Social Criticism in the Hollywood Melodramas of the Fifties

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Social Criticism in the Hollywood Melodramas of the Fifties

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 c...

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...ltural form" (Klinger xii).

Works cited

Aull, Felice. "Magnificent Obsession".

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

FilmFrog Archives: Lecture given at Sonoma State University (1995), Imitation of Life (1959).

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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