“Let that be a lesson to you not to go driving around the county deceiving strange men.”
After the death of his wife on the Lusitania, wealthy New-Yorker Penn Sutherland Gaylord (Donald Woods) decides to ‘do’ something and goes off to fight and subsequently die on the fields of France. This leaves his three small children, Fiona, Evelyn, and Susanna orphaned. Before Gaylord leaves to fight in WWI, he imagines that he’s taking care of his children’s future by leaving an iron-cast will which includes a vast fortune and the splendid Gaylord mansion to his three daughters. Early scenes show Gaylord with his eldest daughter, Fiona–a proud, imperious child who hides her emotions in front of the servants.
The film then flashes forward. The Gay sisters (as they are now known) are all adult. Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck) and Susie (Nancy Coleman) still live in the Gaylord mansion while Evelyn (Geraldine Fitizgerald) is married and living in England. The Gaylord estate has been tied up in litigation for years, and has gradually been bled dry with multiple versions of the will, various lawsuits and a series of lawyers. Think Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House and you get the picture. Fiona–the oldest girl and the backbone of the family is the tough one of the bunch–the most vocal and the one who’ll fight to the death to keep the mansion.
The Gaylord mansion is, apparently, in the crosshairs of Charles Barclay (George Brent), one of the will’s contestants. He wants to demolish the Gaylord house and build some monstrosity (according to Fiona) to be known as Barclay Square. It looks as though the litigation will continue when sister Susie who’s in love with artist Gig Young (played by Byron Barr before he changed his name to Gig Young) secretly goes to Barclay on a mission to persuade him to drop the suit. Her action causes a chain of events to take place….
The Gay Sisters, directed by Irving Rapper, certainly has the feel of a novel, so it should come as no surprise that it’s based on a book written by Stephen Longstreet. While the film isn’t bad (I actually rather enjoyed it), it never quite reaches the heights it strains to touch. It’s not quite soap opera, not quite drama and not quite romance, and yet at the same time, I suspect that the novel was a grand mixture of these elements. As it is, the film develops some intriguing asides but then wraps them up all too implausibly as the plot dashes to the final scenes.
The sisters are a mixed bunch with Evelyn (back on a visit) the bitchy pretentious one who sports a monocle, and Susie is the most human of the litter. That leaves Fiona played with Stanwyck’s usual backbone. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the sisters who collectively moan about how poor they are, and yet none of them work and there’s more than one fur coat flapping in the breeze. At one point, Fiona mentions she inherited a cool $100,000 dollars from an aunt–quite a fortune in those days. It might as well be $100 from the way it’s mentioned almost as an aside–while today, sixty years later, $100,000 is still a large amount of money to the average working stiff. But that’s just the money issue; when it comes to character, Evelyn is nasty, and the way Fiona used Charles isn’t exactly charming either. That leaves Susie, but there’s dirt in her past too. Perhaps the novel managed to be a grand tear-jerker, but somehow that’s lost in the film version. That said, the sympathy that does come to the sisters comes courtesy of understanding the burden of responsibility of having a great house, and a great name and two dead parents. The weight of this burden taints all three sisters in different ways, but the film makes the point that they certainly haven’t had a normal life (whatever that is).
If you’re a Stanwyck fan, you won’t be able to resist watching the film just to see her in this role.
“We’re all little people trying to find and grab what happiness we can . We fight back and love each other, work a while and die still little people. But once in a while one of us has a chance to do something . Life hands it to us on a platter.” (Gig Young to Evelyn)
“Love is something you cut out of yourself or it moves in and cuts you apart.” (Fiona to Susie)