“To thine own self be true”
I shouldn’t be surprised that it took almost a half-century for Douglas Sirk‘s 1955 social comment on suburban gossip and image amongst the wealthy elite, All That Heaven Allows, to be appreciated as the masterpiece it is considering those watching in theaters upon its release were exactly those types of people. This is an artist working with the time period in which he lives, mocking the people with the disposable income to see his film in order to turn the mirror on how vain and shallow they are. It therefore has to be displayed through the sheen of melodrama because it’s hard for audiences to believe the characters are themselves. Only after laughing at their over-the-top, hyperbolic machinations can they understand the joke is on them.
Now that we’re so far removed from the era to look back and know just how petty upper middle class Americans were (and still remain), we can laugh and cry in hindsight. Image is literally everything for some and gossip ruins lives—especially now with social media anonymity. But nothing’s more noticeable in Peg Fenwick‘s script (from a story by Edna L. and Harry Lee) than the hypocrisy and fickleness on display. Here’s a widow in Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) for whom everyone in town would love to see become attached again after years alone—her children included. Doing so isn’t enough, however. She must find and settle for a gentleman they deem appropriate. Love plays second fiddle to companionship, the suitor’s inclusion hinging on society’s approval.
Hiding his satire behind melodrama wasn’t enough for Sirk as he also ensures his Technicolor is oppressively vibrant in blues and reds. The effect lends a storybook feel to accompany the smiles and easy-going attitudes of everyone coming and going. Even town gossip Mona Plash (Jacqueline deWit) gets shrugged off with grins, her invitation to parties always sent in the hopes she’ll target someone else for a while. And Cary is in the middle of the action—adored by all and graced on weekends by her studious children Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds). Men throw themselves at her, best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) would do anything for her, and life is busy enough that she’s yet to be sentenced to a television set to combat loneliness.
It’s not that she lives in the past either. She enjoys her time with those she keeps close and likes having bachelor Harvey (Conrad Nagel) around to attend soirées. He simply isn’t someone who makes her feel as she did with her late husband. A second marriage isn’t on her mind because no one has made her think about it. Sure she’s had proposals by those with the freedom to give them and those who don’t, but they just aren’t for her. So her kids and Sara laugh as Kay uses her college-level psychoanalysis skills on Cary to explain that she shouldn’t fade away alone. But no one expected that the one man to prove life possessed a second chance would be her young gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson).
Not even Cary expected it when she offered the man some lunch and coffee after learning he had taken over the business from his father. Did she see him as an attractive man? Sure. Did she see him as a prospective suitor? Doubtful. But when so many men she can’t move onto the next step with continue trying and Ron invites her to see the trees he’s started growing, how can she say no to an escape? The fact he kisses her still doesn’t quite register because she can’t fathom why he would, but that electricity finally flows through her again so she can think of nothing else. And anyway, her neighbors start to think about the scandalous nature of their affair enough for everyone.
The juxtaposition’s so black and white and yet it doesn’t feel false. Cary’s life is in a mansion with snooty friends who cheat on their wives and joke about how money truly is everything. Ron’s is in the woods at his greenhouse living off the land and off the grid in simplicity without distraction. He is so much a solitary man at odds with the system that he opened the eyes of his friends Mick (Charles Drake) and Alida Anderson (Virginia Grey) to join him away from big city vapidity. Sirk shows us the lavishness of Sara’s party and the warmth of Alida’s next to each other to portray what matters and why Cary would think so too. Comfort and security starkly defined two very disparate ways.
Until Mona and her vultures laugh at the age difference, I honestly forgot one existed. That’s how perfectly suited to each other Cary and Ron are. The film was made in the 50s so love is always a bit out-of-left-field with paltry build-up, but she does initially resist him. He doesn’t pester as much as ignore what he knows to be airs, visiting her two weeks after that first kiss to whisk her away with confidence. We see the difference in her smile between interactions with the pompous as opposed to the artistic free spirits and know it isn’t enough to sway opinions from selfish desire. Mona, et al. need fodder to reign superior while Kay and Ned hate the prospect of mother ruining the family reputation they’ve finally embraced.
You laugh that someone could ignore pure love to retain status, but what’s shown onscreen is as serious as can be underneath the soap opera theatrics. There’s no better transition than watching the joyous grins disappear from Kay and Ned’s faces after Cary announces that her fiancé is not the man they think. How can she not feel that icy coolness? How can she not begin to wonder if it’s all been a mistake? She’s known nothing but the life her late husband provided and they raised their children to need the same. But that doesn’t excuse her for letting their petty arguments give her pause. Perhaps Dr. Hennessy (Hayden Rorke) was right and she wasn’t yet prepared for love—just a love affair.
The sentiment resonates because the film does well to make us pull for their happiness. Hudson’s Ron is a clichéd “perfect” man, but it’s an ideal you cannot deny someone wanting. Wyman’s Cary in turn is much sweeter and warmer than the rest of her circle and therefore the epitome of a character we hope can find herself despite so many holding her back. There’s a lot of regret involved in their decisions with each other and a karmic realization that could have ended the film in pessimistic tragedy with the blunt force trauma message of “follow your heart” screaming in our ears. Instead we watch as tragedy becomes a slap to the face wake-up. It may ultimately be too late, but you’ll never know unless you try.