Filmsite Movie Review
Written on the Wind (1956)
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Written on the Wind (1956) is generally regarded as the best of director Douglas Sirk's 1950s lush, vibrantly colorful melodramatic masterpieces. His absorbing, flamboyant, overwrought potboiler films were noted for their glossy and excessive style, soap opera-ish and brightly-colored film noirish characteristics, and exaggerated and overheated emotions. This film provided Sirk's clear commentary and critique of the underlying hollowness and shallowness of American society in the placid 1950s, and misfit lives stunted and corrupted by mental anguish, alcoholism, sexual frustration, and corruptible materialistic wealth.

Sirk's most successful melodramas of the mid-to-late 50s decade included the following - predominantly from Universal-International:

  • All I Desire (1953)
  • Magnificent Obsession (1954)
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955)
  • Written on the Wind (1956)
  • The Tarnished Angels (1957) - reuniting stars Stack, Malone, and Hudson
  • Imitation of Life (1959) - Sirk's last American film

This vivid, gaudy and slightly campy Technicolor film, from a screenplay by George Zuckerman that was adapted from Robert Wilder's best-selling novel of the same name, centered on the frenzied dynamics within a self-destructing, filthy-rich (literally) Texas oil family named Hadley.

[Note: The plot was based on the misfortunes of another notorious, tycoonish millionaire business family - the Reynolds - who were known for their tobacco empire. In early July, 1932, Z. Smith Reynolds, the youngest 20 year-old son of the cigarette patriarch R.J. Reynolds, was suspiciously murdered with a gunshot wound to the head at the family estate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His death had occurred late at night in an upstairs bedroom after a drunken party fueled by bootleg liquor, after a 'jealous argument' had broken out with his wife. The deceased had been married to 27 year-old Broadway torch singer and actress Libby Holman for less than a year. According to her testimony, she claimed that her husband suffered from "male virility problems" and begged her to have an affair. Later, she admitted to being pregnant. Holman and Reynolds’ boyhood best friend, Albert "Ab" Walker, were indicted on murder charges a month into the case. However, prosecutors eventually dropped the case, motivated by a desire to avoid a scandal involving Holman's pregnancy and Reynolds' inheritance. It was never clearly determined if it was suicide, an accident, or murder.]

In Sirk's version, the bourgeois, immoral, blood-poisoned, money-corrupted clan was composed of a tycoon patriarch (Keith), an alcoholic, profligate, insecure playboy heir Kyle (Stack), a lustful daughter Marylee (Malone), and their stable, responsible, less-wealthy family friend and boyhood playmate Mitch (Hudson) who supportively held the family together. Dysfunctional tensions rose when the patriarch's booze-soaked son quickly courted and married the company's respectable, sensible good-girl executive secretary Lucy (Bacall). Kyle's self-pitying fears of impotency (sexual and otherwise) and jealousy - inflamed by his debauched and trashy sister - soon led to the film's climactic shoot-out (shown in flashback in the film's opening).

One of the film's posters briefly and dramatically described each character:

  • LUCY ...Her husband's money couldn't buy her, nor another man's love make her unfaithful!
  • MITCH ...Who gave his best friend the woman he wanted for his own!
  • MARYLEE ...Who couldn't have Mitch, so she sought love when and where she could get it!
  • KYLE ...Who hid his secret behind a bottle and a hundred million dollars!

The film's tagline pronounced:

The story of a family's ugly secret and the stark moment that thrust their private lives into public view!

The film included such sordid subjects as nymphomania, alcoholism, murderous jealousy and rage, phallic power and infertility, miscarriage, back-stabbing emotional blackmail, and illusory materialistic happiness. It has often been noted that Sirk's film came at the same time as George Stevens' epic Giant (1956) - another tale of a Texas family with Rock Hudson. And TV's popular Dallas (on CBS-TV from 1978-1991) and Dynasty (on ABC-TV from 1981-89) - two prime-time soaps in the 80s, owe their heritage to Sirk.

This great film was nominated in three Academy Award categories, including Best Supporting Actor (Robert Stack who should have won, but lost to Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life) and Best Song ("Written on the Wind"), with Dorothy Malone taking home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (her sole career nomination and win) for an overacted slinky, catty role as a sex-obsessed, wild, nymphomaniacal, provocative member of the Texas oil dynasty's family. [Note: She is probably best remembered for her earlier role as the glasses-wearing bookshop assistant who dallies with Humphrey Bogart after closing shop on a rainy day in The Big Sleep (1946).] This was the sixth of eight films that Sirk made with Hudson.

Plot Synopsis

Prologue - Opening Murder Scene:

November 6, 1956 (Tuesday)

Under the credits, the film opened with a flash-forward to events that would occur a year later in the film's climax. The opening epilogue served to introduce the major players without any dialogue except for the film's theme song, "Written on the Wind," sung by the Four Aces (music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn):

A faithless lover's kiss is written on the wind,
A night of stolen bliss, is written on the wind,
Just like the dying leaves, our dreams we've calmly thrown away
Now they've blown away, softly flown away
The promises we made, our whispers in the breeze
They echo and they fade, just like our memories
Though you are gone from me, we never can really be apart
What's written on the wind is written on my heart.

A yellow sportster roared through a landscape covered with pumping, phallic oil wells. A major architectural structure in town, prominently jutting into the air like an erect protrusion, was emblazoned with a large H (a company logo signifying the "Hadley Oil Company"). It was a twilight autumn evening in the ugly town of Hadley, Texas (population 24,554), named after the oil tycoon head. The wind blew the dying leaves from trees.

The driver was drunken son Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) returning from a wrong-side-of-town bar to his white-columned mansion estate. Noticing his return from an upstairs bedroom was Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) with Kyle's stricken wife Lucy (Lauren Bacall). Kyle smashed his whiskey bottle against the side of the brick house and stormed into the downstairs study after his blonde sister (with eyes spotlighted) Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone) listened from her upstairs bedroom. Dead leaves were blown through the open front door into the empty foyer as Marylee swooped down the long staircase.

From outside, a gunshot was heard off-screen from inside the mansion, and an unidentified figure staggered out, dropped the gun, and collapsed onto the estate's driveway. Lucy fainted upstairs, as the camera zoomed toward a closeup of a desk calendar, reading Tuesday, November 6, 1956. The wind rifled the pages back to Monday, October 24, 1955, a year earlier, to flash-back to events that led up to the tragedy.


October 24, 1955 (Monday)

Kyle Hadley's Romantic Advances on Executive Secretary Lucy Moore:

Single, hard-working Lucy Moore had recently been hired as executive secretary in the New York offices of an ad agency that was working on a publicity campaign for one of its clients - the Hadley Oil Company, ruled by patriarch Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith), Kyle's father. [Note: An artificial, painted skyline of Manhattan was viewed outside the company's windows.] The oil company's geologist and trusted, smooth-talking right-hand "sidekick" Mitch Wayne entered Lucy's office where he noticed Lucy's shapely, disembodied legs behind a display of poster boards. She had mistaken handsome Mitch for the oil company son-heir Kyle Hadley ("Prince Charming of the oil empire"), often featured in the tabloids.

Kyle was the big-spending, profligate, impulsive manager of the Hadley oil business with a reputation for being a "dashing" playboy. He had sent the level-headed Mitch to urgently summon Lucy to a "business conference" at 21, a posh New York restaurant. The millionaire had flown 1,380 miles to NY for a steak sandwich. Mitch's early interest in Lucy was hinted at with his statement as they rode in a taxi to the restaurant: "Maybe we're two of a kind."

Kyle was already dining with other ladies in the restaurant, and asked to describe his close colleague Mitch:

My sidekick...He's eccentric. He's poor...Mitch is just a country boy. The kind of assets he's got you can't buy with money.

Kyle was pleased to formally meet the attractive and intelligent Lucy, already favorably positioned as "a member of the happy, happy Hadley Industrial Family." (She had once caught Kyle's roving eye in the office.) After a champagne toast, Kyle learned that Lucy was from a small-town in Indiana, and he boasted that he could "put it on the map" if only asked. Unaffected, the clean-living, career-oriented Lucy explained how she wished to become a suburban wife "with a husband, mortgage and children" and to pursue her career in advertising.

Kyle Contrasted to His Childhood Best Friend and Geologist Employee, Mitch Wayne:

Mitch had heard Kyle's charming proposals to women before about his hedonistic lifestyle: ("How would you like to join the Kyle Hadley Society for the Prevention of Boredom?...Pleasures, such as Kyle Hadley's guided tour through the gossip columns, Around the world in 80 headlines"), and exclaimed "Bravo" when principled Lucy clearly rejected Kyle's materialistic advances and consumptive offer to buy her Madison Avenue's Sheraton Agency.

Kyle answered Lucy's query to Mitch about what he did for the Hadley Company with a smart reply - he called them both troubleshooters. Kyle was extremely envious of Mitch's stability, talent, education, and responsibility as the foreman within his own company - he was a down-to-earth geologist (who wasn't expelled from college) and was considered as his 'adopted' brother:

Lucy: (To Mitch) Just what do you do for the Hadley Oil Company?
Kyle: (interrupting) We're troubleshooters. Wherever they want trouble, they send for us.
Mitch: I, uh, have a sheepskin that says I'm a geologist.
Lucy: That adds up.
Kyle: I was kicked out of the same school. They found rocks in my head.

On their way out of the restaurant, Kyle waylaid Mitch on an errand to purchase cigarettes, as he dropped his "friend" and absconded with Lucy in a taxi to take her to the Teterborough Airport. She objected to being kidnapped: "I'd like to get off the merry-go-round." The very pushy Kyle promised her that he was really a different person than his first impression: "Once we get up in the blue, I'm a different fella, a lot different from this character." He was also straightforward about his alcoholism:

I wouldn't admit this to anyone but you, but I drink too much.

Knowing Kyle's well-worn routine to abscond with women, Mitch (although uninvited) was already seated onboard Kyle's private plane at the airport. Lucy joined pilot Kyle in the cockpit, where she was briefed on his past relationships within the Hadley business empire during the flight. Kyle's father Jasper had introduced him to Mitch when they were first-grade chums - and there was a striking contrast between the two boys:

He had no use for private schools, and he wanted me to grow up with Mitch...Mitch's old man is my dad's boyhood pal -- his idol, I guess. A small rancher -- kind of a legend in our country. A great hunter, sort of a throwback to Daniel Boone. I used to wish he was my father...Dad's a big man -- so big that he and I know I can't fit his shoes, or even come close to him...When I was kicked out of college, I guess Dad gave up hoping Mitch's qualities might rub off on me.

According to Kyle, only Mitch could fulfill his magnate father's aspirations for a son. He honestly told Lucy about his own personal failings as the number one troublemaker and black sheep of the family - he had a reputation for being a misbehaving, ne'er-do-well playboy, and carried on the tradition of his uncle Joe Hadley who "lived hard and he died hard":

It's easy to talk like this when you're 6,000 feet above the big poker table...Sure. The big one -- from Maine to California. Down there, I'm a guy with too many chips. I throw 'em up in the air and a few land on my shoulders. Hellfire, they'd be disappointed if I didn't behave like a playboy -- didn't end up like my uncle [Joe Hadley].

Believing that he couldn't live up to his father's aspirations, Kyle turned to drink and fast living. He mentioned that there were three "black sheep" in the Hadley family -- his uncle Joe, himself, and his kid sister Marylee:

She's got enough devil in her to put Uncle Joe and me in the shade.

Mitch appeared in the cockpit, realizing that they had veered off-course from a route toward Texas and were heading for Miami Beach, Florida. Kyle had privately planned to woo Lucy even further. With straight-talk candor, he was beginning to soften her up - and hinted at what he was expecting from her in return: ("We're past the point of no return") - she smiled in response.

Something is happening to me. I find myself talking to you like I never talked to anyone before -- not even Mitch...I think we're past the point of no return.

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