Some thoughts about Douglas Sirk’s melodramas and how to create a world that’s too good to be true, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
Way before Douglas Sirk directed All That Heaven Allows in 1955, colour films had come to be accepted as the norm by cinema audiences. The ‘new’ technology had come a long way since the commercially unsuccessful Becky Sharp, colour had become an integral part of cinema’s lexicon. It was understood that the ‘colour’ world depicted on screen wasn’t always realistic, that it was a stylised version of everyday life – but this artistic licence was universally accepted. Directors were keen to continue to explore the potential of colour, and many (including Sirk) pushed the boundaries of colour on screen.
In 1951, Eastman Kodak developed Eastmancolor, a new process that gave greater depth and variety to colour film; one of the first feature films to use Eastmancolor was The Royal Journey, a film produced by the National Film Board of Canada to celebrate the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the country. The film was praised for its visual clarity: ‘From the brilliant red color of the uniforms of the Canadian Mounted Police to the blue-purple tones of snow scenes in the Laurentians or the steel-gray of stormy days in the Maritime Provinces, the reproductions are remarkably true and clear.’ As Eastmancolor was developed for commercial use, it prompted directors to experiment with new and enhanced colour vocabularies independent of the Technicolor ‘rules’, with varying degrees of success.
Douglas Sirk was a director who managed to make it work. He is probably best remembered for his ‘women’s weepies’, romance-filled melodramas that, despite their propensity for a happy ending, offered sharp insights into American society and were filled with a depth of emotional not usually found in such ‘fluffy’ films. They also starred some of the most iconic stars of the era, including Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Lana Turner and John Gavin, and were consistent box office hits for Universal. The Hudson/Wyman pairing was introduced in Magnificent Obsession (1954), and the duo were reunited for All That Heaven Allows, which saw Wyman playing Cary Scott, a widow who refuses a marriage proposal from the older and socially-respectful Harvey (Conrad Nagel) in favour of Ron Kirby (Hudson) her gardener. Cue local gossip, ostracism from smart society, her children’s disapproval and plenty of heartache as Cary struggles to choose between love and convention.
If that sounds twee, it’s because it is, but that’s not to the film’s detriment. Sirk surpasses melodramatic cliches by securing an exceptional performance from Wyman, but also introduces, through colour, a world of artifice, one that’s too good to be true. The film opens with a postcard-perfect scene, a pristine town where everything is placed just-so. This convention continues throughout – the shots of Ron’s farm (part set, part painting) are more beautiful than real-life could ever be. The audience accepts these hyper-real, artificial scenes, this is a chroma-drama, where colour is used to heighten emotion and reveal differences.
Ron’s colour world is strongly connected to nature and the outdoors, setting him apart from the ‘society set’. He wears earthy-hued clothes which match his car and his home and contrast to the blues of Cary’s. At the country club, the women dress in block-colour dresses and the men wear formal attire, a visual note that couldn’t be further from his friends, the Andersons, who favour a rich palette and repeat patterns. As Cary falls in love with Ron her wardrobe subtly moves towards his colour spectrum. Her early experiments with colour – including a bold red cocktail dress that she wears on a date with Harvey – jar with her personality, the warmer wine-inspired shades she wears later are much more ‘her’.
Cary’s world is filled with cold blue moonlight, the pale tones used to emphasise her loneliness and the emptiness of her life. It’s a moonlight that is more blue than the real-world, and it is reflected on her face; she literally absorbs its sadness. In the main, Sirk isn’t subtle, but by pushing colour to the extreme he was able to force the audience to feel as much as possible. Cary brings blue tones with her when she visits Ron’s farm and Sirk uses the contrast to highlight the emotional distance that exists between the characters: when Ron declares his love for Cary he is in front of the warm light of the fire. She remains silhouetted by a window that reflects the blue sky. This interplay of warm and cool shades continues throughout most of the film, representing Cary’s struggle to decide which ‘world’ she wants to live in.
However, one of the most powerful and expressive colour scenes occurs with her daughter Kay Scott (played by Gloria Talbott). A circular window diffuses an multicoloured rainbow-effect moonlight throughout the room, bathing Cary and Kay in a spectrum of red, blue, pink and green light. To make the scene more realistic, Sirk opens with a wide shot, showing Kay standing by the window, moving in when she sits on the bed next to her mother. Although the light is unusual, the audience understands the source and it makes the scene less abstract. This colour opera highlights the breadth of emotion and feeling, and the characters move in and out of pools of light. Kay reflects most of the ‘blue’ light, whilst Cary remains in the warmer pink and red shades. The colour confusion highlights Cary’s feelings but also allow the audience to see her as she would be in Ron’s world. It’s surely no coincidence that in this scene, the leading lady is a her most beautiful, this is how her life would be if she were to embrace Ron’s ‘universe’ and its associated colour palette.