All That Heaven Allows is a story about people told by things.
Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama follows the budding relationship between wealthy widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), the young man who cares for the trees on her property. As the two grow closer, first the neighbors in her status-conscious suburb, then her grown children react with bewilderment and scorn. Ron is as out of place in Cary’s rigidly hierarchical upper-middle-class world (the suggestively chilly Stoningham) as she is in his bohemian milieu, and the two must decide if they dare to forge a new life for themselves.
Sirk, a German émigré who arrived in the US at the start of World War II with a background in theater direction as well as film, combines elements of both art forms to elevate the film language present in typical melodramatic Hollywood fare. In “The Articulate Screen”, included in the booklet to the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray/DVD combo set, Laura Mulvey observes of Sirk’s signature style that mirrors and carefully chosen objects often say more than “tongue-tied” characters. William Reynolds, who plays Cary’s son Ned, discusses Sirk’s “meticulous” set construction and blocking of character movement, in a 2007 interview included in the new set.
The reason the things Sirk has chosen for his sets are so eloquent is that they are redolent of class. As another German theater director/filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder says—in a 1971 essay excerpted by Criterion for the booklet— “...the people in Sirk’s films are all situated in settings that are shaped to an extreme degree by their social situation.”
Matching scenes and complementary costuming elucidate the salient features of Cary and Ron’s rival social environments. Cary takes Ron to a cocktail party thrown by her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) to introduce Ron to their friends. While Sara and her husband are welcoming, the rest of the gang is hostile—to Cary as well as to Ron.
Ron arranges a pitch-in dinner so Cary can meet his friends, especially his protégé, Mick (Charles Drake)—who has successfully given up his conventional life. Ron’s more rustic hospitality contrasts sharply with Sara’s formal party, and while a little wary, his crowd is much more accepting of Cary.
Accessories also tell a story. Ron drives a stripped-down wood-sided station wagon (about to emerge as a symbol of California surf culture); Cary drives a bourgeois sedan. Ron wears flannels; Cary wears furs.
Sirk isn’t the only one arranging the furniture. Cary relocates her husband’s trophy from its central place on the fireplace mantle to the basement, to mark this new stage in her life. In an attempt at consoling his mother when she’s agreed to break up with Ron, Ned buys her a television and has it brought into the living room. “All you have to do is turn that knob and you have all the company you want right there on the screen: drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips,” says the deliveryman. The scene ends with Cary’s horrified face reflected in the set, as the loneliness of her future dawns on her.
When Ron discovers that Cary loves the old mill on his property, he decides to renovate. The structure is rife with rustic, ready-made symbols for the unconscious urges animating Cary and Ron’s challenge to the status quo. The millstone, the fireplace, and the attic contrast with the arid disquisitions on the psychological motivations underlying peoples’ actions delivered by Cary’s social worker daughter.
But these items and the feelings they represent soon become repurposed. The attic becomes a bedroom with a stairway instead of a ladder, the millstone serves as a table.
An odd amalgam of bourgeois and alternative lifestyles, the new mill represents the compromises necessary for the two to be together, just as the fact that Ron convalesces there after a nasty fall suggests the diminished vitality of their relationships. We suspect, because things have showed us how, that their ending may not be so happy after all.
Complication of the melodrama plot pleased Sirk, who—as he did with Magnificent Obsession—added his own “handwriting” to what he considered the weak source material for both films. In excerpts from a 1979 BBC profile included in the new set, Sirk says that he was “trying to give that cheap stuff some meaning.” The suggestive interiors, references to Thoreau, the repetitive plot structure: all lend All That Heaven Allows qualities of the “art films” that Sirk was disappointed to find all but absent in American cinema.
I have just a few quibbles with the Criterion set. First, given the importance of music in his films—Sirk mentions music as an essential component of melodrama in both the BBC profile and in a 1982 piece from French television among the extras—it would have been illuminating to hear a film historian discuss that facet of Sirk’s filmmaking.
Second, none of the extras explores sexuality in the film, aside from Mark Rappaport’s 1992 “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies”, an extended exploration of Hudson’s homosexuality and its effect on his career via clips from his films, presented as a first-person monologue in the voice of Hudson. The piece is inventive and informative, but addresses all of Hudson’s work, and at times feels like an episode of Mystery Science Theater, in which the cast riffs exclusively on double entendres.
Director Todd Haynes based his 2002 period piece Far from Heaven in part on All That Heaven Allows as well as Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and it would have been interesting to hear him or a film critic or scholar discuss the addition of race (the Ron Kirby character is black) and sexuality (the husband is still alive and having affairs with men) as explicit components of the story.