All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

All That Heaven Allows 1This 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.

All That Heaven Allows 5However, 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.

Jane Wyman

Jane Wyman as Cary choosing a Christmas tree

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. 

Jane Wyman and Virginia Grey

Jane Wyman and Virginia Grey

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.

Hudson and Wyman

Hudson and Wyman

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.

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11 thoughts on “All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

  1. Judy, thank you for your informative and interesting review of this film. You certainly put a lot of thought into this film and I particularly enjoyed your reference to Sirk’s “role reversal” of the principal characters.

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    • Many thanks, Rod – I have been thinking about this one a lot, but found myself struggling with it somewhat. I think I really need to watch it again before too long!

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  2. “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.”

    Indeed Judy. And your immediate follow-up contention that this seminal and most typical Sirkian work is more powerful is dead on for my money. It is my own favorite Sirk (WRITTEN ON THE WIND is right behind it) and for many it’s the director’s piece de resistance. No film in the director’s arsenal looks so resplendent, nor better captures that autumnal feel he is so well celebrated for, and Skinner’s sublime music is a perfect fit. Wyman and Hudson are at the peak of their A game, and you note in this extraordinary essay, Agnes Moorhead is exceptional. The themes are more profound here of course, and again as you rightly say the film is more “believable” than some of the more overt sudsy melodramas. This is one of the cinema’s greatest and most trenchant romantic films, and as everyone knows it inspired Todd Haynes to make FAR FROM HEAVEN in 2002; Haynes’ ravishing film is my own choice for the greatest film of the new millennium, and somehow a description of it’s sensory qualities harkens back to ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS:

    FAR FROM HEAVEN is a reworking and recasting of one of the most revered of Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas, All That Heaven Allows, a film that features an affluent suburban widow, played by Jane Wyman, who opposes the disapproval of her two children and her community to romance a much younger man, played by Rock Hudson. Haynes make some drastic revisions on this basic conceit, bringing in a homosexual husband, (Frank Whitaker; played by Dennis Quaid) who drives his wife Cathy (Moore) into a taboo relationship with the family’s African-American gardener. The film is set in the most influential and repressed decade in American history – the 1950′s, the decade that triggered the civil rights act. Although it is set in such a turbulent period, the town of Hartford, Connecticut does not appear to be effected by this revolutionary movement, as here there are clear and sustained acts of discrimination and subsequent social unrest. Characters in the film demonstrate no remorse for their blatant prejudicial behavior, and throughout the film’s narrative racism is not only displayed through the dialogue, but through camera angles, sound effects and costumes. Homosexuality is treated as a behavioral aberration that can be treated by psychiatrists, and is in large measure kept confidential both the adherents and siblings. In Far From Heaven it’s clear that being black is worse than being gay, as the former is treated with outright indignation while the latter isn’t talked about. This is also a time when male chauvinism thrives, even in the Whitaker family, where a philandering husband has violated his wedding vows, yet evinces condescending attitudes, steeped in inner prejudices and insecurities.
    Haynes also has a sharp eye for this seemingly sedate period, set in golden autumn hues with deep reds, browns and yellows that create a New England utopia bathed in melancholia, all accomplished by shooting the film in New Jersey. Haynes’s erstwhile protege Sirk, was long noted for his ostentatious painterly visuals, achieved in studios. A major key to the ravishing look of the film is due to the use of light and saturation, and cinematographer Edward Lachman captures the right textures that fully recall and provide a homage to the 50′s melodramas it echoes. The color-coordination of the living rooms, dresses and outside landscapes and manicured front lawns is radiant and transporting, and the cars, train stations and street perfectly recreate a time and place that has vanished forever

    One of the film’s most magnificent components is composer Elmer Bernstein,(recalling Skinner compellingly) who wrote one of his greatest scores in a long and varied career with this lyrical rush of suburban angst, tinged with all the elements Haynes transcribed from Sirk. The lilting piano chords (Skinner again), the sudden burst of sweeping melody, and the slow, introspective chord lines tinged with false hope and sadness are the essence of one of the truly great film scores of the past two decades, a score that works as a stand-alone, as well as the emotional core of a film that relies heavily on mood and atmosphere to define the nature of it’s character’s psychological state. His lead theme “Autumn in Connecticut” flawlessly encapsulates the nature of this film, with its enrapturing cadences, sense of longing and ominous foreboding. Again, Skinner is persuasively recalled. Music plays a huge role in this film both in its efforts at essaying Sirk as well as accentuating the themes and characters’s state of mind. As part of the overall artistry it’s presence here is impossible to downplay.

    Again, a tremendous essay Judy!

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    • Sam, many thanks for this tremendous comment and for sharing some of your detailed thoughts on ‘Far from Heaven’ . I have seen it and admired it a lot, but I would like to see it again now that I’ve seen the film it reworks, as you say – with prejudice as such a central theme of both films. I’m interested in your comments on how the music by Elmer Bernstein also references the earlier theme by Frank Skinner, with both composers bringing out the characters’ states of mind.

      I’m also hoping to see the 1970s film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ‘Fear Eats the Soul’, before too long, which I understand is a partial reworking of ‘All That Heaven Allows’ and also influenced Todd Haynes. Do you also admire the Fassbinder film, Sam? It would be really interesting to watch all three films and see how they compare.

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  3. I do so agree about the wonderful color in this film.
    Producer Ross Hunter was responsible for so many of these glossy melodramas in the 50s – Imitation of Life,Back Street ( I think I am the only person who prefers this third and final version of Back Street),One Desire and of course the two you have reviewed,Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows.
    I liked Virginia Grey and Charles Drake as the couple who are friends of Kirby.
    By the way, I don’t think Ron thought of himself as a ‘jobbing gardener ‘. He grows trees and was only helping out his father.
    Jane Wyman was 40 when she made this film and I guess her character was supposed to be that age. ( Doesn’t she say at one point her first child was born when she was 17?)
    Seems ridiculous now that her life seemed to be ‘over’, and a new television would be her companion – along with Harvey!
    I too prefer this to Magnificent Obsession.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, Vienna! I haven’t seen any versions of Back Street yet, I must admit, so must get on and do so. I also liked Virginia Grey and Charles Drake. I agree that Ron doesn’t think of himself as a jobbing gardener – but I meant that he is seen that way by the country club set.

      According to the imdb, Jane Wyman was 38 when she made this, and the young man playing her son was 23, so this did seem a bit of a stretch – but, yeah, if she was supposed to be 17 when she had him then it would only be a couple of years out! Totally agree with you that it seems ridiculous this was supposed to be the end of her life. Anyway, thanks again, and I will hope to see the different incarnations of Back Street soon.

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  4. What a great write-up of this wonderful film, Judy. You compared this to the Barbara Stanwyck film “All I Desire.” I think it also bears some resemblance to the Stanwyck/George Brent film, “My Reputation.” In that film, also, a widow is gossiped about when her society “friends” don’t think she should be dating again.

    I think Rock Hudson was one of the most handsome men ever, and he was at his most gorgeous in these Sirk films. Jane Wyman probably had to catch her breath every single day.

    I’m not much of a Jane Wyman fan, but I love her in this film. Her character is one you just can’t help rooting for.

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    • Patti, ‘My Reputation’ is yet another film I haven’t seen yet… but I do hope to do so. I sometimes wonder if I’ve seen anything! Anyway, I really like Barbara Stanwyck, and George Brent is an actor who I’ve come to appreciate more than I used to, so this is one to look out for – I do remember that you reviewed it a little while back and it sounded right up my street.

      Getting back to ‘All That Heaven Allows’, I think both Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are excellent in this – they’re both actors who are growing on me at the moment, after I’ve seen a few films starring both of them. Thanks very much for the nice comment!

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  5. Pingback: There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956) | Movie classics

  6. here’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.

    There is no real logic or explanation on why someone would fall in love with another who seems so different.

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