Directed by Douglas Sirk (1955)
by Joseph Juhase
Douglas Sirk's film, All That Heaven Allows, is the epitome of the 1950's Hollywood melodrama. From its lush score, impassioned verbal exchanges, and moments where you can't help but roll your eyes, it hardly seems like a strong pick for a Criterion Film. However, Sirk's use of cinematography and Technicolor elevate the piece above the usual romantic fare Hollywood was churning out back then. It also stars the dreamy Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, in one of his countless heartthrob roles.
The film is centered around Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) who, at the start of the film, finds herself drawn to her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). A widow, Cary is seemingly pressured by everybody close to her to remarry into money. She deserves to be happy, as long as she and her children are well set in the end. Later in the film, the conflict comes from the expectation that Cary should meet the certain type of lifestyle that her peers deem appropriate. However it's when she's with Ron that the sparks fly.
Throughout the film, Sirk uses cinematography to aid the use of color. The story takes place throughout the fall and winter. Many shots showcase the changing of the seasons. Cool oranges during the fall are juxtaposed with the bright colors of the women's dresses. During the winter, these colors are especially striking. The snow's lack of color helps in creating beautiful landscapes that turn a seductive blue during the nighttime shots. And with any melodrama, each embrace is carefully positioned. While there are no shots during the film that are revolutionary, Sirk certainly knows how to frame a scene. The romantic cottage that Cary and Ron sneak away to is a great example, as the harsh winter on the outside is deterred from the shadowy, fire lit interior.
There's something to be said about Technicolor. If you've never had the chance to see a Technicolor film that is re-mastered, I highly suggest you check it out. Back then bolder choices were made in the color pallets of films. Perhaps it was a roll over from the age of black and white, where non- conventional colors were used to make actors and sets pop off the screen. Perhaps it was just an excitement about using the new technology. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, the colors used in this film are a treat for the eyes. Nowadays, the most common colors to use in film are blue and orange and that can get stale after a while. Typically, when a wider range of colors are used, it's to make things seem out of place, or to provide a sense of nostalgia.
There's also some interesting points made about age. During the time of filming, Jane Wyman was 38, which actually isn't that old. Yet during the movie her style seems to suggest a woman past her years. While other women wear bright colors like yellow or blues, Cary can usually be seen in a beige mink. However, in the beginning of the film Cary wears a low cut red dress that's to die for. Though to everybody else it comes off as desperate. The rest of the film has her in winter coats and layers. Perhaps it could be her hesitation to take that leap of faith and truly commit to Ron.
Then there are Cary’s children. They seem to have it all figured out for their mother. Her son has taken over the role of man of the house and is entirely dismissive of her relationship with Ron. Her daughter, a bespectacled know-it-all whose first lines are about Freud and sexuality, isn't much help either. There is a tender moment between Cary and her daughter, but it's quickly forgotten about.
At one point they try to introduce a television into her house. "It'll keep you company," they say. But in reality it's a painfully obvious tactic used to hasten Cary's transformation into a spinster. When the television set finally invades her living room, it's a particularly low point for Cary. In fact, you could even relate this to Hollywood itself. Films are constantly trying to relegate older actors, like Meryl Streep for example, to sexless roles. In fact, I can't remember the last film about an older woman falling in love. There was "Harold and Maude," which is the quintessential film about this topic, it seems. (It's also included in the Criterion Collection.)
As I mentioned before, Rock Hudson is totally dreamy. His character is this lone woodsman that's a mixture of hardened outdoorsy type and sensitive dreamboat. However knowing now that Rock Hudson was gay makes it a little weird. Included on the BluRay is a documentary called "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" that's a look into the actor's sexuality as it's presented within his films. It's funny, irreverent, and even eye opening. I suggest taking a look at it if you are at all interested in Queer Cinema.
Speaking of queer cinema, the whole film is just slightly above camp. Not that there's anything wrong with camp (I'm all about it personally), but it's all the factors of the film combined that make it hard to see it any other way. It's Rock Hudson forced to play a straight man both on and off film, and the long camera shots held on his beautiful face and soft-spoken demeanor. It's Jane Wyman playing the woman who gets a man like Rock Hudson and the audience connecting with her natural desire for a new, fiery romance. It's the bitchy attitudes of Cary's relatives and neighbors along with their classic sense of fashion. Douglas Sirk's films may have been panned back in the day, but All That Heaven Allows is definitely worth a look. Especially if you just want to curl up late one night and watch a romance unfold, along with some criticism about 1950's societal values. From the soaring score, classic style, and feel good ending of sorts, it's a film that's hard to resist.