The unhappy happy ending of Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow

Sirk’s desolate melodrama, about a husband in a dull suburban marriage who falls for another woman, offers a happy ending in which everything is fine and no one is happy.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Mere weeks separated the release dates of All That Heaven Allows (1955) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) in the US; for the better part of 70 years, the latter film has stood unassumingly in the former’s long shadow. (In 2022’s Sight and Sound poll, All That Heaven Allows racked up votes from 21 critics; There’s Always Tomorrow, none.) Yet these two melodramas, both by Douglas Sirk at the peak of his powers, should be more commonly remembered as companion pieces. Both tell stories of dutiful middle-class parents forced to choose between domestic harmony and romantic fulfilment, and in the process, both offer a quietly barbed, bitter takedown of mid-century suburban America and its conservative values, where surface serenity is more highly prized than disruptive happiness.

Tightly monochromatic where its counterpart is floridly Technicolored, There’s Always Tomorrow is effectively the negative of All That Heaven Allows, and was unsurprisingly less popular. Ordered by Universal to be shot in black and white against Sirk’s wishes, and unfashionably cast – with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray no longer the draws they had been in Remember the Night (1940) and Double Indemnity (1944) – it made a third as much at the box office as the iridescent Jane Wyman-Rock Hudson vehicle.

Yet the films’ differing legacies were effectively determined by their respective endings, which arrive at near-opposite conclusions to equivalent scenarios. All That Heaven Allows swooningly satisfied the needs of both protagonist and audience, as well-to-do widow Cary Scott – having initially broken off her affair with younger, working-class tree surgeon Ron Kirby under pressure from her disapproving adult children and prim New England community – ultimately defies society rules to be with him. There’s Always Tomorrow, on the other hand, corrects that follow-your-bliss idealism with a cold slap of social convention and exquisitely sad compromise: a happy ending in which everything is fine and nobody is happy.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Unlike its predecessor, There’s Always Tomorrow tested the sympathies of 1950s audiences by bringing a live marriage into the equation. Los Angeles toy manufacturer Clifford Groves (MacMurray) has no reason to be discontented, save for the fact he is, desolately so: his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) is kindly and dedicated, their three children respectful and well-adjusted. Yet none offers Clifford much in the way of deeper affection or attention: nested in his plushly decorated Pasadena dream home, he’s lonely in a way he doesn’t quite recognise until vibrant former employee Norma Vale (Stanwyck) breezes back into his life on a business trip from New York, and they embark on a warmly intimate if mostly chaste affair, revealing to him the soul connection he thought he could live without. If Marion suspects anything, she’s too discreet to mention it; not so their two eldest, both righteously moral adolescents, who accost Norma and all but instruct her to leave.

And so to the final scene, after Norma abruptly bids Clifford adieu at his office and departs for the airport: stunned, he gathers himself as his latest invention, a child’s robot, marches toward the screen. Sirk originally planned to end on the toy falling off the table, spasming on the floor – the very symbol of man programmed into paralysis by conformity. What he opted for, however, was subtler and richer in irony – a homecoming that feels, in its own polite, gentle way, like a kind of sectioning.

Another film, even another Sirk, might end with a change of heart, a dash to the airport, a comforting embrace. Instead, Clifford returns to his house, glumly dazed, where he’s greeted with forced smiles and tacit pity by his children, and the flattest dialogue in Bernard C. Schoenfeld’s hitherto layered, perceptive script ensues. “How are you feeling?” asks his son Vinnie (William Reynolds), knowing full well the answer. “I’m fine,” comes the listless response. “I’m glad,” says Vinnie. This is far from David Lean, but no upper lips have ever been stiffer; the tears come from Norma, as we cut to her high up on her flight home, the strains of ‘Blue Moon’ keening in the background. Marion, the gracious victor, notes that Clifford hasn’t seemed himself lately. “But I’m better now,” he murmurs, as she leads him from the living room like a man condemned.“ They make a handsome couple, don’t they?” sighs precocious youngest daughter Frankie (Judy Nugent) as the music swells and the closing titles arrive – the kind of cutesy line that might have ended a sitcom episode of the era, a Leave It to Beaver conclusion to this portrait of despairing domestic stability, its narrowly pre-rock-’n’-roll teenagers beaming into the camera as they defeat rebellion. As the home fires keep burning, the spirit is snuffed out.

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