The year was 1955. Eisenhower was president of the United States. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born. Bill Haley and His Comets were flying high on both sides of the Atlantic with their hit ‘Rock Around The Clock’, just before the global phenomenon that was Elvis Presley really took hold. It was also the year that the civil rights movement began to take off in the USA, notably including the groundbreaking Rosa Parks bus incident.
Cinema-goers were able to escape to enjoy a range of musical hits including Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, whilst the highest-grossing film at the box office was a travel documentary called Cinerama Holiday. Jane Wyman, one of the top 10 highest-grossing film stars of the previous year, was cast in Douglas Sirk’s latest Technicolor romance ‘All That Heaven Allows’. She would be playing opposite Rock Hudson, two years before he’d be at the top of the very same list.
Wyman portrays affluent widow Cary Scott, a woman with two college-aged children and no shortage of men interested in her affections, all of the rich, well-to-do, country club variety. Hudson portrays a much more grounded gardener by the name of Ron Kirby, a man of strong morals and much more appealing looks. Her attraction is palpable, despite being eight years his senior and several rungs higher on the social ladder. As their romance blossoms, so grows the disapproval of their relationship amongst their friends and peers.
It wasn’t the first time Sirk had used them together. 1954’s ‘Magnificent Obsession’ also featured Wyman as a mourning widow and a spoiled playboy played by Hudson accused of contributing to his death. Wyman may have been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film, but it is ‘All That Heaven Knows’ that has stood the test of time critically. Indeed, The Guardian placed it at 11th on a list of the greatest romantic films of all time in a critics’ poll released in 2010.
It is not a particularly intellectual film by modern standards, but within the genre and against other films of the same era, there is an emotional punch and considered social commentary running throughout that lifts it above the mire. Wyman may be older, but she is certainly attractive. Sirk dares to question why she shouldn’t be allowed to have an interest in the younger man in her life. Who wouldn’t? This is Rock Hudson after all. The men vying for her attention are all at least ten years her senior. Indeed, Conrad Nagel, whose Harvey eventually receives a well-deserved punch from Hudson’s Ron, is twenty years older than Wyman. That no character questions this is a sad reflection on the state of society in 1955, though it is ten years better than the romance sold to audiences in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina just one year earlier. Sadly, it’s a situation still prevalent in Hollywood some sixty years later.
For all of Rock Hudson’s impressive physicality and charming smile, it is Wyman that wipes the floor with the rest of the cast. Her performance is nuanced and brought to life perfectly by some wonderful mise en scène from Sirk. This is a woman trapped by both society and her own fear of being seen to be selfish. She continuously puts her children first, because that is what is expected of her. The heartbreaking moment when she finally informs her spoiled son Ned (William Reynolds) that she has left her man behind is as frustrating for the viewer as it is for her, with Wyman connecting with us the deflation as her son hangs up on her without a second thought.
Sharp-eared Disney fans may also note an uncredited speaking role for Eleanor Audley, who was both the evil stepmother in Cinderella (1950) and the Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959). She plays a disapproving party-goer in Act 2.
This may not be the high point in the careers of either of its stars, nor that of the director, but it’s worth seeking out nonetheless. Beautifully shot and with a purpose behind its potentially saccharine plot, it offers the chance to enjoy a romance that has slipped under the radar due simply to the passing of time rather than an evident lack of quality.