Sunday, May 08, 2016
      ( 5:13 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

It's fine and easy enough to say you're going to live according to your own principles and not give a damn what anyone says but the practical reality of doing so can be pretty rough. A wealthy widow finds this out when she tries to marry a younger man with a meagre income in 1955's All That Heaven Allows. Directed by Douglas Sirk, the intense Technicolor at work breathes life into a story that would seem otherwise peculiarly tame.

Akira Kurosawa was late to colour film--he didn't make one until the late 60s--and his complaint was that colour films looked like postcards. Maybe he had All That Heaven Allows in mind but I found it absolutely wonderful. There's a world created here, not just with colour but also shadows, I want to crawl into and just relax a while. Look at the powerful blue dress on Agnes Moorehead.

She's not the star of the film, she plays the best friend of Cary, played by Jane Wyman, who has two kids in college, the father, Cary's husband, having died a couple years earlier. In the country club social circle, several older men are eager to fill the vacant space in Cary's home. No-one can handle it when Cary chooses her gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson).

Jane Wyman was 38 years old in this movie, which makes the other characters treating her as old seem funny, though it is mentioned in dialogue she had one of her kids at seventeen so it technically adds up. What's really funny about it is how stark an example it provides of Hollywood's weird treatment of women when they hit 35. In 1948, seven years earlier, Wyman won an Academy Award for playing a childlike young woman in Johnny Belinda. In 1950, she played a kid just trying to make her break as an actress in Stage Fright. Five years later, she's an old lady.

Rock Hudson was only eight years younger than her but that is a pretty abnormal spread for a Hollywood picture in the 50s--unless it's a movie starring Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich. Neither Hudson or Wyman give bad performances but they're not exactly amazing, either--Hudson has that distinctly 1950s way of answering a woman's concern with a smug "Uh huh." The writing isn't bad, especially if you take it as code for a more transgressive relationship, like the mixed race couple portrayed in the 2002 film Far from Heaven which pretty heavily drew inspiration from All That Heaven Allows.

All That Heaven Allows sets up a conflict between a hazy, mainstream impression of Sigmund Freud and a somewhat firmer grasp of the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Cary's daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott), handily delivers exposition on society's impressions of what an older widow should do with her life, inaccurately quoting Freud on the subject and giving a glib, imprecise definition of the Oedipal complex when her brother complains about Cary's red dress. After Kay learns about Cary's relationship with Ron, the certainty of Movie Freud deserts her as she falls to weeping beneath a Technicolor glass rainbow.

At the home of Ron's vaguely beatnik friends, Cary finds an open copy of Walden and is deeply moved by two quotes combined for the film:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Though as one of the rich old men points out at a cocktail party Cary takes Ron to, one has to have money in order to afford the luxury of being disgusted by it. The movie never provides a counterargument for this, nor, of course, does it mention that Thoreau was pretty well off himself. But like Thoreau's work, there's a real beauty in the film's celebration of personal liberty.

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