All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953)

All I Desire 3

Barbara Stanwyck with Lori Nelson

Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.

All I Desire 5This was Sirk’s first collaboration with producer Ross Hunter, and it has the same feeling of emotional daring as their later films together. The film marks Stanwyck’s return to the kind of part she played in some of her 1930s films, as a down-at-heel showgirl. However, the difference is that she is now older, and with the extra toughness coming from the memory of all her great noir roles, all of which makes her character more poignant. This is also a homecoming story, like other 1950s films such as Some Came Running, with a bitter prodigal going back to a town that drove her out. It is revealed right at the opening of the film that Naomi Murdoch (Stanwyck) has three children she left behind many years ago, with her husband, and has never seen since. They are under the false impression that she has found success in the theatre in New York – although in reality, as she confesses to another ageing showgirl, she fears she will soon be below the dog act on the variety bill.

When she gets a letter from her younger daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson), asking her to go back to Riverdale to see her in a school play, Naomi decides to go home, for one night only, acting the part of a successful actress. She valiantly tries to put on the performance of her life, as she is caught up in a series of strong emotional counter-currents. On the one hand, it seems as if the town and her family have both moved on and there may be no place left for her. Older daughter Joyce (Marcia Henderson) is angry and distant, son Ted (Billy Gray) doesn’t even remember her, and stern, repressive headteacher husband Henry (Richard Carlson)  seems to be hovering on the verge of a relationship with teacher Sara (Maureen O’Sullivan, in a quiet role very different from her best-known part as Jane in the Tarzan films). And yet, on the other hand, so much is still the same. She remembers all kinds of little things about the house, encouraged by housekeeper Lena (Lotte Stein), and starts to feel that she is home, as her brief visit is extended beyond what she originally intended. All three children start to thaw in turn, as she shares a riding trip with Joyce and has some tender moments with Ted.

Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Carlson

Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Carlson

All the way through, the film fluctuates between the hope that the past can be recaptured and the reality that what has happened cannot be changed. As Naomi begins to feel that maybe she could rebuild a life with her family after all, there is a darker reminder of the past lurking round the corner. The man she had an affair with all those years ago, Dutch Heinemann (Lyle Bettger) still wants her – and decides to try to rekindle their relationship. The back story of the affair and the breakdown of the marriage gradually unfold, making it clear that there was blame on both sides. Henry himself admits that his wife was a young girl from a very different background, and he didn’t do enough to support her in the face of gossip and disapproval, in effect driving her to seek consolation from Dutch.

Stanwyck shows all her versatility as an actress as she brings out different aspects of Naomi’s character, in response to the different people she meets. There are glimpses of the  angry passion she once felt for Dutch, tenderness towards her children, and occasional wicked flashes of humour… in particular, a moment when she asks daughter Joyce if she thinks that she could steal her boyfriend from her, and for a moment you believe she could.  There’s also a scene where she is asked to give a performance as an actress and reads Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee – a definite highlight for anyone who enjoys poetry readings in movies, as I do.

Maureen O'Sullivan with Stanwyck

Maureen O’Sullivan with Stanwyck

I enjoyed the film as a whole and think it has a great performance by Stanwyck which deserves to be better known. I also enjoyed her friendship with Lena – Sirk seems to give more space to female friendships in his films than most directors, judging by those I’ve seen so far. And it’s refreshing that Lena is seen having her own romantic relationship, even if it is largely played for laughs.  The DVD in the region 2 Directed by Douglas Sirk box set doesn’t have  great picture quality, but is perfectly watchable. I’m getting the impression that, in general, the DVDs in this set are cheap bare bones offerings and the prints haven’t been restored.

I’ll discuss the ending in this next bit.

The film builds to a crisis as Dutch won’t take no for an answer and attempts to rape Naomi, who fights him off. In the struggle, she shoots him with his own gun – and once again she finds herself ostracised by the small-town society, which is quick to believe the worst. However, it becomes clear that Dutch will recover from his wounds, and, as Naomi tries to leave town, Henry runs to stop her, declaring his love and saying that they will face it out together. I was quite surprised by this happy ending, as the film had seemed to be building towards something sadder and darker. So it wasn’t a great surprise to learn that Sirk originally filmed an unhappy ending, with Naomi leaving town, as in the original novel, Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink, but Ross Hunter insisted on a happy one.  However, even the “happy” ending does seem understated and quiet. I’ve just read a great essay at Bright Lights Film Journal which discusses both this film and another Sirk film starring Stanwyck which I haven’t seen yet, There’s Always Tomorrow. This essay, which I’ve now discovered is by famous critic Jeanine Basinger (thanks to Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings for the info!), argues that  Sirk manages to make it clear through the imagery surrounding the closing scene that this couple are unlikely to find happiness together. I will admit I hoped they could be happy, but the film leaves us with hope at best, not certainty.

All I Desire 4

16 thoughts on “All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953)

  1. Yes, one of Sirk’s lesser known, or less lauded, films but I quite agree on Stanwyck’s terrific performance.
    I think Sirk did some excellent work in B&W by the way – there are some lovely images in Sleep, My Love, and The Tarnished Angels is just all round fantastic.


  2. “Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community.”

    Indeed Judy. Throughout his career Sirk examined the biased underbelly of small towns, and this was a major theme in his later masterpieces like ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and IMITATION OF LIFE. I did see this film at the Stanwyck Festival and agree she delivers a knockout performance. Her co-star Richard Carlson, however, is wooden. Yes, Sirk did shoot a far more downbeat ending but as you note Hunter altered it. That is an excellent essay at BRIGHT LIGHTS, but so is your review here!


    • It’s interesting that you say that about Carlson, Sam – I thought the “woodenness” went quite well with his character, as he is someone who keeps it all in, but anyway his performance certainly doesn’t come anywhere near the power of Stanwyck’s in this. It must have been great to go to the Stanwyck Festival and see it on the big screen. I’d like to see the original downbeat ending. Thanks so much for your comment.


    • PS, Sam, I’ve now discovered that essay at Bright Lights is by Jeanine Basinger, who is one of my favourite critics – I’d failed to spot her tiny byline at the bottom!


  3. Judy,
    Jon Halliday, (“Sirk on Sirk”, 1971), began an essay on Douglas Sirk with a quotation from the auteur himself, which provides some insight as to the man’s psyche, “There is a wonderful expression: ‘seeing through a glass darkly’. Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself, your fingers only meet glass. It’s hopeless”.

    Sirk was, in his homeland of Germany, a respected dramatist of both stage and screen, in addition, he was a talented painter and a poet, but he was also a “pessimist”. “All my endings, even happy ones, are pessimistic”, he proclaimed. “A (contracted) Director in Hollywood, in my time, couldn’t do what he wanted to do”.

    Universal handed him a wide variety of films of different genres to direct, but he was most comfortable with the one considered, at the time, to be the least prestigious of them all – the melodrama. It was in this genre, a combination of sensational, exciting, and emotional events with exaggerated characters, that Sirk found a certain freedom of expression, for he was able to surreptitiously circumvent the instructions of the Studio/Producer, and the expectations of undemanding audiences. To achieve this end he used a device that he had studied and used with some success in Nazi Germany.

    Erwin Panofsky was well known for his studies of symbols and iconography, especially in the world of art – Douglas Sirk, had been a student. What a sense of silent satisfaction Sirk must have felt in deceiving not only his “principals”, but also the uninformed “serious:” critics of the day!

    Judy, all of this leads to your expectations relating to the resolution of “All I Desire”. Having filmed the pessimistic conclusion that you expected, he was instructed to give the film, “a happy ending”. He dutifully complied, but, with “tongue pressed firmly in his cheek”, he provides enough symbolism, to inject a degree of pessimism in the future of the main protagonist and her husband.

    As I have previous mentioned, I had little or no interest in this genre, until I read your postings on Sirk and his films . It has been a most informative and interesting journey. Thank you.


    • Rod, I’ll admit I thought you must be a big admirer of this genre – you certainly know a lot about it, and I’d like to thank you again for yet another incredibly informative comment. Even though it is the end of February, I do intend to write another couple of postings about Sirk before moving on, as unfortunately I’ve got all behind and have only written about a couple of his movies, which is a shame. I may also return to him in the future, as there is so much more I want to see! Thanks again for your encouragement and for the great quotes you have included here, including Sirk’s great line about his happy endings being pessimistic.


  4. I own this movie, as it is part of a Barbara Stanwyck collection my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years ago. I’ve only seen it once, and I don’t really remember it all that well; however, since I keep a journal of the films I watch, I know that I liked it…gave it 3 stars. Your review is awesome, and it has definitely put me in the mood to watch the film again. I absolutely love Barbara Stanwyck. She was a terrific actress.


    • Glad we agree on Barbara Stanwyck, Patti – I’m trying to catch up with as many of her films as possible, though it is taking a long while to do so. Thanks so much for the kind comment, and glad to hear you enjoyed this film – and that you would like to see it again!


  5. Judy,
    One of the benefits of being retired and enjoying the support of an understanding and like-minded wife of many years, is to have the time to engage in a good deal of research into what interests me… and the background of Douglas Sirk, his life, motivation, and psyche, engaged me to the extent that I have, in recent weeks, devoted considerable time and thought in an endeavour to gain a deeper knowledge of this man, so that I could better appreciate his work.

    I gained all the information I have imparted, and more, by consulting numerous reference books as well as reading essays and interviews of, not just the auteur himself, but of those who worked with him; the internet was a valuable source of information, and the local library also assisted. Curious to know how he gained an interest in symbolism, I dug deeper and found his association with Erwin Panofsky.

    Judy, this information is all there for the searching, and I would encourage those who have the time but are “limited” in their acceptance of various genres of film, to do the same and expand their knowledge as well as their appreciation of this, the most liveliest of the Arts.


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  7. It’s interesting to compare the attitude and advice the family doctor gives Naomi to the advice given to Cary in the later “All That Heaven Allows”.

    There are some beautiful glorious black and white moments in the film that have always stayed with me, including the porch of the family home at night and Naomi all in white in the auditorium to attend the school play. Lovely stuff.


    • That’s a good point about the doctors, Patricia – thanks. I’ve just watched ‘All That Heaven Allows’ and agree it is interesting to compare the two. Must also agree that the photography in this film is beautiful. Thank you!


  8. Pingback: All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) | Movie classics

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