April 29, 2013

Four Daughters (1938)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Claude Rains, John Garfield, Priscilla Lane

What it's about. This family tearjerker is best known today as the film debut of charismatic angst-ridden method actor John Garfield. Fussy but good-hearted Claude Rains is the European-born widower patriarch blessed with four beautiful and pleasant grown daughters: Gale Page and Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla Lane. All are obliged to pursue classical music specialties to please their father, but have greater interest in eligible young men. Fortunately and inevitably, they arrive at the front door.

Also present is the daughters' Aunt Etta (May Robson), who is cast far too old for the role though this ensures she will provide absolutely no competition for any of the daughters pursuers. Etta, like Rains, tries to put a stern front but her bark has no bite.

How others will see it. Four Daughters was such a box office hit that it led to two sequels, Four Wives (1939) and Four Mothers (1941). (Four Divorces and Four Menopauses never left the drawing boards).

Critical praise was also glowing. The film garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and a best supporting nod for up-and-comer Garfield. It was an A-list Warner Bros effort, including future Casablanca talent Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, and Claude Rains.

However, the film has since fallen into relative obscurity. Crime and horror remain the most popular genres from the 1930s. Romance dramas are of lesser interest, even for women, who prefer modern color films stocked with more familiar contemporary actors.

Nonetheless, women who have seen the present movie tend to enjoy it. There is a significant gender gap of 7.3 to 6.8. Male viewers might take note of Garfield's unusual passive-aggressive and self-deprecating pursuit of Priscilla Lane, which contrasts with Jeffrey Lynn's confidant and gregarious full-court press.

How I felt about it. This movie reminds me of Little Women, which was also set in New England and featured a family consisting of several beautiful young women and no brothers. This is a set-up, of course, for a series of romances that begin to separate the family. Also like Little Women, we have a tragedy involving the death of a supporting player, a wealthy paramour, and a serious but abortive romance between the lead and the most desirable man.

Thus, a strong element of formula is present, and we also find it remarkable, yet predictable, that all the daughters are gorgeous. (It is true, however, that Priscilla, Rosemary, and Lola Lane were sisters). We believe the youngest sister, Priscilla, is the hottest of all, which explains her generous amount of screen time and dramatic "star turn."

Each of the four daughters is more perfect than the other. Differences are more consequential between their four beaus. Frank McHugh is wealthy and affable but too short and pudgy to be romantic. Dick Foran is dull as dishwater, and by no means rich, but he is built like a linebacker, and his commanding baritone voice also helps matters. Ebulliant rascal Jeffrey Lynn is the pick of the pack, but the most memorable role goes to our rising star, John Garfield, the talented but unlucky and unduly self-critical musician.

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