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22 November 2015

Four Daughters and Young At Heart: Middle America Meets a Stranger from Within -- Twice

Priscilla Lane, Lola Lane, Claude Rains. Rosemary Lane, and Gale Page

Hollywood studios were never loath to use a good story many times; it's often extremely interesting to compare versions -- what was emphasized or downplayed, which characters were excused, admired, or condemned, provides a great deal of insight into shifting contemporary mores.

In 1938, Warner Brothers released Four Daughters, a romantic drama based on a magazine story, Sister Act, by the extremely popular novelist Fannie Hurst. Hurst had an amazing knack for coming up with movie-friendly stories – she wrote Back Street, Imitation of Life, and Humoresque, all of which were very successfully adapted into major films, and many others. Along with the beautiful and talented Lane sisters, Priscilla, Rosemary, and Lola, plus Gale Page as the fourth sister, this hit film also featured the striking debut of 25-year-old John Garfield, and sterling support by Claude Rains and May Robson, as well as studio stalwarts Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, and Dick Foran.
Jeffrey Lynn -- the title sort of says it all, doesn't it?

Four Daughters is unique in many ways; the studio scored quite a coup in casting the attractive Lane sisters in a story that actually called for sisters; also, these characters inhabit the classical music world, seldom seen in popular movies. Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, best known for masculine adventures like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed with great skill and a surprising eye for Middle American values. Also, Hurst’s story has a widowed father raising children on his own, which is a situation that never occurs in classic-era Hollywood films (except one – My Favorite Wife). Here patriarch Adam Lemp is the Dean of the Briarwood Music Foundation; he has brought up his four daughters with the aid of his spinster sister, Etta. They are not wealthy, but live in a comfortable middle-class home with "rugs on the floor, the smell of cooking from the kitchen, a piano, and flowers." The girls, ranging in age from 19 year old Ann to 26 year old Thea, all have musical talent, but are more interested in romance and marriage at this stage in their lives. None has found the right man just yet, and all four of them express dissatisfaction with the local suitors. So when Felix, a personable, talented, single young man (Jeffrey Lynn) arrives to work with their father, and actually ends up staying in the house (a move that was remarkably naïve of the elder generation, one can’t help feeling), the girls are all thrown into confusion.
Each sister is attracted to the tall, fair, handsome Felix, who is artistic, but clean-cut, reliable, and apparently untouched by any temperamental difficulties; he seems the ideal man, in fact. But soon another complication arises -- Felix's friend Mickey Borden, a talented but rootless musician, arrives to help orchestrate his composition. And here the real theme of this story appears, very clearly illustrated by the casting -- for this is the first appearance on film of a young Broadway sensation, John Garfield. He was 25 years old, and the camera loved him (so did everyone else; he was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance).
John Garfield's first movie

Garfield was not tall, or athletic, or conventionally handsome -- his features were blunt, and his accent definitely reflected not just New York, but his Lower East Side origins (although his diction was actually superb; every word is clear, and he handles complex, wordy speeches with perfect aplomb). But his character is thoroughly imagined, and sizzles with inner life. Mickey is an impractical, cynical drifter, of some sort of undefined but "different" ethnicity, wounded early in life by poverty and loneliness, who wastes his own talent assisting other composers to shape their works. He is practically the antithesis of charming, confident, WASP-y Felix. (Note that at this stage in Hollywood’s social history no one would have dreamed of pairing beautiful blonde Priscilla Lane with a Jewish character. It is one of the mysteries of the studio system that one of the things that disappeared from Hollywood films with the enforcement of the Production Code, along with double beds and the inside of the female thigh, wss specific ethnicity, especially Jewish ethnicity – this in an industry which saw fortunes made on The Jazz Singer, where the hero’s father is a cantor!)
On his arrival, looking faintly disheveled in a crumpled suit, with uncombed hair and his tie at half mast, Mickey sits down at the piano and displays his superior musicianship, something everyone in the household respects. Then in one of the film's most remembered scenes he engages in an enjoyable verbal sparring match with Aunt Etta (the wonderful May Robson):

"What kind of an aunt are you? The gruff voice hiding the soft heart? Or are you the sweet, simple, land-sakes-alive, I smell something burning aunt?"

"Felix should have prepared me for you. How about a cup of tea?"


"May I throw in a couple of cakes?"

"How did you know I hadn't eaten since yesterday morning?"

"Oh, I'm the nearsighted, you-can't-hide-a-thing-from-me type of aunt."

Ann, the free-spirited youngest sister, also engages with Mickey, and is puzzled and taken aback by his pessimism, which stems from the kind of deprivation -- not just of money, but of love and support -- that she has never encountered in her happy life.

The warm-hearted Lemps take Mickey in, despite his unconcern for middle-class standards, and soon include him as part of the family. He is touched by this despite himself. Garfield is wonderful here, showing the character's half resentful hidden gratitude, and the terrible sensitivity beneath his facade of toughness. Inevitably, when the naive golden girl Ann decides to "civilize" him, Mickey falls desperately in love with her, the sunny symbol of everything he has missed in his threadbare life -- joy, optimism, security, and hope.

Ann, completely unaware of this, becomes engaged to Felix -- to the consternation of all of her sisters. When she does find out that Mickey loves her, and that her sister Kay loves Felix, she impulsively leaves Felix at the altar and elopes with Mickey

After this event, Thea agrees to marry her long-suffering fiancee Ben Crowley, and Kay her longtime suitor Earnest, who has impressed her with his maturity at the disastrous wedding, leaving Felix alone.

Mickey and Ann in their cramped little apartment
We next see Mickey and Ann living in a shabby flat in an unnamed city; Mickey is scraping a living playing the piano, and Ann is dismally trying to keep house. She artlessly shares with Mickey the fact that she has been sustaining herself by reading and re-reading letters from home, which naturally makes him feel like even more of a failure. They're planning to return to the family for the holidays, which Ann is looking forward to with joy and Mickey with dread. When they arrive Mickey drifts back into the shadows watching Ann glow with happiness at being home again. The family try to make him welcome, but he is terribly ill-at-ease. Unexpectedly, he seized a chance to drive with Ben through heavy snow on an errand -- and the family receives an ominous phone call saying there's been an accident.

The family arrives at the hospital to find Mickey badly injured and in fact dying; Ann is sorrowful, but there's a pretty clear feeling that it's better that way, and the socially acceptable Felix has been waiting faithfully. In 1938, this is seen as a bittersweet but essentially happy ending.

Mickey -- the Other, the Stranger, the "hyphenated American" -- was an attractive but dangerously disruptive influence, whose questioning of middle-class values undercuts everyone's security. He questioned manners, conventions, assumptions, and standards of behavior, causing unease and uncertainty where there had always been a comfortable knowledge of what's expected. His creative talent is valuable, but not at the price of the social insecurity he brings. You can be fond of him, sorry for him, and sympathetic towards him; but take him into the family? No.

This entertaining movie was a huge hit, spawning several sequels and four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and one for Garfield as Best Supporting Actor. In fact, he was so attractive that another, quite similar character was written for him (daringly named Gabriel Lopez) in a non-sequel, Daughters Courageous, with many of the same cast members, and of course he went on to be a major star. (But he didn’t play a Jewish character until after World War 2.) 

Cut to 1954 -- sixteen years later, the same story was revived as a vehicle for actor/singers Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, with a supporting cast including Dorothy Malone and Elisabeth Fraser as the other sisters (now numbering three), Gig Young as the clean-cut young composer, Robert Keith as their father, and Ethel Barrymore as Aunt Jessie, the "you-can't-hide-a-thing-from-me type of aunt."

Barney meets Aunt Jessie

The names are all different for some reason, but the plot is essentially unchanged, with Young very charming indeed as the desirable Alex and Day sunny but not syrupy as the youngest sister, Laurie. One thing that must be said is that this story does lose something in having all the characters noticeably older than they were in the original; the youngest sister’s naiveté is a lot more excusable when she’s just 18 than it is when she’s an adult woman. Another thing that must be said is that the costumes are almost uniformly awful; admittedly, 1954 was about the nadir of fifties fashion, but in this case no opportunity is left unexplored to make the actresses look dowdy an even matronly; if there’s an unbecoming sleeve length or neckline, the designer will find it.
Ethel Barrymore as Aunt Jessie

Like Garfield, Sinatra hits the screen like a bracing shot of straight whisky; when that wiry frame and thin, scarred face appears at the front door, something real blows into the film. When he made the effort, Sinatra was a fine actor, and at the time this film was made he was at the top of his form. He hits exactly the right notes as the moody, footloose loner, now named Barney. The filmmakers shrewdly used popular songs to demonstrate his character's vulnerability, as at several key plot points Sinatra sits at the piano
in a smoky bar and sings three of his great classics, "Someone to Watch Over Me," "One for My Baby," and “Just One of Those Things.” unnoticed by the crowd -- except for Laurie. The pain that is the core of Sinatra’s greatest interpretations is exactly right for Barney’s unquenchable loneliness. Day, too, was an excellent actress, and her intense gaze as she watches him perform the first song expresses Laurie’s growing understanding of, and allegiance to, Barney, even though she doesn’t realize it herself.

The plot proceeds as it did in Four Daughters, as all of the girls fall for Alex, or think they do, and Barney falls helplessly in love with Laurie. Since Day's character is clearly not 18 her complete obliviousness to Barney's feelings is a tad unbelievable, but discovering her sister's apparent love for Alex is convincing. Laurie also takes the same way out, eloping with Barney and leaving Alex at the altar. As in the previous film, this serves as a catalyst for the other girls reconsidering the value of their suitors, too, which leaves Alex alone.

Sinatra and Day enjoyed singing together (though they actually do not do so in this until the very last scene) and they both prove their acting skills in the "dismal apartment" scene; the dialog, a spiral of confused motives, misunderstanding and hurt, is played between them with unerring pacing and emotional clarity.  

As in the previous film, they return to the family home for the holidays, and Barney shrinks into the background as the family gathers with noisy happiness for Christmas (somehow they all seem to be bigger than him, as well as blond), and his wistful alienation is perfectly believable. So is his hopeless decision to free Laurie from their marriage.

But here is the big change. By 1954, Middle America had had a lot more experience with people from different backgrounds, largely due to World War 2. Young men from all ethnic groups and backgrounds were uprooted from their homes and transported all over the country; then they were required to live side by side with other young men whose upbringing, religion, musical tastes, and world views were completely different from any they'd met with before. And most of the time they found that those "others" were actually -- okay. Further, radio, news media, and films throughout the war years supported this viewpoint, since the war effort required everyone to work together. It's no accident that the first heroic characters in Hollywood films who were clearly Jewish appeared in uniform, like John Garfield's Dave Goldman in Gentleman's Agreement. And a little bit of credit is due to Sinatra himself, who refused to change his Italian last name when pressured to do so, and who achieved immense popularity in the early 1940s with his ethnicity intact. (*See below.)
Laurie and Barney celebrate their happy ending

So the end of the story of the Golden Girl and the Outsider is different in 1954; this outsider has so much to offer (undeniably) that society is willing to make room for him, after all. Barney has nobly tried to free Laurie, but she actually does love him, not Alex -- so all is forgiven, and he survives to sing Barney's romantic song in the sunny living room, surrounded by the welcoming family and a surprising number of new babies.

Superficially Young At Heart looks like a typical fifties soap-opera with music; but it actually has a lot to say without words, and viewing it beside its 1938 predecessor says a lot about the 20th century.

* This explains a lot about MGM’s insistence on showing Sinatra, in early films like Anchors Aweigh and It Happened in Brooklyn, as a shy, innocent naïve kid, who, despite his name, had no specific ethnicity. To star a “hyphenated American” (the term is Theodore Roosevelt’s) he had to be presented as unsullied by social or political difference, or able to rock the boat in any way. Far from being a “Latin lover,” Sinatra’s character in these films acts more like a teenager than a young man who was the idol of millions of fevered bobbysoxers. His fall from those heights, in the late 1940s, and his rebounding in the early 1950s (from From Here to Eternity on) made him even more popular with an even wider fan base. And artistically his music was soaring into the stratosphere, and would never fall to earth again.

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