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Most melodramas of the 1950s, including those made by the master of the genre, Douglas Sirk, address the experience of women: They suffer at the hands of men, their children, fate. But Sirk's 1956 There's Always Tomorrow is that rare melodrama that focuses on the world of men, specifically the plight of Fred MacMurray's Clifford Groves, a dutiful husband and family man. The film begins with a title card reading "Once upon a time, in sunny California." But the opening shot shows people hustling through torrential rains on their way to work, wielding their umbrellas like shields, a clear visual metaphor for the ways life doesn't always meet our expectations.
And then we meet Clifford. He runs a thriving Southern California toy company, treating his employees fairly and with respect -- he's the prototypical decent guy, the kind of "good man" any woman would feel lucky to find. But when he goes home at night, his wife, Marion (Joan Bennett), barely has time for him, she's so caught up in the lives of their three children - they rule the household with their petty needs and demands. It's her birthday, and he's purchased tickets to a show, hoping the two of them might spend a rare evening alone together. But she waves him away -- their younger daughter has an all-important dance recital that night - and so Clifford retreats to the kitchen, where he sits alone, eating a meal the maid has prepared for him.
The doorbell rings: Enter Barbara Stanwyck's Norma Vale, one of Clifford's former employees. She's now a successful clothing designer in New York, but she's come to California on business. She remembers Clifford fondly - perhaps more than fondly - and just wants to say hello. Clifford is energized by this bright, vital woman who, unlike his wife, clearly takes an interest in him. The unhappy husband - like the unhappy wife in so many other melodramas -- begins to wonder: Might this new person bring him happiness?
Plenty of films noir and '50s westerns examine the pressures and insecurities suffered by men in postwar America. But There's Always Tomorrow used melodrama to explore that experience. Sirk apparently recognized that it wasn't just women who worked hard to keep the families of 1950s America secure and well-fed. The German-born director, who had fled his home country for the United States in the late 1930s, was enough of an outsider to see this particular problem clearly. There's Always Tomorrow was based on a novel written by Ursula Parrott; an earlier film version, from 1934, starred Frank Morgan and Binnie Barnes. But Sirk, with the help of his superb cinematographer Russell Metty, adapted the problems of the lead character to the current times. The picture bears many of Sirk's stylistic trademarks, including shots framed through stair banisters or slatted partitions, to reinforce the idea that the characters are prisoners of the lives they've created for themselves.
But there's more to There's Always Tomorrow than those easily recognizable Sirk visuals. The picture is emotionally rich and ultimately devastating; melodrama, when done right as it is here, is anything but heavy-handed. And yet Sirk himself seems to have underestimated the film. In Sirk on Sirk,> he told Jon Halliday that MacMurray's character "...is like a nave American boy who never grows up. And then Stanwyck comes back from his past. But she doesn't find a grown man. She leaves." But as Christopher Sharrett points out in an essay on There's Always Tomorrow in Cineaste magazine, "Sirk must have misremembered the film, since his prcis hardly speaks to its central themes, which, together with his usual craftsmanship, makes it one of his greatest, most fully-realized accomplishments. It has little to do with infantile regression-unless we look at the portrayal of children and the family. It is more accurately termed Sirk's most biting portrayal of suburban family life in the Fifties."
Sharrett is right in his assessment of the movie's subtler qualities. Fortunately, in another interview, with Michael Stern, Sirk expanded on his reading of the film: "I think [There's Always Tomorrow] is a very sad picture because here is the American man dominated not by his wife so much as by the rules of society. She is as miserable as he, only she doesn't even know it! He can't escape. He can't make up his mind. He is the American man remaining a child. He is a producer of toys; still playing with toys. Then, his youth comes back. Knocks right on his door. And at the end, of course, he walks to the window and there is the plane flying away. It is his youth, his happiness."
It's telling that Clifford's one chance at happiness should be played by Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck and MacMurray were one of cinema's inspired pairings, complementing each other perfectly in Double Indemnity (1944) and Remember the Night (1940), as well as There's Always Tomorrow. Here, Stanwyck's matter-of-factness as a businesswoman is balanced by her clear affection for her former boss; she even has romantic feelings for him, though she's not sure that she should act upon them. MacMurray's Clifford, on the other hand, is more malleable: If Stanwyck's Norma were to initiate an affair, he'd go with it - he yearns for attention and affection, and she seems poised to give it to him. Still, he feels more comfortable fulfilling his duty as a good husband. He tries to tell his wife all about his platonic friendship with Norma, to make it clear he has nothing to hide. He's weaker than Norma is, but he's also more susceptible to heartbreak and disappointment, as the picture's ending - seemingly ambiguous but wrenching -- makes clear.
Sirk had actually planned another ending for There's Always Tomorrow: He wanted to show one of the toys manufactured by Clifford's company, a mechanical robot, walking toward the camera until it falls off a table. "The camera pans down, whoom! And there's the robot, on the floor, spinning, rmmm, rhmm, rhhmm ... rhhmmm, slowly spinning to a halt," Sirk explained to Stern. "The End. That is complete hopelessness. This toy is all the poor man has invented in his life. It is a symbol of himself, an automaton, broken." The ending Sirk ultimately chose is more subtle, and better for it. But it's a melodramatic conclusion, not a tragic one, and Sirk understood the difference - even as he understood how to satisfy an audience. As he said to Stern, "In tragedy the life always ends. By being dead, the hero is at the same time rescued from life's troubles. In melodrama, he lives on - in an unhappy happy end."
By Stephanie Zacharek
SOURCES:Interview with Douglas Sirk, Bright Lights Film Journal, 1977 (http://brightlightsfilm.com/48/sirkinterview.php)
Christophe Sharrett, Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, Cineaste (http://www.cineaste.com/articles/douglas-sirks-emtheres-always-tomorrowem-web-eclusive)