The Cuckoo Clock

American Suburbia and All That Heaven Allows

Douglas Sirk‘s 1955 romantic melodrama All That Heaven Allows opens on the fictional New England hamlet of Stoningham. As the camera cranes over the bucolic town, lush with autumn leaves, one gets the feeling that it’s almost a little too perfect, a little artificial. It looks like a postcard. There is no spot in New England that could look like Stoningham, even dressed up by a team of designers and the eye of a cinematographer. It is not a place that exists. As a matter of fact, Stoningham was created on the Universal Studios backlot, on what is known as Colonial Street, where shows such as Leave it to Beaver, Desperate Housewives, The ‘Burbs, and Gremlins were also filmed. Sirk does nothing to hide the fact that All That Heaven Allows was filmed on a movie set, and uses that sense of unreality to draw attention to the artificiality of the American dream, the dark and rotten bits hidden beneath even the most tranquil and picturesque parts of America.

all-that-heaven-allowsThere are two levels to All That Heaven Allows. On the surface it is a “women’s picture”, a treacly, sentimental, and glossy romance filled with the contrivances of a soap opera or a Hallmark Channel movie. Fascinatingly, hidden underneath is Sirk’s satire of those very same type of stories, drawing attention to the conventions and clichés, and using them to critique middle class America and the way that people, especially women, are punished when they fail to perform the limited role that society has cast them in.

In a soulful and masterfully controlled performance, Jane Wyman portrays Cary Scott, a member of the Country Club set, nearing middle age and recently widowed. With her two grown children (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott) off at college, the expectation is that Cary will fade into the background, only emerging from in front of the television set in a tomb-like home for cocktail parties. She will certainly never have sex again. As her psychology major daughter informs Cary, “As Freud says, when man reaches a certain age sex becomes incongruous.” Things change when Cary falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), an earthy tree surgeon whom she met when he was doing work in her garden. He’s handsome, strong, and many years younger than Cary. Ron is a man of nature; living in a rustic old mill straight out of a Currier and Ives print, feeding deer out of the palm of his hand, and emulating a Thoureauvian and Emersonian ideal. As a friend tells Cary, “he didn’t need to read Walden, he lives it.” Ron shows Cary a way of life completely antithetical to the narrow, bourgeois values of Stoningham. Due to the age difference and Ron’s lower class status the romance is viewed with scorn by Cary’s children and social circle.

The fact that Cary will not be entombed in her home after her husband has passed away and she enters middle age, but rather a human being with a personality, hopes, dreams, and sexual drive is something that must be punished and beaten down. Petty, hypocritical gossip threatens Ron and Cary’s romance at every turn, and the couple must decide what is important to them — love or social acceptance.

The most striking aspect of All That Heaven Allows are the colors. The screen splashed with rich, jewel-like tones of red, blue, yellow, and brown. All That Heaven Allows is one of the best looking movies ever made. Sirk and his cinematographer Russell Metty use colors to tell the story, to manipulate the audience’s reactions and to express the feelings that the characters are unable to. Notice how in the first scene Agnes Moorehead, as Cary’s best friend Sara Warren, is clothed in hot, bright shades of blue and purple, and Cary is clad in a gray skirt and cardigan. The contrast in color saturation subtly clues the audience in to the fact that Cary does not fit into the world of Stoningham, that she is a more authentic person.

Metty’s camera expresses Cary’s sense of isolation, framing her trapped within reflexive surfaces, such as mirrors, windows, television sets, and polished pianos. At times, the sets, meticulously decorated with symbols of Eisenhower Era affluence, seem claustrophobic, pushing down on Cary. The story of All That Heaven Allows is told, not through the dialogue, but the visuals. You would be able to turn off the sound to the movie, and at every moment know exactly what is happening.

The movie hits all of the necessary beats one would expect from a melodrama. Gooey strings hit crescendos as characters sob and tremble and work themselves into what will people think hysterics, all before everything is wrapped up in the bow of a studio-mandated happy ending. Yet, as the credits roll you don’t feel the satisfaction that comes from an earned happy ending, but rather you are left a little unsettled. You don’t quite believe it. Sirk doesn’t believe it. The power of All That Heaven Allows comes from the tension between what is on the screen and what lies beneath, where Sirk found ways to smuggle in the story that he wanted to tell. 

It would have taken very little to turn All That Heaven Allows into something simple and even a little trashy, a filmed romance novel that women should watch with a box of chocolates. It even works very enjoyably as one of those. But underneath the romantic clichés and startling, rich colors is a bitter, cynical and harrowing account of the spiritual violence of Middle Class American values.

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