Written on the Wind (1956) Directed by Douglas Sirk. Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone (99 min).
An overheated mid-century soaper, Sirk’s film is both deliciously trashy and intentionally subversive. Two childhood pals reach across the class divide and wrassle with insecurity, alcohol, sex addition and money. Set in the Texas oil fields, it was rumored to be a thinly veiled take on the scandalous death of an RJ Reynolds tobacco heir. “This is a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama” (Roger Ebert).
The novel Written on the Wind was penned by Robert Wilder and published in 1944, and was about tobacco, not oil. Any one of you reading this book would recognize the mash-up of the Reynolds and Duke family histories, and perhaps thinly veiled is an overstatement. They live in (and own) a North Carolina town called Winton, only one letter away from the Reynolds real-life stomping grounds, Winston-Salem. The Hill, the house that figures so prominently, seems modeled on the rather modest display of wealth and power, Reynolda House. Why was the corrupting influence changed to oil? Why were all the names (Cary, too much like Za-chary, Z. Smith Reynolds) changed from the book? Libel lawsuit springs to mind.
Here, in Wilder’s prose, Reese (the Rock Hudson character, called Mitch in the film) muses on ratting out the whole sorry lot (Cary Whitfield/Kyle Wayne and his sister, Ann-Charlotte/Marylee) to their mama, “Now, Reese thought soberly, I can start being a heel. There’ll never be a better chance. I can say yes. I can tell her Cary is a drunk, and Ann-Charlotte a nymphomaniac. I can explain I never wanted anything from the Whitfields and would have been better off if they had left me alone with Lance. I can say sure, I know why Mr. Whitfield brought me to The Hill. He wasn’t man enough to take care of his own children, and hoped I could do it for him, but I was only a kid and needed taking care of myself. I didn’t know anything about girls like Ann-Charlotte, someone should have told me and then I wouldn’t have acted as I did and it wouldn’t tear the guts from me now every time I think of her. I don’t think I want to go away now, Mrs. Whitfield. I think I’ll just stay here and watch The Hill fall apart. Maybe, I’ll even give it a kick now and then. Cary will never know what to do with his time. He’ll load himself and the place with liquor and whores because he hasn’t imagination enough to do anything else, and I think I’ll wait around…” (Wilder 214).
Producer Albert Zugsmith owned the rights to the novel (he was also the producer of Touch of Evil) and it was his idea to make the film. Sometimes, Written on the Wind is called a remake of a Jean Harlow film, Reckless, but if so, it was only because they were both based on the tabloid-ready Reynolds story, in which Z. Smith Reynolds became entangled with torch singer Libby Holman. Director Douglas Sirk was interested in portraying failure, echoing Euripides’ preferred story construction, where there is only one way out of the plot, and not necessarily a happy ending. The stars, Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, were given the boring roles to play, since they would attract the audience into the theaters, and Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone (who both got Oscar nominations, Malone won) were assigned the much flashier parts.
Sirk was known best for his 1950s Technicolor melodramas, although we showed an earlier film, Sleep My Love in our Women of Film Noir series. Hans Detlef Sierk was born in Hamburg, Germany. He became an important theater director during the 1920s; he was a colleague of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. In 1934, he switched to film directing, since the Nazis, at the time had less interest in the movies, because they were primarily for export. He had a son with his first wife, who became a Nazi. She barred him from seeing his child, since his second wife was Jewish. His son, Klaus, joined the Hitler youth, and then became the preeminent child star in Nazi cinema. The only way his father ever saw him again was on screen. His second wife left for the US in 1936, and her husband joined her a year later. In 1937, he came to Hollywood, where in spite of his success in German cinema, he was unknown, and was assigned to thrillers and melodramas. He managed to transform this genre material through his deep knowledge of the construction of theatrical classics, his profound insights into human behavior, his exceptional camera eye.
According to Jon Halliday, who interviewed Sirk extensively in the 1970s, “I think his interest in ambiguity was accentuated by the fact that many of his close friends and colleagues became Nazis; the difficulty of trusting people—i.e. being convinced that one knows who someone else really is and how they will behave under intense pressure,–became a dominant factor in Sirk’s life” (Halliday 4). Written on the Wind is an apt example of this tension of trust and betrayal, as talented director shapes this genre material to his world view. Here, the Hadley mansion is psychologically threatening to their inhabitants, and the contrast between the confinements of the wealthy and the pleasures to be had in more modest circumstances (road house, gas station, cheap motel) are a recurring theme. He called Written on the Wind my “most gutty picture…a piece of social criticism, of the rich and spoiled, and of the American family” (Orr 381).
Rock Hudson was born Roy Scherer Jr., in Winnetka IL. His father deserted the family when Roy was five, and after his mother remarried, Roy took his stepfather’s name of Fitzgerald. His stepfather beat both him and his mother, and he learned to keep a low profile to stay out of harm’s way. He wasn’t a particularly good student, athlete, or drama student…he lost parts in the school plays to schoolmate Charlton Heston. He was not the first kid to escape his unhappy home life by going to the movies. Eventually, there was a divorce, and his mother moved him to LA, where Roy, believing the myths, thought he could be discovered if he parked the truck he was driving near a movie studio’s gates and lounged against it, smoking a cigarette, and looking like an actor. Eventually he was wised up on that account, and had some professional photos taken which he sent to agents. One, Henry Willson, was interested. He had a roster of mostly male aspirants whom he nurtured to success. All of them, he renamed, to put his stamp on their careers. Tab (Hunter), Rory (Calhoun), Guy (Madison) and Troy (Donahue) were some of his successes. He got the newly renamed Rock Hudson a contract at Universal, where he studied at the studio school where the young stars were given lessons in acting, singing, horseback riding, dancing, sword fighting, whatever they would need to step into Universal’s schedule of, until this point, mostly B pictures.
When Hudson got his first line in a film called Fighter Squadron, he took his mother, without telling her he was in it. After he appeared, his mother asked him, “Is that you?” When told it was, she said tersely, “Save your money” (Oppenheimer and Vitiek 26). If you saw Winchester 73 a few weeks ago, you saw the results of this training, with Hudson in war paint and a fake nose as Young Bull, and Anthony (Tony) Curtis as a cavalry soldier. Finally, Hudson was cast in the lead of Douglas Sirk’s lush soap opera, The Magnificent Obsession. Female fans sighed longingly over his handsome appearance, and Hudson became a star. Noting this reaction, Universal determined that every film would have him looking soulfully into his leading lady’s eyes, and there should be at least one shot of his 6’ 4” height looming in a doorway. His next film was a loan out to Warners for Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, for which he got his only Oscar nomination.
In the mid-1950s, Universal promoted Rock Hudson as the “Beefcake Baron” and made sure that he posed for plenty of publicity pictures with his shirt off. Hudson hated being marketed like a piece of meat, and when he finally told the studio how much he loathed it, they backed off. At the same time, the sleaziest of the gossip magazines, Confidential, which appears as Hush Hush Magazine in LA Confidential, was getting ready to break the story that Hudson was gay, which would have destroyed his career. His agent hastily arranged a marriage for him with an office secretary, Phyllis Gates, and made it look as though the ceremony was supposed to be secret to pique press interest. “If you knew the number of arranged marriages in Hollywood…” laughed Written on the Wind co-star Robert Stack years later. But, Hudson apparently tried to make the marriage work.
Rock Hudson was one of the most popular male movie stars of the 1950s, promoted as a romantic heartthrob with uncomplicated, hereronormal virility. He is often seen in these films wearing plaid shirts, and carrying tools or guns, symbols of manly accomplishment. After his appearance in The Magnificent Obsession, he started receiving 3000 fan letters a week, both from teens and the older women responding to the May-December romance in the film. Lavish fan magazine coverage spotlighted his bachelor lifestyle, his BBQ, his dog, and his uncomplicated personality, a direct contrast with Brando, Clift and Dean, who were tortured both on and off screen by their neurotic self-doubt. Of course, once Hudson’s personal life came to light after he was outed as a gay man with AIDS, all of his film appearances take on double meanings.
Lauren Bacall’s character is the most transformed from the book. In the novel, Lillith, not Lucy, is a Broadway starlet who has given up her career to marry a tobacco heir, echoing the real life Reynolds family scandal. Lucy is an invented character for the screen, although her role in the book’s love quadrangle is not. Bacall was cast said Sirk, “Because she has this ambiguity in her cold face. She has almost a designing quality at times. And people ask me why I didn’t cast a nice sweet American girl. Bur I wanted what Bacall has. She has this wavering light about her—and she is not a love. The whole relation between her and Stack remains ambiguous then” (Harvey 356). In her personal life, she was under a lot of stress, as her husband, Humphrey Bogart, was dying of cancer.
Robert Stack, who is known today more for his tv (The Untouchables, Unsolved Mysteries) than for his film career, started at Universal in 1939, at the age of 20. In his debut film, First Love, he gave teen soprano Deanna Durbin, Universal’s leading star, her first screen kiss. In his next role, The Mortal Storm, he played a man who joined the Nazi Party, and then appeared withCarole Lombard onscreen in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be. He left films to join the Navy and became a gunnery officer in WWII; he had been a champion skeet shooter at USC. In The High and The Mighty, he played an airline pilot opposite John Wayne, a role perhaps referenced by his late career hit, Airplane! Stack also starred in the first 3-D movie, Bwana Devil. He was married to his wife, Rosemarie Bowie, for 47 years, from 1956 until his death in 2003.
A 1940s fan magazine photo of Stack.
After he was signed to play wayward heir Kyle Hadley, Sirk told him to “play the torment, not the drunk” (Harvey 364). “You could see right away that mine was the flashy part,” he said, “It dealt with emotions like fear and madness—it was the best part since Lost Weekend. The guy is drunk, psychotic, beats his wife, it’s an actor’s dream. Any actor—almost any other actor I know in the business—given the power position he (Hudson) had at the studio, with a loan-out actor coming in—would have gone up to the head of the studio and said, ‘Hey,look, man, I’m the star—you cut this guy down, or something.’ But he never did. I never forgot that. He never said a word, not a peep. He let the part go completely. He was in a position of power, and didn’t misuse it. It was my only Academy nomination” (Oppenheimer and Vitek 59). Hudson described his own role, “As usual, I am so pure I am impossible.”
Dorothy Malone, who you may remember as the bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep, had been playing bit parts for years after entering films when an RKO scout spotted her in a college play. Oversexed Marylee Hadley was her breakout role, which lead to better parts, although her greatest success may have been on tv’s Peyton Place, as Constance MacKenzie (played in the film by Lana Turner). She also remembered Hudson’s generosity as an actor, “I loved Sirk as a director, but there was one day he just couldn’t get through to me.” Hudson went over to her, gently put his arm around her and patiently explained what Sirk wanted in the scene. Sirk admired Hudson, who he made into one of the top male stars of the decade.
Written on the Wind was filmed at a time when there was a lot of competition from television, and movies were looking for new ways to draw patrons to theaters. Sirk’s “adult” dramas, like The Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and this film were supposed to accomplish this, both in dealing with subjects too racy for the small screen, as well as making films outside Universal’s usual slate of low budget horror, Arabian Nights, Francis the Talking Mule, Ma and Pa Kettle, Audie Murphy westerns and Abbott and Costello movies. Universal always aimed lower than most of the other studios, taste wise, and thus was more profitable than most. The studio had a dual marketing philosophy for WoW, as they called it, emphasizing the romantic aspect of the film, by advertising on radio soap operas, and in women’s magazines that emphasized the aspirational aspects of the interior design and costumes. They also spotlighted the “Stairway of the Stars,” the staircase in the Hadley mansion making its 320th appearance in a Universal film; it was first built for Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera in 1925. At the same time, there was staged a more general campaign that stressed the shocking elements of the script, particularly in the trailer, which emphasized every category of adult content, with sex, alcohol, and violence, and the coded language of the adult film, raw, frank, revealing and so on.
Film theorists have found this a rich text, and WOW has been analyzed using one theory or another continuously since Cahiers du Cinema critic Francois Truffaut first commented on it shortly after its release. It’s about sex (or frustration and impotence) or capitalism (or the emptiness of wealth). Most of this analysis seems rather overwrought to me, but let me suggest you look at the many circles (beginning with the way the plot begins at the end and circles back towards the beginning, the circular staircase, bar, floor patterns) the mirrors hinting at dual natures or helpless frustration, a favorite technique in film noir.
Hudson and Bacall’s characters, Mitch and Lucy, seem to represent a normalcy to which the more troubled Hadley siblings are supposed to aspire. But, according to Michael Stern, they “do not represent some sort of admirable alternative to the dissipated lives of the Hadley children. They are, in fact, by contrast, bloodless and unsympathetic. They are seen as allies of Jasper Hadley, the captain of Hadley industry. They fit into the repressive world, and because of that, they are indirectly the source of the Hadley children’s misery” (Stern 145). Sirk said of them, “The character played by Hudson was designed by Zuckerman and myself to be an ambiguous figure. He is so full of goddam typical American naiveté…he is the opposite in every way to the Stack character. But he is a negative figure. He is not really a man who has a helpful feeling towards these two degenerated kids, Stack and Malone…The Hudson and Bacall characters are rather coldish people and not very interesting” (ibid).
Termed “the apogee of Hollywood Baroque” (whatever that may mean) the boldly expressionistic use of color was because, Sirk said, “I am contriving to paint with a strange brush. I avoid what a painter might call secondary colors—pale or soft colors. Here, I paint in primary colors” (Stern 136) , or as Truffaut pointed out, “We watch Stack in the half-shadow of a blue bedroom, watch him dash into a red corridor and jump into a yellow taxi which lets him out in front of a steel gray airplane. All these hues are vivid and frank, varnished a lacquered to such a degree that a painter would scream. But they are the colors of the twentieth century, the colors of America, the colors of the luxury civilization, the industrial colors that remind us that we live in the age of plastics” (Truffaut 149).
Written on the Wind, through its bold, Expressionistic touches, brings us back over half a century to a time of self-destructive sexual repression and sabotaged emotional lives. As David Thomson points out, “in 1956 audiences could take it straight if they wished, or they could see the expensive wallpaper beginning to curl off the walls” (Thomson 316)
Written on the Wind by Robert Wilder, Douglas Sirk by Michael Stern, Idol: Rock Hudson by Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek, “Closure and Containment: Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind” by Christopher Orr in Imitations of Life edited by Marcia Landy, Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday, The Films in My Life by Francois Truffaut, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk by Barbara Klinger, Movie Love in the Fifties by James Harvey, The Big Screen by David Thomson.