Previously at the Wellington Film Society: love doesn’t conquer all in Douglas Sirk’s superlative Hollywood melodrama.
Douglas Sirk was an auteur who was given a vast amount of freedom in 1950s Hollywood. The problem for some critics who discovered Sirk in the decades after his filmmaking peak, was that he operated within the confines of what were seen as “women’s pictures,” the supposed B-movie genre of melodrama. It led to these critics arguing that Sirk “subverted” the themes of melodrama, an almost snobbish/sexist idea that he was working with inferior material and succeeded in spite of it. Given Sirk was trained in 1920s Germany, Sirk was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. The banal horror of Caligari and Mabuse became even more potent from the exaggerations in those films. Expressionism has its parallels to melodrama, in which everydayness can become heightened through wildly spiky narratives, characters, and emotions. Sirk’s genius came from how he used the conventions of melodrama as a very particular tool to magnify his gaze on American class, race, and dominant ideologies. And, as All That Heaven Allows so brilliantly shows, Sirk’s genius came from how he used the conventions of melodrama as a way of exploring American middle-class snobbery, gender politics, and small-town viciousness.
Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a recent widow who falls in love with her gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Kirby lives a spartan life on the edge of town, and attempts to live life in as uncomplicated a fashion as possible. Scott, however, is affluent, comfortable (ideologically that is), and encumbered by two beastly spoilt children. Scott’s relationship with Kirby becomes a source of considerable angst to her children and gleeful gossip to Scott’s ‘friends’. Sirk presents the way in which class segregation, snobbery, and complacency get in the way: a dominant theme throughout Sirk’s films is that his characters know how they ought to act, but find an excuse to act in an easier, more selfish way. Dominant American values—racism as in the case of Imitation of Life, classism as in this film, or misogyny in Written on the Wind—win over human decency and community spirit. It’s no wonder that All That Heaven Allows was basically transformed into later masterpieces: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, and more recently, Mad Men (funnily enough, there’s also a disaffected former New York ad man who’d fought in Korea as a minor character in Sirk’s film).
While contemporary critics attacked All That Heaven Allows as being too bland and obvious (a critical reaction governed itself by sniffy attitudes towards the genre), what is striking is the subtlety of Sirk’s style. Sirk was one of cinema’s first masters of colour, yet in this film, he uses a very limited colour palette: either gold and browns or white and blues. There’s a seasonal parallel to the colours: the gold and browns represent warmth and comfort, though it also has an autumnal effect. Sirk seems to suggest for all of the comfort represented by those colours, there’s an end of an era feel to it. Meanwhile, the blue and white has a cruel wintriness. It’s no surprise, for example, that Mona, the most dreadful gossip in the film, is almost exclusively seen dressed in blue. The brief flashes of alternative colours, the red of the dress worn by Scott when she goes to her first party, are simply ephemeral moments of individualism that are beaten out of her (Scott gets sleazed onto at the party). The brutality of the limited colour palette is heightened by the “split screen” nature of Sirk’s imagery. Sirk’s famous use of mirrors and windows, in which the background presents an entirely different mood to the foreground, is perfectly to the fore in the film. The warm cabin has winter outside it. The icy house looks out to trees losing their leaves. Despite the illusion of escape offered by windows (or mirrors, in the brilliant case of the television), the characters are trapped within the confines of their world. And they’re too cowardly to escape.
The cluttered mise-en-scène also shows objects getting in the way of emotion and human interaction. Sirk captures the rise in 1950s American consumerism, and presents it in all of its emptiness. The film is packed with unwanted televisions, undrunk drinks, unnecessary glasses, unread books, all of which dominate the characters’ interactions. None of the objects in the film seem to fulfil any practical purpose. In a more general sense, it’s easy to see the film primarily as a critique of Scott’s WASPishness, the way in which she first “slums it” in order to get Kirby’s love, but pointedly refuses to commit to anything that challenges her way of life. Importantly though, it also subverts Kirby’s supposed Thoreau-influenced ‘freedom’. He tries to ‘improve’ himself—wearing a lovely suit to an event he knew he didn’t want to go to, re-working his house to fit Scott’s shallow sensibilities (complete with Wedgwood china). In other words, Kirby, in order to prove himself to Scott, buys into her dream of him, to his considerable detriment. The melodrama, so perfectly used by Sirk, has an extra level that undercuts any illusion of a happy ending. As Sirk so brutally points out that when love finally conquers, it doesn’t conquer all. All That Heaven Allows, that wonderfully ironic title, shows that love will simply sit in amongst the small-mindedness, snobbery, and banal cruelty.