The year before All That Heaven Allows was released, Joseph Breen left the position of head of the Hollywood motion picture censorship office. All That Heaven allows is not one of the films that truly marked the end of the code, films such as The Moon Is Blue, The Man With the Golden Arm and The Pawnbroker did. But All That Heaven Allows has the hallmarks of a changing era.
The story follows Carey (played by Jane Wyman), a widow with two grown children. She lives a largely solitary life since the death of her husband, seemingly only existing to please her spoilt offspring. When she meets Ron (played by Rock Hudson), who is pruning her trees as his father did before him, her life takes a marked turn. She begins to realise that she can live for herself, and that she can love another man after her husband. Societal pressures and the disapproval of her selfish children mean that the relationship comes under severe threat, and may just ruin Carey and Ron’s chance at happiness with one another.
The things that were not allowed under the Production Code have become notorious. Amongst them were forbidding or frowning upon, the depiction of adultery, the criticism of the institution of marriage, and criticism of the nuclear family, as well as “lustful” kissing. All That Heaven Allows makes its points on these things as well as female sexuality quite a bit more explicit than Joseph Breen’s office would have sanctioned.
For example, in the first part of the film, Carey’s sexual desirability as a woman, especially an adult woman, is clearly shown through her wearing a red, sleeveless dress, which her son says is cut rather low in the front. Carey’s daughter, Kay, even comments on the fact that her brother, Ned, seems to be harbouring an Oedipal complex for Carey. Before this, Kay also remarks that sex isn’t all there is to a marriage, and speaks of Freud, alluding to his sexual theories even before she brings up the Oedipus complex.
Carey is made even more of a sexual object in the following scenes when she attends a party in her said red dress, and she is openly propositioned by a married man, and kissed by him. He tells her that he will not apologise for his desire for Carey, and that he still wants her. Later, when Carey attends another party with Ron, said married man accuses Carey of being sexually promiscuous. Although Carey does not, of course, have an affair with a married man, this open discussion of adultery is in direct contradiction to the Code under Breen. Casablanca’s ending was necessitated by this rule, but later films such as Indiscreet, also starring Ingrid Bergman, would follow All That Heaven Allows in its open discussion of the topic.
Carey’s relationship with Ron is also remarked upon as being only about sex several times throughout the film, most openly by the party guests where Carey has her previously mentioned unfortunate run in. And also by her uptight, morally square son, who says that his mother is only physically attracted to Ron. Sex is still treated as something taboo, but almost all of the film’s characters discuss the topic openly, and in doing so, make a social commentary on the changing social mores of the time. Characters who are supposedly upholding the morals of the time are not shown as being just in their condemnation of Carey and Ron, but rather small minded. Whereas this would likely not have been sanctioned by the Code in the past, it was now almost the entire subject of a film.
Carey also speaks about living with Ron out of wedlock. Although Ron wants to marry Carey, she proposes a love affair in order to avoid public ridicule and disapproval. This is quite scandalous considering how marriage was a bedrock of not only conservative American society, but also a major feature of clean Code pictures. Not only does this suggestion by Carey go against that tradition, but it is also suggested that the pair are having a sexual relationship before marriage. The “lustful” kissing that was discouraged under the Code features quite a lot in All That Heaven Allows. And no clever turns by the director are employed to conceal this, as in Notorious.
It is made entirely clear that Ron’s intention when inviting Carey out to look at his silver spruces is so that he can seduce her. And he makes no apologies for this. Inviting someone to look at your silver spruces is definitely a novel seduction gambit. Ron is portrayed as a sexually attractive man, and this is done in a mature way. There are a few jokes made throughout the film, but it is almost entirely treated in a serious manner. Especially when it comes to Ned being threatened by Ron. As Kay remarks earlier on in the film, Ned is threatened by Ron on a sexual level. He does not want to think of his mother having a sexual relationship with a younger, virile man. Ned wants to desexualise his mother, but the film makes it clear that this cannot be done. Under the Code, mothers were not sexual beings, but as it began to decline, someone like Carey was reassessed, as was her relationship with her children.
During the Code, motherhood was often portrayed as one of the most fulfilling pursuits of a woman’s life, if not the most fulfilling. But All That Heaven Allows takes quite a different view of what it means to be a mother, especially a mother with grown up children. Carey decides not to marry Ron because of her children’s negative reaction to the idea, and through her supplication to her children’s desire, Carey is shown to enter into a period of intense suffering and loneliness. Her children are also shown as not being appreciative of her sacrifice. Her son who had been so averse to the idea of Carey selling the family home to live with Ron, now suggests that she sell it after all due to “high taxes”, and his leaving for Europe. Kay becomes engaged and belatedly realises that in order to attain her own happiness, she has ruined her mother’s.
While films in the 1940s such as Mildred Pierce questioned the family dynamic, they had ultimately had the message that the family dynamic needed to be maintained. That women who wanted to live outside of the conventions set out by the model nuclear family were outcasts and needed to be punished. But All That Heaven Allows shows quite the opposite. It shows that the nuclear family cannot sustain itself in the same way forever, and that it is necessary for things to change. The circumstances of life must change and so must people and their outlooks. Whilst the Code encouraged a stasis in terms of the image of the American family, its decline showed that the new decade meant that this could not always be so.
All That Heaven Allows is a film that shows a shift in American society. Other films of the same year, such as Night of the Hunter and Rebel Without A Cause, and ones in the late 1950s going into the 1960s, would also examine this. These films would interrupt and dispel ideas that had formed about family in preceding years, maintained in some way by Code era cinema. All That Heaven Allows is also an interesting film to note in its portrayal of women after the Code and in the post War years, and how their role in society was changing, even infinitesimally. As I said before, All That Heaven Allows is not a film that seemingly makes bold statements, but when its parts and ideas are viewed collectively, you realise that it makes some very important social claims.
This is my contribution to The Third Annual Great Breening Blogathon being hosted by the always lovely Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Please visit their blog for more information and to see what the Code means to them.