Wednesday 20 January 2010

The Sisters (1938)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Stars: Errol Flynn and Bette Davis
I was about to note that I couldn't remember the last time I saw a classic movie based on a book that didn't begin with the book opening to page one right there on the screen, but then I remembered I'd just watched Dragonwyck which so thankfully avoided that cliché that I forgot to notice. This one doesn't avoid it though and so we realise that 'there is much to remember about Silver Bow, Montana.' It's 1904 and Silver Bow is celebrating the imminent return to the White House of Teddy Roosevelt, beginning with the Elliotts, which family includes the three daughters who constitute the film's title. There's Helen Elliott, in the lovely form of Anita Louise; Grace Elliot, in the energetic form of Jane Bryan; and Louise Eliott, in the expressive form of late thirties Bette Davis.

We meet their parents first though, Ned and Rose, who live above their drug store and are frantically trying to get ready for the celebration ball. Rose is Beulah Bondi and Ned is Henry Travers, so when the doorbell rings we wonder which angel is about to get his wings, but it's only Harry Davenport ringing to get some dope. I so love period slang! He's Doc Moore and he has a diptheria suffererer to administer to, so promptly disappears again for the entire movie. That happens quite a lot as this film opens. There are so many characters to introduce and almost all of them are played by recognisable faces. It takes more than a few moments to work out who everyone is and who's going to end up with who.

Louise is supposed to marry Tom Knivel, who arrives to pick them all up in a vehicle that's more like a fireworks display than a car. He packs the thing full of Elliotts too, in their best gowns and surreptitious face powder, so they can all go to the ball to meet everyone else. She gets swept off her feet by Frank Medlin, though, a newspaperman from out of town. He likes prizefights and drink, so it can't be too surprising to find that he's played by Errol Flynn. A week later he proposes and takes her home to San Francisco, Louise being all for the elopement because, as she describes to her sisters, he's irresponsible and restless but somehow he makes her feel alive.

He arrives with Alan Hale, who's a rich widower called Sam Johnson, and Helen ends up with him even though he's old enough to be her father and they both know full well that everyone, beginning with his grown daughter, will think it was all just for the money. That leaves Grace, who soothes Tom Knivel's broken heart by marrying him. He's so romantic that he proposes to her while they're pumping up the spare tyre on his car, but she's happy anyway. All three of the sisters get run through the mill though, in a mere four years too if the real life events we witness are accurately placed in and amongst all the fiction. After all this is a soap opera and it's pretty unashamed to be one too.
We don't see much of Grace for quite a while, other than to discover that she becomes a mother pretty quickly and ends up with a rich but cheating husband, Dick Foran hardly seeming much of a catch even if he ends up running a bank. Helen really married Sam Johnson because he'd give her the excitement she craved, whisking her around the world, but he gets far too drunk one night in England and collapses dead of a heart attack. I doubt that was the sort of excitement she was looking for and it's hardly a fair way to treat good old Alan Hale, but if the filmmakers gave everyone in this film a fair shot, it would be a lot more than a hundred or so minutes long. She starts running through husbands like it's a habit.

Mostly though we watch Louise, who is after all played by the most talented actress in the film, Bette Davis. She's utterly in love with her husband and he with her, but while she finds strength in her marriage he finds weakness, and goes from bad to worse. He tries to please her and keep her in the luxury he believes she deserves, while working for a living and trying to write the great American novel in his spare time, but fails at all of it. He can't even buy her anything for Christmas, though she manages to skimp and save small change enough to buy a tree. In the end his Christmas present to her ends up being his from his boss: in demanding a raise he merely gets fired.

It doesn't help that she gets pregnant but can't break the news to Frank when she wants to because he comes home drunk as a skunk. He cleans himself up but for some reason she picks the night a month later when she goes to a fight with him to tell him, collapses on the stairs on the way home and promptly loses the child at the County Hospital. That's only the least of her worries though. Frank ends up shipping out to find himself somewhere in the world, the sort of thing that Errol Flynn really did before he became an actor, and leaves her to be caught up in the devastation of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

And in describing the setup and something of where this story goes, I'm breathless. Talk about a rapid pace! Each of these characters could have had the picture to themselves, and there are probably films out there that do precisely that, albeit with different actors and different characters and different settings. Yet here we get three of those stories all tangled together in the same running time. There's not much opportunity to breathe, to reckon up just who does what and even where we actually end up. The ending is not a particularly clear one and it comes right out of the blue to slap us with The End and make us wonder if we dropped off for a minute or so.

Davis is excellent and Flynn isn't bad. He was good at what he did, which was mostly to be a rogue and a star at the same time, but whenever he's stuck next to someone with the sheer acting chops of Bette Davis, he can't help but come off a poor second. It's less noticeable here than in their other film together, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, made a year later, but it's still noticeable. Anita Louise and Jane Bryan are fine as the sisters, though they let the story run over them as much as the characters they play. Blink and you'll miss Alan Hale and Dick Foran and Harry Davenport, though you couldn't possibly miss Lee Patrick who is a whirlwind on legs as the Medlin's neighbour.

I haven't even mentioned everyone that we see. Donald Crisp is Tim Hazelton, a fellow sports reporter of Frank's, who takes an interest in him and by extension in Louise, especially once Frank's on the boat to Singapore and we don't see him for two years. No, I don't mean in that way, as Crisp was 56 at this point and that sort of idea was Helen's thing not Louise's. There's also Ian Hunter, Louise's boss and Frank's potential competition, if only she would stop waiting for him to come home. Both of them are solid, managing to instil at least a little of their character motivation into their parts before we whisk off and watch someone else. Isabel Taylor is a key character at one point but we never even meet her except through the dialogue of the other characters. That's how much wiggle room we get.

And around them all, remaining consistent and reliable while everyone else's life goes in every different direction at once, are Henry Travers and Beulah Bondi as Ned and Rose Elliott, the parents, at least until they lose track of what's going on too, which is when we know the film is going too fast. When the scriptwriters give up on the idea of introductions and just start springing new fiancés on us without any warning whatsoever, their reaction comes a little close to a Warner Brothers cartoon where the characters break the fourth wall and ask us what the heck's going on. They don't go that far but I certainly wondered if they would. Maybe soap operas are supposed to be breathless. If so, this one works. Otherwise I'll let you know when I work out what I've just seen. Someone hit the brakes!

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