All That Heaven Allows [DVD]
Screenplay : Peg Fenwick (based on a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Stars : ane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Conrad Nagel (Harvey), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Jacqueline de Wit (Mona Plash)
There are few films that better illustrate the elasticity of film reception than the works of Douglas Sirk, a German émigré who made a series of Technicolor Hollywood melodramas in the 1950s that only years later were recognized as subversive masterpieces of social and ideological critique.
During the waning years of the Hollywood studio system, brilliant Europeans like Sirk, who had a background in theater and Bertold Brecht, could be held under contract and handed silly scripts designed to be women's weepies. But, Sirk took those scripts and made great films out of them, imbuing them with a deep intelligence, wit, and critical outlook that emerges if you view them in a certain way, but is not so obvious that it ruptures the clean, slick surface. That is the beauty of Sirk's melodramas: Whether viewed straight, as social critique, or as outright camp, they can sustain each approach and reward the viewer.
Sirk's first major Hollywood success was 1954's Magnificent Obsession, which was also his first melodrama. The studio (in this case, Universal-International), quickly paired Sirk again with that movie's two stars, Jane Wyman (recently divorced from Ronald Reagan) and rising stud Rock Hudson, for All That Heaven Allows, a romantic weepie about the social stigma that arises in a small American town when a wealthy, older widow falls in love with a bohemian gardener 15 years her junior.
The story takes place in the fictional, picturesque small town of Stoningham, New York. Wyman stars as Cary Scott, a middle-class widow with two almost-grown children. She lives in a large house, has a comfortable group of socialite friends, and goes to dinners and parties at the local country club. Everything in her life seems "perfect" in a conventional kind of way. Then, she meets Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), the handsome young man who prunes the trees in her garden, and everything changes.
Cary and Ron end up falling deeply in love with each other, but as in all good melodrama, there are several obstacles in their path to blissful happily-ever-afterness. First of all, their lifestyles are deeply divided. Cary's suburban complacency stands in stark contrast to Ron's minimalist natural lifestyle. He lives in a small room adjacent to his greenhouse, and he dreams of growing trees for the rest of his life, living in the simple manner proscribed by Thoreau in Walden, a book that serves as Ron's Bible.
Then there are Cary's two children, Kay (Gloria Talbott), who is in her late teens, and Ned (William Reynolds), who is a college student. Although Kay professes to be a liberated young woman, spouting Freudian psychology and asserting her belief that widows should not be socially "walled in" by their deceased husbands, she is really no more open to the idea of Cary marrying Ron than is the deeply conservative and reactionary Ned. Both Kay and Ned much prefer their mother to marry Harvey (Conrad Nagel), a decent, older man who is simply looking for "companionship and affection." The moment early in the film when Harvey proposes marriage to Cary, explaining that neither of them is looking for romance, just a comfortable companion, is a pivotal one, as the look in Cary's eyes tells us that, deep inside, she still yearns for deep romantic involvement, the kind that Harvey is entirely incapable of providing.
The biggest obstacle, however, is society itself. The very things that had been Cary's main source of comfort in her life--her group of friends, her social engagements--become her greatest enemy. Although Cary's best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorehead), is warily supportive of her relationship with Ron, the rest of the social scene in Stoningham (the name of the town brings to mind the ancient, humiliating punishment of stoning someone to death, a fate often reserved for prostitutes and other "social deviants") rejects the relationship outright.
Led by the wicked tongue of the gossipy Mona Plash (deliciously played by Jacqueline de Wit), the social set quickly turns Cary and Ron's relationship in fodder for ridicule and slander. "Talk" becomes a cruel weapon of personal destruction, as Sara warns Cary that, no matter how strong her relationship is with Ron, there will be talk. People will talk about how he's 15 years younger than she is; they will say that maybe he's just after her money; and, worse of all, they will suggest that Cary and Ron's relationship started before her husband died, thus branding her an adulterer.
Sirk handles all of this in both a delicate and a heavy-handed manner that are oddly complementary. The surface of each scene is all melodrama, the emotions pitched and the pain laid bare. This is never so evident as in the cocktail party scene, where all the women stand around gossiping about Cary and Ron while waiting for them to arrive, then put on their fake faces once in their presence. It is here that Sirk's social critique is most obvious, as the narrative obviously condemns that back-stabbing social set and elevates the romance between Cary and Ron to almost mythical levels of pure love.
But, within many of these scenes, Sirk creates an added layer of symbolism, often through his carefully framed compositions that have been described as literally trapping the characters. Sirk creates a visual contrast between Cary's large house, filled with overstuffed furniture, mirrors, and pointless objects, and the home Ron creates for her in an old mill, which is characterized by rustic beauty and sparseness. The main difference is that Ron and Cary seem to have space to move within his house, while they look trapped and confined in her house, at the cocktail party, or when she is at the country club.
Sirk is also adept at taking everyday objects and turning them into symbols that function within his framework of social critique. In All That Heaven Allows, the most startling symbol is a new television set that Ned gives to Cary for Christmas after Cary has broken off her relationship with Ron in order to make her children happy. Cary has resisted buying a television up until this point, and when Ned and the local TV salesman wheel it into her living room, it becomes a stark, invasive object that symbolizes not only Cary's solitude, as she has just found out that Ned is going abroad and Kay is getting married, but a symbol of how we as a society often isolate ourselves from real life in materialist possessions that divert our attention from what is truly important. Sirk gives us a slow zoom in toward the television, and we see Cary's sad reflection literally trapped within its dark, foreboding frame. It's a beautiful and tragic shot, one of great clarity and gravity, and it is testament to Sirk's mastery of the visual image and his ability to manipulate melodramatic material to deeper ends.
Like most of his films, All That Heaven Allows has a slightly ambiguous ending. It closes in happy Hollywood fashion, yet there is a lingering pain that won't go away, even as the final credits roll. Cary and Ron may be back together in the end, but Sirk in no way suggests that the scorn and criticism with which society views their relationship has in any way abated. If anything, both Cary and Ron have learned more about themselves, and will be better equipped to withstand it in the future.
|All That Heaven Allows: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| 32 minutes of excerpts from the 1979 BBC documentary Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk |
"Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk" illustrated essay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Collection of production stills and lobby cards
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Criterion has presented All That Heaven Allows in a beautiful new widescreen (1.77:1) high-definition anamorphic transfer taken from the 35mm interpositive. The results are gorgeous, with the deeply saturated, slightly unreal Technicolor looking absolutely superb. Some of the scenes, especially long establishing shots, seem to be a bit softer than the closer shots, although they are still finely detailed. There are a few nicks and scratches here and there, most evident whenever Sirk uses a fade-to-black transition. However, overall, this is a clean, beautifully rendered transfer of an elegantly visual film.|
|The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is clean and clear throughout, and Frank Skinner's soapy musical score has a good amount of depth and richness for a one-channel mix. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout.|
| Criterion has excerpted just over 30 minutes of interviews with Douglas Sirk from the 1979 BBC documentary Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk. These excerpts provide a great introduction to this complex, intelligent man, as he talks about his entire life, from his background in theater and film work with the German film company Ufa, to his having to flee Germany once the Nazis took power in the mid-1930s, to his early, largely undistinguished work in Hollywood that led to his famous '50s melodramas. For those who are still convinced that Sirk was just a competent studio-system filmmaker, this interview provides evidence of how well-read, intelligent, and thoughtful he was and how he worked those qualities into his films. |
One of the filmmakers most influenced by Sirk was Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who remade All That Heaven Allows in 1974 as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Criterion has included a 1971 essay Fassbinder wrote entitled "Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk," in which Fassbinder analyzes six of Sirk's films in his own unique and engaging, although sometimes crude and funny, way. This essay was written when Sirk was just beginning to find a new critical acceptance, especially by scholars and critics in France and England, and Fassbinder is particularly lucid in outlining some of the major components of Sirk's films that were being rediscovered.
Also included on this disc is a nice gallery of more than 30 black-and-white vintage production stills and color lobby cards, as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.
©2001 James Kendrick