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Friday, November 9, 2007

Sister Acts, Part 1 (originally published 2/00)

Of all the influences that combine to shape us as individuals, few are as defining as sibling relationships. Vastly complex and profoundly intimate, the sibling relationship is a potentially limitless wellspring of inspiration for dramatic storytelling. It is only natural, therefore, that brothers and sisters have long been favorite subjects of filmmakers. The most recent film to exploit the dramatic potential of sibling relationships is "Hanging Up," starring Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, and Lisa Kudrow as three sisters struggling to cope with a cantankerous father's terminal illness. Appropriately enough, this film is the product of the imaginations of real-life sisters Delia and Nora Ephron. If the sisterly squabbling of "Hanging Up" rings true with you, you may want to look for these earlier cinematic treatments of sisterhood on home video.

"Little Women" (1933). Louisa May Alcott's March sisters may well be the most famous set of sisters in all of Western literature. They've been brought to the screen a number of times, but this outstanding adaptation remains the best of them all. The solid cast includes Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Joan Bennett as Amy, Frances Dee as Meg, and Jean Parker as Beth. Director George Cukor, who was renowned in Hollywood for his ability to work productively and creatively with actresses, was in his element. His skill at showcasing the talents of his cast combined with the film's lavish production values to create one of the American cinema's enduring classics.

"Four Daughters" (1938). Here again we have a story revolving around four sisters. This time, however, three of the four are played by real-life sisters Priscilla Lane, Rosemary Lane, and Lola Lane. Gale Page rounds out the quartet as the fourth sister. The melodramatic plot is driven by the sisters' romantic interest in a young musician who comes to live with the family. This sibling rivalry is complicated by the arrival of the musician's accompanist, a surly, cynical pianist played by John Garfield. This role, Garfield's first significant screen exposure, was so popular with audiences that he continued playing similar characters for most of his career.

"The Hard Way" (1942). Needless to say, not all sibling relationships are healthy ones. In this film, Ida Lupino plays a woman who feels that she has thrown away her life on a dead-end marriage. Determined not to let her younger sister repeat her mistakes, she pushes the youngster, played by Joan Leslie, into pursuing a career in show business. The older sister's domineering ways and her attempt to live vicariously through her younger sister's career combine to bring about plenty of misery for both. This is Lupino at the top of her form, possibly her single best performance ever.

"My Sister Eileen" (1942). During the Thirties, "The New Yorker" published a series of stories by Ruth McKenney, who had come to New York with her sister, Eileen, to try to make it in the big city. The stories were based on the experiences they had shared in their small Greenwich Village apartment. In 1938, the stories were collected and published in book form. A play based on the book was popular enough to prompt a movie adaptation starring Rosiland Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. The adventures of the sisters and their eccentric neighbors proved to have an enduring fascination for the public. This film version gave rise to both a musical film remake of the same title and a musical play called "Wonderful Town."

"The Dark Mirror" (1946). In some ways, the most fascinating sibling relationship of all is that of twins. This psychological detective story features Olivia de Havilland in a dual role as twin sisters. One, Ruth, is gentle and good-hearted while the other, Terry, is a murderer. When Terry is identified by witnesses to the crime, but Ruth has a perfect alibi, the police are unable to know for sure which one to arrest. It is up to a psychologist, played by Lew Ayres, to figure out which twin is guilty. Given the bravura nature of de Havilland's multiple role, it shouldn't be surprising that she won an Academy Award that year. What is surprising is that she won it for another film altogether.

Naturally, there are many more worthwhile sister movies than we can cover in a single column. Next week we'll add a few more branches to the cinematic family tree.

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