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Among the many novels of William Faulkner, Pylon is less well known today than some of the author's more critically acclaimed works such as The Sound and the Fury, Intruder in the Dust and The Reivers (a 1962 Pulitzer Price winner). Yet, the novel, dismissed by most critics of its era as a tawdry melodrama, is a deeply personal work, reflecting Faulkner's keen interest in flying while including autobiographical details from his own life. Inspired by a New Orleans flying circus, the narrative centers on a reporter who, while covering an air show, becomes fascinated with a daredevil pilot, his sexy, free-spirited wife and their gypsy lifestyle. According to biographers, Faulker based Roger Shumann, the novel's aviator hero, on Charles N. Kenily, a young pilot who died when his plane crashed into Lake Pontchartrain during an air carnival. Hermann Deutsch, a reporter friend of Faulkner's who worked for the New Orleans Item, served as a model for the book's roving journalist. The book's tragic ending, with Shumann dying in an accident, would prove to be strangely prescient; Faulkner's youngest brother Dean was killed in a biplane crash outside Pontotoc, Mississippi, just a few month after Pylon was published.
For years, various Hollywood studios toyed with the idea of making a film of Pylon but it was producer Albert Zugsmith who finally convinced Universal-International to buy the rights, even though the studio brass were unfamiliar with the Faulkner novel and thought the title referred to a snake. Allegedly, the author was paid $50,000 for the screen rights and Zugsmith asked Douglas Sirk to direct; they had just collaborated on Written on the Wind (1957). According to the director in Sirk on Sirk, Zugsmith "was doing some lively work at the time, and we got on just great: for instance, he also produced Welles's Touch of Evil, which Orson was shooting on the next stage at Universal when I was doing The Tarnished Angels. And Zugsmith was the first person in Hollywood who was willing to take on the Faulkner book, Pylon, this old project and favourite of mine. Zug was also the only producer I could persuade to reject a happy end." Of course, the first thing to change was the problematic title. Zugsmith wanted to call it Sex in the Air but was overruled by the studio who came up with a more appropriate title, The Tarnished Angels.
In order to appease the censorship board, Zugsmith had to make some changes to the story before it could be approved, mainly eliminating the menage a trois that is so central to the book. As a result, the Jack Holmes character, who was having an affair with Shumann's wife in the novel, becomes Jiggs, Holmes's loyal mechanic. Interestingly enough, The Tarnished Angels reunites three of the four cast members from Sirk's previous Written on the Wind - Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Sirk later stated "..in a way, The Tarnished Angels grew out of Written. You had the same pair of characters seeking their identity in the follow-up picture; the same mood of desperation, drinking, and doubting the values of life, and at the same time almost hysterically trying to grasp them, grasping the wind. Both pictures are studies of failure. Of people who can't make a success of their lives."
Rock Hudson was at the peak of his career when he made The Tarnished Angels; he had recently been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar® for his work in Giant (1956) and he was just a year away from Pillow Talk (1959), the smash hit that firmly established him as a major leading man in romantic comedies. Despite the starring role, however, Hudson's character, reporter Burke Devlin (he was unnamed in the novel), is not the focus of The Tarnished Angels. "'You are not the prince in this movie,' I told him - 'that's Stack.' To my surprise, he understood, although he knew that this meant in a way he would have to play second fiddle," Sirk recalled. The director saw Devlin as "a neatly polished looking-glass held up to the crazy world of the flyers, these Indians of the air...At first he is wide-eyed, rather innocent, just reflecting events...But then his consciousness grows, it widens from a lame curiosity to fascination...And eventually he recognizes the gypsies of the air as having more solid ground under their feet than his own solid shoes are treading."
For the film, Sirk uses the Roger Schumann character (played by Robert Stack) to express some of the thematic concerns of Faulkner's novel. Quoting from the book, Sirk said, 'They have nothing but their plane...part of civilization has rooted them out of their soils...Their escape is in violence, in drinking, in fighting and praying.' I think this sums up very well the world of Pylon." To help Stack understand his part, Sirk read him passages from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Waste Land," with its many references to death by water, an image that takes on greater significance in the film. In fact, Eliot's poetry figures prominently throughout Pylon, particularly his poem, "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," in which Prufrock, like Roger Schumann, is unable to find real meaning in his existence. Sirk also wanted to convey another idea from Faulkner's book as well - the irony of heroism.
In his autobiography, Straight Shooting, Robert Stack wrote "my warmest memory of location shooting took place in a less-than-exotic location: sunny San Diego, California..we were shooting The Tarnished Angels...My head may have been devoted to the script, but my heart was really back home where Rosemarie was about to make me a papa for the first time. We were in the middle of a tense scene in which I gave Dorothy Malone away to a dirty old man (played with glee by Bob Middleton). Suddenly, the sound men began hollering. Out of nowhere an old plane was diving straight for the cameras; behind a tatty old banner proclaiming in letters four feet tall: It's a Girl! Rock Hudson had arranged with the hospital to send word immediately when the baby was born. He had then hired a stunt pilot and gave him instructions to tow the appropriate message behind the plane. It's a moment I've never forgotten. Anybody who tells me that Rock Hudson isn't a first-class gent Had better put up his dukes."
When The Tarnished Angels opened at theatres, it received the same mixed reactions as Faulkner's Pylon did upon publication. Variety complained of "a generally inconsequential plot reaching no particular climax," while The New York Times wrote "..the bulging picture bursts at the seams. The hot air pours from it in loud hisses, and it collapses like the empty thing it is." Today, however, the film's reputation is considerably better; renown directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Peter Bogdanovich have praised it as an influential work. Critic David Thomson wrote in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film that The Tarnished Angels is "Sirk's finest film, partly because he has resolved the novel's tension between poetry and hokum." The director must have agreed because he once stated in an interview, "Perhaps, after all, Tarnished Angels is my best film."
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman, William Faulkner (novel)
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Film Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Music: Frank Skinner, Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Cast: Rock Hudson (Burke Devlin), Robert Stack (Roger Shumann), Dorothy Malone (LaVerne Shumann), Jack Carson (Jiggs), Robert Middleton (Matt Ord), Alan Reed (Colonel Fineman).
BW-91m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jeff Stafford