Douglas Sirk-More than Melodrama: All I Desire (1953)
Welcome to another installment of Douglas Sirk-More than Melodrama, where, in no particular order, I review the films of Douglas Sirk before he became DOUGLAS SIRK, the Master of Melodrama.
Today's film, All I Desire, is definitely a melodrama, but has the look and feel of a "B" picture, while containing the trappings of Sirk's later films: a troubled marriage, small town hypocrisy, a female lead character. Shot in simple black and white, and taking place in 1910, All I Desire seems like a prelude of things to come for Sirk. Unfortunately, according to Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Sirk's vision for the film was "stymied by journeymen players and errant script choices, and he's forced to tack on a [producer Ross] Hunter 'happy ending' (Dan Callahan, p.162). It definitely shows, and the movie suffers by having conflicting values, characters who are little more than MacGuffins, and an ending that had me groaning out loud.
Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck, yay!) left her family 10 years earlier, dissatisfied with her husband, small town life, and half-hearted affair with another man. She had hopes of becoming an actress. Unfortunately, due to either lack of talent or luck, she instead gets by as a now-aging chorus girl. Naomi keeps in touch via the family housekeeper, and tells her family she's actually a successful actress. When her teenaged daughter Lily (Lori Nelson, who's so heavily made up she looks 30 instead of 18) writes her and begs her to visit and see her act in the school play, Naomi, feeling lonely and hopeless, decides to do just that.
The squeaky-clean town of Riverdale, Wisconsin hasn't changed, but her family has: Naomi's oldest daughter Joyce (Marcia Henderson) treats Naomi coldly, still resenting her for leaving the family, while youngest son Ted (Billy Grey) barely remembers her. Naomi's husband Henry (Richard Carlson) keeps her at arm's length, while having a kinda-sorta relationship with Lily's drama teacher, Sara (Maureen O'Sullivan, little changed since her Tarzan days). Then there's Dutch, Naomi's former flame, who keeps hanging around...
Tiresome Observation of the Day: Dutch is played by Lyle Bettger, who you might remember as Stanwyck's sleazy, blackmailing ex-boyfriend in No Man of Her Own. Jeez, buddy, go bother someone else!
What follows is pretty much all you'd expect: Lily idolizes her mother and wants to follow her to New York where she thinks Naomi works, Henry can't fight the old feeling coming back, and Joyce is rather unfairly painted as a monster for being angry at her mother. Look, I'm all for forgiveness, and maybe Joyce should have been classier, but Naomi left her family for 10 years, barely kept in touch, and then came back as though nothing had happened. How would you react? I sure as hell wouldn't be in a rush to have ice cream and a hair-braiding session with her.
All I Desire is complex in its handling of imperfect characters, and you really start to understand characters' motivations more the more you think about it, but it shoots itself in the foot when characters are "punished", but in ham-fisted ways and for all the wrong reasons. Naomi angrily lectures Henry for his concern about what other people think in this speech:
Oh, I'll make a good impression, Henry. That's all you care about, isn't it? Appearances and what other people will think? Well, I'm not the girl from across the tracks who used to embarrass you! Not anymore! I won't laugh too loud or make jokes or speak to the riffraff. I knew before I married you.
Now, if it were just the two of them, Naomi's leaving would make perfect sense. After all, having lived in a small town myself and absolutely hating it, Sirk's visible contempt for the narrow-mindedness that tends to come with small towns speaks to me. Henry is a weakling, and not just when it comes to Naomi: he leads poor Sara on, not even man enough to own his lack of feelings for her, and we discover he suspected Naomi of having an affair, but did nothing about it. In fact, in all that time, why didn't he divorce Naomi, if he claims to have "hated" her? Why didn't he ask her to come back, if he still loved her? I can't blame Naomi for leaving such a wet noodle.
All I Desire parallels one of Stanwyck's most beloved films, Stella Dallas: Lower class dame marries a well-to-do man, it doesn't work out, they have a kid, then separate. But the similarities then begin to diverge, as Stella was more comfortable in her lower-class life, finding the upper crust stifling, and she even gives up her kid to let her live in that world. I admit I always found Stella Dallas overrated as hell (that much-lauded "happy ending" actually pisses me off), but I have to give it credit, because its lead character's behavior and motivation (for the most part) makes a lot more sense. Stella at least knew who she was and what she wanted. Naomi comes back to the town she hated, mostly on a whim, but then decides to stay. Why? Her kids are basically strangers to her, her husband is a drip, the town is awful, and her creepy ex-lover is stalking her.
Another problem is, Naomi didn't just leave her husband, she left her kids. Her acting career wasn't even a successful one, and one only has to hear Stanwyck's world-weary narration in the early scenes, where she intones how she has "nothing to look forward to" and wonder why she stuck with acting? Why didn't she either go back to her family, or pursue something else? I don't hate Naomi, I don't think she's necessarily the villain, and I don't blame her for wanting to leave Riverdale, but she left her kids! She never even visited! That's why I refuse to blame Joyce for her reasonable resentment of her mother. It's irritating how the film thinks Naomi can have her cake and eat it, too.
I understand what Sirk was going for, I do. Again, he was a staunch critic against small town, middle class life, but he missed the mark with this one (but that can also be blamed on executive meddling). On All I Desire, Sirk said this about the character of Naomi:
"A woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love, and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit middle-class American family." (Callahan, 180).
Well, that's not entirely fair. Naomi left them, they didn't leave her. If this had been about how Henry's intolerance of her drove her away, then maybe you'd have something. But this is about Naomi bonding with the kids she left, and about how she still wants Henry. I hate to say it, but you can't go home again. The kids grew up, they moved on, that's what kids do. Naomi left to pursue what she wanted. It didn't work out, which is unfortunate, but c'est la vie. She has conveniently forgotten why her marriage to this suburban bore didn't work out, and we're supposed to be pulling for them to get together. The movie doesn't know whose side it's really on, and what the characters are truly guilty of. All That Heaven Allows did a better, more concise job skewering small-town gossip and emotional repression, and how the "American Dream" can be a trap in disguise. The movie tries to convey that Naomi decides she wants an ordinary suburban life after all, but it rings so false to me. It makes me wish the original ending, where Naomi leaves her family, had been preserved. She would have been happier, and, really, so would her family. Instead, Henry takes Naomi back, and now she has to start over in the town she originally left to start over. If you're not grinding your teeth at this ending, you're a better person than I.
Tiresome Observation of the Day: This movie is an unintentional reminder of the ephemeral quality of fame. Just as Naomi never reached the height of fame, the status of Maureen O'Sullivan's career is evident as she is distressingly low on the cast list. Her 15 minutes of fame as Jane from the Tarzan films of the 30s was long over. I always thought it was a shame this perky, charming colleen never achieved greater fame, but that's the cruelty of the business, I guess.