All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Written by Peg Fenwick
Directed by Douglas Sirk
There is a way to use the tools laid out for you by fascism to strangle it. As mentioned in my Magnificent Obsession review, Douglas Sirk left Nazi Germany when it became intolerable. It was harder to protect his Jewish wife, and his ex had used the law to make it illegal for Sirk to see his son. Eventually, Sirk would find his way to “women’s pictures.” While not as strong a genre as it once was, these types of domestic slice-of-life stories still exist, mostly on television more than in movie theaters. There’s a wide variance in quality these days, with some being prestige cable dramas while others being formulaic churned-out Hallmark Movie trash. Sirk himself commented on this perceived schism in art: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”
Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are re-teamed, satisfying Universal Pictures’ desire to reproduce the success of Magnificent Obsession. Wyman plays Cary Scott, a wealthy widow in suburban picturesque New England. Her life since her husband passed is a revolving door of receiving her college-aged children when they come home on the weekends, lounging at the country club with Sara (Agnes Moorehead), and entertaining the small number of older men vying for her affections. However, everything changes when she gets to know Ron Kirby (Hudson), the gardener she pays to tend to her property.
So much about Ron goes against the ideals Cary has been raised to believe are essential. He has shunned as much materialistic living as possible, devoting his life to his passion: trees. Within this way of living, he’s cultivated several friends who also chose to step away from the conformist methods of thinking being pushed by the establishment. Without putting a label on it, Sirk has introduced us to a type of Left libertarianism, an ideology that tries to find a balance between individual freedom with social equality. Ron is also a good decade younger than Cary, which is sure to cause scandal, and it does.
Wyman was in a new stage of her career, falling slightly from prominence and now relegated to what many in the industry saw as a “lesser tier” of movies aimed at women. The actress would continue to find success in this genre, even holding a starring role in the prime-time soap Falcon Crest in the 1980s. She was also recently divorced from fellow actor Ronald Reagan in 1955. Hudson was a gay man, closeted to the public eye but open in his personal life, a tension that would follow him for decades. He was also friends with the Reagans and would send a letter to Nancy & Ron when they ascended to the presidency. Hudson was dying from AIDs at the time and asked to have the FDA grant his doctors permission to use an experimental treatment. Hudson was going to die so if the treatment failed to work, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The request to his former friends was denied because President Reagan still ignored the threat of AIDs. But back to 1955.
This was a film that few had high expectations for. Universal just wanted to rake in more cash from the ladies attending the movies. However, Douglas Sirk had other ideas and fashioned a film with powerful emotional resonance while taking full advantage of the depth of beauty that Technicolor filmmaking was able to achieve. There is a profound sense of delicate subtlety throughout the film. Sirk’s use of color, emphasizing the seasons through yellow, green, red, and blue, results in images that could be framed and hung without the need for context. They are simply beautiful images.
Yet he uses these images to tell his story and confront the foul conformity that has its death grip on American society. Ron clips branches off a tree early in the film, and Cary arranges them in a vase because of their lovely blooms. Later, her adult children arrive while Cary prepares and the vase sits with the branches displayed. We see her children in the mirror on the other side of Cary, and this composition lays out a critical point that the film will explore. Eventually, Cary will be forced to choose between her children (pushing the conformity narrative) and Ron. In a scene that could quickly be passed over, Sirk visually lays it all out. It doesn’t feel hamfisted, as he doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to the placement of these things. However, to the keen eye, you see how Sirk has a robust understanding of cinematic language.
It’s no wonder that feminist critics have found Sirk’s melodramas to be strong declarations of the inner lives of women. What happens to Cary is harrowing. As a widow, she has a certain status in her community, and it’s not a good one. Getting remarried to a man of a comparable class is about the only option she’s given. But the men she is asked to pick from are not who she wants. One lecherous brute tries pawing all over her at a party, taking her relationship with the “lesser” Ron as a sign that she’s loose and wants a good time. The rest of the guests seem to concur and make light of this attempted sexual assault driving Cary from the venue with their chorus of mocking laughter.
Eventually, Cary decides this sort of life is nothing she wants anything to do with. The decision is made that she’s going to sell her home and move in with Ron at his tree nursery. Her children are apoplectic as this, protesting that to do this is a betrayal to them. Cary capitulates and calls off her plans, but ends up spending most of the Christmas season alone, convinced that Ron has taken up with someone else. Finally, her kids show up for Christmas, only to announce that her daughter is getting married soon and her son will be working abroad for two years. They demanded so much of her only to live their own lives on their own terms. She is meant to be a social prisoner for her children and the other members of the community.
Cary and Ron get back together, providing the requisite happy ending these types of films require, though Sirk originally wanted Ron to die. It is impossible to think that Sirk did not have his own marriage in mind when working on this film. He was a Danish-German man who married a Jew after being married & having a child with a German woman. Unfortunately, his ex-wife’s subsequent support of the Nazi Party caused him to never see his son again, the boy dying fighting for the Nazis in Ukraine. The director had experienced even worse forms of brutal conformity in this, so he tempered the specifics but did not soften the emotional blow. Sirk was adept at this as during his time in Nazi Germany, he was forced to follow their strict guidelines for media. America wasn’t much different, so he became skilled at saying things without explicitly stating them.
The core of All That Heaven Allows is the tension between what we know is right and what society tells us is proper. It’s instinct vs. construct. Right now, in America, there are dozens of strains of groupthink hurtling back and forth. Outright fascists spout racist rhetoric using cagey dog whistles daily. Ravenous groups of reactionaries swarm school board and library board meetings demanding that the shelves be cleared of everything except what holds up their ideology. The supposed opposition, the moderate liberal, brain-warped after years of consuming Aaron Sorkin & the candy-coated version of civil rights, thinks a wittily worded barb is all that is needed to topple the threat of Nazi power. All of these groups hold to the same conformist views, ultimately, that the social Darwinism of capitalism is the key to humanity’s salvation. That violence is terrible…unless it’s the police cracking the skulls of “undesirables” or the military using drones to turn non-white people on the other side of the world into pink mist.
We get our happy ending, but it is with a caveat. The supposed friends & family that Cary once thought would always be there are gone. Living in a way that is true to what we know is right, often pushing back against the mindless consumption the establishment encourages, means isolating ourselves. Hell, Ariana and I left the country because we couldn’t stomach what we saw happening. Most people turn that instinct part of themselves off and simply join the throngs coasting down the river of conformity. It is easier that way. But it isn’t right. I don’t think the world will ultimately be saved by those of us withdrawing, but when faced with the monolith that is Capitalist Realism, the inability of people to imagine the end of capitalism over the collapse of the planet, I don’t see too many other options. In the choices we have made, I feel a freedom of my mind & soul. I am beginning to know who I truly am and what I believe. It’s so terrible that we’ve chosen to build societies that tell people to push those things down and ignore them.