The family drama is a sub-genre in cinema storytelling that Hollywood used to excel at during the 1930s and '40s. Modest stories about everyday folk were a daily staple of the American movie goer’s diet back then. Perhaps more than any other genre, the family drama nourished our need to believe that happy endings were possible for everyone - even ourselves. True enough, the people who populated these homespun narratives were dressed more smartly than the average ma and pa, and perhaps lived in more idyllic surroundings, but otherwise their struggles, fears, hopes and dreams were not unlike ours. And we cherished the way these family units came together during times of joy and strife, always able to find their way on to a brighter tomorrow. Simple ideals, perhaps, but sold with tender aplomb and a gentle understanding for life as it should - and possibly could - be.
Based on Fannie Hurst's celebrated novel, director Michael Curtiz's Four Daughters (1938) is the quintessential heartwarming - and, at times heartrending - melodrama. The film stars the Lane sisters, Pricilla, Rosemary and Lola, along with Gale Page, as the four siblings who find love and heartbreak in homespun America. The screenplay written by Lenore J. Coffee and Julius J. Epstein effectively condenses Hurst's novel without losing any of its poignant reflections on quaint - almost bucolic - domesticity. The film opens in the front parlor of the Lemp family. Sisters Ann (Pricilla Lane), Emma (Gale Page), Thea (Thea Lane) and Kay (Rosemary Lane) are in the middle of a music recital conducted by their father, Adam (Claude Rains), who has great hopes for a classical music career for Kay even though she prefers modern jazz.
Thea excites the brood when she announces that she has finagled a date with Ben Crowley; a wealthy - slightly older suitor who will be able to fulfill her dreams of living well. Ben is hardly romantic. Nevertheless, Thea pursues Ben and eventually he proposes marriage. Emma has a steady beau too, flower shop owner Ernest Talbot (Dick Foran). Although Ernest's love is genuine, Emma is not entirely certain Ernest is the man for her. He's too placid and lacking in that spark and fire of romantic fantasy that Emma secretly yearns.
In the meantime, Adam has welcomed Felix Deitz (the sadly underrated Jeffrey Lynn in a stellar performance) into the family's home as a tenant. Felix is a brash but loveable and roguishly handsome composer. The shy and restrained Emma is immediately smitten with him, but Felix gravitates to the more gregarious Ann, who is quite unaware of her sister's affections. Felix invites a friend, music arranger Mickey Borden (John Garfield, in the role that made him a star) to room with him as the two collaborate on songs. Although a brilliant arranger, Mickey is not terribly serious about life. His interests blow with the wind, to where his latest meal will come from. The Lemp family welcome Mickey into their fold and Mickey soon takes a subtle romantic interest in Ann, though she is as obtuse to his advances as she is to understanding how deep Emma's affections run for Felix.
Emma and Ann share a close sisterly bond, one that Ann has initially vowed never to break by getting married. However, when Felix proposes Ann accepts. In a last ditch effort to win Ann for himself, Mickey tells her on the day of her wedding that she will be ruining two lives if she goes through with the marriage. Unable to break her sisters heart, Ann instead elopes with Mickey - certain that her departure will lead to Felix falling in love with Emma. Instead, Felix leaves the Lemps, making a career for himself in the big city and Emma decides once and for all that Ernest is the man for her.
Four months pass. It's Christmas and the family reunite. Felix unexpectedly returns too, his mere presence creating romantic tension as everyone gathers around the radio for the evening's big surprise. Kay has landed a radio program with national sponsorship. Her debut is a smashing success that makes Adam very proud. But during the broadcast Ann accidentally drops the claim check from a bracelet Felix once gave her that she has since sold to help keep Mickey afloat. Felix decides to leave the Lemps, perhaps for good. Mickey offers to drive him to the station in Ben's car. At the last possible moment, Ben decides to tag along.
After Mickey drops Ben off at the corner drug store he confides his own selfish reasons for marrying Ann to Felix. Realizing that Mickey just might love Ann, Felix forgives him, offering a gift of money that he intended to give as a wedding present, then says goodbye. But as the train pulls from the station Mickey realizes what a heel he has been. He deliberately drives Ben's car at a full clip off the snowy road and into a ditch to commit suicide. Meanwhile a phone call arrives at the Lemps informing them of the accident. However, since the car is in Ben's name the Lemps assume it is Ben, not Mickey who is mortally wounded and lying in the hospital. When Ann, Adam and Thea arrive at the hospital Thea, who has been growing rather cold and distant from her husband, realizes just how much she loves him. Ann and Mickey are briefly reunited. He smiles at her tenderly, then dies. In the Spring Felix returns to the Lemps, swinging on their rusty gate. Ann rushes to his side and the two embrace. They are at last free to love as their hearts dictate.
Four Daughters is a beautifully constructed, superbly scripted and impeccably acted melodrama. The entire cast is working overtime, but with a freshness and congeniality that seems un-strained. It's a wonder that Jeffrey Lynn never made a bigger splash in movies as a leading man. His performance is a standout. So is John Garfield's. This film made him a star. The Lane sisters give it their all, and it is saying much of the two lesser, Lola and Rosemary, that although their parts are not as well delineated in the script they manage to distinguish themselves as memorable siblings. In retrospect, Pricilla Lane is the outstanding find, her plucky personality and commanding presence a definite plus.
In many ways Four Daughters marks the definite break Warner Brothers began to make in the mid-30s away from 'ripped from the headlines' gangster/crime movies into the foray of lush and memorable romantic dramas and comedies that would place the studio in direct competition with MGM for its box office during the 1940s. Ernest Haller's sumptuous cinematography captures the simple beauty of mid-town America and its surrounding rural landscapes. Here is a world of cleanliness and wholesomeness, of tidy little homes and churches nestled against rolling hills with babbling brooks and wild honeysuckle. Bottom line: the family drama doesn't get much better than this. Four Daughters is an unpretentious slice of life told with an understanding heart and patience for exposition that we don't see in movies anymore. It has strong characters, great humanity and real charisma; the true hallmarks of an enduring cinematic masterpiece.
It's a pity this title didn't get a Blu-ray release but instead has gone straight to the Warner MOD Archive. This is the second outing for this movie in the archive, remastered this time around for improved picture quality. The elements are still in rough shape, but the gray scale is greatly improved with contrast levels appearing bang on. At times the image is a tad thick with fine detail wanting. Otherwise, this is a nicely transferred attempt at preserving the film as it currently exists. But age related artifacts are everywhere and, in a few instances, distract. The audio is mono but adequate for this presentation. There are NO extras! Parting thoughts: Four Daughters gets my vote for a Blu-ray upgrade with a new restored 1080p hi-def master and perhaps some extra features like an audio commentary and featurette. This film belongs in everyone's library. It's a winner, a charmer and a joy to experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)