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They Were Sisters (1945)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of They Were Sisters (1945)
DirectorArthur Crabtree
ProducerHarold Huth
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScreenplayRoland Pertwee
PhotographyJack Cox

Cast: Phyllis Calvert (Lucy); James Mason (Geoffrey); Hugh Sinclair (Terry); Anne Crawford (Vera); Peter Murray Hill (William)

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In the late 1930s, three sisters lead very different lives: one is flirtatious and unfaithful, one is tormented by her sadistic husband, while the third is sensitive but childless, and cares more about her sisters' children than they do.

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They Were Sisters is unusual in the canon of "official" Gainsborough melodramas in that it's set, if not actually in the (then) present day, at least in the relatively recent past - the late 1930s, just before the onset of war.

In all other respects, though, the Gainsborough formula is very much present and correct - the contrast between very different female characters with varying degrees of independence, the none too subtle emphasis of key themes through set-piece speeches and all the flared-nostril, lip-curling, head-tossing performances that only just stay on the right side of conviction.

And the target audience is again all too clear - women at the tail-end of World War II who had achieved, if not outright independence, at least the freedom to think about the way their lives were heading. By presenting three alternative role models, the film shows various possibilities as well as giving clear warnings as to what happens if one strayed too far in the direction of either freedom or subservience: the destruction of marriage and family and maybe even death.

The three sisters present various aspects of femininity: Vera (Anne Crawford) is a modern independent woman who consciously rejects stable long-term relationships in favour of brief but thrilling flings. Charlotte (Dulcie Gray) is the exact opposite, a downtrodden drudge, humiliated into submission and alcoholism by her sadistic husband Geoffrey (James Mason), leaving Lucy (Phyllis Calvert) both to act as mediator and to pick up the pieces - literally so in the case of the somewhat casually discarded children, which she uses to assemble the "perfect' family that her own childlessness had denied her.

As with many of the other Gainsborough melodramas, it's a somewhat ambiguous conclusion - certainly a happy ending of sorts, but one full of underlying ironies. Lucy's husband William claims in his closing speech that "there are a million families like us", and while this might seem implausible in a literal sense, he's right in that at the time the film was released, there was barely a family in the country that hadn't undergone some kind of disruption and relocation. Although set just before the war, the situations depicted in the film struck a powerful chord with audiences, who turned it into one of the biggest homegrown hits of 1945.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Geoffrey the brute (6:06)
2. Vera and Terry (2:00)
3. Happy families? (1:37)
4. Stephen runs away (2:12)
Production stills
Publicity materials
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Fanny By Gaslight (1944)
Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)
Magic Bow, The (1946)
Man in Grey, The (1943)
Wicked Lady, The (1945)
Calvert, Phyllis (1915-2002)
Cox, Jack (1890-1960)
Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Gainsborough Melodrama