Both in Europe and the US, Douglas Sirk’s best-known work was done in the realm of the melodrama, from Zu neuen Ufern (To Distant Shores,1937) to Imitation of Life (1959). It was as if he was drawn to it by instinct, even when he was working in genres conventionally beyond its parameters. And one thing that’s especially fascinating about these four comedies –Slightly French (1949), The Lady Pays Off (1951), Week-End with Father (1951) & No Room for the Groom (1952) – is the way that they create the sense that the melodramatic aspects of the material are constantly waiting in the wings, implicit even as the plot is moving the characters in different directions, towards different kinds of resolutions from those one generally expects from melodrama. As each of these films comes to a close, one is left with the sense of an order very unpersuasively restored and characters unconvincingly content with their newly acquired lot, rather than an ending filled with emotional uplift.
This is probably true of all comedy, to greater or lesser degrees: a slight shift in plot or character could produce an entirely different dramatic outcome. What is tragedy but comedy clad in a different outfit? Think, for example, of the films of Frank Capra – especially the social comedies from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) through Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to his masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – in which only a twist of fate allows a happy ending to prevail, what Sirk used to call an “emergency exit” for audiences brought up on the promise that all will be well. (1) Or of Preston Sturges’s comedies in which mayhem is only just avoided by what amounts to the filmmaker’s knowing choice to step back from the quandaries facing his characters, as in the denouement of The Palm Beach Story (1942), simultaneously a brilliant parody of the deus ex machina strategy and a routine deployment of it. (2)
The twist in Sirk’s comedies is that their emphasis is on the situation rather than the resolution, on the problems that divide the characters – all four films are romances of one kind or another – rather than on the contrivances that suggest that all will be well after the final credits have rolled. These problems are invariably posed as personal – in The Lady Pays Off, Evelyn Warren (Linda Darnell) wants to be seen as a woman rather than a mother; in Week-End with Father, Brad (Van Heflin) wants to be seen as a real man rather than a sensitive father – but are generally also depicted as the result of social pressures and, especially in Evelyn and Brad’s cases, the ideological positioning of women and men in American society.
At least in part because of this, the films aren’t especially funny – aside from Week-End with Father – and most of the laughter they provoke is of an uncomfortable kind. The way they strain against the conventions of the genre also contributes to the sense that what’s happening to the characters is no laughing matter.
Sirk tells Jon Halliday that he had little feeling for these films. “I restructured to some extent some of the rather impossible films I had to direct,” he says. “Of course, I had to go by the rules, avoid experiments, stick to family fare, have ‘happy endings’, and so on.” (3) The director’s inability to recall much about the details of the films isn’t helped by the fact that Halliday hadn’t seen them – they were even more difficult to track down in the 1970s than they are today – and so isn’t in a position to prompt his memory.
The notion that we need to trust the tales rather than their teller is reinforced by Michael Stern’s interview six years later for the magazine Bright Lights. By then, Sirk had re-seen The Lady Pays Off and No Room for the Groom and was much more forthcoming about them. “My idea at this time,” he tells Stern, “was to create a comedie humaine with little people, average people – samples from every period in American life. Now I had something in mind, a definite design.” (4)
It perhaps tells us something of Sirk’s intentions here that all four of the films under discussion were shot in black and white: Slightly French at Columbia by Charles Lawton; The Lady Pays Off by William Daniels, and Week-End with Father and No Room for the Groom by Clifford Stine, all at Universal after Sirk changed studios. Colour was clearly available to him had he wanted to use it: he made his first film in Technicolor during this period, Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1951). Instead, these four comedies are filled with shadows and shot in hues that are akin to film noir, which is arguably more appropriate to the oppressive circumstances in which the characters find themselves than any traditional notion of the comic. (5)
Tragedies routinely end in disaster, melodramas can go either way, but comedies conventionally arrive at happy endings. The ritual closures of romantic comedy perform several functions at once, simultaneously setting up marriages, integrating protagonists into the social order and generally restoring a sense of balance to the universe (illusory or otherwise).
Superficially Sirk’s comedies adhere to these conventions. But he always had his own ways of bending the rules and these films are no exception.
Don’t Believe a Word He Says: Slightly French
Underrated and misread by virtually everyone who’s written about it – and nobody appears to have paid especially close attention to it – Sirk’s playful but unsettling Slightly French is a remake of David Burton’s Let’s Fall in Love (1933), named after the famous Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song that features in both films. Burton’s romantic comedy starred Edmund Lowe, Ann Sothern, Miriam Jordan and Gregory Ratoff (before he moved into a career behind the camera) in the roles played here, respectively, by Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, Janis Carter and Willard Parker. The credits of Burton’s film list screenwriter and Tony award-winning playwright Herbert Fields (Du Barry Was a Lady) as the author of the original story and the screenplay, and he also receives a “story by” acknowledgment for Slightly French, which had been written by Karen DeWolf (who worked on nine Blondie films for Columbia in the late 1930s/early ’40s). (6)
A Hollywood satire about Hollywood, it makes much play of the behind-the-scenes wheeling-and-dealing and the ego-driven duplicities that have underpinned other films of its ilk (A Star Is Born [in all its incarnations, 1937, 1954, 1976], The Bad and the Beautiful , The Legend of Lylah Clare , The Player  and so on).
Full of bravado and bluster, John Gayle (Ameche) is a director whose on-set bullying is, as we see in the opening sequence, infuriating the star of his current project, Yvonne La Tour, also known as “the French fireball” (Adele Jergens). When she collapses while shooting a scene for Gayle’s very noirish-looking musical, “Ten Days in Paris”, the studio isn’t happy and the director’s future looks precarious.
His attempts to restore his reputation intersect with the plot’s star-is-born trajectory as he sets out to persuade carnival dancer Mary O’Leary (Lamour) (a) to replace Mademoiselle Fireball as the lead in his film and (b) to assume the identity of French star Rochelle Olivia offscreen, for the studio honchos and the press. Playing Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, he woos the working-class girl, who’s mistaken his palatial mansion by the water for a hotel, with promises of “fame and fortune and your name in lights”.
He is arguably the most dislikeable character ever to serve as a so-called romantic lead. To the accusation from his sister Louisa (Carter) that he’s unbearably self-centred, he replies, “Just tell me, whoever does think of anybody but himself?” When she later cautions Mary/Rochelle that “falling in love with him is like falling in love with a refrigerator or an adding machine”, adding that both she and her brother are “incapable of love”, her warning seems totally apposite. And when producer Doug (Parker), apparently duped by Mary’s disguise, begins to fall for her and she for him, Gayle isn’t concerned about the emotions that have crept into play. “Remember, you like him,” he tells Mary/Rochelle, reminding her of the role she’s playing. “Well, I do,” she replies, confessing her feelings. To which he responds, “That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that he thinks you do.”
Slightly French is like a game of mirrors in which what is real and what is artifice become indistinguishable to the point where they’re inseparable. When, in a private moment at a party, Mary finally explodes at Gayle’s shallow charades, her reproaches born of her carnival world – “You’re lower than a midget and colder than a snake-pit and your head is so big you couldn’t get it in the lion’s mouth” – she’s dismayed to find an audience of tuxedo-ed men applauding her performance.
And when, despite all the evidence indicating that she shouldn’t believe a word Gayle says, she finally and inexplicably surrenders to his charms, their exchange happens on the set of the movie they’re making with him instructing her to follow his directions. (7)
Gayle is so unpleasant for so long that when he has the change of heart required to steer the film to the conventional happy ending, it becomes impossible to believe. The male lead of the romantic comedies of the era (and beyond) is conventionally a smooth-talking wolf who needs to be tamed, persuaded by the promise that the woman playing opposite him is the girl of his dreams. He’s probably best embodied by the characters Cary Grant played in films such as The Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940); but even if Grant had been transplanted into Slightly French, it’s still hard to see how it would have made Gayle any more sympathetic. Ameche might have been a convincing romantic lead elsewhere (Midnight , Heaven Can Wait ), but Sirk makes him such a Satanic figure that his eventual conversion isn’t likely to convince anyone.
It’s as if Slightly French’s plot is moving in one direction while Sirk is sceptically guiding it in another that is entirely at odds with the spirit of the Hollywood romantic comedy. The filmmaker’s strategically subversive approach is not just evident in the film’s refusal of the genre’s customary ordering of our sympathies, but also in the uncompromising depiction of the Hollywood that was to be Sirk’s work-place for afurther decade. Furthermore, and just as important, is the way that the high-key lighting which characteristically thrusts away the possibility of darkness in most other films of the genre is here replaced by high-contrast lighting and shadow-fraught settings that work to disconcert rather than reassure.
Intriguingly, as pointed out by the indefatigable Michael E. Grost, the structural similarities between Slightly French and Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) are irresistible. (8) Both films revolve around a wealthy brother and sister with serious emotional problems (Ameche and Carter here/Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind), a sympathetic working girl who falls for the brother (Lamour/Lauren Bacall) and the handsome nice guy who lends support to the brother, is in love with the working girl and also involved with the sister (Parker/Rock Hudson). Their interactions work out differently, determined as much by the internal operations of the genres that have brought them to life as by the dramatic directions launched by their particular circumstances. But it’s also fascinating to contemplate what might have become of the characters in the two films had they been interchanged.
Tricksters at Work: The Lady Pays Off
Sex roles are to the fore in this unsettling romantic comedy about an award-winning school teacher, Evelyn Warren (Linda Darnell), who wants to be seen as a woman, not just as someone whose skills have come to define her as “a mother away from home”. Written by Frank Gill Jr. and the film’s producer Albert J. Cohen – who also produced Meet Me at the Fair for Sirk in 1953, as well as Never Say Goodbye (1956), with which Sirk was also involved (9) – the film follows her quest to remedy the situation.
As before in the many Sirk films with female protagonists, Evelyn’s identity is crucially tied to the social circumstances that define what it means to be a woman. She is a respected professional, but one whose perceived skills are deemed as inseparable from the needs of the home. She is being lauded because she’s the mother whom children can have when their real mothers aren’t around.
She’s uncomfortable with her place in the world, her exchange with the woman who gazes back at her from the mirror pointing to her confusion about who she is, how she should act and what she should want out of her life. This debate she conducts with herself simultaneously lays the groundwork for her subsequent actions and evokes the impression of a dark Other lurking alongside her as she makes her way through the film’s noirishly lit settings.
It begins as she’s being celebrated at a luncheon award ceremony for her talent as “a teacher in the great tradition”. Her employers at the Howell School for Girls in Pasadena are especially delighted that she’s made the front cover of Time magazine, where she’s nominated as “the universal mother”, and are bathing in her reflected glory. However, she’s distracted from proceedings by her threadbare love life, which we know about because we’re seeing her lacklustre options through her eyes. She’s hallucinating them in the food spread out in front of her, while the host (Paul McVey) prattles on about how wonderful she is.
With the roomful of enthusiastic guests ready to hang on her every word, he invites her to contribute “some little pearl of wisdom”. “What do you think a woman today needs most in dealing with the problems of motherhood?” he asks. The reply isn’t what he’d been expecting. “A bottle of whiskey and a psychiatrist,” she declares. Chaos breaks out in the room, and nothing that follows does anything to contradict her prescription.
Advised by the school dean (Katherine Warren) to take a holiday, she heads off to Reno, to “someplace where I can forget I’m a teacher”, and ends up in a casino run by Matt Braddock (Stephen McNally). She drinks more than she can handle, promptly loses $700 on the roulette wheel, naively believing that her chips had been worth one dollar each rather than $100, and insists that she has no intention of paying. Adopting her sternest stuffed-blouse manner, she announces, “I’m not the carousing type who frequents places like this. I’m a woman of some substance in my community and eminently respectable.”
She’s also someone who needs to get down off her high horse, and Matt clearly believes that he’s equipped to manage that manoeuvre for her. He has plenty of cards up his sleeve too, the first of which happens to be that issue of Time. He knows exactly who she is and tells her he’s prepared to go public with her misdemeanours in the casino if she declines to help out his troubled nine-year-old daughter. “Find out what’s wrong,” he commands, “snap her out of it, and I tear up the IOU.”
Reluctantly, Evelyn accepts the deal and agrees to spend the summer fulfilling her end of the bargain. Matt takes her to his plush beachside house in Carmel, where she meets Diane (Gigi Perreau, a winningly precocious child actor who made four films with Sirk) and the earthy French housekeeper, Marie (Ann Codee), and maintains her stand-offish manner. However, while she’s initially horrible to the little girl, she eventually takes her under her wing, telling Matt that “there’s nothing wrong with Diane that a mother’s affection wouldn’t cure”. However, when he humiliates Evelyn by tricking her into thinking she has a choice about her end of the bargain, she plots her revenge.
She pretends to fall in love with him, planning to dump him once she’s succeeded in winning him over. While the tone has been largely comic to this point – albeit with an edge – her ruthlessness in pursuing her ends sends it veering towards melodrama. After he sells off his business to spend his future with her and to provide Diane with the mother she’s been lacking, Evelyn reveals all, pulls the rug from under his feet and leaves. Job done.
What she hasn’t been aware of is that there’s another plan afoot, running counter to hers and hatched by young Diane with Marie as her co-conspirator. And the film ends with a surrogate wedding ceremony, Matt’s daughter serving as celebrant. “I now pronounce you mummy and daddy,” she intones as she finally brings them together in a scene reminiscent of the closing one in Vincente Minnelli’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963).
For all intents and purposes, order has been achieved, along with the characters’ ostensible goals. A loving couple has been formed and a family has been restored. Evelyn has found an eligible man, and listens when Matt tells her that she shouldn’t be compartmentalising her life, that she is a woman made up of many parts. He has given up his dubious profession as a casino owner: we’ve seen that the people he’s been doing business with might easily have been dragged out of a gangster movie and be in the process of inserting him back into it with them. And Diane’s troubles, all related to the empty space in her life, have been removed with that space being expertly filled by Evelyn.
Yet one doesn’t have to look too closely to feel uneasy about all of this. Given the terms in which the future has been laid out, it’s hard to see that what lies ahead for Evelyn is going to be especially liberating for the frustrated matron we’d encountered at the start. The notion that a woman is a person of many parts seems to be contradicted as she steps into the conventional roles of wife and stepmother, manipulated there primarily by the perceived needs of a little girl rather than by any choice, or force of romantic destiny. Matt has obviously fallen for her and has stepped out on a limb on her behalf, but, at least until Diane and Marie’s intervention, she’s also been willing to leave him stranded there.
All along the way, in the various plots and deals that drive the narrative forward, all of the characters play dirty. “Never give a sucker an even break,” says Matt early on after, in a feigned display of trust, he had pretended to burn Evelyn’s IOU. Believing he had actually done that, she had headed for the door, only to be rudely returned to reality by his production of the still-intact IOU. It is this betrayal as much as anything else which motivates her to trick him into falling for her.
For her part in proceedings, Diane is as wretchedly manipulative as anybody. The arrival of Kay Stoddard (Virginia Field), whom the little girl sees as Evelyn’s rival for Matt, sees a flurry of activity to push her out of the picture. This reaches its lowest point when, on a walk into the hills alongside the beach, the little girl sets the unfortunate woman on to the path of misery by tricking her into making contact with a poison oak. As if to hammer home how badly Matt has been missing the point about his daughter’s duplicity, he sympathetically observes of poor Kay, as she lies in bed with painful rashes, that “she’s just not the motherly type”. It might be true, but her punishment by far outweighs her alleged crime.
Then, after Evelyn leaves Carmel to go back to her life, Diane goes missing in a scheme hatched with Marie to return Evelyn to the fold and to bring her and Matt back together. It’s a cruel strategy that points to one lesson she’d learned long before Evelyn came into her life: how to arrange circumstances to get what she wants.
The Lady Pays Off eventually arrives at what might superficially be seen as a happy ending. However, just as Sirk’s melodramas frequently close by rubbing against the grain of audience expectations, pointing to what the characters have lost with the return of order to their lives rather than what they’ve gained from it, so do the comedies. Evelyn’s “happy ending” and the means by which she and Matt are transformed into a couple leave a sense of dissatisfaction and a very sour taste.
Parents, Children & the Rules of the Game: Week-End with Father
Made back-to-back with The Lady Pays Off and written by Joseph Hoffman (who also wrote No Room for the Groom and Has Anybody Seen My Gal?), George W. George and George F. Slavin (who both also worked on Mystery Submarine ), the witty Week-End with Father deals with a developing relationship between two widowed parents.
Like Evelyn and Matt in The Lady Pays Off, which is mainly set at his summer home by the sea, the characters here travel to a place that’s routinely perceived as being away from the stresses of the their everyday lives. Except that, in both films, they’re not really. Their sense of dislocation follows them wherever they go.
New Yorkers Brad (Van Heflin) and Jean (Patricia Neal) meet at New York’s Grand Central Station as they’re farewelling their children, who are off to summer camp in Maine. He has two girls, Anne (Gigi Perreau again) and Patty (Jeanine Perreau, Gigi’s real-life sister); she has two boys, Gary (Jimmy Hunt) and David (Tommy Rettig). The other man in the story is camp counsellor Don Adams (Richard Denning) (10); the other woman is TV star Phyllis Reynolds (Field again in a role similar to the one she plays in The Lady Pays Off).
While Sirk’s use of two shots binds Brad and Jean together visually, events in general and the couple’s children seem committed to pushing them apart. And, as tensions arise, the camera repeatedly assumes low angles during indoor sequences, creating the impression of ceilings and the architecture around the characters pressing in claustrophobically on them.
Sexual and social stereotypes are to the fore. During the opening sequence at Grand Central Station, Adams reassures the concerned Jean that she shouldn’t worry, that the camp is just what her sons need, that “it will make men out of them”. Most of Brad and Jean’s subsequent conversations with each other and others are peppered with references to the pressures on them about how they’re supposed to behave as male and female parents and their fears of failing to live up to their responsibilities. It’s as if they are enslaved by the expectations that have been imposed on them from without and that they have assimilated.
Bumbling Brad’s timidity proves in sharp contrast to cocky Don’s red-blooded ways when the two parents visit their offspring at the camp for “brother and sister day”. “He’s nothing to cry over,” Gary tells his mother to comfort her in a moment of crisis in her relationship with Brad. “He can’t follow a trail, can’t fight, can’t jump, can’t run. He can’t do anything. What good is he?” In their eyes, muscle-bound Don is much more worthy of their mother’s attentions. A man’s man, a collection of the kind of attributes that make a man a man, a man who, in Brad’s words, “would make Tarzan look anaemic”.
On the other side of the gender equation, warm, caring Jean is the living antithesis of Phyllis’s career-woman coldness. As poor, emasculated Brad points out to Phyllis late in the film (echoing the chief accusation made against Field’s Kay Stoddard in The Lady Pays Off), “The problem is that you don’t know how to be a mother. And I do.” However, his daughters are impressed by “Auntie Phyllis” because she’s a celebrity, and they do their darndest to ensure that she stays around, even after she’s worn out her welcome with their father. They can’t see her failings, or the unfairness of the social expectations afflicting her too, and, like Brad’s sons, wield far too much influence on their parent’s choice of partner.
Frequently in the melodramas, Sirk’s children become warriors against the best interests of their parents (as in There’s Always Tomorrow  and All That Heaven Allows ). They manipulate circumstances to achieve what they see as appropriate outcomes. And, more often than not, they become instruments of social oppression, acting on behalf of social mores that are working to prevent their parents from achieving happiness.
Here, their eventual change of heart about their parents’ potential partners doesn’t affect their modus operandi, just the ends to which it is applied. Rather than leaving Brad and Jean to sort out their own lives, they continue to conspire to achieve their goals (not unlike Diane in The Lady Pays Off, even deploying a variation on that film’s “lost child” ploy). And their motivations have less to do with what their parents might want than their belated realisation of how they might themselves be inconvenienced by the partners to whom they’d originally given their endorsement (like being forced to eat health food rather than hamburgers).
One of the film’s wryest aspects is its depiction of parents rather than children as the ones in need of protection. In fact, the children pose a key threat to their happiness. They might officially be regarded as Brad and Jean’s dependants, but they actually operate as an occupying force in their lives, denying them their privacy (the interruption motif so central to Sirk’s films in general is to the fore here) and plotting to undermine their relationship.
There is a constant sense of disquiet created by the pressures that undermine the parents’ attempts to find both a physical and a psychological space for themselves. The children are a key factor, but they’re not alone. During the parents’ visit to the camp, they all go riding together, their route to the top of a mountain and back guided by markers. While Brad boasts about his prowess at manly adventures like this, he’s also well aware of the dangers: “I’d hate to think of where we’d wind up without those markers,” he says. The scene provides a handy metaphor for his situation in relation to the social rules that proscribe not just his but all of the characters’ lives. And, in such a context, the chaos that ensues after David removes the markers points to how reliant everyone is on guidelines to show them the way.
In line with Gary’s criticism of his inadequacies, Brad comes to believe that he’s a failure, that his inability to take charge of a situation – a horse ride up the side of a mountain, a bag race, a relationship – are signs of his inadequacy as a male. His fears aren’t dissimilar from those that afflict Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) in Minnelli’s equally discomfiting family comedies, Father of the Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951).
Another unsettling force at work in the film is the way in which it subverts the customary happy ending which brings the couple together by way of validation of the lessons they’ve learned during their passage towards each other. Here, there’s little sense that anyone has achieved any real understanding of anything. Brad and Jean drive off with the “Just Married” banner across the boot of their car, but the notion that he’s become some kind of hero – by finding the boys who’d been “lost” – is an illusion and there’s no suggestion that he or anyone else has really learned anything about themselves or each other during the course of the film.
Channelling Capra: No Room for the Groom
Remarkably forthright and even Capra-like in its critique of capitalism’s encroachment on traditional values, No Room for the Groom is both a tale about the trials facing returned servicemen and a canny variation on the romantic comedy of remarriage. Adapted by Joseph Hoffman (Week-End with Father) from novelist and former army intelligence officer Darwin L. Teilhet’s 1945 book, My True Love (11), it begins with soldier-on-leave Alvah (Tony Curtis) and his sweetheart, Lee (Piper Laurie), arriving in Las Vegas at a wedding parlour that promises “Dignified Weddings” but delivers anything but. From the beginning – a shot of the couple behind a bus window, barely visible inside its glittering reflections of the City of Sin – they’re at odds with their surroundings.
Subsequent events conspire to keep them apart. Alvah contracts chicken pox on their honeymoon night, before being shipped off to Korea for ten months. When he returns, he finds his home, a vineyard near smalltown Suttersville, has been taken over by an occupation force made up of Lee’s relatives. Their general is her mother, Mama Kingshead (Spring Byington), who doesn’t approve of Alvah and has embarked on a campaign to have Lee marry her boss, cement magnate Herman Strouple (Don DeFore). Mama is accurately described by Babington and Evans as “a monster of comic hypocrisy” (12) for the way in which she feigns ill-health in order to manipulate those around her to give her what she wants.
Making the situation even worse, Lee’s reluctance to tell her that she’s already married to Alvah means that he’s cast as an unwelcome outsider in his own home. He’s compelled to share a bedroom with Donovan (Lee Aker), a child who’s so hyperactive that it would come as no surprise to learn that he had been possessed by the devil. Every time Alvah and Lee try to find a private moment, let alone consummate their marriage, they’re interrupted. And even after the truth is revealed, nothing changes as Mama tries to persuade her daughter to have the marriage annulled. No Room for the Groom might be a comedy, but it’s undeniably tinged with horror.
When Alvah urges Lee to take a day off work to be with him, Mama sees it as an affront to the war effort and his duty to his country. “I’m beginning to think you should be investigated by a Congressional committee,” she accuses. Delivered by such an unsympathetic character, it’s a line which, in 1952 at the height of the hearings being held by HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities), was clearly designed to provoke. And it appears to have been successful: according to Stern, the FBI questioned Sirk “about morality in No Room for the Groom.” (13)
With unfolding events acquiring a manic edge and the indoor action frequently being shot from a low angle (as in Week-End with Father), Alvah and Lee appear to be trapped and powerless to do anything to sort out the problems facing them. It becomes worse, especially for Alvah, when Strouple proposes a scheme to build a train line through his vineyard in order to speed up the transport side of his business. Lee not only supports her boss’s offer of remuneration to Alvah, but even believes that it’s a generous one.
Alvah’s refusal is couched in terms that classify his stand as a defence of traditional values and an American dream that is in danger. “I love this town the way it used to be,” he declares, a portrait of George Washington on the wall behind him, going on to describe the kind of mindset that has changed it. “Moral values, principles, sentiment,” he says, “Chuck ’em all out for a quick buck.” His passionate attack on “dollar and cent values” and on how “people have forgotten what it’s like to be human beings” not only leads to Mama’s “I knew he should be investigated”, but is also very prescient.
In his commentary on the film in The Berkshire Review for the Arts, Alan Miller proposes that it “depicts wartime patriotism as it is imperceptibly demobilized into unreflective support for the most top-down, paternalistic version of capitalist progress”, going on to describe the mob of relatives who occupy Alvah’s home as “Tea Party invaders.” (14)
For Stern, in his book about Sirk, the film’s critique of capitalism and the pursuit of progress at all costs is “shrill”, and he notes his disappointment that “the film’s characters and situations have little of the ambiguity or vulnerable charms that characterize even the worst of Sirk’s people in the other comedies”. (15) And, while Stern’s criticism need not be the only measure of the film’s worth, it is clear that a debate about America’s future lies at its heart, the characterisations certainly leaving little room for doubt about where Sirk’s sympathies lie.
Yet there is also much more that needs to be said about No Room for the Groom. It’s a boldly paranoid comedy set in a time of paranoia, when any social criticism was deemed an act of disloyalty. Its style might be broad inasmuch as it operates as farce – as a “savage farce”, as Stern correctly introduces it (16) – but its methods are as subtle and quietly subversive as in the other comedies. Just as it seems as if Alvah and Lee are “unconsciously infected by the surroundings” (17) right from the start, so too can all the characters be seen in this way. Just as Alvah and Lee are barely visible behind the reflected lights of Las Vegas in the opening shot, they’re all enveloped by their milieu. “I don’t blame you,” Alvah tells his domestic oppressors. “If there’s anything to blame, it’s the times.” And the times are embodied as concisely by the flashing Strouples Cement sign that looks down on the people of Suttersville as they are by the neon hell of Las Vegas.
Like Sirk’s other “uncomfortable comedies”, No Room for the Groom conjures up a happy ending that is unlikely to convince anyone that all is well. After realising that her boss has been using her to trick Alvah into allowing the vandalising of his property, Lee seeks a reconciliation with her husband, who’s abandoned all hope. Reworking an earlier scene in the film in which he had carefully arranged the apartment he’d borrowed from his wartime buddy (Jack Kelly), she makes her own adjustments to the apartment to woo him back. She sets the scene for a conventional happy ending, but the Strouples Cement sign can still be seen through the window and no truce has been made with Lee’s vindictive mother. The only thing that’s changed is Lee’s viewpoint.
Like Sirk’s other comedies, No Room for the Groom is, in its own way, dissembling the happy-ever-after American dream that has the characters looking inward rather than turning their gaze on the rules by which the world around them operates.
1. Wolfgang Limmer, Suddentsche Zeitung, November 17–18, 1973, translation from the original German by Virginia Soukup.
2. With the end credits approaching and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) torn between her husband, Tom (Joel McCrea), and The Other Man, J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), Sturges hilariously conjures up an identical twin for Gerry and a happy ending/“emergency exit” that not only keeps the good Mr. Hackensacker happy but also satisfied the requirements of the Production Code of the time.
3. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1997 (new and revised edition of a book first published in 1971 by Secker & Warburg), pp. 97 – 98
4. Michael Stern, “Interview”, Bright Lights, Winter 1977 – 78, p. 31
5. In their otherwise excellent commentary on the films in Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes, Manchester University Press, UK, 1989 (pp. 234 – 266), Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans overlook this when they group them with Sirk’s pastoral musicals, Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1951), Meet Me at the Fair and Take Me to Town (both 1952), all shot in Technicolor. Very different in aspect and tone from the four black and white comedies, the musicals will be further discussed in a subsequent article.
6. I haven’t been able to track down Let’s Fall in Love, although TCM apparently has a print. However, from the information I’ve been able to glean from the-not-very helpful sources, it would seem that the ironies that drive Slightly French are missing from its original source.
7. I suspect Sirk would have gained considerable amusement from the fact that, while Dorothy Lamour sings her own numbers in the film, a stand-in replaces her for the wide shots in the dance routines in the film within the film.
9.“I’m not responsible for this picture,” Sirk told Jon Halliday in Sirk on Sirk. “I did some work on preparing it. But then I had to leave to do Written on the Wind, and later I was brought back to finish it as best I could…” (p. 121)
10. According to Stephen Shearer’s biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2006, Rock Hudson was originally cast in Denning’s role (p. 119)
11. As reported on the TCM website, the film’s working title was Almost Married.
12. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, op. cit., p. 254
13. Stern, op. cit., p. 31
14. Alan Miller, “Tea Party Invaders! Douglas Sirk’s No Room for the Groom”, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, December 6, 2010
15. Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk, Twayne, Boston, 1979, p. 79
16. ibid, p. 78
17. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, op. cit., p. 254