Thursday 10 September 2009

Daughters Courageous (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: John Garfield, Claude Rains, Jeffrey Lynn, Fay Bainter, Donald Crisp, May Robson, Frank McHugh, Dick Foran, Priscilla Lane, Rosemary Lane, Lola Lane and Gale Page

The four daughters, who are apparently not the four daughters in Four Daughters because they all now belong to the Masters family instead of the Lemps. They're just as much of a handful though, a very pleasant handful that anyone would be happy to have, but a handful nonetheless. Linda is rearranging the furniture every day, Tinka is rescuing the lifeguard from drowning and Buff is having accidents with the back end of her swimsuit. If only this wasn't 1939, or we could see even more of Priscilla Lane than we do here. They're living together in a holiday home that they're already overstayed at, but the owner doesn't want them to leave. He's known them for twelve years and wants to know them better: he's just proposed to mom.

Mom is Fay Bainter, who's one of only two actors here not to have played in Four Daughters. The daughters are the same four daughters (the three Lane sisters, along with Gale Page) and the same folks are hanging around (John Garfield, Jeffrey Lynn, May Robson, Frank McHugh and Dick Foran). They even the same father, Claude Rains, though his character is more than a little different here. While Adam Lemp is the lynchpin of his musical family, Jim Masters wandered off twenty years earlier and hasn't even sent a postcard. Naturally he breezes in just as Sam Sloane is sitting down at the head of the table for the first time, easy as you please but inevitably the third wheel, or really the twelfth wheel, as it works out. This isn't a small family.

Of course, while this is as much of a pleasant and subtly witty soap opera as Four Daughters, the real story is how he fits back into the family, or how he expects to fit in after such a long time. We're never told how old the four daughters are but they were all small kids when he left. The only character he seems to connect with is the one who isn't really family: Gabriel Lopez. He's John Garfield, seventh on the credits a year earlier but top this time after becoming a star in They Made Me a Criminal. He's a contrary character here, Lopez being in trouble all the time through making plenty of effort not to make any effort, but he has a character that's dynamic enough to get him out of it and right back in again. He's contrary enough to hook Buff, who already has a boyfriend in Johnny Heming, playwright.

I wonder who came up with the concept for this one. Four Daughters was a hit, one successful enough to prompt not one but two sequels, Four Wives and Four Mothers, plus this oddity. The cast are generally the same: all the top ten names from Four Daughters return, with Fay Bainter added as the previously missing mother and Donald Crisp to play Sam Sloane. Even the director was the same: Michael Curtiz directed both. Most of these people continued on, gradually dropping off by the last in the series as after all, people like John Garfield must have been getting expensive. It still stuns me that Claude Rains wasn't. Yet everyone plays someone else, this being utterly unrelated in every fictional way and as film two of four, the other three being direct sequels, that seems completely bizarre.

Rains is amazing here, an utter rogue in a quiet and knowing way, who in the hands of anyone else couldn't possibly charm us and everyone else given what he's done. Jim Masters makes himself out to be a wanderer who's been everywhere and done everything, though we can't ever be sure if we can believe a single word he says. Whatever else he is, he's fascinating to watch, and given that John Garfield plays a more obvious version of the same character and there are four lovely young ladies who can't help but steal our attention whenever they're on screen, it's a testament to the talent of Claude Rains that he remains the focus of this film throughout. He has a lot of talented colleagues here, but he's really what makes the whole thing work, that and the sharp script that lets him.

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