Twelve years after making the perfect film noir, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwcyk starred in another movie about a married couple and the person who comes between them. Unlike Double Indemnity, there is no murder, no insurance fraud, and decidedly, no Edward G. Robinson in There’s Always Tomorrow. Instead, we get a nuanced portrayal of a man grown bored with his life and a temptation he’ll have trouble saying “no” to.
Clifford Graves (MacMurray) has a seemingly perfect life – he runs a toy company, he has a beautiful wife and three wonderful children. But he’s grown bored and restless. His life has become routine. He’s also a bit of a dolt. On his wife Marion’s (Joan Bennett) birthda,y he buys her flowers, plans to take her to dinner, and obtains two tickets to a show. Trouble is, he doesn’t bother to tell his wife about any of this until he gets home from work that night. Had he asked her about his plans or taken any interest in his children’s lives, he would have known his youngest, Frankie (Judy Nugent), had her first dance rehearsal that evening. When Marion says she’d rather go to that, he’s put out. He’s angry that his wife wants to see her daughter dance instead of going to dinner with him.
He doesn’t want to go to the recital. He calls a few folks to see if they want to see the show with him and is turned down. So, he decides to stay home and sulk. An old coworker, Norma Vail (Stanwyck), shows up out of the blue and they decide to see the show. Afterward, he takes her to his toy shop and they hit it off spectacularly, but the night ends and they go their separate ways.
Since Marion’s birthday was ruined for him, they decide to go away that weekend to the desert. But when the time comes, Frankie sprains her ankle and Marion decides she needs to stay home with her. Once again, our man Clifford is put out by his daughter. He’s less put out, even excited by the fact that a client, a big department store owner, wants to meet with him at the desert resort in the middle of what was supposed to be a nice romantic weekend with his wife.
Marion persuades him to go without her. Naturally, he bumps into Norma there who just so happens to be staying in the same resort. I say “naturally” because this type of film has nothing to do if those two don’t get together again. They have a spectacular time. She’s clearly been in love with him since they worked together and he’s beginning to see everything he’s been missing in her.
Clifford’s oldest boy, Vinnie (William Reynolds), takes his girlfriend and another couple to the resort thinking they’ll surprise dear-old-dad after his meeting. They figure he’ll be bored. Instead, they find him in Norman’s room talking like lovers. Vinnie assumes the worst and heads home without being seen. He spends the rest of the film, along with his sister Ellen (Gigi Perreau), spying on Clifford and contemplating whether or not to confront him about what he assumes is an illicit affair.
For the most part, the film doesn’t judge Clifford or Norma. It tells its story but doesn’t insinuate their activities are sinful, nor does it portray it as some grand thing where true love trumps everything else. Clifford feels as if he’s in a rut. His family has gotten used to him being around. His wife pays more attention to the children than him. Norma looks like an oasis. She’s not some femme fatale out to destroy his family. She’s loved him a long time and these chance meetings have sparked something in her.
She comes over and meets the family. She has dinner and is lovely to them. She invites the ladies to her work where she is a successful fashion designer and offers to set them up in fancy clothes. But she also longs for Clifford. She dreams of being with him.
MacMurray and Stanwyck are spectacular. He plays the part of a man who feels like he’s being taken for granted by those he feels should treat him like a king. She’s the woman who has held a flame for a man she can’t have for years and years. She’s not a bad woman but conflicted. Their burning desire feels very real. The conflict is written over their faces.
Joan Bennett is given less to do. Her character is a loving and kind wife, but her attention is constantly diverted by the children. In one scene, Clifford lays it bear for her. How he feels like their marriage and his life has become routine. How he wants to get away with her and have fun like they did in the old days. But then one of the kids squeals and she goes running. When she comes back, she hardly listens. I know that feeling. I imagine anyone who has been married with children does. Life is hard. Kids demand your attention. Giving them what they need as well as your spouse is a constant struggle.
I love that this film digs into that conflict in a nuanced and meaningful way. What I didn’t love is how much time it spends with the kids trying to prove the affair is real and then deciding what to do about it. This leads to one scene with Norma that felt preachy. Vinnie and Ellen go to Norma’s hotel and lay down their accusations. She berates them for not loving their father enough, for not giving him enough attention. It is understandable that a woman in her situation would react in that way, but the film leaves it hanging. The kids essentially agree with her and walk away. Maybe that moment hits me in a too personal way, but it felt like a copout. Had Clifford been a more loving father, had he not skipped his daughter’s recital, or not bemoaned her sprained ankle, I might have gone with it. But as is, we never see him in a positive light as a family man. But really, the whole subplot with the kids could have been left out and I wouldn’t have minded. But everything between Norma and Clifford is really well done, making There’s Always Tomorrow the rare film about a tormented romance that feels like real life.
Extra on this new Kino Lorber Studio Classics disk includes an audio commentary by film historian Sammi Deighan and a few trailers.