Sunday, January 31, 2016

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                     Writer: Peg Fenwick
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead and Conrad Nagel

Though I knew that Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman had done a series of films for Universal in the fifties, I didn’t know about this specific film until watching Martin Scorsese’s history of film called A Personal Journey. And while I had absolutely hated Magnificent Obsession, which had been filmed a year earlier, I discovered that All that Heaven Allows is one of the best films of all time. It’s a corny story, with a predictable plot, that nevertheless captivates in the way that it subverts the traditional symbol of women who make sacrifices for others. At the same time it manages to criticize the fifties culture that had cut itself off from nature and plugged into television. It’s truly a marvel of a film and is criminally neglected on best film lists, though twenty years ago it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. The original story was written by journalist Harry Lee and his mother Edna. And while not necessarily enamored with the story, director Douglas Sirk took it as a challenge, to imbue the production with an unambiguous point of view that was critical of American society at that time. Producer Ross Hunter had begun his film career as an actor and was friends with both Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, originally casting them in the earlier film. It was Hunter who really allowed Sirk a free hand in expressing himself in a way that would solidify his reputation in American film history.

The film begins a few years after the death of Jane Wyman’s husband. Her friend, Agnes Moorehead, comes over to say she can’t stay for lunch, so Wyman invites the young gardener, Rock Hudson, to share her meal. Wyman lives in a New York suburb, in an expensive house and has expensive friends who all belong to the country club. She’s sort of dating a dried up Conrad Nagel, successful but hardly the romantic type. But then no one thinks she needs any romance, not her kids, William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott, or her snobbish friends which include gossip Jacqueline deWit. When Donald Curtis puts the moves on her at a party and she rebuffs him, he’s certain it’s only because she so chaste. Then one day Hudson says he’s selling his father’s business and heading upstate to start a tree farm. He invites her up to look at his place and she almost refuses. But once up in the country, she allows herself to fall for him. The problems, however, only begin with their age difference. The thought of giving up her home and friends at first frightens her. But then she meets Hudson’s friends, Charles Drake and Virginia Grey, and understands that Hudson is about as pure and noble as a man gets. He tells Wyman later that he’s met lots of girls, but has never been in love until he met her. When he proposes she is almost unable to let go of her life, but the life of a widow--or the sexless partner of Nagel--is not what she wants, and she says yes.

Of course this is the fifties, and everyone is outraged. Her kids turn on her, and her friends turn on her, and it’s all that she can do to say the course and honor her feelings despite what everyone else thinks. But in the end she gives in and breaks off the marriage with Hudson to placate her children. It’s what happens next that is such a powerful part of the film. Everyone wants to go back to normal. Everyone has been able to get what they want from her, and now they don’t seem to care about Wyman at all, especially her children. It’s finally this selfishness on their part that begins to gnaw at her and make her realize that the sacrifice she thought she was making has been for nothing. The fulcrum of the film is Jane Wyman’s character. To this point she has lived a life that has been defined by others. The actress comes in for criticism for a perceived vacuousness in her performance, but that is entirely the point. And Sirk makes it clear that her surroundings are equally empty, including her fancy house, expensive clothes, and country club friends. Even her relationship with her college-age children is a cliché in which she drifts rather than participates. This is made painfully clear in the juxtaposition between Hudson’s friends and her own. Hudson’s friends are boisterous and accepting, while Wyman’s are critical and judgmental. Hudson, she later learns, was a veteran of the Korean War and went into advertising, but he gave it all up to live on the land as his own person rather than working to satisfy some societal vision of normalcy.

The other minor character in the film is the television set. Only recently a household fixture in 1955, Wyman doesn’t own one or want one. But in the most devastating indictment of American conformity her children buy her one for Christmas, at the same time that Reynolds gives the news that he is going to study overseas and Talbott announces her impending marriage. Prior to this the children virtually threatened to cut Wyman out of their lives if she didn’t break it off with Hudson, and now they are leaving her, oblivious to her needs, with only the television to keep her company. Rock Hudson, despite similar criticism about his “wooden” performance, is tremendous. The other major juxtaposition in the film is his life in the woods compared with Wyman’s carefully manicured life in the suburbs. One of the unintended delights of the film is the fact that Hudson was a closeted gay at the time. This is especially poignant during the scene when he is telling Wyman that his journey of self-discovery was ultimately about becoming a man, and then Wyman asks him, “Is that what you want me to be?” The color photography by Russell Metty is beautifully stark, like the hand-tinted postcard of the time, and the score by Frank Skinner is serviceable but little else, reworking a piano piece by Franz Liszt in several scenes. Few other filmmakers, if any, during the period had such a distinctive point of view as Douglas Sirk, and All that Heaven Allows is the perfect example of that view.

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