Trapped in a Tomb of Their Own Making: Max Ophuls's the Reckless Moment and Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow

By Lawrence, Amy | Film Criticism, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Trapped in a Tomb of Their Own Making: Max Ophuls's the Reckless Moment and Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow


Lawrence, Amy, Film Criticism


This essay came about because I was struck by the many similarities between Max Ophuls' 1949 film The Reckless Moment and Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (1956). There are many parallels between the careers of Sirk and Ophuls. Both wartime emigres (Sirk arrived in the United States in 1939, Ophuls in 1941), each director came to Hollywood from a successful European filmmaking career and was best known for his work in melodrama.(1) Comparing two of their lesser-known American works, we find many parallels, beginning with their similar plots. In The Reckless Moment, wife and mother Joan Bennett, taken for granted by her family, is tempted by bad boy James Mason while she struggles to contain the potentially catastrophic sexuality of teenage daughter Bea. In Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, husband and father Fred MacMurray, taken for granted by his family, is tempted by career woman Barbara Stanwyck while being stalked by his rabidly conservative, sex-despising teenage son played by William Reynolds (who played essentially the same part a year earlier in All That Heaven Allows).(2)

Both films confront the threatened breakdown of "the American home," and each does so with what might be called a "European" attitude.(3) The ideals of marital fidelity and a "happy ending" are read ironically, becoming demoralized depictions of surrender and defeat. In both films, families are depicted as organizations for the repression of sexuality, especially parental sexuality. In each film the ideal of the postwar American dream is undermined as the middle-aged middle-class protagonists come to recognize that they are trapped by their families in their model American homes.

The American concept of home itself collapses the social structure of the family with the construction of domestic space. As is common with melodrama, Ophuls's and Sirk's films show how the pressures of the family are made visible in the structure of the house itself. In each film, the "average" American house is portrayed by a glamorous Hollywood substitute. The promotion of postwar housing design mimics the promotion of stars, with star homes presented as a mix of ordinary/extraordinary that could be used to lure aspiring consumers.

Although the houses represented in the respective films would in reality have been far out of reach for the average middle-class family, Sirk and Ophuls would not have been naive to see Hollywood homes as a model for American housing. After all, these are the homes the emigre directors would have been most likely to encounter in America, not only through visiting friends in the industry but simply by virtue of living in Los Angeles. Ophuls's first residence in Hollywood was that classic southern Californian structure, the "two-room garden bungalow". After renting for six months, Ophuls moved with his family to a two-story fixer-upper in the Hollywood Hills (Bacher 30). His first paid writing assignment was completed at the Palm Springs house of friend and successful screenwriter Howard Koch (Bacher 36). Sirk was familiar with an arguably wider range of architectural styles, having had a chicken farm in the San Fernando Valley and an alfalfa ranch in Pomona before a seven year contract with Columbia landed him back in Los Angeles.

Every house in Hollywood comes with a celebrity provenance. Ophuls rented his bungalow from director Robert Siodmak. His house on Whitley Terrace was attached to an apartment rented by cameraman Eugen Schufftan (Bacher 30). Having a house was one of the things that inserted someone firmly within the celebrity community, all of whom had their own houses. For instance, Joan Bennett's daughter relates, "Our neighbors were Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. The James Masons came every Sunday for supper and a movie in the screening room" (Aronson 300).

If a house was newly built, it was the architect who came with a list of celebrity clients: Bennett's house was designed by architect Wallace Neff (no relation to Double Indemnity's Walter Neff, played by Bennett's co-star in There's Always Tomorrow, Fred MacMurray).

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