The syrupy and expressionistic screen melodrama reached its zenith in the late 1950’s, thanks to director, Douglas Sirk; the leading proponent of impossibly glossy, superficially beguiling and emotionally-saturated women’s weepies. Sirk intoxicates with his combination of immaculately groomed and gushing female protagonists, set against domesticated backdrops of middle-class morality. Often, they’re exposed to the darker underbelly of this cosmopolitan savvy, ‘American dream’; buffeted by addlepated gossip from small minds, ravenous to dismantle all of the congeniality and contentment that surrounds. While commercially successful (audiences loved them), Sirk’s melodramas rarely found favor with the critics who invariably regarded them as inconsequential, prosaic and idealistic. Interestingly, today’s scholarship has gone the other way, reevaluating Sirk’s milieu as trend-setting. In reality, Sirk’s ‘magnificent obsessions’ are little more than a natural and obvious progression and/or resurrection of the late thirties/early forties women’s pictures, albeit taken to their extreme.
With its absurdly gorgeous cinematography a la Russell Metty, its conspicuous all-American lifestyle depicted as plush shag carpeting and high-styling fins on the back on a convertible, incongruously married to Franz Liszt’s Consolation No.3 in D-flat major, pumped in at every possible moment (to raise a tidal wave of personal angst and regret within our heroine), Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) is on very familiar ground. Here is a world of outwardly blissful home life turned asunder by a love affair more pure and sacred than life itself; at least, according to Peg Fenwick’s nauseating treacle, itself borrowed from a story by Edna and Harry Lee. After the overwhelming success of Sirk’s remake of Magnificent Obsession (1954), the director and Universal-International were fairly itching for another opportunity to reunite co-stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson; she, cast herein as the affluent New England widow, Cary Scott; he, Ron Kirby - the insufferably drop dead gorgeous gardener who would like to prune more than Cary’s hedges, and with whom this mother of two manages to rekindle a sincere spark of mid-life romance. The cougar meets the stud: stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
In retrospect, All That Heaven Allows is a kissing cousin to Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation (1946); the story of a respectable wife and mother nearly brought to heal in her desire to be loved anew after her husband’s passing – and, in spite of the shock and dismay of her children, and unforgiveable narrow-mindedness from fair-weather country club friends. The premise is only slightly updated herein – and occasionally, drawn out to showcase Sirk’s usual aplomb for visual imagery and color to induce/heighten and/or extol a particular mood or heightened sexual chemistry without really showing us anything more than two beautiful people incessantly mooning at one another. On the surface, All That Heaven Allows plays to the tune of heart-plucking violin strings; a glossy heart-breaker with oodles of contemporary style to boot.
Subliminally, however, Sirk is arraigning the American lifestyle, circa the 1950’s; criticizing its conservative rigidity and straight-jacketed social mores. These would ostracize a woman for falling in love twice and speaking her mind – if only as dictated by her heart. As such, All That Heaven Allows is intensely borne in its demystification of class and conformism. Sirk is highly critical of mid-town morality. He equates wealth with prejudice. The American family unit, at least for Sirk, breeds an inherent xenophobic mistrust for anyone outside it. Consequently, as Cary’s affair with Ron builds to its inevitable crescendo, her once cozy and safe surroundings increasing become repressive and inhospitable to their lasting happiness; the well-wishers who helped Cary through her bereavement, now turning against her with supercilious abandonment.
Selfishly, her friends would be much happier if Cary remained ensconced in this morbid worship of the dead; heart locked away, denied any sexual pleasure this second time around. Hence, beneath Sirk’s uber-lush glorification of ‘America the beautiful’ there lies an insidious, and occasionally sinister subtext; misery imposed in the name of faux decency. Nowhere is Sirk more critical of America’s post-war conspicuous consumption than in the scene when Cary, having bitterly ended her relationship with Ron to shield her children from undue gossip, is given a TV as a surrogate on those long and very cold nights to follow.
I know I’m going to get slammed for this, but I’ll just go on record: I’ve never been able to entirely warm to Douglas Sirk’s ‘style’, too transparent and heavy-handed for my tastes; his sexual innuendos glaringly discernable, perhaps, only when viewed from the vantage of our own post-Freudian/post-modern rubrics of analysis and present day laissez faire attitude towards human sexuality as depicted in the movies. Nevertheless, and for me, Sirk is trying waaaay too hard to show us what the conventions of his day prohibit him from illustrating in more clear-cut terms. Herein, I vividly recall two embarrassingly silly moments from Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956); first; when Robert Stack’s Kyle Hadley, having just discovered he is impotent, expresses wounded pang at the sight of a young boy being vigorously bounced on a mechanical pony at the supermarket (ball-busting 1-0-1); the other, near the end of the movie as Kyle’s oversexed sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), having lost the studly Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) to sister-in-law, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), and now the heir apparent to the family’s fortunes, weeps at the desk of her late father after Kyle has committed suicide, clutching and caressing a miniature oil derrick (with even more distinctly phallic implications).
So it is saying much herein, that I continue to regard All That Heaven Allows with sincere admiration, precisely because it lacks such overtly suggestive material; Sirk, for once, concentrating on telling a good story without becoming self-indulgent in his double entendre. Wyman and Hudson, who were slightly off in their performances and awkwardly thrust together in Magnificent Obsession really hit their stride as a couple in All That Heaven Allows. They’re believable: the perfect pair, if far too stunningly handsome to be believed as imperfect human beings. It’s a fairly predictable May/December romance blossoming between these two: the pleasant, but world-weary, widow; her cares momentarily lifted on the brawny shoulders of this considerably younger and physically chiseled young man who is deemed a fortune hunter by Cary’s narrow-minded ilk of fair-weathers. These include Cary’s own starchy son, Ned (the forgettable, William Reynolds).
All That Heaven Allows plays to the strengths of its two co-stars: particularly, Hudson’s physical appeal as the all-American hunk de jour, who could practically guarantee box office with a shirtless scene. Knowing the truth about Rock Hudson today does not diminish his presence in movies like All That Heaven Allows; perhaps because Hudson was impeccable at playing it straight. Moreover, he managed to conceal from the public his homosexuality for so long that when he finally ‘came out’ it didn’t seem – and perhaps still does not quite appear to be possible. It’s much easier to buy into Rock Hudson as the epitome of butch masculinity; a persona handcrafted for him by the Hollywood machinery and diligently maintained by Hudson in both his public and private life, if under a looming cloud of suspicion, to ensure and protect the perpetuation of his own mythology for generations to come.
As for Jane Wyman, she is particularly accomplished at playing this forthright lady of the maison; her early career made on varying portraits of the mousy innocent (Johnny Belinda 1948, Stage Fright 1950) and much later, fondly remembered as Angela Channing, the imperious maven of the vineyards on TV’s Falcon Crest (1981-1990). In retrospect, Wyman’s mid-fifties tenure was a renaissance for glamor; Wyman always immaculate and elegantly sheathed in designs by Edith Head, counterbalanced by flashes of more erotic home fires lurking just beneath her cultured mannequin’s façade.
Our story opens in the pastoral New England hamlet of Stoningham. Recently widowed Cary Scott is disappointed when her best friend, Sara Warren (played to perfection by Agnes Moorehead) unexpected cancels their luncheon date. Cary and Sara used to be thick as thieves. But now it seems to Cary the world has moved on without her. Impetuously, Cary decides to ask her landscaper, Ron Kirby to share the meal she has already prepared. Ron is a strapping hunk and pleasant enough company. Moreover, for Cary it feels good to be in the presence of an attractive man once again. Invariably, each realizes despite their discrepancies in age, financial status and social standing, both share a lot in common. Knowing nothing of Cary’s cute meet with Ron, her children, aspiring exec’, Ned, and college co-ed, Kay (Gloria Talbott) openly approve of mom getting back into the dating scene; just with one of their own upper-class snobs; Harvey (Conrad Nagel) who is mom’s age but sadly, a stolid hypochondriac to boot. Freud could make much of these two; Harvey desperately in search of a mother-figure. But Cary isn’t about to fill those shoes, not when her feet can still fit into a pair of heels fit for a fashionable night on the town.
On their country club date, Cary and Harvey meet up with new neighbor, Tom Allenby (Tol Avery) who has already garnered the unwarranted attentions of a sassy young blonde. Small town bigotry kicks in after vapid rumormonger Mona Plash (Jacqueline de Wit) disparages Cary for having the audacity to wear red; the movie’s fashion code for a woman whose virtue has already slipped to questionable levels. To punctuate the point, Cary is hit upon by Howard Hoffer (Donald Curtis); a wry lady’s man who also happens to be married. Cary’s not so easily tricked, cleverly deflecting his advances. Nervous he just might lose the most eligible madam in town, Harvey whisks Cary home where he immediately proposes marriage. It would be too easy to say ‘yes’; if only Harv’ weren’t such a drip. So, smart girl that she is, Cary turns him down.
Weeks pass – uneventful, lonely and without illusions about love; that is, until Ron returns to prune Cary’s trees. The spark between them is rekindled, that is, until Ron announces he has decided to quit Cary’s employ to start his own tree farm. Ron extends an invitation for Cary to come and see his place. After some consternation, Cary agrees and is pleasantly surprised by the rural splendor of Ron’s greenhouse and cabin. In his natural setting, Cary deduces for herself Ron really is a wonderful fellow. Any woman would be lucky to have him for a beau. Maybe even… Ron shows Cary the abandoned mill adjacent his property. However, when a frightened bird startles Cary, she inadvertently falls into Ron’s arms. Attempting to disentangle from his grasp, Ron instead locks Cary in his embrace, the two sharing a passionate kiss. Cary is surprised by her reaction. She wants Ron, but denies her feelings. It’s no good. She’s too old. He’s too young. He hasn’t very much to live on. She has everything. Opposites attract – but must not!
Time passes. Autumn leaves Cary cold - literally, horrified even, especially when Sara suggests she buy herself a TV to ‘keep her company’. What Cary wants, television isn’t broadcasting – not yet. So, instead she accepts an invitation to dinner from Ron, given at the home of his good friends, Alida (Virginia Gray) and Mick Anderson (Charles Drake); former suburbanites who, with Ron’s encouragement, now aspire to a pastoral lifestyle. Alida quotes Thoreau; the message of man being allowed to march to a different beat making a lot of sense to Cary who, in Ron’s arms, rediscovers romantic bliss and peace of mind. While she keeps her burgeoning love mostly a secret, Cary cannot deny the jealousy she feels welling up inside at the sight of Alida’s niece, Mary Ann (Merry Anders) flirting with Ron.
Seasons change, but Ron and Cary’s love continues to ripen. Alas, the moment comes when Ron reveals to Cary how much remodeling work he has completed on the mill; also, the house he wants her to share with him for the rest of their lives. Pushed into making a decision, Cary gets cold feet, explaining that while she does love Ron very much their relationship could never work out. Ned and Kay would never understand. Realizing how priggish and superficial she sounds, Cary breaks down. It doesn’t matter; none of it. Ron’s for Cary and vice versa. Against the odds they’ve found one another for better or worse. Alas, they’re in for a bit of the worse first; Mona spying the couple together and spreading the rumor Cary was likely unfaithful in her marriage with Ron.
Determined to set these rumors aside, Sara encourages Cary to bring Ron to a fashionable soiree she’s giving that weekend; a formal coming out as it were and a chance for all of their mutual society friends to get to know Ron a little better. Sadly, some in the gathering take to snubbing Ron as ‘the gardener’. Howard suggests Cary is a tease. Chivalrously coming to Cary’s defense with fists, the resulting scene (Ron pummels Howard) alienates Cary and Ron from her ‘friends’. They decide to leave the party early. Things don’t go much better for Cary at home; her announced engagement to Ron meeting with abject contempt and disbelief from her own children. Kay wails that her own social life has been ruined by the rumors. Ned threatens to never come home again. Unable to reconcile her importance as a mother of two adult children with her own needs, Cary breaks off her engagement to Ron, believing this will solve everything.
Superficially, it does just that. Cary’s fair-weather flock return and begin to invite her to their social gatherings again. But before long, Cary realizes she is the odd girl at their parties; alone and lonely. Worse, Ned and Kay have moved on; Kay with a fiancée, Ned to Paris to pursue a new job opportunity. When Cary sees their Christmas gift to her – a TV set – she is reminded of how much she has sacrificed for nothing. A crippling round of headaches follows. Dr. Dan Hennessy (Hayden Rorke) suggests they might be the result of all the stress Cary has been under recently; compounded by the fact she has seen Ron and Mary Ann about town together. Determined to make a last ditch effort to win Ron back Cary decides to drive out to his cabin. At the last possible moment, however, she gets cold feet again, turning away from his front door to head back to her car.
Ron, who has been out hunting, observes Cary from a nearby hilltop. It’s good to see her again. This time, Ron isn’t about to let her get away. Too bad, Ron isn’t looking where he’s going. He slips down the steep embankment, striking his head on a rock and suffers a concussion. Cary sees none of this; learning of Ron’s accident from Alida hours later. Rushing to Ron’s cabin, Cary sees for the very first time the gorgeous house Ron had built for her happiness some months ago. It humbles Cary to think any man would love her enough to do all of this just to impress her. Acknowledging her true feelings for Ron once and for all, Cary awaits at his bedside until morning. When Ron stirs he is surprised and grateful to see Cary there and she tenderly assures him she will never leave his side again. She has come home to stay.
In many ways, All That Heaven Allows is a superbly crafted woman’s picture. Only occasionally does the Fenwick screenplay veer into Douglas Sirk’s typical vintage of maudlin melodrama. But we are generally spared the saccharine, mostly because Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson (and Agnes Moorehead – in wonderful support) are seasoned pros rather than old hams. Sirk manages to stir our empathy for Cary; a character who, by 1950’s standards could easily have been misconstrued as a wanton middle-age woman out to bang herself a bright young buck. But Wyman is congenial to a fault, and conflicted in her motives; a complexity the audience can relate to. And, like the protagonist martyr of so many like-themed movies, Wyman’s Cary endures her trial by fire with even greater dignity and a modicum of personal angst and regret. She suffers and we suffer alongside her. She repents and we are forgiving. She pursues her dreams – a man so right for her – and wins him back, and we cheer - loudly.
Perhaps today’s more relaxed mores and social acceptance of May/December romances has contributed to the overall richness and arc of the movie’s ever-lasting appeal, although I sincerely doubt it. Clever craftsman that he was, Douglas Sirk manages to open our hearts and minds to another human being in need whatever the age. Our sympathies are all on the side of the lovelorn. While arguably the greatest romances in literature, and on the silver screen, are frequently tinged in sadness and even moments of tragedy, Sirk’s artistic mélanges are almost always designed to satisfy the audiences’ need for the proverbial ‘happy ending’. But he does not cheat us via this penultimate cliché.
Rather, he reveals traits about the human condition along the way; often introspectively, occasionally through a harsher than expected, even unflattering light, exposing our lovers to the cruelty of a world enviously opposed to their joys. Hence, the triumph at the end, despite such seemingly insurmountable obstacles, provides a cathartic release for the audience. It satisfies a more intuitive nature to have all our lives more closely aligned with that cinematic reflection; the promise of hope and goodness in all things to those who struggle, suffer, yet endure, flickering off the screen at twenty-four frames per second.
All That Heaven Allows was remade, arguably twice – once by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), where the age gap was widened further still, then again by Todd Haines as Far From Heaven (2002); further complicating the scenario by introducing elements of homosexuality and racism into the mix. What neither remake seems to grasp is Sirk’s counterbalance of a lush visual style to offset the inherent ugliness of humanity. Haines comes closer to replicating this look. But there is a decided disconnect at play in Far From Heaven, perhaps because Haines’ movie is fifty-two years removed from this actual snapshot in time it is attempting to emulate, while All That Heaven Allows is smack dab in the middle of that ultra-conservative claustrophobia; hence, it hasn’t aged or arguably dated. In the final analysis, All That Heaven Allows is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and a contemplative plat du jour for the heart and the mind. Too few movie melodramas, before or since, are taken to such discovery, much less achieved.
Criterion Home Video gives us a rather spectacular looking Blu-ray of Sirk’s beloved classic; one that, at long last, presents Russell Metty’s exquisite cinematography in glowingly rich Technicolor. Over the year’s there has been some discrepancy as to the original aspect ratio of All That Heaven Allows with rumored projections in theaters back then ranging from a 1.37:1 open matte to a heavily cropped 2.00:1 widescreen presentation. Criterion’s Blu-ray is framed at 1.75:1 which, given Metty’s framing of the action, looks about right.
It’s a brand new 2K scan too, utilizing meticulously stored original 35mm camera negatives. Universal, the custodians of Sirk’s library have obviously done some restoration work to ensure age-related artifacts are practically eradicated. Fine detail, overall clarity and depth of field are exquisitely rendered. Metty’s painterly style positively oozes richness from every frame. Best of all, film grain looking very organic. Bottom line: you are going to love – LOVE – this visual presentation. Predictably, the audio is less impressive – at the mercy of vintage element that, while sounding quite nice, simply do not hold a candle to more contemporary sound mixes. Criterion remains faithful to the original source. This is an LPCM 1.0 mix. For what it is, the overall clarity is impressive, Frank Skinner’s gushing score the highlight. Dialogue is always clear and presented at an adequate listening level.
As expected, Criterion rounds out their offering with some impressive extras, starting with a comprehensive audio commentary from film scholars, John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald. The most impressive extra feature here is Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), an hour-long documentary by Mark Rappaport. We also get another hour-long doc; this one on Sirk’s career, plus Sirk giving French television a fifteen minute interview. Finally, there’s a half-hour piece with William Reynolds, a trailer and a booklet, the latter featuring meaningful essays and excerpted interviews. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)