Brief impression: “All That Heaven Allows”

September 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

For a film that is the product of a director renowned for his ‘melodramas’, Douglas Sirk’s 1955 picture “All That Heaven Allows”, the tale of a semi-scandalous love affair between a beautiful middle-aged widow and a much younger hunk of a gardener, derives much – if not all – of its dramatic momentum from its people rather than from its plot. If a melodramatic story is largely founded upon a plot device of some description, however extravagant, and the ways in which its characters react to said device as well as to each other’s reactions, “All That Heaven Allows” does not quite sink into that mould with ease. This is not to say that it is a better film for this reason, but it does beg the question: is the term ‘melodrama’ more misunderstood than it is understood? Whatever the answer, it is surely a term which has become – and unfairly so – a shorthand criticism for cinematic ham and cheese.

The most common modern iteration of the melodrama seems to be, ironically, the situation comedy, the half-hour sitcom wherein a group of characters with well-demarcated – often heightened – personalities are beset by an event or an insult or a misunderstanding of sorts in response to which they react and behave accordingly; according to their own individual natures and the natures of their fellow characters, but also according to the needs of the audiences who crave a somewhat embellished alternative to their own rather droll realities. This is the draw of soap operas, the reason for their extraordinary longevity and rabid following. Interestingly, there may be no need to introduce a plot device or an artificial source of conflict if the characters themselves are brash or heightened enough such that the interaction between them is sufficient for the brewing of melodrama. Admittedly, “All That Heaven Allows” features its share of individuals who are ripe and ready for their melodramatic duties: gossips, motor-mouths, pontificating pseudo-intellects and hubristic sons. Even Rock Hudson’s Ron Kirby, who initially comes across as earthy and flexible, turns out to be – in ways endearing and irritating – just as stuck in his way as the conservative hive-minds that decry the relationship he has with the older Cary Scott (portrayed soulfully and with charismatic sadness by pixie-faced Jane Wyman). The exception amongst all these characters – apart from Ron’s well-balanced friends – seems to be Cary herself. But even then, there is an authenticity and generosity in the way even the gossips and motor-mouths are portrayed by both actor and director which undercuts any sense of excess or superfluity, but more importantly there is a lightness of touch, a mellow undercurrent of naturalism that really balances out the more colourful aspects of the movie (and not just the lush, technicolour radiance).

Jane Wyman’s character is unique amongst her fictional peers in that she is reasonable and considerate in a way that may be considered overly conservative, even timid or submissive; perhaps anti-dramatic. Recently widowed and the mother of two cocksure young adults, Cary is longsuffering in the way that a good wife in fifties USA ought to have been. But unlike the usual characters that usually populate usual melodramas, she is rarely driven to acts of bombast or thoughtlessness simply as a means to satisfy her desires and add spice to the general proceedings. But she does have desires and, as the film progresses, she finds that her considerateness is rarely reciprocated or even appreciated and as a result she feels comfortable – perhaps for the first time in her fictional memory – pursuing pleasure and happiness purely for herself. Cary’s low-key yet powerful screen presence, in spite of her utter reasonableness, is evidence enough for an argument against one of the least palatable aspects of melodrama, that is to say, that bone-dry watering hole that bad dramatists continually return to in hope of injecting life into their narrative concoctions: irrational, rash, unconsidered behaviour; that which one may cheekily term ‘cinema logic’.   Of course, the technicolour vibrancy of the film’s visual aesthetic is signature Sirk and may be one of the reasons it immediately strikes viewers as being a melodrama seeing as melodramas are heightened not just narratively but formally, is it not? I suppose the magic of this film lies in the German émigré director’s deft balancing of a heightened formal approach with a consequently noticeable and notable sprinkling of psychological realism, allowing of course for the that which an American drama from this period was likely required to provide if it was to attain any sort of theatrical longevity or at the very least satisfy the emotions expressiveness that Hollywood expected audiences to expect.

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