Four Daughters ★★★★★

Chiefly known these days as the film that introduced John Garfield to the world (at least, the world beyond leftist New York theatre), and that's a pretty righteous claim to fame, but FOUR DAUGHTERS has a lot of other things going for it. Michael Curtiz was nearly infallible during the 1930s and early 1940s, even when he found himself working with a lacklustre script (witness his extraordinary treatment of the throwaway Perry Mason vehicle CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE for Exhibit "A"), and when the words are there too (courtesy of the underrated Lenore Coffee and future CASABLANCA/STRAWBERRY BLONDE collaborator Julius J. Epstein, working off a blueprint set forth by novelist Fannie Hurst), the results are impressive indeed.

As with just about any Warner film from this period, the cast is brimming with personality (Claude Rains, May Robson, Frank McHugh, in particular, are among the best and most likeable character actors of the era; while Jeffrey Lynn, Dick Foran, Gale Page, the non-Priscilla Lanes, and Vera Lewis are all perfect in their respective niches). But, of course, it's the dynamite pairing of Garfield and Priscilla Lane that takes centre stage in this film (perhaps even more so than the screenwriters intended).

Structurally, the film stands pretty much alone within the context of 1930s Hollywood cinema in its unique approach to the love triangle trope - offering plot twists and misdirection that would have been startling at the time (and which still, I think, take the viewer by surprise - it certainly made an impact on me, when I first saw it as a teenager, about 30 years ago). Proponents of the Studio as Auteur ("Studiauteur) Theory such as Ethan Mordden like to focus on Warner's purely proletarian pedigree (and rightly so), but in some ways it's even more interesting to note what happens to the cozy suburban middle-class MGM courtship drama once Hal Wallis et al. get a hold of it (THE SISTERS also shares in this project - although it's a much less successful film). The film goes all out to create a tangibly likeable version of the mid-20th century's ideal of an optimistic, bourgeois family in the Lemps before going to work on that vulnerable conception with Garfield's pick axe line readings ("You needn't be so noble. Tea is only is only a little hot water.") I think it works best to read the film as a bildungsroman (or whatever the cinematic equivalent of that term is). In Priscilla Lane's Ann, Warners gives us its take on the birth of the New (Deal) Woman out of the successive shocks of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. As Garfield's Mickey Borden helpfully points out (he's a great one for metafictional by-play) when he wanders into the Lemps' sitcom Elysium: "I see what I'm up against here - the 'gay young thing' type." By the end of the film, she's something else entirely - she's a person who has seen and experienced what it's like to live at the ragged end of hope (in a place where a burned pot of vegetable soup can evaporate into tragedy) and still has the will to hop on that rusty gate for another, more mindful, swing at happiness. That's the Popular Front Dream in human form.

David liked this review