All that Heaven Allows

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All that Heaven Allows is classic melodrama, and was dismissed as such on its release. While melodrama and soap operas are still considered low art today, at least this film has been critically reappraised. While many of its soap opera like trappings hold it back, it’s still a wonderful film elevated by Sirk’s command of color, light, and shadow.

Wealthy widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is leading a lonely existence after her husband’s death. While her friends all tell her she’s “lucky to have the children,” both of them are in college and only come home on some weekends. When she falls in love with a considerably younger down to earth landscaper, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her children and friends all turn against her. She then must chose between being socially proper or living with the man she loves.

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In his review (linked at bottom), Crowther complains that the film’s conflict is contrived; if Cary had just told her kids off the conflict could have been resolved in a matter of minutes. While this is true to some extent, one has to think about the social context and the kind of person Cary is. People are accusing her of cheating on her late husband with Ron when he was still alive, which is disturbing even if it isn’t true. It may not be much of a sacrifice to give up all her friends who are more concerned with what is proper than with Cary’s feelings, but her children are another matter. They are all she has besides Ron, and they make it seem as if it will be the end of the world if she goes off with him. They’re her children, and she has had to think of their well being above all else ever sense they were born. While it may be frustrating to a modern viewer, I feel as if this is actually a position that a woman in the ’50s would have found herself in. Men get enough derision for marrying a younger woman, do you think a woman could have gotten away with marrying a younger man so easily? Not likely.

Her children are very unlikable though, the son Ned (William Reynolds) more so than the daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott). They both presume to tell their mother what she wants out of life, as if she doesn’t know for herself. They both assume that Cary is just chasing after a younger guy and not actually in love. And Ned has this horrible scene where he gives Cary a guilt trip for moving out of their father’s house, as if he was actually going to be affected by this himself. Ned’s about to go abroad and Kay’s about to get married herself; neither of them are going to be around to be affected by the social implications of Cary’s marriage. Yet, they make it seem as if it will ruin their lives. What is of great concern to Cary is just a minor annoyance to them, but they have to go and make a federal case out of it. At least Kay eventually sees how wrong she was, while Ned just breezes off to France without giving his mother’s happiness a second thought.

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This might seem like a tired old plot to many, and much of the film’s writing reflects this. At least 75% of this film is terribly written. It’s actually horrible. The script often goes for cheap sentimentality and excessive emotion, and even worse, has to have its characters explain the conflicts and morals of the story to us. It’s not a hard story to grasp; we never need that to happen, but even less here. Though a lot of the ideas in the script are good, the film almost throws away good opportunities by over-explaining them. The use of the TV set as a substitute for actual human contact was a really great idea, but would have worked a lot better had the characters not explicitly said as much about five times. A lot of the writing is simply lazy; they need characters to be in certain places at certain times so they just write them in. Honestly, I considered turning off the sound at one point; I’m almost certain the film would have been better as a silent. That’s how terrible the writing is. The pacing also seems off, the film is about an hour and a half, and really could have benefited from being a bit longer. We don’t have enough time to feel a lot of Cary’s struggles because they are resolved so quickly.

There’s another reason that this would have been better as a silent, and that’s the visuals. Not only are they gorgeous, but they are more expressive than the banal dialogue ever could be. Consider the TV set again. After Cary decides not to marry Ron, her children basically bail on her and continue with their own lives. For Christmas, they give her a television as they have been promising to do for a while; now that they are out of the house for good, Mom has to have someone to keep her company (but of course she can’t get married to an actual person). The camera shows Cary’s depressed face in the reflection of the TV screen; the television isn’t going to keep her company, it’s going to imprison her in loneliness.

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Ned’s guilt trip scene I mentioned above is wonderfully done. Sirk uses an actual screen to cut between them, then once he’s established that switches to a subtler method of accomplishing the same thing: shadows. Cary’s face is lit, but Ned’s is covered in darkness. This simple technique not only that they are cut off from one another, but also who has the moral high ground. There are countless other spectacular scenes. One where Kay is crying in her mother’s arms is lit through a stained glass window, casting grotesque colors over the scene as Kay selfishly manipulates Cary. Another when Ron asks Cary to marry him is shown through a beautifully sustained long take, which only becomes broken up by editing when Cary thinks of the social implications of their marriage. Once the outside world seeps in, the pacing of the scene is broken up.

All that Heaven Allows has a lot of good things to offer, it’s only held back by the awful writing. The cast even does a decent job, but it’s hard to work with dialogue this poor. There is quite a bit of social commentary and feminist themes to be found here, even if it sunk so deep in corny melodrama. Sirk’s style is wonderful; this would be a perfect film if it was written a bit better.

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“And you want me to be a man?”
“Only in that one way.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
Laura Mulvey’s essay for The Criterion Collection

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