Walden in the Suburbs: Thoreau, Rock Hudson, and Natural Style in Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows
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In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel of the 1950s, her heroine Esther Greenwood announces at one point "I hate Technicolor" (41) because of its "lurid costumes" and the way in which characters tend "to stand around like a clotheshorse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction" (43). Esther's comment is important because it signals her understanding of the essential disconnection between Hollywood's images or a placid, prosperous J 950s and the reality of suicidal despair that she and others with artistic temperaments confronted in a culture determined to deny such feelings. ln the hands of a great director like Douglas Sirk ( 1900-1987), however, the seeming tension between a glossy Technicolor surface and the despair-laden depths beneath become in themselves the subject of the film, an instance of meaning conveyed through the seeming disjuncture of film style and substance. ln none of Sirk's films is this likelihood of expression more evident than in a group of domestic dramas he made at Universal Studios in the 1950s: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows ( 1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life ( 1959). In their solemn blend of extravagant, near-kitsch style with the themes of classic drama and melodrama, each offers a window into Sirk's at once admiring and ironic take on U.S. culture. Of this group, All That Heaven Allows stands alone as the most celebratory, and the most critical of Sirk's visions of the United States, because it echoes the work or Thoreau in its characters, themes, settings, and visual style. In choosing Thoreau's philosophy as his model, and in casting a Thoreau figure as his hero, Sirk posits a redemptive, if flawed, prescription for rescuing one woman in the suburbs, and by extension others in a similar situation from the arid artificiality of 1950's culture.