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Made and set in the mid-fifties, All that Heaven Allows is told from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. That in itself sets it apart from the usual Hollywood fare. Only The Bridges of Madison County comes to mind as a modern parallel.

But All that Heaven Allows has more going for it as well. Martin Scorsese included it in his “Personal Journey through American Movies” in a section called “subtext.” He holds up All that Heaven Allows as an example of a seemingly innocuous, mainstream movie having serious social criticism — even subversion — at its heart.

Scorsese said this film was made at a time when subtext was everything. The atmosphere in Hollywood at the time was so repressive, he says, that truly original ideas — radical ideas — could only be expressed as subtext, that films themselves had to put on a happy face and not rock the boat.

So although All that Heaven Allows has a big budget, major stars, and a happy ending, the real story, or at least a real story, lies in the message just below the surface, the ugly world that eats Jane Wyman alive.

Two Paths

Rock Hudson woos Jane WymanJane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a lonely middle-aged widow, well-to-do, with two grown children in college. Her big house is empty, and she requires the assistance of a gardener to keep it neat. She has a busy social schedule keeping up with the cultural elite of her small town of Stoningham (a great name for a village where nonconformists are metaphorically stoned as punishment.)

Her children want her to be happy and stable, and to age gracefully. They don’t mind her remarrying, once they get used to the thought, and the doting old gentleman who calls on her would be ideal, at least according to Cary’s children. Harvey is a well-respected member of society who seeks only stability and companionship in his golden years. Her daughter Kay remarks that “...as Freud says, when we reach a certain age, sex becomes incongruous. I think Harvey understands that.”

The contrast between what her children want for her and what Cary herself wants, is stark. Wyman was only 41 when she played Cary Scott, much to young to want to marry a sexless old “companion.” Instead, the man Cary falls in love with is her gardener, Ron Kirby, played by a strapping and handsome Rock Hudson.

Kirby is portrayed as a Thoreau-esque individualist, an outdoorsman whose love in life is trees. He lives in a greenhouse near an old mill, miles outside of town, where he can look out on the countryside. Kirby’s friends are colorful and vivid. Once Madison Avenue yuppies, they left the city for a simpler life. Now they dance and sing and drink, careless of what the world might think.

Her children strongly object to Cary seeing Kirby. Not only does he jeopardize the stability of the family, but even worse, he’s young and muscular, inviting unwelcome thoughts about their mother as a sexual being. Her social peers object too. She faces ostracism because Ron is only a gardener, not just an outsider, but a man far beneath Cary’s own status.

Cary loves Ron, but her children and her friends make it a matter of choosing between him or them. For Cary, the choice is not easy.

Life’s Parade

The film’s climax, at least as far as the subtext is concerned, is an amazing scene, devastating in its simplicity and symbolism. It comes when her children buy her a television set to alleviate her loneliness. (Scorsese points out that TV was a serious threat to movies at the time, so it’s appropriate that it is included as a symbol of oppression).

The scene is shot in such a way as to frame Wyman’s depressed, devastated expression in the reflection of the screen, trapping her inside a little box. “Life’s parade at the touch of a button,” says the salesman. As opposed to true, vivid, wide-open life.

Acting the Part

Before this film, I had never seen Jane Wyman. Now, I will never forget her as the strong, mature woman who dared to stand up for her love. And although I had seen Rock Hudson here and there, he will be indelibly etched on my memory as the young gardener who fell in love with the older woman. Although the two leads didn’t have the most passionate, ecstatic chemistry I’ve seen, it was easy to root for them. Their mature love seemed rooted in genuine need, understanding, and affection.

Rounding out the cast are Gloria Talbot who plays Cary’s daughter Kay, and William Reynolds, who plays her son. Kay is a college girl, which must have been quite a novelty in the fifties, based on the caricature she portrayed.

Ned easily fills his father’s shoes as of man of the house, mixing drinks for mother’s older friends, setting the curfew, and telling Cary what to do with her assets. Only when he sees Cary with Ron does he act like a child, literally turning his back on his mother as Sirk shoots them on opposite sides of a jail-like fireplace screen.

Picture and Sound

This DVD release marks the first time All that Heaven Allows has been available in its original widescreen format on home video. All that Heaven Allows looks great, and as usual, the Criterion transfer is outstanding. The film was shot in Technicolor, and everybody’s face, all the decorations, and all the sets look slightly more real than life. The old mill where Ron lives is a bright shade of red that simply burns on Technicolor. In another movie, the color would be gaudy, but it is perfect for this melodrama about passion and life.

The disc has a great set of extra features. Some of the recent Criterion efforts have been a little thin, but All that Heaven Allows has does not disappoint. There is a chapter-stopped interview with Douglas Sirk from the late seventies. In it, he talks about his life and his films (including Written on the Wind, also just released by Criterion). There is a theatrical trailer. There is also an insightful essay by German filmmaker Werner Fassbinder. He captured what is best in All that Heaven Allows by saying “in Douglas Sirk’s Movies, the women think.”


All That Heaven Allows works on many levels. It is a great love story and an interesting look at the life and times of the 1950s (if it can be held as representative). It’s also a great look at a subversive, self-aware take on those 1950s. I’ve seen this movie twice now, and I’ll gladly pull it out and watch it again someday.