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Film Friday: «All That Heaven Allows» (1955)

In honor of Rock Hudson's 91st birthday, which was yesterday, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you one of the very first films I saw with him.

Directed by Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows (1955) tells the story of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a wealthy widow living in a small New England town. With her two children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds), away at college, Cary becomes increasingly aware of her loneliness. While everyone expects her to marry staid bachelor Harvey (Conrad Nagel), Cary instead finds herself attracted to Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a significantly younger gardener who rejects social artifices. When Ron invites her to a dinner party at the home of his friends, former suburbanites Alida (Virginia Grey) and Mick Anderson (Charles Drake), Cary realizes how much she admires his down-to-earth lifestyle and the two soon begin a passionate romance.
Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows.
Although she is supported by her close friend Sara Warden (Agnes Moorehead), Cary becomes distressed when her neighbours and children express their disapproval of her relationship with Ron, which they consider socially unacceptable for a woman of her standing. Eventually, she succumbs to the pressure and decides to leave Ron. Weeks later, Cary's friends and family have welcomed her back into their fold, but she remains despondent and suffers headaches.
At Christmas, Kay reveals that she is engaged, while Ned announces that he is moving to Paris. When Cary sees their gift, a television set, she breaks down, realizing that her rejection of Ron was pointless and that her future holds only loneliness. The following day, she visits Dr. Dan Hennessy (Hayden Rorke), who tells her that headaches are caused by depression and that she should marry Ron. Although she drives to Ron's cabin, she hesitates at the door and returns to her car. Ron, who has been hunting, spots her from atop a hill and, in his rush to stop her from leaving, falls off a cliff and suffers a concussion. Learning that Ron is unconscious, Cary races to his cabin, where she realizes how wrong she had been to allow other people's opinions and superficial social convictions to dictate her life choices. When Ron wakes up the next morning, he is delighted to see Cary, who tells him that she has come home.

Dr. Hennessy: Cary, let's face it: you were ready for a love affair, but not for love.

Born in Germany to Danish parents, Douglas Sirk studied law, philosophy and art history before joining the theatre in Hamburg in the early 1920s. He started out as a dramaturge and then moved on to become a director, staging the work of such notable playwrights as Bertolt Brecht, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. In 1934, he signed a film contract with UFA, where he helmed his first motion picture, a comedy titled April, April! (1935).
Following the release of the hugely successful melodrama La Habanera (1937), Sirk was forced to leave Germany because of his political views and his Jewish wife, actress Hilde Jary. He stayed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, until Warner Bros. invited him to Hollywood to remake his film To New Shores (1937). However, those plans fell through and he ended up directing the stridently anti-Nazi Hitler's Madman (1943) for MGM instead. He then helmed various pictures for Columbia and United Artists, work that led him to join Universal in 1950. 
Douglas Sirk with Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman and Agnes Moorehead on the set during the making of All That Heaven Allows.

Teaming up with producer Ross Hunter, Sirk finally had his breakthrough as a film director with Magnificent Obsession (1954), a remake of the 1935 eponymous melodrama, which itself was an adaptation of a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Mooreheard, the film was a massive hit, earning its lead actress an Oscar nomination.
The popularity of Magnificent Obsession encouraged Universal to reunite Sirk, Hunter, Wyman, Hudson and Moorehead in another similarly-themed picture. The vehicle they chose was All That Heaven Allows, based on a story by Edna and Harry Lee originally published in Women's Home Companion in 1952. To write the script, they hired Peg Fenwick, who retained the original plot outline, the basic traits of the main characters and even some of the dialogue.
Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman as Ron and Cary in All That Heaven Allows.

A World War II veteran, Rock Hudson began his acting career with a bit part in Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron (1948). He continued to appear in bit parts until Sirk discovered him and shaped his screen persona. Sirk's account of his discovery of Hudson is as follows:
«There had emerged a kind of B-picture creation at Universal against the trend of the time, as I thought, and as I was proven right later. This was partly caused by the lack of house-owned stars. The only thing to do in these circumstances was to manufacture a star, because getting more money depended on having a name in your picture. So I looked around, and I saw a picture Rock was playing in, with Jeff Chandler in the lead [Iron Man (1951)]. He had a small part, and he was far inferior to Chandler, but I thought I saw something. So I arranged to meet him, and he seemed to be not too much to the eye, except very handsome. But the camera sees with its own eye. It sees things the human eye does not detect. And ultimately you learn to trust your camera
Hudson became one of Sirk's most commonly used actors in the 1950s, appearing in a total of six of the director's films, including All That Heaven Allows.
Rock Hudson as Ron Kirby in All That Heaven Allows.

All That Heaven Allows was filmed between early January and early February 1955. The shoot was not easy for Wyman, as she was in the process of divorcing from her third husband, composer Fred Krager. Still, production went along smoothly. Hudson acknowledged the «help» that Wyman gave him, praising her for being «a wonderful girl.» For her part, Wyman stated, «After working with Rock Hudson, I say he's got to be the biggest thing to hit the industry.» When Hudson told her, «You really went out of your way to be nice to me when you didn't have to,» Wyman replied adopting the philosophy of the doctor in Magnificent Obsession: «Let me tell you something. It was handed to me by someone. And I handed it down to you. And now it's your turn to hand it to someone else
Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in publicity stills for All That Heaven Allows.

For All That Heaven Allows, Sirk worked with cinematographer Russell Metty to revive his favourite colour scheme, with bluish bedrooms, walls and windows. Blue was his way of sanctifying a relationship that, if it ever turned physical, would have made sex a sacrament. Frank Skinner provided his own brand of spirituality with a soundtrack consisting of Franz Liszt's popular solo piano piece Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major, which can be heard during reflective moments, and Brahms's First Symphony, which serves as a love/regeneration theme.
Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows.

All That Heavens Allows premiered in Los Angeles on December 25, 1955. Variety characterized the film as one which is «guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of all middle-aged women who, occasionally, must think of the possibility of such a romance.» The reviewer adds: «Director Sirk keeps things rolling along and manages to get his actors to make trite dialogue sound less so.» As if afraid to admit directly that he liked the film, critic Hollis Alpert cleverly disguised his review as a letter from his «Aunt Henrietta» to Universal, prefacing it with, «She wishes me to thank you for giving her the kind of heartfelt emotional experience she rarely gets from movies these days.» Less kindly, the reviewer for Time magazine wrote: «The moviegoer often has the sensation that he is drowning in a sea of melted butter, with nothing to hang on to but the cliches that float past.» Despite mixed reviews, All That Heaven Allows was a great commercial success, establishing Rock Hudson as Universal's biggest box-office attraction in the mid-1950s.


The President's Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis by Bernard K. Dick (University Press of Mississippi, 2014)
Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk by Barbara Klinger (Indiana University Press, 1994)


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