There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

This is my contribution to the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, being organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do visit and look at the other pieces about one of the all-time greatest film stars.

there's always tomorrow 7It’s a black and white film full of shadows, with Barbara Stanwyck as the woman tempting Fred MacMurray to abandon his virtuous life. Another leading noir actress, Joan Bennett, also stars. But Douglas Sirk’s domestic melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow is worlds away from  Double Indemnity, and Stanwyck’s character here is no femme fatale – or not consciously so. However, her effect on the life of MacMurray’s character could prove to be nearly as devastating as it was in the earlier film.

I have some problems with attitudes woven into this film, which will become clear during my review, but I still find it compelling, as with all the “emotion pictures” by Sirk that I’ve seen so far. And Stanwyck is just as riveting to watch as always, giving depth to a character whose motivation isn’t always clear. This is the second time she had played an outsider returning home in a Sirk film, after the earlier All I Desire, also in black and white.

It’s also one of four films she and MacMurray made together, all very different. After enjoying Double Indemnity, the great Christmas romantic comedy Remember the Night and this one, I’ve only got The Moonlighter still to go. There’s Always Tomorrow was their last time together, though, and that gives an extra poignancy to the film, since they are cast as a couple reunited after years apart.

Barbara Stanwyck - though it's usually the kids on the phone in this film

Barbara Stanwyck – though it’s usually the kids on the phone in this film

Like several of Sirk’s other films, There’s Always Tomorrow is a remake of a 1930s film. The 1934 version starred Frank Morgan and Binnie Barnes, but it seems to be difficult to get hold of and is not on DVD, so I haven’t been able to see it as yet. The story centres on a toyshop boss, Clifford Groves (MacMurray), whose life should be perfect, but somehow isn’t. The distance between the dream and the reality is signalled in the film’s opening, with the words “Once upon a time in sunny California” – which segue into a rainsoaked scene. A woman messenger staggers into Cliff’s store, and stops to admire the toys longingly, commenting on what fun it must be to work there.

However, Cliff doesn’t find his life fun any more. Early in the film he admires a new toy, a walking, talking robot – and later on in the picture, spelling things out rather too clearly, he comments that he feels like a robot himself. “Wind me up, get up, go to work, come home, go to bed…” Cliff has been married for 20 years to Marion (Joan Bennett), and the couple have an apparently perfect home, and three children. But Cliff feels shut out – with many typically Sirkian shots of him standing outside windows while life continues on the other side. There are even windows within the house, dividing him from others in the family. He feels that Marion is too bound up in the children and doesn’t care enough about him, and that he is just seen as a meal ticket – an impression the kids certainly give at times, demanding cash before they head out.

Fred MacMurray, eating alone .

Fred MacMurray, eating alone .

Feeling lonely and misunderstood, he reacts strongly to the return of an old colleague, Norma Vale (Stanwyck), who has always carried a torch for him, and grabs the chance to spend some time with her. When the pair are thrown together by chance at a hotel, he dances, rides horses and sunbathes with her, relaxing and feeling young again – and, inevitably, the couple start to fall in love, although they keep on resisting their feelings and pretending to themselves this is just about friendship.  There is a lot of chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck, after all their cinema history together, and it’s easy to fall under their spell. But, as the haunting cinematography by Russell Metty shows, the rest of the world is always there. It’s in the shadows, glimpsed in the mirror, or hovering just outside the window.

there's always tomorrow 3

Get off the phone, son. William Reynolds with Fred MacMurray.

Stanwyck is poignantly understated as Norma, except in a couple of big emotional moments. In her scenes with MacMurray, the two reminisce about their days together, including outings linked to work, which sound as if they were almost dates… but not quite. She remembers everything that he has forgotten. As the two draw close, the suggestion is that she is giving him all the attention his own wife and family don’t, and that they are pushing him into her arms. It’s nice to see her playing such a warm character in this, with shades of some of her pre-Code roles. Norma couldn’t be more of a contrast with the icy Phyllis in Double Indemnity.

But, great though Stanwyck and MacMurray are, and however well Sirk creates the mood, I just can’t buy a lot of this. Sirk is always brilliant at dissecting perfect families and showing the tensions below the surface, and he certainly does this here – but I do feel the wife and mother gets too much of the criticism. It’s interesting to see a devoted housewife for once in the wrong in a film from this era, while the career woman is more sympathetically portrayed. But why shouldn’t supposedly perfect dad Cliff share the blame for whatever has gone wrong with his family?

Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett

Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett

I’m afraid I find it impossible to sympathise with him as much as I’m clearly supposed to, as he sulks his way through the early scenes. I also sympathise with Marion far more than most reviewers seem to. For instance, at the start, when it’s her birthday, Cliff plans a surprise dinner and theatre visit. He tries to ring her from work, but can’t get through (his kids are on the line), so, when he gets home, he springs his plans on her. Unfortunately, their daughter, Frankie, who looks about 10, has a big ballet performance planned and her mother has promised to watch – so she can’t go out for dinner, and Cliff is left to eat alone at home, wearing an apron for good measure. (He doesn’t actually have to cook anything, as the housekeeper has done that.)

But, going against the grain of the film, I’d have to ask, what on earth is Marion supposed to do here? Break her daughter’s heart? Also, why doesn’t Cliff know that his daughter has a big dance show, and why can’t he be bothered to go and watch it himself?  And, if he is such a devoted husband, why does he wait until the last minute to arrange anything for his wife’s birthday?

A stolen tender moment for Stanwyck and MacMurray

A stolen tender moment for Stanwyck and MacMurray

Later, when he is planning to whisk Marion away for a weekend, the plans are spoilt again by Frankie falling over and injuring her leg – it turns out to be just a sprain but Marion fears it could be fractured. Again, all the indications are that we’re supposed to think Marion is being completely unreasonable by deciding she can’t go away for a weekend while her daughter is laid up. I’m sorry, but, as any parent knows, plans are always having to be rearranged for this kind of reason – it’s life.There are plenty of films where heartless mothers are castigated for ignoring their children. Here, this one is put in the wrong for loving them too much.

As well as finding Marion sympathetic, I also don’t see the kids as monsters. Sirk specialises in selfish children, as with the appalling specimens in his film previous to this one, All That Heaven Allows. But here the children are younger and I think a level of selfishness is more understandable.

A perfect family - or are they?

A perfect family – or are they?

There is a suggestion at one point that Marion is trapped in her life just as much as her husband is in his, as she goes over her dreary list of chores for the next day, but the film doesn’t linger on this. Admittedly, there are also hints that she turns away from her husband sexually, with a couple of scenes showing them in their Production Code twin beds, where she falls asleep as soon as she gets into bed. But this is really just left as a hint.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the marriage, though, it’s impossible not to sympathise with Cliff and Norma as they snatch their brief moments of happiness, and can’t even enjoy those because of worrying about what will come next. At heart, this is another romance like Brief Encounter, where everything seems to be stacked against a couple who find each other too late. Can they really go ahead and break up Cliff’s happy home, or must he go back to being a robot?

Lastly, just to add that I saw this on the Masters of Cinema DVD in region 2, which has great picture quality and includes a featurette about Sirk.

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22 thoughts on “There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

  1. An excellent movie, and well written up here. I can understand your criticisms of the plotting and see where you’re coming from but they weren’t barriers for me. Sirk’s always good at going against the grain and I think that’s what he’s trying to do here, although everyone will naturally have their own take on how successfully that’s done.
    Overall, I like this one, but then I’m a sucker for Sirk’s visual panache and the sharpness of his commentary, and the of course the stars.

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    • Thanks very much, Colin. I do agree on Sirk’s visual brilliance and how sharp he is at commenting on families and their failings. But I just felt that at times Marion seems to get the blame too much, which was a surprise from a director who is so sympathetic to women. I do agree that it is an excellent film anyway. I have been impressed by all the Sirk films I’ve seen and hope to catch up with those I haven’t had a chance to see yet.

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  2. Pingback: THE REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON HAS NOW ARRIVED – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

    • Thanks, I appreciate that – I read a few reviews which slammed Marion and set my hackles rising! I do love melodramas, but I think the powerful black and white photography of this and the fact that Stanwyck and MacMurray are together might make it appeal to you too.

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  3. Great review; I think you tapped into a lot of the issues I have with this film – it certainly hasn’t dated well! Perhaps we watch through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia, but I find it hard to believe that a (seemingly intelligent) director like Sirk would be comfortable portraying women in such a negative way.

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    • Thank you. I actually think he portrays Stanwyck’s character quite positively and challenges stereotypes of spinsters/career women – I think I should have said more about this. But unfortunately the portrayal of Bennett’s character is more negative.

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  4. I get rather annoyed with Fred MacMurray’s character in this film, even though I think Fred does a marvelous job. Like you, I feel he could shoulder some of the responsibility of his family.

    This film is kind of a guilty pleasure for me. I wouldn’t list it as one of my faves, but when it’s on TV I can’t not watch it! …Perhaps I like it more than I’m willing to admit…

    Great review!

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    • MacMurray is an actor who’s really grown on me as I’ve seen more of his films – I enjoy his work a lot more now than I used to, and have realised how versatiole he is. But sounds as if we are on the same page about his character in this! Thank you.

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  5. Until reading your review, I was never aware that Fred and Barbara had teamed up on something besides ‘Double Indemnity’…then I continued reading and discovered they’d teamed up FOUR times! And the way you described the characters played by Stanwyck and Bennett reminded me of ‘Brief Encounter’, and how Celia Johnson’s husband wasn’t such a bad guy, and how one might feel a bit sympathetic towards him…I’m guessing like how you felt towards Bennett. A cool review, Judy!

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    • Todd, that’s an interesting comparison – yes, there are similarities with ‘Brief Encounter’, which is one of my all-time favourite films. From memory, I feel that film doesn’t include as much criticism of him as this one does of Bennett, on the surface anyway, although perhaps he is made to seem rather boring and in the background. Thanks very much!

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  6. Sorry Judy for taking so long to reply. I have only just returned to blogging after a long hiatus due to being away. I have only just got around to reading all the entries now. Thanks for participating in the blogathon with such an excellent article on a great film.

    Oh by the way, I’m hosting another blogathon in April, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/announcing-the-bette-davis-blogathon/

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