During the holidays, we tend to talk about certain classic films: White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in Connecticut. But let’s also count Douglas Sirk’s fantastic melodrama All That Heaven Allows as a holiday film, not just because a piece of it depicts some chilly winter landscapes, but also because it just has that spirit of warmth and love that we so associate with the holidays. It’s one of Sirk’s most famous works, contains the best performances that both Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson ever gave. What’s more, it’s available on Amazon Prime.
All That Heaven Allows tells the story of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a widow in New England who meets gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) when he does some work on her property. The two strike up a friendship that soon turns to romance as Ron shows her a more relaxed, joyful, bohemian life than her stodgy world of country clubs and men in gray flannel suits. Their romance causes trouble, however, when Cary’s family and friends learn of it, and precipitates a conflict between the freedom of Ron’s world, and the safety of Cary’s.
All That Heaven Allows is a transgressive and progressive film, rendering stark critiques of the culture and the time period via its melodramatic structure. Its melodramatic setting and story structure reveals vicious truths about class and gender in 1950s America. Cary’s children are horrified that their mother is dating an “unsuitable” man, a man who is significantly younger (though the age difference between the actors was only eight years, that’s nevertheless significant by contemporary Hollywood standards) and of a lower social class than themselves. But they don’t see how desperately unhappy their objections make their mother, whom they expect to fulfill her socially prescribed role of widow, without romance and certainly without sex. The basis of Ron and Cary’s relationship is far more passionate than the cold, sexless world of the upper middle classes. But her social world dictates that Cary not be allowed to be sexual, not to indulge or even acknowledge those desires openly. Both Wyman and Hudson give excellent performances here—better even than their previous Sirk pairing Magnificent Obsession. Wyman especially taps into a degree of passion and pathos that is surprising for her, depicting Cary’s need to please her family at odds with her own desires, a moving rendition of a woman torn between needs she barely ever acknowledged, and the social role she’s always inhabited.
The strength of almost all of Sirk’s Technicolor work is the saturated color palette, the use he makes of contrasting colors to draw attention to the contrasts of sexuality, gender, and social class. Cary’s world is colorless until Ron comes into it, bringing with him brighter reds, brighter yellows, and even more intense whites than Cary’s beige, gray, muted surroundings. She enters into change with him, seeing the beauty of his way of life, her life shifting from drab to color. The film’s big, melodramatic sweeps and contrasts act as distractions to render the passions on display palatable and to edge in powerful critiques of the contemporary culture.
The critique at the heart of All That Heaven Allows would go on to inform films like Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and to contribute to the rise of so-called women’s films as works of social and cultural commentary. As well as being passionately romantic and gorgeously photographed, All That Heaven Allows is a surprising social commentary for the 1950s, and an essential work of art.
All That Heaven Allows is available to stream on Amazon Prime.