Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Love Polygon

Film: Four Daughters
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

My DVR goes through periods of boom and bust. Suddenly, out of nowhere, half a dozen movies I want to see will appear in the same week on various channels and the damn thing starts to get clogged. And, like most people, I have things I’ve recorded months (or years) ago waiting around for me to get to them. It’s a constant battle between what I have available to me through various means, what I want to record, and removing things from the DVR’s memory. When I get the chance, I like to remove something. One of the oldest recordings I had was Four Daughters, which I recorded last year. That’s long enough.

That said, Four Daughters is the kind of film I wish I had already watched or had left in the queue. It commits what is in my opinion the cardinal sin of movies: it’s boring. A boring film, at least in my opinion, is far worse than a bad one. I’ve no doubt that the people involved were earnest in attempting to make a good film, and in some respects they succeeded; this was nominated for Best Picture, after all. But it’s been a long time since I’ve found something so dreary. It’s a shame, too, because there are good people involved in this and it comes from a talented and acclaimed director.

Adam Lemp (Claude Rains) has raised four adult daughters with the help of his sister Etta (May Robson). Since he is the Dean of a musical foundation, it follows that all of his daughters are musically inclined. From oldest to youngest, the daughters are the harp-plaing Emma (Gale Page), pianist Thea (Lola Lane), singer Kay (Rosemary Lane), and violinist Ann (Priscilla Lane). In terms of personality that is relevant to the film, Emma has gained the attention of neighbor Ernest (Dick Foran), but she’s holding out for better. Thea is being actively courted by the wealthy but dull Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh) and isn’t sure if she loves him or merely loves the idea of stability. Kay has received scholarship offers, but wants to stay home. Ann will be the focus of much of the film, and deserves her own paragraph.

Early in the film, a man named Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) arrives. Felix is a composer whose father knew Adam Lemp. All four of the girls are immediately attracted to Felix, and he specifically returns affections for Ann. Showing up soon after Felix is Mickey Borden (John Garfield), who is there to help Felix with an orchestral arrangement. Mickey also falls for Ann, who returns feelings for both him and Felix.

Mickey gets his own paragraph as well. Mickey is a musical version of a noir character. This is a guy who has been kicked from the moment of birth to the present, never catching a break. He despairs of anything good ever happening to him, and despairs equally of his career choice. Essentially, he complains that the fates have cursed him with enough talent to be good at something but not with enough to be noteworthy or even to make a living at it. So when Ann announces that she and Felix have become engaged, it’s just another in a series of kicks for poor Mickey. So it’s a mild surprise when, on her wedding day, Ann runs off with Mickey, leaving Felix at the altar.

That moment, and another that happens a little later at a family Christmas celebration at which Felix shows up, are the only really interesting moments in the entire film. Mostly, this is about both Ann and Emma mooning over Felix, Emma being torn apart emotionally when Ann consents to marry him, and then the aftermath of Felix being left at the altar. About half of the characters seem completely worthless in the film. Kay and Thea might as well be in another movie, and Aunt Etta is there to provide mild comic relief, with the emphasis on “mild.” I’ve also discovered something about Frank McHugh. His incessant nervous giggle bothered me in Going My Way and he does the same thing here. Evidently, that wasn’t a character trait but an acting trademark, and it seriously makes me dislike Frank McHugh.

A bigger crime here is that a talent like Claude Rains seems completely wasted. Rains was a great talent, and here his job is to look like he’s playing the flute now and then and to be fatherly to a brood of daughters. His role is handled well because it’s Claude Rains, but Adam Lemp could’ve been effectively played by anyone in pants.

John Garfield is the lone saving grace. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and as the only really interesting person in the film, he almost certainly deserved to be. The film was more interesting when he was on screen. That’s not saying much because it was flat and lifeless entirely without him and just about anything would be an improvement.

Needless to say, this is not a film I’ll be looking to watch again any time soon. If it was bad, I could make fun of it. If it was great, I could rave about it. Since it’s just dull, I’m out of things to say.

Why to watch Four Daughters: John Garfield was the shit.
Why not to watch: There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before and better.


  1. Incredible watching this now to realize that it was an enormous hit when it was released, though it does have a heavy dose of the warm and fuzzies that no doubt audiences of the time connected to. But a Best Picture nomination is extremely undeserved.

    I love both Claude Rains and May Robson but they aren't given anything worth doing while those twin personality black holes Jeffrey Lynn and Dick Foran are placed at the forefront, ugh!

    I have a real soft spot for Priscilla Lane, she wasn't an enormous talent but I've always found her a warm presence and it's easy to see how she became the standout of the Lane sisters. She also had a nice chemistry with Garfield though it worked better for them in their other co-starring vehicle, Dust Be My Destiny.

    Lola Lane had a degree of success but almost always as the been around, tough working girl as she was in Marked Woman, she was a hard looking woman so that fit. She's totally at sea here even though she is acting with her real sisters. She didn't belong in a rural setting.

    The movie absolutely plods along until John Garfield shows up and like a lightening bolt energizes the picture whenever he shows up. A truly magnetic film personality, the rest of the cast come off as merely performers he's both a great actor and a movie star.

    If you were underwhelmed by this than by all means avoid the sequels Four Wives and Four Mothers they are strictly bottom of the bill stuff not even up to the level of this without the allure of Garfield in the cast.

    There's also a weird rethink of this film called Daughters Courageous that came out the next year! with an almost identical cast but with a slight shuffling of roles and a more interesting role for Rains, still the father but one that returns 20 years after deserting the family. It's actually an improvement but not enough for you to make a point to seek out.

    1. Really, the only thing Four Daughters has going for it is that it was Garfield's first role, so it brought him to the wider world. He's the only thing on screen worth watching, although I agree that there's nice chemistry between him and Priscilla Lane. Their meeting is a cute scene since it establishes their relationship and does a nice job of cementing Mickey's worldview for us.

      But really, what a tragic waste of some great talent. Claude Rains was given a role that could have literally been handled by just about anyone capable of growing a mustache.

      And yes to Jeffrey Lynn and Dick Foran, who are both physical placeholders until something interesting happen, particularly Foran, who is a complete dud here. I'd toss McHugh onto that same heap, but that may be my personal biases regarding that incessant giggle.

      I don't begrudge the public its popular movies even if those movies suck, but Four Daughters got five nominations--Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (deservedly for Garfield), and Sound Recording. I support the nomination of Garfield. The rest I just don't see.

  2. I've seen Daughter's Courageous because, well, Claude Rains is...THE SHIT...and so I wanted to see him in anything...but I may skip this one.

    1. You're safe to miss this, even with the combined awesomeness of Rains and Garfield.

  3. You and I had almost exactly the same reaction to this movie. It was like Garfield was appearing in an entirely different film. There was a reason Rains did not specialize in this kind of avuncular "Father Knows Best" type character.

    1. The hell of it is is that I don't know how this could be made interesting. It's the story that's a dud here.

  4. I pretty much agree. The movie's just sort of there. I can picture whole crowds of women back in the 30s sitting there crying their eyes out, though.

    1. It's ultimately pretty silly. Yet another film I'll have forgotten completely inside of a few more months.