Stanwyck & Sirk

When the first lady of noir met the master of the melodrama

The film world has rarely seen two more indelible figures than it did with Douglas Sirk and Barbara Stanwyck. In their own respects, the two helped establish so much of what made classic Hollywood so captivating both in front of and behind the camera. Both came to prominence in era dominated by convention, yet the filmmaker and the actress found enough room to create distinguishable names for themselves within the confines of an oftentimes conservative industry. Sirk became a director known for sumptuous melodramas which strayed from most romantic formulas, while ultimately creating new ones. Stanwyck, meanwhile, gained fame and acclaim with her various characters, most of which stood up to the male-dominated societies they belonged to with explosive results. The pair’s list of films contain one classic after another, most of which are favorites of countless cinephiles the world over. It therefore comes as something of a shock to discover that these two cinematic pioneers actually collaborated twice, joining forces for a pair of films which have woefully remained uncelebrated, despite wonderfully showcasing both their talents.

Referred to as “the first lady of film noir,” Stanwyck dominated the genre thanks to such classics as Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number and Clash By Night. But the actress was as equally adept in any genre, be it comedy with Christmas in Connecticut and Ball of Fire or drama with Remember the Night and Stella Dallas. It’s hard to tell which was more powerful: the actress’s ability to get on any director’s wavelength or the revolutionary way she approached her characters. Either way, any film with the actress attached was lucky to have her. The scene at the top of city hall in Meet John Doe, the anguish-filled tirade following her lover’s death in Executive Suite, even the way she exhibited fear and torment throughout The Night Walker, her final film, showed an actress never afraid to take the emotional plunge with her characters. Staynwyck injected so much strength, determination, fearlessness and etherealness into her roles, she ended up single-handedly re-writing the screen heroine each time she stepped in front of the camera.

Like Stanwyck, Sirk came to prominence in Hollywood largely thanks to the way he became synonymous with a specific genre. Before his works started to be noticed, the melodrama was considered a throwaway area of film that was nothing more than predictable soap opera fodder only made to cater to bored housewives. Sirk changed the perception however by tapping into the psychology behind the people within those stories. Magnificent Obsession and All that Heaven Allows boldly looked at the younger man/older woman relationship (not the most popular theme of the day) and gave it a new perspective by looking at who the two figures really were. It’s that same curiosity for humanity which colored all of Sirk’s films, even the ones in which he indulged in subjects that were at opposite ends of the taboo spectrum. He tackled the psychology of a wealthy but perverse family in Written on the Wind and went where very few others would in examining a bi-racial existence and the need to hide it in Imitation of Life. While some call him the forefather of the modern TV soap, you’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker so interested and unafraid of humanity in all its forms quite like Sirk.

In certain respects, both actress and director shared common traits within their choice of projects. A number of titles which bore their names tended to lean on a blend which featured an unmistakable noir stain; a combination of human darkness mixed with melodrama. Looking at a number of works from both artists and it becomes clear what kind of world such a cinematic space can be and how they each revolutionized it in their own ways. It makes total sense then that the two should eventually find themselves collaborating on a pair of projects which beautifully showcase what they managed to bring to the screen.

When fate brought the two collaborators together, it did so with projects tailor-made for them. In 1953’s All I Desire, Stanwyck stars as middling stage actress Naomi Murdoch, who left her husband Henry (Richard Carlson), family and life in the midwest to pursue her own dreams on the stage. When her middle daughter’s graduation pulls her back home, she returns to a mixed reception and the scandal she thought she had escaped. Meanwhile, in 1955’s There’s Always Tomorrow, Stanwyck re-teams for the third and final time with leading man Fred McMurray as a pair of old friends and colleagues who reunite by chance at curious points in their lives. Norma Vale (Stanwyck) is a career woman at the height of success in the fashion world, while Clifford Groves (McMurray) is happily married with a family who feels invisible to everyone in his life. As the two reconnect, they start to wonder if fate has brought them together for a reason.

In keeping with both artists’ penchants for embracing daring content, there are elements within the two films which lean toward the scandalous. All I Desire’s Naomi is a woman who dared to leave her family for the life she wanted. Not only was this so totally against the grain of the 1950s mentality, but the fact that the film takes place in the early 20th century makes it all the more provocative. Meanwhile, There’s Always Tomorrow follows a pair of protagonists with a romantic past as they swim, drink and dine together, both slightly charming each other and subconsciously falling in love again as Clifford’s family waits for him at home. In the era of the nuclear family when men came home to their housewives, a film showing two people so naturally foregoing any such convention had to have raised eyebrows.

It’s easy to see why Sirk, and especially Stanwyck, were drawn to the projects and the women at the center of both stories. Naomi and Norma are two alternate portraits of on-screen heroines which go against the grain in every way. The biggest way, and their most shining similarity is a determination to live lives which they have designed for themselves based on their own dreams and ambitions. Stanwyck made a career out of such women and it’s the reason she once again soars in both movies. Sirk, meanwhile, specialized in female characters whose choices left them facing judgment by one faction of the public or another, yet persevering in spite of the gossip and disdain towards a future she wanted. It’s interesting to see how both films end in such conventional terms, showing how even though Sirk and Stanwyck were happy to push the boundaries, the rules and customs of the day always won out.

It saddens me that neither All I Desire nor There’s Always Tomorrow have been given more attention in recent years since they’re both titles well worth remembering. This is in keeping however with the receptions both titles received when they first came out. Neither one was an especially huge hit and neither one did much to bolster the standing of either Stanwyck or Sirk. Both managed fruitful careers following their collaborations, continuing to further their relationship with their crafts as long as the world of film would allow them to. Still, even now to this day, it’s equally sad and odd that very few remember that one of cinema’s most astute directors, who gave poetry to the modern melodrama, successfully joined forces with one of the screen’s most pioneering actresses. Yet no one can forget how each one changed the film world forever.

All I Desire and There’s Always Tomorrow are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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