“Four Daughters” and Claude Rains – TCM Summer Under The Stars Post #1
This post is part of the “2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars” Blogathon, hosted by Jill Blake at her blog “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence” and Michael Nazarewycz at his block “Scribe Hard on Film“, which runs through the month of August, and it’s the first of five posts I’ll be doing for it.
Since the beginnings of Hollywood narrative film as we know it (or when Florence Lawrence, formerly known as just the “It Girl”, became the first actor to get star billing), audiences have gone to see stars looking glamorous on the big screen, in stories that gave them to chance to do what they do best. However, there has also been room for lead actors (not so much actresses, unfortunately) who may not look like traditional glamorous leads but who nevertheless have that elusive star quality that allows them to hold the screen, and enthrall us. Some of them might have started out as character actors, and indeed may swing back and forth between character parts and lead parts, but they still can hold their own in a leading part, and against a star lead. One of the best of these character leading men was Claude Rains.
From his first major film role – as the title character in James Whale’s movie version of The Invisible Man – Rains, who started out on stage and who was already in his mid-40’s when Whale’s film came out, followed this path of playing either character parts or leads. As a contract player at Warner Brothers, he took on a wide range of roles, from out-and-out villains (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk) to flawed men (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Notorious) to essentially decent men (Now Voyager, Kings Row) and even angels (Here Comes Mr. Jordan). The one thing all of these performances had in common was the air of refinement he brought to them, thanks to his theatrical training and his mellifluous voice (which critic Stanley Kauffmann has called an attraction by itself). Occasionally, however, he did get to kid this image, and one of those occasions was in Michael Curtiz’s Four Daughters, which came out in 1938.
Today, Four Daughters is best remembered for being John Garfield’s film debut (he had been an extra in the musical Footlight Parade), and with him giving arguably the first Method performance to be captured on-screen. But it was one of Warner Brothers prestige films of the time, was a hit, and was nominated for five Oscars. It’s based on a serialized novel called “Sister Act” by Fannie Hurst, who isn’t well-remembered today but was a best-selling author in the 20’s and 30’s, and who had several of her stories and novels turned into films (most notably Back Street, the 1932 Irene Dunne film, and Imitation of Life, which John Stahl directed in 1934; later, it was remade in 1959 by Douglas Sirk). And though it was originally meant to star Errol Flynn (he was assigned to The Adventures of Robin Hood instead) and then Bette Davis (who refused to make it), the film eventually ended up as a vehicle for the Lane sisters. Priscilla, Lola and Rosemary Lane, along with their older sister Leota, were best known at the time for being a singing group who performed with Fred Waring’s orchestra, but Priscilla and Lola had each appeared in Humphrey Bogart films (Men are Such Fools and Marked Woman, respectively), and Priscilla and Rosemary had also appeared opposite Dick Powell in Varsity Show, so it didn’t seem like a stretch to have them all star in another film. However, Gale Page, who, as it happens, had also appeared earlier that year in two films featuring Bogart (Crime School and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse), ended up getting cast instead of Leota.
In his book Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style, author/professor/critic Steve Vineberg calls Four Daughters a Norman Rockwell fantasy, and there’s some truth to that. The daughters in question – Kay (Rosemary), Thea (Lola), Emma (Page) and Ann (Priscilla) – are all musicians, all living with their widower father Adam Lemp (Rains), a music professor (and flute player) who is often gruffly arguing with them about their love of “modern” music (jazz) as opposed to the classical music he has them rehearse (Kay sings, Ann plays the violin, Emma plays the harp, and Thea plays the piano). While Emma is courted by Ernest (Dick Foran), the Lemp’s neighbor and a well-meaning but somewhat clumsy florist (Emma jokes she’ll have to marry him if he ever finishes a sentence), and Thea is going out with Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh), a wealthy businessman whom she seems to like mostly for his wealth, Kay is more interested in her career, and Ann doesn’t think marriage is for her. All of that changes when Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), a young composer and the son of one of Adam’s old friends, comes to town (we first see him swinging on the gate of the Lemp’s white picket fence; Ann comes out to tell him to stop, but ends up showing him how to do it right). All of the Lemps are charmed by him – even Adam’s spinster sister Etta (May Robson), who’s as gruff in her way as Adam – but it’s Ann he ends up falling in love with.
From that, you might think this was no different than, say, the Andy Hardy movies MGM was cranking out from the late 30’s on, or the Deanna Durbin movies Universal made, starting with Three Smart Girls, that Henry Koster directed. That is to say, the movie seems carefully scrubbed, and insulated from the rest of the world. But there turns out to be a joker in the deck, in the form of Mickey Borden (Garfield), a piano player and Felix’s writing partner. Mickey sticks out like a sore thumb in this WASP-ish world because of his looks (when he first comes to the house, he’s unshaven), brusque manners and his fatalism (he tells Ann the Fates are always screwing him over, and doesn’t want to fight them, though he loves talking about it). Ann likes him but worries about his defeatist attitude, and resolves to change it. What she doesn’t count on is Mickey falling in love with her, and telling her even after she’s engaged to Felix. She also doesn’t realize, until Mickey tells her, that while all of her sisters were attracted to Felix, Emma was also in love with him (when Ann saw Emma crying after she and Felix announced their engagement, she assumed Emma just didn’t want her to leave, as they had made a joking pact not to marry). This knowledge leads Ann to make a fateful decision.
As Vineberg writes, Garfield is basically put in the movie to get in the way of Ann and Felix’s plans, but it’s also true he’s the one character who seems like he’s from the real world (even in a scene late in the movie in a New York City bar that’s miles away from the sensibility of the Lemp home, Garfield is the most authentic presence). And whatever you think of the rest of the actors in the film (whom I’ll get to in a minute), he definitely seems on a different wavelength than everyone else; while everyone else has perfect posture, he’s slouching, at least until he tries to improve himself for Ann. Finally, when he makes a fateful decision of his own late in the movie (which I won’t spoil), he avoids playing the pathos of the moment, instead displaying what looks like a sardonic grin on his face.
Garfield’s not the only one who helps the movie avoid stickiness for the most part. Curtiz was definitely one of the more eccentric Hollywood figures, thanks to malapropisms that rivaled Samuel Goldwyn (“The next time I want an idiot to do this, I’ll do it myself!”), but during the 30’s and 40’s, he was perhaps Warner Brothers’ best and best-known house director, doing everything from adventure films (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood) to horror films (Doctor X) to costume drama (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) to crime drama (Angels with Dirty Faces) to Westerns (Virginia City) to literary adaptations (The Sea Wolf) and even musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy), not to mention his most famous movie, Casablanca. He shows restraint in handling the material; the scene where Ann finally realizes Emma is in love with Felix is a good example. As Ann watches from the window, Emma, in a callback to an earlier scene, ties Felix’s tie as he gets ready for the wedding. The dialogue between them is light on the surface (they share their previous joke about this being Emma’s lifetime job), but you can see the forced cheer in Emma’s face, and in a series of cuts, we see how it affects Ann. It’s a terrific piece of filmmaking. And except for the tracking shot that shows the sisters at the beginning (as they play along to their father conducting), Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who went on to shoot such high-profile films as The Roaring Twenties, Gone with the Wind, and Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce) keep the camera work simple.
I have not seen, nor have I heard, the Lane sisters singing except in this movie, and a You Tube clip of both Priscilla and Rosemary singing with Waring and his orchestra in the Dick Powell movie Varsity Town, which demonstrates their different styles (Rosemary, as in Four Daughters, is more operatic, while Priscilla is more swing-oriented). However, I have seen the sisters in other roles, particularly Priscilla, who went on to make such films as The Roaring Twenties, Saboteur and Arsenic and Old Lace. In his book Movie Love in the Fifties, playwright/critic James Harvey argued the growing genteel-ism of the late 40’s and 50’s shunted the tough, wisecracking woman of the 30’s and early 40’s aside, and the stars in that time became more girl-ish. But those types of actresses were around in the 30’s as well, and the Lane sisters were a prime example. They do interact well together, and Priscilla shows some comic pluck in her scenes with Lynn (who is decent enough) and Garfield (their clash of styles is appealing) – the dialogue provided by Julius Epstein (one of Warners’ house writers), who co-wrote the script, also doesn’t hurt. But for me, Page is better and more memorable; she didn’t end up having any longer a career than the Lane sisters, but she at least knows how to play subtlety more, especially in that scene I referred to earlier with Lynn, where she buries her feelings. McHugh, one of the staple of Warners’ character actors, is appealing enough, though I never quite bought him as a rich businessman.
As for Rains, as I said before, this role sort of has the effect of kidding the refined air of his earlier roles, even from how he looks (somewhat curly hair, a mustache, and always wearing suits that seem secondhand). Some critics, including Pauline Kael, thought he was over-acting, and took him to task for it, but after his opening scene, he calms down, and displays some neat comic timing, especially when he’s sparring with Felix (the running joke of him retorting “Bah” when he can’t think of anything else to say). And while he doesn’t get too many serious moments in the film, Rains handles them well, such as when he finds out about Ann’s fateful decision (which I’m being vague about so I don’t spoil anything). If anyone is overacting, I think it’s Robson, though her scenes with Lynn and Garfield sparkle. The Lanes, Page, Rains, Garfield and Robson all reunited for a quasi-remake, Daughters Courageous, which Curtiz also directed (and Epstein also co-wrote), and there were two sequels to Four Daughters (Four Wives and Four Mothers), which kept most of the original cast (Curtiz directed the first sequel, William Keighley directed the second). There was even a musical remake; Young at Heart (1954), with Doris Day in the Priscilla Lane role, Frank Sinatra in the Garfield role, and Gig Young in the Lynn role. But none of these films captured the genuine charm of the original (particularly the remake; the only thing to recommend it is Sinatra getting to sing such classics as “One for my Baby” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”). I wouldn’t hold up Four Daughters as a genuine classic, but it’s a good example of studio filmmaking. And while this may not rank with Rains’ best performances (Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now Voyager, Notorious and The Adventures of Robin Hood are my favorites of his), it’s a chance to show what he can do with a rare comic role.