When I first saw the work of Douglas Sirk, I was immediately struck by how well it seemed to personify 1950s Hollywood. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is little different in its opulence and superficial soap opera tonalities. Except this one, at times, feels a little like it should be a part of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Perhaps it glides a slightly more interesting line between high society country club members and quintessential middle America.
The two alternatives are contrasted in our screen couple played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Cary Scott (Wyman) is a well to do, middle-aged widow with two grown kids off at school. She is often lonely and always sensible when it comes to the life decisions she makes. After all, she doesn’t want the local gossip blabbing about her life to all their society friends.
That changes rather gradually thanks to her seasonal gardener and professional tree-trimmer Ron Kirby (Hudson). He is a different sort of spirit who seems to be content with nature and his place in it as nurturer. Their acquaintance begins over a harmless cup of coffee and turns into an excursion to his humble abode. Over time, Cary is introduced to Ron’s brands of friend who are all charming, down-to-earth folk who live life to the fullest without worrying about wealth or societal pressures. This is what she has been looking for and he is the man who she needs. So when Ron proposes marriage she readily accepts.
Now comes the task of putting it before the kids and then showing Ron to the local snarks. The socialites are no different with their sniggering and pointed remarks. There is no mercy for Cary and Ron. In fact, they are appalled by such a scandalous romance. The children who normally are rational and kind, do not mince words with their mother. Ned talks about the family honor, the legacy of their father, and their home. He cannot bear for his mother to supposedly throw all that away. Kay, on her part, is always getting caught up in psychoanalysis, but this time all rationale goes out the window after her boyfriend breaks up with her. Under this built of pressure Cary reluctantly breaks off their marriage, mostly for the sake of the children.
Except she is never quite the same and never feels like she did with Ron. Cary is resigned to staying in her lavish home, while reluctantly accepting the newest form of modern entertainment — a television. Christmas time is especially hard when she runs into Ron, but then the kids come home. That’s when she realizes her grave error and what comes next is exactly what you expect, with a few small diversions. Cary turns back to Ron, who has been in a funk of his own. Following an accident that was induced by Cary’s presence, Ron is bedridden and Cary rushes to his aid. This is the life she was meant for no matter what society says of her.
It’s pretty gushy, weepy stuff in a sense. That’s the superficial level of second-rate romance and picture perfect technicolor. In fact, All That Heaven Allows is visually beautiful in a sickening sort of way. The town is too pristine, the seasons too perfect, the snow too puffy. And yet it all seems to be an impeccable supplement to Sirk’s moral drama. Ironically, this is not a moral tale about unbridled love between a woman and her younger lover. That would make complete sense. Instead, Sirk subverts that wonderfully, by suggesting the weight of the blame is on society and the peer pressure that permeates the upper crust.
Even if this film is a little too syrupy in its sweetness, I can manage a spoonful or two because there is a greater meaning to this frivolity. All That Heaven Allows is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s worth taking a chance on.