All That Heaven Allows: Breaking the Patriarchy

In All That Heaven Allows (1955, Dir. Douglas Sirk), Douglas Sirk uses melodrama and overt mise-en-scene to criticise the patriarchy of bourgeois society in the 1950s and the expectations of the perfect American family that was the dominant ideology put across by media at the time.

All That Heaven Allows presents an unconventional romance between the widowed bourgeois mother Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and her working class, egalitarian gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson); a romance that puts them directly against the patriarchal ideology of their town in suburban New England where the codes of society are run by the upper-class country club and the image of the patriarchal family unit is fully expected. Their relationship represents a greater criticism by Sirk of this ideology and the use of melodrama is key as an inherently progressive genre in which conflict comes from both family and society. In this case, the dominant ideology causes repression by both family and social circles which creates frustration and pain for our protagonist, pain that is only released by creating her own happiness in an alternative, egalitarian society with Ron. As a quite progressive film, All That Heaven Allows fully explodes the myth of the happy, unproblematic family, exposing “contradictions in the stated social benefits of suburbia” and “the perceived value of community homogeneity and segregation by class, race, age, and ethnicity.”[1]

From the opening, Sirk presents the seemingly idyllic home of Cary and her children, on the surface an image of the ideal American home but, with the missing father, broken. As the film progresses, the children Ned and Kay wish to return to this ideal family image through a marriage to the older Harvey and become angry when Cary wishes to settle instead with the young Ron Kirby and move on from the family home to the old mill, upsetting the ideology of her town and the ideology of the majority audience of the time. In the film “these ideologies are partially expressed through the verisimilitude of narrative space that underscores the film’s structure of oppositions between suburban repressiveness and an alternative way of living.”[2] The unconventional romance is made apparent at the beginning with Ron being present only in the background, isolated in wide shots and just doing his garden work, as Cary and Sara talk about the club and Harvey. The home is of the time but, typical of melodrama, Sirk uses mise en scene for effect and creates a place of doubt and mistrust through expressionistic low key high contrast lighting. However, from their first encounter, Cary is given a silver tipped spruce branch by Ron, a symbol of nature and beauty that embodies the positive qualities of Ron and the opposing ideology he lives by; against the patriarchal and both class and family-focused society. The branch also brings an element of Ron’s home to Cary’s, his presented as a practical utopia surrounded by forests, hills, and nature. His “alternative idyllic natural world is cast as a nonexploitative, simple commodity-producing Utopia peopled with charming petit-bourgeois artisans wringing their means of life from land, sea, and air.”[3]  Sirk puts an idealistic light on Rons opposing ideology from his home being bathed in light and color from organic natural sources rather than the almost artificiality of Cary’s household.

The children themselves act as physical embodiments of the dominant ideology of the time, representing and motivating it to Cary, almost acting like her conscious that is keeping her back from moving on to a happier, less conventional life with Ron; Kays constant intellect tries to give everything a rational reasoning while Ned’s intimidation of his mother stimulates her self-doubt and fear of taking that leap with Ron. Jane Wyman’s performance as Cary creates a character clearly trapped in the world of the patriarchal bourgeois and the agreed ideology of 1950s America; Her forced laughter and smiles are a clear expectation of the customs of the bourgeois. At the club, many of the other guests including the gossiping Mona act as a criticism of this bourgeois and the ideology of the time with their passive aggressive attitude through the apparent smiles and kindness. This s exemplified as Cary dances with Howard and Sirk tracks the viewer from a comfortable wide shot to a tighter mid shot to reveal his sexual intent for her behind the apparent friendly manner. He takes her out from the warm oranges of the dance room to the steely blue cold of the outside, highlighting Cary’s vulnerability at that moment and the again masked nature of his desires and ins; reflecting a wider criticism of the expectations of kindness and manners in the 50s ideology. As the night ends, Sirk cuts between the youthful Cary kissing her boyfriend and the lone Cary to highlight her isolation and the expectations of the audience and the people within the film who share the same ideology that dictates Cary is paste her prime and too old to find passionate true love again following the death of her husband and must marry an acceptable but dull peer like Harvey. This moment also shows the patriarchy of the bourgeoisie’s ideology that the daughter must give up her intelligence for a moment to have her romantic kiss fulfilled; she is expected to be a wife and mother, not a scholar. We return to this idea of Cary not being the conventional romantic lead according to bourgeois ideology with the character of Mary-Anne being a more fitting partner for Ron according to the ideology of both the majority audience and Cary herself, creating doubt in her mind whether she and Ron can be together as shown in the romantic two-shot of the Ron and Mary-Anne as Cary looks on as much a spectator as the audience of what would be a more ideologically appropriate love story.

Sirk uses overt metaphors to put across the stability of Ron and Cary’s relationship and, hand in hand, his opposing ideology; following Klinger’s progressive film theory that the ideological positioning of the film is made evident “by stylistic self-consciousness and formal excess.”[4]  The old mill and the Wedgewood teapot are an example of this, both old and decrepit at the start, they are broken like Cary herself as the film opens but by as the film progresses the mill becomes brighter and beautiful, a home for the couple to live in away from the people and ideology of the bourgeois suburbia. As for the teapot, Ron fixes it like he fixes Cary, putting all the pieces back together and giving her the happiness she seeks not in the traditional family unit but in a passionate yet controversial romance. However, midway through the film when their romance is first threatened by the dominant ideology of Cary’s friends and family, she accidentally breaks the teapot into pieces again, a blatant symbol to the audience of their love falling apart as a result of the dominant 50s ideology and society expectations; fulfilling Sirks personal criticism of it and the requirements of the melodrama genre. Reflective surfaces are frequently used in the film to isolate Cary and show her inner turmoil; the self-reflexive nature of the mirror showing an awareness by Sirk of the ideological flaws in the film being true in the real world too – criticising the values and hypocrisy of 1950 bourgeois’ ideology. Another overt image in the film is that of the television, an object that opposes Cary and Ron’s counter-culture ideology of living in peace with nature and an object that embodies the ideological image of the perfect American family and its patriarchal nature; the salesperson saying with a patronising tone that it ‘gives woman something to do with their time’. Cary frequently rejects the television as an overt gesture of her rejection of the dominant ideology which focuses on customs and family. Later in the film, after ending things with Ron to protect her family’s honour and image, she is given a television as a gift but instead both her and us see it as a symbol of ideological oppression; the lingering shot of her isolated in the reflection of the television presenting the bourgeois’ entrapment of Cary in a prison of customs. Sirk even goes as far as to directly address the audience with his strong criticism of the 50s ideology, having Cary read directly from the novel ‘Walden and other writings’ by Henry David Thoreau with a quote that criticises the ideology of peoples need to succeed and please others. This book seems to be part of what Ron, Mitch, and Alida have built their own lives and ideologies on, living in the moment and being free from society’s judgment and hypocrisy.

Sirk continues to idealize the ideologically different life of Ron that he is bringing Cary into with the exaggerated lighting of the cabin bathing the couple in a heavenly glow of Teale and orange –  two highly complementary colors that attract the eye and speak to Sirk’s ideological leaning. Furthermore, when silhouetted in the icy window, the shift to low key lighting and deep shadow indicates their love in the beauty of the image but also the uncertainty of the future; the threat to their relationship by the ideological beliefs of the town and Cary’s children. When they go to the club for the first time together, Sirk uses a long shot that tracks between different people gossiping to highlight the nosey and judgemental nature of the bourgeois and criticise both them and their ideology. When Howard tries to take advantage of Cary, Sirk returns to the reflection motif with Ron shown in the mirror and Cary no longer isolated in the reflection; highlighting the safety and power Ron and his counter-ideology brings. However, the consequences of Carys decision to join Ron is felt by her children who suffer embarrassment and persecution by the town and subsequently try to oppress their mother with the towns dominant ideology of bourgeois values. This is made evident as Kay cries to her mother in her room bathed with a spectrum of light reflecting the complex array of emotions running through Cary; does she choose the towns ideology and her family or Ron’s ideology and her own happiness. Ned too argues with Cary and tries to oppress her with the patriarchal nature of the dominant ideology, telling her that she should honor their deceased father and not be with Ron; not be allowed to enjoy her own life. Putting her children’s wishes first, Cary goes to buy Christmas trees, a symbol of family and bourgeois values, but runs into Ron at the market who quickly distracts her from both the trees and what they represent as the salesperson goes out of focus in the background and his voice is overpowered by the melodramatic music; a convention of the genre literally opposing and criticising the real world ideology.

By choosing the ideology of the bourgeois, Cary suffers from intense headaches diagnosed by the doctor as a sign of repression; Sirk’s criticism of the ideology is so great that he shows it literally causing physical ailment. When she finally does go to Ron after his accident, she is framed in her home behind a mesh wall as a clear indication of the bourgeois prison ideology has created for her. However, by running off frame we see that she is finally breaking free of this prison and joining Ron in happiness within the egalitarian society his ideology can provide. The film ends panning up from Ron and Cary, the extent of his injuries left ambiguous, to the window of the mill showing the snow and a deer in an image of nature that reflects the egalitarian society of Ron’s ideology. While we are aware that Cary has now chosen Ron and his counter-ideology over the patriarchal ideology of her whole life, the obstacles facing them still exist and their happiness will still be targeted for going against the dominant ideology. Not all conflicts can be solved as an aspect of both melodrama and the progressive film, while there is “a final state of equilibrium – progressive films end in such a way as to “refuse” closure.”[5]

The genre of melodrama lends itself to a strong ideology, using overt visual metaphors and a plot that intends to reveal the cracks in both family and society. Looking at Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, it carries a strong criticism of the 1950s dominant ideology regarding the importance of patriarchy and the perfect nuclear family image.


[1] Peter Lehman, “Close Viewing: An Anthology of New Film Criticism,” (University Press of Florida, 1990).

[2] Peter Lehman, “Close Viewing: An Anthology of New Film Criticism.”

[3] Salomé Aguilera Skvirksy. “The Price of Heaven: Remaking Politics in all that Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Far from Heaven.” Cinema Journal 47, no. 3 (Spring, 2008): 90 – 121.

[4] Barbara Klinger, “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Genre”

[5] Barbara Klinger, “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Genre”

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