This film is the melodrama to end all melodramas. Made in 1956 by Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows is a Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman drama that in theory represents everything wrong about fifties Hollywood cinema. By modern standards the film is dramatically overblown especially for the story at hand. The plot is about a widow named Cary Scott who, now that her two kids are in college, plans just chill out at home and probably marry a widower. Suddenly she falls in love with Mr. Kirby, but not old man Kirby, it is his son Ron! What will the townsfolk think of this scandalous affair?! That is essentially melodrama, simple and relatable dramas expressed with big emotional bombast; that being said, All That Heaven Allows is a fascinatingly modern and smart film. By examining Cary Scott and how other characters try control her, the film becomes a surprisingly biting commentary about love, nonconformity, and women trapped in a patriarchy.
The thing that sticks out the most about All That Heaven Allows is the clever screenplay. Writer Peg Fenwick has this ability to refer and comment on social issues of time without ever breaking pace. For example there is a conversation between Cary Scott and her daughter, Kay, about how Ancient Egyptian people would the widow of the Pharaoh alive because she was a possession. Kay teases assures that this never happens anymore but Cary replies, “doesn’t it?” this moment is essential because it reveals how society traps women like Cary. She lives in a society that is enforcing her to either care for the kids or marry a rich widower and the plot of her falling in love with a poor gardener is a defiance of these social customs. This social pressure shows throughout the film, especially when anyone sees the lead couple together. This is what makes this film so great today it shows how unreasonable this society is towards women and states, “I know, right? This sucks.”
Douglas Sirk, while not as famous as Billy Wilder, William Wyler or his other contemporary German expat Hollywood directors, he is a quietly brilliant director in his own right. It is clear that Sirk is gets the subtext of the script, when one examines the nuances of his choice of camera compositions. He had a penchant for irony in his films; famously in All That Heaven Allows he uses a television as a visual metaphor for loneliness and imprisonment whilst a salesman gushes about it providing “all the company you want… life’s parade at your fingertips.” In context of the film, the TV is a distraction used by Cary’s kids to keep her in the house. Why explore the outside when the TV can give you everything?. It is diabolical, delicious filmmaking.
The single flaw of All That Heaven Allows is that the solution to Cary’s problem is apparently another man. Throughout the film Cary is stuck in an ultimatum between choosing Ron Kirby or her reputation with her friends and other suitors, which might not age well for some people. That being said, for one to dismiss it for this reason alone would be to ignore that 1) Ron is also making compromises and 2) Cary is trying to restart her life in a sensual instead of a ambitious way. The film is an old prototype to films like The Piano about women having a sexual awakening; in this case, the film is about having complete freedom to choose whomever she dates or marries. It would be a lonely and rotting experience for Cary to play homemaker by herself or with some old guy she never loved so of course she would date a hunk like Ron. Not only does Ron genuinely care for her but also his naturally young, rebellious spirit, and vitality provides her that escape. It seems unambitious but the relationship was so daring for it time that it is still a beautiful story to see unfold.
All That Heaven Allows is a lovely melodrama at heart but by picking at details of the script and symbolism in it only makes the film better. Such details show a film that is surprisingly feminist and nonconformist for its time, ironically in a very popular genre of its day. The film is also great at showing that the idea of escaping from the norm dangerous, in fact, it makes the idea look exciting and even healthy. Plus, it is really fun to chew out Cary’s kids and neighbors… gossipy little shits, why do they get in the way of true love!?
(All That Heaven Allows is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack via Criterion Collection)