Melodrama is a term which some often associate with the more sentimental form of dramatic techniques but when there’s a sense of honesty coming about, which is something that Douglas Sirk is best with. In All That Heaven Allows, some of Sirk’s best critiques of American society shine on the screen. Often sought by some as his best film, it also managed to inspire two tributes, those being Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (which also pays tribute to Imitation of Life), together with a spoof, John Waters’s Polyester. This is a film which rings so much beauty in every frame, and it also feels so true within today’s world for what we’re given may indeed still be present now.
Sirk excels at forming the romance between his two leads, giving the film a perfect outer shell. We have a simple story of forbidden love between a widow and a younger man, but the heartbreaking nature to this story is only a fraction to what makes All That Heaven Allows as effective as it stands. What leaves All That Heaven Allows to be the affecting melodrama which it is comes from how Douglas Sirk captures the restricted emotions together with the societal restrictions of the time period, which classic Hollywood does not so often tackle.
Throughout All That Heaven Allows, our female lead, played wondrously by Jane Wyman, is a widowed woman who is shunned even by her own children for she is still to carry the burden from her past marriage. Although today moving on from death is common, many elements to All That Heaven Allows still can apply to how our world is working, especially in its picture of gender politics. Not since Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings has classic Hollywood touched upon this societal issue in such an intelligent manner. For Only Angels Have Wings goes against the masculinity code especially in the air force, in All That Heaven Allows we have a picture of women who are being forced to live in isolation, in a common neighborhood.
What’s outstanding especially in a film like this is how Douglas Sirk is working around the use of Technicolor in order to capture the emotions of his characters. For example, we have a sense of darkness capturing how Cary intends to hide her feelings towards Rock Hudson’s Ron from those around her. In another scene, we have Cary’s daughter, Kay, under a light of many colors, for which she is encountering an overwhelming amount of emotions in her head. What soon starts out as merely beautiful cinematography becomes one of the most brilliantly staged uses of Technicolor to come out from classic Hollywood.
Lifting the melodrama to its own heights is the melancholy score from Frank Skinner. Although it’s easy to tell that there’s a level to which the film is embracing so much of this sentimentality, there’s another degree to which we also realize that if the film didn’t feature this much of the sentimentality, it may not be nearly as effective as presented. Amidst all this sentimentality, we still feel the emotions being evoked from the characters because they feel so genuine. We’re offered a tenderness which is not so easy to find nowadays, for Douglas Sirk finds a way of grasping emotions from his viewers without the need to resort to outright emotional manipulation, because even in this sentimentality, the fact so much of it feels so real is outstanding.
All That Heaven Allows is a brave move from classic Hollywood – for its commentary against the sexism against women in society down to the class issues filling up the time, this is still something that is experienced in today’s world. We have already an affecting romance on the outside, but on the inside we have a criticism of how society works that must be seen by many viewers today. It’s very much a film going beyond what we remember seeing out of classic Hollywood, especially in its ending, which defies the traditional happy ending for there’s a sense of uncertainty being felt in the fates of this forbidden love. In a genre plagued with the most mediocre efforts, Douglas Sirk offers something extremely intelligent and heartbreaking on many levels, All That Heaven Allows is masterclass melodrama.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Screenplay by Peg Fenwick
Produced by Ross Hunter
Starring Jane Wyman, Ross Hunter
Release Year: 1955
Running Time: 89 minutes