The premise of 1953 romantic drama All I Desire is almost Showgirls in reverse; Naomi Murdoch (not quite Nomi Malone but close enough) is a faded actress who travels from the big city to a small town.
Barbara Stanwyck was one of the biggest leading ladies in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s, with four Oscar nominations to her name. In 1944 she was the highest-paid woman in the entire country, earning $400,000 (which Cary Grant could earn for a single movie). By 1953 her star had waned, making her the perfect choice for the washed-up lead of All I Desire. Those halcyon days of 6-figure salaries behind her, Stanwyck took the part for little pay and brings an authentic cynicism to the role.
This is matched in the crackling script by Robert Blees and James Gunn (not that one – although it might explain some of his more retrograde tweets), perfectly delivered in Stanwyck’s husky tones. Naomi’s arrival in her hometown garners a mixed reaction from the family she walked out on 10 years earlier; youngest daughter Lily (Lori Nelson) is infatuated with her but eldest Joyce (Marcia Henderson) is less than thrilled, producing something of a Mildred Pierce dynamic between mother and daughter.
These interesting relationships create a sense of drama strong enough to withstand certain plot inconsistencies and an ill-fitting climax, making the outcome unpredictable but equally unearned. The producer (Ross Hunter) forced this ending against the will of the director (Douglas Sirk), who also wanted to keep the more ironic and less sentimental name of the novel on which it was based: Stopover.
Despite those difficulties, All I Desire is buoyed by lively melodrama, well-written characters and the use of the phrase “23 skidoo”; possibly America’s first “fad” expression (the kind that Taylor Swift might try to copyright had she been around back then). Also interesting (as in the films of Joan Crawford or Mae West) is its treatment of women, which feels empowering even within the conservative sexual attitudes of the era. This makes the movie well worth a watch – like I said, the opposite of Showgirls.