‘All That Heaven Allows’ or — The Vital Importance of Having Your Shrubbery Pruned?

Colin Edwards
4 min readMar 23, 2023

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a wealthy, upper-class widow, mother of two children on the cusp of adulthood and who would now like her neglected garden to be given a good seeing to. Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) is the young, local… tree guy?… who would love nothing more than to tend to Cary’s foliage and she, in return, would very much like to watch his tree grow to its full extent so…

Okay, look — I’m going to stop there as otherwise the sexual innuendos will just keep com… I mean, increasing as ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) is a film that functions and vibrates almost entirely in the realm of the loins (Oedipus is mentioned within the first ten minutes so we know exactly where this film’s mind is at) with every single line of dialogue having some form of sexual weight pressing, dripping or sprouting out of it. The only sentence that didn’t seem to have any erotic thrust behind it was “Come on in — we’ll have a clambake” and even that still sounded filthy as hell.

But that’s okay because ‘All That Heaven Allows’ is all about sex, specifically hidden and/or forbidden sex (this film can be read on so many levels) and especially the right to sexual gratification for middle-aged women. It’s stimulating and exciting stuff and I had no idea I could be so captivated by whether or not Jane Wyman was going to get her leg-over or not.

Not surprisingly Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty portray all this repressed, churning lusting through a colour scheme so intense it’s blatantly unrealistic, but this unrealism plays an extremely important function because we’re always left wondering if what Cary is “seeing” in Kirby is accurate or not. After all, he claims to live a simple existence out in the woods in a shack yet to us (and Cary) he looks like he’s just escaped from an exclusive men’s clothing catalogue and his hut is so expansively opulent it could’ve been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (if this is Walden it’s in the International Style). Yet is this sense of “reality” objective or are we only seeing what Cary wants to see? After all, her friends are all warning her off the dude so is this love blindness? So this heightened “reality” is constantly keeping us on our toes as we’re never quite sure if Kirby is a decent guy, a feckless drop-out proto-hippy or the rampant neighbourhood stud.

Visually the film is overwhelming with an insane amount of information bombarding the viewer yet all executed with a tender grace that’s as emotionally impactful as anything in the narrative: colours inform sexual states; camera moves shift psychological perspectives whilst the set design amplifies emotional reactions. There’s a remarkable example of this when Cary rejects Kirby’s amorous proposal leaving a shocked Hudson framed against a wintry window, his mind suddenly frozen to such an extent shards of ice shoot out from the inside of his head in horizontal and vertical directions.

Or how about the moment when a long desired kiss finally happens and we witness it as two silhouettes colliding in Technicolor? It’s deliriously magical stuff.

Although my favourite shot might be when Hudson sees a drunken former suitor of Wyman’s grappling for an unwanted kiss from her at a party so Hudson leans in, filling the entire screen with his presence, and it is with the sheer force of his size, his unstoppable movement, that he pushes this idiot back down into his seat with the simple muttering of “Maybe you’d better stay right where you are”. It’s fantastic and the way the camera follows (conspires with?) his movement is bristling with as much controlled power as Hudson himself. No wonder she wants this man!

And there’s so much else going on here — the exploding and satirising of small town conventions, the dangers of conformity, the insidious nature of class snobbery, the fact that television was becoming a surrogate for human intimacy within the American home — that I could gush about it for hours, and I haven’t even mentioned Sirk’s transitions, fades, dissolves and compositions or Hudson and Wyman’s outstanding performances.

‘All That Heaven Allows’ is absolutely wonderful. It’s a visual, emotional and cinematic delight and one that contains a very powerful message — don’t let the dead leaves of autumn pile up on your shrubbery.

--

--

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.