All That Heaven Allows
Initially dismissed as a weepy "woman's picture," Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1956) is now considered one of the most enduring films of the 1950s, thanks to its engaging lead performances, beautifully stylized direction and piquant social critique. Indeed, the rediscovery of Sirk as a major Hollywood director is an appropriately ironic twist to the career of a director who made his reputation with melodramas. During the 1960s, relatively neglected Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawks and popular genres such as film noir and the Western started to receive renewed attention in film criticism, but the melodrama still tended to be ignored compared to more male-oriented genres. A key moment in the reexamination of the melodrama was the 1971 publication of the first edition of Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with John Halliday. In this book, Sirk revealed himself to be a fascinating raconteur of remarkable erudition, and the intelligence behind his films became more widely appreciated. Sirk's influence has since been acknowledged by directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, both of whom in fact made their own riffs on the basic story of All That Heaven Allows in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Far From Heaven (2002), respectively.
Douglas Sirk was born in 1897 as Hans Detlef Sierck to Danish parents living in Hamburg, Germany. After spending his childhood both in Hamburg and in Denmark, he studied law, philosophy and art history before joining the theater in Hamburg as a Dramaturg. During the Twenties and Thirties he earned a reputation as a leading stage director in Germany. In addition to staging the work of major German playwrights such as Brecht, Hauptmann and Wedekind, he produced Shakespeare, Shaw, Pirandello and Wilde.
Sirk's career as a film director began in 1934, when he directed several shorts for UFA before moving to feature films, starting with April! April! in 1935. His best-known German films are the melodramas Final Accord (1936), Zu Neuen Ufern/To New Shores (1937) and La Habanera (1937), the latter of which has recently been released on DVD. Thanks to the location shooting in Spain required for La Habanera, Sirk was able to secure a passport and leave Germany to reunite with his Jewish wife, who was already in Rome by that time. He then stayed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands--where he directed Boefje (1939)--before receiving an invitation to remake To New Shores with Warner Brothers and coming to America. When plans fell through, he directed Hitler's Madman (1943) for MGM instead. He then directed various films with United Artists and Columbia before moving to Universal in 1950, where he entered his most prolific period. Although he often bemoaned the scripts he was given at Universal, in their defense he said, "[They] didn't interfere with either my camerawork or my cutting--which meant a lot to me. In a way, I see their point of view, running a studio: a film has to make back its money. I think all the best directors would agree with me about that--Ford, Hawks, or Hitchcock certainly would. There has never been a time in show-business, going back to Calderon, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, when this hasn't been the case."
After the breakthrough popular success of the melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), Sirk teamed up again with producer Ross Hunter, cinematographer Russell Metty, lead actors Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and supporting actress Agnes Moorehead. Magnificent Obsession had been a remake of a 1935 John Stahl melodrama, which itself was adapted from a sermonizing Lloyd C. Douglas novel. For All That Heaven Allows, the source material was a 1952 novel by Edna and Harry Lee of the same title, first published as a story in Woman's Home Companion. Besides retaining the novel's original title, Sirk's film is in fact quite close to its source in terms of its underlying social critique, the general plot outline, the basic traits of all the main characters, and even some of the dialogue.
At the same time, Sirk's film is an excellent example of how as a director he was able to enrich the often formulaic scripts he had to work with during this period. His basic approach to All That Heaven Allows is revealed by his oft-quoted comment on the title: "The studio loved the title, they thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way round. As far as I'm concerned, heaven is stingy." However, the point is not so much that Sirk subverts the original intent of the story as that he adds more complex dimensions to it through visual detail, acting, lighting and composition of the shot. The daughter Kay's bookish references to Freud are treated with a certain comic irony, underlining her lack of self-awareness regarding her own feelings toward her mother's relationship with Ron Kirby. Ron's embodiment of the values of American individualism is made more explicit in the film through an allusion to Thoreau's Walden. In addition, Ron's character is given an element of vulnerability not present in the novel, as represented by the broken Wedgewood teapot Cary finds in his barn and his near-fatal accident towards the end of the film. The climax of the novel is perhaps too obvious in the way it echoes the theme of the widow buried alive in her husband's tomb: when the gas furnace goes out in her house, Cary becomes trapped in the basement while trying to fix it and nearly dies of asphyxiation. In the film, this theme is more subtly developed on a visual level throughout by positioning Cary within frames, most notably behind windowpanes and in the ominous reflection of the television set during the Christmas sequence. In addition to the device of the frame-within-the-frame, typical Sirkian stylistic flourishes in the film include the frequent use of mirrors or other reflective surfaces and expressive, sometimes non-realistic use of shadows and colored lighting.
Sirk's "happy end," in contrast with the novel, offers a more complex and interesting resolution of the fundamental problem of the story, which is the incompatibility of Ron's largely solitary existence in nature and Cary's domesticity and dependence on her old social ties. By the end of the film, Cary still becomes part of the home that Ron has built for both of them as she does in the novel, but here it is at the cost of Ron's temporary incapacitation, or "domestication," if you will. Their union, moreover, is blessed by the sudden appearance of a deer at the window. Sirk compares such transparently contrived endings with the deus ex machina (i.e., last-minute intervention by the "gods") of a Euripides play: "You see, there is no real solution of the predicament the people in the play are in, just the deus ex machina, which is now called 'the happy end,' and which both Hollywood and Athenians and assorted Greeks were so keen on. But this is what is being called Euripidean irony. It makes the crowd happy. To the few it makes the aporia [dramatic impasse] more transparent."
Rock Hudson became one of Douglas Sirk's most commonly used actors in the 1950s, from earlier works such as Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) and the 3-D Western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) to the better-known melodramas: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958). Sirk's account of his discovery of Rock Hudson is as follows: "Well, there had emerged a kind of B-picture creation at Universal against the trend of the time, as I thought, and as I was proven right later. This was partly caused by the lack of house-owned stars. The only thing to do in these circumstances was to manufacture a star, because getting more money depended on having a name in your picture. So I looked around, and I saw a picture Rock was playing in, with Jeff Chandler in the lead (Iron Man, 1951). He had a small part, and he was far inferior to Chandler, but I thought I saw something. So I arranged to meet him, and he seemed to be not too much to the eye, except very handsome. But the camera sees with its own eye. It sees things the human eye does not detect. And ultimately you learn to trust your camera." Thanks to the cultivation of Rock Hudson's image in the Sirk melodramas and his appearance in George Steven's Giant (1956), he became one of the top-grossing stars of the era.
Upon its initial release, Variety characterized All That Heaven Allows a tad condescendingly as "[..] a film guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of all middle-aged women who, occasionally, must think of the possibility of such a romance." The reviewer adds: "Director Sirk keeps things rolling along and manages to get his actors to make trite dialogue sound less so." As if afraid to admit directly that he liked the film, critic Hollis Alpert cleverly disguised his review as a letter from his "Aunt Henrietta" to Universal Studios, prefacing it with, "She wishes me to thank you for giving her the kind of heartfelt emotional experience she rarely gets from movies these days." Less kindly, the reviewer for Time wrote: "The moviegoer often has the sensation that he is drowning in a sea of melted butter, with nothing to hang on to but the cliches that float past." Today, fortunately, we realize that it's okay to weep at melodramas, especially when they¿re directed with such skill as All That Heaven Allows.
For classical music buffs--the pensive theme played on the piano over the opening credits and repeated periodically during the film is from Franz Liszt's popular solo piano piece Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major.
Director: Douglas Sirk
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: Peg Fenwick, based on the story by Edna and Harry Lee
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Music: Joseph E. Gershenson and Frank Skinner
Editor: Fred Baratta and Frank Gross
Set Designers: Russell A. Gausman and Julia Heron
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas
Makeup: Bud Westmore
Cast: Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Conrad Nagel (Harvey), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Jacqueline deWit (Mona Plash).
C-89m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen