Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Directed by Douglas Sirk; produced by Ross Hunter; screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld; based on a story by Ursula Parrott; cinematography by Russell Metty; art direction by Alexander Golitzen and Eric Orborn; edited by William M. Morgan; music by Herman Stein and Heinz Roemheld; music supervision by Joseph Gershenson; starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett, William Reynolds, Pat Crowley, Gigi Perreau, Jane Darwell, Race Gentry, Myrna Hansen, Judy Nugent. DVD, B&W, 81 min., 1956. A Eureka Entertainment release.
The title of Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow, like that of his earlier All That Heaven Allows (which Sirk felt implied “heaven is stingy”), suggests the intelligent subversion of Hollywood and middle-class America that is a Sirk trademark. It has the kind of shallow, feel-good sentiment studio executives loved. But it hardly conveys hopefulness after screening the film: today is miserable, but if one looks forward wistfully toward tomorrow, it will doubtless bring more of the same. The sly, bitter irony of the title is appropriate for this deceptively simple, extraordinarily perceptive film.
There’s Always Tomorrow (a remake of a much-inferior 1934 film, taken from a story by Ursula Parrott) more or less fell through the cracks, acknowledged by film scholars but strangely overshadowed by Sirk’s other masterful Fifties melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, and Imitation of Life. This Eureka edition, part of their Masters of Cinema series, represents the film’s first home- video release. Sirk himself was oddly dismissive of the film, to an extent suggesting a misreading of his own work, telling Jon Halliday in the indispensable Sirk on Sirk that its central character, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) “…is like a naïve American boy who never grows up. And then Stanwyck comes back from his past. But she doesn’t find a grown man. She leaves.” Sirk must have misremembered the film, since his précis hardly speaks to its central themes, which, together with his usual craftsmanship, makes it one of his greatest, most fully-realized accomplishments. It has little to do with infantile regression—unless we look at the portrayal of children and the family. It is more accurately termed Sirk’s most biting portrayal of suburban family life in the Fifties.
There’s Always Tomorrow is one of the few authentic male melodramas of the period. Unlike films about the fall of the patriarch (Giant, Home from the Hill), or the male alienated in his own home (Rebel Without a Cause, Some Came Running), or the trauma of the World War II veteran (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), the film simply flips the suburban domestic situation that is always the site of female disempowerment in the melodrama, focusing instead on the male’s emotional suffocation. It speaks to the consequences of patriarchal law and domestic arrangements for the patriarch himself, in the meantime examining the impossibility of bourgeois married life while dealing with one of the hottest of hot-button issues (adultery), handled by Sirk with supreme wit and intelligence.
Cliff Groves (MacMurray) is the head of a prosperous toy company who is profoundly dissatisfied with domestic life. An old flame, Norma Vale (Barbara Stanwyck), appears at his door and the two begin a platonic relationship that seems to be his ticket to a new life until Norma, with some pressure from Cliff’s kids, ends the idea. What is most remarkable is the sense of doom that hangs over the film, beginning with our introduction to Cliff’s business.
Toys, a key baby-boom industry often remembered nostalgically as embodying the carefree optimism of the postwar period as parents doted on kids, pose questions less about Cliff’s maturity than the consequences of childrearing. Instead of toys affirming family togetherness (dad putting together the train set on Christmas day), they point to parental overindulgence, the dreariness of providing for a family, and the alienation at the heart of the family unit. More fundamentally, toys, here given a sinister complexion, are tied to an inability to dream, the impulse for which is forced to die a slow death. A delivery person is enamored of Cliff’s showroom (“What a dreamy place to work!”), but his life is hardly a playpen. He is depressed, unable to reignite a romance with his wife Marion (Joan Bennett), preoccupied with their spoiled-brat children, bully-boy Vinnie (William Reynolds), pouting Judy (Gigi Perreau), and mewling Frankie (Judy Nugent), an aspiring ballerina deserving of drowning in the bathtub—Fred MacMurray’s fine performance, just a few shades lighter than his Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, suggests such ideas go through Cliff’s mind as his exasperation with domestic life increases. His growing dissatisfaction anticipates horror films about the father in decades to come, including The Stepfather and The Shining. (The film gains special resonance in retrospect, since in a couple of years MacMurray would be a Disney star and the lead in the sitcom My Three Sons, thereafter the embodiment of idealized notions of the father.)
Cliff’s misery is established by Sirk’s humorous use of conventions and his typically expressive settings. The opening title card reads: “Once upon a time, in sunny California.” The first image is a rain-soaked Los Angeles street. Cliff finishes a day of inspecting toy prototypes at his modernist office, hoping to take Marion to a show. He is unable to reach her since the kids monopolize their telephone with teen romance and “emotional problems.” When Cliff arrives, he is casually brushed off by everyone in the house with the exception of Marion, who greets him with the perfunctory warmth typical of his humdrum life. His son Vinnie, on the phone to fiancée Ann (Pat Crowley), actually tells him to “shhhhh.” Marion can’t accompany Cliff to the theater since she is already committed to Frankie’s ballet recital. Cliff tries hard to get someone’s interest—he can’t even give the show tickets to the maid (Jane Darwell), and is relegated to sitting alone at the kitchen table, wearing an apron, serving himself from a frying pan. Suddenly a ring of the doorbell becomes a deus ex machina. Norma’s (Stanwyck) appearance in the doorway, complete with a Loretta Young twirl, is nothing short of a realized erotic fantasy. She promptly defeminizes Cliff by removing his kitchen apron (in Fifties America the ultimate castration signifier, firmly established in Rebel Without a Cause). Her comments about the loving warmth of Cliff’s suburban home are quietly answered with zero enthusiasm, as Cliff stares at his passport out of misery. Needless to say Stanwyck is remarkable as Norma; it is a truism that she and MacMurray were a superb screen couple. Because neither person was Hollywood-beautiful, they seemed especially adept at projecting eros frustrated. The paranoid smolder of their relationship in Double Indemnity is replaced here by a sense of desire at a terrible cul de sac.
Cliff and Norma’s sex-free relationship always conveys what is rumbling underneath. Cliff is upright and honest despite his fatigue with the family, yet Sirk cleverly reveals the repressed desire within the relationship as he plays with the Production Code. Norma accompanies Cliff to the kitsch stage show to which he wanted to escort his wife. She shows little interest once there; what she is interested in is made explicit when she asks Cliff, eyes nervously downcast, if his office is nearby. What she would like to do once there is thoroughly obvious even as Sirk drops the subject.
Cliff’s office exploits Sirk’s remarkable talent for mise-en-scène. Sirk wanted to shoot the film in color; it would seem logical, since one assumes the toy showroom alone would “pop” like no other image in his films, the ultimate rendering of postwar American culture as tasteless junk. But black and white is a very happy fallback, the film showing definite noir qualities expressing Cliff and Norma’s no-exit emotional despair, and Cliff’s growing anger at domestic life. The dolls and stuffed animals are perched ominously on their shelves; plastic ducks cast shadows on the wall. The showroom and Cliff’s home display Sirk’s accomplished use of household décor to suggest the workplace and domicile as prisons. Screens, room dividers, banisters, and the angled shadows they generate give a strong feeling of entrapment, a subject addressed directly by Sirk in a 1977 interview included in the disc’s accompanying booklet.
One of Cliff’s latest products is “Rex, the Walkie-Talkie Robot Man.” The toy suggests his diminution, taking on significance as Cliff’s comic doppelgänger when he complains to Marion that he is nothing more than a wind-up robot, the taken-for-granted family breadwinner ignored by wife and children. Norma picks up Rex, complimenting Cliff’s creativity (she isn’t interested in a meal ticket) as their nervous chat shifts to their past relationship. They tread lightly, recalling vignettes, including their favorite tune, “Blue Moon,” that most plaintive of torch songs. When Cliff cranks the handle of a toy hurdy-gurdy that plays the song, he tries to cover his long-term obsession with Norma with a strained smile. The moody, darkened toy shop suddenly proposes a way out of the stifling middle-class existence entombing Cliff—he actually uses the tomb metaphor, a controlling idea of All That Heaven Allows.
Cliff’s honesty as he enters his renewed relationship with Norma profits him little. He actually tries to tell his wife that it was Norma, rather than a neighborhood buddy, who accompanied him to the theater, but Marion, always in complacent denial, interrupts with a few words about Frankie’s recital and rolls over in the marital bed as Cliff’s depressed face turns even glummer in the shadowed bedroom. Trying to restore romance to a sexually dead marriage is a device common to the melodrama and the comedy of remarriage, allowing the requisite happy ending that one neither anticipates nor wants here. Marion Groves seems hardly worth the effort; she is Sirk’s rendering of Fifties sitcom wives, bedecked in pearls, unruffled in fashionable dresses and finely coiffed, but all fawning behavior utterly devoid of substance. Joan Bennett adds to her exemplary depictions of the female in patriarchal civilization (the quintessential fatal woman in Lang’s Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window, the nervous-wreck, cornered housewife of Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment). Marion is so blithely self-satisfied she cannot conceive of her husband straying from the straight and narrow, even when he practically shouts his dissatisfaction in her face. When one of the braying kids calls for her attention, leaving Cliff in mid-thought, her excuse is, “It’s always the children,” the sense being that the offspring provide the female with a weapon over the male, an excuse to remove herself, as well as her way of possessing the phallus, to defer to psychoanalysis. One can become annoyed at Marion, or see her as simply enacting her role in the domestic order.
When daughter Frankie (referred to sarcastically by Cliff as “our little prima donna”) sprains her ankle and goes into an extended, attention-getting crying jag, stymieing Cliff’s attempt to romance Marion at the Palm Valley Inn, his angry impatience is pushed almost to the brink. Marion, consoling Cliff after snapping at him for pooh-poohing the dear wounded Frankie (whom we spot fighting with her sister), says he should take the vacation alone.
The Palm Valley Inn is a split-level desert resort that resembles something like an elaborate pickup bar; the bellhop tells Cliff there are “three women for every man,” pointing to sexual frustration as pandemic. Cliff is overjoyed to find Norma (they would both do well to note Freud’s idea that there are no accidents). The couple decides to romp in the sun; Cliff’s straight-up fidelity stays in place, but it is undermined by the smart screenplay and direction. When the two go horseback riding, a stable boy tells Cliff, “Don’t worry Mr. Groves, just ride her easy and it will all come back to you!” To which Cliff answers, “Amen.” When he escorts Norma to her room, a remarkable shot/countershot shows Norma pulling the drapes as Cliff stands outside, shadows suddenly covering his face as the light from her room is cut off. The film’s sexual angst is palpable, conveying in alternating sequences desire fulfilled and frustrated.
The dramatic hub occurs when Vinnie, his fiancée Ann, and their pals turn up at Palm Valley, thinking they will enjoy some weekend fun on their father’s dime, but Vinnie’s discovery of his father and Norma sours things and turns him into the family policeman. As Vinnie, square-jawed William Reynolds, a Jack Webb protégé (he appeared onDragnet and starred in the TV adaptation of Webb’s film Pete Kelly’s Blues) shows the same authoritarian, tight-assed arrogance he brought to a similar role in All That Heaven Allows. Vinnie wants to protect his mother and traditional family values, although Sirk suggests other motives. His struggle with his father is strikingly Oedipal as his seething anger toward Cliff grows while he obsesses over his mother’s fate. In case we have become too sympathetic toward Cliff, Norma remarks that Vinnie much resembles Cliff when he was younger, suggesting the son simply mirrors the father’s attitudes, which may be coming home to roost. Vinnie bolts from the dinner table where Cliff and Marion are hosting Norma to sulk outside, thrashing away petulantly at a shrub. This moment contains a quietly provocative scene, as Ann chides Vinnie, saying that she feels Cliff is completely honest, but that even if he were having an affair she “wouldn’t blame him.” The idea isn’t repeated, but it is one of the rare moments in cinema where “infidelity” is sanctioned outright (and by the female) as an alternative to an impossible marriage.
Cliff, previously treated with total indifference by his kids, becomes even more alienated as neglect turns to moralistic contempt. Vinnie and sister Judy conduct an investigation that includes eavesdropping on Cliff’s late-night phone calls to Norma. Yet Norma, a divorced “career woman,” is ambivalent; when she abruptly cancels a late-night tryst, a disgusted Cliff returns to an empty house—he’s not really alone, since a spying Vinnie is watching him through a window as he romances Ann on the terrace. What follows is astounding, a scene that alone places There’s Always Tomorrow in the front rank of Sirk masterpieces. Cliff goes into the den, lights a cigarette and sits at a desk with his newspaper. An over-the-shoulder shot observes Cliff reading, then noticing a family portrait (minus himself) in his field of view. He raises his paper so the photograph isn’t visible to him or us, his erasure of his family life complete, for the moment at least. Frustrated at being stood up by Norma, Cliff rises, tosses his cigarette out the window (at the spot where Vinnie stood a moment earlier), and walks to the front door. The camera dollies back so that we are outside next to spying Vinnie. His foreboding silhouette fills the right side of the image as we watch Cliff leave the house, his figure symbolically trapped by the window frame in one of Sirk’s most ingenious deep-focus shots, and the most canny visual realization of the Oedipal struggle.
The film takes a conservative turn as Norma becomes the Other Woman who knows she must restore the normative family and condemn herself to icy loneliness. Her decision looks a bit bizarre. Norma tells Cliff he would be miserable without his wonderful wife and kids, something every scene of the film contradicts. If Marion is the “true love” that Cliff won’t be able to forget, Sirk is asking questions about the nature of love, and not merely getting Norma ready for her role as martyr. Norma also argues, very unconvincingly, that Cliff is only trying to recapture his youth, implausible given all we have witnessed. At this point, Sirk’s attempt to please himself, the audience, and producer Ross Hunter looks forced and formulaic.
The final scene of family restoration provides a remarkably subversive conclusion that shows Sirk at his usual best, messing with the happy endings Hollywood demanded (spoiler alert). A thoroughly depressed and distracted Cliff returns to the House Beautiful living room, his kids wanting his attention now that their financial well-being and the old order of things have been assured. Norma leaves, Cliff stays put. Cliff glances out of a window at a passing plane—cut to Norma on the plane crying inconsolably, “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack. Marion walks over to Cliff, takes his arm as if he were a hospital patient, and walks him out of the scene. Cliff, looking zombiefied, remarks, “You know me better than I know myself,” his little flirtation with real human emotion over. Nothing in the film warrants the line, which MacMurray undercuts with his performance, suggestive of a man willing to be led to his execution. Sirk underscores the moment’s dread with a final shot of the monstrous children grinning admiringly at the “handsome couple” through the bars of a decorative room divider. No image could be more condemnatory of family life. It concludes a film that may be Sirk’s most underappreciated contribution to the melodrama. Its relative neglect is all the more incomprehensible since its comment on domestic life in postwar America is more caustic than its somewhat more spectacular companion films of the same period.
The ending that Sirk envisioned had Cliff alone in his showroom, Rex the Walkie-Talkie Robot Man moving toward us in the foreground. Rex falls off the workbench and breaks, but keeps pumping his plastic arms and blinking his lights. Suggesting Cliff’s suicide, it was obviously an ending far too uncompromising for this most subversive of Sirk’s films. But the ending finally chosen is brilliant, more subtly devastating, it seems to me, than Sirk’s alternative.
The Eureka edition of There’s Always Tomorrow is an exemplary introduction to their Masters of Cinema series, which may eventually be a competitor to Criterion if only because of the care put into each release of their slowly growing catalog. The restoration, in 1.85:1, is meticulous. The book that accompanies the disc is justly strident (and a little humorous) in reminding us about the proper aspect ratio needed on your wide-screen TV to view the film properly, and declaring that anything else is a “distortion and corruption of the original artwork, which travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematic space.” Hurray for Eureka’s bold statement and insistent respect for cinema. The disc comes with an hour-long documentary entitled Days with Sirk, in which the director discusses, among many topics, his harassment by HUAC for buying a few books by his old associate Bertolt Brecht. The disc also features the dialog and continuity script in PDF format. The enclosed booklet contains a shot analysis by Andrew Klevan of two scenes in the film, and an informative 1977 interview with Sirk by Michael Stern. There is one catch: this edition of the film, a British import, is Region 2 only; but if you still needed a rationale to go all-region, here it is.
I should note that There’s Always Tomorrow has just been released in the U.S. as one of six films in The Barbara Stanwyck Collection, part of Universal’s Back Lot Series. This set, which includes another very interesting Sirk film, All I Desire, has not a great deal to recommend it. The transfer of There’s Always Tomorrow is in full-screen format and is totally devoid of features, even chapter selection. The picture is a trifle dark even considering the noir touches of Russell Metty’s extraordinary photography. Still, it represents more Sirk and Stanwyck returned to us in an era when the Hollywood past is shoved aside to make way for tomorrow’s blockbusters.
My thanks to Sid Gottlieb and Bill Luhr for our long talks about Sirk.
To buy There’s Always Tomorrow, click here.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 4