One of the problems of being a film historian is that you sometimes stumble across movies that require immediate love and attention. Four Daughters is one such film for me.
Falling short of “classic” status, this sentimental family drama fared more than well when it was released in 1938. The film’s adamant normalcy—a happy, middle-class family ensconced in a suburb untouched by the Great Depression—appealed to audiences. Its impressive popularity at the box office compelled Warner Bros. to make three more films with the same starring cast: a spinoff, Daughters Courageous (1939), and two sequels titled (spoiler alert) Four Wives (1939) and Four Mothers (1941). Fifteen years later, Warner Bros. would revive the Four Daughters story again for Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, retitling it Young at Heart (1955). Four Daughters also launched the screen career of John Garfield, cast in the unlikely role of an orchestrator. (He was, at least, a cynical, embittered orchestrator—more Garfield’s style.)
Four Daughters has some interesting connections to Iowa and to special collections within the state. I’ve learned about these materials in the process of researching the film’s music, and I’m happy for the opportunity to share these now. They may interest you in the films and the Hollywood history that is preserved in Iowan collections.
Like Little Women, Four Daughters is about four, close-knit sisters: Emma, Thea, Kay, and Ann. Until they find husbands, the young women live with their father, who teaches music at the local conservatory. Days are filled with music, dad jokes, and friendly sparring for the affections of Felix, a young composer at the conservatory. All is sunny until a cranky orchestrator named Mickey arrives, making everything complicated and interesting. For casting, Warner Bros. landed a novelty: Thea, Kay, and Ann are played by actual sisters: Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla Lane. The Lanes hailed from Indianola, Iowa, and Four Daughters was not their first encounter with show business.
The real name of the Lane family was Mullican, and they had not three daughters but five. Starting with the eldest, there was Leotabel (Leota), Martha, Dorothy (Lola), Rosemary, and Priscilla. Of the bunch, all but Martha performed on the stage professionally. The Mullican family took advantage of their proximity to Simpson College. They boarded students, and the sisters took music lessons at Simpson. Martha even eloped with a professor. (Remarkably, all of these events anticipate plot points in Four Daughters and Four Wives. The resemblances are purely coincidental.)
The older Leota and Lola took to musical theater in the 1920s, playing in revues and shows, where they occasionally sang together as a sister act. Lola eventually went to Hollywood in the late 1920s; Leota soon followed, but struggled to land parts. Meanwhile, Rosemary and Priscilla initiated their own sister act in New York with Fred Waring’s band, The Pennsylvanians. When Waring and the band were cast in the Warner Bros. film Varsity Show (1937), Rosemary and Priscilla received major parts. Contracts from Warner Bros. kept the sisters in California, much to the dismay of Waring, whose sojourn to Tinseltown cost him several key members of his band. Rosemary next joined Lola in Hollywood Hotel (1937), with the sisters receiving second and third billing behind the inconceivably cheerful star, Dick Powell.
Given the four sisters’ film experience, one might logically expect them to join forces in Four Daughters. Hollywood, however, is neither logical nor kind to families. Warner Bros. evidently tested Leota but selected Gale Page as Emma, the eldest sister, for the film. (To her credit, Page handles her tricky role admirably.) How this setback was felt among the Lanes is anyone’s guess, but a brief article from Boxoffice shows Leota didn’t let Hollywood break her or her family.
The article reads:
Leota Lane, who has been visiting Sisters Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla while they have been making Four Wives for Warner Bros., will present a concert in Indianola, the Lane girls’ home town, Tuesday, December 5.
Leota, the eldest of the Lane girls, was once a stage name with Sister Lola. During the last year she has been studying voice at the Juilliard School of Music.
After Leota’s concert at the Methodist Church, old friends will greet her at a public reception in the Simpson College administration building. (Boxoffice, 2 December 1939)
Tucked in the corner of the regional news section, the article is quietly affecting. I hope her recital went well.
There’s a quirky epilogue concerning the sisters: Although Leota was excluded from Four Daughters and the three films that followed, she was cast with her siblings in the Lux Theatre radio adaptations of Four Daughters and Four Wives. On the radio waves, at least, she resumed her regular role as eldest daughter. Today, pictures, papers, and memorabilia from the Lane sisters’ careers are preserved in the Mark Felton Collection in the Simpson College Archives.
More Four Daughters material has since made its way to Iowa. The Libraries have two archival scripts from the production. There’s a copy of a revised script, dated 12 February 1938, held among the Robert Blees’ Papers at the University of Iowa’s Special Collections. Robert Blees’ career as a screenwriter took off in the 1940s and 1950s (Magnificent Obsession is among his credits), and it’s not clear that Blees had any connection with Four Daughters. But his employment in the studio’s story department meant he had ready access to scripts, and the version preserved among his papers is a rare transitional document that occasionally diverges from the final shooting script. Comparing Blees’ copy of this revised—but not yet final—script with the film is a little like watching deleted film scenes from more recent titles: the differences show the film’s story to be more flexible and uncertain of itself. The discrepancies allow alternative perspectives on the characters and story to slip in.
Another copy of the film’s script in Special Collections was annotated by a musician directly engaged with the production. Max Rabinowitsch (or “Rabinowitz” or “Rabinowitsh,” as it is sometimes spelled) had been hired to assist with the film’s many scenes of onscreen musicmaking. A professional pianist, Rabinowitsch was known among Los Angeles concertgoers as an exemplary recital accompanist who performed alongside luminaries like Nathan Milstein, Fyodor Chaliapin, and Joseph Achron. (Later, Jascha Heifetz would help set up Rabinowitsch as a private piano teacher to the young and promising André Previn, who went on to write film scores, perform in jazz combos, compose concert music, and enjoy international renown as a conductor.) Rabinowitsch also belonged to a small group of studio pianists who were called upon to make famous stars sound musical. While an actor pantomimed a virtuosic performance at the piano onscreen, the efforts of an actual pianist surged from the theater’s speakers. (Sometimes getting actors to look musical was still a challenge. Hal Wallis, the producer for Four Daughters, complained that the film’s bachelor composer looked more like he was digging a ditch than playing piano.)
Rabinowitsch did more than assist with onscreen music performances. He also wrote an original piece of music. Well, technically, part of a piece. There are two musical works in the film that are “composed” by characters in the story. One piece is by composer Felix, who hires Mickey, the jaded orchestrator, to arrange it. The piece is entered in a competition and, naturally, wins first prize. The other work is by Mickey. He plays a melody on the piano for only one person—Ann, the youngest daughter—and insists that it is not a full composition but “only a middle.” Rabinowitsch wrote that “middle,” and you can hear him performing his own work as Garfield’s arms wander vaguely over the keyboard.
In the film, the orchestrator’s inability to complete his composition is another mark of his inadequacy. For Rabinowitsch, however, this was an unexpected and welcome diversion. Rabinowitsch appears not to have published any compositions before or after this, and in Hollywood he was hired to play piano, not compose. But in this case, Max Steiner, the chief composer of Four Daughters’ background score, took the unusual step of having Rabinowitsch dream up something for the onscreen orchestrator. Rabinowitsch was clearly proud of his contribution. He dedicated his 21-measure piece to “Hula Boy Max Steiner” (a grinning reference to Steiner’s recent Hawaii vacation). And in his annotated copy of the script, for the scene in which Mickey privately shares “his” melody with Ann, Rabinowitsch scrawls “He starts to play my composition.”
You won’t find Rabinowitsch’s name in the screen credits for Four Daughters. Such omissions were common during this era of filmmaking. But another bizarre epilogue rescued Rabinowitsch’s authorship from anonymity. In the sequel Four Wives, the screenwriters decided that Mickey’s “middle” would be magnanimously finished by Felix—a musical role reversal that would culminate in a lengthy concert hall performance. The arrangement of this fictional symphony was largely managed by Max Steiner, but he was arranging Rabinowitsch’s theme, so the film’s screen credits include a rare attribution: “Mickey’s theme by Max Rabinowitsh.” This must be one of the few instances in which a single melody receives its own credit line. Conveniently, the symphony features a lengthy piano solo which was written and performed by Rabinowitsch himself. Rabinowitsch is also the pianist onscreen performing among the ranks of the orchestra—finally seen as well as heard.
The scripts from Four Daughters represent a sliver of an iceberg’s worth of film-related material preserved in the Special Collections. There are thousands of documents, including scripts, production materials, correspondences, music, fan ephemera, and (naturally) much more. An overview of these contents is available here. For those interested in watching any of the Four Daughters films or the 1955 Young at Heart remake, DVDs of the titles are held in the library’s collection.
Recommended Further Readings
For more on the Lane Sisters, see these profiles from the Des Moines Register:
To survey materials from the Lane Sisters Collection at Simpson College, visit: https://simpson.edu/dunn-library/archives-special-collections/joseph-w-walt-research-library-college-archives/lane
For more on Four Daughters, see Catherine Jurca, Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 139–150; and Jennifer Forrest, “Of `True’ Sequels: The Four Daughters Movies, or the Series That Wasn’t,” in Second Takes: Critical Approaches to the Film Sequel, eds. Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Constantine Verevis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 31-44.
A special thanks to librarian Cynthia Dyer of Simpson College, the staff of the University of Iowa’s Special Collections, and music librarian Katie Buehner, without whom this work would not have been possible.
Nathan Platte is an associate professor of musicology in School of Music with an affiliated appointment in the Department of Cinematic Arts. His most recent book, Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2018), explores films like Gone With the Wind, Since You Went Away, and Spellbound. Nathan’s research on the Four Daughters films is featured in the forthcoming anthology, Voicing the Cinema (University of Illinois Press).