Four Daughters: Garfield's Impressive Debut

Typical imagery of small-town life during the Depression can be found in Warners' Four Daughters (1938), one of the most popular films of the decade. Julius J. Epstein and Leonore Coffee's script was based on Fannie Hurst's Cosmopolitan magazine story, Sister Act; the film's original title was Because of a Man.

The film contains many narrative ingredients of small-town works and a gallery of stock characters. The Lemps are a one-parent family, headed by a music professor, symbolically named Adam (Claude Rains). Adam is an “old-fashioned” patriarch, preaching his daughters that “beauty isn't enough to justify itself, unless you do something to go with it.” Protesting against “jazz and swing and crooners,” Adam doubts whether Gershwin's music will survive: “That modern trash isn't, and never will be, music!”

As in Little Women, each of the daughters represents a different type: Emma (Gale Page), is efficient and sensible; Ann (Priscilla Lane) impulsive and easily enthusiastic; Kay (Rosemary Lane) a talented singer; and Thea (Lola Lane) the smart one. Their greatest fear is to become “old frumps, with eye-glasses and long noses.” Ann, like Jo in Little Women, is afraid of any change; she would like them to “grow old together,” and “things to go on just the way they are.” But the pragmatic Aunt Etta (May Robson) thinks Ann is silly: “Can you imagine anything worse than a house full of old maids” She expresses, like the mother in Alice Adams, the ultimate fear of screen women: to be spinsters. There is no worse stigma for women in American films than being old maids.

Using the classic narrative structure of a state of equilibrium disrupted by an outsider, the story concerns the impact of two City men, a young orchestrator, Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) and his friend pianist, Mickey Borden (John Garfield), on the otherwise stable family. All four daughters become infatuated with Felix, “the nicest thing that's come into the house since the electric percolator.”

Four Daughters is remembered today for featuring Garfield's first screen role, in what's still one of the most auspicious debuts in American films. In addition to stunning performance, which made Garfield an instantaneous star, a new screen type was introduced, that of the “outsider,” a major character and plot device in later small-town films.

Borden is a brash misfit from the City, a rude, reckless person. Careless, his manner is indolent, and his expression wry and surly. He doesn't think well of himself–or of the world. With cigarette dangling from his mouth, he is the disenchanted idealist who holds grudges against society. Borden is a fatalist, believing he has no chance of winning the musical competition because “They” (“The Fates!”) won't let him. They have been at him for 28 years, with “No let up.”

In one of the most cynical speeches in an l930s movie, Borden expresses his philosophy: “First they said, 'Let him do without parents–he'll get along.' Then they decided, 'He doesn't need no education–that's for sissies.' Then, for the finale, they got together on talent. 'Sure,' they said, 'let him have talent, not enough, of course,to let him do anything on his own, anything good or great–Just enough to let him help other people–its' all he deserves.”

In New York, Borden and Ann live in a shabby tenement, but he is too proud to accept money or favors from Felix. The scenes in New York show Borden and his friends in smoky, crowded, and sleazy restaurants, the type frequented by losers and small-time artists. Ann tries to persuade him that “a man decides his own destiny,” but Borden insists that, “messing things up, that's where I shine.” Realizing he has come between the two lovers, Borden drives his car over a cliff. Fatally injured, he feels that the accident is “more of their (the Fates) work,” claiming, “they wouldn't even let me go out in style.”

Garfield's role and performance are the only discordant elements in an otherwise sentimental and conventional movie, typical of the late Depression era. At the end, romantic love wins and order reestablished.

Four Daughters presents a clear visual symmetry. The film opens on a joyous note, showing a blossoming peach tree, behind which the entire family is engaged in a rendition of Schubert Serenade. And it ends with the same image: the flowering peach tree and Schubert's Serenade. This recurring motif, with the camera pulling away from a cozy family tableau, meant to reassure the viewers of the family's harmony and unity.

Nominated for four Oscar Awards, Four Daughters was so commercially successful that Warners followed up quickly with several sequels: Daughters Courageous (1939), Four Wives (1939), and Four Mothers (1941).

In l955, cashing in on Doris Day's box-office popularity, a musical remake of Four Daughters, titled Young at Heart, was released co-starring Frank Sinatra.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Hal B. Wallis and Henry Blanke
Supporting Actor: John Garfield
Screenplay: Lenore Coffee and Julius Epstein
Sound Recording: Nathan Levinson

Oscar Awards:


Oscar Context

Curtiz’s “Four Daughters” competed for the Best Picture with nine other films: Capra's You Can't Take It Away,” which won, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” “Boys Town,” “The Citadel,” “La Grande Illusion” (“Grand Illusion,” Renoir's French film), “Jezebel,” “Pygmalion,” and “Test Pilot.”

The two studios that had the largest number of nominated films were MGM and Warner, each with three. The most nominated film was Columbia's “You Can't Take It Away from Me,” surprisingly a comedy, with 7 nods, winning 3.

Co-screenwriter Ian Dalrymple won the Screenplay Oscar that year for another honorable adaptation, George Bernard Shaw's “Pygmalion.”

Oscar Context

In 1938, the winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Walter Brennan for “Kentucky.” The Sound Oscar went to the technicians of “The Cowboy and the Lady”.”


Adam Lemp (Claude Rains)
Aunt Etta (May Robson)
Ann Lemp (Priscilla Lane)
Thea Lamp (Lola Lane)
Kay Lemp (Rosemary Lane)
Emma Lemp (Gale Page)
Ernset (Dick Foran)
Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn)
Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh)
Mickey Borden (John Garfield)

Running time: 90 Minutes


Camera: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Editing: Ralph Das=wson