Douglas Sirk melodramas are known for tackling big themes with style and intelligence, and his 1956 Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck romance is no different, as explained by Establishing Shot‘s newest regular contributor Chris Forrester.
In the midst of the exceptional run of films Douglas Sirk directed in the 1950s, and nestled directly between two of his most celebrated technical masterworks, All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), is a film much smaller but no less powerful than the beautifully crafted melodramas he became known for — There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), a quietly devastating portrait of the prison of domesticity. As is typical of Sirk, There’s Always Tomorrow blends heart-rending familial melodrama with incisive social critique, here a searing look at the American nuclear family unit and its stripping away of its constituents’ agency and individualistic desires.
In the film, Fred MacMurray plays opposite Barbara Stanwyck (a reunion of the iconic pair 12 years after their unforgettable joint turn in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity) as Clifford Groves, a Pasadena toymaker and family man reunited with a former colleague, Norma Miller, whom he has not seen in 20 years. Fortuitously, or perhaps not, the pair’s meeting comes in the midst of a dismaying night for Groves — he’s procured tickets to take his wife to the theater for her birthday, but the obligation of family has called her away (she must take their daughter to a dance recital) and he finds himself alone. The introduction of Miller, who soon explains that she’s a divorced dress designer in town to speak at a conference in the nearby Palm Valley, is both romantic and threatening, at once an almost fantasy-like escape for Groves from the downtrodden nature of his family life and an intrusion into its sanctity.
As if rekindling an old flame (whether or not the pair were ever romantically involved remains tactfully ambiguous), Norma and Clifford delightedly reminisce on their former friendship as they share an evening together, first at the show Clifford had intended to attend with his wife and later at his toy shop. Already, Norma has momentarily replaced his wife and offered a temporary reprieve from the rut of familial life that seems to have engulfed Clifford so fully. Slowly, amidst the detritus of a once-happy family life that has through the years slipped into stagnant familiarity, the pair’s feelings for one another blossom into something both beautiful and dangerous, and that something inevitably threatens the family unit, much to the chagrin of Clifford’s children, particularly his highly observant (and sometimes intrusive) son Vinnie.
The film’s title invites both hope and dismay — the promise of a better tomorrow vs the sobering eventuality of another today — and Sirk’s careful tonal balance of the material (adapted from a 1929 novel by Ursula Parrott) conjures both in painful equilibrium. The hope, clearly, is a romance with Norma that frees Clifford from his responsibilities as father and family member, while the dismay is both the confines of that responsibility and the impossibility of escaping it within the norms and expectations of a family-centric society. As with All That Heaven Allows before it, There’s Always Tomorrow speaks to the aches of existing within a society too conservative to let desire be acted upon freely, and what begins as a hopeful (re)kindling of a romantic spark becomes, almost inevitably, a hopeless attempt at grasping something forever out of reach.
Though known especially for the formal qualities and beautiful Technicolor photography of his greatest melodramas (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life), Douglas Sirk (born Hans Detlef Sierck) was also a European emigré whose status and perspective as such enabled an undercurrent of wry social critique that courses through all his best work. All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind observe, with an almost campy fervor, the strange, intense melodrama of upper class ways of life — its confines and explosive tensions, respectively — and likewise, Imitation of Life observes the dual abstractness and painful reality of race in America.
In There’s Always Tomorrow, the object of Sirk’s critical eye is, of course, the family unit and all it entails: the commitment of fathers and mothers to domesticity, their obligations to one another and their children, and the sacrificing of personal freedoms and individuality to uphold it. The main focus of that is on the father, an atypical means of studying the family and its oppressive qualities and a stark contrast to Sirk’s focus on similar territory in All That Heaven Allows the year prior, enlivened by a subtle and hauntingly lived in performance by MacMurray that embodies the loneliness of a man who’s worked tirelessly to shape his own destiny, only to realize that destiny has shaped him.
But the film is tactful in its observations of the family unit, and just as it attunes itself empathetically to the suffering of the father figure, it also carefully observes the way that patriarchal family values harm the women of the family, too. When his daughter remarks that she wants “to look pretty, not to attract boys, but for the sake of my dancing career,” Clifford is quick to chide her: “You may change your mind about that in a few years, honey.” Likewise, the woman’s place in marriage and monogamy is questioned by a woman Clifford meets briefly at a bar. “You lucky men can always get around, but when a woman’s alone, she can’t,” she scoffs. Our empathy might lie with Clifford in his lonely, dejected struggle for something greater than what life has afforded him, but still the film reckons with what that empathy means in the context of the patriarchal family unit whose every member is, in some way, confined by social norms.
Still, even as domesticity imprisons and subdues, it remains desirable. “I’d trade every New York celebrity for a family just like this,” quips Norma when she’s invited to dine with Clifford’s family. Their affair is, at this point, strictly emotional, but already it is encroached upon by the watchful eyes of Clifford’s children, led by Vinnie, who view his closeness to another woman as a betrayal of the family. That the pair’s desire for one another is ultimately consummated in romantic feeling and action feels almost inconsequential; of greater significance is the way that Clifford’s own family surveils him and ultimately confronts Norma, shattering any chance of true romance between the pair.
And thus the film ends, not with romance, but with heartbreak: Clifford back at work providing for a family it seems he does not love anymore and Norma tearful on a plane home to New York, never to see him again. As the aching score, which beautifully repurposes the melodies of Richard Rodgers’s “Blue Moon,” underscores the pain of missed opportunities and loves lost, the film’s title seems to loom over the characters, leering at their fate. There’s always tomorrow — until there’s not.
There’s Always Tomorrow screens August 31 at 7pm at IU Cinema as part of the series Women on Top: Legacies of Women in Global Cinema. Before the film at 4pm, scholar and author Marsha Gordon will join the Cinema to discuss the work and career of Ursula Parrott, author of the novel There’s Always Tomorrow on which the film is based.
To see Barbara Stanwyck in an earlier, vastly different kind of role, check out her performance in Baby Face, which is screening at the Cinema on October 21 at 4pm as part of the series Sirens and Spitfires: Liberated Ladies of Pre-Code Cinema.