When one ponders the filmography of Douglas Sirk, one languishes in his successful meditation on stifled American lives in his 1950s soapy melodramas, the period with which he would eventually be most celebrated. It’s now unavoidable to speak of Sirk without mentioning the influence of his films from this decade on Todd Haynes or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But it’s a select number of titles, some of them remakes of earlier Hollywood melodramas themselves, which take up the bulk of the conversation (plus some resurrected interest in his earlier film noirs, like Lured, 1947). But for all the hyperbolic anguish of a Magnificent Obsession or the detrimental social issues of All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, Sirk also completed a handful of highly insightful, more psychologically attuned portraits, one of the best being 1955’s There’s Always Tomorrow (released the same year as Heaven and the little seen Rock Hudson period piece Captain Lightfoot). Headlined by a formidable trio of Hollywood greats, it’s a prescient portrayal of how we’d eventually embrace the interpretation of monogamy and marriage as manacles of the heteronormative, and Sirk’s unhappy, unfulfilled fiftysomethings subversively reexamining their wants and needs in ways unheard of in 1950s American cinema.
Pasadena toymaker Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) has the perfect life, it seems. Married to the devoted Marion (Joan Bennett), who tends to their three children, they’re a financially comfortable, picture perfect family. But Clifford has begun to seem nonplussed about the ability to score any alone time with his wife, who is constantly preoccupied and fussing over the children. When an old employee, Norma Vale (Barbara Stanwyck) breezes in from New York on a whim, they quickly reconnect. Now a widow, Norma commands her own successful business, and it seems has always nursed a crush for Cliff. Circumstance allows them to rendezvous on a business trip, which his eldest child Vinnie (William Reynolds) and his girlfriend Ann (Pat Crowley) interrupt. Vinnie instantly recognizes the extra-marital affair in the making, and along with his younger sister (Gigi Perreau), plots to destroy his father’s aims.
The real highlight of There’s Always Tomorrow is, of course, a sublime Barbara Stanwyck. While the film is most visibility a reunion of the toxic lovers from Double Indemnity (1944), it’s also a reunion of Stanwyck with Sirk, as she headlined his earlier 1953 title All I Desire. Bedazzling in Jay A. Morley’s gowns, she’s a woman ahead of her time as a successful entrepreneur who has only herself to answer to. But, as her surname Vale, an empty valley, suggests, she yearns for the consequences of her life’s decision, and seems rather melancholic about her ex-flame’s vibrant family (whose surname Groves suggests the community and interconnectedness she desires).
Bernard C. Schoenfeld adapts a story by Ursula Parrott (The Divorcee, 1930), which may explain some of the naughty pre-Code sentiments readily apparent. If MacMurray’s transgressions are arguably nominal, comparing himself as he does to the new toy robot being designed for sale at his toy store, it’s because this is a tale which reflects the complex reservoirs of its female characters.
Pat Crowley is presented as being inspired by Stanwyck’s Norma, eventually breaking off her relationship with budding patriarch Vinnie – “I can’t love a man I don’t respect,” she surmises, while Joan Bennett’s hemmed up housewife plays like a dead-behind-the-eyes Stepford Wife, a woman who has relinquished her own thoughts and desires to the care of her children—a brood who, not unlike the careless progeny of Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows, have been reared to keep the presiding hierarchy in place by manipulating whoever steps out of line to keep the status quo.
Eventually, MacMurray defines his predicament best, his marriage being “a tomb of my own making,” the vibrancy of which directly addresses Sirk’s aim in criticizing the falsehoods and facades of the way American cinema of the period plays like propaganda by reifying and reducing its female characters to neutered assembly composites. Expertly photographed by Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, 1958), There’s Always Tomorrow is Sirk without the soap.
Film Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆