By Kris Tronerud

All That Heaven Allows • 1955 •  Directed by Douglas Sirk

Kay: Personally, I’ve never subscribed to that old Egyptian custom of walling up the widow alive in the funeral chambers of her dead husband … Of course it doesn’t happen anymore.
Cary: Doesn’t it?
— Jane Wyman and Gloria Talbott in All That Heaven Allows

In 1937, successful German Theater director Detlef Sierck, along with his Jewish wife, actress Hilde Jary, was denounced to authorities by a vengeful ex-wife, and forced to flee 1937 Germany; with little else but moxie and a considerable European reputation, the newly christened Douglas Sirk quickly found work in wartime Hollywood, starting out, appropriately enough, with an anti-Nazi potboiler, Hitler’s Madmen. Sirk, however, might well have been remembered simply for a long string of colorful, quirky, better-than average programmers, were it not for his fortunate teaming with an inordinately supportive studio and an equally sympathetic producer: of the 23 (!) consecutive films he made at Universal, four made for kindred spirit Ross Hunter (Magnificent Obsession {1954}, All That Heaven Allows {1955}, Written on the Wind {1956} and Imitation of Life {1959} form the core of his American work; of these, All That Heaven Allows is the undisputed masterpiece.

Restless and unfulfilled, but uninterested (unlike like her middle-aged cohorts), in becoming a ‘country club woman’, not-that-recently-widowed Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) starts hanging out with her idealistic, working-class (and far younger) gardener Roy (Rock Hudson). Charmed by his rugged individualism and his (gasp) proto-bohemian lifestyle, Cary falls hard, but assumes that, won over by true love and her hunky, neo-primitive beau (he doesn’t read Thoreau, remarks a friend, he lives it), her very buttoned down neighbors and family will understand. They don’t. Her prissy, suspiciously overprotective son throws a hissy and storms out of the family meeting; her educated, Freud-spouting intellectual daughter, whom she expects to understand, cracks and goes into hysterical overdrive when her classmates make sport of Mom’s new squeeze, and her neighbors openly mock her at a party thrown by her open-minded pal Sara (Agnes Moorehead) to introduce the couple. When Roy refuses to join the rat race (even a little bit) to make things easier, Cary walks out in a huff, deciding to put family and community before true love. Will Cary (aided by a succession of Dickensian chance encounters and misunderstandings, and an anti-climactic near death experience) wise up in time? Take a wild guess.

All That Heaven Allows is a fever-dream, near hallucinatory evocation of the textures, geography and manners of 1950’s Middle American Surburban Life, which hides, just below its surface, a strong, well-spoken and quite daring critique-cum-satire of those very tropes and conventions. Much has made of the supposed biting/scathing nature of Heaven’s social conscience, but in fact, Sirk’s genius in Heaven is in crafting a film which could be (and was) adored by legions of clueless romance-novel fans as a straightforward true love-triumphs-over-adversity yarn, while its social bravado and plucky anti-establishment tilt were right there waiting for those ladies ready and willing to pick up on it. And pick up on it, one assumes, many did, as Heaven preceded by only a few years the Beatnik movement (Roy’s pals’ nonconformist parties are an absurdly earnest and lusty hoot) and the feminist revolution. (Heaven also seems to provide a template for latter day soaps, which, regardless of their wildly varying quality, are nothing if not socially relevant.) Sirk is able to walk this delicate tightrope (Heaven, despite its seemingly controversial bent, was a huge success) precisely because he is never sneering or condescending to his characters, or for that matter, to the ideals which were the theoretical foundation of this flawed American fantasy. Instead, Heaven inhabits that same imaginary hyper-real universe as, (oddly enough) the films of Sergio Leone, sharing an approach in which a dreamlike evocation of an idealized setting is played with an amped up sincerity that constantly (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) teeters on the edge of, but never falls in to, outright parody.

All of which would be admirable, but unconvincing, had not Sirk brought to “my melodramas” (his words) the impeccable craftsmanship and flair for well-acted drama born of his Weimar theater days. Like another melodrama specialist and cult favorite, Mario Bava, Sirk was a youthful painting enthusiast, and, with the aid of his long-time collaborator the great cinematographer Russell Metty, his graceful, lissome camera paints Heaven in a lush swath of impossibly rich, vibrant gorgeousness, lingering on and lovingly caressing every face, object and natural vista with sensual glee (the psychedelically colorful opening aerial shot of Cary’s picture-perfect New England hometown is one of the great establishing shots in cinema).

In addition, Sirk carried from the theater a deft and apparently inspiring facility with actors, drawing out five Oscar-nominated performances over his career —  Dorothy Malone won, for her fine work in Written on The Wind, though it is the normally tightly-wound Robert Stack, as the raging, impotent son and heir, who, in the also-nominated and atypical performance of a lifetime, dominates that film. In Heaven, Wyman and Hudson lead a cast of past and future B-movie stalwarts, including Conrad Nagel as the bitter schlump everyone assumes Cary will wind up with; Moorehead in her most sympathetic role as her non-judgmental friend Sara; Nestor Paiva (Creature from the Black Lagoon), Merry Anders (The Hypnotic Eye) and Virginia Grey (The Naked Kiss) as Roy’s bohemian pals; and especially perennial TV guest star Gloria Talbott — hilarious and touching as Cary’s not-quite-as-liberated-as-she-thought daughter. Hudson (in a perf often mistakenly characterized as ‘wooden’), actually seems to be channeling the future, soon-to-become-immortal Hudson persona: smooth, sleekly romantic, and ever so gently self-mocking. But it is Wyman who steals the show and anchors the film, delivering Heaven’s crackling, pithy dialogue with yet another of her quietly complex and multilayered performances; conveying deep, seething emotion with the subtlest of fleeting expression and hinting gestures — establishing her, in retrospect, as (despite those awful hairdos) one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Finally, Sirk was a master of the perfectly realized moment – Every time Heaven threatens to risibly fly off the rails, Sirk delivers a quiet, evocative passage of astonishing power: Cary and Roy’s exploration of the old mill, as Roy (ahem) ‘brushes away the cobwebs’ for Cary, the frozen look of silent desperation on Cary’s face at every appearance of the young woman she wrongly assumes to be Roy’s lover, and the devastating shot of Cary’s reflection in the screen of the television her children have bought her to help ease her into a dignified and resigned old age – all work which is powerful testimony to the triumph of talent and sincerity over material.

At the very peak of his success however, Sirk and wife Hilde, never all that comfortable in what they viewed as a decadent and vulgar Hollywood, returned to Europe and ultimately settled in Switzerland. Sirk made only three more films, in Germany, including an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play Talk to Me Like The Rain, but his reputation as one of film’s great originals was, unlike many of his Hollywood peers, quickly established in his lifetime. In rapid succession, a pair of loving appreciations in Cahiers du Cinema (one by Jean-Luc Godard) praising his superb craftsmanship and maverick sensibility; the publication of Andrew Sarris’ monumental “The American Cinema” (with its then-unfashionable approval of Sirk) and Jon Halliday’s interview volume “Conversations with Sirk”; and two exhaustive career retrospectives at the Edinburgh Film Festival and the University of Connecticut Film Society in the early 70’s, all conspired to cement Sirk’s rightful place in cinema history. Still, though he accepted, with the encouragement of rabid fan Werner Rainer Fassbinder, a teaching position at the Munich Film School, Sirk, ever the contrarian, was skeptical of the politically correct adoration of the New Wave, and insisted to the end that his best film was the questionable, if still highly entertaining, Taza, Son of Cochise! It was therefore, perhaps in spite of himself that Sirk nonetheless delivered a handful of the most challenging and slyly subversive films of the outwardly repressed, inwardly turbulent 50’s; of which All That Heaven Allows is the grand and delirious gem.

Andrea O Written by: