ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
(director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriter: Peg Fenwick/based on the story by Edna L. & Harry Lee; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: Frank Gross; music: Frank Skinner; cast: Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Gloria Talbott (Kay), William Reynolds (Ned), Conrad Nagel (Harvey), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Jacqueline de Wit (Mona Plash), Alex Gerry (George Warren), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), Donald Curtis (Howard Hofer), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Leigh Snowden (Jo-Ann); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ross Hunter; Universal; 1955)
“After seeing Sirk’s disturbing film, it makes one wonder why any sensitive person would have wanted to live in an American small town in the 1950s.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“Heaven” is Douglas Sirk’s brilliantly perceptive sudsy romantic melodrama that turns into an attack on the American Dream, the ugly provincialism of small town life, and the ill effects of consumerism and materialism on the American soul. After seeing Sirk’s disturbing film, it makes one wonder why any sensitive person would have wanted to live in an American small town in the 1950s. The filmmaker of Leftist politics was born in 1900 of Danish parents, went to Germany in his teens to study art and drama and remained there until he fled Nazism in 1937 with his Jewish wife. Sirk opted for the American way of life and to be a Hollywood director in its studio system; and, since his established film career was little known in Hollywood, he had to start over from scratch.
In “Heaven” he slowly builds his case against America’s oppressive cultural life by his soap opera story about a wealthy middle-aged widow in the fictional New England town of Stoningham, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman). She is the loving mother of two college attending children–Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott). Cary is glad to be stuck with her conventional life among the town elites, friends who are living the good country club life of cocktail parties and material comfort. She seems contented because she doesn’t know any better, as she’s mainly concerned with caring for her children and keeping up her good reputation. Cary has her good reputation to fall back on, as her status in the community comes by way of her late businessman hubby. She would like to be swept off her feet romantically, or at least marry someone appealing of the same upper-class strata, but the only eligible bachelor among her set is Harvey (Conrad Nagel). He’s someone she does not love (he’s just not lovable), but he’s safe to be seen with and to be her steady escort at social functions. Harvey’s an older, boring man whose idea of romance centers around the need for companionship and affection, but even though he’s a dolt he’s someone her children feel comfortable with and can accept as a replacement for their dad (you would think, she would say to herself so much for caring about what her dopey kids think!). Her best friend is the snobbish Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), someone who looks out for Cary and with whom she feels comfortable telling her personal things. The one in her circle that’s even too revolting for her, is the big-mouthed gossip Mona Plash (Jacqueline de Wit).
The handsome Adonis, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), is her gardener. He’s taken over the maintenance job when his dad died three years ago, but she only notices him on this spring day when he’s pruning her trees and she eyeballs his bulging muscles and thinks she would rather be with him then with any other dude in town. He’s also nice and is no dummy. So begins an affair with someone bred from lower-class parents and fifteen years her junior. He’s a nature boy who is building a cabin in the woods and going into the tree farming business with his pal, an advertising executive dropout from the rat race, Mick Anderson (Charles Drake). After a disastrous time at a country club party where married man Howard Hofer (Donald Curtis) makes a boorish pass at her, she’s ready to hang out with Ron’s ‘back to nature friends’ who are warmer and more easy going than her old ‘uptight’ friends. Mick’s wife Alida (Virginia Grey) is much sweeter and more genuine than Sara, and Cary begins to think maybe she could live with the primitive Ron and learn to also love nature. After all, she swallowed whole that line of bull Ron fed her about the ‘golden rain tree’ near her house that can only bloom where there’s love.
Cary at present doesn’t love anything, but she swoons unashamedly whenever she’s with the hunky Ron. He’s secure with himself and strongly rooted as is a tree to the ground, and is living true to his inner nature. He startles her when he asks for her hand in marriage, as he doesn’t give a rap about what others think and whatever evil thoughts they have. But she does, and wants to stall for time because she doesn’t know what’s inside her except she knows she got the hots for him.
The women Cary knows are all nasty and have big mouths, but Cary still wants their approval. She is fearful of losing their friendship and being kicked out of the fold for marrying someone beneath her in status, as losing those elites would be tantamount to her dying. Her children are even worse. Kay says marrying him would ruin her life. Ned threatens to not see her again. So she breaks up with Ron even though she loves him, rather than upset her family and be ostracized by her own class. She then goes through the motions of living again as if nothing has happened by rejoining her social set, but it’s not working because she’s getting headaches. Her physician (Hayden Rorke) basically tells her the headaches are from no sex and tells her to ignore what her friends are saying and go live with Ron in the woods, that there’s no medicine he can give her that can cure her from what she’s suffering from. The final straw for her comes at Christmas, when the children’s present is a TV to keep her company. At the same time, Ned tells her he got a grant to study in Paris for next year and Kay announces she’s getting married to her longtime boyfriend. Since they are leaving anyway, she realizes she blew it and has traded a man she loves for a TV. Thereby, she manages to get up enough nerve to go back to Ron in the woods. But, he gets into an accident and has to be nurtured by her back to health. So that even though they’re back together, things are not exactly blissful. Cary has been so confused about love all her life, that the seemingly happy ending with them back together is tempered by her still thinking about all that she’s giving up. The film ends with a perplexed look on her face, as one wonders what will become of this affair–Will it die when her lust subsides?
Sirk leaves us with the human dilemma — people can’t be alone, but they can’t be together either. Sirk’s films are descriptive films. But there’s always something missing about his films that the viewer must fill in for themselves. He also knows how to deal with his actors to get top performances from them–Wyman doesn’t just react, she thinks to herself and outwardly presents an honest portrayal of a befuddled woman. Even though we can’t be certain of how it will all end, we read Wyman’s thoughts and she seems to be saying I fit better into my conventional house than Rock’s rustic cabin. Viewers have to fill in the blanks to his films in their own way, and this leaves some dissatisfied. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, someone who greatly admired and emulated Sirk, successfully remade “All That Heaven Allows” as “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” Recently Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” takes another look at 1950s small town repression in a remake of the Sirk film, a film I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing.
REVIEWED ON 11/28/2002 GRADE: A