes tried with 2002’s Far From Heaven. And it’s a shame, too, for the times surely cry out for Technicolor examinations of moral rot at the top of the economic pyramid. Much more than now, the 1950s understood that with money came hypocrisy, immorality, jealousy, and dysfunction, and that all great fortunes have been built on secretly aborted fetuses and the broken, black backs of assorted maids and butlers. Stately mansions, well-manicured lawns, and sleek automobiles always masked ferociously unhappy people; whereas today, we’re more apt to dismiss their behaviors as harmlessly eccentric. But in Sirk’s universe, the scoundrels have traded away their very souls, and as such must forever be cursed with pain, humiliation, and untimely death.

Stack is Kyle Hadley, a no-account, insanely rich alcoholic who never feels up to his father’s demanding standards, and therefore spends most of his time at the company watering hole. His sister, Marylee (Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone), fucks every stray oil worker and gas station attendant she can find, though she remains smitten with childhood crush Mitch Wayne (Hudson), who also happens to be Kyle’s best friend. Enter Lucy (Lauren Bacall), an office worker at the Hadley enterprise who becomes the immediate target of Kyle’s unbridled lust. Within minutes, he declares his love for her, and as a sign of his devotion, whisks her away on his private jet to Miami.

Trouble is, Mitch has also fallen for Lucy, though given her complete lack of charisma, one wonders how she could ever attract a single look in her direction, let alone the loins of two Hollywood hunks. Clearly, it takes the full light of saturated color to reveal Bacall’s fundamental lack of spark; not only did she always appear to be flirting with middle age, but her hard face never let us believe she could pull of a successful seduction. Kyle’s love is so powerful, though, that he manages to stay dry for months at a time, but the rules of melodrama demand that by the end of the second act, a crisis will force his hand and start the whiskey train once again.

That crisis is the discovery that he’s sterile — and likely impotent, if I’m reading my symbolism correctly — and the news sends him tumbling down into a pit of rage and despair. But when Lucy winds up pregnant, he understandably assumes that Mitch has paid one too many visits, and starts a brawl that causes Lucy to lose the baby. Threats are made, guns are drawn, and Kyle manages to shoot himself in the gut, which prompts a ridiculous inquest that cries out for Groucho Marx. Mitch is cleared, Marylee retreats backs to an empty estate, and Lucy rides off with her new love, destination unknown. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it’s so sensational and earnest that we half believe in its self-importance.

Among the more outrageous stunts Sirk pulls from his bag of tricks is when Big Daddy Hadley drops dead on the stairs (and falls back for a good thirty seconds of neck-breaking hilarity) after being pushed too far by his daughter’s feverish dance in her bedroom. Marylee shakes, rumbles, and sweats to a wild jazz diddy, and from all appearances, Daddy blows a gasket from sheer erotic anticipation. Lest you think a Freudian stretch is out of bounds for this film, the story ends with Marylee stroking (and I do mean stroking) the model of an oil derrick that had been a fixture on Daddy’s desk.

In fact, she all but inhales the thing. Let’s face it: Marylee was a promiscuous little vixen for a reason, and Daddy’s “advances” are the only explanation. After all, his own wife died years ago, and Marylee is, well, just about the sexiest woman in town. Clapped out and deeply scarred from numerous back-alley abortions, but sexy nonetheless.

Malone’s is a perfectly awful performance (her face twists and contorts during a “memory” sequence in such a way as to make us think she’s being gutted like a fish), but she hits all the right notes as a woman who needs to fuck lest she cease to exist. If she only knew why Rock wasn’t interested.

From the opening credits (as good as it gets in the annals of Hollywood, with Stack totally out of control) to the final scene, Written on the Wind satisfies because it can be enjoyed straight, ironically, or even as a social commentary of the Eisenhower era. I’m convinced there’s a subtext, of course, but even without it, I’d recommend the piece for the howls alone. These days, bad films just leave a stink that takes days to subside; they bore, frustrate, and can’t even be recalled hours later. But during the glory days of the Hollywood soap opera, bad taste endured as art, even if it couldn’t be defended as such without the betrayal of a wink and a giggle.

These were the days when girls were bad because they liked jazz and knew how to dance, and drove hot pink cars just in case you weren’t paying attention; when bar fights could leave no table unturned and no glass un-smashed, yet both brawlers clean, unscratched, and only slightly out of breath. When sons hated fathers, husbands hated wives, and brothers protected their sisters out of the chivalric sense of incestuous longing. More than that, it’s a gorgeous slab of eye candy; photographed with care, precision, and an overwrought palate worthy of the situation. The whole thing is deliciously preserved, both as a museum piece and a testament to bullshit, well done.



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