Rediscovering Douglas Sirk in 1972: "All That Heaven Allows"

A 1972 essay on Douglas Sirk's great melodrama, "one of the best and most revealing films about America on the verge of its breakdown."
Jon Halliday

Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) is showing April 16 - May 16, 2018 in the many countries around the world as part of the series In the Realm of Melodrama: A Douglas Sirk Retrospective.

"The studio loved the title All That Heaven Allows.  They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted.  I meant it exactly the other way round.  As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy."

—Douglas Sirk

All That Heaven Allows

Until very recently, Douglas Sirk remained in a kind of critical limbo. In the last couple of years some valuable and novel material has appeared, covering many aspects of his work. The most important element so far left unstudied is Sirk’s relationship to the melodrama, the genre he most used during both his German period (1935-37) in feature films, and in his second American period, at Universal (1950-58).

Two reasons, certainly, have contributed to the neglect of Sirk. One is an almost total ignorance about his cultural formation in Weimar Germany. The other is a repeated failure, even among those who have praised him, to take adequate account of the highly specific conditions of production surrounding his work. Sirk is most definitely an auteur, but an auteur working in circumstances far from ideal, and rarely able to direct his own projects. As All That Heaven Allows was not a project of his own choice, it is an exemplary object of study, since it focuses many of the problems in discussing Sirk’s American work.

Conditions of production

After a difficult early period in America (1939-1948), during much of which he was under contract to Columbia, Sirk finally signed up with Universal in 1950, and stayed with this studio until 1958-9. His first big commercial success with Universal was Magnificent Obsession produced by Ross Hunter and starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Magnificent Obsession is an awful, but strong story, written by Lloyd C. Douglas and first filmed by John Stahl in the ‘thirties. Sirk’s version would merit a study of its own, since it shows perhaps better than any other film the split level construction to be found in almost all the movies he made for Ross Hunter. However, the point here is that All That Heaven Allows was thought up by the studio in order to cash in on the success of Magnificent Obsession. The same producer: Ross Hunter; the same cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead. Elements of the same structure––in particular Jane Wyman as the older woman, widowed, falling in love with a younger man.

From there on, of course, one must consider Sirk’s own work on the film. All That Heaven Allows has really no story worth talking about––unlike Magnificent Obsession, which has a very strong and inflexible story, and an unavoidable structure. But it is precisely this flabbiness in Heaven (the result of its purely opportunist origins) which gives Sirk much more room. Thematically, Heaven is much richer than Obsession; stylistically it is much better integrated (although Obsession, filmed by Russell Metty, contains several striking moments).

When praised, Sirk has tended to attract attention either as a stylist (Sarris, Cahiers), or as a master of the weepie. He is certainly an excellent stylist (having himself been a painter among other things); and he was a master of the weepie––but he was not interested in the weepie. The lack of interest is just as important as the mastery. Both positions (‘stylist’; and ‘master of the weepie’) fail to go deep enough into that curious product which is a Sirk film.

With very few exceptions, all Sirk’s films at Universal were composites, and they must therefore be ‘viewed’ as composites, as multi-layered products. On the one hand, they are the outcome of the demands of the front office at Universal, the desires and phantasies of producers like Ross Hunter, incarnated by actors and actresses like Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. On the other, they are the products of Douglas Sirk, lit and shot by Russell Metty (or Irving Glassberg).

This multi-layered quality, resulting from the composite nature of film production, ties up with the question of genre––in this case the melodrama. To my knowledge, a serious study of the melodrama remains to be written. The very term ‘melodrama’ already indicates a composite of some kind. The general drift of the word is in the direction of emotion and sentiment (or sentimentality). It is a genre in both literature and cinema appealing to a mass audience. The record of Universal and of Ross Hunter in particular is very clear. The attraction for Sirk overlapped, but did not coincide with that of the studio and Hunter. Sirk was attracted by the mass audience, and by the scope which the melodrama gave him for making films about contemporary America. Indeed, as far as he was concerned, the melodrama was the genre which best allowed for comment on the society in which he was living and working––and not just comment, but criticism.

The reviews of Sirk’s theatre work in Germany, particularly during his period at Bremen (1923-29), repeatedly praise his ability to transform and transcend material; and his first big hit in the cinema (Schlussakkord, 1936) was the result of his own transformation of the script (a melodrama). With space, it would be possible to study this constant in Sirk’s work: the capacity to transform material, and the extremely precise historical awareness of the potentiality of a specific genre––whether in Germany or America.

For most of Sirk’s time at Universal, America was basking complacently under President Eisenhower. The society was already disintegrating, but this was not visible on the surface. The complacency of the administration in Washington was shared with enthusiasm by entrepreneurs like Ross Hunter in Hollywood. The society thus promoted the melodrama, which was its own chosen genre. Yet, for Sirk, it was precisely the melodrama which allowed for a critical discourse on this society, and from a historical point of view. It was the only genre able to ponder contemporary America––a capacity for self-analysis inevitably hidden from its most eager promoters. On the surface, Ross Hunter had his Jane Wyman-Rock Hudson ‘weepie’, complacent and complicit. Just beneath the surface, Douglas Sirk had a swingeing attack on petit bourgeois moralism––‘displaced’ not only because of the varying exigencies of the studio, but also through choice.

Sirk has explained at some length his views on the necessary distance a critique of a certain kind of society must be placed at in order to make good cinema (or good theatre, or good literature). His pantheon of references include Euripides, Shakespeare, Calderón, Lope de Vega, Molière, Chekhov. Explicitness is to be avoided––when working in a society like Eisenhowerian America, but not in a society like Weimar Germany, where Sirk staged such plays as Blume’s Im Namen des Volkes! (about Sacco and Vanzetti). In other words, although melodrama was the form presented to him by the studio, it was also the form which he himself chose, given the overall situation.

American bourgeois life

The melodrama was both the genre which was most available at a particular juncture in American history and the genre which best allowed for a critical portrayal of the fossilization of American bourgeoisie.

All That Heaven Allows is set in a small New England town, New England, the starting point of white, WASP America. The place where contemporary America started, and started to go wrong. Yet also at the time (1955) perhaps the area of America least aware of what was really happening in the society as a whole. New England: the home of Thoreau and Emerson. Into All That Heaven Allows Sirk has built he history of the concealed disintegration of the society.

In the film Jane Wyman is a recently-widowed mother of two children, both of whom are of college age. Her dead husband was, apparently, a prosperous member of the local bourgeoisie. They live in a white frame house, with a garden. Rock Hudson is the local gardener (independent businessman, but engaged in manual work). Hudson and his trees are both America’s past and America’s ideals. They are ideals now unattainable––and, when they actually offer themselves in concrete form, are swiftly rejected by Wyman and her bourgeois friends on her behalf. For, since the time when these ideals were established, the society has lost touch with its own past. It has become fossilized, unable to cope even with its own ideology.

It is, therefore, on the contemporary bourgeoisie that Sirk focuses his attention, showing it both in its isolation, and in its breakdowns––when confronted with its own unattainable ideals. Rock Hudson and his world are sketched in with comparative ease: gardening, trees, a beat-up old station wagon, and a free and easy party with check table-cloth, wine, lobsters, singing, dancing and nice friends. Wyman’s world is more complex.

The town is introduced from the church steeple––recalling a scene in Zu Neuen Ufern (1937), where Paramatta, the penal settlement in Australia whither the heroine has been consigned by the British ruling class, is similarly introduced from its church tower (while the sound-track carries the voices of the women prisoners singing in church). The parallel, at least in Sirk’s mind, seems to be there. Nor is the choice of the church steeple by any means haphazard: for the church, in Sirk’s world, is one of the key agents of mystification––in contemporary America, as in a British colony in the century before.

The steeple dominates the town, and from it the camera moves down as the credits appear, across the town to Jane Wyman’s house. In the very first scene Sirk establishes in masterly style two of his basic themes: loneliness and repression (the latter shown by embarrassment). Agnes Moorehead, who later describes herself with the words, ‘I’m Cary’s best friend’, suddenly tell Jane Wyman (Cary) she is too busy to have a planned lunch with her. Jane Wyman then embarrassedly invites Rock Hudson to share the lunch––her desire to escape loneliness tentatively overcoming her mindless class isolation. From then on Hudson tries to draw Wyman out of her bourgeois world and prejudices. We are shown the specific components of this world: house (home), children, friends (so-called), and the country club. By all of these Cary is entrapped.

Primarily by her children, in an active sense. Sirk’s attitude to children (and perhaps to American children in particular?) is a deeply pessimistic one. As he has explained, children are to be seen not as the new generation, but as the imitators of the old, the perpetuators of tradition and repression, and thus both conservative and tragic. Both Jane Wyman’s two children try to hold her in the past, with a wealth of nauseating selfishness and sexual oppression. They openly resent Rock Hudson on class grounds, as an insult to Dad’s memory. Dad is still present in the form of his trophies, which sit like corpses on the fireplace. When Jane Wyman removes them, after she starts her affair with Hudson, the children object vigorously. They fight to keep the home as a mausoleum. They actually want to mummify their mother.

So do her friends. Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), while claiming to provide sympathy and understanding, is basically an agent of repression––although she mediates the oppression of others by leavening it with a modicum of intelligence and ‘sympathy’. Thus, of course, she is more insidious than the blatant Mona Plash (Jacqueline de Witt), the town gossip. (There is also a more complicated division of labour in the repression: Mona’s is more on the sexual front, Sara’s on the class front). Wyman’s insecurity is thus depicted as eminently social. She has no one to whom to turn to check out her condition, since everyone has an ideological stake in keeping her a widow––children, friends, and Harvey, her elderly and tedious suitor.

Much of the film is a slashing assault on pretence, one of Sirk’s favourite themes. It is not the structural core to the film, as it is in, for example, Stützen der Gesellschaft (1935) or All I Desire (1953); but Heaven, along with Imitation of Life (1958) represents Sirk’s most sustained dissection of pretence connected with class, fakery which has accumulated historically and now caked into ideology.

Sirk’s interest in sickness and ailments has already been noted by several critics. There is a long parade of the lame and the blind. And a parallel gallery of doctors. But what has been less stressed is Sirk’s interest in social illness and breakdown, of which individual sickness is only a component, or a reflection. Several of Sirk’s films are examinations of communities or societies unknowingly on the verge of breakdown, and he therefore focuses on moments and locales of collapse: churches, doctor’s consulting rooms, hospitals, bars and parties. Clergymen and doctors are not symbols in Sirk’s films. They are there because they do actually inhabit the interstices of life. Sirk delights in portraying people edging toward crisis, or in crisis, for it is in this condition that they reveal themselves––drinking, praying and in their ‘love life’ (people also reveal themselves, but for the good, in painting, singing and dancing). With breakdown comes the smashing of pretence. At the country club, the prosperous bourgeoisie, attempting to oppress Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, brings itself close to breakdown––Howard Hoffer (Donald Curtis), sufficiently inebriated, makes an awful pass at Cary, bringing on Hudson’s break with the club (but not Wyman’s).

The two parties in Heaven are the two condensations of the alternative worlds. The party given by Hudson’s friends, the Andersons, helps to open up to Cary a vision of the life she might have with him; the country club party only serves to solidify her weakness (and her ‘best friend’ helps to accentuate this). Unable to integrate Hudson into her wretched world, overcome with embarrassment, she decides to drop him––much to the delight of her children.

At this point, Sirk introduces his Thoreau elements, obliquely. Hudson’s condition is made most clear while he is out hunting with a friend, clad in full New England hunting hear––a scene repeated in Written on the Wind, where Hudson also goes hunting, this time with his father, a proletarian Irishman, to shake the world of the millionaire Hadleys out of his system. ‘You’re no good to anyone, and you’re no good to yourself’ his friend tells him. ‘I know’ says Hudson. Likewise, Cary, now suffering from recurrent headaches visits the doctor (Dr Hennessy), who tells her it is nature’s way of protesting. ‘Can’t you give me something?’ she asks. To which comes the Sirkian answer: ‘Do you expect me to give you a prescription for life?’ The doctor then advises her to marry Hudson. The parallel here hardly needs emphasizing: nature in Hudson’s case is the actual environment, the world he is living in; in Wyman’s case it is something still internal, fighting for expression, which has to be revealed to her by her headaches and then by the doctor.

The end reflects the film’s origins in Magnificent Obsession. After an accident (to Hudson), Heaven ends with Wyman tending a prostrate Hudson, just recovering consciousness; in Obsession it is Hudson (a doctor) tending the prostrate Wyman, just recovering consciousness and sight. But whereas in Obsession the camera moves from the sickbed to a desert landscape seen through the window, with the sun rising (?), in Heaven it moves to the picture-window, with snow falling outside, and a doe.

Yet this ending has to be queried, in the light of Sirk’s repeated statements of his antipathy to ‘happy ends’ (an antipathy which emerges from the very structure and thematic of his work). There is much indication that Heaven would have been improved without its ‘happy end’. The themes of disintegration and despair so dear to Sirk would have fitted much better into a gloomy end. There is, therefore, a deep irony built into Heaven. Is Jane Wyman really reconstructed? Has she broken with her past? For sure, the New England town has not come round to sympathise with her position.

Heaven is not a major Sirk film, simply because of the fact that it was not one of his own projects, and was burdened with the legacy of Magnificent Obsession. But it is a representative Sirk. And for this reason a good subject for analysis.

Heaven is a film about apparently marginal issues, which in fact are utterly central to the America of the Eisenhower epoch. Sirk has managed to depict both the concrete and the abstract––both the inhabitants of America, and their ideology and their class relations by showing the space between people, how they meet. The ruling class (attacked right through Sirk’s films from Stützen onwards, and particularly in Written on the Wind) is sustained only by pretence, and therefore has to live by ritual. They are actually cut off from each other. The character of Harvey here is exemplary. Harvey lives by––and inspires––only ritual. He drinks, eats, drives his car, and talks in a ritual. It is for him that Ned (Cary’s son) applies himself to mixing martinis, over which they exchange completely vapid comments (Harvey describing a wonderful doctor he has just found on a trip to Florida). In such a world, things have become as important as people––Dad’s trophies as though they were him, Hudson’s old station wagon as being him, etc.

The finest condensation of ritual and materialism comes at Christmas. And here one must pay homage to Sirk for bringing together in masterly and effortless way the themes of Thoreau and the New England Christmas (via trees). Christmas is the moment of mass mystification, the accentuation of ritual and the obliteration of other people. It is a time of alcohol, and of materialism (the gift). It is also a time of spectacle. Jane Wyman, having announced clearly that getting a TV set would be an acknowledgment of her loneliness, is given a TV by her children––in order to keep her immured in her loneliness. Framed in mistletoe, the set is brought forward to the sound of the salesman’s voice: ‘drama, comedy, all life’s parade at your fingertips.’ The set is not turned on––all it shows is Wyman’s face reflected in the blank screen, framed by the mistletoe. What is so impressive about this sequence is that it is simultaneously visually extraordinarily striking and sociologically, a brilliant resumé of the oppression of the gift––since the TV has been given more in the interests of the givers, than in the interests of the recipient. Furthermore, this gift is placed squarely within the bourgeois family, and at Christmas time (Sirk returns to Christmas, though more elliptically, in Imitation of Life).

Andrew Sarris has rightly praised Sirk’s audacity, and written that ‘the essence of Sirkian cinema is the direct confrontation of all material, however fanciful and improbable.’ This does, however, need to be applied not to merely to Sirk’s visual style (and his musical style, also of great complexity) but to the actual material at hand, and to the social confrontations in his films: the confrontations between classes in Zu Neuen Ufern, between British oppressors and Irish revolutionaries in Captain Lightfoot, between generations and races and classes in Imitation of Life. Sirk’s audacity is indeed visual and musical, but it is also a social audacity––the ability to bring alive a whole society, whether it be New England in the ‘fifties, or Nazi Germany near the end of the war (A Time to Love and a Time to Die); this confrontation of material is, in other words, the presentation of the conflicts and contradictions within the society. All That Heaven Allows, although a film by a German emigrant, is certainly one of the best and most revealing films about America on the verge of its breakdown. 

This article was first published in the magazine Monogram (no.4, London: Monogram Publications, 1972), edited by Thomas Elsaesser, and subsequently included in the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival publication on Douglas Sirk, edited by Jon Halliday and Laura Mulvey, to accompany their retrospective on the German director. Jon Halliday also published a range of interviews with Douglas Sirk in the book Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday (Faber & Faber, 2d, expanded edition, 1997), also available as an e-book.  Sirk on Sirk has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. Special thanks to Jon Halliday and Thomas Elsaesser for their permission to publish this piece, and to Lynda Myles and Laura Mulvey for their kind help.

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