ALL I DESIRE is an absorbing small-town family drama about the return of an errant wife to her family after a decade's absence.
Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck), who felt stifled by her role as the wife of a teacher in their country town, abandoned her husband and three children to pursue her dream of being an actress. Whatever career success she achieved over the years has been lost, and Naomi is now on the lower half of vaudeville playbills, with a bleak future. When Naomi's would-be actress daughter Lily (Lori Nelson) sends Naomi a letter inviting her long-absent mother to her school play, Naomi impulsively accepts.
Lily is thrilled to see her mother, while oldest daughter Joyce (Marcia Henderson) is stunned, as is Naomi's husband, Henry (Richard Carlson). Joyce and Henry are still nursing old hurts and are conflicted when Naomi walks through their door. Ted (Billy Gray), the youngest child, doesn't seem to care one way or the other as long as he can ramble around town with his dog.
Complicating matters is that over the years Henry has developed an unspoken attachment for the high school drama teacher, Sara (Maureen O'Sullivan). And Dutch (Lyle Bettger), who had a fling with Naomi before she left town, wants to pick up their affair where it left off.
Naomi finds that she longs to be part of a family again; her gradual building of new relationships with each member of the family forms the film's chief plot thread. However, the disapproving eyes of the local community are always a concern, and Natalie believes she has no choice but to leave again...
ALL I DESIRE was directed by Douglas Sirk with his usual flair, including interesting "framing" devices such as doors, shelves, and mirrors. The film reminded me strongly of Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, another film which explores the pressures which community expectations and children bring to bear on a possible marriage -- or, in this case, the possibility of a marital reunion. The movie also made me think of a more modern film, KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), in which a mother abandons her young child in order to "find herself."
Stanwyck is excellent as a woman who always seems to want what she doesn't have at the moment. Whether she could truly be happy reunited with her family is a bit of a question, but one hopes that with her life experiences she would now be able to appreciate what wishes to reclaim.
I like Richard Carlson, but he was a bit drab in this...however, it must be said that fits the character of a man whose wife had an affair and then left him. Henry has been somewhat beaten down by life and is careful and guarded of the good things he has left, his family and his respected job as a high school principal. Maureen O'Sullivan is very touching as the teacher who is probably the right woman for Henry, but cannot have him.
Marcia Henderson, who played Wendy in the 1950 Jean Arthur-Boris Karloff Broadway production of PETER PAN, is excellent as her father's proper daughter, Joyce, the most deeply wounded of Naomi's abandoned children. She gradually defrosts, although this is played out more with how Joyce treats her fiance than in her relationship with her mother. Lori Nelson and Billy Gray are also excellent as Lily and Ted.
Richard Long is charming as Joyce's handsome fiance. It's funny to realize that a dozen years later he would play Stanwyck's oldest child on TV's THE BIG VALLEY. Another bit of trivia is that at different times both Long and Lori Nelson played Kettle children in the MA AND PA KETTLE movies.
ALL I DESIRE runs an hour and 20 minutes. It was photographed by Carl Guthrie.
The screenplay was based on the novel STOPOVER by Carol Ryrie Brink, whose wonderful children's book CADDIE WOODLAWN won the Newbery Medal and is still in print today. We have several other Brink books on our shelves, including MAGICAL MELONS, BABY ISLAND, FAMILY GRANDSTAND, and THE PINK MOTEL.
The great film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote a lengthy essay on ALL I DESIRE and the Sirk-Stanwyck film THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1955) for Bright Lights Film Journal.
ALL IS DESIRE is available in a lovely print as part of the 6-film Barbara Stanwyck Collection released just a few weeks ago. The only extra for ALL I DESIRE is a short trailer. I have previously reviewed one other film in the DVD set, INTERNES CAN'T TAKE MONEY (1937).
ALL I DESIRE also had a 1995 VHS release.