All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Dir. Douglas Sirk. Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

Cary Scott’s (Wyman) garbage children, Ned and Kay (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott, respectively), are both in their early twenties during the events of the film. In 1955, I don’t think any but the most clairvoyant Americans would have foreseen the events in Vietnam, only the most hopeful and foolish would have foreseen the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and only Cassandra could have guessed at the assassinations of two Kennedys and the two most monumental heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. One wonders what Ned and Kay would make of those events. (Ned talks about going to Iran for a business opportunity at the end of the film; what do you suppose he would have made of the revolution there?) Cary has two profoundly conventional children on her hands who will doubtless vote for Nixon and Reagan, dismiss Rachel Carson as a crank and curse Khrushchev in their prayers, and lament the curbing of Wall Street at the end of the 1980s. Viewed through the wrong end of the temporal telescope, those who came of age in the ’50s in their element – even those as bright and occasionally impish as Kay – are nightmare fuel sixty years on.

Sirk, despite being neither clairvoyant nor hopeful nor foolish nor Cassandra, seems nevertheless to understand that from such a generation very little can be aspired to. Ned, handsome and callow, is good at making martinis; whatever skills he might possess apart from that are perceived as so unimportant that they are never mentioned by any character, and are certainly not hinted by the man himself. He buys Cary, who is about to be an empty-nester, the television she has been dodging for most of the film. Televisions are good for keeping lonely women company. Kay, who wears glasses when she’s got social work and Freud on the brain, loses them when the young man she’s seeing proposes. The only scene with him takes place below Cary’s window, where he and Kay alternate between some thorough kissing and Kay’s explanation of why he wants to be a football captain (“love”). With the possible exception of Cary’s friend Sara (Moorehead), Kay comes closer to anyone else in Stoningham to understanding why her mother does what she does; she also is forced to defend her mother against the calumnies of other kids, so violently that she is, in what must be a real moment of shame for such an innocuous bookworm, kicked out of the library. She comes home in tears, lit from her circular window in a stainglass of colors the likes of which we won’t see on a movie character’s face again until 2001: A Space Odyssey. The effect, even in a movie as famously colorful as this one, is stunning; her emotional state, with its changing and clashing hues, is painted large on her entire body. It’s clear that defending her mother once was something she could do once on principle, but that she isn’t capable of standing up for her habitually. Something will have to give.

Kay certainly is a fountain of knowledge. When her mother goes to a soiree at the country club with a fellow her own age, Ned is a little disapproving of the way that his mother throws away her husband’s legacy by going on a date wearing a red dress. (When he thinks his mother is going to marry that man, Harvey, later in the film, he seems perfectly cheerful about it; the issue is never really about his mother marrying but the threat of his mom banging someone.) Kay responds by saying that she doesn’t believe that a widow should be shut up to die in the husband’s tomb, as was customary for the Egyptians. It’s so pertly stated that the gruesome nature of the ritual is almost elided. (There’s a metaphor for the ’50s if I ever saw one.) We agree with Kay, but what to make of Harvey’s presumptuous proposal at the end of the evening. To Harvey, “companionship” is the real key to a marriage, especially for people their age; why not get married, he asks Cary, and be assured of a friend? It’s an attractive enough notion on the face of it, though one’s mind reels at the thought of a man asking a woman to marry him after one date and being a little disappointed when she doesn’t say “yes” on the spot. One’s mind reels a little, too, watching Harvey and Cary pretend to be something like contemporaries – Conrad Nagel had two decades on Wyman! No one will raise an eyebrow at this age disparity even though later on, everyone will be shocked that Cary wants to marry a fellow maybe ten to fifteen years her junior. In any event, the point is made. Cary is not interested in being shut up in a tomb outside her husband either. If she will marry, she will marry for love instead of convention.

Cary’s sudden love affair with Ron Kirby (Hudson) is borne out of nature. Ron’s family profession is gardening, although now that Ron’s father has died and he’s put some time into growing trees, Ron is more interested in the trees than the gardening. He has some education, having gone to agricultural school to learn about the various flora he’ll grow and care for. By Stoningham standards, Ron’s home in a mill – though abundantly picturesque, red as blood on sapphire blue waters among white snowy hills – is primitive. Being tied to nature is gauche, somehow. The film is not shy about implying that what the smart set doesn’t understand is punitively dismissed as irrelevant or beneath the knowledge of nice people, and it’s clear that even someone as decent as Cary has no idea what she’s got in her yard. (Ron is not an evangelist about nature; Cary asks him if he thinks she should take up gardening, and, with a mix of good sense and sarcasm, Ron says she should if she thinks she’d like it.) In a home nearly as wild as Ron’s live his proto-Beat friends, Mick and Alida (Charles Drake and Virginia Grey). A party where they live is contrasted with the date Cary goes on to the Stoningham Country Club. In Stoningham, one dances sensibly, drinks liquor, and ducks into the shadows to cop a feel. At Mick and Alida’s, the dancing is looser and funny, and the beverage of choice is wine, and no one is a threat. Before the party starts, Cary finds a copy of Walden and runs across the same chapter that the Dead Poets Society will run across just a few years later and a couple states up. Just as Thoreau is to wander into nature and find coherence, Cary is to wander into Nature Boy and find some sense for herself. This is one of my least favorite tropes, assuming as it does that nature is primarily a vessel for human revelation, but it’s nonetheless effective as a tool to make her worlds distinct. And Sirk fools with the idea a little bit, too; there’s a mule deer that Ron has made friends with who shows up in some key moments, but Ron would never say the deer belonged to him. (Shades of Jeff Winger using “Can you ever really own a horse?” as a pick-up line many, many years later, but I digress.) Stoningham, a society built on the unnatural, built on business and profit, is impure. What Ron has is a great purity of character and motive, reflected in the perfection of polished wood, lively greenhouses, and unsullied forests.

All That Heaven Allows remains effective because it is translatable. The film’s message of self-reliance is attractive and prescient. In the years since the movie was released, the systems of social control used to maintain order within a community have become more flashy but remain more or less the same in theory. Mona (Jacqueline De Wit), the gossip whom nobody likes but everyone listens to just the same, has corollaries in every other amoral group superego one can care to think of. All That Heaven Allows does not seem to imagine that a whole society can be made up of self-reliant people, which is to say people who can find satisfaction within themselves and without the approval of people outside a tight inner circle of friends. But it rejoices all the same when somebody who’s shown what it’s like to live in that fashion decides to stick around for the long haul.

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