Scandal has arrived in the small town of Stoningham, a quintessential New England locale lined with homes filled with housewives, successful working husbands, and determined children. There is a town gossip, Mona (Jacqueline De Wit), who ensures everyone knows every little detail of the town chitchat. However, in this case, she has to do very little work. While everybody buzzes about their daily lives, there is an unconscious dividing line that governs Stoningham. The workers and middle-class have their own lives, while the upper-class have theirs. Those who dare to cross this line are to be met with a full-court press to ensure that they do not continue on this path. Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a beloved upper-class widow with two perfect kids and a revered late husband, has been the latest to offend this line. Starting up a romance with her gardener (her gardener!) Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), people are shocked. He belongs to the lower class and, even worse, he is younger than her. One can only imagine what a middle-aged woman sees in a younger man…
Director Douglas Sirk was one of the few filmmakers who dared to shine a spotlight on the plight of suburbia in the 1950s. He saw not a line of homes, but a line of prison cells. Everyone may claim to have been happy, but on the inside, there was something lacking. Perhaps nothing he made showed this as clearly as All that Heaven Allows or its follow-up, There’s Always Tomorrow. Whereas the latter focused the spotlight on the working husband, All that Heaven Allows probes the isolation and loneliness felt by the housewife. Cary’s plight is worsened by the death of her husband, leaving her with absolutely nobody. Her two kids, Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott), will join the town in criticizing her love for Ron, but the two push back out of a need for normalcy. They do not relish the thought of their mother being stuck at home all alone- in fact, they embrace the idea of her marrying their father’s former business partner Harvey (Conrad Nagel) – but they do resent being pulled out of their comfortable social place. Yet, even as they complain, they too will leave Cary alone, as Ned’s career takes him to Paris and Kay opts to marry her boyfriend. Cary’s best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) offers little respite, either inviting her to stuffy dinners with Mona or similarly trying to police the class barriers between her and Ron.
For Cary, the world of Stoningham is a cold and frigid one. The matching snow or the frequent blue technicolor that washes over Jane Wyman is no mistake, highlighting her increasing desperation and longing for connection. Men such as Harvey may offer some company, but not the feeling that would actually lift her out of this prison cell. The only man who would is Ron. He would shake up her life for the better, inviting her to inclusive and infectiously exciting parties with his friends Mick (Charles Drake) and Alida (Virginia Grey). Even when Ron and Cary’s relationship is on the rocks due to the outside forces, it is Alida who stands by Cary and shows her the kind of friendship that Sara cannot offer. Her isolation is met with connection by those deemed “lesser” than her. Those within her “class”, such as her kids and friends, offer not their love and attention but a television. It is sold as a portal to the world for her to see everything, but it is really a monument erected to symbolize her permanent removal from that world. It offers not connection but distance, keeping her cooped up inside where she can no longer embarrass anyone.
The rules of this society are simple: husbands climb the career ranks at their business-based job and wives stay home to host parties. All the while, they accumulate wealth and pompousness in the name of putting on airs about how ‘classy’ they are to people they cannot stand. Sirk sees through the thin facade of this world, offering up Ron as a man who not just saves Mick – a previously unhappy business executive from it but who shows Cary that there is another way. Everyone in Stoningham looks down their noses at gardeners or shuts the door on their housekeepers who are hard at work. In speaking of Ron, they flippantly discuss his career and wonder why he would stay as a gardener when he could always work in business to become wealthier. Everything in Stoningham is about money, not affection or love. It is a hollowed out world, deprived of its heart with nothing but greed in its place. The townsfolk, like Cary’s children, seek normalcy. Anything that upsets this balance or gets in the way of their cushy life is cast away. Instead, they hide out at the country club and their parties, tucking away their feelings and beliefs in a place even they themselves cannot find. As in There’s Always Tomorrow, there is a robotic feeling that pervades All that Heaven Allows. It is as though Cary is a robot brought to life, awoken to its greater possibilities by someone who knew nothing but.
The romance that Ron and Cary embark upon is often quite lovely. It is made all the more beautiful thanks to the excellent technicolor bathing them in warm reds and oranges when together, as though there were a fire between them that keeps them from the cold snow all around. Their energy together is infectious, even when it is upset by Cary’s frequent reminders of the world they occupy. Fighting off these pressures and constantly returning to one another’s embrace, the pair may have a great distance between them at times but it is something that cannot keep them apart. Hudson and Wyman’s terrific chemistry sells this romance, capturing the mixed feelings and internal prejudice they must confront to make it work. It’s hard not to melt when Ron looks up and says to her, “Cary, you’ve come home,” at the end. As with some of Sirk’s best 1950s films, this is a pure melodrama, complete with requisite cheesy lines and theatrical emotions, but it works so well. It is poured on thick, but in a way that is hard to resist within a story and romance that prove incredibly sentimental.
All that Heaven Allows is a classic for good reason. Probing love and class in a meaningful way that shines a light on the issues facing the shuttered-in housewives of the 1950s, All that Heaven Allows creates not just empathy but matches Cary’s escapist desperations. As she looks at the prison cell containing her and every little accommodation built to make her more “comfortable”, she cannot help but want to run. Ron offers this to her and so much more, bringing affection she never thought possible. Wonderfully portrayed by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson with gorgeous technicolor covering every inch of this film, All that Heaven Allows is perhaps the magnum opus from the masterful Douglas Sirk.