Hollywood Century, 1955: In which America's greatest era of bourgeois conformity is critiqued from within; and also, In which we weep, like, buckets and buckets of tears
Years of intense critical re-evaluation, from Marxist theorists, feminist theorists, queer theorists, and structuralists, have brought the career of German emigrant Douglas Sirk to a level of respectability and significance that he was not generally accorded in the 1950s, when he was regarded as one of several nobodies churning out "women's pictures", and producing what is now regarded as his most important work. And while those theorists and scholars deserve all our thanks for bringing to light one of the great visual stylists working in America between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s, I think we must be leery losing sight of the fact that, class commentary this and gay coding that aside, Sirk made really fucking good melodramas.
Take, if you will, his 1955 All That Heaven Allows, the film upon which perhaps most of the theory raising him to the level of auteur based itself; I think we can fairly securely call it his signature film (his "best" is another matter, and we don't need to jump down that rabbit hole). It is nonsense, undoubtedly: the director himself acknowledged that Peg Fenwick's script, from a story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee, was "impossible", and he had to fix and re-shape it over the course of shooting the movie. But however florid and hokey (that is to say: however melodramatic), there's never a moment where it feels like Sirk wasn't treating the story with absolute commitment on its own terms. The colors, the blocking, the music: all of it builds to legitimise and enrich that impossible story, not to undercut or subvert it.
The action picks up in a small town in New England during the autumn, where we meet widowed Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), mother of two grown children, the young professional Ned (William Reynolds) and the college student Kay (Gloria Talbott). She has a best friend in Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), who keeps her abreast of all the gossip with the country club wives who make up the closest thing Cary has to a social circle, but mostly, as far as we can tell, she spends her time in the quiet, alone. That being said, there's no obvious evidence that she has the imagination to realise that she's bored or unfulfilled, until the fateful morning when Sara has to cancel lunch and that leaves Cary with nobody to talk to but the gardener: one Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), who has been pruning her trees for years, and who took over from his late dad, who pruned the trees before him. And it takes very little contact with Ron before Cary starts to have all kinds of funny feelings, both of a heightened, philosophically and emotionally reflective kind, and of the more grubby, sweaty kind as well. Ron, for his part, more than reciprocates, and by the time winter sets in, they're engaged. But this sets Cary against a society in which the appearance of propriety is everything, and widows are expected to wither away of respectability, or at best to only ever have romantic entanglements with miserable tedious assholes of their own social group and age bracket. And so their love is attacked and challenged, in both subtle and raging explicit ways, by very nearly every one of Cary's friends and family members. Ron's friends, meanwhile, are Thoreau-reading bohemians who couldn't give less of a shit.
What's amazing to me is not that at some point in the late '60s or '70s, scholars started to tease out how this could possibly function not just as a tearjerker but also as Sirk's caustic attack on social values of the mid-'50s; it's amazing that it might ever have been read any other way. Make Cary's neighbors space aliens instead of boring white suburbanites, and taa-daa! you have Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a parable for the fetish of conformity that marks the decade in the public consciousness. All That Heaven Allows isn't a parable; it's much too blunt and direct for that word to apply.
But still, melodrama is like sci-fi or horror in that it's privileged to say things in a direct, high-impact way, without the gentility of Respectable, Dignified Drama. It gets to be sharp-toothed and blood red, and the way that the film demonstrates how pointlessly nasty all of the Good People are being in condemning Cary for the crime of having desires and acting on them is merciless and unmissable - every time I watch the film, knowing exactly where it's going, I still get blindsided by how disgusting the Scott children turn out to be in their final appearance, and remain freshly impressed by how Sirk and his invaluable cinematographer Russell Metty foreshadow this development by showcasing Kay's guilt-tripping freakout - the moment above all else that breaks Cary's resolve and self-interest - in a kaleidoscope of gaudy colored lighting that plays like a disconcerting bad dream even in a film where bright color clashes are to be found somewhat often, and in which Kay in particular is often staged against a context of jarring gaudiness, often paired with self-important body language involving taking off her glasses, standing erect and inclining her head in a clear "I'm smarter than you are, so listen to my smartness" gesture. Boy, does Sirk ever enjoy mocking Kay.
Color is always an important signifier in this film, with every scene and damn near every shot doing something very particular and purposeful, especially in contrasting hot colors with cooling ones. In the beginning of the film, Cary is associated with reds and oranges: her clothes, the bright autumnal trees that require pruning by a rugged American man-hunk like Ron (incidentally, I'm not terribly keen on readings of the film that foreground Hudson's homosexuality, even though I do not necessarily disagree with them, for this reason: if we read gay coding into Ron, it deprives Cary of her unambiguously heterosexual blossoming. And it's her movie more than it's Ron's). The first beat of the plot, properly speaking, finds Sara showing up in a blue dress in a blinding robin's egg blue car, violating the frame-filling field of reds, the moments of greatest passion between Cary and Ron, or more properly speaking between Cary and Ron's way of life, are those in which reds, yellows, and oranges are contrasted with the whites, blues, and greys visible through windows and in backgrounds. When she gives in to peer pressure, she's reduced to wearing greys and blues, spotting reds only here and there in the frame. Worst of all is when Cary is presented, against her stated will, with a television, and we see her reflected in its cramped, boxy frame, all the color sucked out until she's just a grey and gold shadow. No sign of post-war affluence has ever looked so hideously squat and threatening and deadening as that TV.
That's dime store visual analysis, of course; any halfwit who just learned that "red = lust" in Western color symbology can watch All That Heaven Allows and come to those conclusions. But that, I'd argue, is exactly what makes the movie great melodrama: it works on such a basic, direct level, it's like being punched in the gut, hard, for 89 minutes. Subtleties that need to be teased out with great labor and attention are wonderful and all, but there's something to be said about something so potently obvious that it just roars over you. These are primal emotions, in melodramas: sex and desire, the awareness of one's own self as distinct from the society that tries as hard as it possibly can to erase the self, especially the self of a woman, especially the self of a middle-aged mother and widow. More than any other Sirk movie - hell, more than any other American film from the '50s that I can think of having seen - All That Heaven Allows is a drama about a woman attempting to claim ownership of her own life despite absolutely everything in her past conspiring to deny her that agency. I haven't seen every movie made between 1953 and 1961, but I'm deeply tempted to call it the most gender-progressive American movie of the Eisenhower era, even if it ends, in a scene that's already a bit leaden for other reasons, with the suggestion that Cary has to be a nurse before she can be a lover.
And like all truly great progressive drama, it succeeds at that because it's not constantly speaking about it. The most persuasive and compelling scenes in All That Heaven Allows are the ones where the story and characters are foregrounded more than social messaging, more even than the film's own second-half indulgence in painting all of the suburbanites as The Will To Conformity, rather than individuals. The most effective, persuasive sequences are the ones where Cary is simply allowed to be happy in a way she's plainly never felt before, with Wyman's face slowly and methodically opening itself into relaxed, joyful pleasure (it's really difficult to put into words just how perfect Wyman is in this role: it gives a great deal of opportunity to her, and she returns the favor by doing everything in exactly the right register of obvious without being broad, vividly emotional without being overwrought). The acting and the warmth of the cinematography showcase that, along with the cozy, beautiful design of all the scenes set in Ron's world (the art direction was by Alexander Golitzen and Eric Orbom), in contrast to the plush but uncomfortably open and non-living rooms of Cary and the country clubbers. The difference, I think, can be best summed up in a scene where Ron's friend Alida (Virginia Grey), hosting a party of all the oddballs and outsiders, gushes with unforced enthusiasm "oh, what a beautiful cake!" to one of her guests' contribution to the dinner, as the camera rushes forth to look at what is most certainly not a beautiful cake, but is probably tastier and more lovingly-made than all the fussy food eaten everywhere else in the film.
This is pleasure / that is cold - everything in the visuals and performances of All That Heaven Allows focuses on creating that one dichotomy, and then watching as the protagonist finds herself traveling between the two halves of that dichotomy for the first time, feeling alive and passionate against all the best efforts of society to prevent her. It's top-shelf cinematic sophistication in service to brute, angry sentiment about how fucked-up society and propriety are, and if it's not the bestest best melodrama that ever could be - frankly, I think at least two other Sirk films are even better - it is, nevertheless, proof that there is artistry and glory in a genre that never had to apologise for itself, not when it was this confident, beautiful, and good.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1955
-Oklahoma! is the first of many deeply unsatisfying Rodgers & Hammerstein musical adaptations released by 20th Century Fox
-James Dean debuts, becomes a superstar, and dies, all in the span of about seven months
-Rock & roll and juvenile delinquency enter the cinematic A-list with MGM's Blackboard Jungle
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1955
-In Denmark, Carl Theodor Dreyer makes Ordet, the most shattering of films about faith and the spirit
-Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali brings Indian cinema to the attention of the whole world
-The Polish Film School movement is ushered in by Andrzej Wajda's A Generation