For Reel

Four Daughters (1938)
December 3, 2011, 3:26 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Michael Curtiz

Four daughters and their old-fashioned father live together in blissful harmony. As things progress agreeably and one bland suitor after the other is introduced, one thinks that they have the rest of the film pegged. Then, in walks the game-changer: a debut performance that would establish a lasting screen persona. John Garfield, his tie crooked, hair unkempt, and a day’s worth of stubble, offsets not only the audience’s expectations given the established tone of the picture, but he completely exposes the repressed desires lingering underneath the seemingly healthy bourgeois household.

This is the sort of film that you might expect from Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, magnifying the cracks that exist within a middle-class American household. Once the embittered Garfield arrives, his presence is felt in every scene – often, in a shot in which he is unacknowledged, you can see his silhouette slightly out-of-focus in the background. In a telling line late in the picture, he phrases, “I guess when you’re used to standing on the outside looking in, you can see a lot of things that other people can’t.”

Playing three of the titular daughters are the Lane Sisters, real life sisters that rose to popularity in the 20s and 30s as a musical act. Priscilla Lane, the blonde of the group, gets the meatiest part in the film as the object of Garfield’s desire, and she commendably portrays the disillusionment thrust upon her by the misanthropic bad boy.

In some respects, Four Daughters is no different from a standard-issue Warner Brothers melodrama from its period. Replace Garfield with Bette Davis and it might feel entirely too familiar. But Curtiz deftly handles the tonal changes and builds to a potent, memorable climax.

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