Until the 1970s, little serious attention or film criticism was given to the melodrama or what was often referred to as the ‘woman’s film’. In an industry dominated by male critics, these ‘woman’s films’ that were interested in problems such as family and society, and the alienation, boredom and oppression bred therin were not regarded as important issues. Despite the melodrama’s tendency to critique but rarely deliver solutions, Laura Mulvey argues that they do “reveal and explore contradictions rather than smooth over them like classic Hollywood.”
All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Douglas Sirk is an all-encompassing example of the most recognisable narrative themes and aesthetics of the classic melodrama. As a connoisseur of the genre, Sirk relies on outer form and stylistics to confront the problems of his characters, and is distinctive in his use of colour, camera movement, mise-en-scène and dialogue. Sirk creates what Michael Walker would call a ‘melodrama of passion’, with the narrative focus on the female and their externalised emotion; melodramatic characters tend to suffer an intense inability to articulate their feelings, leading to those feelings being channeled through décor, light, gesture, and composition. These elements give melodrama its own aesthetic language, a syntax that can formulate a mood and meaning without any physical gestures. Through objects and the characters relation to them does Sirk expose the fissues in the fabric on their world.
Allow That Heaven Allows examines the stifling confines of middle-class life in Eisenhower 1950’s America, and the expectation and obligations of the female during that period. In fact for Sirk’s protagonists, their biggest problem is simply the fact that they are female.
Jane Wyman plays Cary, a typical middle-class widow with two college-age children and a cold, unsympathetic show-room home. She disrupts the delicate equilibrium of her world by falling in love with her younger, lower-class gardener. Ron played by Rock Hudson, is a primitive young male free to do as he pleases whilst Cary is tightly bound by her social class, her history, and like most screen women has much to sacrifice. Cary very much subscribes to Robert Heilman’s idea of the melodramatic heroine – she is a unified heroine within a divided world (as opposed to a tragic heroine; a divided force within a unified world). Cary understands and is aware of her desires, but her world disallows it.
During the opening shots of the film, the camera moves over Cary’s neighbourhood from church spire, through the trees to her clean white family home. The street is abundant with red leaves, telling us not only of a time of year but signifying Cary’s overflowing sexual frustration. These trees and leaves appear to surround every house, and red and orange plants crawl up the walls suggesting that the sexual oppression is thriving like bacteria in this society.
The scene goes on as Cary’s friend Sara (the mediator between Cary and society) sees the mysterious gardener Ron in the garden and comments, “I haven’t even had time to think of my trees, much less get them pruned”. Sexuality is a repressed issue, and it is the elephant in the room. It’s a class taboo and a problem that extends beyond Cary into the lives of her neighbours. Two woman walk by in the background with a pram, suggestive again of the potent expectations of female sexual life.
Later in the film, Cary invites Ron to share coffee with her and his passion for nature quickly becomes the topic for conversation. Cary asks Ron if she should take up gardening, signalling her own awareness of her obligations of both her age and sex. Ron replies, “only if you think you’d like it.” In this single bit of interaction we clearly see Ron’s idealist world view (only do the things you want) whilst also revealing the contradictory American ideals that Sirk is criticising. In the land of the free you can (and should) do what you want (be liberated) – but only within the airless confines of your class and sex.
Cary’s pursuit of her own sexuality becomes a major narrative strand. The legacy her late husband has left behind entombs her inside their mausoleum-like family home. His trophies adorn the fireplace, serving to remind her of her own submission and passiveness beside the male sex, even in their physical absence. This absence of male power also emphasises the loss of the all-important nuclear family – the previous benefits of her social status not longer apply and now act as a self-inflicted trap. Cary is aware of her own entrapment, but her daughter Kay isn’t. Kay mentions,
“The Egyptian custom of walling up the widow alive in the funeral chamber of the dea husband… she was a possession too so she was supposed to journey into death with him, and the community saw to it that she did… of course, it doesn’t happen anymore.”
It’s interesting that Kay mentions so explicitly the community being responsible for the oppression of women. Cary sarcastically replies, “doesn’t it? Perhaps not in Egypt.” Despite this realisation of her fate, Cary decides against wearing widow’s black to the country club, instead opting for a red dress.
The red dress is obviously the ultimate metaphor for her sexual awakening, and Sirk uses it to explore specifically the sexuality of mothers. Being a widow she is expected now to be sexless, especially by her children. Kay and her brother Ned read the red dress as a return back to society to find ‘companionship’ with their choice of new stepfather being the decrepit and boring Harvey – they, and the rest of their class, expect Cary to return to her accepted place as mother and wife. Ned also comments as an aside, “I hope it doesn’t scare Harvey off,” putting Cary in the model female dichotomy – by wearing a red dress she is either ‘scaring’ men, or unwittingly inviting them in. These two opposites allow for no grey area. She exists purely for the male gaze. In this world only through a man may a woman find meaning.
By the conclusion of All That Heaven Allows, true to melodramatic style we end up entangled within a cyclical narrative; Cary ends back where she started, in her assigned place as a mother figure, passively waiting over Ron’s sick bed. Sirk leaves it ambiguous as to whether Cary really does claim back that sexuality she so dearly craves. “Salvation for Sirks’ heroines is not in sacrifice of oneself to children or social codes, but in refusal to make these sacrifices,” reasons Mary Heskell in From Reverence to Rape. If this is true, the christmas card picture end of All That Heaven Allows certainly gives Cary her salvation.