The Tarnished Angels

“I’ve got the story. I’ve got it in my aching heart. Do want to know how I got it? By crawling through the dirt and filth and muck and smut. By finding truth and beauty where you’d never expect to find it.”

- Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson).

Published in 1935 – and sandwiched in between the more revered and seminal Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) – William Faulkner’s aviation novel Pylon is still thought of as lesser work, a cathartic but misguided attempt at mainstream fiction that crumbles under the weight of his lionized classics The Sound and The Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930).

Due to the controversial sexual dynamics between the lead characters and Faulkner’s raw and unflinching depiction of sordid carnival life, it was pretty much a given that Pylon would escape being optioned for a big screen adaptation. That is until 1957 when director Douglas Sirk, screenwriter George Zuckerman, and producer Albert Zugsmith created The Tarnished Angels, turning what is commonly referred to as Faulkner’s most flawed novel into what the author felt was the greatest cinematic interpretation of his written work.

There was something within the pages of Pylon that resonated deeply with Douglas Sirk, something that he couldn’t shake off. From his earliest days as a filmmaker it was a story that he constantly considered for his next project but was always forced to put it onto the backburner.

Born in Hamburg in 1900 to Danish parents, after escaping Nazi ruled Germany Hans Detlaf Sierck arrived in America in 1941 to become Douglas Sirk, the king of Hollywood melodrama. Although All That Heaven Allows (1955) Written On the Wind (1956), A Time to Love and A Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959) have become his most celebrated works, his Hollywood output is surprisingly eclectic.

Sirk would embrace a number of genres before settling on the domestic tragedies that he would become renowned for. These included Personal Column (1947), a London set film noir starring Lucille Ball on the trail of a serial killer, the curiously titled war film Mystery Submarine (1950), and the Samuel Fuller penned crime thriller Shockproof (1949).

But the one film that raises a few highbrow eyebrows has to be Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), a 3-D western starring Rock Hudson as an Apache. An entry in Sirk’s filmography steeped in moments of sublime ridiculousness that seems to have been skirted over by most film scholars when appraising his career.

Although commercially successful Sirk’s clutch of mid to late fifties melodramas were initially dismissed by serious critics as mainstream fodder with very little redeeming qualities, often regarded as the cinematic equivalent of a Mills & Boon novel and the primary inspiration for insipid TV soap operas.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Sirk and his creative output were extolled for having any kind of artistic credibility. Championed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and his fellow Cahiers du Cinema scribes his films found a more appreciative contemporary audience.

This new generation of young and passionate cineastes were convinced that beneath the Hollywood sheen and seemingly conventional plots there was a subversive social commentary reflecting intellectual ideals that warranted reappraisal, and a heavily symbolic and meticulously controlled visual style that deserved discussion.

For me Douglas Sirk reflects a particularly pragmatic approach towards filmmaking, a belief that if you have complete conviction and respect for the genre you’re working within, no matter how seemingly lowbrow, you can subvert mainstream conventions to express your own intellectual ideas and artistic inclinations. A philosophical legacy that could easily take into account directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and David Lynch.

When watching a Sirk movie there is the distinct feeling that something else is going on beneath the surface. The Tarnished Angels is a perfect example, with one of the more humorous recurring motifs being written words. During a funeral wake in a French restaurant the phrase “chacun a son gout” (“there’s no accounting for taste”) is plainly seen painted upon a room arch. When struggling journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) is verbally sparring with his editor there’s barely a moment when one of the many signs hanging in the newspaper office that read “Is it interesting?” isn’t in floating above their heads.

Set in New Orleans The Tarnished Angels follows the exploits of alcoholic hack Burke and his attempts to find a sensational story packed with drama and pathos. It’s a quest that leads him to The Flying Shumanns, a dysfunctional family unit of daredevil pilots who race planes and perform stunts for hungry carnival crowds.

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is the star of the show, an emotionally callous WW1 hero addicted to the deadly aerodynamic thrills of the hazardous pylon races. LaVerne Shumann (Dorothy Malone) is his beautiful, mysterious and constantly debased wife. Jiggs (Jack Carson) is the faithful mechanic who holds a flame for LaVerne and worships flying ace Roger. Jack Shumann is LaVerne’s young son whose father could be either Jiggs or Roger. Completely enthralled by their unconventional lifestyle and moral code, and enraptured by LaVerne, Burke indivertibly becomes instrumental in their downfall. Strong foundations for a pulpy Hollywood melodrama.

On the other hand it could quite easily be perceived as a theological supernatural fable with elements of Greek tragedy and B-Movie Sci-Fi. After all the producer was Albert Zugsmith who was also responsible The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Sex Kittens go to College (1960).

The original title Pylon refers to the metal pyramid structures erected to signify the circular course in which barnstorming pilots would race around. But the word pylon derives from the symmetrical columns that would often form the gateway to ancient Egyptian temples that were used for rituals that signified re-creation, rebirth and the perpetual circle of life.
The idea of pylons forming a gateway to sanctuary and enlightenment was later adopted by Christians when building cathedrals. In The Tarnished Angels the circle of life is also represented by the rapidly rotating airplane fairground ride that’s constantly being ridden by the young Jack Shumann.

The title The Tarnished Angels gives the impression of heavenly, otherworldly creatures that have been spiritually stained and corroded by earthly desires. In one scene Devlin (a name that could quite possibly be a biblical themed anagram) even refers to them as “four visitors from a strange, faraway planet.” In another scene he explains to his editor “They’re not human beings, they couldn’t turn those pylons like they do if they had human blood and they wouldn’t dare if they had human brains. Burn them and they don’t even holler, scratch one and it’s not even blood they bleed.”

Could it be that the emotionally detached Roger Shumann is in fact an otherworldly being? An angel fallen from grace and banished to earth, forced to supplement his loss of wings with aviation, desperate to return home, back to his own dimension?

The closer he gets to death, the closer he feels to the place where he truly belongs. Only after he has sacrificed himself in order to save other humans, only after he has accepted the love of those around him and come to terms with the human condition, is he finally allowed to enter heaven, ultimately through death on earth. His body is never found with the only genuine proof of his existence being an old carnival poster, an icon to be worshipped in his memory.