Every actor has that little known film that you think should be more highly regarded: There's Always Tomorrow (1956) is one of Barbara Stanwyck's. In it, she plays Norma Miller Vale, a successful fashion designer who decides to drop in on an old friend, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) while vising Los Angeles on business. Norma worked for Cliff over 20 years before, when he was a beginning toymaker and she was the designer for his doll clothing. In the intervening time, he has become a successful businessman with his own toy manufacturing business. He has a wife, Marion (Joan Bennett) and three children: college man Vinnie (William Reynolds), high-school drama queen Ellen (Gigi Perreau) and middle-school ballerina Frances (Judy Nugent). Despite his success and a marriage that seems a happy one, Cliff is desperately unhappy - he is virtually ignored by his children, and his wife shows little understanding for his need to connect with her. So, when Norma shows up on his doorstep, their former friendship rekindles, but into something much deeper.
MacMurray is the focus of most of the film's action. He shows us a man desperate for a closer relationship with his wife and children, but always ignored by a family that is just too busy for him. He seemingly has few friends - when his wife is unable to accompany him to the theatre, he has no one to call. The reappearance of Norma gives him a rope to grasp - someone to talk to, something he has not had for a long time. MacMurray is able to clearly show the conflict within Cliff - he truly loves his wife, but he wants her to be a companion again, not just a mother.
Which brings us to Joan Bennett. Her Marion is someone who has created an image of herself and her life that is entirely about her children. She no longer views herself as Cliff's wife - he is secondary to her self-image. In one scene, Norma shows Marion a stunning evening gown that she believes will be attractive to Cliff. Marion dismisses it as "too young" for her; of course, it is gorgeous on Ms. Bennett, who has an amazing figure. But Marion sees herself as old, and certainly not in need of a gown that would be sexually appealing to her husband.
In one scene, Marion runs down the awfully BUSY day she is going to have. Among her duties - return books to the library, do the marketing. As working women, we shook our heads in despair - we ran all her errands (minus bringing the youngest child to school) AND hold full time jobs. And Marion has a housekeeper (Jane Darwell as Mrs. Rogers) - I'm sure it was rather hard for most film audiences to muster any sympathy for this rather privileged woman.
The children are the crux of the movie. They are rude, selfish, and spoiled. When their parents are speaking alone in their bedroom, the children walk in unannounced and interrupt. They are rude to a guest in their parents' home. Their father is treated by them only as a source of money. Much of their behavior devolves back to Marion, who doesn't even tell her husband about his youngest daughter's ballet recital. When Norma finally tells off the older two, you want to cheer.
Stanwyck is, as always, magnificent. Norma loved Cliff deeply when they were young; it's something she has not really gotten over. But neither of them is looking for a physical relationship. They are seeking friendship; but because of Cliff's loneliness, the friendship begins to deepen for both of them. Stanwyck treads a careful path - make Norma likeable as "the other woman".
To counterbalance the romance of Cliff and Norma, we have the beginning of young love - that of Vinnie and his fiancee Ann (Pat Crowley). William Reynolds gives us a Vinnie that is a brat - a young man who is still, as Ann tells him, a little boy. Pat Crowley is wonderful as Ann - she is a grown-up - the only one of the young people who see's Cliff's anguish, and the only one who knows he is not capable of deception. We looked forward to her scenes; Ann is a great character.
This is an excellent movie, with a mature examination of infidelity. Directed by Douglas Sirk, it is not surprising that the characters are adults. He had already directed All That Heaven Allows (1955), another film that concentrates on a mature woman. Our couple are not kids in first love - they are middle-aged, with a host of adult issues that must be faced. Interestingly, the film was not all that well received when it was released, as this New York Times review demonstrates. That's unfortunate, especially now, when we so rarely see films about grown-ups. Yes, the story is rather ordinary, but the acting and the actors make it very special. This TCM article is much more appreciative of the subtleties of the narrative and of Sirk's storytelling. We'll leave you with a trailer from the film: