When reading and thinking about melodrama in film, there’s no better place to go than to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. This is the archetype of the “mode” at its most generic (that is, pertaining to “genre”), replete with every modal motif that so comprises to this way of expression. Full disclosure: Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, and the Mode of Excess has been of utmost help here. The book, initially written in the 70s regarding literary theory, has since found a broader academic audience in film studies. Brooks is quick to point to Sirk, along with Griffith and others, as embodying the melodramatic in Hollywood films.
Born out of French literature, really, melodrama can be described in part in terms of excess. It pulls out all the stops. This is particularly true regarding the verbal; it leaves nothing unsaid. Consider the most “melodramatic” cinematic scene, and very likely one will recall a character, at the end of his/her rope, soliloquizing to another (often a gender counterpart) about the impossibility of keeping it inside any longer. Though Jane Austen’s books do not fall so simply into the category of melodrama (which is a reason why this is a “mode” and not really a “genre”), one can look to the end of Sense and Sensibility (the book or the film, for that matter) when Edward finally tells Eleanor everything. The idea of saying “everything” is melodrama at its fullest. Whether while reading a book or watching a film, melodrama evokes the desire in the reader/spectator for a character to blurt out everything. Usually the narrative forbids this until it reaches a climax; the dam bursts, and love either has its day or is rendered impossible through death or some such deterrent.
Verbal excess, as noted, only occurs following verbal restraint, and verbal restraint in melodrama is compelled by forces external to the individual who would have it otherwise. We’re talking about social rules and conventions here. Interestingly, films of this type can be either “liberal” or “conservative” and still fit comfortably into the “mode” of melodrama. Normally this kind of grouping is unnecessary, but melodrama’s dependence on social norms can’t escape the implication. Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows might be said to carry a “liberal” message to it. It challenges the social norm that only certain kinds of romantic relationships are acceptable and permissible. The town rejects the idea of an “older” widow falling in love with a young man, but the film insists that love is love, and nothing should stop it. Fassbinder’s take on the film, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, makes a similar point but adds race and nationality to the mix, along with a wider age gap. (The involvement in these films of gay men like Rock Hudson and Fassbinder himself, respectively, add credence to this point.)
These “liberal” films contrast with melodrama of a more unconscious sort. The mainstream produces countless melodramatic films every year, the type that give melodrama a bad name that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. Perhaps the recent Twilight books/films fit into this category. Films like this could be deemed more conservative in the sense that they reinforce the status quo, particularly in terms of male-female roles and stereotypes. Also consider the audience of many of these mainstream melodramas: the proverbial girly-girl, the kind who loves nothing more than to have a good cry at the expense of a female character’s autonomy and through a Mr. Darcy-type male character disdaining and despising women until he finally decides to get one for himself. This is an unfair exaggeration, to be sure, but one can hardly argue the point.
Though there’s been progress, the basic formula of this kind of popular melodrama is alive and well. Linda Williams’ important essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” observes the three “body genres,” that is, the three genres (as she terms them) that evoke distinctly bodily reactions: horror, pornography, and melodrama. Incidentally, films within these genres are deemed most successful when the bodily reaction of the spectator closely mimics that of the character(s) on screen: horror-fright, pornography-arousal, and melodrama-sadness. Melodrama by its nature is directed toward women predominantly, as pornography is directed toward men and horror, as Williams has it, is directed toward teenagers bouncing wildly between the poles of masculinity and femininity. These genres be and large confirm stereotypes and perpetuate them, often not in very excellent ways.
That being said, All That Heaven Allows is remarkable for buttressing basic gender stereotypes but also challenging social conventions. This is even the case in terms of gender. It’s Cary (Jane Wyman) whose desire shows up first (before the man), and not only as a woman but an “older” woman. Unlike a more “conservative” melodrama like Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, the viewer is positioned alongside the woman rather than the man. While Cary is victimized by other characters within the film for her desiring gaze toward Ron (Rock Hudson), the film itself vindicates her. Further, Lucy in Broken Blossoms functions something like a tennis ball between two male characters, one a power-holder and one castrated (though the men trade roles by the end). In All That Heaven Allows, Cary is not so objectified – at least not by the film itself. At the beginning, Cary dresses in a bright red dress that her son deems too “low-cut.” She hardly appears in the film before a male family member attempts to suppress her expression of feminine power. (A red dress in particular might have seemed quite bold at the time. Consider, too, the implications of wearing “scarlet.”)
The film’s seemingly less-progressive components – e.g. the male-female dyad – in fact are more subversive to the social system than not. It’s Cary’s comfort and confidence in her womanhood that sets her apart from her own daughter, whose boyish look, academic elitism, and attempts at emotional apathy in fact expose her as a fraud. Ironically, she is the less progressive-thinking woman in the house. When she drops a surprise engagement on her mother, Cary expresses concern that Kay is too young. Kay quickly appeals to Cary’s own youth at the time of her marriage. While on one hand Kay continuously supplants the authority of convention by appealing to Freudian theory as a way of undermining it, she then upholds and endorses tradition regarding a monumental decision in her own life. That this decision has to do with marriage all the more exposes Kay’s hypocrisy. (Quoting Freud chapter-and-verse may not be logically incompatible with marriage, but it is in almost every other way.)
The mode-ness of melodrama, or at least with excess, may simply be confusing in contrast to the notion of genre. On the whole, however, genre is a more defined form (note: not “style”) in which films (or books, poems, etc.) fit. Films that fit more or less into a particular genre can shift modes, and melodrama is one of those modes. Since melodrama is such an important and powerful “mode,” though, it isn’t surprising that Williams identifies it as a genre. Either way, All That Heaven Allows utilizes melodramatic excess to a significant enough degree that it may be said to be “excessive” from beginning to end. The first shot of the film, while the credits role, captures the suburban domestic world to such a degree that it can be described as excessive. Nothing is missing here. On top of that, Sirk uses Technicolor photography to heighten the look. The autumn colors are more autumn-like than anything autumn has ever produced. Cary’s red hair and lipstick correlate to the fall foliage, symbols of withering beauty and aging grace. But let’s not forget the blazing fires contained in numerous fireplaces throughout the film. Are not Cary’s hair, lipstick, and red dress also suggestive of burning desire?
In line with excess is also the notion of the extreme. Polar opposites abound in this film, of which Cary’s domestic world and Ron’s outdoorsy habitat are good examples. The two become acquainted when Ron enters Cary’s turf, pruning her trees and having coffee in the yard. As they draw nearer, Ron brings Cary into his world, which of course includes a front-and-center copy of Thoreau’s book Walden. (If there were any doubts about the excesses of melodrama, they can be squelched with the appearance of Thoreau.) The aforementioned Kay swings from one extreme to another, going from a nerdy bookworm to an emotionally hysterical girl. Cary herself struggles between the social pressure of having nothing to do with Ron and giving herself completely to and for him. One moment she is paralyzed with fear of others and the next she casts her worries aside and runs into Ron’s arms.
No melodrama would be quite complete without a serious injury or death, ideally one born out of the forbidden romance and caused by a dramatic misunderstanding. Sirk successfully includes this element when Ron falls off a snowy ledge and doctors, of course, have no idea how he’s doing even hours after the accident. It’s as if to say, science can’t begin to explain anything in a melodramatic world. It’s not about that. It’s more like the famous scene from The Princess Bride when only “true love” can awaken Wesley from his deathly slumber. As with that film, Ron opens his eyes not because of a medicinal cure but on account of his beloved’s faithfulness. Interestingly, this ending differs from Fassbinder’s in Ali, if memory serves. The uncertain ending of the German film may have to do with the extreme German-ness of that film, perhaps more of an indictment on its society even than Sirk’s film.