This great romantic melodrama from Douglas Sirk shares a lot with his film from the previous year, Magnificent Obsession. It has the same intense Technicolor, combining with music from Frank Skinner to give a dream quality, and much of the cast is the same, including leads Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. However, for me this film is even more powerful than its predecessor, partly because the plot is not so far-fetched – stemming more from the characters without so many exterior twists.
The story of this film can in some ways be seen as a role reversal take on Magnificent Obsession. In the earlier movie, Rock Hudson played a rich character who had to embrace a whole new philosophy and change his way of life for the sake of love. This time around, it’s Jane Wyman who has to follow a similar path. She plays Cary Scott, a well-off but lonely widow who doesn’t have enough to do now that her children are grown up. It looks as if the only life she can have now is one revolving around an empty succession of cocktail parties and country club meetings. When her children visit, they seem extremely keen to consign her to a premature old age (Wyman was still in her 30s here, though the character is clearly older), complaining if she wears a low-cut dress and apparently hoping she will make a “suitable” marriage to the staid, boring Harvey. Their solution for her loneliness is to order her a TV set, even though she doesn’t want one. The television set and the layers of ornaments all seem like so many ways of trapping her in a gilded cage.
However, Cary’s life changes when she strikes up a tentative friendship with much younger jobbing gardener, Ron Kirby (Hudson), which quickly turns into an unlikely romance. It becomes clear that Ron doesn’t care about the wealth and status which are so important in the New England small town society surrounding Cary. His friends explain that he is living in the tradition of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, though he hasn’t read the book – trying to be close to nature and live in a simpler and more self-sufficient way. Unfortunately, although this unlikely couple find happiness while their relationship is secret, that doesn’t last once others know about it. The country club set is outraged and freezes them out with an icy snobbishness reminiscent of attitudes to Barbara Stanwyck’s character in an earlier Sirk film, All I Desire. False rumours and scandals abound, and Cary’s children also demand that she gives up her new love.
The whole cast is excellent, especially the two leads, but also Agnes Moorehead, once again cast as Wyman’s best friend, and Donald Curtis as the sleazy Howard, who assumes that Cary is fair game for his advances. The film paints a devastating picture of small town communities where everybody is whispering behind everybody else’s backs. I’ve seen several reviews complaining that Cary’s children are monsters of selfishness, but they are children of the world surrounding them. Also, I mainly find her daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott) immature rather than malicious. She is a psychology student who boasts about her apparently modern attitudes – but then fails to live up to them as soon as she finds her mother’s love life getting in the way of her own. However, Kay does mature during the film and realises how unkind she has been. I can’t really make any excuses for Cary’s son, Ned (William Talbott) though – he seems self-righteous and self-obsessed, and more bothered about retaining the family home than he is about his mother’s happiness.
The most striking thing about this film is just how beautiful it looks, with its colourful landscapes and the way characters are constantly framed in windows. In particular, Cary is often on the inside looking out wistfully at a world just beyond her grasp. When she visits Ron at the barn which he then turns into a home for them, they often see a deer wandering outside in the snow – a lot of the film takes place in winter – and it becomes clear that in some way the animal is a double for Cary, trying to find her way. It is easy to see why she is attracted to Ron, who offers a life more genuine than the one she is trapped in – a chance to come out from behind the glass.
I do find it rather harder to understand why Ron is so smitten by Cary, whose whole way of life is something he is setting out to reject. Perhaps it is her kindness. She immediately sees him as a person, rather than just overlooking him in the way of one of the other ladies at the country club, who can’t imagine where she’s seen him even though he has been working in her garden every day. There’s never really any explanation of Ron’s love for Cary, only the knowledge that it definitely isn’t her wealth or her lifestyle which appeal. But they do share a warmth which makes their relationship believable, and there is a scene late on in the film, when we see Ron with a friend, talking about how much he needs Cary – and it’s suddenly clear that he is as lonely as she is.
I once again saw this film on a DVD in the UK/region 2 Directed by Douglas Sirk box set – which looks pretty good but has no extras. Criterion is due to release a region 1 Blu-ray/DVD set in June which will showcase a new digital restoration of the film, together with a great selection of extras. The Criterion site includes the original trailer, which plays heavily on the fact that this is a reunion of two stars who had already played lovers in Magnificent Obsession.