When the title Sister Act is uttered, most minds immediately conjure up an image of Whoopi Goldberg in full nun garb, thrown into a convent to hide from the mob after witnessing a crime in the 1992 film of that title.
But Whoopi wasn’t the only star in the history of cinema to portray a Sister Act. Four Daughters, a 1938 film that spawned two direct sequels (Four Wives and Four Mothers) and one odd spin-off (Daughters Courageous, which features the same cast but follows a different family), is based on Fannie Hurst’s story, originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine, which shares a name with Whoopi’s criminal comedy.
Rather than nuns, Hurst’s Sister Act follows the four Lemp girls – Ann, Kay, Thea and Emma (portrayed by Priscilla Lane, Rosemary Lane, Lola Lane and Gale Page, respectively). These girls live in a beautiful home in a nice little town, where they play host to boarders and spend time making music together. Throughout the course of the three Lemp family films, they navigate life and love with the help of their adorable and also musically talented father, Adam (Claude Rains).
Four Daughters, as the first film in the series, does a great job of winning over the audience with its cast. These sugary-sweet, beautiful and very talented sisters add to the film’s appeal from the get-go. They’re likable, polite, have a lot of fun with each other and generally seem like the type of girls that anyone could get along with. Since three of the four girls were also sisters in the real world, there is a natural chemistry to the group which endears the audience to the Lemp family.
Introduced into the story are Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), a new tenant at the boarding house whom all four of the daughters are attracted to; Ernest (Dick Foran), the neighbor who admires the oldest Lemp daughter, Emma; Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh), the man vying for Thea’s attention; and angry composer Mickey (John Garfield), whose bad boy attitude rubs most of the family the wrong way, but catches Ann’s attention.
Though the daughters are certainly the film’s focal point, I couldn’t help but think of the famous tagline of 1939’s The Women while watching Four Daughters: “It’s all about men!” For all of their musical talent, intelligence and charm, the lives of these girls seem to revolve around finding “the one” and settling down. As a result, the film does seem dated. Some modern viewers will find this film (and others like it) off-putting, but fans of classics are no stranger to seeing this type of behavior in female characters of the studio era, so this isn’t a problem that completely ruins the film. The story is simply a product of its time.
It is unclear to me whether or not the studio intended to make a series when heading into production for Four Daughters, but that seems like it may have been the case. There isn’t a lot going on in the way of major plot developments throughout most of the first film, which is a bit of a problem but doesn’t make for a completely dull watch. Much of the film’s duration is spent following these simple, charming characters as they lead their simple, charming lives, as though the sole purpose of the film is to get the audience on their side before big drama ensues at the end of the film and in the next installments.
A few decent twists pick up the film’s pace after the first hour. With half an hour left to wrap up the story, the drama surrounding Ann and her love triangle kicks into high gear, leading up to a surprising but somewhat sappy ending to the first installment of the series.
Despite its problems, Four Daughters was a hit for Warner Bros, picking up a slew of Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Supporting Actor (John Garfield), Best Adapted Screenplay and Sound Recording.
The next in the Lemp family trilogy, Four Wives (1939, again directed by Curtiz), is much more engrossing from the very beginning than Four Daughters managed to be at any point. Since the first film took so much time setting up the characters, the second film jumps right into the action and is much higher on drama. The audience already loves the family (and the first film was a box office success), so no time needs to be wasted on reintroduction.
The film runs longer than the first in the series, clocking in at just under two hours, but the pace is a whole lot quicker and the story less predictable, so it doesn’t seem long at all. After the snail pace that occupied most of Four Daughters, I was worried that the longest installment in the series would be a snooze, but was quickly proven wrong.
Life throws both highs and lows at the Lemp family throughout the course of Four Wives. Kay, the daughter who only had her music in the first film, gets a love interest – and a handsome doctor (portrayed by Eddie Albert), no less. Meanwhile Ann’s sad situation, which began with the dramatic finale of Four Daughters, continues to hang over the audience like a dark cloud, though she does encounter a few pick-me-ups. Emma and Thea are now married, and each struggles with the prospect of having children. The hilarious side characters of sassy Aunt Etta and nosy Mrs. Ridgefield provide a welcome comic relief to the film.
Despite all of the drama, everything does turn out happily for the Lemp family by the end of Four Wives… that is, until the third installment picks up and they all get sent through the wringer again.
The third and final film, Four Mothers (1941, dir. William Keighley), takes the audience on the family’s darkest ride yet. Considering how cleanly things were wrapped up at the end of Four Wives, it’s a bit of a surprise just how many crises get thrown at the characters this time around. The story doesn’t give any of the girls, nor their father, a break from hardship. Things just seem to keep getting worse, giving this installment a much darker tone than its predecessors.
Despite the fact that there’s so much going on, Four Mothers isn’t quite as compelling as Four Wives, though it is much better than Four Daughters. The subject matter, which centers mostly around financial ruin, is relevant to modern audiences, which allows for a degree of personal connection that draws the viewer into the story.
In the previous films it was the sisters who stole the show, but in this film, Claude Rains gets the chance to shine. Four Daughters and Four Wives had him pegged as the always supportive father but didn’t really dig into him as a character, aside from showcasing his musical talent and his relationship with his daughters. Rains turns Adam into a fiesty, bantery character in this installment. The mood starts off fun as Adam shares friendly bickering with his sister, Etta, but as more and more problems build up for the family, Rains’ portrayal of Adam’s frustration sets a mood of high tension. The more disgruntled the character becomes, the more perfect Rains’ portrayal of him seems.
But this wouldn’t be a Lemp family film if the problems didn’t work themselves out eventually. The ending comes as no surprise to the viewer, but is satisfying since the characters are so familiar and the audience has come to care for the family so much throughout the course of the three films.
Four Daughters – 3/5
Four Wives – 4.5/5
Four Mothers – 3.5/5
Entire series – 3.8/5