Isn’t it great as December rolls around how we get to look forward to despising the business of arguing whether or not any of our favorite films are classifiable as “Christmas movies”? If a film has any semblance to the holiday season at all, it usually makes the cut — to the chagrin of naysayers who want a Christmas movie to specifically be about Christmastime, instead of only using it as a backdrop. So, alongside Shane Black movies, we have stuff like American Psycho and Eyes Wide Shut generously applied to Christmas, and for some reason, this is a thing people get upset over (we need not mention a certain ‘80s action movie here, need we? Let’s not). But hey, who are we really to say what does and does not qualify as a Christmas movie, when each of us has our own experiences with (and interpretations of) the holiday itself, anyway?
I bring this up because the film I’m discussing here is Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama, All That Heaven Allows. It’s a film in which the setting progresses from autumn to winter: a film that involves the holiday season, but isn’t explicitly about it. A significant portion is indeed devoted to Christmas, although it treats it as many of us would in our real lives; it’s a time of year that just…happens. As such, it gets left off of a lot of “holiday favorites” lists. However, if you ask me, it’s still worth its weight in the traditional Christmas “Silver and Gold,” serving as a nice alternative watch to things as relatively corny as White Christmas year after year (although, I do somewhat enjoy that one, but I’m digressing).
What’s great about All That Heaven Allows to me is that it does highlight a different holiday experience. While many of us are cheerfully roasting chestnuts with our families or enjoying seasonal ales with our friends, there are tons who feel lost and lonely at Christmastime, and we have to acknowledge the value in including those feelings in our celebrations as well. The Christmas depicted in All That Heaven Allows isn’t especially jolly; it’s a bittersweet look at a perceivably doomed romance between a widow and her gardener. Sirk’s reputation for melodrama holds no exception for this film, but that’s what makes it a perfect fit for the holidays. Because, yes, for every loving and cozy family, there is one torn apart by emotional distress, and the story this film presents is a beautifully spun, strikingly saturated melding of the two.
Admittedly, for many years I was turned off to this picture because I thought it was just another in a long line of derpy 1950s romances with no real style or meaning. I had dismissed it as a soap opera, and while it is exactly that, upon finally settling in to watch the film, I realized it was a soap opera with roots — with hopeful eyes, a tender heart, and a sorrowful soul — not just a banal love story both easy to digest and easy to dispel. That’s the beauty of Douglas Sirk, though; taking you to places that aren’t quite real, but aren’t quite a dream. Maybe it’s a line difficult to straddle for some; it’s always easy to dive head first into the surreal or fantastic, but to practice enough restraint to only dip one’s toes in those waters while keeping afloat in a grounded story takes skill. I’m saying, it’s easy to be swept away by the grandeur of certain kinds of dramas, but Sirk is apt at reminding us that, even though he’s presenting us with a kind of idealized version our lives, the themes he’s going for are familiar and can be applied to many individuals’ experiences.
By the way, when I say “idealized version,” I mean how we sometimes imagine ourselves to be people we’re not; how it’s fun to imagine being a playboy or a debutant, or a member of the dandier side of society. We toy with the idea when we play Monopoly, or dream about winning the lottery, and watching soap operas can function in this way, too. It’s escapism at its finest, I guess we can say. But fortunately, Sirk (in not only this picture, but others such as Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind, or, honestly, countless others) treats us to more than the superficial. So behind his worlds full of lovely drives through the country and cocktail engagements is a sense of sadness and confusion, making his characters a bit more sympathetic than our average emotionally disconnected bluebloods. But if it sounds like I’m trying to convince anyone of “rich people are people, too,” that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. What I mean is, in the world Sirk presents, even those in the upper crust are not exempt from paying consequences for their actions, and his repeated themes of loss and suffering are a painful reminder to us all of that. Let’s get into the plot.
Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is leading a reserved life in the wake of her husband’s death. She has two young adult children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds), who are off to college, leaving her mostly alone in their family home. One afternoon, after her friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) cancels their lunch appointment, Cary invites her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), to share chicken and salad with her on the patio. From there, Cary and Ron politely dig on each other enough to decide to be married, all without the approval of Cary’s family and social circle. Classic Soap Opera, 101.
Maybe surprisingly, there’s a certain spiritualism promoted by this picture. At its heart, it borrows a few lines from classic literature, most notably Hamlet’s “to thine own self be true.” But more interestingly, Cary reads a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden after casually picking up the book while visiting some of Ron’s friends. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” she reads aloud. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed?” The wheels turn in Cary’s head as she continues reading, and talking with Ron’s friend Alida (Virginia Grey) helps her understand just what kind of man she’s dating. Alida explains, “You see, Ron’s security comes from inside himself. Nothing can ever take it away from him. Ron absolutely refuses to let unimportant things become important.” Ron lives a minimalist sort of life: he’s leaving his gardening business to start a tree nursery because learning about and growing trees has come to be his life’s passion. He’s also renovating the old mill on his father’s old property to turn it into a modest yet incredibly crafted homestead. To put it succinctly, he lives without the worry of being a “Club Man,” as Cary’s friends would. Further, there’s a strange sadness when any of Cary’s friends talk about how Ron has cut himself off from polite society to pursue his own version of happiness, as if he’s made a huge sacrifice and they can’t quite understand it. But Ron’s lifestyle is a revelation to Cary, and their relationship begins to act like a means of escape for her; she’s finally able to strip away a reliance on appearances and love a man for the sake of loving him.
As Ron and Cary’s courtship progresses and they decide to be married, they encounter a few different obstacles that make Cary reluctant to let their relationship fully blossom. Most of the difficulty comes from Cary’s children, who value devotion and loyalty more than they actually possess those traits. “How can you even think of marrying a man like Ron Kirby?” Ned asks, then tells her, “It goes against everything Father stood for,” noting how he thinks she has no regard for an obligation to his father’s memory. Ned is acting on a false sense of legacy, as many sons do, too concerned with how their lives were in the past to consider his mother’s happiness in the future. Ned tells Cary he’d be ashamed to bring his friends to see her living at “Kirby’s place,” when he has no idea what that life would even be like. Honestly, how can we judge how we feel about an event that hasn’t even happened yet? And yet we do, and it’s moments like this that bring Cary the most shame, even if in reality that shame is unfounded.
After an embarrassing incident in the library, Kay returns home crying, having had a fight with her fiance. Kay explains that some kids had been making cracks at Cary, saying that she and Ron had been shacking up together while Father was still alive. “You love him so much you’re willing to ruin all our lives?” Kay asks, still in tears. The ironic part here is that Kay is studying social work, and prides herself on her knowledge of psychology and sociology. So surely since she works with all sorts of people and studies why they do the things they do, she must be understanding of her mother’s motivations. When confronted with this, though, Kay erupts in sobs again, saying that she thought she understood people’s behavior, but admits that she doesn’t. It’s quite a powerful and humanizing scene, actually, seeing someone so sure of herself concede to not knowing as much as she thinks she does. It goes back to the theme of suffering, how painful it is sometimes to admit when we’re wrong. Not only do we contend with forgiveness from the person we’ve wronged, but a huge part of admitting wrongdoing is forgiving ourselves as well. Admitting our faults and accepting responsibility relieves us some confusion, and helps us grow as people. This scene is just as important for Kay as it is for Cary, and directly affects a later outcome in their mother/daughter relationship.
So, as we’re talking about how Cary has been wronged by her children, I want to touch on one of the more absorbing aspects of melodrama: that one can be in the right and still suffer. Of course, melodramas typically are female-driven, focusing on home and family issues peppered with large amounts of romance, and we follow our protagonists as they contend with feelings of longing or repression. What Cary’s dealing with is being shunned by her family and gossiped about by her peers, and it’s not clear which offense is worse: that she’s seeing a man considerably younger than she is, or that he’s her gardener, an obvious lowlife who is probably just after her money. Cary is struggling with the desire to mask herself and her feelings for the sake of social propriety, knowing she’d be much happier if she could just let go of those false obligations. After word has gotten out around town about her new beau, Sara reminds Cary of the controversy surrounding their relationship. “Situations like this bring out the hateful side of human nature,” she says, almost pleading a case. Sara brings up the children again, asking if dating Ron would be in their best interest as well. But Cary, who is stubborn and forthright, considers her answer. “You’re asking me to give up Ron because of something in people that’s mean and contemptible. Do you really think it’d be good for Ned and Kay for me to let myself be beaten by such hatefulness?” Cary standing up for herself in that moment is a triumph for all of us; besides, it’s kind of an archaic notion for a woman not to marry the man she wants to for such reasons as “what would the neighbors think?” I’d like to say we as a society have progressed past such trivial taboos, but these ideas the film presents are still relevant today as people definitely tend to disregard or mock things they don’t understand (those things in question, though, are just a bit different these days). ”It should be so simple,” Cary says to Ron, clinging in an embrace after a date. He responds, “It is, if you’re not afraid.” His words, so elementary, outline precisely how decent and wonderful a world we could all be living in if we weren’t so afraid of what people thought of us — or by that measure, if we weren’t made to feel afraid by people telling us what they think of us. That line, in its simplicity, could even be read as a representation of any kind of “otherness” (most explicitly as an allegory for queerness, given Hudson’s own battle with a hidden lifestyle). Ron follows with a meaningful assurance, “Nothing is important, except us. Remember that.”
The absolutely heartbreaking part of this picture, however, is that Cary does give into societal pressure and ends her relationship with Ron. That in itself is sad, but the stinger comes when she realizes the reason she does it wasn’t worth anything. The breakup occurs after she confronts Ron on his unwillingness to compromise in taking the societal expectations of their marriage in “stages,” so to speak; she wants them to live in her house for a while instead of his renovated mill so that the children and her friends could “get used to it” in a way. But he says no, because those things are still unimportant to him, and we think for a second that Ron is being too stubborn and selfish, and even though his ideals are noble, he’s acting in a very naive way. So Cary returns home a sullen single woman, and must let the children know she’s broken off the engagement. After all the fuss put up by Kay and Ned (especially Ned) in protest of the marriage, their reactions to the news are as if they thought the whole ordeal was merely inconsequential. Ned’s “oh, great” on a hurried phone call particularly takes the cake here, showing that he has all the time in the world to criticize and berate his mother on her decisions he disagrees with, but when it comes to being there for her emotionally when she’s obviously placed his wishes above her own, he is suddenly very unavailable. Kay’s not too different as she announces her own irrational plans to be wed (she’ll be leaving her studies to marry her fiance in as soon as just a couple of months), and they both stand their mom up at the train station, leaving the station agent to deliver a telegram saying they’re too busy for their weekend trip home (Sirk’s focus on the crumpled up telegram Cary throws to the ground is particularly poignant). It’s a comment here on how people only let “tradition” or “values” factor into decision making when it suits them, or how people meddle with and try to control others’ lives when it satisfies their own personal agendas (even loved ones). It’s so sad and insulting how Ned and Kay are very interested in their mother’s life when she’s about to do something they don’t want her to do, but after Cary retreats from her controversial engagement, the kids seem to lose all interest in their mother’s well-being. Gosh, they even buy her a TV for Christmas! That television is like a life sentence for the lonely widow (“All the company you could want right here on this screen,” the delivery man pitches. “Drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips!”), and while we’re at it: Cary’s house might as well be a prison (Sirk sets this up with lots of shots of Cary looking solemnly through window panes, as if she’s trapped there in a home that used to be warm and inviting but is now cold and empty).
At any rate, Kay at least acknowledges she was being childish when protesting Cary’s engagement, and tells her she shouldn’t have let her get away with it. The sucker punch, though, is when Kay dismisses she and Ron’s love affair with, “That was different. You didn’t really love him, did you?” What follows is excruciating. Ned gleefully proclaims this may be the last year they spend Christmas in that house, what with Kay getting married and him leaving to study abroad in Paris. So, why don’t they just sell the house? It is the worst, most despicable, most self-unaware thing that Ned could possibly suggest, and Cary’s devastation is carried to us by what feels like a laser beam straight to our hearts. “Don’t you see, Kay? The whole thing has been terribly pointless,” Cary laments, as our hearts are further obliterated. The melodrama continues, but I’ll keep quiet on the ending.
Oh wow, I really love this movie. Not only for the drama, but Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty’s stylistic choices are just incredible. The use of “glorious Technicolor” is most apparent, with each moment given its own specific lighting and palette, saturating every emotion with correlating colors. Golds, reds, purples, blues — they’re all there, from Ron noting the Koelreuteria tree growing in her yard (“In China where it comes from, they call it the Golden Rain tree. They say it can only thrive near a home where there’s love”) to Cary wearing a low-cut red dress to a cocktail party to symbolize her sexual vibrancy (“It’s about time you wore something besides that old black velvet,” Kay says) to the colder blue lighting of scenes where Cary is especially lonely (we return to those window pane shots). My favorite, though, is when Kay is sobbing about being kicked out the library and fight with her fiance; it’s an emotionally chaotic scene that’s lit with probably more colors than any Italian horror director could even imagine. Sirk uses framing to his storytelling advantage, too, as a subtle way of conveying Cary’s anxiety, confusion, and indecision. Many times Cary is shown “in the middle” of two characters, like when Sara is on her left and Ron is on her right, and she has to choose which one to stand by. There are plenty of visual cues like that, where the frame suggests Cary has to choose between her old life and new life, and finding them on subsequent watches is a real treat.
So, if you’re tired of the “same old, same old” when deciding on your Christmas viewing list, I really recommend giving All That Heaven Allows a slot. If you don’t have the funds to spring for the Criterion edition, don’t worry: the film is streaming in several places (Amazon Prime, for one) and you can even find a rip of the cleaned-up Criterion version on YouTube with a quick search. It’s a film easy to be engrossed by, letting yourself be swept up into Sirk’s dreamy world of sadness and romance, but it’s a film even non-conformists can enjoy because of its bucking against classism and social orthodoxy. In a way, even though it is sappy and hyperdramatic, All That Heaven Allows is one of the more realistic cinematic portrayals of the holidays ever captured. Please don’t miss out on the value and allure of this film; who cares if it’s a certifiable “Christmas movie” or not?