Social Criticism in the Hollywood Melodramas of the Fifties
© 1997, Delia Lyons
In the early 1950s the films of Douglas Sirk led the way in defining the
emerging genre of the Hollywood melodrama. "Melodrama" strictly means the
combination of music (melos) and drama, but the term is used to refer
to the "popular romances that depicted a virtuous individual (usually a woman)
or couple (usually lovers) victimized by repressive and inequitable social
circumstances" (Schatz 222). Sirk's films were commercially successful and
boosted the careers of stars like Lauren Bacall, Jane Wyman, and Rock Hudson,
who was in seven of Sirk's thirteen American films (Halliday 162-171). Although
critics in the fifties called the films "trivial" and "campy" and dismissed
them as "tearjerkers" or "female weepies" (Schatz 224), critics in the
seventies re-examined Sirk's work and developed an "academic respect for the
genre" and declared that the films actually had "subversive relationship to the
dominant ideology" (Klinger xii). Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession
(1954) and Imitation of Life (1959) are representative of the
techniques melodramas used to address relevant fifties issues like class,
gender, and race.
One characteristic of melodrama is the "lavishly artificial and visually
stylized scenery (Schatz 234) which is exploited in Magnificent Obsession.
Numerous scenes take place in moving convertibles, where the motion of the car
is out of synch with the motion of the scenery. Whenever possible, rooms have
large picture windows showing magnificent, but obviously fake outdoor
landscapes. At one point a scene on the lakeshore cuts directly from a shot of
Helen (Jane Wyman) sitting in front of a real horizon to a close-up of her
sitting in front of a brightly colored fake one. The sudden difference is
startling, but would have been accepted by audiences in the 1950s, who were
paying to see embellished Technicolor landscapes, the lavishness of which made
up for the weak plot (Halliday 164). The visual aspects of Imitation of Life
are more discreet; the color is slightly more realistic, in part because the
newer Eastman color technology was used instead of Technicolor (Bordwell 357).
The outdoor scenes are lavish but authentic, due to the larger budget of the
film and the desire not to draw as much attention away from the more complex
and socially important plot.
Visual realism, however, was never a goal of melodrama. In fact, melodramas
had a variety of visual techniques designed to remind the audience that they
weren't real. Extreme high and low camera angles, the placement of large
objects in the foreground, visual blocks (like columns) separating characters,
and non-natural lighting were jarring to the audience and were a manifestation
of "the inner tensions of the characters" (FilmFrog 5). The idea behind these
tactics was that "As soon as the audience is reminded that they are watching a
contrived reality, that only within this artificial world are 'social problems'
worked out so neatly, the prosocial fiction is cast in doubt" (Schatz 249). But
this most likely was not the true effect on most audiences, who although they
may have understood the social issues presented, probably did not pick up on
the symbolism and technique -- especially since melodramas weren't even
analyzed academically until the 1970s (Klinger 2).
These conventions were used to handle social concerns, like the growing fear
of technology seen in Magnificent Obsession. Cars are seen frequently;
a car causes Helen's blindness and her husband's death. The character of Bob
Merrick (Rock Hudson) is injured in his speed-boat going 150 miles per hour, a
direct result of technology out of control. At one point, a character uses a
lamp as a metaphor for Bob Merrick himself, symbolizing the fear of people
being replaced by machines. Technology is seen as evil and a result of wealth
and materialism. It has been argued that "The inevitability of [Helen's]
husband's death without his special machine and her implausible recovery both
bear witness to an optimistic confidence in the power of medical science that
characterized the 1950s" (Aull 1). This is true, but the film points out that
just like fancy cars and speedboats were only available to the wealthy, so was
the life-saving technology only available to the rich Bob Merrick. In Imitation
of Life made five years later, the culture had grown more accustomed to
technology as a part of everyone's lives and people were not as fearful. In
that film the dangers of wealth were expressed through lush and overpowering
interiors, e.g. Susie's plush pink bedroom and the expensive objects crammed
into Lora's living room.
Melodramas often criticized the role of women in the fifties by depicting the
conflict between career and domestic responsibilities (FilmFrog 9), but the
movies should also be commended for their treatment of female characters.
Although they are often stereotyped (and of course always required to be
beautiful and glamorous) in melodramas, women were given the major roles. This
was rare for an industry in which, even today, women are relegated to wife-of
or mother-of roles. Instead, it is the men who are the "stock characters" like
John Gavin as the generic love interest in Imitation of Life, or the
stepdaughter's husband in Magnificent Obsession. Women's roles
reflected their advancements in employment and independence. In Magnificent
Obsession, Helen indicates that even without her husband to support her
she will be financially secure, and the characters of Lora and Annie (Lana
Turner and Juanita Moore) in Imitation of Life are capable, even from
the beginning, of supporting themselves and their children without the help of
men. On the other hand, the superficial final message of these films, a more
dangerous one, is not that women can't live independently of men, but that
above all they don't want to. This is exemplified by Lora's decision to choose
marriage and family life over fame and fortune. Although the films are now
praised for showing that family life wasn't truly satisfying for women, the
overt message was that women can only be completely fulfilled through the life
men provide for them. This was essential to the movies' success with female
audiences. Ultimately they didn't condemn the lifestyles of all the traditional
women watching, but provided them with affirmation of their situation.
The female characters in melodramas were seen as role models for women in the
fifties. On screen the starlet lived out glamorous fantasies, like having a
romance with a tall dark and handsome man. At the same time, these dreams
weren't made to seem "out-of-reach" to the women in the audience. Jane Wyman's
character in Magnificent Obsession is a normal housewife and Lana
Turner's character in Imitation of Life, even though she ends up being
a movie star, gives the impression that anybody could do it -- after all, she
started out poor and it is stressed that she doesn't have any extraordinary
talent. Female characters were also models for women's fashions, always wearing
glamorous, if impractical, clothing (FilmFrog 12). In Imitation of Life
Lana Turner wore "more than one-million dollars worth of jewelry and a wardrobe
of equal opulence" (Klinger 79), and Universal originally sold the fashions and
accessories in Imitation of Life as high fashion in an attempt to
attract the consumer impulses of female patrons" (Klinger 148). At the same
time that the movies (especially Imitation of Life) were condemning
wealth and materialism, they were presenting it as something to be envied.
"This it did, literally by selling film fashions in stores, and figuratively by
presenting glamorous visuals to appeal to the acquisitive fantasies of its
spectators, particularly women who were considered the primary purchasers of
commodities" (Klinger 58). This explains why Jane Wyman, despite being blind,
is always perfectly dressed and made up in Magnificent Obsession, or
why Lana Turner's dress designer is featured almost as prominently as she is in
the opening credits. This way the female audiences could have a portion of the
glamour they saw on screen, all the while feeling self-assured that their lives
were really superior to the empty lives depicted in Hollywood.
Imitation of Life was important for the way it depicted racial
issues. The black character, Annie, foreshadows the "Black is Beautiful"
movement with her persistent and outspoken pride in her race (Halliday 130).
The way she is depicted is part of the trend Ralph Ellison noted in the late
forties of Hollywood depicting the humanity of the negro". Like the example he
gives, Annie is also given the "virtues of courage, pride, independence and
patience that are usually attributed only to white men" (274); she is
definitely "the keeper of the whites' consciences", constantly reminding the
white main characters about their moral duties. The danger of positive
portrayals like this, as Ellison points out, is that white audiences feel
self-congratulatory about confronting race (280) and yet the movie leaves
essential problems of race and class unsolved. However, the melodrama
convention of the "false happy end" is so obvious in this case that it succeeds
in calling attention to this problem. As Douglas Sirk said in 1972, "In Imitation
of Life you don't believe the happy end, and you're not supposed to"
(FilmFrog 5). But in a way, Annie's role is quite limiting: the complete
absence of black characters in other melodramas, including Magnificent
Obsession, indicates that black characters had no place in the movies
unless they were dealing specifically with race as an issue. Also, Annie's
storyline is a subplot to Lora's story, indicating that white audiences would
not go to see a movie entirely about black characters.
Melodramas stopped being made in 1959. As popular romances they were displaced
by television soap operas such as Peyton Place (Schatz 224). America
was once again in upheaval due to the Vietnam War. Since the stable nuclear
family was perceived to be in danger, there was no need for the criticisms from
melodrama. Even racial issues could not be addressed in the same "safe" way
since the Civil Rights Movement led to more radical protests. Melodramas served
their purpose in the fifties and are now remembered nostalgically and even
respected as a "serious artistic and cultural form" (Klinger xii).
Aull, Felice. "Magnificent Obsession".
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. Vintage International: New York,
FilmFrog Archives: Lecture given at Sonoma State University (1995), Imitation
of Life (1959).
Halliday, Jon. Sirk on Sirk: Interviews With Jon Halliday. New York:
Imitation of Life. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Universal, 1959.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of
Douglas Sirk. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Magnificent Obsession. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Universal, 1954.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio
System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.