One of the most pivotal roles of Barbara Stanwyck’s career, that of Stella Dallas in the film of the same name, is among the best at showcasing her greatest attributes. Often she played a woman who was a victim of her own vices and fallibility, painfully self-aware but unable to change. Her strongest characters exhibited competing traits—a steely resolve and a tender heart, cruel wit and compassionate sincerity. While much is made of her beauty and glamour, the real source of her immortality comes from an impeccable talent for wrangling the complexities of a character into one cohesive, unhesitant performance. With Stella Dallas, she thoughtfully balanced a multifaceted insufferability with brief but powerful interludes of unbridled humanity and virtue.
In many ways, her role in Douglas Sirk’s short but highly effective All I Desire is the soft echo of Stella Dallas. Here she plays Naomi Murdoch, a mother of three who long ago abandoned her family to pursue an acting career. Her daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson), invites her to attend a senior play, and Naomi, whose career has wound down and left her a fledgling vaudeville performer, eagerly accepts the proposal. Her arrival in town creates tension between her downbeat, estranged husband, Henry (Richard Carlson), his flame, Sara (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her embittered eldest daughter, Joyce (Marcia Henderson). Although the family dynamics and shirking of maternal duty parallel her earlier role, Stanwyck got the chance, in this film, to find redemption.
While Naomi’s transgressions, including an affair with a taciturn lout named Dutch (Lyle Bettger), continue to pain her and her loved ones, she achieves absolution in a surprisingly progressive turn for the time period. Her motives are made explicitly understandable, even relatable. As the root causes of her marriage’s dissolution come to light, Naomi emerges nearly blameless, or at least not solely responsible. A need to escape a stifling and provincial domestic situation provides just as much if not more explanation for her abandonment than a need for stardom. In the end, Henry finds himself more culpable than he thought.
If this film suffers from one flaw, it would only be that it doesn’t go on long enough. At eighty minutes, this well-crafted melodrama feels sadly truncated. A number of plot threads, such as Joyce’s engagement to a man named Russ (Richard Long), Henry and Sara’s relationship, and Dutch’s relentless pursuit of a sordid past would have been welcome additions to the central story. Still, All I Desire fully satisfies despite its brevity, in part due to Stanwyck’s great performance, but also due to Sirk’s perfectly calculated direction, calibrated to extract every bit of emotion possible from the actors and augment their distinct dynamics.
Stanwyck had meatier roles than this and Sirk made far more epic melodramas, and yet All I Desire still feels uniquely impressive as a star vehicle and an entry in a celebrated director’s filmography. It has an irresistible charm, something not easily quantified, but readily observed and remembered. | Nic Champion
This release comes with a commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.