Film

A Tree Grows in Stoningham: 'All That Heaven Allows'

There’s no scenery chewing in All That Heaven Allows, just very eloquent décor.


All That Heaven Allows

Director: Douglas Sirk
Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Grey, Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds, Charles Drake
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1955
Release date: 2014-06-10

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.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.