A Pair of Black-and-White Movies By the Master of Melodrama Douglas Sirk Recently Released on Blu-Ray.
DIRECTED BY DOUGLAS SIRK
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 8/25/20 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
These days, Douglas Sirk is best known for the lush and vibrant technicolor melodramas he made for Universal Pictures in the mid-to-late 1950s. Films such as Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life are emblematic of the style and subject matter that would define Sirk as a filmmaker, and eventually an artist. Upon their release his films were derided by critics who saw nothing more than overwrought Soap Operas, mostly because their stories revolved around women and domestic issues. Following the completion of Imitation of Life in 1959, Sirk left the United States and returned to his native Europe.
Beginning in France in the mid 1960s, however, Sirk’s reputation as a director began to be re-evaluated. A new wave of film students and critics began watching his work with the blessing of hindsight and changing social mores, and Sirk became recognized as an auteur who could stand alongside the likes of Hitchcock, Ford and Welles. By the 1970s, books were written about him, and his films were showcased in retrospective screenings. Filmmakers from around the world were influenced by Sirk and were often quoting him in their own work.
Alongside his better known Technicolor films, Sirk directed two black and white movies for Universal, both starring Barbara Stanwyck: All I Desire in 1953, and There’s Always Tomorrow in 1956. Though they lack the visual pop of Sirk’s color movies, both of these films showcase Sirk’s mastery of the craft. Their lighting, staging and composition are tightly controlled, and the performances in each successfully thread that narrow line between passionate and overwrought. With both movies being released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber the same day, there’s no better time to take a look at a whole other shade to Douglas Sirk.
ALL I DESIRE (1953)
Naomi Murdoch (Stanwyck) is a vaudeville performer, who’s career is in such a state that she ranks below the “Dancing Comic” on the poster. She ran away from her husband, Henry (Richard Carlson), and her three children many years ago. She was hoping to spare them from scandal due to her dalliances with another man, but she also wanted to escape the stultifying blandness that is small town life. Now as she begins to think that maybe a life in show business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Naomi gets a letter from her middle daughter who’s appearing in a high school play and wants her famous mother to come see her performance. Believing that would be a nice diversion for a little while, Naomi returns to see her home and family.
This, of course, ends up opening a ton of old wounds on every side. Naomi’s departure crushed Henry, who’s just now beginning to move on with his life. It placed an undue burden on Joyce (Marcia Henderson), the eldest daughter, who ended up having to run the household. The youngest child, Ted (Billy Gray), doesn’t remember her. The only one who is happy to see her is the middle daughter Lily (Lori Nelson), because Lily believes her mother will whisk her away back to New York City, away from small town life.
There are two others whose lives are impacted by Naomi’s return. One is Sara (Maureen O’Sullivan), the drama teacher at the high school. Sara is growing closer with Henry, and there are the stirrings of a romantic relationship between them. Naomi’s reappearance throws a monkey wrench into this burgeoning romance, as Henry’s feelings towards his prodigal wife become confused and muddled.
The other character is Dutch (Lyle Bettger), owner of the local hardware store. His place in the story isn’t immediately apparent, but since his every appearance is accompanied by an ominous musical sting, it’s clear he’s up to no good.
This is all loopy soap-opera material, but it’s elevated by the art and craft Sirk employs in its making. He and Carl E. Guthrie, his cinematographer, shoot the movie with a remarkable expressionistic lens. He sets up shots so that diegetic lighting can provide dramatic underscoring. Joyce fumes as she watches her mother charm guests at a party, and she stands at just the right spot so a table lamp can light her from below. Naomi sees Dutch entering the school auditorium at the exact moment the house lights dim for the start of the next act, covering her in shadow. None of this is subtle, but the staging and composition of each and every shot demonstrate a high level of care and thoughtfulness.
All I Desire comes with a feature-length audio commentary by film historian Imogene Sara Smith. It also has the usual collection of related trailers.
THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956)
There’s Always Tomorrow begins with a title card declaring: “Once upon a Time in sunny California.” This then dissolves into a scene set during a rainstorm. This cheeky tone will not last throughout the melodrama that follows, but it’s fairytale beginning helps establish its theme of child-like wish-fulfillment versus adult responsibilities.
Fred MacMurray plays Clifford Groves, a middle-aged man who runs a toy company. He’s married, has three children, a large house and his company is very successful. Yet he’s feeling dissatisfied. The excitement and spontaneity of his married life is gone, replaced by the children’s incessant need for attention. He’s feeling neglected, ignored, and unappreciated in his own home. When an old flame, Norma Vale (played by Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in town, Groves can’t help but see her as the promise of a road not taken.
His feelings for her begin to deepen and intensify. A casual dinner date between friends soon seems like it will become something much more romantic. Clifford’s eldest son, Vinne (William Reynolds), overhears Groves and Norma share a laugh at a desert resort they both find themselves at. He immediately leaps to the conclusion that Groves is having an affair with Norma, despite the scant evidence he has to base his assumptions on.
A notable aspect of the film is how the men are characterized, compared to the women. The men are childish, temperamental, and driven by emotions. The women are cool headed, wise, and can see things more clearly. MacMurray has a job any child would love- building and designing toys. He’s also rather naive in his approach to his relationship with Norma. Vinnie is volatile, jumps to conclusions. Ann (Pat Crowley), his girlfriend, attempts to reason with him and when that doesn’t work she says she has to leave him because he’s proven he’s not mature enough for her.
The theme of someone wanting more from their life is a common one among Sirk’s films, but in There’s Always Tomorrow, the story is gender flipped. Sirk’s protagonists are typically middle-aged women, but here the lead character is a man. What’s more, as film historian Samm Deighan points out in her audio commentary, the film’s chief antagonists are Grove’s own children. It is their selfishness that drives McMurray into Stanwyck’s arms to begin with, and they are the ones who are determined to end the affair.
There’s Always Tomorrow plays with some of the same things as All I Desire, but it comes at them from the opposite direction. All I Desire features a woman who is dissatisfied with family life and ran away to find adventure only to find herself filled with regrets and longing for the life that she left behind. There’s Always Tomorrow starts with a man who’s seemingly content with his life (if a little put upon), but when the promise of a more exciting relationship is dangled in front of him he becomes seduced by the possibilities.
The relationship between Norma and Groves takes even greater resonance for those who remember Stanwyck and MacMurray’s turn together in Double Indemnity. In that film, Stanwyck plays a femme fatale who attempts to seduce MacMurray into murdering her husband. This meta-knowledge creates an uneasy tension in the viewer, who’s wondering throughout the early parts of the film what Norma really wants from Groves. Is she really just trying to reconnect with an old friend, or does she have ulterior motives? Vinnie can almost be forgiven for leaping to conclusions when these same questions keep popping up in the viewer’s mind.
Kino-Lorber’s new Blu-Ray release of There’s Always Tomorrow comes with the aforementioned audio commentary by Samm Deighan. It also has a collection of trailers.