Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows could stand as a lesson about how, in gifted hands, movies can surmount and surpass their source material, elevating the routine into the rhapsodic. And that's more than a matter of just fleshing out the roles with appealing talent or supplying de luxe production values. It takes a sensibility that can suggest the complexity under the commonplace and spot the verities hidden beneath the clichés.
It's an alert sensibility that many emigrés from Europe, apprenticed in the artistic ferment between the wars, brought with them to Hollywood (among them this Dane, born Detlef Sierck). Hollywood gave them more money and security than they'd probably ever known, and when it also gave them hackneyed and meretricious scripts to capture on film, they devised new ways to freshen them up and, against all odds, make them work.
On its surface, All That Heaven Allows is little more than polite fiction from women's magazines circa mid-20th-century (and would today be a romance paperback with a beefcake cover). Youngish widow Jane Wyman starts keeping company with free-spirited Rock Hudson, her much younger gardener; despite wagging tongues among her country-club set and clucks of disapproval from her grown children, she finds, after many a twist and turn, true love.
But from his opening shot Sirk creates a dreamy, storybook world, so Disney-pretty that he might as well have started with `Once upon a time....' Swirling downward from a church steeple in a New England autumn, he shows us an affluent enclave just a commuter-train trip away from New York. Luncheons are taken on patios, station wagons the approved mode of travel and martinis the drink of the evening - the kind of town New Yorkers played by Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck meant when they referred to their `country' places in Connecticut.
In this idyllic bower, Wyman has resigned herself to a stately and well-appointed widowhood; she half-heartedly resists friend Agnes Moorehead's lures to put her back on the market (women without men, by choice or circumstance, just don't fit in). But Wyman's too classy for the boozed-up louts and gossipy shrews in her former set, and still too vital to succumb to valetudinarian Conrad Nagel's proposal for tepid `companionship.'
And that's when Hudson, come to prune the branches, catches her eye - and, somewhat less probably, she his. He whisks her out to see his tree farm, and they explore an old mill on his property (`I love to poke around old buildings,' she explains). When she suggests he fix up the dump and live there, it's to the horn theme from the last movement of Brahms' 1st Symphony. No wonder she ends up staying the weekend.
Here Sirk introduces a subtly subversive element: Hudson's friends, in discordant counterpoint to hers (who dismiss him as `nature boy' and a `good-looking set of muscles'). His are an amiably casual network of all ages and backgrounds who have opted out of the rat race or never cared to enter it (the `quiet desperation' passage from Thoreau's Walden screws the point home). Though their style of merrymaking brings to mind Old World folk festivals, they represent a segment of society rarely if ever seen in films of the era: Low-profile, thoughtful rebels against the smug status quo - post-war pioneers of the voluntary simplicity movement inflamed with a touch of ecological consciousness ( now laughed off as tree-hugging). It's a startling glimpse into a below-the-radar counterculture that must have been around even in the mid-'50s (and there's not a beret, goatee or bongo drum among them - they're presented without a hint of condescension or marginalization).
Hudson proposes, Wyman accepts. Even her children (Gloria Talbott and William Reynolds) are thrilled, so long as they assume her remarriage will be to stuffy, respectable Nagel. When they're told that their new stepdad will be the stud who cleans up the yard come spring and come fall, they go rigid with upper-middle-class snobbery. (And the specter of Mrs. Grundy floats in when Moorehead asks if people will think Wyman and Hudson were keeping company when Wyman's husband was still kicking.) Stranded between her familiar past and an uncertain future, Wyman begs for more time; Hudson, hewing to his mantra `to thine own self be true,' delivers an ultimatum....
Abetted by director of photography Russell Metty, Sirk paints this soapish weeper with a gorgeous palette of hues and tints (a feat that Todd Haynes emulated in his Sirk hommage Far From Heaven, for which this movie served as template). Now and again, he washes half the screen in an autumnal green-gold, the other in an enchanted-night mauve, situating characters at cross purposes in their respective halves.
Of course, splitting or doubling the screen, through barriers or mirror shots, is one of Sirk's signature tropes, reaching its apex when Wyman's hangdog face stares back from a newly delivered television set, a Christmas present from the kids (`Here's all the company you need. Drama, comedy, all life's parade at your fingertips,' goes the spiel.) Pointedly, the set never gets turned on; it's seen but once again, reflecting flames from the fireplace, the focal point of simpler, less sophisticated times, and the values Hudson embodies.
Sirk takes this unlikely June-September romance and buffs it to the highest possible gloss, using his exquisite eye to enrich and deepen every frame. It's lush and sensuous - almost candified (at times gluttingly so) - and all but impossible to resist. When, at the close, a deer gambols up to nuzzle some snow off the windowpane in the mill Hudson has turned into his - their - home, it's an embarrassment of perfection. Never was Disney so magical.