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.
This 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.
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.
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.