“Once upon a time in sunny California” reads a title card immediately after the credits for Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow. “Once upon a time” triggers an expectation of a fairy tale story about a beautiful princess who, against all odds, finds happiness with her Prince Charming. The words represent the traditional opening for stories that feature happy endings in which women’s dreams come true in the arms of a dream lover who, it is assumed, will turn into a dream husband immediately following “they lived happily ever after.”
In Sirk’s film, however, “once upon a time in sunny California” is undercut by the image which follows — that of a rain-soaked, dreary Los Angeles street in the heart of the business district. It is a prime example of typical Sirkian irony, as the image forces an audience to re-evaluate conventional expectations. This re-interpretation of romantic myths is the theme of two “women’s pictures” that Sirk directed in the 1950’s: There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) and All I Desire (1953).
Norma Miller in There’s Always Tomorrow makes a journey back to her former home to see the man she has always loved. She returns to the scene of her fantasy. As the film progresses, her fantasy becomes a reality — her loved one begins to return her feeling. Yet Norma ultimately rejects their love in favor of another fantasy — that of the sanctity of his alleged “happy home.” Norma remains true to both her fantasy and society’s rules for women.
Naomi Murdoch of All I Desire makes a journey back to what she knows is a grim reality — the home and family she ran away from to become an actress. As the film progresses, the audience becomes aware through Sirk’s images that nothing has changed. Yet Naomi elects to stay, rejoining her husband as his wife and her children as their mother. She creates a new fantasy, one that society would approve for her.
There’s Always Tomorrow and All I Desire both star Barbara Stanwyck. An actress of complex signals, she is the physical embodiment of a Sirkian universe. Her surface is hard. Adorned with expensive clothes, jewels, and furs, she looks tough and capable. However, her soft and almost pleading eyes offer a different clue to her inner state. Like Sirk, she undercuts her own surface with opposite meaning. She can effectively portray a woman strong enough to succeed in a man’s world who might still retain a core of romanticism.
There’s Always Tomorrow and All I Desire are typical Sirk films. The two heroines return to their past, not in search of self, but in search of illusions that society has taught them are women’s portion in life. A comparison of the two films sets up a mirror image of reflected similarities and refracted opposites, an appropriately Sirkian construction. “Norma Miller” and “Naomi Murdoch” (“N.M.” and “N.M.”) both reflect and reverse one another.
Mirror Images – Opposites
Plain Norma Miller is a success. Beautiful Naomi Murdoch is a failure. Norma has been in love with Cliff Groves (Fred MacMurray) all her life. He has neither returned her love, nor been aware of it. Naomi married her first love, Henry Murdoch (Richard Carlson). He returned her love, providing her with a step up socially by his offer of marriage. The marriage, however, proved unhappy.
Both women sought solace for disappointment through another man: Norma legally, Naomi illegally. Norma married and divorced. (“Never marry out of loneliness.”) Her husband is never seen in There’s Always Tomorrow, but is merely referred to in the dialogue. He never exists as an image the audience sees, nor does he exist in her heart or her life. Naomi has conducted a clandestine affair with a man ostensibly suited to her social background and to a certain baseness in her nature. Dutch Heineman (Lyle Bettger) is an animalistic man whose presence is ominous and pervasive. He exists in the film physically and also symbolically. He is in marked contrast to Henry, a school principal dominated by society’s restrictions and his own sense of proper behavior.
Another woman exists in both stories, one a wife and the other a would-be wife for the two principal men. Cliff Groves is married to Marion (Joan Bennett). She is wrapped up in her children, her elegant home, and her own needs. She is oblivious to Cliff. Henry Murdoch is loved by a docile, but intelligent school teacher (Maureen O’Sullivan) who not only worships him, but reflects his values.
Norma has no children. Naomi has three she left behind when she deserted her husband to go on the stage.
The plot structure of the two films reflects a further opposite. Norma returns to Los Angeles to see once again the man she has always loved. She is a successful dress designer, but plays down her success. She comes to romanticize Cliff and his married life, the life she dreamed of for herself. (In her private romantic myth, marriage to Cliff would be perfect for her. Thus, it must be perfect for the woman who really experienced it.) Naomi returns to town to see one of her daughters play the lead in a high school play. Naomi is a failure as an actress, but pretends she is a success.
Norma enters Cliff’s life with stars in her eyes. When she visits his home, she says it is as she always dreamed it would be, “warm and cheerful.” Naomi returns to her small town well aware of what it will be like and why she originally left it. (“What a burg!”)
All I Desire is set in the fishbowl existence of an American small town. The moment Naomi sets foot off the train which brings her back, her presence is noticed and remarked upon. “What a spiffy!” says the town gossip as he marks her fashionable attire. When he realizes who she is, he can’t wait to spread the word. “Won’t the ladies be talking tonight!” Since the audience has already seen the sadness behind the illusion of Naomi as a successful actress, her arrival is a performance, one of the many instances of reality versus truth in the film.
There’s Always Tomorrow is set in the anonymity of Los Angeles. The lovers are surrounded by urban crowds, yet they can find no solace in aloneness. They are separated when on a balcony talking of their love, and they are spied on by Cliff’s children at their weekend retreat. Their inability to be alone together represents their situation in life.
Mirror Images – Similarities
Norma and Naomi function with considerable force outside the world their men populate. Seen backstage at the opening of All I Desire, Naomi is hard, her face a mask of repressed feelings. Her acting is a job she does as competently as she can (without any real success at it), but she can more than take care of herself alone in a difficult world. Although she has not done well, she has saved enough money to return home in a splendid wardrobe. She has been able to make a living.
Norma, seen in her own office, is openly framed and brightly lit. She functions with crisp efficiency and absolute self-confidence. (She seems much more capable and relaxed in her workaday world than Cliff does in his. The point is graphically made that Cliff is like one of his own toys, the Walkie-Talkie Robot man.) Dramatically costumed in a black-and-white ensemble with an ironic pattern of triangles, she is elegant and free. She does not seem as ill-at-ease and trapped as she appears earlier in the film. Seen in her hotel room, for instance, she is dubiously reflected in her own mirror, or lost behind a latticed screen. The film makes it clear that she is a success, and that perhaps even much of Cliff’s earlier success in his toy business was due to her talent.
Typically, both movies are populated with Sirkian children: selfish, interfering, domineering, and just generally nasty. In both cases, the children are instrumental in causing friction between the couples. The homes in which the two dominant men live both reflect American materialism and the preoccupation with the Better-Homes-and-Gardens syndrome, as interpreted by Douglas Sirk. In these homes, comfort and apparent ease are dissected visually by spatial relations which separate characters and alienate them both from one another and from their environment.
Mirror Images: Illusion vs. Reality
Both films are set in homes which appear idyllic, by the materialistic standards of the 1950s. Norma attends a dinner party at Cliff’s elegant suburban palace in which the table setting, food, and service are perfection. The women’s magazine dream life is abundantly present. Yet the conversation at the dinner table is barely civil, and Cliff’s children are rude while his wife remains cheerfully indifferent, intent on playing the polite hostess. Sirk present the reality of their family situation through the placement of candles on the table which cut apart and separate the guests, isolating them from one another. Cliff only seems to be the head of a happy family. In reality, he is ignored, disrespected, and lonely within his circle.
When Naomi approaches the home she has deserted, she sees her family inside at the dinner table. Through the screen door (a distancing device), they appear to her in a blur of supportive family unity. Naomi’s eyes mist over. (“You don’t know what a home means until you’ve lost it.”) The scene is similar to Saroyan’s short story, “Going Home,” in which a prodigal son returns home on a summer night, experiencing a sense of perfection regarding his former family life. As he nears the door, however, his memories of the things which drove him away overwhelm him. He runs away. Naomi is not that wise. She enters. Within seconds, the loving family circle is split apart by stair banisters, chair backs, and room dividers. Her eldest daughter tells her she hates her. Her son does not remember her. Her bitter husband picks an accusing quarrel in which he warns her, “a few minutes of charm can’t make up for a desertion.”
Even in the islands of pleasure that both There’s Always Tomorrow and All I Desire contain, reality destroys illusion. There’s Always Tomorrow affords Cliff and Norma a romantic weekend (a convention of the women’s picture genre). They swim, dance, ride horseback, talk, and fall in love. They seem to have forever together. Reality intrudes in the form of Cliff’s children, who spy on them and look upon their innocent fun as sordid. All I Desire contains a party sequence in which Naomi dances and has a wonderful time. She and Henry speak kindly to one another for the first time. As the lights are turned out, reality surfaces in the physical form of Lyle Bettger, lurking across the street in the bushes, waiting his turn at Naomi.
Sound is used to cut apart the image before the audience’s eyes in much the same way that Sirk’s staircases, objects, and levels cut into it.
In All I Desire, sounds split the image as a train whistle or a gun shot interrupts a conversation. As Richard Carlson and Maureen O’Sullivan talk warmly of the possibility of a future together, the fierce whistle of the train bringing Naomi to town cuts across their words. As Stanwyck and Carlson renew their love and pledge themselves to one another, the sound of a gun shot intrudes. It is Bettger’s signal to Stanwyck to join him at their trysting place. In There’s Always Tomorrow, Stanwyck and MacMurray play “Blue Moon” on the Hurdy Gurdy toy they jointly designed. The warmth of their present relationship is split apart by a reminder of their sterile past. Both films function as anti-genre material. Many Hollywood movies have presented a sentimentalized portrait of turn-of-the-century backstage life. (Sirk’s own film, Meet Me At the Fair, has a knockabout charm that suggests the possibility of showbiz folks living a freer life outside society’s strictures.) A subcategory of the musical genre has always been the backstage musical, usually portrayed in a gay nineties setting of candy box decorations. All I Desire brings this tradition down in its opening episode showing the backstage life of Naomi Murdoch, an actress who is “not quite at the bottom of the bill — or at the end of my rope either.” By her own words, Naomi does not “have much to look forward to” although “some people would say I asked for it.” (Without much to look forward to, she naturally looks back.)
There’s Always Tomorrow works from the familiar triangle story in which a far nobler woman loves a man saddled to an indifferent wife. By resolving its dilemma in favor of the wife, There’s Always Tomorrow breaks with the majority of such pictures.
The characters in both films show a constant concern with what is. People talk endlessly of “reality.” Naomi’s husband challenges her with “how can everything seem the same to you when it isn’t?” Later, however, he is sucked into believing it can be the same again. Naomi tells her former lover, “We can’t go back.” But he tells her, “You want to go right back to the old days and so do I.” He is correct, but she wishes to return to the old days of social acceptance for herself. She shoots him, and then enters into a renewed relationship with her husband and family. Presumably her gunshot kills the old reality so a new one can begin. Yet her lover lives, and the audience (influenced by Sirk’s visual style) senses that the old reality will recur instead.
Norma remembers all that ever happened between her and Cliff. He remembers nothing until he begins to fall in love with her. Then his memories are created for him. He re-evaluates his past as he sees it for the first time from her point of view. Even as he listens to her romantic reminiscences, reality intrudes upon them. She reminds him that he took her to see her first Broadway show in the same theater they attend together. Yet she is forced to admit that this time around, she is bored. She had already seen the show several times in New York. She cannot recreate the past in the present for herself — only for him.
Both films are set in the “present” time, with no flashbacks. Yet they are primarily concerned with the past. The past dominates and defines all relationships, and dictates the conclusion to both stories. The characters all share past/present, illusion/reality dilemmas.
On an “irresistible impulse” Naomi Murdoch returns to her reality in the hopes (however dim) of finding her fantasy in a happy family life. Norma Miller has returned to her fantasy in the hopes (however dim) of finding the reality of love with Cliff. Naomi finds a “happy ending,” but no real change. She has returned to what she ran away from in the first place. Norma Miller, on the other hand, finds the love she has always dreamed of, but makes a “sacrifice” for an “unhappy ending.” She chooses a life without the man she loves. Both women have returned to where they were in the first place. They have responded to the lure of the gilded cage.
The answer is more than a plot construction. It lies in Douglas Sirk’s vision of America in the 1950s. He turned his films, which were made of the stuff of ordinary people’s dreams, into complex portraits of a society build on materialism, false values, illusions, surfaces, romantic myths, blindness, and a hyped-up sentimentality that no one really understood. Sirk saw America as a nation concerned with surfaces, in which materialism substituted for real feeling, and society dictated repressive behavior. By creating conventional women’s pictures in his own vision, Sirk revealed the reality lurking under American illusions.
Norma and Cliff re-form their relationship in the present. That present is reality. Their love is one of two people who are equals in business, in maturity, and human need. Although Norma knows Cliff’s family does not love or appreciate him, she remains loyal to her romantic dream. “What have I to give you to take its place?” she asks Cliff, referring to his “home.” She sees herself as the “other woman” and puts Cliff’s family life ahead of their love. “She’s the one who belongs in your life — the first love.” She remains loyal to the romantic myth forever, as it conforms to society’s standards more than her own private life does. She continues to make her illusion her reality.
Naomi’s past is also dominant in All I Desire. Her present is not reshaped. Rather, she and Henry pick up where they left off and pretend it can work. The plot supports this pretense, but Sirk’s interpretation of it does not. Sirk has pointed out that the only logical ending is to have Naomi leave town at the end of the picture (as in the original story). With the “happy” ending imposed upon him, Sirk managed to tell the story as he felt it should be told anyway. Through his images, he alerts us to the unlikelihood of Naomi and Henry finding happiness together. Naomi and Henry accept their love, which is false. Cliff and Norma give up theirs, which is real.
Norma passes the burden of her romantic dream on to Cliff. By allowing his love for her to develop, she forces him to share her agony. In a perfect Sirkian irony, she rejects the possibility of at last realizing the romantic dream which has dominated her life. Naomi, on the other hand, re-accepts the disappointment of the romantic dream which dominated hers until she first broke out of it. Both women decide to go by the rules.
Norma leaves Cliff by telling him it is because she can face reality. Her twenty years as a career woman, she says, are all that matter. “I, too, have a life, and I am going back to it.” Although she is an example of the pre-liberation movement career woman, she maintains society’s myths. The film’s ending sees Cliff looking up at her plane as she flies away from him. She is distant, above him in the sky, a dream image. He will now spend the rest of his life dreaming of her as she once dreamed of him. The “once upon a time” story ends with the Sleeping Beauty having kissed the prince awake into his own fantasy world. Her kiss is a romantic curse. He remains behind, himself forever trapped in the gilded cage of American middle class life.