HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

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).

Works cited

Aull, Felice. "Magnificent Obsession". http://mchipO0.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/lit-me...cs/webfilms.magnificent.obses3-film-.html

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. Vintage International: New York, 1953.

FilmFrog Archives: Lecture given at Sonoma State University (1995), Imitation of Life (1959). http://yorty.sonoma.edu:80/filmfrog/archive/Imitation_of_Life.html

Halliday, Jon. Sirk on Sirk: Interviews With Jon Halliday. New York: Viking, 1972.

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.

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