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In There’s Always Tomorrow, Douglas Sirk turns his “frankly feminine” spotlight on a man 

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about. 

Douglas Sirk’s name now inspires such reverence that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t always so. But it wasn’t. The director’s reputation rests primarily on four melodramas he made with producer Ross Hunter in the ’50s: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind, and Imitation Of Life, each of which showed an almost eerie understanding of film language. Watching any of these films means entering a world where every detail contributes to an atmosphere laden with emotion. The word “operatic” gets thrown around too freely, but no other comparison captures what Sirk does, using heightened performances, meticulous production design, emotional scores, and—in the above films, at least—rich color cinematography, all while employing a command of composition and camera movement that feels like classic-Hollywood techniques taken as far as they can go. People often speak of melodrama pejoratively, usually because its outsized emotions can feel unnatural. But in the hands of a master like Sirk, that unnaturalness becomes a strength, and film becomes a space in which the emotions can be unrestrained in ways that are impossible in the real world. They don’t feel real, but they do feel true.

Yet many critics of the time fought against this emotional resonance. There is an almost-visible sneer behind Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows (my favorite of Sirk’s big four), in which Jane Wyman struggles with her passion for her young gardener (Rock Hudson) and the expectations of her friends and family, who judge her for behaving in ways they deem unsuitable to her class and age. Calling it a film about “one of those doleful situations so dear to the radio daytime serials,” Crowther writes of its “studiously country clothes,” “emotional bulldozing,” and “paving of easy clichés.” The irony that begins with that title—heaven doesn’t allow for nearly enough—and continues through the unhappiness and untidiness of those living in the film’s immaculate interiors seems to escape him.

Crowther is even frank about what really seems to bug early critics of Sirk when he offhandedly refers to it as “frankly feminine fiction.” Who, after all, wants that? Those who later championed Sirk could just as easily use the same phrase to praise him, seeing it as a virtue that he dealt frankly with feminine matters in an era that often seemed indifferent to such concerns, or content to deal with them less than frankly. But the label doesn’t apply to all of Sirk’s films, even from his most fruitful decade, the ’50s. He alternated domestic dramas with films like Taza, Son Of Cochise, a Western starring Hudson, and shot in 3-D (haven’t seen it, not easy to find), and The Tarnished Angels, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, also starring Hudson. (Have seen it, also hard to find, well worth seeking out.)

Sirk’s 1956 film There’s Always Tomorrow fits snugly between the two films on either side of it in his filmography—All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind—but it’s still something of an oddity, a melodrama focused on the feelings of a man. In particular, it’s concerned with the emotional life of Clifford Groves, a family man and successful Pasadena toy manufacturer played by Fred MacMurray. MacMurray was then a few years away from playing the wise, pipe-chomping dad of My Three Sons, but he already looked the part of an archetypal patriarch, and he leans into those looks here. A solid provider to his wife Marion (Joan Bennett), his buzzcut, college-age son Vinnie (William Reynolds), and his daughters Ellen (Gigi Perreau) and Frankie (Judy Nugent), Groves is a font of affection and a man all too easy to ignore, as Sirk establishes in the film’s opening scenes. 

The film opens with a title card revealing that it’s set “Once upon a time, in sunny California,” then cuts to rain falling outside Groves Toy Manufacturing. Unable to talk to Marion, thanks to a perpetually busy phone line, Groves reviews with approval a new toy: “Rex: The Walkie-Talkie Robot Man.” Coordinating with his secretary, he plans to swing by a theater in hopes of picking up tickets to a sold-out show for Marion’s birthday. He succeeds, but in succeeding, he also fails. Interrupting Vinnie in the middle of a phone call, he receives a dismissive look. It’s the first in a series of slights, oversights, and casual dismissals he encounters in his own home: His wife has to attend their youngest daughter’s ballet recital (which, curiously, seems to be an obligation only for her), his son has a date, and his older daughter has a study/gossip session with a friend. He can’t even give the tickets away to their live-in housemaid, but at least she made him some veal goulash for dinner. He resigns himself to eating alone, after making a last-minute plea for Marion to spend the next weekend with him in the desert, away “from the fog and the smog and the rain.”

The action is humble enough, but the way the cast plays it, plus Sirk’s unhurried direction, put it over. Entering with a smile, MacMurray lets the slow accumulation of disappointments overwhelm him as the promise of a special evening melts before his eyes. In the grand scheme, it’s a minor disappointment, but the ways everyone in his life dismisses, ignores, or overlooks him make it seem emblematic of a life of disappointments, even though he has, by conventional standards, achieved the American dream. He has it all, but tonight, at least, that feels a bit hollow.

Then, as if summoned by his own discontent, a woman from his past appears. Appearing out of the rain (but immaculately coiffed), Groves’ old friend, former co-worker, and past object of desire Norma visits his home, having been unable to reach him due to the same busy phone. She’s played by a woman from MacMurray’s past as well: Barbara Stanwyck, the femme fatale to his easily manipulated claims adjuster in Double Indemnity. There’s Always Tomorrow never acknowledges that connection, but it does give the film weird echoes, and it keeps suggesting thematic connections. There’s Always Tomorrow is a decidedly different film, yet each, in its own way, tackles domestic unhappiness and its possible solutions.

For Groves, the solution to his Pasadena ennui is less radical (and less violent) than the one Stanwyck’s character suggests to her would-be lover in Double Indemnity. It’s also slow to arrive. Groves and Norma, now a successful designer, spend a lovely evening together at the theater, and later, back at the toy company that’s experienced undreamed-of levels of success since its humble beginnings during Norma’s time as an employee. They reflect on old times with fondness (and a faint suggestion of more passionate feelings), and make plans for her to meet his family. Then Norma observes that “Tonight, for a little while, time stood still,” and they go their separate ways. 

But they’re soon to see each other again. A convoluted set of circumstances send Groves on that trip to the desert alone. There, he finds Norma, who stayed on after the end of her design conference. They dine and drink together, ride horses, swim, and dance into the evening. It’s all perfectly innocent, except for the undercurrents. And if Sirk is an expert at anything, it’s at teasing out the undercurrents. Before reconnecting with Norma, Groves rebuffs the advances of a single woman. When the two old friends lounge together next to the pool, the composition looks post-coital. The connection doesn’t go unnoticed, either. The resort staff notes it, and when Vinnie shows up to surprise his dad the next day, they all but suggest he’s been spending time with his mistress, an insinuation Vinnie doesn’t have the good sense to dismiss.

The film punishes Vinnie for this, both immediately and later—first by making him the villain of the piece when he sows doubts about his father’s fidelity to his sister and girlfriend, then when Groves finally expresses his unhappiness with his family. But it also suggests—first a little, then a lot—that the kid knows what he’s talking about. Groves makes no attempt to hide his rekindled friendship, even bringing Norma to the house. But his children receive her coldly, and his wife is on the receiving end of his frustration when he recalls when every day of their life was an adventure. “If life were always an adventure, it would be exhausting,” she counters, and Sirk lingers on MacMurray’s face as the disappointment registers. This is his life now, unless he makes some desperate grab to reclaim some of the old excitement. And if everyone suspects him of straying, why not live up to their suspicions?

The ages of the stars give the film an added poignancy. Stanwyck soon transitioned to television as her Ziegfield Girl looks gave way to matriarchal stateliness. MacMurray and Bennett soon followed. All had big-screen roles ahead of them, but not many. Their moment as movie stars had started to pass. Though the film isn’t the last chance for them as it is for their characters, the accumulated history of their onscreen past still gives the film a sense of time passing. Sirk’s decision to shoot in black and white adds to the melancholy—not that he had any trouble dropping sadness into his Technicolor films. (A note about the aspect ratio: If possible, pass up the DVD release of the film that’s available as part of The Barbara Stanwyck collection, even though it shares a disc with the equally worthwhile Sirk/Stanwyck collaboration All I Desire. It’s presented full-frame, and while not technically against Sirk’s wishes, the better argument—as forwarded by film critic Glenn Kenny—is for the Cinemascope version of the film available on the Region 2 version of the DVD.)

The film’s final act finds Groves wrestling with realization as his relationship with Norma endangers the home and life he’s built for himself and his family, a life he now seems willing to throw away. There’s Always Tomorrow brings him to the edge of that choice, and makes it look appealing and perilous at the same time. Norma eventually gives Groves’ kids a what-for speech that’s a little too direct for the film’s good, but up to that point, it’s remarkably subtle, employing a few blunt touches with remarkable effectiveness. At one point, Groves compares himself to Rex, the wind-up robot. When he makes his ultimate choice about whether to stay or leave, it’s Rex in the foreground. Even if he stays with his family and the madness of his old love passes, he might not have been wrong about the life awaiting him on the other side of doing the right thing. There’s always tomorrow, until there isn’t.

Next: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)