19 April 2002 | zetes
2/3 of a great film
Three girls, the youngest descendents of the Gaylord family, one of America's most royal families, are orphaned at a young age. Right before he goes off to France to fight in WWI, their father tells the oldest, Fiona, never to sell the land. By the time the sisters have become adults, they have had to squander most of their money to pay for lawyers to defend their property. Through certain loopholes in the father's will, a man named Charles Barclay stands to gain possession of the Gaylord land, on which he wants to build a complex called Barclay Circle. Barclay is actually based on John D. Rockefeller, who was buying up land and buildings from affluent families in New York so he could build Rockefeller Center.
This film deals mostly with the melodramatic concerns of the three sisters. Fiona, well played by Barbara Stanwyck, although it's certainly not to be counted as one of her best roles, seems like a cold, domineering woman, and it becomes clear that she has some skeletons in her closet. Susanna, played by Nancy Coleman, is a little ditsy and completely in love with a young modern artist named Gig Young. Coleman's was my favorite performance in the film. Evelyn, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, is a rather pretentious seductress with a monocle who married into noble blood in England, but that doesn't stop her from trying to steal Gig from her sister. The three sisters are developed quite well but, as is the major trend in The Gay Sisters, never well enough. Charles Barclay is played by George Brent. He isn't very good. Well, he would be satisfactory if the story had played out the way it should have, but he always seems like a scumbag in the film. When we're asked to sympathize with him late in the film, it's impossible. Gig Young is played by, huh?, Gig Young. No, he's not playing himself. What happened is that the actor, who had acted in several movies previously under his real name, Byron Barr, was pressured by Warner Brothers to change his name to something more catchy. I'm not sure who made the final choice, but he eventually changed his screen name to Gig Young, after the character whom he plays in The Gay Sisters. Weird, eh? Young is quite good through most of the film, but the script does some unfortunate things with his character late in the film which ultimately harm the audience's sympathy for him. In two other supporting roles, Helen Thimig and Gene Lockhart are quite good.
The Gay Sisters had great potential to turn out to be one of the great cinematic family sagas. The characters are all interesting, as are their situations. Unfortunately, the script never strives for anything more than the simplest melodrama. If it had made the interrelationships of all the major characters more complex, fleshed out, for example, the rivalry between Evelyn and Susanna or made the flashback more intricate, the film could have been fantastic. It also could have fleshed out the prologue more, let us know more about the Gaylord family. We need to care more about the characters and we need to sympathize with them more. And the ending needed some major fixing. It basically just gives up at the end. Fiona's problems are solved so poorly that it hurts. Whatever sympathy her character had gained as the film progressed falls apart. It's also far too happy. This story seems moving towards tragedy, or maybe just a sense of historical significance or loss. And we still hate Barclay. And the conflict between the two sisters and Gig is never solved. As bad as Fiona's story ends, Susanna's, Gig's, and Evelyn's is even worse.
I still liked the film. It's thoroughly watchable, even if it doesn't involve us like other great films of the era. 7/10, mostly for its potential. It should have been remade, or the novel should have been re-adapted, at some point during the studio era. It is too dated to be remade now. The 1950s would have been the best time, during the time of films like Giant.