Like Random Harvest, Little Nellie Kelly, and a handful of others, Four Daughters is a film that I’ve found myself identifying strongly with. Surely, we all imagine ourselves or tie our lives into every film plot we meet, but some films allow us to come away with just a little more understanding of ourselves and force us to think a little more about who we want to be. Four Daughters is one of those films for me.
The film centers around the Lemp family–daughters of musician Adam Lemp (Claude Rains): Emma (Gale Page), Thea (Lola Lane), Kay (Rosemary Lane), and Ann (Priscilla Lane). Into their lives, comes charming Felix Dietz (Jeffrey Lynn) who turns the girls’ lives upside down when they all believe they’re in love with him. Problem for three of the Lemp girls is that Felix has a preference toward gate swingers. The lives of the girls are complicated even further when Felix hires a moody fellow, Mickey Borden (John Garfield), to help him with a composition he’s entering in a contest. The film’s mood turns on a single glance from Mickey to Felix and therein lies the beauty and depth that Four Daughters takes on.
There’s something about seeing how real sisters interact that is hard to duplicate. Rosemary and Priscilla might not have gotten along in later years for whatever reason, but you can see the real affection between sisters in this film. Same can be said for Loretta Young with her sisters in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. That something might just be life experience and relationships built throughout an entire lifetime and it probably is, but Gale Page fits right in the mold as well.
I’m not the only fan who truly adores the Lemp Sisters, Adam Lemp, Dietz, Aunt Etta and Mickey Borden, there are many out there who have come across this trilogy of films and have taken bits and pieces of it claiming them as our own. Most people love Ann Lemp best (I’ve got a handful of Anns in my posse), but I’ve claimed Kay Lemp with her love of chocolates, yen for being lazy, lack of ambition and love of song, as well as fondness for living in daydreams. Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla actually had two more sisters: one who didn’t go into show business and another, Leota, who had success on Broadway, but after Gale Page stepped into the role of Emma for the film and was often referred to as “the other Lane Sister.” These characters are so rich that we all can find a piece of ourselves swinging on the doors of a white picket fence.
Gate swinging and white picket fences—the proverbial American dream was rarely dissected on film though Warner Brothers had a history of making the most of the effort to question the norm, to question good and evil and to draw a nice grey area. It’s quite apt that James Garfield made his debut in a Warner Brothers film. The world had never seen anyone like Garfield on film. He was smoldering, he was a rebel (often described as the pre-cursor to James Dean), he stole scenes—he was dangerous intellectually and emotionally. His characters questioned everything that was status quo and then turned all of his observations on their heads once he mingled with the rainbow’s end or some semblance of happiness. Garfield’s fanbase is why Warner Brothers placed his pan on the cover of the DVD and all subsequent contemporary advertising for the sequel (Four Wives) and similar spin-off (Daughters Courageous) released the same year. [The former is an interesting use of a character who shall we say—disappears? More on that later. Surely audiences were ready for a fellow like Garfield to come along and take all clichés for a spin.
Priscilla Lane is engaging and youthful as Ann. It’s hard to imagine anyone who didn’t find her infectious—certainly not I. Matched with John Garfield, she’s immense. She could take on scenes with him without losing her presence and challenge his crazy ideas with equally philosophical quips. It’s Priscilla that carries the film and subsequent films. Ann’s relationship with Felix Dietz and the drama that unfolds is beautifully done at every turn. The characters are introduced in such subtle ways and yet you really feel like you have a handle on every one of them regardless of Mickey Borden’s observations. For instance, Felix dictating how one should swing on a gate immediately gives you a solid picture of his leading trait, the ability to jump into situations and micromanage them in the most delightful and charming way. The script was beautifully adapted and altered from an odd short story written by Fannie Hurst.
Claude Rains is lovable in this film. Prior to Four Daughters, I had identified Claude with darker roles. It’s a lovely change to see him as the incorrigible Beethoven-loving family man who loves all of his daughters. Along with him, his sister Etta (May Robson) is charming and perfect in her role as well.
Fashion is another element in this film that I love. There are few clothes on the girls that I don’t love except maybe one thing that Rosemary wears. It’s all lovely. I’ve been looking for ages for a wrap like the lace one Priscilla wears during the birthday party. It’s lovely. I will find something some day, but for anyone that knows me well, the idea of me actually considering fashion is generally laughable, but after watching Four Daughters and Four Wives, I find myself envying clothes.
The screen captures included in this review are from the Warner Brothers Archive edition of Four Daughters. I’m so glad that Warner Brothers released the film on DVD. Don’t get me wrong, but it really could use some restoration and because it’s Garfield’s screen debut. I would have rather seen a box set of Four Daughters, Daughters Courageous, Four Wives, and Four Mothers just given how many of my own friends love the series. It’s unfortunate that more time and attention wasn’t given to this film and the films to follow. There’s about a whole reel where there’s a line midway through the left portion of the screen and that’s more than a bit irritating.
Though my favorite film in the series is Four Wives, I adore Four Daughters just about as much. The film starts off seemingly ordinary, but suddenly packs an emotional punch. It’s rare when a script is tight and deep enough to send you through every major emotion without becoming too convoluted or taking itself too seriously, but Four Daughters does so and how.