Douglas Sirk-More than Melodrama: Thunder on the Hill (1951)
This is the dialectic-there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.~Douglas Sirk.
Some directors take awhile to find their voice or trademark, and Douglas Sirk is no exception. Just the mention of his name conjures images of autumnal hues and places of privilege that barely conceal suburban hypocrisy, illicit behavior, and tawdry scandals. I'm not sure if Sirk invented the 50s melodrama, but it's safe to say no one did it better. His best known films, such as All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and, my personal favorite, Written on the Wind, are so deliciously overwrought, they always stir debate whether or not Sirk is sincere or passing a sly parody off as the real deal. The sets were lovely, but glaringly artificial, the acting was stylized even by 1950s' standards, and the plots were so heavy-handed the late Aaron Spelling would have scoffed at them."Divisive" doesn't begin to describe the opinions on Sirk's films: some critics genuinely love them be it at face value, some sneer and stick them in "worst movie of all time" lists, and other, hipper critics enjoy them ironically. It's unclear what Sirk wanted us to think of his movies, and that's precisely why they're so well regarded today: few directors ever appear to be both indulging and teasing their audience with such relish. A surprising array of contemporary directors name him as influence, including Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, and Todd Haynes (who directed the marvelous ode to Sirk's melodramas in 2002's Far from Heaven, which I urge you to see).
But Sirk wasn't always Sirk. He came to Hollywood from his native Germany during World War Two and, after directing a series of anti-Nazi short films, became a feature film director. Oddly, both IMDb and Wikipedia fail to even skim his pre-melodrama films. Are they really so inconsequential that they don't even warrant a cursory allusion? I like to do a quick bit of research before I write these reviews, and you'd swear Sirk wasn't "born" until Magnificent Obsession in 1954. That's why, like my Month with Mitchell Leisen series, I'm going to track down the pre-melodrama films of Douglas Sirk, do some more homework, and dig up what I can on this enigmatic director.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Today's film stars Claudette Colbert, who starred in 1934 version of Imitation of Life (directed by John M. Stahl), which Sirk remade in 1959 starring Lana Turner. Imitation of Life is considered Sirk's last masterpiece.
Today's film is 1951's Thunder on the Hill, based on the play Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings. This is a remarkably little-known film, available on DVD from the TCM library. Thunder on the Hill tells the story of Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert), a nun who works at a convent hospital. She is wise and has unshakable faith in her convictions, which makes her respected by her fellow nuns, but a pain to the nurses employed at the hospital. Yet Sister Mary has a dark, tragic past involving the sister she failed to save (the movie leave the details a bit spotty), and she wonders whether being a nun is her true purpose, or whether she took her vows to retreat from the world.
One day, the countryside becomes flooded, and the hospital becomes a refuge for villagers and patients alike… including Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), who is convicted of poisoning her brother and is sentenced to the gallows. Everyone shuns Valerie, except Sister Mary, who, befitting her nature and occupation, reaches out to her. The surly, agitated Valerie hints that she's innocent, and, as she gets to know Valerie, Sister Mary becomes increasingly convinced that Valerie didn't murder her brother (abusive drunk that he was). Sister Mary begins to investigate, much to the disapproval of the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper, Hollywood's favorite disapproving old lady). Aiding in her quest is affable, platitude-spouting Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist) and simple-minded Willie (Michael Pate). Despite the time running out and the accusations of being smug and stubborn, Sister Mary persists in discovering the truth.
Thunder on the Hill has been criticized for being an Agatha Christie knock-off. With its cast of potential suspects trapped under one roof and contrived coincidences that are due the world being incredibly small, it's hard to disagree. I'll admit I had a strong inkling who the true culprit was early on in the film, and I was actually right (and I am a complete dunce when it comes mysteries). Still, Thunder on the Hill is solid entertainment, and its lickety-split pace keeps you from getting bored.
Tiresome (and Spoiler-ish) Observation of the Day: the climactic final scene instantly brought to mind Vertigo, despite the latter film being seven years later. According to the DVD notes, many have speculated whether Hitchcock unconsciously lifted the scene, but no one knows for sure if Hitchcock even saw Thunder on the Hill at all.
One thing that I've noticed in Douglas Sirk's melodramas is that he did dare to be different. Sounds like a bland cliche, but consider this: in All That Heaven Allows, he doesn't just address the class differences between Jane Wyman's suburban widow and Rock Hudson's poor gardener, but the fact that Wyman was older than Hudson. Plenty of actresses were paired with younger actors, but how often was it written into the plot and addressed? It's considered odd and even taboo for women to date younger men today, imagine how it looked in the 1950s. Similarly, in Written on the Wind, the characters deal with issues such as sexual repression, latent homosexuality, and impotence (none of these things are mentioned by name, mind you, but they're there).
Thunder on the Hill stands out for quite a few reasons: it deals with solidarity between two women of different ages and backgrounds, and, yes, it even passes the Bechdel Test. Our protagonist dares to follow her own instincts, refuse to conform to popular opinion, and stick her neck out for a woman she believe has been wrongly convicted. Because she's a nun, having a man is not on her list of her concerns. I think Sister Mary is a wonderful character that Colbert plays to perfection: she is warm, strong, and compassionate, but she can also be hard-headed, insecure, and, yes, she even makes mistakes. It is refreshing that our heroine isn't a young, glamorous ingenue, but a principled woman who knows her own mind. Likewise, Blyth (forever known as bitchy Veda from Mildred Pierce) is convincing as a young woman doesn't want to die, but at the same time desperate to get it over with, for she can't believe she isn't really doomed.
The rest of the cast is serviceable, but not totally memorable. But Thunder on the Hill should be considered one of the last great Hollywood's "woman's picture" for its era. WWII was years over, "women's pictures" were already fading from memory, and this was the beginning of the insufferable "back to kitchen, ladies!" era. Gone were the days of the box office being ruled by honest-to-God women such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or Greer Garson. Soon, childlike women such as Marilyn Monroe became the flavor of the decade. But Sirk was more empathetic towards women than most directors, and he managed to keep the torch flickering at least until the end of the 50s.