Written on the Wind


A month ago a few people in Melbourne became members of the zoo – the major perk of membership being its ticket to unlimited visits. I personally keep finding myself in the butterfly enclosure. Given Melbourne’s current – but oh so still and lovely – cold snap, this is one of the warmest hangouts in town. Handy. Aside from the splendid butterflies themselves the most important aspect of the enclosure is the way its inhabitants draw attention to the air. The Cairns birdwing flutters so lazily you’d swear there were hidden wires – something – supporting it. The Ulysses can accelerate but often seems to hang above the action, as if there were another time up there. It seems that aerodynamics alone couldn’t allow this playful gravity defiance. But we forget the air is substantial enough.

When I watched Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) it was difficult to not think of David Lynch.

written on the wind

As my good buddy said – there’s a huge well-spring to draw from.


It’s a nice little piece about obsession, impotence, nymphomania, loving the wrong person and ridiculous wealth. I probably don’t really understand the quirks of melodrama enough to be right in there with the storytelling, which was pithy – in fact incredibly fast-paced. Lucy (Lauren Bacall) is whisked from her Madison Ave office to ’21’ to Miami in one afternoon. A bunch of other things happened and still I felt like the movie hadn’t really started. Is the uneven pacing between plot and character development one of the hallmarks of the genre?

Or is the hallmark this guy?

rock hudson

I once owned a book called Hollywood Hunks which weirdly featured Spencer Tracy, accompanied by a still from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? but not that film’s star (and obvious hottie) Sidney Poitier. I loved this book. Its chapter on De Niro, Pacino et al. was entitled ‘The New Ethnics.’ Hollywood Hunks is the only place I’d seen Rock Hudson before. This cultural blind-spot was revealed gloriously the other night as I watched Written on the Wind and ranted – ‘who the fuck is that guy? Why don’t people have faces like that anymore?’ Once I was told that Mitch Wayne was played by none other than one Rock Hudson it felt a bit like I’d said ‘who’s Marilyn Monroe?’ or ‘what’s the Cold War?’ Anyway, on further discussion about Hudson’s career (I’d totally forgotten his performance in Giant because that movie is a Jimmy Dean vehicle and also – it’s a very, very long movie) I discovered that he was a favourite of Douglas Sirk and thus appeared in many a Hollywood melodrama. If you haven’t seen much melodrama you might not pick Hudson out of a line-up either. Oh, wait –  if you’ve seen Dallas you’ll be fine.

Good buddy tells me the term ‘melodrama’ has an origin in ‘music + drama’  – certainly music seems to play an important extradiegetic role in WOTW. Many of the scenes would be utter physical comedy with any other soundtrack. But I remember a narratologist once drawing the distinction between melodrama and tragedy. In melodrama the source of misfortune is always external, where in tragedy the source of misfortune is often the choices made by the protagonists. There was something nice and refreshing about the strange inertia of the four main characters in Written on the Wind – each were resigned to what at first glance seemed to be a terrible move, and at last look was indeed a terrible move. Nothing they could have done would have made any difference – the choices and outcomes would have been the same.

The dialogue was excellent, with Mitch’s father, the town barkeep, delivering the zinger of the film to Kyle Hadley, the town millionaire and drunk. Referring to the bottle of whiskey he’s selling, he growls,  ‘Take your courage and leave me be.’

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