For the Ladies – All That Heaven Allows
I’ve been a big fan of women’s pictures of the thirties, forties, and fifties since the first moment I saw The Women (1939) by George Cukor when I was a kid. Films about the lives of women appealed to me, not just because I would be one someday, but because their stories revolved around different subject matter than movies targeted to men. Family, romance, social rules, scandal, and drama were all open for analysis. I love the heroic gestures of a good western, but I also love the more down-to-earth subject matter of a good weepy drama. Not only do these films give us great stories, but they provide glimpses into what it means to be a woman, the rules we are supposed follow, and the punishments life metes out if we don’t.
One of my favorites is All that Heaven Allows (1955), directed by Douglas Sirk, a Technicolor masterpiece starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. The story revolves around widow Cary Scott (Wyman), who falls in love with her gardener Ron Kirby (Hudson.) Up to this point she has lived quietly; left well off, she visits with friends, attends to the needs of her college-age children, and takes care of her beautiful house. As for romance, she spends most of her time fending off the advances of lecherous married men who think a widow is easy prey, or enjoying the companionate, but passionless, company of older friend Harvey (Conrad Nagel). At a moment in her life when everything seems to run like clockwork, she notices she has a new landscaper. Instead of exchanging the usual banalities, they end up having a series of real conversations that lead to her visiting his tree farm, and, as these things always happen, they fall in love and he proposes.
But all is not perfect in their paradise; not only is Kirby in a different class than Cary, he is much younger. (The film never discloses their ages, but at the time this movie was made Wyman was 38 and Hudson was 30. There is a brief mention that her character was married at 17.) Aware of the difficulties they face in a small, gossipy town, Cary gets her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) on her side, and together they try to introduce Ron to their mutual friends. This goes rather badly, but the real barrier to their marriage is the attitudes of her children. Daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) cannot accept this because of the trouble it will cause her—having people talk might affect her own budding relationship. Son Ned (William Reynolds) will not have it because it is improper and an insult to his father. Cary must choose whose happiness in more important: hers or her children’s. As any good fifties mother would do, she chooses the needs of her offspring and rejects Ron’s suit. As her life continues on, lonelier than ever, she must decide if she made the right decision.
Before we talk about the ladies, let’s talk about Ron. Kirby is one of my favorite Rock Hudson characters; he is strong and silent, only talking when something needs to be said. But, he is not a brooder; he only focuses on what is truly important to him and be damned to all the rest. According to his friends, he has never read Thoreau, but lives his precepts to the fullest instinctively—no life of quiet desperation for him. He has chosen to follow his own interests and cares nothing for the things that others use to determine success; he encourages Cary to follow her heart and not pay attention to the petty minds around her. Not only is he a nonconformist, he is a nurturer in the best sense of the word, and wants Cary to become the best expression of herself. (Kind of like Oprah but without the relentless product placement. In fact, Ron is kind of like the anti-Oprah; where she promotes self-actualization through buying things, Ron sends a distinctly anti-consumerist message.) This is not the vision of fifties manhood we so often see or assume to be the norm. Say what you will about Rock Hudson’s acting ability, he is perfect for this role. This not just drama, it is DRAMA of the highest order; his dark good looks and forced emotions are perfect here.
But this is Jane Wyman’s movie, and she shines here as the respectable widow who is capable of so much more than a dutiful life. She is so prim and proper in the beginning I wondered what Ron even sees in her. Cary Scott behaves, and for it she is rewarded with a nice house, loving children, and a suitable partner. No matter that she doesn’t care about the house, the children are growing up and away, and her relationship with Harvey is completely passionless.