Douglas Sirk
& The Technicolour Age

Kennedy Wilson reckons we’re surrounded by colour but we don’t see it, time to put on the rose-tinted glasses

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The post war world was horribly grey. Newspapers, magazines, packaging and many movies – especially British ones – were in black-and-white. TVs were few and far between (colour TV only came to Britain in 1969).

In America the huge popularity of television threatened Hollywood. Why would people want to see movies and leave the comfort of their own homes when TV was free? Full colour films were around in the 1930s. Disney’s Snow White (1937) and the Wizard of Oz (1939) showed what a difference colour could make. Some 80 years after it was made, Gone with the Wind (1939) also holds up well (if you ignore the casual racism and reference to marital rape).

The war delayed developments but in the 1950s colour films came into their own and were seen as a saviour for the film industry. The brand leader was Technicolor but it soon had rivals. Flamboyant, all-singing-all-dancing MGM musicals and biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) offered big-screen spectacle that TV could never match.

Technicolor fast became a byword for lurid Hollywood excess but it proved to be a difficult and expensive medium. The cameras were bulky and special lighting was required. Studios had to employ Technicolor consultants to advise on the colours of sets and costumes to avoid distracting clashes. Dorothy’s ruby slippers had to be a special shade of deep red says Paul Simpson in his fascinating book The Colour Code as ‘under intense Technicolor lights anything else would look orange’.

Many films from the 1950s and 60s opted for backgrounds or interiors painted in shades of grey so they would not look too jarring or distract from the actors. Some film directors were nervous about working in colour. Others embraced it.

Film director Douglas Sirk became famous for a series of gloriously gloopy melodramas (once disparagingly called ‘women’s pictures’) in the 1950s. These highly-charged stories of thwarted love, betrayal and family crisis lent themselves to saturated Technicolor (the choice of colours – from autumn leaves to boudoir decor to car paintjobs – seem to comment on the action and the hidden motives of the characters).

Sirk became known as a colour expressionist. His interiors often look like a Freudian nightmare. Hospitals have shocking-pink corridors; a dive bar is in a symphony of dirty browns. Not for nothing is the lusty heroine depicted in a Barbie-pink ensemble behind the wheel of her startling red sports car.

One of his best films, the overblown Written on the Wind (1957), has just been released on Blu-ray.

The movie is a tale of ordinary rich folk who seem to have it all but are tortured nonetheless. The Hadley family are Texas oil barons with too much cash and too little sense (the sort of people who have become a staple of much reality TV today).

This sour film is a tale of star-crossed lovers. Kyle and Marylee Hadley (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) are brother and sister, he falls for sensible secretary Lucy (Lauren Bacall) and she has the hots for tough geologist Mitch (Rock Hudson).

When it was released, the film was daringly controversial (and hugely popular) touching on impotence, alcoholism and nymphomania. It was based loosely on the 1931 scandalous marriage between actress Libby Holman and the heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune.

The stylish, big-budget Written on the Wind is clearly one of the inspirations behind Aaron Spelling’s phenomenal TV hit Dallas which helped define the 1980s. Original audiences loved Sirk’s overwrought, middlebrow fare as much as audiences of Dallas loved the fighting JR and Sue Ellen and today we can’t seem to get enough of Real Housewives and their ilk.

So recognisable was the director’s style that the term Sirkian was coined by film critics. And despite his movies going out of fashion they were a huge influence on filmmakers as diverse as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes whose 2002 Far From Heaven was a loving homage to Sirk. Directors saw something profound lurking behind Sirk’s seemingly empty-headed blockbusters.

Numberless film and media studies students have toiled to analyse the director and his output seeing his work as a critique on everything from cold war paranoia to mid-century materialism to uptight middle-class mores. A thousand dissertations have been written on Sirk’s skewed gender politics. It’s true that many of his films have a ferrous subversiveness that would have gone over the heads of most of their original fans.

Now viewers can sit back and knowingly enjoy Douglas Sirk’s cast of compelling (if horribly flawed) characters and their ever so colourful world. ■

Info: Written on the Wind is available on Blu-ray from criterion.com and The Colour Code by Paul Simpson can be found at profilebooks.com

Twitter: @KenWilson84

A suitably garish French movie poster for Written on the Wind

Despite Sirk’s movies going out of fashion they were a huge influence on filmmakers as diverse as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes

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