A box office smash and critical bust during his Hollywood career, director Douglas Sirk's artistic stature began to catch up with his popular success in the decades following his early retirement. Championed by auteurist critics and cineaste directors, Sirk's once-reviled melodramas evolved into an inspired blend of bathos and Brechtian distance, with the over the top histrionics of such films as Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959) becoming deluxe tearjerking material as well as a mordant commentary on American values. Born Claus Detlev Sierck to Danish parents, Sirk headed to Germany in his teens to study drama and art history. Sirk forged a career as a successful theater director in Germany, staging works by such writers as Bertolt Brecht. After the Nazis came to power, Sirk shifted to film in 1934, directing stylishly assured melodramas, musicals, and star vehicles for UFA diva Zarah Leander. The left-wing director and his Jewish wife, however, left Germany in 1937, heading to the U.S. via several countries. Unknown in Hollywood, the newly renamed Sirk kicked around the studios for several years, finally receiving his first directorial assignment with the propaganda potboiler Hitler's Madmen (1943). Working for United Artists and Columbia throughout the 1940s, Sirk became a reliable journeyman, taking on projects from the Chekhov adaptation Summer Storm (1944) to the Lucille Ball crime drama Lured (1947) and a musical comedy Slightly French (1948). Sirk's taste for Baroque visuals served him well with the films noir Sleep, My Love (1948) and Shockproof (1949) (co-written by Sam Fuller).
Signing a contract with Universal in 1950, Sirk tried to make the best of the "impossible stories" assigned him. Along with churning out such comedies and musicals as The Lady Pays Off (1951) and Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), Sirk also dealt with new technology, directing a 3-D Western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), starring contract player Rock Hudson as Taza, and a CinemaScope adventure yarn Sign of the Pagan (1954). Another 1954 release, however, transformed Sirk into a studio moneymaker and future auteur darling. Remaking the 1935 soaper (from a novel he deemed unreadable), Sirk staged Magnificent Obsession's patently absurd story of reformed playboy Rock Hudson's relationship with blind widow Jane Wyman in gaudy Technicolor, matching the tale's fevered emotionalism. A substantial hit, Magnificent Obsession made Hudson a star and began a successful collaboration between Sirk, Hudson, producer Ross Hunter, and cinematographer Russell Metty.
Although Sirk continued to produce films in other genres, including the glossy adventure story Captain Lightfoot (1955), the war drama Battle Hymn (1956) -- both starring Hudson -- and an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), his subsequent reputation rested on four late-'50s melodramas. Re-teaming with Hudson, Wyman, Metty, and Hunter, Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) crystallized his ability to lather up the crowd-pleasing romantic soap while caustically critiquing 1950s America. Set in a perfect town lit and styled for maximum artifice, the love story between Wyman's uptight middle class widow and Hudson's younger free spirit gardener becomes a study in contrasts between her imprisoning home and his rural aerie, her stifling friends and children and his relaxed comrades. Perhaps untouched by the visual suggestion that this couple could never really work, audiences loved it.
Described by one scholar as the "consummate" Sirk film, Written on the Wind (1956) featured Hudson, Robert Stack, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone in a tortured love quadrangle set against the spectacle of a declining oil dynasty. With a plot that included alcoholism, impotence, nymphomania, violent death, an ultra-theatrically lit family estate shot from odd angles, and such remarkable set pieces as Malone's fervid dance with Hudson's picture, Sirk powerfully evoked the corrupt desperation of the wealthy, despite the "happy" ending. A rare contemporary critical hit, Written on the Wind earned Malone the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Reuniting the trio of Hudson, Malone, and Stack, the even more downbeat The Tarnished Angels (1957) was, as Sirk put it, a thematic "study in failure." Adapted from William Faulkner's Pylon and shot in pristine black and white CinemaScope, the Depression-era story of reckless air show performers once again displayed Sirk's skill for melding story and form, with the monochrome matching the somber mood of hopelessness while the wide screen vistas underlined flying's dangerous allure for the eponymous aerialists.
Sirk's final Hollywood feature was another popular soap opera that also epitomized his cool yet garishly elegant visual style and sharp social conscience. In his version of Imitation of Life (1959), the obsession with surfaces that drives Lana Turner's star actress Lora to succeed at all costs and Susan Kohner's light-skinned black Sarah Jane to "pass" for white is brought to emotional life through florid interiors and a plethora of mirrors, windows, and polished objects. With Sandra Dee as Lora's neglected daughter and Juanita Moore as Lora's loyal servant and Sarah Jane's mother, Sirk created another quartet of contrasts (including Turner's occasionally hilarious star "acting" versus Moore and Kohner's naturalism) that illuminates the cost of American ambition and racism. As Sirk noted of the climactic funeral scene and teary reconciliation of mother and daughter(s), "Everything seems to be OK, but you well know it isn't." Regardless, Imitation of Life became Universal's biggest hit to that point, and Kohner and Moore received Oscar nominations for Supporting Actress.
Though he retired early due to health problems, Sirk lived long enough to see his once disdained melodramas attract ardent fans among film savants; a reconsideration enhanced by the first Sirk retrospectives in the early '70s and the publication of extensive interviews with the director, Sirk on Sirk, in 1972. By the time Sirk died in 1987, critic Andrew Sarris's prediction that "Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk" had been fulfilled.