Sisters, The (1938): Litvak’s Family Melodrama, Starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn

Produced and directed by Anatole Litvak, The Sisters is a domestic melodrama, scripted by Milton Krims, based on the 1937 novel of the same title by Myron Birnig.

Spanning four years, the narrative begins and ends at the same event: Presidential Elections.

At a ball on the night of the 1904 presidential elections, three sisters–serious Louise, frivolous Helen, and stolid Grace–daughters of Silver Bow, Montana, pharmacist Ned Elliott and his wife Rose, are concerned with their romantic and marriage prospects.

Tom Knivel is about to propose to Louise when Frank Medlin, a San Francisco sports reporter, asks her to dance. Infatuated, Frank extends his stay, and at Sunday dinner announces his plan to wed Louise. Although her parents disapprove, Louise leaves for San Francisco with Frank, Grace eventually marries Tom, and Helen weds wealthy Sam Johnson, who promises her freedom.

Although facing financial difficulty, Louise urges Frank to complete his novel. When she becomes pregnant, she decides to keep it a secret, but finally reveals her condition at a boxing match that makes her sick due to noise and smoke.  Returning home, Louise suffers a miscarriage, while climbing the stairs, causing her distraught husband to begin drinking heavily.

Overwhelmed by increasing bills and feeling worthless, Frank demands a raise but is rebuffed by his editor who fires him. Louise finds employment at a local department store, and despite Frank’s hurt pride, takes the job.

Fellow sportswriter Tim Hazelton suggests that Frank leave San Francisco to get a fresh start, and he decides to accept work on a ship. When Louise arrives home, she finds a note from Frank and rushes to the docks, where a policeman mistaking her for a prostitute arrests her. By the time she is released, Frank’s ship has sailed.

Much of the city, including Louise’s apartment, is destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. Unable to contact his daughter, Ned travels to San Francisco to look for her.  He locates her with her friend Flora Gibbon in Flora’s mother’s Oakland bordello.

Two years later, Louise is an executive in the department store. When she learns that Tom has been unfaithful to Grace, she returns to Silver Bow to reunite with her sisters.

Meanwhile, Frank returns to San Francisco, and although he is ill, he travels to Silver Bow when he learns that Louise is there.

At the ball on the night of the 1908 presidential election, Frank and Louise decide to give their marriage another chance.



Release: October 14, 1938

Running time: 99 Minutes