Douglas Sirk took our heads off with this intense, thematically adult tale of love and obsession in a Depression-Era flying circus that’s the open air equivalent of the marathon dance craze — pilots die to thrill the crowd. The terrific-looking show provides career-best roles for some deserving actors: Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson and Robert Middleton … but the newly-minted star Rock Hudson seems miscast.
The Tarnished Angels
KL Studio Classics
1957 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date March 26, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Robert Middleton, Alan Reed, Alexander Lockwood, Chris Olsen, Robert J. Wilke, Troy Donahue.
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Film Editor: Russell F. Schoengarth
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by George Zuckerman from a novel by William Faulkner
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk made his name with big, glossy soap operas starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, that only in the later wave of Auteur adulation became recognized as classics. Sirk took the problems of unhappy widows and men stuck in loveless marriages and fashioned sentimental stories of epic emotion — overplayed as hell yet compellingly watchable. The cycle peaked with Magnificent Obsession, a remake of a ’30s John M. Stahl picture that goes offensively overboard with sanctimonious faux-spirituality. And Sirk finished with another Stahl remake tempered by a powerful concern for America’s skewed view of racial harmony, the ultimate Lana Turner weepie Imitation of Life.
Slipped into the stack of out-of-control supermarket scandal tales, and made after the success of Sirk’s searing soap Written on the Wind, is a lone adaptation of a Faulkner story, 1957’s The Tarnished Angels. Sirk had graduated from producer Ross Hunter to the wilder, cruder Albert Zugsmith, whose pot-boiler melodramas didn’t rate color but in this case were given terrific locations outside the studio. San Diego fills in nicely for New Orleans.
Repeating Zugsmith writer George Zuckerman crafts The Tarnished Angels into a grim psychodrama from the Great Depression. Impoverished air-circus folk live rootless carny lives, performing ridiculously risky stunts in unsound planes. The former WW1 Air Ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is living out a near- death wish in the air; he’s obsessed with flying and nothing matters to him except finding a new plane to replace one lost in a wreck. The wealthy air show promoter Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) could supply a plane but gets nothing but insults and contempt from Roger, because he openly covets Roger’s attractive wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone). Also wrapped up in this Freudian tangle is Roger’s loyal mechanic, Jiggs (Jack Carson). None of them can make Roger see that his flying mania is a suicidal dead end. The insanely dangerous races are spectacles for a bloodthirsty crowd. The prize money is grossly inadequate for such risk.
An added Faulknerian touch is an alcoholic reporter, Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), who throws away his job on a local paper to instead study the sick phenomenon that is Roger Shumann. Burke gets in cozy with the air show trio by befriending Roger and LaVerne’s son Jack (Chris Olsen), who is teased and harassed by other air show rowdies. Burke uncovers the unhappy reason — not even LaVerne knows if young Jack is Roger’s boy, or Jiggs’s. Roger was so unwilling to take responsibility for anything but his flying, that he won the right to marry the pregnant LaVerne with the toss of a coin.
With Mardi Gras in full swing, Roger determines to fly in the big race by fixing up one of Matt Ord’s out-of-service planes before he even has permission. The ugly, unavoidable character conflict is fully expected: Roger so badly wants an airplane, that he’ll send LaVerne to Matt Ord to get one. Love is Horror: LaVerne loves Roger so much, she’s willing to humiliate herself for him.
Not since the pre-Code days was a Hollywood movie so explicit about a sordid, but believable relationship tragedy. An adaptation of Faulkner’s gangster tale Sanctuary entitled The Story of Temple Drake had been one of the main offenders that brought on the enforcement of the Production Code. The Tarnished Angels veers radically away from Douglas Sirk’s shocking-but-clean women’s pictures, that isolate one problem (infidelity, impotence, widow-hood) against an affluent, hypocritical social background. The main characters of Angels are as socially unglued as circus freaks, improvising their morality as they go along. It’s the depression, everyone’s starving, so anything goes. The expected dramatic tension in aviation stories is usually over which will end up with the leading lady. Although that angle is here, the story dynamics actually pivot around the haunted fighter pilot Roger Shumann. A golden boy deprived of his former status, Rogers pursues his mad glory in the sky, with both LaVerne and Jiggs surrendering their personalities to assist him in his mania. Burke is fascinated by Roger, little Jack idolizes him, and even Matt Ord grudgingly admits that he’s a one-of-a-kind living legend.
The rabid Sirk fans seldom mention the film’s amazing aviation footage. The flying scenes are awesome to behold in Tarnished Angel’s beautiful CinemaScope images. The title of Faulkner’s original story Pylon refers to giant towers that form a race course in the sky for whatever damn fool pilots are willing to race around them. One is erected on the beach and another out in a New Orleans lagoon. The planes bank almost to 90 degrees as they pass the towers, sometimes brushing against them. Biplanes race monoplanes, and they fly so close together that the competition resembles a chariot race in the sky — where it’s obvious that sudden death can occur at any time. One wreck propels a pilot at us as if he were shot out of a cannon, dashing him against the ground at 110 mph.
Like Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk was attracted to aviation themes. His previous film Battle Hymn is an indigestible attempt to meld a victor’s sanctimony with the Korean War, but it can boast sensational air-to-air combat scenes with P-51 fighters, footage more impressive than even Howard Hughes’ sky combat in his bizarre Jet Pilot. The Tarnished Angels’ Mardi Gras footage sometimes seems pasted-in, but not the flying, which looks frighteningly authentic.
The cast has one major problem: a miscast Rock Hudson. Sirk practically made Hudson’s career but he can’t give the young actor the needed gravity to put across what are some rather strained speeches. Drunk or sober, Hudson’s Devlin just doesn’t convince when he lectures his newspaper boss, or when he pontificates on the nature of love and commitment. It’s probably just as much Sirk’s problem — the drama would be abundantly clear without the superfluous high-toned speeches. Although we like Hudson, he’s too healthy and robust-looking to suggest a disenchanted idealist drifting amid the human wreckage of the Depression, searching for a transcendant Literary Truth. We expect Hudson instead to waltz into the mess that is Roger Shumann’s circle, and walk out with pretty LaVerne on his arm, like a trophy.
For everyone else Angels might be a career-best movie. Robert Stack is a perfect fit for the tightly-wound Roger Shumann, a man with haunted eyes and a rigid inability to be honest with his beloved enablers crazy show-biz family. Only a maniac would fly Matt Ord’s untried airplane in such a high-stress pylon race. This would also seem to be Jack Carson’s best picture — the committed, yet compromised Jiggs is less broad and more real than Carson’s shallow opportunist Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce. Jiggs loves LaVerne and may be the father of her child — but he loves Roger more and can somehow live with them both in a screwy broken triangle relationship. The same goes for the ostensible villain, Robert Middleton. By the time Matt Ord is to collect on his filthy bargain, his lust for LaVerne almost seems benign. He’s at least upfront about his wants and has no intention of cheating anyone — in fact, he cares about Roger Shumann as well. ‘Fifties Hollywood movies just weren’t designed for relationships as twisted as these.
I also credit Douglas Sirk with handling the story of LaVerne’s son with taste and discretion. Jack is growing up in a bizarre family situation, as so many kids must. Young Chris Olsen performs in the thick of the drama and always fits in. Olsen may be the most accomplished child actor of the ’50s, carrying off demanding, intense performances in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Ray’s Bigger than Life. Other child actors were more prolific, but Olsen’s three classic roles are unbeatable.
The consistently good Dorothy Malone is a marvel as LaVerne, a woman living in an exceedingly unstable relationship. LaVerne is both constant and adrift in her love; a character too complicated, too real for Hollywood in 1957. LaVerne is so authentic, we don’t mind that the Production Code won’t allow her to go through with the sordid agreement with Matt Ord. Malone doesn’t try to deglamorize LaVerne, who uses her good looks to best advantage when performing parachute stunts. On the ground she can barely hold her family together. The circus life in the Depression doesn’t allow for the basics, like keeping Jack in school. Being hopelessly love with a madman doesn’t help either. LaVerne must feel wholly inadequate, when she can’t inspire her husband to be brave enough to try a different kind of living.
The Tarnished Angels succeeds where other movies about barnstormers fall short. Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths about stunt parachutists, feels more than a bit strained. The crazy lifestyle isn’t as compelling when set in the boom years of the 1960s — don’t these people have better things to do? George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper never gets a grip on the ‘lost generation’ aspect that makes barnstorming stunt pilots appear to be suffering from megalomaniac PTSD. Taking a break from Thoreau-esqe imagery and pastel colors, Douglas Sirk creates excitement out of raw danger. The stark scenes of the aerial steeplechase are riveting. The man-becomes-machine imagery here links up with symbols of male potency in Sirk’s Written on the Wind: Robert Stack’s fast cars, and the symbolic supermarket hobby horse. Poor Jack experiences a similar trauma, stuck on the play-airplane ride while his Dad is imperiled just a few yards away. We feel the same as he does — we want to stop this crazy ride and get off.
The farewell epilogue of Tarnished Angels reminds a bit of Wild River, only with people separating. After all that bloody havoc, characters fly off to a new destiny… in an airplane.
I think the reviewers and the public alike rejected The Tarnished Angels because it failed to deliver the expected inspirational Rock Hudson vehicle. In the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, perhaps nobody wanted to deal with such depressing, perverse story elements. The trade press reviews instead acted as if the show were a misfire for other reasons. Variety called it “a stumbling entry, loosely produced and in need of all the draw its star power can muster.” It had a “generally inconsequential plot reaching no particular climax.” The film’s incredible flying scenes weren’t even mentioned. The notice in the traditionally more wishy-washy Hollywood Reporter reads as if the reviewer were afraid to offend Universal-International: he first blames William Faulkner, and then avoids a direct slam by calling the show “one of the year’s most curious items.” Oh, and he also expressed relief that Dorothy Malone doesn’t sleep with fat guy.
Can’t break this off without mentioning some welcome faces in Angels. William Schallert has a couple of seconds of memorable screen time in the newspaper scene, while scurvy Robert J. Wilke is a nasty-minded mechanic pestering little Jack. The owner of the aerial circus is Alan Reed, who later provided the TV voice for Fred Flintstone. And in his first billed feature role, none other than Troy Donahue tries his hand as a cocky young pilot-challenger to Roger Shumann’s air circus crown. Don’t worry, Donahue’s next big part was as a college kid stumbling through Monster on the Campus.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Tarnished Angels is a near-perfect encoding of this absorbing show. When film fans praise B&W movies shot in CinemaScope, Angels is a prime example of what sends ’em. Sirk had filmed in ‘scope before but a show never looked bigger on a big screen; the same sense of scale comes through on a small screen as well. Irving Glassberg’s crisp photography is super in the race scenes but even more impressive in the moody, chiaroscuro nighttime stuff in the dilapidated hotel and on the fringes of the Mardi Gras. The parade celebration scenes appear to have been filmed for this show, and not taken from stock shots. Sirk manages beautifully expressive groupings of characters that enable us to weigh multiple attitudes and reactions — it’s on a different level of maturity than his formalist Technicolor soap operas. The weaker scenes in the newspaper office aside, there’s nothing here that isn’t first class, and ten years ahead of its time.
The cover illustration is direct from our master poster hero Reynold Brown. I stare at multitudes of posters with art that can’t capture the personalities (and sometimes not even the likenesses) of major stars. Brown nails all three here — in character. (Trailers from Hell’s Charlie Largent just recently reviewed an art book of Brown’s work.)
Imogen Sara Smith’s informed, insightful commentary is a pleasure to listen to — she gives us background and detail in a way that makes us feel we’re discovering the show’s qualities for ourselves. How does one explain the failure of superior pictures like The Tarnished Angels and Wild River? Did they simply not connect with what the audience wanted to see in their particular windows of release? Or did their respective studios simply lose faith in them?
An English disc of Angels from Masters of Cinema has many more extras, but it is playable only on Region B equipment.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Tarnished Angels
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Imogen Sara Smith; trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 9, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson