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 colored fake one. The sudden difference is startling, but would have been accepted by audiences in the 1950s, who were paying to see embellished Technicolor landscapes, the lavishness of which made up for the weak plot (Halliday 164). The visual aspects of Imitation of Life are more discreet; the color is slightly more realistic, in part because the newer Eastman color technology was used instead of Technicolor (Bordwell 357). The outdoor scenes are lavish but authentic, due to the larger budget of the film and the desire not to draw as much attention away from the more complex and socially important plot.
Visual realism, however, was never a goal of melodrama. In fact, melodramas had a variety of visual techniques designed to remind the audience that they weren't real. Extreme high and low camera angles, the placement of large objects in the foreground, visual blocks (like columns) separating characters, and non-natural lighting were jarring to the audience and were a manifestation of "the inner tensions of the characters" (FilmFrog 5). The idea behind these tactics was that "As soon as the audience is reminded that they are watching a contrived reality, that only within this artificial world are 'social problems'...