This posting is my contribution to the Bette Davis Blogathon, organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit and read the other postings.
Bette Davis might be best remembered for her “bad girl” roles, but these were not the only characters she played. In The Sisters she pours her emotional power into the role of quiet and self-sacrificing wife Louise. This might be one of her lesser-known titles, but it’s a film I like a lot, partly for the daring way that both Davis and male lead Errol Flynn, playing a waifish alcoholic, are cast against type. (They went on to star together in more characteristic roles in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Director Anatole Litvak made a number of good romantic melodramas and is someone I’ve been meaning to write more about on this blog. This is a period piece set in the early years of the 20th century and includes some spectacular footage re-creating the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s available from Warner Archive and there are also Spanish and Italian DVD eleases in region 2.
The film makes a dramatic contrast with one of Davis’ most famous anti-heroine roles in Jezebel, her previous release. Before accepting a role in The Sisters, she refused two other parts which she felt were inferior material, and was put on suspension by Warner Brothers as a result. But she said she was delighted with the part of Louise because it was “a change of pace”. Kay Francis and Irene Dunne had both previously been in line for the part, and the following year Dunne did play the character in a Lux radio production, opposite David Niven in the Errol Flynn role.
Adapted from a novel by Myron Brinig, the story follows the fortunes and marital troubles of three sisters in the mining town of Silver Bow, Montana. There were many films about sisters or groups of female friends made in the 1930s or 40s, with the most famous including classic adaptations Little Women and Pride and Prejudice. The Sisters was released just a few months after another big success in the genre, Four Daughters, also from Warner, which was the first in a series of films starring the Lane sisters and Gale Page. At first I wondered if this was a quick copy to capitalise on the earlier film’s success, but in fact Four Daughters hadn’t yet been released when production started on this one. All the same, there are some striking similarities, in particular the major plot element of a daughter who leaves her family to live in another city, with an emotionally unstable husband who can’t support her.
One thing which makes this film less appealing than the Four Daughters series in terms of female relationships is the fact that it is largely focused on just one of the Elliott sisters, Louise. The other two, Grace (Jane Bryan) and Helen (Anita Louise), are given very limited screen time. This means the feeling of the sisterhood and family warmth is only created very briefly at the start and there is no time really to establish the bond between the three. However, there is some enjoyable intermittent comedy involving the three girls’ parents, Ned (Henry Travers, best known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) and Rose (Beulah Bondi, who played Ma Bailey in the same film).
The Sisters doesn’t include quite as much historical background as I’d originally expected, but it does both start and end at election balls, with the first one celebrating the presidential election of 1904 won by Roosevelt. At the party, Louise starts dancing with a rich but boring young man, Tom (Dick Foran), her almost-fiance. But then she is swept away by a stranger, dashing young boxing reporter Frank Medlin (Errol Flynn), who is in town to cover a fight. She soon discovers that he is a drifter with an incipient drink problem, but she believes she can save him – and the stage is set for a disastrous romance.
Davis gives a restrained performance here, but you are aware of the fire simmering under the surface and occasionally it gets a chance to break out. The deceptive quietness of the role looks forward to a better-known melodrama she made with Litvak a couple of years later, All This and Heaven Too. However, her part is less interesting than Flynn’s because his character is troubled and erratic, while hers is sweet and more on one note. She does a fine job with the material that’s available, but he is the one who will wring your heart here.
Pages from the book are used to introduce different sections of the film and briefly bring in the stories of the other sisters. Helen marries an older man she doesn’t love, the cheerful Sam Johnson (Alan Hale), because he promises to “look after her” and take her around Europe. Unfortunately, though, he has a drink problem even worse than Frank’s. This couple’s marriage could be very interesting and almost has the makings of a film noir plot, but gets very little screen time. Meanwhile, the third sister, Grace, marries Tom, the man Louise left behind. He goes on to become a successful local politician, but the couple seem all too bland and are hardly seen for most of the film, with the focus staying firmly on the lead pair.
Without his moustache, Flynn looks very young (he was actually 29, a year younger than Davis). Like Davis, he was coming to the role shortly after one of his greatest successes, making his casting against type here even more startling than hers. Only a few months earlier he had played his most famous swashbuckling role in The Adventures of Robin Hood. However, he was trying to avoid typecasting and had just made a romantic comedy, Four’s a Crowd, before coming to this emotion picture. At first Warner wanted to put his name alone above the title, but Davis fought this and in the end they both got star billing.
Many men hit the bottle to cope with emotional problems in 1930s films, for instance in all the variations on the theme of A Star Is Born. Here, although Frank is charming, it’s clear from the start that he is a troubled soul and using alcohol as a crutch. He mentions alcohol in his very first line, and later he stops off for a drink on the way to meet Louise’s family, explaining: “I was scared”. To be fair, that family meal is a pretty scary affair, as Louise’s mother rudely makes it clear she thinks his job as a sports reporter is worthless. This scene put me off her character somewhat. Flynn’s acting is surprisingly subdued here and all the more poignant for that. In the Lux radio version, Niven takes over the role and makes Frank rather more mischievous and larger than life, making it easier to understand how he manages to sweep Louise off her feet so quickly.
The young couple get down from the table and promptly elope to San Francisco, where Louise is determined to encourage Frank to write the Great American Novel. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the talent or determination for it, and is soon wilting under the strain of her adoration. This whole section is quite bleak, as the couple struggle to cope on 25 dollars a week. It’s reminiscent of many films made during the Great Depression, even though the period is earlier. Both of them are trapped and despairing. Louise has to spend all day in their cramped flat, seeing nobody, so that it is exciting when a down-at-heel showgirl neighbour pops in to borrow butter, while Frank must work at a job his wife despises and then try to write a novel in the evening.
The trailer and posters are misleading about this relationship, making it look like a much more passionate and glamorous romance, with shades of Gone With the Wind. Flynn has his trademark moustache in many stills and posters, and one clip in the trailer is edited to make it look as if he fights his way free from a group of men in his usual action man style. In fact they overpower him all too easily. The trailer also claims there is a lot of excitement and laughter – there are more tears.
This next part discusses some later plot elements and the ending.
Tragedy piles up as Louise suffers a miscarriage and Frank loses his job – cruelly fired at Christmas after asking for a pay rise. While he can’t get any work, Louise starts a job at a department store, run by kindly and handsome William Benson (Ian Hunter), and she is soon a rising executive. Frank decides to run away from his failure and signs up as a sailor on a trip to Singapore, but almost as soon as he has gone the San Francisco earthquake strikes and Louise is caught up in it. There is some very dramatic and effective footage, some of which was borrowed from an earlier film, Old San Francisco.
The original film ending, based on that of the book, should have seen Louise end up with Benson after Frank’s desertion. But audiences disapproved and a more romantic ending was filmed. In the version we now have, Frank returns from sea, ill and depressed, and tracks down Louise at the 1908 election ball. He is prepared to fade away into the background for good if she doesn’t want him, asking a friend to sound her out first. But she makes it very plain that she still loves her husband, and the pair are reunited. It’s a sweet ending, with Max Steiner’s music adding to the mood, but all Frank’s problems still exist, so it’s hard to imagine things will work out any better than they did before. Davis opposed the change and felt the film should have kept the book’s more downbeat and realistic ending. I wish it was possible to see it and compare the two, but I don’t think the original footage still exists.