The name Douglas Sirk has become associated with the highly stylized American melodramas of the 1950s: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959) — all distinguished by their saturated color palette, theatrical mise-en-scene, and strained romantic plots. His films were often disparaged as “women’s weepies” and were considered closer to “trash” than “art”(Mulvey). However, Sirk was keenly aware of the reputation his work had gained; it contended with the high-art leanings of his early life. Sirk’s career as director of Hollywood melodramas was the result of a dedication to his career that necessitated reincarnation. Before donning the pseudonym of “Douglas Sirk,” the filmmaker was a left-leaning theater director in Hamburg, Germany known as Hans Detlef Sierck. He was married to a Jewish woman and established his career by directing Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera — a critique of capitalism and its violent ramifications. Sirk’s politics and personal life forced him to evade Germany as the Nazi regime came to power, leading him to the United States. Although Sirk’s later films were initially deemed frivolous, a consideration of his films’ subtext — or even text — reveals essential themes of human desire, cruelty, and liberation that bear weight both within and without the context of Sirk’s biography.
In order to sustain himself as a film director in the United States, Sirk had to surrender to the popular tastes of American studios. Sirk was already accustomed to directing comedies under strict guidelines of the Nazi-run UFA — Germany’s major production company — and used his experience to land multi-picture deals at Columbia and Universal Pictures. Although no longer living under the pressure of the Nazi regime, Sirk’s creative career continued to be hemmed in by studio expectations. The films he directed had to adhere to certain Hollywood conventions to guarantee box-office success and was often denied “final cut.” Throughout and after his profitable career, he continued to lament the infringement of his creative vision on behalf of the studios — he was never satisfied with a picture. However, Sirk was able to master a delicate balance of popular “low-brow” tastes and relatively radical themes that reveal their contemporary value and timely poignancy; his film All That Heaven Allows stands as a paragon of this.
All That Heaven Allows is a film about keeping up appearances. It follows Cary, a widow living in suburban “country club” society, as she falls in love with her gardener, Ron. To the consternation of her friends and adult children, Cary attempts to pursue the romance despite their differences in class. Cary risks ridicule and a tarnished reputation but is recalcitrant to the idea of assimilating into a social expectation that leaves her dissatisfied — marrying an older “country-club” gentleman or remaining a widow. Early in the film, a friend attempts to convince Cary to join her for dinner at the country club, she responds by saying she isn’t a “club woman.” However, she questions her own statement: “but sometimes I wonder.” This becomes her central conflict: instinct vs. construct. Cary’s conundrum seems to reflect Sirk’s personal and professional ones directly. The societal tension of a marriage between classes carries resonance with the tensions set on Sirk’s marriage to a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany. Just as Cary and Ron escape the surveilled landscape of a suburban neighborhood to consummate their love, Sirk and his wife, Lydia, only spoke openly in a sanctum behind his theater — safe from being overheard (Sirk). Furthermore, Sirk’s passion for more radical art forms was compromised by his financial and professional needs. In the film, Cary often voices her concerns about financial sustainability as an excuse for not marrying Roy. However, the film’s themes of surveillance and assimilation reach beyond these particular parallels. Sirk’s decision to cast Rock Hudson, a closeted gay actor, as the gardener imbues the film with a further layer of significance.
Sirk (a leftist with a Jewish wife) and Hudson (a gay man) have made a film about societal ridicule of unconventional lifestyles and relationships under the guise of a prim and proper Hollywood melodrama. Both of their identities would have gotten them imprisoned or killed under the Nazi regime. Although Sirk and Hudson never addressed this coincidence publicly, it surely couldn’t have evaded them. Many scenes in the film instantly read as a double-entendre. While Cary considers whether to introduce Roy to her country-club friends, Roy speaks about how one becomes a man once he learns to make his own decisions. Cary asks: “and you want me to be a man?” to which Roy replies: “only in the one sense”– a smirk plastered on his face. Later on, when Cary announces to her adult son that she will marry Roy and sell the house, he speaks of her obligation to his late father’s memory, of tradition, and of “going against everything father stood for.” Cary’s daughter also voices concerns about becoming a social outcast due to her mother’s relationship. Once again, the ridicule Cary receives from her immediate family is eerily similar to the tensions around queer or German-Jewish relationships of the time (of course, with lesser consequences). Furthermore, Cary’s children also reveal the hypocrisy of their dissuasion. When Cary’s daughter returns home from college for Christmas, she reveals she is engaged and wants her mother to celebrate. During the same holiday, Cary’s son declares he will sell the house his father bought since it’s economically beneficial to do so–the talk of honor and tradition is off the table. Marriage and autonomy are only permitted if adhering to the logic of societal convention and profitability. Similarly, Sirk’s exploration of these themes is only permitted if adhering to societal convention and profitability.
But this is Sirk’s magnificent achievement. In a time where his only means of sustaining a creative career was through assimilation, he turned to covert — yet legible — means of critique to keep his work from succumbing to escapism or triviality. He pleases the studio and, with considerable compromise, himself. The film ends with Cary rushing to Roy’s secluded mill where they are free to love, unsurveilled. Roy has had an accident and Cary decides to stay with him during his recovery and forever after. The “happy ending” prescribed by the studio is fulfilled, yet is reconsidered through context and further readings. Cary and Roy can get married and live together, but at the cost of isolation. As scholar Laura Mulvey notes, “its “happiness” is twisted with more than a touch of Sirkian irony.”
Mulvey, Laura. “All That Heaven Allows: An Articulate Screen.” The Criterion Collection, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/96-all-that-heaven-allows-an-articulate-screen.