There’s Always Tomorrow (1956 USA 84 mins)
Source: NFVLS Prod Co: Universal International Prod: Ross Hunter Dir: Douglas Sirk Scr: Bernard C. Schoenfeld, based on a story by Ursula Parrott Phot: Russell Metty Ed: William Morgan Art Dir: Alexander Golitzen, Eric Orbom Mus: Herman Stein, Heinz Roemheld, Joseph Gershenson
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Pat Crowley, Jane Darwell, William Reynolds, Gigi Perreau
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.
– Douglas Sirk (1)
Douglas Sirk’s films are descriptive. Very few close-ups. Even in shot-counter-shot the other person doesn’t appear fully in the frame. The spectator’s intense feeling is not a result of identification, but montage and music.
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder (2)
Fassbinder is certainly onto something when he describes Sirk’s films as “descriptive”. Despite the common critical view that his melodramas are pregnant with subtextual meanings and undercurrents waiting to be decoded by later, more sophisticated viewers (or more precisely critics), their often withering but also sometimes quite exact and matter-of-fact view of 1950s bourgeois America is very much to the surface of the films and, I would argue, any audience’s response to them. In such heightened works as Magnificent Obsession (1954) or Written on the Wind (1957) this “view” is a little obscured by the films’ “equally” extraordinary display of commodities, colours and lifestyles, presenting themselves as both “dark” views of wealthy, waspish, consumerist America and as kinds of advertising (3). Even in such an ostensibly sober and straightforwardly critical or tragic film as There’s Always Tomorrow, “Sirk’s sense of the upscale suburban home as a spectacularly overdecorated tomb” (4) is mixed-and-matched with producer Ross Hunter’s overarching sensibility of “sentimentality and tacky display” (5). But the greatness of There’s Always Tomorrow arises from the manner in which Sirk produces a sense of the former out of the materials of the latter.
A connected notion of “display” or distance is at the heart of Fassbinder’s very sympathetic and impassioned account of Sirk. His use of the term “description” suggesting a filmmaker at some distance removed from his material, a possibly great social artist subverting or slumming it in the self-consciously commercial world of Universal melodrama. But I think that Fassbinder is somewhat inaccurate when stating that the “intense feeling” generated by Sirk’s films is “not the result of identification”. A film like There’s Always Tomorrow – which Fassbinder had admittedly not seen when writing his tribute – certainly has a highly expressive, almost documentary-like quality to it, but it still engages its audience on the level of identification. The world that its central character, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray), an upstanding, mild-mannered man taken for granted by his family, is entombed within might be, and quite possibly is, uncannily like our own.
There’s Always Tomorrow is one of the least discussed of Sirk’s great melodramas of the 1950s (partly because it is more rightly categorised as a social drama). Part of the common attraction of the films Sirk made for Universal from 1954 onwards is their tension between self-conscious display and deeper levels of meaning and feeling (often within those characters who are most on display). There’s Always Tomorrow has probably been less celebrated generally because it seems both less overt (or baroque or expressionist) and more straightforward. As James Harvey suggests, the story and situations that unfold within it are truly “monstrous” (6) but also quite mundane in how they describe the progression of everyday events, and the inescapable “tomb” or cage that Cliff is inevitably consigned to. Little happens in this film that moves beyond the realm of quotidian drama. The heightened states of emotion and expression that categorise Sirk’s extraordinary colour melodramas are muted here, and the life that is pumped back into its central characters – but only momentarily to allow them the bitter taste of possibility, a world beyond that they have been sacrificed to – is always tinged with a hopeless melancholy. And this is true from the very opening of the film. As Harvey suggests, this has much to do with the quality of the performances, particularly that of Stanwyck: “And Stanwyck’s Norma shows – as this actress usually does – a complicated consciousness from the start, when Cliff first opens his front door on her. She is glowing, but nervously.” (7) This subtle, non-hysterical quality and an incipient naturalism are amongst the qualities that led John Flaus to calling There’s Always Tomorrow, “The most penetrating study of family life and values in English language cinema” (8). Though a bold claim, such a response indicates a level of insight and drama that are never showy but emerge, very believably, from the small-scale interactions of the characters and their situation. The stuff of tragedy emanates from the suburban home. It also emanates, in a more self-conscious fashion, from the memory of MacMurray and Stanwyck together in earlier, more sexually-charged films: Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940) and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944).
As some critics have suggested, There’s Always Tomorrow can be read as a kind of reversal of the story of Sleeping Beauty. Cliff is awoken to the possibilities of romance by Norma, a physical world beyond that he is routinely abandoned to by his very needy but neglectful family (his wife is always too tired, sleeps in her own, tantalisingly adjacent, but unimpeachably solitary single bed). It is this awakening, this emergence into consciousness, that is the most the heart wrenching and soul-destroying spectacle staged by the film. It is the film. Although made weary by the endless demands of family life, and his ironic profession of bringing “joy” to children through the creation of toys, Cliff is never truly aware of what he is missing in life until Norman appears, unexpectedly, at his door. Rather than representing a figure he was once in love with – we get the impression that he under-appreciated her when she worked with him 20 years before – she stands in for the kind of life, and opportunity, that has been obliterated by his family and the mundanity and small-scale crowdedness of suburban living. She also aptly brings into focus the sense of “removal” Sirk discusses above. Although Cliff does ultimately fall in love with her, or at least the idea of her, this occurs gradually and only after his senses and physical relation to the world have been reinvigorated. The weekend he spends with Norma at a resort in the desert is remarkable for the sense of light and physical sensation it brings into the film (less notable in itself than in terms of contrast). Much could be made of the scene where the couple go horseback riding, and is, but it is as significant for its sense of tactility as it is for its sexual connotations.
The film’s lighting, design and camerawork brilliantly support Sirk’s overarching thesis. Although the hearth of the fire in the Groves’ home is always lit, and every detail of décor reinforces it as a “normal”, upwardly mobile suburban residence, it is crowded with shadows, cramped spaces, frames within frames, panes of glass and mirrors, and clusterings of furniture that suggest both the family circle and the separation of bodies into slightly compartmentalised spaces. This interior space is vast enough to allow characters to move relatively freely through it – and for the routinely despicable children to both escape from and spy on their father – but not so much so that these characters can’t also constantly impose their dominating and censoring presence vocally or sonically throughout the house (it is this, amongst many other things, that reinforces the sense of Cliff’s ultimate entombment). This is highlighted in the first scene set inside the Groves’ house. Cliff returns home from the office, excited by the night he has planned for his wife’s birthday. Everything that immediately follows illustrates his circumscribed role within the family as well as the domestic space: his son rudely tells him to be quiet when calling to his wife; his elder daughter prattles on about her “emotional problems” and subsequently asks for money; his wife allows him a peck on the cheek, offers a passionless platitude about the flowers he’s brought her, and exclaims the impossibility of the two of them spending the night together. This quietly elaborate scene is brilliantly choreographed and timed, moving all of the characters through the domestic space and then outside of it in about five minutes of screen duration, leaving Cliff to don an apron and eat his dinner alone. It is a little later that Norma comes to the door, a barely remembered figure from Cliff’s past but potent enough to stand in for everything he’s lost. Her response to the home also indicates her own longing, but many of the details of mise en scène suggest that there is something not quite right with this “picture”. For example, she admiringly picks up a framed family photograph, benignly chilling in its perfect composition of mother, son, daughters and absent father.
In his extraordinary but sometimes limiting taxonomy of American cinema, Andrew Sarris places Sirk amongst those directors he sees as working or existing on the “far side of paradise” (9). Sarris’ project is mostly canonical, but many of the directors he places in this category – such as Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and of course Sirk – commonly provided a more critical, some might say cynical, view of American society, particularly in the 1950s. Sarris’ title for this category, like Sirk’s for the film, also has an ironic dimension. The great irony of Sirk’s title – and his titles in general, though many were taken from earlier works – is that although his film is all about the painful reality of such tomorrows – the kind that Cliff has been consigned to – it is also the ultimate lack of hope in what tomorrow may offer that nails the film’s bleak conclusions. The opening title card of the film promises “Once upon a time, in sunny California…”, and then opens onto the rain-swept, darkened street outside of Cliff’s toy company. Before moving inside we see nondescript signage announcing Cliff’s toy business, and despite attempts by visitors to proclaim the opposite (“What a dreamy place to work in!”), the interior of his offices is crowded, like his home, by encroaching shadows, grim looking dolls and clowns, and a range of toys that will, ultimately, only serve to remind Cliff of all he has lost (or never had?). However, the parlous state of Cliff’s existence is not just left to be read into the mise en scène, it is openly recognised and stated by the characters. It is in this regard that Rex the “walkie-talkie” Robot ultimately takes centre stage. This endlessly manipulable “mechanical man” provides a no-nonsense analogue for Cliff, as he and Norma exchange pleasantries about the “high hopes” held for him. But Cliff also directly voices his dissatisfaction and wish/need to leave his family for Norma; oblivious, as always, his wife totally fails to read the signs and volume of his grief.
I have said little about the representation of children or Cliff’s wife, brilliantly played by Joan Bennett as a brittle, prim and proper housewife, as well as a character also lost to the malaise of bourgeois existence (and her children), in this article. As in many of Sirk’s films, the children emerge as the greatest forces of social control in the family; as in Sirk’s immediately previous film All that Heaven Allows (1955), William Reynolds’ son becomes the embodiment of such conservatism, emerging in both dress and manner (his hyper-grave expression, exaggeratedly upright posture, snipingly suspicious morality) as the greatest threat to and censor of Cliff’s position in the family. The film’s conclusion suggests that not just Cliff, but also his children, have become aware of the careless way in which the father has been used by the family. The last moments intimate a slight readjustment of their attitude, showing us the children looking admiringly at the “handsome” couple their parents make. But nothing in the film can make us believe that Cliff has escaped his entombment, or that his family won’t quickly return to the frighteningly inattentive ways of old. There’s Always Tomorrow highlights the possibility of change, difference, and happiness, only to stage their ultimate denial. As Sirk himself somewhat bleakly suggested: “I certainly believe happiness exists… if only by the simple fact that it can be destroyed.” (10)
- Sirk quoted in Jon Halliday, “Douglas Sirk”, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The Major Film-makers, Volume 2: Kinugasa to Zanussi, ed. Richard Roud, The Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 924.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Fassbinder on Sirk”, trans. Thomas Elsaesser, Film Comment vol. 11, no. 6, November-December 1975, p. 22.
- See Barbara Klinger’s fascinating account of consumerist display and nascent product placement in Written on the Wind: “Selling Melodrama: Sex, Affluence, and Written on the Wind”, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, pp. 36-68.
- James Harvey, Movie Love in the Fifties, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001, p. 374.
- Harvey, p. 380.
- Harvey, p. 372.
- Harvey, p. 388.
- John Flaus, “There’s Always Tomorrow”, Annotations on Film, ed. Clare Stewart, Melbourne Cinémathèque, 1995, p. 23 (reprinted from Annotations on Film, 1990).
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996 (originally published 1968), pp. 83-121.
- Sirk quoted in Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1979, p. 130.