Tea Party Invaders! Douglas Sirk’s No Room for the Groom (1952)

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Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie in No Room for the Groom (1952).

“…I can remember nothing about this picture at all.”

-Douglas Sirk on No Room for the Groom (1952)[1]

Amidst the patchy availability of important Hollywood films of the golden age, it’s sometimes surprising what turns up. Douglas Sirk fares better than most directors — his characteristic melodramas are available in well-produced editions. Beyond the famous films of his mature period — Written on the Wind (1956), All that Heaven Allows (1955), Imitation of Life (1958) (perhaps the ne plus ultra of weepies) — some more obscure Sirks are available, gems like All I Desire (1953), curiosities like the western Taza, Son of Cochise (1953), and the fascinating, startlingly bitter screwball comedy No Room for the Groom (1952).

If Douglas Sirk were an architect and No Room for the Groom a building, the film would be an energetic but leaky little beach house, the product of a developed sensibility not yet in possession of the tools to fully express itself. Because its materials — cast, script, music, camerawork — are not up to the standard of his later work (Universal was not a rich studio in 1952), No Room for the Groom is unexpectedly revealing of Sirk’s contribution as director. Unfortunately it is difficult to discuss the film without giving away the story, not that it is a particularly unpredictable one. We begin in Las Vegas with neon signs reflected on a bus window. Out of the bus steps a soldier, Alvah Morrell (Tony Curtis) and his fiancée Lee Kingshead (Piper Laurie). With Curtis due to ship out the next day, they rush to the nearest wedding chapel and get married. Afterwards in the hotel, the night is ruined when Curtis breaks out with chicken pox. From the beginning, Curtis and Laurie seem ill at ease with one another. He is a gregarious Italian-American (with the inexplicable last name of Morrell…) who dreams of living with her on his vineyard (they drink a ‘sparkling wine’ made from his grapes called Delizioso). She is anxious, constantly shrinking away from him, concerned about how her mother will react to their elopement. The rest of the movie is essentially the story of Curtis’ thwarted efforts to consummate the marriage.

The biggest obstacle is her family. When Curtis returns to his rambling farmhouse for a week’s leave after ten months away, he finds it filled with her assorted relatives. Where a typical screwball comedy might humanize the invaders with endearingly quirky or harmlessly irritating personality traits, Sirk presents them as nothing other than the pure manifestation of the mindlessly evil mob. Depictions of the irredeemable family are rare enough in Hollywood film that it’s worth dwelling on their unrelenting awfulness. With a modest budget, a tight schedule and an average cast (other than Tony Curtis), Sirk becomes a kind of choreographer. The academy ratio frame helps him cast the invaders as a series of lumbering bodies attached to minds which, if they work at all, are capable of little other than passive aggression. In his own home, as he pursues the indecisive and birdlike Laurie, Curtis is constantly running into walls and clots made of her relatives, anonymous men and women perpetually using his toilet, eating and quarreling. This fecund clan is exactly what Idiocracy (2006) would later warn us about. Outside of horror movies, we rarely see purely evil children in Hollywood film and in No Room for the Groom there is a boy named Donovan, (Lee Aaker) who is possibly the vilest child ever depicted in movies (he’s ten times worse than any of the sweet little munchkins in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009)).

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The irredeemable child, Donovan (Lee Aaker), likes his dinner.

Every mob needs a leader, and Laurie’s mother, Mama Kingshead (Spring Byington) is happy to fill the vacuum. In the film she is not only the typically controlling mother in law, feigning a weak heart whenever Curtis tries to inform her of the marriage, she is explicitly a figure of the red baiting political right. Many screwball comedies are fueled by problems of communication, the resolution of which usually results in the boy getting the girl, or vice versa. In No Room for the Groom, the inability to communicate is particularly dire and widespread. The aforementioned family members do nothing but scream and babble. Their lumbering movements within the familiarly Sirkian domestic interiors create difficulties of movement which echo their communication problems; Curtis and Laurie both walk and speak at cross-purposes. The central couple is not only unable to find a quiet place to talk amidst the din, when the finally do, their intimacy seems to require that they literally not listen to one another. Using the physical movement of characters to tell a story seems almost to have vanished from the today’s movies as mise en scene surrenders to what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity — shot-reverse-shot closeups with shallow depth of field, alternated with set piece action scenes (in No Room for the Groom, even at the family dinner table no one remains seated for long — think of how static these scenes are nowadays). In Sirk’s work the conflicts between characters are evident in the disparate ways they move through space (space which itself is never generic). In spite of screwball comedy convention, we know instinctively that any entente between the striding Curtis, the flitting Laurie, the lurching family and the static Mama will be tenuous indeed.

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Piper Laurie and Tony Curtis find a quiet place to talk.

In the case of Laurie’s mother, when her shopworn fainting spells fail to drown out unwanted information, she resorts to political sloganeering. As her daughter evades her GI husband, Mama remains nearly sedentary, secretly gambling, drinking and smoking (simultaneously at one point), with the glazed look of someone who reads political blogs all day. She wants her daughter to marry her boss, Mr. Strouple (Don DeFore), the owner of the town cement plant, who has grown rich on war contracts. While her objections to Curtis are likely rooted in ethnic prejudice, she finds it more convenient to discredit him as a political enemy. After coming home on leave, Curtis wants to spend the day with his wife, who has to go to work:

MAMA: Lee has government contracts to get out by tonight. I knew that you wouldn’t want to hold up the progress of our country’s preparedness program. I told her that you were a soldier, and that you’d understand.

ALVAH: I’m also a husband, which is something you should understand.

LEE: Please Alvah…

MAMA: Well, if you want to be selfish at the expense of your country’s welfare.

ALVAH: Are you trying to tell me that the welfare of the United States of America depends on whether my wife goes to work this morning or not?

MAMA: We must all put our shoulders to the wheel…

ALVAH: Well let them use somebody else’s shoulder today.

MAMA: I’m beginning to think you should be investigated by a congressional committee.

Sirk was a man of the left, and though never forced to testify before HUAC, an anecdote he told a documentary film crew in 1982 demonstrates that the McCarthyites were well aware of him. Soon after buying an edition of Brecht’s collected works from a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, Sirk received a visit from a HUAC staffer:

SIRK: ‘Well Mr. Sirk,’ he said, ‘let’s come to the point. Two weeks ago, at the bookstore of Mr. Mayer (I’m making up the name). You have been buying the collected works of Bert Brecht, is that true?” I got a shock, my God, I’m in a free country…I said, ‘why are you interested in that?’ He said, ‘Because I am of the Un-American Activities Committee, and Bert Brecht is a Communist.’ I said, ‘Now wait a minute, why do you call him a Communist?’ He said, ‘That’s what we want to know from you. The Committee knows you are a friend of Brecht’s. You have done his works in Germany. You have bought those books….Could you tell me something? But you have to stick to the truth, otherwise you have to go to court, you know, and swear to it. To your knowledge is Mr. Brecht a Communist? Because he has to appear before the Committee of Un-American activities next week.’ I said, ‘I can tell you he’s no Communist. I can swear to it.’…So he left. Now, I was telling the truth because he was no member of the party, you know. Of course he was the Communist on earth, you know, really, in his thinking, you know., but he was no party member so I was telling the truth. And this is how Brecht got off.[2]

Perhaps it is possible to make too much of No Room for the Groom’s political aspects, but for what was intended to be a frothy comedy, the prominence and bleakness of the film’s political prognosis (as dark as that of the great Tony Curtis film The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)) seems pretty bold. Beyond any particular political message, the film critiques the way people talk when the talk about politics. It equates the interpersonal communications breakdown typical of its genre with a degraded political discourse. Sirk clearly recognized the reductive sloganeering which characterizes American politics at its worst (Mama “Grizzly” Kingshead is Palin avant la lettre).

The more politicized thread of No Room for the Groom concerns the cement plant owner’s plan to build a railway line across Curtis’ property. Much is written about the artificiality of Sirk’s work, but it was perhaps this stylization, combined with his own viewpoint as an emigre, which allowed him to present such a vivid and distilled sense of place in each of his films. The houses, offices and towns of Sirk’s universe are never generic backgrounds for the unfolding of plot. His spaces — Main Street USA in All I Desire, the oil wells and the mythic “river” of infinite nostalgia in Written on the Wind, Tarnished Angels’ surreal black and white cinemascope New Orleans and a proto-McMansion in Imitation of Life — are almost indicted in the anguish of those who pass through them. Though we see little of the town of Suttersville in No Room for the Groom, perhaps no other Sirk film contains so much talk (and of course miscommunication) about place. The changes taking place in the town as the cement plant (its industrial hellscape a precursor to the oil wells in Written on the Wind) and its copious, easy wealth substitutes fur coats for old farms, stands as proxy for Curtis and Laurie’s rocky marriage, and vice versa.

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A changing town.

No Room for the Groom depicts wartime patriotism as it is imperceptibly demobilized into unreflective support for the most top-down, paternalistic version of capitalist progress. Before our eyes we see the right wing populism of the Kingshead family allying itself with its neoliberal corporate cousin. To the tea party invaders of Curtis’ house and most of all to his mother in law, the cement plant is progress, and its owner, Mr. Strouple, the kind of go-get-’em, aw-shucks local industrialist you might find valorized in a weekend newspaper’s glossy magazine. After Curtis rejects Strouple’s proposal to build the spur line, the industrialist pays a house call. As he quickly jettisons smarm for belligerence, his words could be those of certain Sydney property developers in 2010:

MR STROUPLE: Do you know what will happen if you block this spur track? When our government contracts run out we won’t be able to meet eastern competition. We’ll have to fire thousands of people, including many of your cousins right here in this room. Suttersville will stop growing. Now do you want Suttersville to stop growing? Answer me, yes or no.

ALVAH: I sure do…

FAMILY (in background): He sure what? What’s this?

ALVAH: …I want this town the way it used to be not the way you want to make it. And I love this house. My grandfather lived in it and my father lived in it and I intend to occupy it and keep it. And I’ll be darned if I’m going to permit you to lay tracks across my front yard, move my house and fill my vineyard with your stinking cement and smoke and noise.

MAMA: I told Lee that he ought to be investigated…

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Tony Curtis pleads his case to Mr. Strouple, the smug industrialist (Don DeFore).

No Room for the Groom is not a particularly funny film. It substitutes despair and frustration (Curtis’ and ours) for the graceful tingle of romantic suspense typical of the screwball genre. Laurie and Curtis are not the perfect couple. When she sides with her boss rather than her husband on the matter of the rail spur it reveals not a temporary roadblock on the way to romance, but a structural defect in their relationship, as well as in the notion of progress. Their discomfort with each other may result from a lack of chemistry between the leading actors, but as the film progresses, nothing relieves the premonition that even if these two end up together it will only be the beginning of a lifetime of misery.

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A dire failure to communicate: Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie.

With Sirk we must always contend with endings, and perhaps no other filmmaker reveals so well the way in which the last five minutes of a film is and is not important. While his level of creative freedom varied according to the conditions set by his producer (in his mature work of the mid to late 1950s, Ross Hunter generally demanded happier endings than Albert Zugsmith, the producer of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)), I think it is a mistake to consider the problem as a simple conflict between a tacked on happy ending and some ideal, uncompromising downer Sirk might have wished for. Sirk was well aware of the dilemma of having to provide “a happy end even in the most goddam awful situations,”[3] and solved the problem by relying on an audience’s ability to imagine a sad ending within a seemingly happy one. Though this quotation describes the towering ending of Imitation of Life, the same uneasy deus ex machina reared up at the end of any number of his films:

In Imitation of Life, you don’t believe the happy end, and you’re not really supposed to. What remains in your memory is the funeral. The pomp of the dead, anyway the funeral.  You sense it’s hopeless, even though in a very bare and brief little scene afterwards the happy turn is being indicated. Everything seems to be OK, but you well know it isn’t. By just drawing out the characters you certainly could get a story — along the lines of hopelessness, of course. You could just go on. Lana will forget about her daughter again, and go back to the theatre and continue as the kind of actress she has been before. Gavin will go off with some other woman. Susan Kohner will go back to the escape world of vaudeville. Sandra Dee will marry a decent guy. The circle will be closed. But the point is you don’t have to do this. And if you did, you would get a picture that the studio would have abhorred.[4]

Though Sirk had less creative freedom in 1952 than he would later in the decade, No Room for the Groom nevertheless has a strangely muted ending, especially considering its genre. While Laurie agrees to boot out her family and refuse the cement plant’s offer, there is no accompanying action (least of all the consummation of their marriage) to back up her words. By creating a universe in which verbal communication is useless (“Lee, I don’t think your paying any attention to me.” “Alvah, darling, I’m paying as much attention as I can only I don’t think you’re paying any attention to me.”), Sirk cleverly undermines his own happy ending by basing it on nothing but words. Curtis is allowed no cathartic defeat of the invaders. No Room for the Groom is fascinating not because it is some kind of under-appreciated masterpiece, but because it provides a signpost on the way to a great director’s maturity. Like fellow Universalite Anthony Mann, Sirk was no Orson Welles. He did not explode onto the scene fully formed, but developed progressively, perhaps in part because his ultimate project — making films which were simultaneously the weepiest of weepies and commentaries on the idea of weepiness — was so singularly unusual.

No Room for the Groom is available in Australia (region 4) as part of the collection Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama (Madman). Sadly, it appears to be unavailable a US (region 1) version.


[1] Halliday, Jon. Sirk on Sirk. New York: Viking, 1972, p. 160.

[2] Sirk recounts this anecdote and others in Days with Sirk, an interview shot in 1982 in Lugano. It is included on the Madman Douglas Sirk collection, volume 1, as a bonus feature on the Taza, Son of Cochise DVD. Taza, Sirk’s only western, is worth an essay in itself. I wonder if a script intended for Anthony Mann ended up in Sirk’s mailbox due to a clerical error?

[3] Halliday, Jon. op cit. p. 133.

[4] Halliday, Jon. op cit. p. 132.

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Piper Laurie (left), Tony Curtis (right) and the irredeemable family (middle).
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