Originally published in Annotations on Film, ed. Michael Koller, Melbourne Cinémathèque, Melbourne, 1990, p. 53. Republished with the permission of the author and the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
The most penetrating study of family life and values in English language cinema, scripted by Bernard Schoenfeld and directed by German émigré Douglas Sirk in the last of Hollywood’s golden years – 1956. There was an earlier version made at MGM in 1934, but this Ross Hunter production has more in common with the British Brief Encounter (1945).
Clifford Groves is a moderately affluent, ulcer-free businessman; he has a devoted wife and three statistically normal children. When asked “You are happy, aren’t you, Cliff?” he can only reply, “Sure, sure I am” (with an almost imperceptible hesitation – a cinematic gem of acting, direction and editing).
Someone from his pre-marital past, now a successful business person in her own right, returns to town. A romance that was nipped in the bud 20 years ago begins to flower before they realise it. His wife suspects nothing, his older children assume the worst. Now he is moved to say “Suddenly I feel desperate sitting in my own living room”.
All that normality, where everyone takes everyone for granted, is a tomb of his own making. But it is his whole world, and the only one he knows. Finally, the nuclear family survives, the threat to its stability goes away. The “other woman”, who is the only mature admirable character, the only one capable of making a radical decision and facing the consequences, decides for them all, and suffers alone.
So the status quo is restored, the cosy values of the Saturday Evening Post confirmed. But is this a conventional happy ending, or a profoundly subversive critique of society’s most revered institution? (the well respected “critics” of the time had no doubt it was the former, though the general audience may have experienced a deep tremor that passed undetected in the ivory towers).
For this is Hollywood’s most exquisitely poised example of what the sociologists refer to as “cognitive dissonance”: on a rational level the majority audience need the ending they get in order to confirm their own life choices, but irrationally they identify with the character who is “the threat” to all that.
The film prepares us for this sort of contradictory response in the opening scene, which is constructed like a gag (who will take the theatre tickets?), but leaves us without a punch line. In the middle of the film there is a similar aborted gag, when Cliff’s prospective daughter-in-law tries to talk to Norma, “the threat”, at her place of business.
Comparing the careers of Sirk and his forerunner in Hollywood, John M. Stahl, the overall impression is that Stahl was the superior ironist, Sirk the superior stylist. But this is Sirk’s masterpiece, in which he excels at both.
The characters, motives and situations of There’s Always Tomorrow obey the probabilities of everyday domesticity; their living space is documentary material for social historians; and flawless performances restrain the dialogue which occasionally pushes a stop over the realistic.
Sirk counterbalances these elements with the trappings of melodrama: carefully composed mise en scène (e.g. the 18-year-old son never exchanges an eyeline with his father until the final scene), Heinz Roemheld’s [with Herman Stein] lush music, and Russell Metty’s black-and-white cinematography, where actual light sources never correspond to “natural” sources (lamps, windows, etc.) and a soft edged darkness, subtly reminiscent of the horror film genre, hovers over those ineffably bland interiors.