Written on the Wind: Soap Opera as Cinematic Art

Film critics are often accused of being elitist and detached from the mainstream audience. There is another genre of film critic, however, who seeks out low-rent movies of the kind that rarely even make it onto the IMDB top lists of the year.  These are the critics who see hidden genius in the works of Ed Wood or Roger Corman.  There is still yet another kind of critic who neither dismisses the intention to create art nor the possibility of accidentally creating art from schlock, but routinely discovers depths of meaning in Hollywood genre.  (Kind of life my discovering that Nacho Libre may have been the most intellectually engaging film of its year.)   

Hollywood had historically lived or died by the genre film.  From Universal’s money-machine horror shows to MGM’s lavish musicals to today’s two hour long commercials for a video game, it isn’t and never has been the push for Oscar gold that keeps Hollywood running.  It has been the reliable and untroubling genre films that bring home the biggest bacon.  And yet, within those familiar and welcome endorsements of our carefully constructed reality, some very talented writers and directors have found ways to touch upon subjects—with rather obvious constraints, of course—with sometimes as much artistry and intelligence as an uncommercial art-house film from Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. 

Today they are called chick-flicks; during their Hollywood heyday in the 40’s and 50’s they were called melodrama, potboilers, tearjerkers, weepies and, of course, soap operas.  Presaging their current pejorative nominative, they were also known as “women’s pictures” though this was usually because they were only genre Hollywood produced where the female lead was usually the real star of the story.   Until the 1950’s, Hollywood melodramas were usually predictable tales that had familiar faces like Joan Crawford and the great Barbara Stanwyck getting beaten down by those around them.  In the 1950’s, something happened, however; that something wouldn’t be fully appreciated until much later, of course.  The 1950’s melodramas are notable for being bigger, glossier, more colorful and introducing much better roles for the male actors.   

The leading director of this attempt to hijack a tried and true money machine was director Douglas Sirk.   In films like Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, hidden beneath the overarching acting and bigger than life plot lie the kind of very specific criticisms of America that if made the actual point of a more artistic film could have landed you a spot testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.   While Elia “Rat Bastard” Kazan was winning awards for corny soap operas shot in black and white that have and had almost nothing to do with reality, Douglas Sirk was making films that look less grittily realistic, but in fact tell the kind of truths that Elia Kazan was far too cowardly to tell.    

Written on the Wind is one of Douglas Sirk’s most popular movies and one of the most perfect examples of 1950s melodrama.  Its story of a dysfunctional oil-rich family seems closer to the TV series Dallas than to the works of Godard, but its criticism of social mores and values directed specifically toward a Texas family should very much be read as a much larger critique of America. The Hadley family is one of those families that everybody else in town knows because they essentially control it and so they should be seen as a symbol of society at large.   Since the movie is about the death of the Hadley dynasty, the film can be read as a critique on the death of at least a small part of America as well.  The patriarch of the Hadley family struggles mightily to hold onto all that he has built with the blood of his exploited employees and his descent can also be read in part as a Marxist statement on the internal corruption of the very idea of land ownership.   It is not by accident that the Hadley family reached its state of financial success by way of oil.  The oil derricks constantly pumping serve as a reminder that eventually everything dies out and decays.   The Hadley family will die out and eventually so will the town named after them.  The loss of precious oil is mirrored by the sexual impotence of one character and the hollow emotional core of another.  Written on the Wind is a film that critiques many of the most preciously held beliefs in American society, including the ideas of the authenticity of private ownership and the belief that money serves to finance happiness and contentment.   

This is all pretty hefty stuff for a Rock Hudson movie.  The tendency of many film critics, especially those just starting out, is to ignore the potential for artistry in mainstream film.  Of course, this tendency isn’t restricted to just critics; consider how many serious fans of Kubrick or Scorsese consistently underestimate the body of work produced by Steven Spielberg.