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DVD SAVANT

All That Heaven Allows
&
Written on the Wind


All That Heaven Allows
Criterion
1955 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 89m.
Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorhead, Gloria Talbott
Cinematography Russell Metty
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen
Film Editor Frank Gross
Original Music Frank Skinner
Writing credits Peg Fenwick from a story by Edna L. Lee & Harry Lee
Produced by Ross Hunter
Directed by Douglas Sirk

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Douglas Sirk is a good director who made melodramatic movies, the best of which transcended their genre. He did a whole string of them for Universal International in the 1950s, and they're certainly some of the best product from that studio at that time. Never as 'hip' with American cinema types as he was lauded by Europeans, Sirk made glossy movies for producers Ross Hunter and Al Zugsmith, that nowadays play like soap operas loaded with sex, color, and a kind of 'High Hollywood' style that never quite becomes high camp. Fake and honest at the same time, Sirk's films are artificial constructions filled with powerful real emotions. He's an original, a must-see to understand the woman-oriented '50s, not to mention Doris Day films and latter day Pedro Almodóvar movies.

Synopsis:

Widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is pursued by retirement-age men but finds herself attracted to her gardener, the relative youngster Ron (Rock Hudson), who enchants her with his simplicity and disdain for her petty associates. A geezer offers her 'companionship' while a younger lothario tries to push her into the sack, but Cary holds out for her Ron, when the nature man starts making a perfect home for the two of them in an abandoned mill. She can ignore the disapproval of her snooty friends, but is shocked when her own grown children throw tantrums at the thought of her remarrying against their wishes. She impulsively calls off her engagement, a decision she soon begins to regret...

In order to understand All That Heaven Allows, one has to understand the 'women's magazine' ethos of the '50s from which these high-powered soap operas sprang. Just like the poster for this film, the magazines abounded with fantasy fiction about temptation and hot thoughts for, well, housewives who were presumably starving for excitement, but wanted their fantasies tempered with 'good taste.'

There's not a hint of economic insecurity or anything else reminiscent of reality to detract from the hyper-focus on Cary's emotional world. Jane Wyman is the perfect identification model for older women who find themselves alone, whether widowed or just bored of their (also assumed to be) inattentive husbands. She's mature, but also beautiful, desirable, unspoiled, the product of a totally secure society. The Eisenhower consumer success story has also apparently resulted in a new generation of uniformly selfish and class-conscious children, another given that the '50s housewife could relate to.

Naturally, Cary tries to play it straight but all the forces of family and country club combine to try to bring her down ... and the story is her progress through passion, confusion, and doubt to her final triumph.

At first glance this might seem an empty exercise, but Douglas Sirk (and the lush production provided by Ross Hunter) pack the story with visual and thematic power. When intolerable daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott of I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll) goes apoplectic over the idea of Mom marrying a (gasp) gardener, Sirk somehow bathes her in wild green and red lights that come from some weird universe of emotion, as opposed to the real room she's in. Cary's son cries that the problem has 'put a screen between them' and sure enough a real screen blocks out our view of his frantic face. Here it's the younger generation that harbors twisted notions of sex, with Kay explaining things 'psychologically' to her boyfriend, and telling Ma to her face that 'relations, when you get to be a certain age, are inappropriate.'

The Rock Hudson character is a real fantasy. He's ... perfect. Sirk surrounds him with Walden Pond imagery: the mill pond, the trees, his 'honest' friends. Ron's no pickup, he's Henry David Thoreau with a dreamboat profile and maple syrup coursing through his veins. Naturally, he bears no resemblance to any man our '50s housewives were likely to meet - this guy is sweet and sober, never flies off the handle, is incredibly sure of himself: he has all the attributes the average wife wishes had married!

All the soap contrivances are there - misunderstandings, bitter ironies, and even a wild accident occurring at an emotional highpoint. It results in one of those 'movie' injuries, the kind where you get to lay on your own couch in front the fire and look as handsome as hell, while supposedly near death.

With a real Bambi showing up to literally give mother nature's blessing to Cary and Ron's relationship, you'd think All That Heaven Allows would be a total hoot, but it's not. All stories are artificial and no characters are breathing human beings, but Sirk and Wyman pitch their emotions perfectly, to match the emotions of their viewing audience ... the feelings here are true in the sense that the couple never seem phony, even when the entire movie around them is so ... artificial. Being alone is no joke, it's a universal problem. And class snobbery is something we all can relate to. The final kicker is the loveless abuse of Cary's children. After ruining her chances of being with the man she loves, they bring her a television as compensation. The sight of Jane Wyman staring into the black tube of the teevee like it was an electronic grave is chilling, one of the more powerful images of '50s movies.


Written on the Wind
Criterion
1956 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 99m.
Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone
Cinematography Russell Metty
Art Direction Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Film Editor Russell F. Schoengarth
Original Music Frank Skinner and Victor Young
Writing credits George Zuckerman from the novel by Robert Wilder
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by Douglas Sirk

This, Sirk's followup, expands the stakes to a full-blown Dallas-like sex rectangle among the oil wells. It's forceful, but neither as compelling nor as perfectly-produced as Heaven: the ol' Universal economy shows, and although Al Zugsmith lays on some lush sets, the haunts of the ultra-rich were always a bit too cold to care about.

What Written on the Wind does display is all the Sex that Hollywood Allows, circa 1956. With fast cars, mad alcoholics, and secretaries shanghaied for romantic plane trips across the country, this is pure soap to which later scandalous wannabes can trace their roots.

Synopsis:

The Hadley oil clan (not to be confused with the Hadley Fruit clan of Cabazon, California, with the dinosaur statues) is a dying race. Papa Jasper (Robert Keith) is on his last legs, daughter Marylee is a nymphomaniac degrading herself for want of 'adopted' semi-son Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), and heir Kyle (Robert Stack) is a drunken womanizer who spends the family's millions on erratic high living and other irresponsibilities. Always trying to out-man Mitch, the masculine-challenged Kyle grabs the girl Mitch has just fallen in love with and marries her after a whirlwind courtship. The lucky instant millionairess is the gorgeous but level-headed Lucy (Lauren Bacall), who soon finds that her husband sleeps with guns and has a totally worthless reputation back home. The off-balance triangle returns to Hadley (Texas? California?) to fester, as Kyle goes back to his drinking ways, Marylee does everything but throw herself naked at Mitch, and Lucy frets. Then Kyle, driven insane by the news that he may be impotent, gets the mistaken idea that Lucy has been sleeping with his best friend and surrogate brother.

It's all about sex, folks. Although the dialogue pussyfoots around, unable to speak words like 'impotent' (...there's a certain weakness...) or make direct references to having sex, it's what's on everyone's mind, from Rock Hudson's very first peek at Lauren Bacall's ankle. The real threat to the production code is Dorothy Malone, who smoulders in lowcut gowns and is caught grabbing quickies with two local yahoos to quench her thirst for the Rock. Her best line: "I'm filthy." For frantic sex she substitutes dancing - she dances a fierce and tawdry mambo that throws her anatomy around more provocatively than Red Hot Riding Hood. Sirk has Marylee dance several times in the movie to express the frenetic tension she's injected into the family ... the cutting and crosscutting between her gyrations and her father's heart attack is particularly powerful. The final image of her alone, figuratively having sex with a model of an oil well at her father's desk, is a killer, and was featured on the cover of a book on Sirk (Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday, 1972 Viking, NY) that the feminist critical studies majors at UCLA loved.

Just fresh enough to not be predictable, the story basically shows the spoiled rotten Kyle (perfectly played by a dissipate Robert Stack, his finest hour) ripping up the countryside with his garish yellow sports car, starting fights and being obnoxious, and in general trying all too hard to work up enough testosterone to compete with Rock Hudson. Another sexually suggestive scene has Kyle, traumatized by news of his suspected impotence, storm out of a cafe. He's confronted outside with a little boy rocking away on the grocery-store electric hobby horse. More money than he can spend, and even this little kid has more sexual vitality!

The tensions all come to a nice boil, and Written on the Wind naturally ends up with shots fired, the miscarriage of the baby whose paternity Kyle doubts, and a day in the courtroom where all the Hadley underwear can be washed in public. European critics were said to prefer this exposé of American decadence to George Stevens' Giant.

Rock is actually better than he was in Heaven, with a more human character to play. Lauren is magnetic on screen, albeit perhaps a bit worn from her years of drinking with Bogie.

These Universal productions make good use of every square inch of the back lot, and all the studio players on the payroll: Grant Williams (The Incredible Shrinking Man) plays a randy gas pump boy who must have gotten Zugsmith's attention with this part; there's also Cynthia Patrick (The Mole People), Leigh Snowden (Kiss Me Deadly, The Creature Walks Among Us), Nestor Paiva (The Creature from the Black Lagoon), David Janssen (Cult of the Cobra), and Gia Scala (The Guns of Navarone) to look for among the movie's combined casts.


Criterion has done a handsome job on these two pictures. The quality of the transfers is superb - 16:9 enhanced, and popping with their original Technicolored hues. Heaven has an hour of great Sirk interview footage for a 1979 BBC show; he's been dead for a long time and this is probably the only opportunity you're likely to get to see him speak. It also includes a text essay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, heaps of images and stills, the trailer, and liner notes by Laura Mulvey. Written has an annotated filmography slyly entitled The Melodrama Archive, another Mulvey essay, and the trailers for both films.

These are two of Sirk's best - Savant's favorite for quality trash is still his Tarnished Angels, but Criterion has thankfully spared us from the horror of Magnificent Obsession, a film whose underlying themes were just too spooky-conservative for Savant, even in film school. I find it tough to believe anyone (even John Brahm, who did it in the thirties along with Imitation of Life, which Sirk also remade) could make that story work!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
All That Heaven Allows rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Video interview with director, Text essays by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Laura Mulvey, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 23, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Written on the Wind rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The Melodrama Archive, stills and text, trailers, essay by Laura Mulvey
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 23, 2001


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