Sublime, visually lush, emotional melodrama at its most piercing
At first glance, “All That Heaven Allows” appears to be a romantic Technicolor fantasy. But a look beyond the martinis and picture-postcard landscapes will expose a piercing portrait of society. A box-office hit in its day, a decade later the film was dismissed as dated trivial fluff, only to be rediscovered in the 1970s as a magnificent and subversive work of art made by a master of cinematic melodrama. Its reputation has only grown over time, and The Guardian named it the 11th Best Romantic Film of All-Time, it rates 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has continually served as inspiration for many directors and films over the decades (such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul", John Waters' 1981 film "Polyester", and Todd Haynes' 2002 film "Far from Heaven”). “All That Heaven Allows” is a one-of-a-kind visually entertaining banquet and absorbing emotional joyride.
Set in 1950’s small-town America, the plot revolves around widowed and wealthy “Cary Scott”, as she falls in love with her much younger hunky gardener (“Ron Kirby”) to the dismay of her two grown children and practically all of the residents of her tight-knit town. Because of the conventions of her snobbish community, this woman of social standing will lose everything if she marries the man she loves – her family, her community, her place in society, and her life as she knows it. The plot might sound a bit simple, but thanks to expert filmmaking, all the cinematic elements come together in such inventive ways that they elevate this troubled love story into a shrewd allegory about individualism versus conformity, providing a biting reflection of the hypocrisies and dark side of small-town American life. “Cary’s” trials and tribulations provocatively expose thoughts about agism, prejudice, class distinction, sexual repression, and the cruel and empty trappings of “polite” society. There’s a lot more to this melodrama than meets the eye.
Based on a story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee, “All That Heaven Allows” was adapted into a screenplay by Peg Fenwick. The film came about because Universal-International Pictures scored a big hit with the melodrama “Magnificent Obsession” the year before, which was produced by Ross Hunter and directed by Douglas Sirk. Hunter and Sirk brought back the stars of “Magnificent Obsession” (Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, and Agnes Moorehead) and most of the production crew for “All That Heaven Allows” to try and duplicate the success of that melodrama. However, this time Hunter gave Sirk free rein in adapting the novel for the screen, and feeling the storyline was too bland, Sirk infused this picture-perfect world with a depth of meaning that wasn’t in the original story or script.
To appreciate the full scope of what’s behind the heightened drama in “All That Heaven Allows”, it’s important to remember the context in which it was created. At the time, America was experiencing economic growth and Americans began to move to the suburbs in search of a “white picket fence” good life. It was also a time of repression, the Cold War, and the serious threat of being singled out and blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt compatriots for speaking up or being different. It was safer to live by the rules and blend-in. Sirk draws upon all of these elements, and through his innovative direction turns them around to offer a cutting critique of vacant American culture and values. In addition, the increasing popularity of television was rapidly poaching audiences away from the big screen. To combat this, movie studios were producing epic, larger-than-life type films in virtually all genres. With its sweeping colors, emotions, and music, “All That Heaven Allows” is an epic melodrama which has come to be widely considered one of the cinematic pinnacles of the genre.
Though I’ve presented melodrama in previous films on this blog (“Now Voyager”, “Camille”, “The Heiress”, “Mildred Pierce”, and many others), this film represents a sub-genre specific to the 1950s. Often referred to as “weepies”, “tearjerkers”, “women’s pictures”, or “soap operas”, these mostly eye-popping Technicolor melodramas were highly romantic, visually lush, focused on female characters faced with tragic or impossible relationships, and they inevitably tug at one’s heartstrings. It’s all about emotion – to the point where reality takes a back seat. True to melodrama on every level, the film takes place in an exaggerated, heightened world, and even uses music (the melo or “melos” in melodrama) to keep things passionately moving. But what separates this film from others is how it transcends the soapy genre by injecting it with harsh truths about humanity that are so accurate, they still reverberate today.
Sirk adds depth through his use of lighting, oversaturated colors, luxurious sets, astute symbolism, and skilled camerawork. He once said: “The surface isn’t really the surface but rather a manifestation of the depths. It’s better to read the meaning, or allegory, or symbols on the surface than to dig down to dark depths and fool around down there”. Time and again he cleverly shows characters partially or completely shrouded by shadows, indicating blocked emotions. And objects such as expensive teapots or TV sets signify what characters feel but can’t express, sometimes to chilling effect. One beautiful example is his use of the Koelreuteria tree growing next to “Cary’s” house, which “Roy” says “can only thrive near a home where there is love”. He cuts a branch from the tree and gives it to “Cary”, after which Sirk immediately shows us the brightly lit branch in a vase in “Cary’s”darkened bedroom, as if it were the only things in the world she hopes for.
Mirrors and reflections are everywhere in the film, sometimes used to reveal a character’s innermost feelings, and other times serving as a reminder that the film is a reflection of our own lives and how superficial they can be. Sirk also includes mundane actions (such a vacuuming or making a bed) as additional signals that this glamorized daydream reflects our everyday world. Perhaps Sirk’s strongest use of symbolism is with windows. Indoors equals society and outdoors is freedom and harmony, and windows are used to show both freedom and imprisonment. He keeps “Cary” and her peers separated from the world outside by curtains or small windows, while “Roy” and his gang, who don’t live by societal rules, are surrounded by windows – so many that “Roy” can even see the stars in the sky from his bed at night. “Roy" also builds a nearly floor-to-ceiling window for “Cary”, symbolically to help her escape the trappings of society.
German-born Douglas Sirk (of Danish parentage) has come to be known as the master of melodrama. In school he studied art and philosophy, and soon began directing theater in Germany. While directing, he also painted, published some of his writings, and worked as a film set designer. He soon became one of Germany’s leading theater directors. Sirk grew up during the Expressionist moment, and his work has an Expressionist slant. His first wife was Danish-born actress Asta Nielsen, and together they had one son, Klaus Detlef Sierck. They divorced after five years, and Nielsen joined the Nazi party. Shortly after, Sirk married his second wife Hilde Jary, who was Jewish, and because of it, Nielsen banned Sirk from ever seeing Klaus again. Klaus became a child actor in Nazi films and died while fighting in the German army during the war. It affected Sirk for the rest of his life (and might point to why he became king of the tearjerker). As the Nazis were on the rise, he felt he needed to switch from theater to film and was hired by UFA studios in 1934 to direct short films. His first feature film, "April, April” came in 1935. Disillusioned with Nazi Germany and feeling fearful, he and Jary left for Holland. As the Nazis continued encroaching, the couple moved to New York, and by 1939 were living in California. Sirk directed his first American film "Hitler's Madman" in 1943, followed by three films that starred George Sanders ("Summer Storm", "A Scandal in Paris", and “Lured”), gaining a reputation as a technically savvy, and competent film director.
After working for various Hollywood studios, Sirk landed a contract with Universal in 1950, where his personal style eventually emerged. In 1954, after directing nearly a dozen films (such as the crime drama "Thunder on the Hill", the film noir mystery "Sleep, My Love", and the musical "Meet Me at the Fair”), he was assigned to direct the melodrama "Magnificent Obsession” which became a smash hit. It began the most prestigious period in Sirk's career, and his most noted works, including the melodramas "There's Always Tomorrow", "All That Heaven Allows", "Written on the Wind", "The Tarnished Angels", "A Time to Love and a Time to Die ", and "Imitation of Life". In his melodramas, Sirk's skill at getting great performances, eliciting emotion, while commenting about life, death, and America eventually made him king of the genre, earning him a place in cinema as an auteur. After directing the highly successful "Imitation of Life" in 1959, Sirk retired from filmmaking and moved to Switzerland. He returned as supervising director for three German short films in the late 1970s, and taught filmmaking in Munich. Though they were box-office hits, in his day his weepy melodramas were mostly disregarded. But when his work was revisited by the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma in 1967, Sirk’s films began to be seen as masterpieces of irony, noted for their technical style and how artfully he added meaning just below the surface of a basic plot. In addition to the films and directors mentioned at the start of this entry, Sirk has inspired a bevy of film directors as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Pedro Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch, Kathryn Bigelow, and Lars von Trier. He remained married to Jary from 1934 until his death. Douglas Sirk died in 1987 at the age of 89.
“All That Heaven Allows” is filled with solid performances, and leading the way is Jane Wyman who stars as “Cary Scott”. While the world in the film may seem like a fantasy, Wyman’s performance is so genuine it grounds it in reality. At the film’s start, it is made evident that “Cary” is not entirely part of her middle-class country club when her friend “Sara” says, “Sometimes ‘Cary’, I think you’re smart not to be a club woman”, to which “Cary” replies, “Sometimes I wonder, but it’s just not me”. Wyman is sensational as a woman caught between family, friends, and wanting to follow her heart. We see thoughts rushing through her mind, such as when she looks at the Koelreuteria branch, gets a tour of “Roy’s” barn, or the myriad of feelings she quickly shows after her first kiss with “Roy”. And Wyman communicates almost all of these thoughts without a closeup (Sirk rarely uses closeups and you can count them on one hand in this film). It is a beautifully performed, real portrait of a lonely woman trying to find love.
When Missouri-born Jane Wyman was four years old, her parents divorced, her father unexpectedly died a few months later, and her mother moved away and put her in foster care. When she was eleven, she and her foster mother moved to Southern California, and then back to Missouri where she began singing on the radio. Wyman dropped out of high school and moved back to Hollywood where she began to get small uncredited parts in films starting as a dancer in the Busby Berkeley musical, "The Kid from Spain" in 1932. She continually appeared as chorus girls or in bit parts until she was signed by Warner Brothers in 1936, which lead to her appearing in nearly a decade’s worth of B-movies. By 1939, she was the star and/or female lead of B-movies, with an occasional supporting role in A-list films. She became recognized for her acting talents while starring opposite Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's 1945 Best Picture Oscar-winning film "The Lost Weekend", which led to better roles and films, including "The Yearling" in 1946, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Her star-making role was the lead in the 1948 film "Johnny Belinda", which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award (her only win).
Now a top-billed star, Wyman starred in such films as "The Glass Menagerie", Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright", and "The Blue Veil" (which earned her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination). Her next giant success was Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession", which earned her a fourth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination. Around the time of "All That Heaven Allows", Wyman began appearing mostly on television and only made a half-dozen more films, including Walt Disney's "Pollyanna", and her final, "How to Commit Marriage" in 1969. Her extensive TV work includes her own series from 1955 to 1958, "Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre" (which earned her two Emmy Award nominations), and playing the evil "Angela Channing" in the 1980's TV series "Falcon Crest". Other films from her 110 film and TV credits include "Larceny, Inc.", "Night and Day", "Magic Town", and "Three Guys Named Mike". Her final appearance was on a 1993 episode of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman". Wyman earned three Golden Globe Awards, including one as World Film Favorite in 1951. She was married five times, including her third marriage to actor Ronald Reagan, who years later became the 40th President of the United States. Wyman's fourth marriage was to composer Frederick Karger, whom she divorced and remarried some six years later, only to divorce him a second time. Jane Wyman died in 2007 at the age of 90.
Rock Hudson stars as “Ron Kirby”, the gardener who is seemingly part lumberjack and part philosopher. In essence, “Ron” is the perfect man. Strapping and handsome, he can build his own home, make his own furniture, is one with nature, caring, loving, and devoted. Being so faultless, “Roy” could easily come across as a caricature, but Hudson brings an authentic sensitivity and personality to the role, making him human. “Roy” is ever so charming, whether laughing and enjoying himself with friends or talking about his love for trees, and Hudson underplays a strength that shows a man who knows who he is and remains true to himself and his principals. Sirk loved naturalist, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and in the film “Cary” finds Thoreau’s book “Walden” on a table and reads aloud from it: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it's because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away". This passage sums up the character of “Roy”, and also signifies what’s at the heart of "All That Heaven Allows”.
Rock Hudson was born the same year as Sirk's son, and has been quoted as saying "He [Sirk] was like a dad to me and I was like a son to him, I think". Sirk was the person who helped make Hudson a respected actor and a movie star. He first noticed Hudson in a supporting role in the 1951 film "Iron Man", and saw a quality he liked, so he cast him as the male lead in the 1952 comedy "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?", followed by the lead in the 1954 action film "Taza, Son of Cochise". For "Magnificent Obsession", no one thought Hudson could tackle such a dramatic role except for Sirk, who fought for him. Sirk became a sort of mentor to Hudson, giving him pointers, challenging him, and boosting his confidence, and “Magnificent Obsession” made Hudson a star and proved he could handle heavy dramatic roles. Sirk directed Hudson in a total of eight films, including "Written on the Wind" and their final collaboration "The Tarnished Angels" in 1958. After appearing exclusively in dramas in the late 1950s, Ross Hunter (the producer of "All That Heaven Allows") cast Hudson in the comedy "Pillow Talk", which took his talent and stardom to new heights. You can read more about Rock Hudson (and Ross Hunter) in my post on "Pillow Talk”.
Agnes Moorehead plays “Sara Warren”, “Cary’s” best friend. “Sara” is the first character we meet, as she steps out of her car in a dazzling blue sweater with her red hair and Technicolor-red lipstick. Like her costars, Moorhead underplays her role, and with her immense acting talent, comes across as completely natural in the part. Just watch her in her first scene making small talk with “Cary”, or later in the kitchen questioning her about “Roy”. Moorehead keeps things so simple while effortlessly shifting from emotion to emotion just as one does in real-life conversation. The zealously gossipy "Sara" is part of the social club set, though Moorehead skillfully manages to keep her empathetic. Having also appeared in “Magnificent Obsession”, Moorehead was brought onboard along with Wyman and Hudson in the hope of duplicating that film’s success. Moorehead previously appeared with Wyman in 1948's "Johnny Belinda", which earned Moorehead her third Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (out of a total of four), and she worked with Wyman again in "The Blue Veil", and "Pollyanna". You can read more about the life and career of Agnes Moorehead in my post on “Citizen Kane”. Just click on the film’s title to find out more.
Conrad Nagel plays "Harvey", the "age-appropriate" man who offers his companionship to "Cary". The way in which "Sara" and "Cary" talk about "Harvey", and how he talks about not needing sex with "Cary" indicates to me he might be a 1950s coded gay character, but who knows. In any case, Nagel brings much life to this dignified man.
The Iowa-born Nagel became a matinee idol and leading man of the silent screen, beginning with his first film in the part of "Laurie Laurence" in the 1918 silent version of "Little Women”. His career took off with the 1920 film "The Fighting Chance”, and he appeared in 55 silent films between 1918 and 1929, including "London After Midnight", and two opposite Greta Garbo ("The Kiss" and "The Mysterious Lady"). He appeared in 58 sound films between 1928 and 1959, including "The Divorcee", "The Thirteenth Chair", "One Million B.C.”, and "Bad Sister” opposite Bette Davis. “All That Heaven Allows” was his first film since his starring role in 1948’s “The Vicious Circle”, and Nagel only appeared in three more films (including "Hidden Fear” and his final, "The Man Who Understood Women" in 1959). He turned exclusively to television until 1967. Nagel was one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and even hosted the Oscars in 1930 and 1932. He was honored with an Honorary Academy Award in 1939 for his outstanding services to the industry with his work with the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Nagel also worked heavily in radio. He was married and divorced three times, including a marriage to actress Lynn Merrick. Conrad Nagel died in 1970 at the age of 72.
Virginia Grey plays “Roy’s” friend “Alida Anderson”, who befriends “Cary”. If you are watching the films on here you previously saw her delightfully play Joan Crawford's perfume counter coworker in the classic comedy, "The Women”. Born in Glendale, California to film actor/director Ray Grey and film editor Florence Anna Grey, Virginia Grey made her first film appearance in the 1927 silent film "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when she was ten. More films followed, then a break to go to school, followed by small and uncredited parts, graduating to larger roles in 1939 with “The Women”, ”The Hardys Ride High", "Another Thin Man", and “The Big Store" in 1941 opposite the Marx Brothers. Grey was soon playing leads in B-movies and supporting roles in A-list films, including "The Naked Kiss", "Crime of Passion", "Mexican Hayride", and "Stage Door Canteen". This was Grey's first appearance in a film produced by Ross Hunter, and she would appear in six more of Hunter’s films, including "Portrait in Black", "Tammy Tell Me True", and "Madame X". She never married, but had a famous on again/off again relationship with Clark Gable after his wife Carole Lombard died, with the hopes they would marry, but they never did. Virginia Grey died in 2004 at the age of 87.
This week’s classic pick brings a new sub-genre to the table – a specifically 1950s brand of melodrama, and it and the films like it (particularly “Peyton Place” in 1957), are credited with creating what would become daytime TV soap operas. The romance of this vibrantly dreamlike love story is certain to evoke emotion, and the beauty with which it is told will surely elicit awe. Enjoy the highly enjoyable “All That Heaven Allows”!
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