John Garfield’s 1st Movie: “Four Daughters” (1938)

Adam Lemp (Claude Rains), the Dean of the Briarwood Music Foundation in upstate NY, has passed on his love of music to his 4 young adult daughters – Thea (Lola Lane), Emma (Gale Page), Kay (Rosemary Lane) and Ann (Priscilla Lane)- who live w/ him and his maiden sister, Aunt Etta (May Robson), in their loving/cozy family home. Thea plays the piano, Emma plays the harp, and Ann plays the violin. It’s Kay who shows the greatest promise- she’s the singer. The girls exasperate their father w/ their love of popular music, since he loves classics (esp. Beethoven). The sisters support each other and share clothes. Each girl is an individual w/ her own distinct personality and wants, incl. the type of man each wants as a husband. Emma (practical, but secretly romantic) has been courted by their next door neighbor/shy florist- Ernest Talbot (Dick Foran). Thea (who calls herself “the clever one”) wants to marry Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh), a middle-aged/upwardly-mobile banker. The youngest sister, Ann, thinks she doesn’t want to get married. Their lives change when 2 new men come into their lives. The first is Adam’s old friend’s son, popular music composer, Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), quickly gets a job at the foundation using his natural charm/enthusiasm. The second is a scruffy/cynical musician from NYC, Mickey Borden (25 y.o. John Garfield in his big screen debut/1st Oscar nom), who Felix hires to orchestrate a new composition.

It took me some time, BUT I realized that I’d seen a version of this story before! My parents used to re-watch the 1954 musical remake (Young at Heart); Mickey was played by Frank Sinatra and Ann was played by Doris Day. Four Daughters was to be a big-budget production starring Errol Flynn (fresh from his success on The Adventures of Robin Hood), BUT was re-worked into a modest domestic drama. It was designed as a vehicle for Priscilla Lane, which also happened to have roles for her sisters- Lola and Rosemary. Warner Bros. gave this movie to director Michael Curtiz as a small assignment to tide him over as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) was coming together. Surprisingly, Curtiz delivered a film that was critically acclaimed and a box office success, earning 5 Academy Award noms!

Mickey [telling his life story to Ann]: They’ve been at me now nearly a quarter of a century. No let-up. First they said, “Let him do without parents. He’ll get along.” Then they decided, “He doesn’t need any education. That’s for sissies.” Then right at the beginning, they tossed a coin. “Heads he’s poor, tails he’s rich.” So they tossed a coin… with two heads. Then, for a finale, they got together on talent. “Sure,” they said, “let him have talent. Not enough to let him do anything on his own, anything good or great. Just enough to let him help other people. It’s all he deserves.” Well, you put all this together and you get Michael Bolgar.

Mickey was originally written w/ actor Van Heflin in mind; he could’ve done a good job. Garfield (who’d been studying the craft of acting since HS) based Mickey on his friend/musician- Oscar Levant; to see them together, check out Humoresque (1946). When Lynn did his screen test to play Felix, he was also shown Garfield’s screen test; he predicted that the newcomer would steal the show. Looking at this film w/ our (modern) sensibilities, it doesn’t take long to realize who is the real star. In any other case, the (tall/slim/conventionally handsome) Lynn would be the draw. Next to the (naturalistic, yet dynamic) performance of Garfield, he doesn’t stand a chance! As one astute viewer commented: “Mickey shows up loaded with bruised charisma to burn and pulling the focus of the story to him without even trying.” Check this movie out- you may enjoy it!

[1] The role was superbly played by John Garfield, and it brought him not only stardom but also, and perhaps more important, won for him his place in cinema history as the screen’s first rebel hero.

[2] Unlike some actors who appear in several films before their screen image gels, Garfield established his immediately, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and talk of the fates being against him.

[3] How opposites attract is part of the ploy for touching the quick of the viewer’s imagination. Ann is the eternal optimist, even when she and Mickey are down and out. She always looks on the bright side and like so many caught in the pliers of the Great Depression in those days, she saw prosperity just around the corner. Mickey recites an entire list of bad things that have happened to him seeking company in his misery from Ann, which Ann refuses to do. Mickey expects to go out with a bolt of lightning striking him dead as he rounds the corner of life. Mickey has meager talent as a composer; Ann has talent to spare as a singer and musician. Ann is big on beauty; Mickey is big on personality in a warped sense of a way.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

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