All I Desire (1953)

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Douglas Sirk films almost by design seem to always revolve around the most uncomfortable thematic ideas that you can think of. Whether that is Sirk’s own wry sense of irony or more so the material that was provided him, there’s always something to be gleaned from what he does.

With every story, there must be a hook that reels us in and an event to establish the premise. Has-been actress and glorified showgirl Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) is sitting in the dressing room after one of her middling shows only to receive a letter from her teenage daughter. It catches her off guard because you see, she left home many years ago abandoning her husband and their three children. She had her reasons certainly but she was hardly expecting this.

But in a moment she decides to get dressed up and make her triumphant return to Riverdale, Wisconsin. What draws her there is the letter from Lily (Lori Nelson) entreating her to see her role on the high school stage. She just can’t resist the opportunity and as advertised she thoroughly enjoys her daughter’s performance. It captivates her beyond words.

Naomi unwittingly makes the play a major attraction in the small town not so much for the content of the production but due to her own attendance. They want to see the beautiful scandal maker returning to the scene of the crime after so many years. Among them is the local shop owner Dutch (Lyle Bettger) who once had a thing for Naomi that’s still steadily burning.

It’s true that she throws her former husband (Richard Carlson) for a shock and her disapproving eldest daughter (Marcia Henderson) still resents their mother for leaving them — rightfully so I might add. And yet Naomi didn’t come back to humiliate them. On the contrary, she’s ready to leave on the midnight train and she’s well aware of the need to make a good impression and consider what others will think around town. She hardly cares and yet she does care for the sake of her family. That’s part of the reason she stayed away for so long. People can be ruthless; it’s true.

Still, Lily in her winning way begs her mother to stay for the festivities and conveniently aids in her missing the outbound train. As the housekeeper Lena (Lotte Stein) puts it, Naomi is a woman with “sense enough to enjoy a party when there’s a party.” And everyone loves her for it, not because she’s a sideshow attraction but a truly genial personality.

First, it’s Joyce’s beau Russ Underwood (Richard Long) who asks her for a dance. Another highlight involves the future Yale boy summing up the courage to ask Ms. Naomi to dance and she takes him up on it without hesitation. Above all, it is her impassioned interpretation of Elizabeth Barret Browning that leaves the whole house mesmerized. It’s true that in only her few hours in town she’s already left a new indelible impression on the younger generations.

The entire town, her former husband, even her daughters and son all must grapple with their feelings toward her now. Henry is slowly realizing he is still in love with her and Joyce still harbors a bit of anger toward her mother when they go out riding with Russ.

But the character of Dutch seemingly transforms into an animal for the sake of creating a repeated scandal which looks like little more than fodder for the plotline. However, that’s not the true scandal or at least the true embarrassment. It replays itself in a different way this time. That cannot destroy someone as resilient as Naomi. She fights against it.

Barbara Stanwyck wins me over in every film I see her in each time anew because when words come off her lips they cease to be dialogue torn from a script but actually develop a life of their own as living breathing emotions coming out of her. She gives every performance an authenticity and charisma that’s forever disarming and the same goes for this picture. If any other actor might be flat or uninteresting there’s little else to do but let her command the scene and enjoy it.

There are so many moments we could note where she draws us in. One that spoke to me is during a tearful goodbye to her son (Billy Gray) who is hurt by what she did and she, in turn, tells him in all sincerity that people do bad things and they hurt people that they never meant to. Continuing to hate only leads to more hurt.

A darker Sirkian ending as he was set to made would have been more realistic but no matter. How can we hate All I Desire? Barbara Stanwyck and Douglas Sirk do wonders with it and they would do it again a few years later with There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).

3.5/5 Stars

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