“Four Daughters” (1938) and the sequels which followed, “Four Wives” (1939) and “Four Mothers” (1941) was a brief but successful series featuring three actual sisters, the Lanes, who through their individual stage work and musical careers with big bands brought them separately to Hollywood.
Priscilla, Lola, and Rosemary Lane worked separately before and after this series of films, but along with Gale Page, who played the fourth sister, were ever afterward identified with the Lemp family portrayed in these films.
The first film in the series, “Four Daughters” is the best, and was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s mix of supporting actors, from the always terrific Claude Rains as their father, to the handsome young Jeffrey Lynn, to the ever dependable Frank McHugh, Dick Foran, and especially May Robson (who will be the topic of Thursday’s blog), lends a lot to the film. Most striking, however, is the debut of John Garfield, who was nominated for his role.
The dialogue is fast and funny. Rains plays the father, the director of a local music academy. The girls are all musicians. Aunt Etta, their father’s sister, lives with them, runs the house, and acts as surrogate mother. The film starts out being a wholesome Andy Hardy type outing, light and funny, particularly when the girls’ beaus are brought home for the first time to meet father, subjected to the usual discomfort of trying to impress and fit into this army of females. As anyone from a big family, or marrying into a big family will tell you, it’s difficult for outsiders to join in to what appears to be an impregnable wall of familial affection, inside jokes, and a tight-knit past that has nothing to do with the newcomer. These scenes are done well, first with Frank McHugh running the gauntlet as the new boyfriend. His discomfort is acute and sweet.
Dick Foran plays the shy, stumbling neighbor they’ve known forever, and Jeffrey Lynn charges into the scene as a happy-go-lucky young musician, bouncy as a puppy, who all the girls immediately fall in love with, but when he eventually chooses Priscilla Lane for his love, there is a rollercoaster dip in the tenor of the film. When the two announce their engagement, the quick close-ups on the other girls showing disappointment is quietly intense.
The real fireworks begins when John Garfield enters the picture as a self-pitying, bitter musician at first sarcastic towards this close family, and then sadly desperate to join it. When Priscilla leaves Jeffrey Lynn at the altar for Garfield, it is meant as a sacrifice to release Lynn to marry her sister. The light and funny outing is over for this family, and the film increasingly becomes more serious and somewhat sinister, with delicate romantic triangles and unrequited love. Though she has agreed to marry Garfield, Priscilla still loves Jeffrey Lynn, and there is an intense scene at a Christmas reunion where all are stiff and mannerly, but anguished in each other’s company. Priscilla gets Jeffrey’s coat for him when he leaves, and takes a moment to gently run her hands on the shoulders and back of the coat and hold it a moment before bringing it to him.
The film then turns tragic as Garfield performs what he must regard as the ultimate sacrifice for his unhappy wife. There is a simple but evocative foreshadowing shot of his wet shoe on the accelerator of the car he is driving, and an unusual shot of his stony face from the floor of the car through the steering column, and we know he is going to kill himself in that car. When he speeds up and turns off the windshield wipers, letting the windshield fill with snow, it’s almost sickening.
Director Michael Curtiz does some interesting things with pacing in this film, and his repetition of themes, like the squeaky swinging front gate and several establishing shots of items in the house and the flowering tree outside. The final shot is of the gossipy neighbor lady, intrigued with the young lovers swinging on the gate, finally stealing a moment to try it herself. Her astonished expression of bliss is a quirky and delightful way to end the film.
Most remarkable I think is the use of music in this film. It’s not strictly a musical, but there is a great deal of classical music played and sung by this family, from pieces of “Lohengrin” by Richard Wagner, to Brahms, Mendelssohn, and a long, lazy rendition of “Serenade” by Franz Schubert that opens the film and is reprised in the sequels. Rosemary Lane, the aloof sister with the dry humor, does the singing, and she appears to be the only Lemp sister who plans a professional career as a performer. To have classical pieces and German lieder given such space in a film made about four attractive, modern sisters in the height of the era of Big Band music, and not have them portrayed as glasses-wearing intellectual freaks, is unusual. They handle these classical pieces with natural ease and with evident pleasure, even if they occasionally madden their father by teasing him with swing renditions of his revered Beethoven.
This film was followed by “Daughter’s Courageous” reunited all the cast, but was not about the same Lemp family as in “Four Daughters”. An unusual move and evidently the studio felt it was more profitable to go back to the well and do more movies about the original family, so “Four Wives” and “Four Mothers” were released carrying the further adventures of the girls into marriage and motherhood. The second film, “Four Wives” is more maudlin, and third had more to do with the family’s financial ruin than with motherhood. We are afforded only brief glimpses of the baby daughters, another generation of girls.
The second film “Four Wives” has an even longer musical segue as a so-called “Symphonie Moderne” is staged. This piece was actually composed by Max Steiner. The camera slowly pans the orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Lynn, to the hospital bed of Priscilla and her new baby, the child of her deceased husband John Garfield who appears through flashback, and to her family listening to the radio at home. Such a lot of time spent on the piece might make those not interested in classical music fidget a bit, but director Curtiz’s use of it remains intriguing. I like the slow pace in this part of the film, and the tour of the emotions on which the camera takes us.
Also, the manner in which all the sisters and their separate stories are shown through the course of the three films is one of brief scenes and using small nuances to symbolize larger themes. There is no single star of the films, though Priscilla Lane’s and Jeffrey Lynn’s characters change the most, from silly and carefree, to deeply hurt and sorrowful. It can’t have been an easy job either for the writers or the director to use such a large cast in equal proportions, which is pretty much what happens.
“Four Daughters” was remade as “Young at Heart” (1954), and both films were coincidently shown on TCM last night. The original series probably could have been extended, with the war and a new set of tribulations facing the sisters as a backdrop, but perhaps neither the Lanes nor Gale Page wanted to be stuck with playing the Lemp sisters for too long. Only Gale Page would continue her acting career in later decades; none of the Lane girls ever made a film beyond the 1940s.