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Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” Report

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2021

For Douglas Sirk, “Life is the most melodramatic story of all” (Stern, 1979). And this is evident in all of his works especially the emotional melodramas of the 1950s. All That Heaven Allows, released in 1955, repeated the successful pairing of Magnificent Obsession, as it starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. It correctly portrays the 50s as a time where even though legally Americans were free to live their life as they so wished, strict societal controls often denied people this freedom in their everyday life.

Sirk’s movies can be considered as the precedent for all the melodramatic soap operas that appeared on our TV screens some 40 odd years later. Set in the 50s, he tells this story from the perspective of a wealthy middle-aged widow Cary Scott as she tries to break free of the constraints imposed on her. Expectations of her teenage brats as well as the social circle she moves in, the privileged class, subtly but firmly dictate her life as they unfailingly interfere in all her issues. However, our protagonist doesn’t want to settle down with the boring hypochondriac who wants to offer her “companionship” and who everyone assumes she’ll marry. Rather, she falls in love with her handsome gardener, Ron Kirby, and all hell breaks loose in society. She is charged by her children for having succumbed to lust, considered in the 50s the worst crime for older women and her friends, who do not let a single opportunity to gossip about her pass them by.

While all this may seem as great emotional fodder and exactly the stuff teary romances of that period contained, Sirk supplements this with his trademark visual style using mirrors, angles, windows, doorways, color, and architectural expertise to present his characters in a different light, which involve the audience into understanding the characters and the tremendous pressures of life in the 50s. There is frequent mention in the script about the “Egyptian custom of walling up the widow alive” and the scenes in which Sirk shows Cary standing alone at her window, painfully isolated by society who must impose their version of how her life should be on her, speak volumes about Sirk’s directorial expertise as he portrays her paralysis brilliantly.

Sirk does this many times in the movie and All That Heaven Allows has acquired the status of one of his visual masterpieces for a reason. While many have refused to look beyond its story of a middle-aged widow and her 15-yrs younger lover and immediately written it off as a dull, weepy love story, others have paid attention to Sirk’s Technicolor depiction of the imperceptible middle-class venom which seeps into the lives of his characters. A classic example of this is the season which is metaphorical for Cary’s “entombment” when her image is reflected in the television set, a gift from her children to ease her lonely widowed journey and reinforce her chaste existence. Sirk depicts emotional intensity in another scene when the salesman brings the TV and says “Life’s parade at your fingertips” and Cary is shocked by her own depressed image as she sees it trapped in the screen in front of her.

The family dynamic is also shown in this movie as Cary tries to please her two children, who both want different things for her than she does herself. The son believes in parental chastity and conforming to societal norms. The self-absorbed daughter thinks there’s nothing worse than a mother with sexual needs as she tells her mother in a conversation sprinkled with psychobabble, “relations, when you get to be a certain age, are inappropriate.” She would do anything, even emotional blackmail, to prevent this relationship from progressing because that would be a threat to their social repute as well as their inheritance. However, there is a true-blue happy ending at the end when the children see how foolish they were being, and Cary goes back to Ron, but the movie succeeds in showing exactly what happy endings try to conceal: the suppressed jealousy, cruelty, snarkiness, and tension.

Sirk portrays his characters and the story in the background of golden autumn trees, loud red costuming, and hues of lilac, indigo, and rich green and is an interesting insight into the life and times of America in the 1950s. He uses space to liken Cary’s expansive house to a tomb filled with her dead husband’s possessions, a tomb in which society is only too happy to force her to remain, not unlike the Egyptian custom. While the end might show Cary with a happy face, this was the face of a woman who attained happiness only after a myriad of emotional compromises and daily battles she faced at home and outside. In these times, there was no excuse for deviating from the norm, and a routine existence was all that people had a right to. If they tried to stray, such acts were only to be rewarded with oppression and prejudice as people freely destroyed each other’s lives for the most trivial of reasons in heartless ways.

This is a simple movie, but don’t let the simplicity of the plot fool you: Sirk uses art to depict the social attitudes of the 50s and the conservative norms which were in place in this decade before the “Swinging Sixties” happened and more liberal attitudes emerged. This generation had witnessed troubling times such as the Great Depression and World War II, hence their mindset emphasized suppression. This was also the time when geopolitical friction escalated between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R resulting in the Cold War which is specifically marked as a politically conservative and socially oppressive period. This along with other reasons caused the culture during the 50s to be largely influenced by moral institutions and a traditional way of thinking which denounced any deviation from the norm. Sirk’s movie is an accurate representation of the life and times of the 50s reflected in the lack of individual freedom and social constraints that he depicts in his storyline.

Bibliography

Stern, Michael. Douglas Sirk. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

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IvyPanda. "Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows"." October 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/douglas-sirks-all-that-heaven-allows/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows"." October 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/douglas-sirks-all-that-heaven-allows/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows"'. 12 October.

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