In both All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1955), Barbara Stanwyck stars as the disruptive force that’s come to rattle the composure of a “perfect,” 50’s family just by showing up on their doorstep unannounced. In All I Desire, that family is her own and she’s there because her daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson), asked her to come and see her performance in the school play. Naomi (Stanwyck) is an actress and Lily wants to be one, too. What Naomi doesn’t realize is that Lily sent her the letter without asking anyone first (their maid, Lena, played by Lotte Stein, helped her), so as a way of breaking a ten-year absence, it’s a memorable approach at least.
Naomi’s husband is played by Richard Carlson and, besides Lily, she also has a daughter named Joyce (Marcia Henderson) and a son she barely knows named Ted (Billy Gray). As the film goes on you find out that she didn’t leave them just to pursue her acting career but because she was having an affair with Dutch (Lyle Bettger) and knew that if she stayed in Riverdale (and it never stops being weird that the town has the same name as the town in Archie Comics) it would cause a scandal.
It’s easy to believe that, too, given how the town responds to her sudden return. Douglas Sirk directed both All I Desire and There’s Always Tomorrow and it’s not just that Riverdale is a town full of busybodies. It’s that they’re so unabashedly transparent about their snooping. Starting with Clem (Guy Wilkerson), who is the first person to clock Naomi getting off the train in Riverdale, it only gets worse from there, as attendance for the school play suddenly skyrockets once people realize she’ll be there.
What’s amazing about the way Naomi handles all this attention is that you never see her walking on eggshells around people or acting like she needs to be ashamed of what she did. The town has no right to judge her, but her eldest daughter, Joyce, is very much her father’s daughter and is angry at her mom for skipping town. While you might expect Naomi to want to patch things up with her, the truth is she doesn’t seek Joyce’s forgiveness at all and has no problem calling her out when she disagrees with her, zigging instead of zagging every time.
Today it would be tough to sell a movie where the mother cheats and leaves her kids behind but, as film historian Imogen Sara Smith brings up in another exquisite commentary track, All I Desire sympathizes with Naomi and it’s Harold who’s asked to self-reflect. While his turnaround might come a little too seamlessly in James Gunn and Robert Blees’ screenplay, it’s still novel to see a film support a woman in this situation.
If All I Desire misses the mark anywhere it’s with its portrayal of the Other Man, Dutch. Initially, when the film introduces him Dutch is with Ted, and he seems decent, but then the film completely turns on him and there are all of these leading music cues whenever he’s onscreen. From the sounds of it he and Naomi were quite serious at one time, so why the film is so determined to disparage him is anyone’s guess but then again, how many times has it been the other way around? The woman who seduced the married man gets blamed for the infidelity while the dutiful wife is asked to take her cheating husband back. You rarely ever see a man in that role.
While Stanwyck is the main character in All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow revolves around Fred MacMurray’s Cliff and his midlife crisis upon reconnecting with an old colleague, Norma (Stanwyck) who’s in town for a conference. If the film is less enjoyable than All I Desire, it’s because the characters are less likable. They’re dense and privileged, and if Sirk was the anti-Nicholas Ray when it came to teenagers, as Smith credits film historian James Harvey as saying, then There’s Always Tomorrow supports that theory completely.
The characterizations in this movie are just as thoughtful, though, as the ones in All I Desire. Cliff wants nothing to do with his three kids, but his wife, Marion (Joan Bennett), pays more attention to them than she does to him. While the film is always quicker to acknowledge when Marion takes things too far, Cliff is equally guilty of not taking responsibility. Why does it never occur to him, for instance, that he can attend his daughter’s dance recital with his wife? There’s no one stopping him from going, just like Marion never tries to stop from going anywhere by himself, yet Cliff always makes out like he’s stuck and that’s on him, not his wife.
In the beginning Cliff doesn’t see Norma as a love interest, so it never occurs to him that someone might think they’re having an affair, but then his feelings start to change. This is why Bernard C. Schoenfeld’s screenplay is so good because while Norma is much more world weary than Cliff (and I love that we get to see her at her job later in the movie), she’s also been in love with him longer. The film doesn’t say that outright but it’s all there in the way they remember (or in Cliff’s case, forget) their past together. The question, then, is does Norma have to deny herself the love she’s always dreamed of just because it’ll break up Cliff’s marriage? Film historian Samm Deighan provides the commentary track on Kino Lorber’s release and talks about the unusualness of a man being at the center of this kind of domestic melodrama.
Both films are available to purchase now from Kino Lorber on Blu-Ray.