Saturday, September 18, 2021

All That Heaven Allows


Jane Wyman and Douglas Sirk

Sirk with Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, and Agnes Moorehead

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS        B+                                                                                      USA  (89 mi)  1955  ‘Scope  d:  Douglas Sirk

All my past life is mine no more,                                                                                                The flying hours are gone,                                                                                                                Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,                                                                                          Whose images are kept in store                                                                                                                                                  By memory alone.                                                                                                                                                                                        The time that is to come is not;                                                                                                   How can it then be mine?                                                                                                            The present moment’s all my lot;                                                                                                    And that, as fast as it is got,                                                                                                                                            Phyllis, is only thine.                                                                                                                                                                                    Then talk not of inconstancy,                                                                                                            False hearts, and broken vows;                                                                                                                                              If I, by miracle, can be                                                                                                                  This live-long minute true to thee,                                                                                                ‘Tis all that Heav’n allows.

Love and Life, by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647—1680), 414. "Love and Life",

An overwrought Hollywood melodrama in the style of George Stevens’ GIANT (1956) or Douglas Sirk’s earlier Magnificent Obsession (1954), which was a trashy soap opera that earlier packaged Rock Hudson as a new heartthrob in his first major starring role alongside Jane Wyman, largely intended for female consumption, known as women’s pictures or “weepies” in the 50’s, exaggerating the emotional intensity, where the swelling orchestral strings of the highly romanticized music of Franz Liszt’s Consolation #3 in D flat major, Franz Liszt: "Consolation No.3" - YouTube (4:16), literally haunts the screen, like an inescapable ghostly apparition, providing the emotional structure of the film, telling us all we need to know about the surging emotional ebbs and flows that distinguish this picture.  In the opening shot, the town is introduced from an overhead crane shot high above the church steeple, which is no accident in this morality tale, an impassioned tearjerker about New England small-town conformity depicting the May-December romance between Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a wealthy widow and her young gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson, making 9 films with Sirk), who is fifteen years younger than she is and from a different social class.  She falls for him, much to the chagrin of her spoiled children and superficial country club companions, causing something of a town scandal, generated by healthy doses of malicious gossip that tears her family apart, offering a scathing view of small-town morality, yet so visually complex and luridly forceful that it inspired several notable gay filmmakers, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974), where the age gap between the romantic leads is even wider, while also influencing the scathingly dark François Ozon gay murder-mystery musical comedy 8 WOMEN (2002) and the Todd Haynes remake FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002).  Sirk builds up sympathy for Cary by revealing how empty and joyless her life is since the death of her husband (with suggestions that this may have been the case even while he was alive), subject to frequent dinner parties and round-the-clock cocktails at the club, led by her unfailing social hostess Sara (Agnes Moorehead), her best friend who guides her through the dull social stratosphere of available men, in this case elderly widower Harvey (Conrad Nagel) who is twenty years her senior (which is commonly accepted, but strangely not the reverse), yet it all seems so cosmetic, covering up the evil that lurks below the surface, especially with Mona Plash (Jacqueline de Wit) spreading vicious and reactionary gossip meant to antagonize and patronizingly accentuate class differences through a haughty arrogance, revealing the shallowness of the wealthy, where money covers up their own glaring deficiencies.  The film was dismissed when it was released, not really causing much of a stir, but resurrected in the 70’s when it was re-evaluated, suddenly given a subtext of oblique criticism hidden beneath a banal facade of the conventional and mainstream, accentuating a socially forbidden romance through a constant contrast between nature and the unnatural constraints of social convention.  Of all the major Hollywood directors, Sirk was among the most lucid and insightful about his own work within the studio system, and as an intellectual receptive to discussing his films and career in depth, Sirk himself played a major role in their reappraisal.  The soap opera style can be off-putting, filled with exaggerations and contrivances some might find ridiculous, yet the extremes heighten the emotions, using melodrama as a means of social criticism, featuring the exhilarating cinematography by Russell Metty, accentuating bold dynamic Technicolor schemes that are both stunning and visually intoxicating, rarely exhibiting such a representative kaleidoscope of the internal emotional states and desires of its characters, filled with expressionist colors while using mirrors and reflections to offer under-the-surface commentary.  In the manner of Buñuel, Sirk offers his own lacerating critique of the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, offering a subversive indictment of America’s repressive, sexist, and materialistic middle class, while also condemning small-town loneliness and alienation, launching an attack on the American Dream where money is equated with success, critiquing the rising American dependence upon materialism, supposedly offering suburban stability and security, yet it produces a middle class inhumanity through a snobbish contempt and intolerance for others who are different.   

With Peg Fenwick adapting a novel by Harry and Edna L. Lee that was initially serialized in the Woman’s Home Companion, a popular women’s magazine, one curious aspect of the film is the influence of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a book given to Sirk as a child by his father, a transcendental reflection of individualism, living in harmony with one’s natural surroundings, spared down to the bare essentials, avoiding all material temptation.  Ron’s house in the country is an idealization of Walden’s pond, given an autumnal and wintry glow, reflecting a lifestyle of rural isolation where one can commune with nature, not only the rivers and trees and the surrounding woods, growing intimately familiar with the abundant animal life, yet also remaining attuned to the changing seasons, where Ron becomes synonymous with the philosophy “To thine own self be true.”  A recurring mythical deer is part of the idyllic setting, perhaps the most prominent symbol of the film.  This shift from the vacuousness of the city to a simpler country life couldn’t be more pronounced, where the transition doesn’t come easy, as there are plenty of doubts along the way wondering if this isn’t all a dream, requiring a bit of contemplative reflection to give up a life of privilege and undergo such a complete transformation.  Cary is caught up in circumstances beyond her control, revealing the frustrated desires of an aging housewife, living a lonely existence in a large empty house with two actively self-centered, college-age kids who think the world revolves around them, the smug, full-of-himself Ned (William Reynolds) and the more persnickety Kay (Gloria Talbott), only coming home on holidays, where they expect everything to be the same.  When Cary announces her intentions to marry the new love of her life, they are inflamed with resentment, thinking only of themselves and how they will have to fend off ugly rumors about their mother, each more detestable than the last, where they both leap to conclusions, consumed by what they hear, and never once thinking of their mother and what would make her happy.  Cary naively thinks if she just introduces Ron to her social setting that he will warmly be embraced, but that is hardly the case, as monstrous class prejudice only inflames just how different he is, as he doesn’t make the cocktail circuit or hang out in country club settings, causing them to make wildly manipulating insinuations, mockingly describing him as a “nature boy,” thinking he’s an opportunist, a fortune hunter that only wants her for her money and must have devious intentions.  She is ostracized by both her children and the surrounding community, infected by this skewed devaluation of his worth, never once giving either one of them a chance, so out of self-protection she puts a stop to the suffocating odor of oppression by calling the whole thing off, catching Ron by surprise, as he knows his love is genuine and authentic, but he never really empathizes with her predicament or shows much understanding.  In her honor, he has fixed up an abandoned old grain mill and turned it into a warm and hospitable environment, largely to accommodate her, hoping to minimize her regrets, but she can’t get past the reactions of her children, refusing to cross that line of living her own life and still protecting their sheltered existence, All that Heaven Allows - Winter Romance YouTube (4:50).  Despite this sacrifice, neither child shows any concern for her welfare, remaining selfish and petty, pretty much ignoring her completely, leaving her entirely alone to handle her own crisis, which is largely of their making.  The Christmas sequence may be the most telling of all, superbly crafted, full of contradictions and revelations, creating a profound impact.  Neither child arrives by train, as expected, sending a last-minute telegram that comes too late, leaving her desperately lonely and in tears as she watches infant carolers on Christmas Eve out a frosted-pane window in what resembles a winter wonderland covered in snow.  On Christmas morning, Ned and Kay arrive home and burst through the front door, heading straight for the presents, announcing this will likely be their last Christmas together, each now wrapped up in their own entangled future lives, once more abandoning their mother, with Ned offering a brand new television set to keep her company, something she positively abhors and has gone out of her way to avoid, little more than a replacement companion, the last refuge for a lonely woman, sadly seeing her reflection on the blank television screen.   

The title of the film is largely ironic, as rather than offer an optimistic picture of 1950’s Eisenhower America, the film instead underlines the limits of what Heaven allows, as happiness is compromised by a range of period issues, like conformity, class difference, gender roles, and the obsessional pursuit of material wealth.  Cary is an affluent and privileged divorcee, yet rather than feel liberated or empowered, she feels trapped by the expectations of those around her, bossed around by her family and friends, creating A Doll’s House picture of entrapment, her home a shrine to their ghostly fathers living memory, mummified like a tomb, feeling caught between loneliness and an overriding sense of repression.  At least initially her daughter Kay is brimming with confidence and feminist optimism about new opportunities opening up in the foreseeable future, looking at the world differently through educational advantages, yet that all goes out the window when she chooses a traditional marriage.  Ron, meanwhile, represents an outsider’s perspective, where restoring the rustic old mill with a warming fireplace and large window views overlooking the pond actually achieve the embodiment of Heaven, with a symbolic deer appearing outside their window representing not only the spirit of love but the harmony of the natural world surrounding them.  Ron’s friends out in the country feel less fiercely competitive and more spontaneous and genuine, showing little prejudice or pretense, liking whoever Ron likes, embracing Cary right away.  In Cary’s world of cocktail parties, largely comprised of white-collar professional men and their fashion-conscious wives, her friends are harshly judgmental, resorting to crude backstabbing as a survival instinct, where only the strongest survive in an aggressive Darwinian universe pitting one against the other.  It should be understood that during an era of red-baiting during McCarthyism, where the moral abhorrence of homosexuality was viewed as much of a threat as communism, Senator McCarthy ordered all copies of Thoreau’s Walden to be removed from overseas American libraries as part of his infamous book burning campaign, believing the book to be ideologically dangerous.  Sirk, who emigrated from Germany in the 30’s and witnessed the rise of Nazism, is well-versed in offering warning signs about scapegoating.  This film offers an alternative view to the patriarchal establishment, where Rock Hudson, a gay icon who was never open about his sexuality, is the fetishized object of Jane Wyman’s female gaze, turning the tables, so to speak.  Sex in this film is non-existent, part of the puritanism of the 50’s, shoved under the surface, apparently of little consequence, putting this on the opposite spectrum of the blatantly graphic sexual content of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this resembles, where the lady of the manor has a torrid sexual affair with the grounds gamekeeper (banned in America on obscenity charges at the time of the film’s release).  What matters is the viewer stream-of-conscious identification of love in the air, where it’s easy to sympathize with Wyman, finding what she apparently wants, and deciding for herself, yet she’s victimized by a stream of small-town invective driven by malevolent rumors and a sinister undercurrent that wants to take it all away.  In one scene at the club, a married man forcefully grabs and kisses her, offering to run off to a sordid room together, leaving an impression that any available woman is his to play with, as if that’s a man’s prerogative.  Cary sternly rejects him, but he’s one of her biggest critics when showcasing Ron, making something of a spectacle of himself, assuming their love is purely physical, pouncing on her before falling over drunk, calling her a tease, a hypocrite and a fake, that her previous rejection was all just an act.  In that scene, Wyman is eroticized, the object of a male gaze, where in that setting the man’s hideous expression of desire is socially condoned.  When she brings Ron to the club, they all recognize he is a stunning physical presence, a leering object of desire, scrutinized by the gaze of both men and women, yet immediately becomes the object of their scorn, where he’s rejected for not being one of them, for belonging to a lower social class.  (In today’s market, Ron’s stunning piece of land and property would be worth significantly more than any suburban dwelling, likely making him a millionaire.)  In declaring their open hostility, outsiders are not welcome in the sanctimonious country club setting.   When testing the waters to see if she is capable of deciding on her own, Hudson describes one of his friends, “Mick discovered for himself that he had to make his own decisions, that he had to be a man.” To which Wyman replies, “And you want me to be man?”  “Only in that one way,” Hudson offers with a discerning smile.  It’s a mysterious turn of phrase, not one often heard in the movies, but it connotes a certain unstated ambiguity that perhaps best describes this picture, as there’s always something going on under the surface, one of two Sirk films added to the National Film Registry, the other being IMITATION OF LIFE (1959).      

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