Sirk #4: All I Desire (US 1953)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.

Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.

Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter's boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter’s boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.

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2 comments

  1. keith1942

    One of my favourite films by Sirk. Stanwyck is great and Carlson is very fine. I think the film is completely suited to black and white, Roy notes the noir touches. I do not think Technicolor would have served as well. As for the ending, Sirk might have preferred the alternative, but this is vey well done. What we see and hear is the couple standing together against small town old-fashioned values, which I find very powerful

    • Roy Stafford

      I’m going to have to re-visit this posting later on because I’ve just read Michael Walker’s long essay on the film in Movie 34/35 (1990). Michael argues that in a later interview than that in Halliday’s book Sirk had re-watched the film and remembered much more – changing his perspective. I also need to look at Michael O’Shaughnessy’s BFI slide notes if I can find them. All I Desire didn’t seem the same film when I watched it this time compared to my first viewing 30 years ago or more and I’m not sure what has changed in the meantime.

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