Did director hide social commentary in his '50s soaps?

"Magnificent Obsession." "Written on the Wind." "Imitation of Life." "The Tarnished Angels."

These days, Hollywood tends to avoid such corny-sounding titles. But in the 1950s, the pictures with those names were pathways to box-office gold, and many still have fervent admirers.

Directed by Douglas Sirk for Universal Studios more than 40 years ago, the movies are embarking this week on a national tour that reopens a longstanding debate about this remarkable filmmaker.

Was he a cynical director of sappy soap operas, as detractors claim? Or was he a keen-minded dissector of the American dream, transcending well-worn formulas with an incisive intellect and brilliant visual ideas?

Few pondered such questions between 1954, when "Magnificent Obsession" made Rock Hudson a household name, and 1959, when "Imitation of Life" became the highest-grossing movie in Universal history. Viewers of the Eisenhower Age had a name for this sort of fare: women's pictures, produced and marketed for a predominantly female audience that turned out in droves for three-handkerchief weepies featuring well-coifed stars like Jane Wyman and Dorothy Malone.

On the surface, Sirk's movies are weepies par excellence. How better to describe "Magnificent Obsession," about a reformed playboy who heals a widow's shattered life, or "The Tarnished Angels," about lovelorn stunt fliers and a jaded journalist, or "Written on the Wind," about love and death among the Texas oil-well set?

But more goes on in these tales than their tear-filled plots suggest. Beginning around the time of Sirk's retirement, new trends in "auteur" criticism encouraged movie reviewers to notice how some directors transform their studio-supplied screenplays with personal artistic touches. Sirk drew increased attention from critics impressed by his unique cinematic style, and by his personal history as a European-trained director who'd cut his teeth on plays by Bertolt Brecht and other intellectual giants.

Before long, Sirk's works were being eagerly mined by critics who analyzed them "against the grain," finding a rich vein of social commentary tucked into their seemingly superficial stories. Call them weepies if you want, these writers said, but these films display the finest attributes of melodrama, an upstanding genre with an ancient Greek name ("music" plus "action") and a proud tradition of valuing free, fiery emotion over limited, earthbound realism.

Fueling this approach were Sirk's own statements about his movies, including his often-quoted remark that "the camera angles are my thoughts, the lighting is my philosophy." Nobody has surpassed his ability to express meaningful ideas through framing, editing, color, and architectural detail.

In many of his greatest films, Sirk applied his thoughts and philosophy to sociocultural issues. This alone makes his movies stand out from the crowd. After a spate of postwar "problem pictures" on matters like racism and poverty, most of Hollywood fought declining box-office receipts (and competition from television) by treating even the most unpleasant themes with a glossy "that's entertainment!" touch.

Sirk had to follow suit if he wanted to sell tickets, but he had a secret weapon up his sleeve: irony. Instead of dodging the soap-opera stories his producers handed him, he embraced them as pop-culture expressions of his own dark view of life shaped by the chaos of World War II and his acute awareness of contemporary selfishness and injustice.

This explains his sardonic approach to the rich and famous, as in "Written on the Wind," with its portrait of a Southern family as miserable as it is wealthy, and "Magnificent Obsession," where the hero must conquer materialism before he can hold his head up in the world.

At the same time, Sirk refuses to romanticize the working poor - see "The Tarnished Angels" for evidence - and he takes care to warn middle-class people of the dangers they'll face if acquisitiveness outpaces compassion. "I'm going up and up and up!" gloats Lana Turner's character in "Imitation of Life" as she hurtles down and down and down a tenement stairway, senseless to the suffering her ambition will bring to friends and family alike.

Sirk still has detractors. Some of their arguments are provocative, as when they ask how important his deeper meanings really are, since critics and audiences of the 1950s rarely appeared to notice them.

So while his reputation seems secure among dedicated Sirkians, debate over his merit won't end in the foreseeable future. This makes the current Sirk tour as stimulating an event as the season is likely to bring.

*'Universal Sirk' runs through July 22 at Film Forum in New York, followed by San Francisco's Castro Theater, July 30-Aug. 5; Boston's Brattle Theater, Aug. 20-26; Los Angeles's Nuart Theater, Sept. 10-16; and San Diego's Ken Theater, Sept. 24-30.

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