311: Sirk-Fassbinder-Haynes

Archival Spaces 311

Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953)

Uploaded 23 December 2022

All I Desire, opening dissolve

For the past couple of months I have been researching and planning a lecture course for UCLA, FTV 113 Film Authors, which will focus on the careers of Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. Not only have all three specialized in melodramas, but Fassbinder and Haynes see themselves as heirs to the Sirk legacy, both directing quasi-remakes of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1954), Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1954) and Haynes‘ Far From Heaven (2002). It has been exciting to rediscover many of the Fassbinder and Sirk films I had previously seen, sometimes decades ago, but more exciting to see films by Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes in a comparative hall of mirrors, each marked by the times in which they were made,  each a product of a different decade, ethnicity and gender. One film I had previously not seen was Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (1953), a black & white film that marks the beginning of Sirk’s famous series of melodramas, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959).

All I Desire stars Barbara Stanwyck who plays Naomi Murdoch, a less-than-successful actress who returns to her family in small-town America, the fictional Riverdale, Wisconsin after she had abandoned them a decade earlier. The film opens with a voice-over, during which Naomi comments on her failed stage career, which has sunk to the level of vaudeville, “not quite at the bottom of the bill.” When her daughter, Lily, invites Naomi back to see her in the Riverdale High School play, she spontaneously decides to return home. No sooner does she arrive at the local train station, when the town gossips start spreading their deadly poison so that all eyes are on Naomi when she shows up at the high school play. Her straight-laced, still husband, Henry Murdoch, the high school principal, and her oldest daughter, Joyce, are also hardly enthusiastic about her arrival, Henry now being in a relationship with schoolmarm, Sara Harper, and Joyce engaged to a “respectable” young man. Lily, on the other hand, hopes her mother will take her back to New York to become a famous actress. In the course of the narrative, we learn that Naomi had had a long affair with Dutch Heinemann, who Naomi ends up shooting when he tries to force himself on her after her return. Henry forgives her in a happy end that has Naomi receiving a house key.

Originally, Universal considered Joan Crawford and Bette Davis for the role of Naomi Murdoch but settled on Barbara Stanwyck because she was willing to work for “little or no salary,” being in desperate need of a comeback after her career went into decline in the early 1950s. Stanwyck was also not a big enough star anymore to justify Technicolor, which, according to Sirk, would have given the domestic scenes in All I Desire a warmth and glow, like his later domestic melodramas. Instead, Sirk and cameraman Carl Guthrie created an expressionist space of light/shadows and half-truths. The film was written by James Gunn and Robert Blees, based on an adaptation by Gina Kaus of Carol Brink’s 1951 novel, Stopover. Kaus was a German refugee who had been famous for writing feminist novels in Vienna and Berlin before Hitler, and who became a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, primarily at MGM.

In his famous interview with Jon Halliday,  Sirk on Sirk (1971), Sirk also complained that producer Ross Hunter had insisted on a happy ending, although Sirk wanted to retain the darker tone of the novel’s ending in which Naomi is forced to leave Wisconsin and her family behind. That ending and the original title, Stopover, “would have deepened the picture and the character – at the same time the irony,” he said. Sirk liked Barbara Stanwyck, because “in this picture, she had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her,” which perfectly contrasted with the cheerful hypocrisy of the people of Riverdale and the “rotten, decrepit middle-class American family she found there.’ Indeed, one can think of All I Desire as a film noir melodrama.

But my favorite characters in All I Desire are the German cook and houseman who have worked for the Murdoch family for decades; there is a running joke about the middle-aged couple getting married, but postponing at every family crisis. Lena and Hans were played by Lotte Stein and Fred Nurney who were both German refugees from Hitler, like Sirk himself; Nurney, in particular, had had bits and supporting roles in more than half a dozen Sirk films.

Mary (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
Summer Storm (1944, Douglas Sirk)

Born in Berlin in 1894, Lotte Stein played supporting roles in thirty-five German silent and 12 sound films. She was a character actress even in her youth, given her face made for comedy. She appeared in From Morning to Midnight (1921), one of six bona fide German expressionist film classics. After a stopover in Vienna to make a film, Stein eventually emigrated to Hollywood. Like many German-Jewish refugee actors to Hollywood, Stein’s first American film work was in an anti-Nazi film, The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (1943), after which she continued to appear in credited and uncredited film roles, often appearing as a cook or housekeeper, as in Wallflower (1948). She briefly returned to Germany in 1951, then re-emigrated to Munich after All I Desire, where she continued acting in film and theatre until her death in 1982.

The German-American actor, Fred Nurney, was born in Des Moines, IA in 1895 as Fredrich Nurnberger-Gelingk before he returned to Germany to act in theatre, while only appearing in one uncredited role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). His first film in Hollywood was, like other émigré actors, an anti-Nazi film, Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman (1943), followed by further examples of the genre, They Came to Blow Up America (1943), Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and Fred Zinnemann’s The Seventh Cross (1944). Playing Hollywood Nazis in postwar war films, as well as in the Sirk films sustained his career until his retirement in 1960. 

 Finally, if anyone doubts that Douglas Sirk was a master of expressionist lighting and not just color, one need only view All I Desire. Sirk had cameraman Carl Guthrie light the many night scenes like a film noir, another indication that Sirk still wished for a dark ending.

Barbara Stanwyck, Browning’s “How do I love thee, let me count the ways…

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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