Director Douglas Sirk is mainly known for his bright melodramas from the 1950s, with The Tarnished Angels he keeps the drama but ditches the colour for this strong Depression era film.
Rock Hudson is Burke Devlin, a reporter who becomes fascinated by the gypsy-like lifestyle of a pilot and his family. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is a former World War I pilot who scrapes a living flying in various airshows across America. Shumann is joined on his travels by his daredevil parachutist wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), son Jack (Christopher Olsen) and steadfast mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson). Devlin’s interest in the family turns from professional to personal, when he falls in love with LaVerne, but tragedy is on the horizon.
I first discovered the work of Douglas Sirk in my twenties, with the likes of All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), movies which have helped the appreciation of such modern works as Married Life, Far From Heaven and Mad Men. His vibrant cinematography captured the excess of Hollywood productions of that time, but here Sirk opts for black and white, stripping away the glamour to show the plight of the American people during the Depression.
Sirk liked to reuse actors, and he previously worked with Hudson Stack and Malone, teasing strong performances out of each of them. The star of the show is clearly Hudson – Sirk worked with the actor eight times and he knows how to get the best out of his leading man. It’s a shame that Hudson’s sexuality has overshadowed his career, but maybe it’s time to reappraise his work, much like filmmakers and critics did to Sirk in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The Tarnished Angels might not be prime-Sirk, but it is a powerful drama which touches on an interesting subject matter during a unique period of US history.