By Catherine Russell.
The cinema exalts the role at the same time that it destroys the actor.”—Edgar Morin, The Stars
Stanwyck made two films with Douglas Sirk in the 1950s—All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1955)—in which she gives two of her finest performances. In both films her characters are loners who interrupt family life, but more than that, they are luminous idealized women who sweep into and over families like forces of nature. And yet both Naomi in All I Desire and Norma Vale in There’s Always Tomorrow are also desiring women who think they may long for family life, but they aren’t sure. Unlike some of Sirk’s better-known films, these two are shot in black-and-white, with dark shadowy scenes of emotional tension, uncertainty, and despair in which Stanwyck’s characters—professional women—remain on the peripheries of family homes.
Sirk remarked in his interview with Jon Halliday in 1972 that although he greatly respected Stanwyck as an actress, in 1953 she was not as big a box- office draw as she previously had been: “In this picture [All I Desire] she had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her. This was a pre-study of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life.” Sirk seems to blend Stanwyck’s star image with the character of Naomi Murdoch in All I Desire, and the parallels between them as older professional women actors open up a critical space, not of identity but of disjunction and pastiche. By recognizing Stanwyck’s role in the collaboration, it is clear that far from being “destroyed,” as Morin implies, she fully embodies the role. Her performance contributes to the emotional intensity of these films precisely because Sirk gives her the attention of a movie star, subtly underscoring her professionalism as a performer and a star.
In contrast to many of her other roles, with Sirk Stanwyck radiates what Andrew Klevan describes as a “stillness,” an attitude of listening, and her emotions are kept largely inside. For Stanwyck, acting was about thinking, and she was said to be “cold” and antisocial on the set of All I Desire, retreating between scenes to focus on her character, Naomi, although she also professed real disdain for the picture. She said, somewhat disparagingly, of All I Desire, that it’s yet another woman trying to make up for past mistakes: “I understand the motives of the bad women I play. My only problem is finding a way to play my 40th fallen female in a different way than my 34th.” And yet Sirk understood how she had played the role (or similar roles) many times, and he used her presence as a forty-six-year-old star as a subtle mode of ironic social critique. Her star status was big enough to “sell” the picture but not enough, according to Sirk, to make the film in color. Universal lacked its own stable of stars, and thus Sirk needed Stanwyck’s star power to get both films made.
In the mid-1950s Stanwyck was still strongly identified with the woman’s film of the 1930s and ’40s, despite the fact that she had diversified into several other genres by that time. In the mid-1950s the big stars were older men and younger women; mothers were less exalted and more often demonized, and thus the genre of the woman’s film had begun to fade, so Sirk’s intervention is a darkly ironic, revisionist take on the genre. For Richard Dyer, pastiche is always historical in its formal language and is often apparent in genre revision. Genres that become self-conscious may be described as “postmodern” parody, but they may well operate more subtly on the level of affect alone. Dyer notes that the production of pastiche occurs in periods “which feel themselves coming at the end of an era” and may signal “the perception by a social group that cultural forms do not speak for them.” Because pastiche is not “cerebrally observed but felt,” the term seems particularly appropriate to the late woman’s films of Sirk and Stanwyck.
All I Desire was adapted from a novel called Stopover, and Sirk himself preferred Carol Brink’s original title because of its ironic implications. In his view the film is about a woman who “comes back with all her dreams, her love—and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit middle-class American family.” As a title, All I Desire might mean that the protagonist has everything she desires, or it might mean that she is content with what she has or that she remains unfulfilled. In any case, like My Reputation (1946), the first person of the title refers to Stanwyck’s character, placing her at the emotional center of the plot (see chapter Y). The posters for All I Desire exploited the “desire” reference with a steamy caricatured couple bearing no resemblance whatsoever to either Stanwyck or anyone else in the film, placing it squarely in the “adult” category of 1950s cinema. However, the taglines—“Now he knew her as other men had” and “Now he knew she had known other nights like this”—shift the subject from the desiring woman to the cuckolded man.
Compared to the melodrama that Stanwyck made with Fritz Lang, Clash by Night (1952), Sirk’s films with Stanwyck are restrained, even if the theme of the single woman arriving in a small town (or suburb) is repeated in all three films. In the Lang film as well, her arrival causes havoc. For Sirk, Stanwyck is already larger than life, and his two films with her are thus already about performance. In All I Desire her character is an actress who has left her family to pursue a career on the stage; in There’s Always Tomorrow she is a professional fashion designer who drops in on an old friend (played by Fred MacMurray) who is married with children. The polarization of family and career was of course of topical concern in the 1950s as women were becoming more entrenched in the workplace, while “domestic life” was at the same time becoming reified through consumer culture. Neither film ends up happily, even if the family “wins” in both cases. Sirk would have preferred to follow the novel and have Naomi cast out at the end of All I Desire, free from the trap of the home, but he was obliged by producer Ross Hunter to have Naomi reunite with her family. As Lucy Fischer argues, the narrative thus becomes not a stopover but a makeover “from a showgirl to a bourgeois queen…. Naomi’s masquerade as a mother becomes a permanent ‘imitation of life.’”
In Sirk’s films the look and feel of actions and settings tends to challenge the logic of narrative events and their implications. One of the most striking features of All I Desire is that the 1900 setting is represented through costume and transportation (horses and carriages) but is not apparent at all in the behavior or speech of the characters.”
The ending of All I Desire is far from satisfying. Among other things, Naomi’s husband, Henry (Richard Carlson), a school principal, has a romantic (if platonic) relationship with another woman, Sara Harper (Maureen O’Sullivan), the high school drama teacher, that is abruptly aborted when Naomi decides to stay. Michael Walker argues that, given that Naomi’s presence in Riverdale as a spectacle of wanton behavior is strongly repudiated by the patriarchal establishment (Henry’s boss), Henry’s final acceptance of her constitutes a challenge to the narrow-minded small-town prejudices. This interpretation, however, pays short shrift to the women characters, one of whom is simply cast aside, and the other, Naomi, is enveloped by a shadowy, tomb-like home.
In Sirk’s films the look and feel of actions and settings tends to challenge the logic of narrative events and their implications. One of the most striking features of All I Desire is that the 1900 setting is represented through costume and transportation (horses and carriages) but is not apparent at all in the behavior or speech of the characters. The home to which Naomi returns in Riverdale may appear from the outside as a Victorian mansion, but inside it looks like a split-level open plan 1950s suburban home, granted with floral wallpaper and period furniture. It functions as a trap with the use of balustrades, shadows, and, above all, overcrowding, and it is full of mouthy teenagers. Naomi’s two daughters, whom she has not seen for over ten years, are opinionated and self-possessed, clearly grounded in 1950s America and its burgeoning youth culture. They dance the bunny-hug instead of the bunny-hop, and all the men in the film are clean-shaven, sporting ’50s-era short haircuts, rendering the “period” setting extremely thin.
Naomi’s husband, Henry, is a helpless weak-kneed pushover who is oblivious to the crush that Sara has on him until Naomi points it out—at the point where she says she’s leaving again. Naomi’s difference from this small- town community is not only that she is played by a bigger (and better) movie star, but Naomi is smarter than everyone too. Toward the end of the film she explains to her young son that “people you want to be perfect aren’t always perfect.” She does not ask her son for forgiveness. She is leaving because she has accidentally shot her former lover, Dutch (Lyle Bettger), at a rendezvous in the woods (after giving him a good hard punch to resist his advances). Despite her apparent contempt for characters like Naomi, Stanwyck plays her with dignity, because Naomi is a spectacle, drawing the gaze of all the “ordinary” small-town men and women, even if most of her costumes are buttoned-up, long-sleeved, floor-length frocks. Talking to her daughters about the trials and tribulations of being an actor, she admits that the theater is a jungle: “I have no glory, no glamour, and bruises on my illusions.” She confesses that she is not performing the classics on Broadway but rather burlesque vaudeville, soon to be “billed below the dog acts.” Stanwyck might have been talking about being cast in what she considered to be a soapy adult film at Universal, but at her age she took what she could get.
The tenuous parallel between Stanwyck’s story and that of her character is one anachronism that is legible only in retrospect. In these Sirk films she is precipitating her own legacy as an older woman actor, a woman destined to be perpetually out of sync with the youth culture that was slowly transforming the industry and society at large. She reveals her vulnerability and also that all is not as it appears, which is the key to the Sirkian universe. It is her character alone who can see through the illusions. Naomi’s two speeches, to her daughters and to her son, are made as she prepares to leave. The fact that she changes her mind and finally stays in Riverdale changes very little, as she will always be an outsider in her own family. What does Naomi want? She is simply too big for the town. Playing an actress enables Stanwyck to occupy center stage fully, making entrances like a queen, spreading waves of awe and jealousy around her. Naomi’s performance in Riverdale is as the actress she once was or hoped to be, although there is little evidence that she was anything more than a burlesque queen.
The problem All I Desire sets out to solve is the reconciliation of such a figure with a reformed housewife, and in 1950s America burlesque is code for sex, but it also conceals another link to Stanwyck’s own biography. Burlesque is the title of the second Broadway play in which Stanwyck had a speaking part, and it was a key transition from her being a cabaret performer to becoming an actress in 1927. The street-smart, hard-nosed Stanwyck image—embedded in her lingering Brooklyn accent—is tied precisely to her roots as a cabaret dancer. The authenticity of such a woman is furthermore attached to Stanwyck through her role as a singing and dancing, scantily dressed burlesque queen in the 1942 film Lady of Burlesque, a follow-up to the 1941 hit Ball of Fire, the Howard Hawks film in which she plays a streetwise no-nonsense big-band singer.
Lady of Burlesque, based on the novel The G-String Murders by former burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, was made during the war, when Stanwyck was at the peak of her career. She plays a starring dancer in a close- knit vaudeville troupe doing a tired show in “the Old Opera House” on Broadway, which was once the stage for a classy highbrow opera company. Stanwyck’s tap dance routine with Bert Hanlon is fantastic, and she shakes her thing quite righteously throughout the film. Showing a lot of leg, she does the splits, a cartwheel, Cossack dancing, and maintains a steady jazzy beat throughout. The theme song concerns the workaday trials of a performer who needs to keep kicking it up “four shows a day.” Stanwyck mobilizes the troupe to find the ghost who is haunting them by reminding the girls that they are stockholders in the company and have something at stake in the old theater. “Burlesque” in Lady of Burlesque is tied not only to the display of women’s bodies but also to community, solidarity, and working-class pride. The burlesque trope in All I Desire, in other words, invokes a class difference between Naomi and the bourgeoisie of Riverdale. In their mix she can masquerade as one of them, but her truth is that she belongs outside, along with her vitality, her wisdom, and her ownership of the spectacle. Stanwyck herself was able to harness her burlesque background for her great mid-career comeback in the early 1940s, and for Naomi it is a signifier of her desire, as well as her class difference (see chapter V).
Though treated as a ‘tear-jerker’ that Stanwyck’s female fans would appreciate, All I Desire‘s resonance for contemporary audiences is quite different, due to the conflation of production design and performance that renders the emotional terrain palpable as a social drama and as a historical treatment of the new role of teenagers in American society, who literally gang up on the adults until Stanwyck/Norma talks them down.”
Stanwyck has two voice-over monologues in All I Desire: one at the very beginning, in which she sets up the story, and another in which she is in the audience of her daughter’s play at the high school theater. She is awestruck by the performance, commenting on how perfect her daughter Lily’s gestures are. She is in fact describing what acting is, underscoring her own elegance, which is so at odds with everyone else’s stiff awkwardness and breathless delivery. Because Sirk repeatedly cuts away from Lily on the stage to Naomi in the audience—glowing in a white lace gown, feather-edged wrap, and a glittery choker—it is in fact she, not Lily, whom we cannot look away from. On one level, All I Desire may be regarded as yet another film that undercuts its own discourse of female autonomy and agency insofar as Naomi does return at the end to the status of what Sirk himself describes as an “unknown woman.” However, no character that Stanwyck plays can be an unknown or ordinary woman, especially in the postwar period. She is always a movie star, and Sirk highlights that with his lighting, costume, and editing that lets Naomi steal every scene she is in.
In the case of All I Desire, I would like to suggest that although Naomi remains in every way an outcast in her own home, and despite the ostensible happy ending, the “desire” at stake remains critically muted—for the character and for the spectator—because we are watching a performance. Through the performativity of the curious mise-en-scène and the reflexivity of Stanwyck’s “star” performance, the film can and should be seen as a pastiche of a woman’s film, which is to say a revisionist reflection on the genre. As a form of pastiche, the discrepancy in All I Desire between the nominal setting of 1900 and the 1950s styles that I have noted is also a discrepancy within the terms of the woman’s film, which by 1953 is showing signs of wear.
Despite the racy poster, All I Desire was sold as a woman’s film in the trades, where it was described as a “soap opera” that would appeal to “woman folk.” It was heavily promoted in women’s magazines, reportedly reaching 90 million readers. In Modern Screen it is noted that Stanwyck gifted the cast and crew with beautiful gold presents at the conclusion of the shoot (perhaps to compensate for her antisocial behavior, which had also been reported in the press). In the same magazine, when “Barbara” changes her mind about leaving town, it is because “this time, her husband bestirs himself to act like a man.” Masculinity is clearly the issue here, even if it is framed as the fulfillment of a woman’s desire.
There’s Always Tomorrow is arguably a stronger film because of Fred MacMurray’s performance as a deeply unhappy man (see chapter M). Joan Bennett plays his wife, who pays more attention to their children than to him and is described by one misogynist critic as “housewife as monster.” The poster for the film featured all three actors, suggesting a ménage à trois and, at the same time, strong ensemble acting. Marion (Bennett) never seems to realize that her marriage is threatened by Norma, although her teenage children certainly do. When they confront Norma about stealing their father, she gives them a stern lecture about how they have neglected their father and they need to show him a little love. She then finally breaks up with Cliff (MacMurray) and leaves Los Angeles to return to New York.
Norma Vale is a fashion designer, and Stanwyck’s wardrobe is appro- priately flashy, elegant, and extravagant. Designer Jay A. Morley uses strong blacks and whites for her outfits, including a luxurious white fur stole, a black high-collared dress, and a harlequin-patterned jacket. The fact that Stanwyck’s character is a high-profile designer gives her some agency in creating these outfits, and this arguably extends to Stanwyck’s own performance. If Sirk’s cinema is all about appearances, here we have a character who is a professional manager of her own and others’ looks and is always outsmarting everyone with her “flair.” She is visually out of sync with everyone in the film. At one point in the film, Marion visits Norma’s studio/dress shop with Ann (Pat Crowley), her son Vinnie’s girlfriend. Marion tries on a full-skirted “New Look” dress with a white sequined bodice and a black skirt with a sheen to it, but she refuses to take it home, even on approval, despite the urging of both Ann and Norma. “It’s too youthful for me,” complains Marion, by which the film draws attention to how Stanwyck’s costumes make her appear more youthful and dynamic than the rest of the characters. In the dress shop and in an earlier scene at a Palm Springs hotel (where she and Cliff have “accidentally” found themselves at the same time), she does a quick little run up a short flight of stairs. At Palm Springs Norma and Cliff go horseback riding—Stanwyck’s trademark sport—and she is very much the accomplished horsewoman, while Cliff lags behind. Norma/Stanwyck seems larger than life, as if floating through a film in which everyone else is gray and inert.
Sirk opens There’s Always Tomorrow with a rather obvious cue to its irony. After the opening title, “Once upon a time in Sunny California,” he cuts to a downpour that seems to last most of the film. As a disruptive, destabilizing force, Stanwyck as Norma Vale brings something of her own star power to the film, not only as a woman who knows how to “dress for success” but also as an independent businesswoman. The loneliness of Norma Vale is a freedom that only the character of Ann is able to glimpse from within the diegesis. From the outside, we can see that Sirk’s expressive formalism, extended here to the world of fashion and costume design, is closely aligned to the casting of Stanwyck and her ability to be both extraordinarily restrained and extraordinarily alive.
There’s Always Tomorrow is also a woman’s film, based on a novel by Ursula Parrott, and the sympathetic knowingness between Marion and Norma is symptomatic and indicative of its target audience. But by shifting the focus from thwarted desires to performativity, we can begin to see how these two films are as much about male disappointment and failure as they are about women’s suffering. In both films Stanwyck brings a knowingness and wisdom that synchronizes well with Sirk’s double-voiced style, acting out Norma’s emotions but also lecturing the children on how to feel and how to love. She embodies an authenticity and moral authority that seems to be foreclosed by family life. She is too late for Cliff but not too late for the world and its opportunities.
There’s Always Tomorrow did not impress the critics in 1955, and the reviews are indicative of the worn-outness of the woman’s film as a genre. It was in fact a remake of a 1934 version by Edward Sloman. Although it was in part treated as a “social problem” film about contemporary marriage, with one theater owner bringing in a marriage counselor to promote the picture, it was also treated as a “tear-jerker” that Stanwyck’s female fans would appreciate. Its resonance for contemporary audiences is quite different, due to the conflation of production design and performance that renders the emotional terrain palpable as a social drama and as a historical treatment of the new role of teenagers in American society, who literally gang up on the adults until Stanwyck/Norma talks them down.
My Reputation provides an interesting comparison to the two Sirk films, as it is a more conventional “generic” woman’s film. The story anticipates the narrative of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955): Stanwyck’s character, Jessica Drummond (a name that is recycled in Forty Guns ), is a widow who falls for an army major, played by George Brent. Her two sons are against the relationship and cause her grief for most of the film, until the boys finally accept the couple and the major goes off to war. Although she is the top-billed star and completely carries the film, Stanwyck’s character blends into the ensemble in terms of performance style. The children in the 1940s are a little younger too and lack the discursive power of teenagers in the 1950s. As “late” woman’s films, the two Sirk-Stanwyck collaborations point to the way that performativity is a conceptual place where Sirk’s particular mode of irony meets Stanwyck’s strengths as an actress. The films perform a strong, if nuanced, cultural critique of the closures of domesticity, but the critique comes from a place of pride on the parts of both director and actor.
While All I Desire draws on Stanwyck’s star image as a working-class heroine, in the later film Norma Vale is a wealthy single professional, widening the gap between Stanwyck’s 1955 persona and the “Stella Dallas” figure of her prewar career. And yet there remains an affinity between the actress and the role that is subtly exploited to underline Norma Vale’s autonomy, freedom, and independence from the entrapment of family. Toward the end of the film, Norma and Cliff meet at a rooftop bar where he has tracked her down, and he confesses that he loves her, but she demurs, knowing that their relationship is not possible. She tells him to leave, and the shot lingers on her standing with eyes lowered, wearing her white fur stole, with shadows crossing her body. Stanwyck’s face and posture evoke a deep sorrow, enhanced by the “Blue Moon” theme music, which is a song essentially about loneliness.
Whether Stanwyck herself was a lonely woman we do not know, but in the popular imagination, an unmarried woman was necessarily lonely. Thus her star image in the mid-1950s evoked a mystique, or what acting theorist Benoît-Constant Coquelin called a “first self.” The idea of a first self/second self conception of performance is a useful way to understand “naturalist” performance, which is easily overlooked as a craft. Paul McDonald uses the distinction between impersonation (the second self) and personification (the first self) as a means of recognizing the actor’s labor in constructing both levels. A movie star is by definition a familiar face and a known persona—in her “first self ”—and thus there is always a tension in star performance between their two identities: the one in the story and the one selling the show. In the Sirk-Stanwyck collaborations they were able to exploit that tension to create complex women who are torn between competing desires, desires that are also signifiers of larger social forces. Stanwyck’s performance coincides with Sirk’s expressive mise-en-scène to create a subtle, yet deeply moving, critique of the limitations and repressions that are endemic to middle-class American life. While Sirk’s style has been appreciated on the level of theatricality and narrativity, Stanwyck’s work with him is exceptional on the level of performance.
In both Sirk films, Stanwyck conveys a deep pathos, but it is accompanied by wisdom. She does not fit into these bourgeois families on multiple levels, and that disjunction or slippage can also be read as a kind of asynchrony or a being out of time. In this sense, for twenty-first-century cinephilic audiences who appreciate Sirk’s expressive formalism and social critique, Stanwyck’s characters are with us, or provide an affective point of entry to the repressive mean-spirited families of the 1950s, imprisoned in their shadowy mausoleum-like homes. These films actually compound and complicate the identification of the actor with her roles. On one hand we can see Stanwyck as the diva she never was, professionally, precisely as the queen of a genre—the woman’s film—that indulged in suffering, trauma, and regret. On the other hand she emerges in the mid-1950s, however briefly, as bigger than all of that loss, transcendent and elegant, glowing, as the genre itself dissolves into the drama of masculinity. She is a star who will grow brighter as she fades.
- Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday, New York: Faber and Faber, 1997: 89.
- Andrew Klevan, Barbara Stanwyck, London: BFI, 2013: 110.
- Victoria Wilson, The Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, New York: Faber and Faber, 2013: 76.
- Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck, Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2023: 179.
- Ella Smith, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, 241–42.
- Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, 89.
- Richard Dyer, Pastiche, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2007: 131.
- Ibid., 132.
- Ibid., 133.
- Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, 89.
- Barbara Klinger, in Melodrama and Meaning, has argued that Sirk’s
films of the 1950s were largely marketed as adult films.
- Although I use the term “melodrama” in this book as an “umbrella
genre,” as defined by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (see
chapter B), some films, such as the Sirk films and Clash by Night, can
also be classified as domestic melodramas.
- Lucy Fischer, “Sirk and the Figure of the Actress: All I Desire,” Film Criticism 23:2/3 (1999), 144.
- Ibid., 148.
- Michael Walker, “All I Desire,” Film Criticism 23:2/3 (1999), 37.
- Wilson, The Life of Barbara Stanwyck, 95.
- Fischer, “Sirk and the Figure of the Actress,” 146, quoting a Sirk
interview in Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk.
- Review of All I Desire, Motion Picture Herald, February 6, 1954, 35.
- “U.I’s Summer Releases,” Motion Picture Daily, June 15, 1953;
“National Pre- Selling,” Motion Picture Daily, May 14, 1953.
- “Hollywood Report,” Modern Screen, April 1953, 88.
- Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck, 183.
- “Manager’s Round Table,” Motion Picture Herald, January 21, 1956, 40.
- L.A. Examiner, n.d., There’s Always Tomorrow Production File,
Margaret Herrick Library.
- Sharon Marie Carnicke, “The Screen Actor’s ‘First Self ’ and
‘Second Self ’: John Wayne and Coquelin’s Acting Theory,” Theorizing Film Acting, ed. Aaron Taylor, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2012: 186–89.
- Paul McDonald, “Story and Show: The Basic Contradiction of Star
Acting,” Theorizing Film Acting, ed. Aaron Taylor, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2012: 169–83.
The above was excerpted from The Cinema of Barbara Stanwyck: Twenty-Six Short Essays on a Working Star by Catherine Russell. Copyright 2023 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Catherine Russell is Distinguished University Research Professor of Cinema at Concordia University. Her books include Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices and Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited.