Christmas Movies: All That Heaven Allows

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Douglas Sirk’s stylized melodrama, “All That Heaven Allows,” is set in Stonington, Connecticut, a seemingly perfect town to live in, and an ideal setting to have a family.  

The opening overhead shot reveals a beautiful New England town with a nice church, white houses, and tall trees. Carey Scott (Jane Wyman), the film’s protagonist, is a middle-aged widow, living comfortably with her two children. She is a quiet and reserved woman who has come to believe that loneliness is her fate. 

Director Sirk uses a bouquet of flowers to convey her frail beauty and mental state.
Carey falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a tall, sturdy man who’s younger than her.  (Kirby is a popular name of many heroes of war movies and Westerns.)  A gardener, thus working with his hands, Ron is not uneducated; in fact, he’s a college graduate who plays the piano. However, straightforward and simple, he lacks the superficial polish and sophistication of Carey’s other friends.
The film stresses not so much the class conflict as the age difference between Carey (she is older by a decade) and Ron and their different lifestyles. Ron is a masculine but sensitive man, a polite gentleman with a tough exterior but soft interior. Considerate, he makes sure that Carey wears “a warm coat and boots,” because “it’ll be cold by the time we get back.” An outdoor man, Ron is at one with Nature, living outside of town in a greenhouse barn where he grows trees. He embodies the ideal of Thoreau and Emerson, though, as one of his friends says, “he’s never read Walden, he just lives it.” There is no need for Ron to learn from the books; he practices what comes as natural and spontaneous to him.
Explicit comparisons are drawn between Carey’s and Ron’s set of friends.  Carey is surrounded with professional and pretentious friends, stuffy types who lack the commonsensical knowledge of how to lead happy lives. By contrast, Ron’s friends are free-spirited bohemians. His best friend, Mick Anderson (Charles Drake), also runs a tree nursery. Mick used to work for an advertisement agency in the City (New York), but resented the constant pressure of “the ulcer circuit,” opting instead for a simpler life in the country. Ron served as a role model for Mick once he escaped from the Big City and its anxieties. Mick’s wife, Alita (Virginia Grey), is also a fun-loving woman.
Two vastly different parties are compared: one given by Carey’s friends, the other by Ron’s.  Carey’s friends live by a rigid etiquette: Sara (Agnes Moorehead) borrows a set of dishes from Carey because she does not have the “right” china. At the country club, people are dressed elegantly; at the Andersons, they wear casual clothes. Carey’s friends pretend to be sophisticated but they lack finesse. They anxiously wait for Carey and Ron to show up; Ron is their prey, an object to be ridiculed. Mona, the town’s gossip, remarks upon seeing Carey: “There’s nothing like red for attracting attention. I suppose that’s why so few widows wear it. They’d have to be careful.” With all their formal schooling, Carey’s friends are vulgar. At the Andersons’ everything is improvised: The table, constructed from planks, is covered by a checkered tablecloth.
As pointed out, the two sets of people use different drinks. Carey’s son is careful in preparing “the Scott special,” Martinis. By contrast, the ingredients for “the Anderson special,” consist of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Spontaneity, informality, and improvisation mark the behavior of Ron’s friends. When Carey first visits the Anderson, Thoreau’s Walden is placed on the table. Opening the book, she comes across a passage in which he describes “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” a perfect summation of her life. She continues to read about “different drummers,” subconsciously (at this point) concurring with the author’s query, “Why should we live in such frantic haste to succeed”
Ron is juxtaposed with three men: Howard, Harvey, and Ned. Howard is just a sexist crass, making a rude pass on Carey. Harvey, Carey’s companion, is an elderly gentleman with no sex appeal. Ron, the Nature boy, uses not a bottle opener, but his teeth. Unlike Carey’s friends, who are other-directed, to use Riseman’s terminology, Ron and his friends are inner-directed, individuals whose “security comes from inside himself, and no one can take it away from them.”
Sirk also juxtaposes the old mill, which Ron renovates for Carey, with her own house. Carey lives in a self-imposed prison, a cage. She is often seen behind closed doors and shut windows, withdrawn from the outside reality. Framed from the outside, Carey is looking back, oriented toward the past.
By contrast, Ron is often filmed standing in front of windows, looking outside with a view of miles and miles ahead; he is future-oriented. Reversing gender-related conventions, it is Ron who approaches the subject of marriage.
Ron deviates from other normative prescriptions of “masculinity,” with his concern for aesthetics, a typically “feminine” pursuit in American culture. Ron instructs Carey to defy social conventions, because, in the final account, every person should be his own master. Telling her how Mick has learned to make decisions for himself, Carey asks: “You want me to be a man” “Only in that one way,” Ron replies, demonstrating a less prejudiced and rigid view of appropriate behaviors for men and for women.  Making decisions is considered to be another typically male activity; it is clear that in her first marriage Carey made no decisions, by choice or lack of.  
The Wedgewood pitcher symbolizes the various phases of Carey and Ron’s romance. When they first meet, Carey finds the pitcher’s pieces on the barn’s floor and Ron glues them together. But later, when she leaves him under pressures to conform, she knocks the pitcher to the ground and it breaks again. Everyone objects to Carey’s marriage with Ron, though for a variety of reasons. First, there is the issue of class difference. The idea of marrying her gardener is appalling to Sara, Carey’s supposedly intimate friend. “A gardener!” she says, “Why doesn’t he get himself a money-making occupation”
Carey’s two children are also against it. Kay feels “he won’t fit in,” and Ned is in favor of marrying someone like his father. “There’s a certain sense of tradition,” Ned says, “Ron’s against everything father stood for.” Disliking his mother’s red dress, Ned charges mercilessly that it’s Ron’s “handsome set of muscles” that attracts her to him. Under tremendous pressure to “conform,” from just about everyone, she gives in.
Carey’s children are insensitive hypocrites; ironically, though, Kay’s profession is social work. Locked in her room after a dispassionate evening with Harvey, the camera switches from the lonely Carey to Kay’s first kiss with her boyfriend. Kay misquotes Freud when she tells her mother, “after a certain age, sex become incongruous.” Moreover, they leave her alone on Christmas.
Later, they buy her a television set, a window to the outside world, as the salesman puts it: TV will bring “drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips.” But the TV set indicates isolation (not having to go outside) and self-withdrawal rather than a facilitator of culture. Sirk reverses the conventions of family melodramas in several ways. First, he shows a bourgeois family in which the children oppress their mother rather than the other way around. And second, he uses the TV set as an artificial substitute, of real romances and affairs.
Subconsciously, Carey knows she has made a mistake and she begins experiencing terrible headaches. The doctor, a benevolent figure who functions as a psychologist rather than a physician, tells her: “Headaches are nature’s way of making a protest.” Carey’s headaches are an individualistic reaction to the town’s social ills: rigidity, oppression, and hypocrisy. Operating as a social worker, he opens her eyes. “You’re punishing yourself,” he says, “Do you expect me to give you a prescription to cure life” “Forget for a moment I’m a doctor,” he asks her, “and let me give you some advice as a friend: ‘Marry him!'” (The doctor in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is also asked to forget he is a doctor in order to see the problem more clearly).
Melodramatic devices take care of the rest of the narrative. At the end, realizing her error, Carey admits, “I let others make my decisions,” indicating she has internalized effectively Ron’s philosophy of life.