Written on the Wind

Written on the Wind
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay:George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder)
Stars: Rock Hudson (Mitch Wayne), Lauren Bacall (Lucy Moore Hadley), RobertStack (Kyle Hadley), Dorothy Malone (Marylee Hadley), Robert Keith (JasperHadley), Grant Williams (Biff Miley), Bob Wilke (Dan Willis)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: USA
Written on the Wind Poster

Written on the Wind is by far the most sordid of director DouglasSirk's 1950s social dramas. The debauched tale of an uberwealthy, but deeplytroubled Texas oil family, it reaches near hysterical melodramaticproportions, dealing as it does with alcoholism, nymphomania, sterility,adultery, and murder. Audiences in 1956 ate it up as a lurid, butstraightforward soap opera of familial dysfunction; but, since the early1970s, critics and scholars have read it as purposeful self-parody, a way inwhich Sirk could critique American social conventions and the capitalistdrive while still appearing to play within the rules of the conventionalHollywood studio system.

Sirk's other '50s melodramas for Universal-International, includingMagnificient Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows(1955), were set within the middle class, which put characters on-screenthat many in the audience could recognize and relate to. Written on theWind is completely different in that it deals with a highly exclusiveclass of people: the millionaire set. Thus, there is an immediate distancingeffect--watching the characters on screen becomes more voyeuristic innature, as it is almost impossible for most viewers to identify directlywith them and their extreme money-induced problems. In terms of socialcommentary, the film is probably best seen as a parody of the ultimaterealization of the American dream. The Hadley family in Written on theWind has achieved everything possible in terms of capitalistic gain, yetthey are the most miserable people one can imagine.

The story deals primarily with the interactions among four main characters.Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) is the heir to the Hadley Oil Company empire, yethe is an alcoholic playboy who is incapable of responsibility. Mitch Wayne(Rock Hudson), his best friend and adopted brother of sorts, is a moredown-to-earth character; he has a degree in geology from the university fromwhich Kyle was expelled, and he is the most obvious choice to take over thebusiness. Kyle's sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), is as troubled as he is,but she embodies her emotional dysfunction through nymphomania and wicked,spiteful manipulation of those around her. She goes beyond simply "loose"sexuality; as one male character says, "I've never heard of anyone pickingher up. It's always the other way around." Finally, there is LucyMoore (Lauren Bacall), a secretary whom Kyle romances and quickly marries,then destroys out of jealousy and misunderstanding.

This quartet of characters is easily divided down the middle, with Kyle andMarylee on the "dysfunctional" side and Mitch and Lucy on the "normal" side.Yet, their lives are deeply intertwined beyond just blood relations andmarriage vows. Marylee has been infatuated with Mitch since they werechildren, and her excessive sexuality may be in some way compensation forthe fact that he could never love her back as anything more than a "sister."At the same time, Mitch is in love with Lucy, but his essentially decentnature keeps him from advancing on her because she is Kyle's wife.

Written on the Wind is an endlessly, perversely enjoyable filmbecause it offers multiple possible readings. Some have seen it as aprecursor to the '80s prime-time soap opera Dallas, with its emphasison debauched wealthy characters and its setting in the Texas oil business.Others view it as pure camp, an exercise in outrageous kitsch that is allthe more amusing when you imagine that viewers took it seriously when itfirst played in theaters.

It can also sustain a deeply Freudian reading, as sexuality, the threat ofsterility, and failed patriarchy drive much of the narrative. It has all theright ingredients, with the powerless patriarch, Jasper Hadley (RobertKeith), overrun by his out-of-control children, who fully embody the kindsof traits (excessive consumption, flamboyant sexuality) that Americansociety traditionally has tried to repress. Kyle and, especially, Maryleeare literally "the return of the repressed," which is embodied in ahilariously overdetermined scene in which Marylee, recently picked up by thepolice after a liaison with a gas station attendant at the local motel,breaks into a wild dance in her bedroom upstairs. The sight of her dancingis intercut with Jasper having a heart attack and falling down the stairs.The visual connection between Marylee's sexual display and her father'spathetic death make the obvious suggestion that her irrepressibilityliterally killed him.

Jasper is quite possibly the most tragic character in the film simplybecause we know next to nothing about him except that he has been an utterfailure as a father. The end of the film, however, suggests a tragicunderstanding of Marylee, but her behavior throughout has been so cruel thatit is difficult to arouse sympathy for her, even in her moments of hurt(this is not surprising because Sirk loved to work with characterambiguity).

Heavily symbolic moments are scattered throughout Written on the Windto great effect. One memorable scene shows Kyle stumbling out of a drugstore after meeting with the local doctor and finding out that he may besterile, which strips him of his selfhood by denying him the ability toreproduce, leading to a downward spiral that eventually culminates inmurder. In this scene, Sirk overloads the frame with symbols that, alongwith the swelling music, magnify Kyle's distraught emotions to ludicrousheights. First, he walks past dozens of signs proclaiming "Buy Quality DrugsHere," reminding us that Kyle's sexuality is unfit and must be aided bymodern medicine. Then, in the coup de grace, outside the store hesees a little boy gleefully bouncing up and down on a mechanical horse,bringing to mind both childhood and sexual activity, two things that, forKyle, are forever destroyed. It is one of the most overdetermined moments inSirk's entire oeuvre.

Sirk also employs architecture to convey emotional states, especially hisuse of the Hadley family estate. Although large and beautiful, it is alsocold and empty, with cavernous open spaces and marble floors and walls thatdon't invite feelings of familial love and togetherness, but rather ofisolation and despair. He also conveys an implicit critique of the HadleyOil Company's having taken over the small town of Hadley, Texas (named, weassume, for the family, not the other way around) by constantly includingits corporate logo everywhere, from the sides of buildings, to car doors, tobillboards. The opening shots of the film show how the Hadley Oil Companydominates the town visually, with endless rows of phallic oil towers and theenormous corporate skyscraper that is three times taller than any otherbuilding. The Hadleys are everywhere, yet emotionally and spiritually theyare nowhere.

In a study of Dostoyevsky and Gogol, Yuri Tynyanov wrote, "When stylisationis strongly marked, it becomes parody." As Paul Willemen pointed out in hisexcellent 1971 article "Distanciation and Douglas Sirk" (an early attempt torecuperate Sirk's career), this is particularly applicable to many of Sirk'sfilms, especially Written on the Wind. From its overuse of cliches,to its overwrought baroque color scheme, to its hysterical narrative andexploitation of uncomfortable subject matter, it is a twisted masterpiece ofself-parody. Although not for every taste, Written on the Wind forcesa response, whether that be pouring tears or outright laughter. It is a filmthat cannot be ignored.

Written on theWind: Criterion Collection DVD

AudioDolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Supplements"The Melodrama Archive": annotated filmography of director Douglas Sirkillustrated with hundreds of production stills and lobby cards
Original theatrical trailers for Written on the Wind and All ThatHeaven Allows
DistributorTheCriterion Collection / Home Vision

Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1)in a high-definition transfer from the 35mm interpositive, the gorgeouslybaroque images in Written on the Wind look stunning. The gaudyTechnicolor palette is beautifully rendered, with deep, rich, well-saturatedcolors that still look fresh and new. Amazingly enough, despite the heavyuse of stark reds and pinks throughout, there is no bleeding to be found.Some sequences are slightly softer than others, but overall the picture issharp and finely detailed. There are almost no instances of dirt orscratches, although the reel markers are still very noticeable.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtracksounds very good, as well, with almost no hiss, distortion, or age-inducedartifacts. Dialogue is mostly clear and easy to understand, and FrankSkinner's wildly eclectic musical score--which ranges from sudsy musictypical of '50s melodramas to thumping chords reminiscent of a horrormovie--sounds wonderful.

"The Melodrama Archive" is a well-writtenannotated filmography of Sirk's career, based largely on books such asBarbara Klinger's Melodrama and Meaning and John Halladay's Sirkon Sirk. It is divided into three periods of Sirk's career: his work inGermany in the 1930s, his work in America in the 1940s, and his work withUniversal-International in the 1950s. It offers plot summaries and briefcritical notes on all his films (including some trivia tidbits such as thefact that one of Sirk's films inspired the plot of John Woo's TheKiller and where to look for cast members from Gilligan'sIsland), as well as hundreds of black-and-white production stills andcolor lobby cards.

Also included are original theatrical trailers for Written on theWind and All That Heaven Allows (also available on DVD from TheCriterion Collection), both of which are presented in nonanamorphicwidescreen.

©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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