Everybody knows that I am crazy-nuts about 1970s disaster films, but I also have other (borderline obsessive) loves for a few other types of movies, including all-star mysteries (of the Agatha Christie variety), all-star epics, films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the hyper-melodramatic women's films of the 1950s and '60s. This last category is where today's featured film rests. All That Heaven Allows is a 1955 love story directed by the masterful Douglas Sirk and which stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Sirk was a real peculiarity in that he, like Hitchcock, seemed to love to play with style, shadow and color in order to imbue his works with symbolism, irony and foreshadowing, while being simultaneously trapped by the conventions of a Hollywood studio (not to mention hitting his stride during one of the most conservative and restrained eras of the last century, the 1950s.) Born to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany in 1897, he was a successful director there until the rise of Nazi power became a problem. He wasn't Jewish, but his second wife was (and his first wife had become an enthusiastic Nazi party member, withholding his only child from him – a son – because Sirk had remarried to a Jew.) Because of increasing oppression, he and his second wife left Germany and he never again saw his son (who was killed in WWII fighting on the German side.)
Transplanted to Hollywood in the early '40s, he started out with the indicting thriller Hitler's Madman, but after signing with Universal-International studio, he soon began working on far more benign projects. During his early years in California, he tried to spin gold out of whatever straw the studio assigned him (mostly dramas, but an occasional romance.) It was in this period that the practically unthinkable combination of Sirk and Lucille Ball occurred with the 1947 film noir Lured!
As the '50s dawned and color became a more prominent fixture in Universal films, he found himself branching out to musicals (including 1952's Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, which costarred neophyte actor Rock Hudson.) Sirk saw in Hudson a potential that few others did and, after using him again in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), cast him in his breakthrough role in 1954's Magnificent Obsession. The vividly colorful and unabashedly tear-jerking romantic drama was a smash success and made Hudson a star to be reckoned with. Swiftly, plans were put in place to reunite the director with the same leads (tossing in stalwart supporting actress Agnes Moorehead, also in Obsession) in a follow-up picture. That is where we find All That Heaven Allows. Print ads for the film showed a novel-like book at the bottom as if to suggest literary origin or credence to the piece, but, in fact, it was never a published work like that of other Sirk films by Lloyd C. Douglas, William Faulkner or even Fannie Hurst.
Wyman and Hudson, in Obsession, had played a blind widow and the man who caused her impediment, and there was virtually no mention made of any age difference between them. However, for this second go-round, the stars' real-life age difference of about eight years would be part of the storyline. Even this was secondary to the distinctly different social standings of their characters, though. Here, Wyman is a widow in her early forties (interesting since Wyman was thirty eight at the time and actresses tended to resist being aged ahead of their time, at least this way, if not for part of a long story that involved the evolution of aging and obvious prosthetic makeup.) With her son and daughter off at college, she lives alone in a handsome house whose trees need the attention of a local landscaper.
As the landscaper, 6' 5” Hudson is polite enough, but aloof, apparently aware that having inherited his late father's business still doesn't put him in quite the same social bracket as his employer Wyman. When her socially active pal Moorehead has to beg off of a scheduled luncheon on Wyman's patio, she, on impulse, asks Hudson to join her instead. He takes some coffee and a (small!) roll, saying only as much as he feels the need to.
Wyman clearly has at least a passing interest in him (and who wouldn't? The strapping hunk cuts quite a figure in his gardener drag, though this being autumn, he's bundled up, not in my own preferred garb for landscapers which is flimsy, faded cutoffs, work boots and basically nothing else! Ha!) There doesn't seem to be any reason for them to continue their association, though he does state the need to come back again soon to finish up.
Meanwhile, we have the pleasure of getting to meet Wyman's spoiled, obnoxious children and several of the town's wealthy people, virtually all of whom are smotheringly materialistic, conformist and shallow-minded. Wyman's son is William Reynolds, a cutie with a cherubic face, but a selfish attitude. He aches to be the man of the house and call the shots, yet is always off with the gang from school, still growing up. He corrects her for wearing a dress that dares to be “low-cut.” Her daughter is Gloria Talbott, a book-smart know-it-all who (thinks she) can easily discern anyone's problem by attaching a label from one of her psychology books to it. Even more bleak is Wyman's stand-by escort, Conrad Nagel, a genial, but dull, man who is pushing sixty, but looks at least a decade beyond even that.
From the way these three act, Wyman may as well wall herself up in the family domicile and give up on any sort of notion as love, excitement or, God forbid, sex. In the company of Nagel, she is at least permitted to attend the functions at the local country club, where any number of clucking gossips are laying in wait for something juicy to come about. They almost get their wish when sleazy club member Donald Curtis puts the serious make on Wyman during an evening there, projecting all sorts of lust onto her and trying to arrange a rendezvous as he paws her half-silly. Even he isn't quite as dangerous as the vulture-like Jacqueline de Wit, who ring-leads the chit-chat circuit and who positively gleams at the idea of anything untoward happening that she can spread around town like a tattletale-ing crop duster.
Wyman and Hudson meet up again when he, after weeks of being busy with other jobs, returns to finish pruning her trees. The two very hesitantly stop-and-start, trying to find ways to extend their conversation, until finally Wyman, in a rare burst of individuality, agrees to accompany him to his family farm, where he is in the process of growing blue spruce trees. (Is it possible that this shot of Hudson with his sprouting wood is intended to be phallic? He even tells her that even though it's small now, it will get much bigger!) Once there, Wyman is completely taken with an old mill on the grounds, seeing in it incredible possibilities for a rustic residence.
Here, with other hints having come previously, we get the idea that something in Hudson's past is rather cracked or broken. He has little to say and doesn't care to share in Wyman's joy over the building. His fractured background is symbolized by a small Wedgewood teapot Wyman picks up that has been damaged, seemingly beyond repair.
A second date involves going to Hudson's friend Charles Drake's place, where he and his wife Virginia Grey have put aside many of the worldly pleasures and life's rat race and enjoy a peaceful, pleasant existence as arborists. (Symbolically, they have a clearer view of the world as their home has a windowed ceiling.) While there, Wyman learns from Grey that Drake had once been right in the thick of the high pressure, keeping-up-with-the-Jones' mind-set and that they nearly divorced due to unhappiness. Now, though, they are free of such demands and far more content. A lively gathering takes place with more of their friends and, for the first time in a long time, Wyman can cut loose a little and have fun.
Hudson begins to work on the old mill, deciding it would make a lovely home after all. It becomes clear that these two wounded people see something desirable and worthwhile in each other. Wyman attempts to leave, but is drawn back in. It is implied through a fade-out that they make love in his soon-to-be house. But will they be able to make it work?
The brats come home again and Wyman decides to gently break the news that she intends to get married again. Her children assume it will be to ossified Nagel (who represents security, normalcy and total “safety” from physical love), but are horrified to learn that she intends to wed Hudson. Reynolds, already perturbed because his dead father's silver trophy is no longer on the mantle, throws a hissy fit while Talbott tries to look at the situation analytically.
Both siblings are cool as ice to Hudson as he comes to get Wyman for a party she's taking him to. This is the litmus test. At Moorehead's suggestion, giving the country club set the chance to meet and know Hudson personally might soften the blow of Wyman accepting a wedding engagement from, as Moorehead herself puts it at first, “You can't be serious? Your gardener??” It's all hopeless, though. Before they even arrive, Hudson and Wyman are the talk of the party, complete with a lookout ready to indicate their arrival. De Wit radiates with electricity at the thought of a scene developing and does everything she can think of to initiate one. Curtis, who had mauled Wyman at the earlier get-together, is furious that he was passed over for a young, poor stud. His heated admonishments toward Wyman bring on a physical altercation between him and Hudson.
Did I mention that the name of the town Wyman resides in is Stoningham?! How appropriate. (I've shown the butcher shop window the way it appears on-screen as well as flip-flopped in case you may be impaired when it comes to reading backwards! LOL This is the locale of one of de Wit's salivating moments, appropriately taking place in a business that carves up fresh meat.) The woman of Stoningham who dared to consider a relationship with someone younger and beneath her station is figuratively stoned by the native inhabitants. She wants to cool things a bit and ease into it while he wants her to stand up for herself. (In fact, in what is now a retrospectively hilarious moment, she accuses him of wanting her to be a man! “In just that one way,” he replies demurely.)
In the end, Wyman feels that she cannot continue with the relationship. She breaks it off with Hudson, who is in no small way a bit stubborn himself. With Hudson excised from her world, it looks as if Wyman's existence will be smooth again. However, it isn't long before she realizes the error of her decision. Her children buy her a TV set in order to keep her company (her reflection captured on the screen of it as if she's been placed in the Phantom Zone from Superman the Movie!), a sure sign that she is destined to sit at home in the evenings for all time. Her daughter is getting engaged, another acquaintance she met through Drake and Gray is doing the same and then she begins to suffer from persistent headaches.
The headaches turn out to be a newfangled medical condition called Hudson Withdrawal. (Okay, so maybe not in so many words, but the bottom line is that she misses him and regrets calling off their engagement!) Realizing the ghastly mistake she's made, she darts off to his farm to tell him, but he's not there. (He has, however, refashioned it into a strikingly warm and comfortable home.) Second-guessing herself yet again, she tears off in the car just as Hudson is emerging from the trees on a bluff high above his home. He spots her and starts to wave, but a tragic accident occurs. Now that Wyman has finally decided to accept Hudson's love, he may not be alive to provide it to her.
The trim, 89-minute movie is a masterwork of color, shadow and escalated emotions. This type of movie isn't for everyone (and, in fact, this and other Sirk films were basically written off by the critics in their day), but only a grinch would balk at the style and composition of the finished product. It's one of those movies that one can enjoy just for the skillfulness of the lighting and the visual presentation. Of course, I myself fully enjoy the heart-on-the-sleeve storyline as well, punctuated mightily by the lush, romantic scoring of composer Frank Skinner.
From here, Sirk continued to helm dramatic, sometimes plush, romances like There's Always Tomorrow (1956) with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett, Written on the Wind (1956) with Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, Interlude (1957) with June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi and The Tarnished Angels (1957) with Hudson, Stack and Malone again. There were also the war-oriented dramas Battle Hymn (1957) with Hudson and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) with John Gavin, the latter film being one of Sirk's most personal endeavors. He returned to the luxurious soaper with a bang in 1959 with Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner, a smash hit that stood as Universal's top money-earner for over a decade. Sadly, that would be his last Hollywood film as faltering health led him into retirement. He moved to Switzerland where he died in 1987 at the age of eighty-nine. He did live to see a renewed interest (coupled with new respect) in his work, though it has progressed even further since then.
Wyman could sometimes be read as stiff or remote on-screen despite her many praised performances. As much as I enjoy the movie, I find her this way for much of Magnificent Obsession, but feel that she is more accessible and sympathetic in All That Heaven Allows. Perhaps because her torment over attempting to engage in a relationship that society at large frowns on somehow speaks more to my own gay experience. Also, her hair is longer and less severe here, which helps allay some of the severity she sometimes displayed in the prior collaboration. I truly think she's better and more dynamic here than in Obsession, which netted her an Oscar nomination.
Though Wyman (an Oscar-winner for 1948's Johnny Belinda) was still a considerable star in 1955, she would only make two more films (Lucy Gallant and Miracle in the Rain) before her career in the movies faltered significantly. In 1959, she replaced Gene Tierney in Holiday for Lovers due to illness and did only sporadic movies until 1969, with television providing the bulk of her work.
She was not through yet, though. In 1981, she headlined the wine-country set prime-time soap Falcon Crest, her crusty, but amusing, matriarch Angela Channing winning her a whole new generation of fans. She lost a 1983 Golden Globe to Dynasty's Joan Collins, but won it the following year. She did 208 episodes of the show, only stepping out of most of the final season due to ill health. She died in 2007 at the age of ninety from the complications of arthritis and diabetes.
Hudson benefitted tremendously from the films he did with Sirk, especially the two with Wyman. He parlayed his newfound fame, stature and box office clout into many subsequent projects. One of the early ones was Giant (1956), for which he was nominated the only time for an Oscar as Best Actor (losing to Yul Brynner in The King and I.) Then there were his comic romps with Doris Day, starting with 1959's Pillow Talk. He stayed a box office draw until about 1970 when he segued successfully into television with McMillan & Wife. His final role came in 1984 for 9 episodes of Dynasty, with his gaunt appearance leading to massive speculation about his health. He died of AIDS in 1985 at the age of only fifty-nine.
Miss Moorehead has her own little tribute here, which you can access by clicking her name in the right-hand column and then choosing older posts at the bottom of this one. In this film, she brings her own unique vocal inflections and pragmatic personality to the mix. In many ways, she's conflicted too as she wants to smooth things over for her friend, yet recognizes the effect that this unusual relationship will have on all their peers. (The peers are hardly worth the trouble... Rarely has there been such a detestable collection of snobs, gossips and, as one of my friends calls the type, “shit-stirrers.”)
Nagel was a stage and film actor who, while not becoming a top-flight star, was a busy actor in his prime. He costarred in silent films with the likes of Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. Remaining busy in the movies through 1940, he blended Broadway work with Hollywood thereafter and hadn't been in a movie since 1948 when this gig came along. After this, he began to appear on television with more regularity along with the occasional film. He died in 1970 at the age of seventy-two.
Grey was a favorite of this film's producer Ross Hunter and he used her as often as he could in his pictures. Sometimes her parts wound up being peripheral or inconsequential, but here she actually gets to take part in a couple of key plot points. A movie actress from the late '20s (when she was but ten years-old), she popped up in many projects over the years. After this, she continued to appear in movies, but also did a fair amount of TV including three episodes of Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre. Fittingly, her final acting role was in Hunter's 1976 miniseries Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers, though she lived until 2004, dying of heart failure at eighty-seven.
Drake was a busy, busy actor who just never rose to stardom. Beginning in 1939, he toiled in uncredited parts before graduating to billed roles in the mid-'40s. He was just one of those genial, reliable, all-purpose performers who excelled at being doctors, sheriffs, soldiers or businessmen. We're fond of him in The Underworld because he played the man who doesn't get the girl in two of our favorites, Back Street (1961) and Valley of the Dolls (1967.) His final role came in 1983, though he lived till 1994, passing away at age seventy-six.
Talbott was raised in Glendale, California and took an interest in acting early on (her debut in 1937's Maytime was at age six!) Her career proper was really only from 1951 to 1966, but into those years she crammed multitudinous movie and TV appearances. She worked with Wyman again in Lucy Gallant (1955) and also did one episode of Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre. She's revered by many sci-fi fans for her role in 1958's I Married a Monster from Outer Space. She retired in 1966 and married for the third time. That marriage only lasted two years, but she went to the altar a fourth time and that one stuck until her death in 2000 of kidney failure at the age of sixty-nine.
Reynolds is another actor from this film who has his own tribute elsewhere on this site. His gorgeous face rarely seems to be lit more than three-quarters of the way here (this is one of the darkest and shadiest color films a viewer is ever likely to find!) I want to hate him because he's such a selfish, spoiled jerk in the film, but oh those eyes and lips... Having worked for director Sirk in 1952's Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, he did so a third time in 1956's There's Always Tomorrow. Mr. Reynolds is still with us today at age eighty, though he retired from acting in 1978.
Popping up as a doctor (and one of the few country club acquaintances of Wyman's with any sort of compassion or understanding) is Hayden Rorke. Fans of I Dream of Jeannie will instantly recall him as Dr. Bellows, the flummoxed antagonist of Larry Hagman on that popular show. Rorke had been working regularly in films since the late-'40s, but was only forty-five when he made this movie! For whatever reason, he was aged with extra grey hair. Surprisingly enough, he worked with producer Hunter more times than Virginia Grey. Happily, he was able to work on the 1985 reunion I Dream of Jeannie... Fifteen Years Later (his last project) before passing away in 1987 at seventy-six.
Character actress de Wit is at once loathsome and delicious in her role as the town's queen bee Mona Plash (what a name!) Having begun movie work in the mid-'40s, she had bit parts in a wide variety of films from 1944's Dragon Seed to 1948's The Snake Pit. The year after this, she appeared in Tea and Sympathy and then continued to work in films and on TV through 1967. She died of natural causes in 1998 at age eighty-five.
Among the supporting cast in Heaven is Leigh Snowden, a curvy, Tennessee-born blonde who was very hot at the time. She'd made a name for herself on Jack Benny's TV show in 1954, sashaying across the stage before throngs of naval seamen, which led to a role in 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. Here, she plays a catty gold-digger who revels in rubbing Wyman's nose in the fact that her fiance is younger and poorer than she is. Soon after this, she married and decided to be more of a mother than an actress, though she did pop up in things until 1961. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1982 at only age fifty-two.
Despite playing a boozy, pushy womanizer, Curtis was in real life a devout student of world religions, learning as much as he could and lecturing, ministering and writing books on them during this period and beyond. A busy all-purpose actor from 1940 on, he continued acting until 1967 (including, like several others here, an episode of Wyman's anthology series.) He died in 1997 at the age of eighty-two.
Another one of the society snobs was played (brilliantly!) by Eleanor Audley, best known for providing the voice of both the Wicked Stepmother in 1950's Cinderella and the evil Maleficent in 1959's Sleeping Beauty. Also able to convey the humorous side of her persona, she recurred on Green Acres quite a few times as Eddie Albert's mother (despite being only a year older than him!) She died of respiratory failure in 1991 at the age of eighty-six.
Buried in the cast is newcomer David Janssen, who plays Talbott's boyfriend in one scene. He's never really shown clearly (as I said, this is one shadowy movie!), but there's no mistaking that voice or those ears. Despite the brevity of his part, he'd been kicking around in movies for a decade by then! Two years later, he landed the lead role on the TV series Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which ran for a few seasons, then in 1963 did The Fugitive, which lasted for four years and made him a household name. His still active career came to a sudden halt in 1980 when he died of a heart attack at only forty-eight.
This film is also the debut of one Gia Scala, a beautiful, but very troubled actress. She plays the daughter of one of Drake and Grey's immigrant friends in a party scene. She would soon embark on a steady busy career (capped by 1961's The Guns of Navarone), but was plagued by depression and alcoholism. There were several suicide attempts as well by this shy, yet dramatic, young lady. Not too long after a painful divorce and various difficulties, she was found dead of an overdose in 1972. She was thirty-eight.
The house used in All That Heaven Allows was built for the 1955 film The Desperate Hours, but is far better known for being utilized as the home of The Cleavers in the long-running sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963.)
Speaking of houses, get a load of these hilarious shots of Hudson and Wyman playing around on the set of the model that was used for certain shots of his farm with the old mill on it! It's like "Attack of the Giant Movie Stars!" or something.
Sirk's work was inspirational to several later film directors. In 1974, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as something of a tribute to All That Heaven Allows. It concerned a sixty year-old widow who begins an affair with a Moroccan man nearly half her age. This movie added the element of race to the mix and is considered one of the director's most powerful works. (As an aside, the male star of the film, El Hedi ben Salem, who was a married father of two back in Morocco, was Fassbinder's lover at the time and would later be deported to France after stabbing three people while intoxicated. He killed himself in a French prison in 1982.)
Then, in 2002, director Todd Haynes filmed a homage to Sirk called Far From Heaven. It told the story of 1950s upper-middle-class housewife Julianne Moore, who feels unsatisfied in her marriage to Dennis Quaid and stifled by the shallow friendships around her. She becomes drawn to her black landscaper Dennis Haysbert and begins to spend time with him surreptitiously (though it is not a sexual affair.) She eventually finds out that one reason her marriage to Quaid may not be cutting the mustard is because he is secretly homosexual, a topic that could only be, at the very most, hinted at in 1950s cinema.
Though Haynes worked strenuously to craft a film with color palettes and design schemes highly reminiscent of Sirk, I think Far From Heaven counts as one of the biggest personal disappointments I have ever had at the movies. It just didn't work for me. I'm not saying it was one of the worst movies I have ever seen, far from it. It was just one of the films I anticipated the most in eons and when it didn't live up to those expectations, I was dejected. I did enjoy seeing Celia Weston as the town gossip, though, still with the first name of Mona.
Although we have, in the decades since 1955, come so far in the acceptance of unusual relationships between people, there is still room to grow. The film's other primary theme, of living life the way one wants to instead of the way one is expected to, is still a very valid topic. Even now there is so much conformity, keeping up with the Jones', running on society's treadmill and so on, without truly feeding one's inner desires. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, a book that is quoted in All That Heaven Allows, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Do your best to sing your song now, while you still can, rather than later when it may be too late!