In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, a new appliance started to move into American homes. Only this was not an appliance with a practical purpose, but an entertaining one. Home television sets have plagued American filmmakers since their inception, and by the 1950s many directors were trying new ways of getting audiences in their seats. Most common among these techniques was the use of color. It took until 1953 for a standardized way of transmitting televised color to become available in the form of RCA’s color broadcasting system.
Two years later, in 1955, Douglas Sirk would release the film All That Heaven Allows. Television is worth mentioning in order to point out the modern America to which Sirk’s narrative comes across as starkly opposed. This film has a splendid use of color that is symbolically used to highlight the trappings of a 1950s modern American household.
Red as Desire
When Cary goes to her party in a low-cut red dress, we are first introduced to the color-coded language of the film. To the other guests, red here designates her as something to be desired and pursued. They judge her to be fresh meat on the market, proclaiming her re-entry into the dating game with the color of desire. The camera also heavily objectifies her; note how disconnected the wide shot is as she enters. It stays above eye level, gazing down at her, then pushes in, though not so far as to cut off any part of her body, as if to get a better look at her. The blocking also puts her on full display by placing the darkly dressed extras around her. As she walks into the next room we pan as she gets closer, turning our heads as she comes towards the camera for a medium shot. Again, as she walks away from the camera, we push in to follow her, always looking from slightly above her. When we do cut to a proper medium shot, it is to see her mismatched friends. Perhaps this is to reenter Cary’s perspective with her sense of comfort at discovering her other friends. We once again reenter the objective perspective looking down at her in the wide shot that pushes into a medium. As Howard indulges his desire to kiss her, we cut to a close-up, still above their heads, as Cary explains that she is not interested. The scene ends where the previous shot left off as she exits into that light and we dissolve to the next scene.
Here is the first true introduction of red as an indication of desire, backed up by the actions of the characters and the movements of the camera, both of them fascinated with Cary’s scarlet attire.
Yellow and Tan as the Backdrop
In the very first scene, we are introduced to Ron Kirby, the working man. He’s dressed in a khaki jumpsuit, designating his worker status, and surrounded by the yellows and browns of the leaves and umbrella. He blends into the background, barely noticed as more than someone to talk to by Cary. We can see this explicitly pointed out by the shot when Ron seats Cary. The medium shot follows her in her sitting position, reminding the audience to view from her perspective. Then after Ron sits down himself, his face is shown from the side, rendering most of his expressions indiscernible. Again, this color reinforces what the camera is doing: in this case, designating Ron as unimportant and in the background of Cary’s current life. It is only when Ron starts discussing his personal life and Cary starts to feel a kinship with him that we see his face head-on at the close-up. From there we cut back and forth between the two until he stands up to get her a golden yellow branch from the tree. We see his face as he cuts it down and then within the same shot, he turns his back to us and sits down, once again obscuring his face, as he says, “They say it can only thrive near a home where there’s love”. This line slightly disconnects Cary, and we do not see Ron’s face as he exits out screen right. Only his yellow branch remains.
The branch appears again significantly after Cary comes home from the party. The camera pushes into a close-up of it as she plays with it softly. No longer does she wish to be observed as an object of desire like she was at that party. And so when we fade from the yellow branch to the next scene, we soon find her wearing what else but a tan-colored coat that covers her whole body and blends her into the autumnal background. This transition becomes particularly interesting when you note the wardrobe of Ron Kirby in this scene; he has gone from being wearing a khaki suit to literally emerging from the background as he walks towards the camera in the dull red shirt of someone just starting to become an object of desire. The tan pants are still there, as Cary doesn’t really know what she wants yet, but the shot becomes a medium and perfectly blocks him so that he stands in front of the woody color of his car and between the two red accents. Brownish-yellow gloves are taken off and put into his pocket as he solidifies himself as the new center of Cary’s attention
Sirk’s Ideology: In Technicolor!
But what, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with television and Sirk’s ideology concerning the trappings of typical 1950s America?
Well, Sirk uses red to indicate more than a desire for people. In the scene leading up to clambake, for example, there are instances of red all over the place. We see a red plaid cloth, red apples, a red book on the shelf, Alida’s red skirt, a red pattern on the white curtains, red flowers, a red countertop in the kitchen topped with a red and white basket, the red bottles Mick brings in, the red shelf, Rosanne’s red shawl, the red checkered tablecloth, Grandpa Adam’s red tie, the flowers on Edna Pidway’s scarf, the red lines on Rosanne’s dress and of course the now vibrant red plaid of Ron’s shirt. I will not go on naming but rest assured these accents of red continue frequently invading the rest of the clambake scene. This is the non-modern life Cary desires for herself, and it is covered in red to help indicate that. At the party, with the exception of a dollhouse shot looking down into the skylight at the beginning of the scene, the camera stays almost exclusively at eye level. Here, she is not the object of desire, and neither the colors nor the camera treat her as such. It seems that Sirk is glorifying this life, showing both through the dialogue between Alida and Cary and the many joyous moments in this party that this is truly the more worthwhile life as opposed to the ruinously objectifying societal occasion she was at before.
All that previously taught language for these two colors comes to a perfect climax during the famous scene on Christmas morning. First Kay walks in, clad in a beautiful red dress of her own. She is the loved woman that Cary desires to be, excited to be married in the future. It is at this point that Cary realizes the error of her necessity to be accepted by modern society. Then Ned brings in the television set, an ultimate symbol for modernity. It is topped with a red bow as if mockingly suggesting that Cary must want the life of parking herself in front of it. Finally, we get the gorgeous push in to see her reflected back, trapped in the walls of modern society and reflected in its golden yellow screen. The red bow of desire is out of focus; she is doomed to leave her own desires behind and fall into this sickly yellow backdrop of society.