If Douglas Sirk was making movies today, he'd be sponsored by Kleenex. Call them what you will - soap operas, melodramas, weepies, women's pictures - Sirk's films were designed with one thing in mind: to make sure there wasn't a dry eye in the house by the time the credits rolled.
Escaping from Nazi Germany in 1937, Hans Detlef Sierck changed his name and took up residence in the USA. Building on his career as a theatre and cinema director, he slipped into Hollywood and made a series of melodramas during the 50s. The films didn't win much by way of critical acclaim, but audiences loved them for their heart-wrenching stories of love, loss, and despair.
The plots were enough to make even the most cynical reach for their hankies. In "There's Always Tomorrow" (1956), Barbara Stanwyck got messily involved with a married ex-boyfriend. In "Written on the Wind" (also 1956), a Texas oil family slowly disintegrated. In "Imitation of Life" (1959), Lana Turner hired a black maid to help her run her house, but both women ended up miserable because of their wayward children.
Life never runs smoothly in Sirk's movies. Trapped between their desires and their social obligations, caught up in the tangled web of 50s racism, sexism, and classism, his characters' brightly coloured lives always unravel. No matter how rich or how happy they might seem, life ultimately has something else in store for them.
In "All That Heaven Allows" (1955), one of the many films Sirk made with hunk Rock Hudson, widow Jane Wyman falls in love with her gardener (Hudson). He reads Thoreau, she goes to cocktail parties. He lives on the land, she lives in suburbia. And when their affair comes to the attention of the town gossips, she gives him up to save her reputation. The course of true love never runs smooth.
At the time, most critics scoffed at these films, branding them disposable women's weepies. But several decades later, a new wave of film historians claimed that Sirk's movies were actually ironic attacks on the complacency of 50s America.
The reason the director tortured his silly heroines and shallow heroes was to make them pay for their empty, materialistic lives and their narrow-minded prejudices. And also to remind the audience that not everything in post-war America was as perfect as many liked to believe.
It was a reading that Sirk happily agreed with. He recalled, near the end of his life, about his great masterpiece: "The studio loved the title "All That Heaven Allows". They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way round. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy."
Judging by the title of Todd Haynes' homage to Sirk - "Far From Heaven" - he's in total agreement.
"Far From Heaven" is released at UK cinemas on Friday 7th March 2003.