Monday, February 11, 2019

All That Heaven Allows

Douglas Sirk was one of the great comedy directors of the 1950s. Recently, I had the chance to rewatch his 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows.

Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a widow with two college-aged children who was obviously left financially secure when her husband died, as she's still able to live in their big house, and have her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) invite her out to the country club for parties. That, and have the landscaper her husband always hired, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) show up unannounced to prune the trees. One day when Sara can't stay for lunch, Cary asks Ron if he'd like anything.

The two run into each other a few more times on a professional basis, until one day when Ron lets on that he's looking to sell the old family business and go into tree farming that supplies nurseries like his with their trees. So the two go out to his place in the country, and meet some other similarly bohemian people who have decided to drop out of the rat race and take on jobs they have a passion for. As you can probably guess, Cary and Ron begin to fall in love.

However, Cary was from a nice upper-middle-class family, while Ron's background is decidedly working class. What are people going to say about this? And God knows people are going to say something about it, because there's a notorious gossip in town in the form of Mona (Jacqueline de Wit. She sees Ron and Cary return after one of their trysts in the country, and starts spreading rumors. When Cary decides to introduce Ron to the country club set, everybody treats him like dirt, almost one-upping each other to see who can treat him the worst. And Cary's kids can't understand why she'd be in love with a working-class guy. It goes on like this.

All That Heaven Allows was conceived as a melodrama and social commentary, but as with a lot of Douglas Sirk's works, it works better if you look at it as a comedy. Everything is over the top, starting with the aforementioned reactions of Cary's friends. Then there's the score, which swells up constantly, using over-obvious cues to try to elicit certain emotions. And then there's the foreshadowing, notably involving a Wedgwood teapot and talk about a television set, which is handled in a heavy-handed manner. Finally, there's the set design, which is noticeable in the form of Cary's daughter's bedroom which has an impractical round window that lets in a spectrum of light rather than the practical white light that you'd need to actually do anything in the room.

Wyman and Hudson try hard but are brought low by the script. Poor Rock Hudson in particular, when you start thinking about some of the lines in terms of the fact that he'd come out at the end of his life as a homosexual. At one point, he tells Cary that his bohemian friend had to learn to be a man, to which Cary replies, "And you want me to be a man?"

It's funny to read the reviews which praise All That Heaven Allows pretty much solely for having the virtuous views of criticizing 1950s middle-class America. Almost as funny as the movie itself. But watch and judge for yourself.

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