Archive for September 12th, 2014


by Ed Howard

By now, the plot of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows should be very familiar, considering it has been adapted for both Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. It’s the story of the lonely widow Cary (Jane Wyman), who falls in love with her younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and plans to marry him despite the differences in age and social class which put external pressures on the relationship. As a satire of upper-middle-class pettiness and hypocrisy, it occasionally lays it on too thick, a hallmark of Sirk’s work that nevertheless contributes to his satire’s biting wit. As the gossip and snarky jokes and open disapproval of Cary’s friends, neighbors, and even children begin to weigh on her, the relationship seems less and less stable or possible. Sirk’s portrayal of these ungenerous souls is unremittingly caustic, with a devastatingly sharp satirical eye that never fails to capture the bitchiness and jealousy hidden beneath the ever-present phony smiles and friendly banter.

If Sirk’s satirical touch can sometimes be heavy and unsubtle, his visual sense is unfailingly exactly the opposite. Here, his style is most effective in contrasting the harshness of his high society satire with the lush warmth of his visuals, especially in the scenes set at Ron’s country retreat. Ron’s lifestyle evokes the pastoral philosophy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which is quoted from in one scene. Ron’s true-to-himself philosophy and rugged life, continually in touch with nature, is a stark contrast to the hermetically sealed spaces of Cary’s old-money mansion, her dead husband’s ancestral home and a constant reminder of her widowhood. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott), a social worker who provides some of the film’s funniest comic relief in her straight-faced presentations of Freudian psychobabble, tells her mother about the old, outdated Egyptian custom of entombing the wife with her dead husband so she might enter the afterlife with him. That custom is long gone, the daughter assures her, but Cary isn’t so sure, and with good reason. What is her house but a brightly lit tomb, with her dead husband’s possessions all around her? And the townspeople are only too glad to make sure she stays in this tomb, alone and unhappy, unless of course she decides to marry a socially acceptable man like the much older Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who lacks passion or emotion but offers her at least, in his dry way, “companionship.” (more…)

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