A romance novel come to life.
Director Douglas Sirk was an interesting director with a great story. Escaping Holland with his Jewish wife just before the Nazis could invade, Detlef Sierck Americanized his name, and was hired by Hollywood as a comedy director. Comedies might have been a fine outlet for Sirk's talents, but things didn't work out that way. The artist would be known for his melodramas, classic weepy romances full of heartbreak, love, and reunion. Usually such films bore me to tears, but I have to admit I find his work visually interesting and his themes compelling. Following on the huge success of Magnificent Obsession, Sirk started All That Heaven Allows as a vehicle to capitalize on the prior film's fame. Returning are Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, and Agnes Moorehead, and the film has gone on to be a quintessential example of melodrama. Fine performances and characters make the film more than a nighttime soap opera, and Criterion has recognized the film's significance with an excellent DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Jane Wyman (who had recently divorced B-actor Ronald Reagan) plays Cary Scott, a widow with more money and time on her hands than she knows what to do with. She and her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead, who may be best known as playing Endora, Samantha's mother on Bewitched) live a life of social gatherings with their idle peers, and Cary wonders where her life can go from here. Her children are grown, and want her to marry some old, boring, stuffy man who talks about his aches and pains a lot. They feel comfortable in their superiority over both this man, and in turn their mother.
All this will change, as Cary notices the handsome young man who tends her garden and her trees. Rock Hudson is Ron Kirby, a man who lives his life by the philosophy of Thoreau, and is secure within himself without need of wealth or approval. Such a man proves fascinating to Cary, and with Ron's friends discovers a possible life of jovial laughter and happiness. The two fall in love, and decide to tell everyone they want to get married. Unfortunately, they have crossed two lines that society doesn't believe should be crossed: Ron is 15 years her junior, and is not part of the same economic class. Her friends mock her, her children threaten to disown her, and her life quickly spirals into a decision between her heart and her ingrained belief in pleasing others. If you want to know if the two stay together, or if society beats her down, you'll have to watch the film.
There are themes, both behind the story and visual, that I liked in what might otherwise have been a mere romance novel. First, I enjoyed the philosophical tack that the story took, as it influenced both main characters and supporting ones. Kirby is a man unfettered by the need for wealth, approval, or much of anything. He maintains serenity by only letting important things get to him, and by knowing the difference between the important and the trivial. Only the loss of Cary could disrupt that serenity. His outlook also plays a large part with his friends, who finally stopped their materialistic obsession to keep up with the Jones's, and have happier lives as a result. This is in direct contrast with the life Cary has been led to believe in through her lifetime as wife and mother. Cary leads a life where social obligation and standing has been the crux of her existence, and now she sees a simpler, less stressful possibility. This emphasis on philosophy and against traditional small town values raises the bar a hefty notch above mere melodrama.
I also took note of Sirk's visual style. He likes to use the frame to let the viewer observe, and see the story demonstrated without a lot of close-ups to force emphasis. Conversations almost invariably have all participants in the frame even when showing the face of the one speaking. His use of color and light were also interesting, perhaps even compelling.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a high opinion of melodrama in general. It seems archaic and forced all too often. The music cues are often too manipulative, and I found that to be the case several times during this film. However, I still found the story held my interest and made me want to see how everything turned out. The ending almost surprised me. So this is a good example of melodrama; one to appeal greatly to fans of the genre and to also provide some cross-genre appeal.
The DVD presentation is very good as well. Criterion took this aged film and really made an outstanding image. The 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer has great colors, detail is sharp, and only a smattering of grain and a few blemishes crop up from time to time. Considering this is a 46-year-old film, I am quite impressed. The sound is a serviceable mono, with clear dialogue and a low noise floor, though it still lacks the fidelity of a newer film, and is totally dependent on the age and technology used in the original recording. Very serviceable, and all I would expect.
The extra content isn't overwhelming in quantity, but what is there is quite good and goes deeply into the work of Douglas Sirk. The first and best of the lot is the 30-minute interview with Sirk himself, done not long before his death in 1987. He goes into great detail about all his films, and surprisingly states that he himself was not a big aficionado of melodrama, that this was simply what he was given to do and he became known for doing. The interview is a gem of historical significance and nearly worth the purchase alone, although it isn't very flashy and requires a lot of attention. Also of historic significance is the illustrated essay written by German expressionist Werner Rainer Fassbinder, who talks about Sirk's work in general and gives detailed impressions of six of Sirk's films, including All That Heaven Allows. Somehow, he manages to both compliment and denigrate the work all at the same time. A still gallery of production photos, marketing posters, and lobby cards, liner notes, and the theatrical trailer complete the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one area of the film I had a hard time identifying with had to do with the relationship between Ron Kirby and Cary Scott. Fassbinder says in his interpretation of the film that he understands entirely why Ron would be attracted to Cary, but I didn't see it. Jane Wyman was definitely past her prime by the time the film was made, and had to play a role where she would be the older end of the May-December romance. Rock Hudson was obviously young and virile looking at this point. Never mind Hudson was gay—a secret only outside of Hollywood at the time—because it was not the chemistry between the characters that was lacking. Cary is so mainstreamed, so elegant, that she didn't seem like a good fit for Kirby, as his emphasis was his communion with nature, and she is bedecked in fine clothes, makeup, and a full-length fur coat whenever she sees him. She seems the type to not want to get her hands dirty, not someone that a Ron Kirby would find himself attracted to, the age difference notwithstanding. It takes some suspension of disbelief to accept the relationship as it is given. Perhaps if there had been a better buildup between the two, it might have worked better; it seems the film wants to get past the courtship and right into the star-crossed lovers routine a bit too quickly.
Fans of melodrama and especially of Douglas Sirk will be greatly pleased to add this Criterion disc to their collection. Others might want to give it a rental, but the historic interview and Fassbinder essay raises it to the recommended purchase level.
All involved are innocent, and the court releases the film to lovers of the classics worldwide.
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