The melodrama is a staple in the history of cinema, much as the unfortunately named "women's weepie" proved to be an important sub-genre within the movement, and it is quite obvious that no direct embraced this style of filmmaking, quite like Douglas Sirk. To call his movies simple or traditional is to read them at face value and completely ignore the degree of commitment and detail to scenery, narrative and the way actors performed their roles, within films like Written on the Wind, Sirk manages to capture both the real tragedies of the middle class, white American existence, while also proving all to aware of their problematic and privileged lifestyle relational to the world around them. For this month of women in film I knew that it would be a huge oversight on my part not to include at least one work by Sirk, particularly since he was so closely attached to the "women's weepie" film. While I could likely have went with pretty much any film by the late director, I felt the subject matter of his 1955 film All That Heaven Allows would prove the most useful, both in its consideration of gender expectations as they extend beyond not only class, but generations as well. Furthermore, the acting in this film is both within the exaggerated mannerism of melodramatic tradition, while also proving to be quite refined and focused, especially via Rock Hudson, whose charm and outright presence in the film cannot be ignored. The mix of frank considerations of oppressive societal expectations and the idyllic landscapes filmed in brilliant Technicolor result in a film that is almost otherworldly in its displays, or at the very least so slightly altered as to make the viewer quite aware of its synthetic nature. A film like All That Heaven Allows is a favorite of many, most surprisingly that of Fassbinder, whose Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is both an homage and admittedly partial remake of Sirk's magnificent work. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with Fassbinder's work, yet the sort of veneer that exits over the reality of authoritative oppression, reflects not only Fassbinder, but directors like David Lynch as well.
All That Heaven Allows focuses on the seemingly mundane life of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) a widow who fills her days with half-hearted attendances of luncheons and parties, as well as planning dinners and such for her two children when they return home from college on the weekends. Cary, while not completely detached from her late husband, seems to long for a means to move on with her life, and even though she finds herself the point of admiration for many of the older men within the country club of her town, she turns down any advances from them beyond a cocktail and some light chit-chat. All the while, Cary has been getting trees and gardening done by a younger man named Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) whose soft-spoken yet kind demeanor and devilishly handsome good looks, become a point of admiration for Cary, who finds herself falling for Ron. Fortunately for Cary, Ron too seems to find himself growing fond for her, and the two begin a sweet and simple romance that centers particularly on their trips to a dilapidated barn on the outskirts of the town, a place owned by his family. When word of their relationship makes it to town, the people begin to talk and condemn the two for engaging in what many claim to be an illicit relationship, not because Cary is a widow, but because she is so much older than Ron. Realizing its detrimental effects on their family name, Cary's own children turn against her, eventually rejecting her desire to be with Ron, even though she emphasizes her love and earnest feelings for him. As a result, she leaves him alone and rejects his marriage offer, only to realize that her own happiness is far to valuable to simply toss away. What follows is an attempt to return to Ron, only to grow cold feet at the last minute. However, seeing Cary walks away, Ron attempts to follow her only to fall of a ledge and injure himself. Hearing the news of the accident, Cary returns to make amends with the ailing Ron who welcomes her back and the two are allowed to obtain their own world of happiness regardless of what the societal norms might suggest.
The melodrama as a genre, has always proved problematic in relation to women, particularly its emphasis that they exist within the domestic sphere. Of course, one benefit of the melodrama, particularly from the era of filmmaking where Sirk emerge, was its heavy use of women in lead roles, an act that did challenge cinematic conventions of its time. However, women, even in the context, of such a revolutionary film portrayal were decidedly expected to perform within perfectly aligned gender roles. In the case of All That Heaven Allows, Cary is told that she is to play the part of the grieving widow and mother to her children, and not expected to venture into such a controversial love affair with a younger man. It is interesting to note that she is chastised, not for seeking a new partner, in fact, she is made multiple marriage propositions in the film, however, it is her blatant choice of a younger man and, subsequently, her refusal to worry about the frivolous world of social outings to find romance. The people of the country club, as well as her children, seem content on her remarrying to another well-off widow in order to assure financial security and that class divisions not be overlapped. As such, one can read into the possibility that individuals are not so much upset with Cary for seeking romance with a younger person, but for doing so with somebody of such a lower class. Regardless of their feelings and attitudes towards the arrangement, one thing is clear. they seem content to blame the entire ordeal on Cary, despite it being quite clear that Ron is also interested and involved in the initial flirtation, however, Cary is mature, educated and a mother and should, as a result, know better. It is a film about finding love in unlikely places and the rewards present when someone opens their heart up to such possibilities, however, its dueling context of societal norms and their ability to cause an institutionalized idea of normal romance, to become internalized quite quickly. The original ending of the film had Ron's accident serve as the closing moment, leading to his survival being uncertain, an act studios found far too depressing, yet, ironically, it is perhaps this ending that was more fulfilling than his survival. Sure they will end up together, but they are no less suspect to the condemning glances of their community.
Key Scene: The initial trip to the barn, is seemingly simple, but its romantic energy and sexual undertones are far too brilliant to underestimate or overlook.
This is yet another gift from Criterion. While I am holding out for a bluray upgrade, for those solely rocking DVD's this is a must own in every regard.