John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk were fated to share a double bill. The passing decades have made it clear that these two icons of melodrama don’t merely reflect their respective time periods, but actively comment upon them. Moreover, as contract directors at Universal, both were fortuitously given the same material to adapt — which not only eagerly invites comparison, but also highlights their singularity as artists.
While neither director’s adaptation of James Cain’s forgotten noir masterpiece, Serenade, in any way resembles the book, Stahl in particular crafts an unusually unorthodox tale of unions, Long Island hurricanes and forbidden love between Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in When Tomorrow Comes (1938). Sirk’s Interlude (1957) similarly eschews Cain’s bisexual labyrinth for a heterosexual bonding of June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi.
Most famously, both Stahl and Sirk adapted Fannie Hurst’s frequently lambasted novel Imitation of Life. Sticking close to the original story, Stahl’s 1934 version is one of the most complex (and problematic) portraits of racial identity made in Hollywood at the time. One may cringe at the way the film glosses over Claudette Colbert’s “borrowing” of maid Louise Beaver’s family pancake recipe in order to get rich, but the sense of injustice and rage felt by maid’s daughter Fredi Washington is provocative. It took Sirk, however, to fully realize the subversion of the title. His 1959 film is a scathing indictment of middle-class complacency that holds the characters responsible for the way they avoid, rather than confront, racial prejudice, economic pressure and familial responsibility. Eccentric and unconventional, these films are proof of the possibility of experimentation even within the hegemony of Hollywood’s studio system.