The Gay Sisters

The title of a 1942 movie, which I came across by accident a while back:


(That would be gay ‘light-hearted’, as in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and The Gay Divorcee. Then there’s gay ‘showy’, as in the flower name gayfeather for Liatris spicata, or blazing star. One or the other of these lies behind the folk etymology in the surname (and then personal name) Gaylord < OFr. Gaillard, which is relevant to the movie. No queers for some years, at least in the general culture.)

The informative write-up on the TCM site:

The Gay Sisters (1942) was director Irving Rapper’s third movie, but it was not a labor of love: his bosses said direct the film or face suspension. He did, with only two weeks to spare before moving on to his next project Now, Voyager (1942) with Bette Davis. If his bosses had truly had their way, he’d have worked with Davis as well on The Gay Sisters. It was common practice for Jack Warner and casting director cum executive Steve Trilling to deliberately pit Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford against each other (leaving the three capable women to fight each other for the best roles instead of blaming their bosses) but this time Davis was wise. She wrote to executive producer Hal Wallis, demurring, “I would be so grateful if you would give The Gay Sisters to someone else.” Stanwyck, an old friend of Wallis’s, got wind of her refusal and swooped in.

Adapted from the novel by Stephen Longstreet (the Parisian expatriate author/screenwriter also behind Stallion Road (1947) and Silver River (1948), among others), the story follows the Gaylord [there’s that name] heiresses Fiona, Evelyn, and Susanna. After the death of their mother, their father goes to war, issuing Fiona the solemn injunction to “never sell the land.” Decades later, that insistence has impoverished the sisters: man-eater Evelyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald), long suffering Susanna (Nancy Coleman) and tough-as-nails Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck) have burned through lawyers and lawsuits making sure real estate developer Charles Barclay (George Brent) won’t get his mitts on their mansion (a struggle that parallels the real-life real estate squabbles between the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers over the acreage that eventually became Rockefeller Center.) But Fiona has her own private reasons why she won’t let Barclay win — and, with some clever tiptoeing around Hays office limitations, we learn why there’s always a towheaded kid (Larry Simms) following the housekeeper around.


Fiona (Stanwyck) and Barclay (Brent)

Interestingly, Rapper was London-born, and the cast was packed with other UK expats like fellow Londoner Donald Crisp and Dubliners George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Rapper was also very taken with a young actor named Byron Barr — according to Stanwyck biographer Axel Madsen, he felt the actor could be “the next Cary Grant”. He cast him in the role of “Gig Young”, and his portrayal made such a positive impression on the public that he later took on the fictional character’s name as his stage name.

In contrast to her prickly character, Stanwyck’s co-stars uniformly enjoyed working with her. Despite being under terrible professional strain (at this point in her career, she shuttled between studios completing a feature about every three months), Rapper said that working with Stanwyck was a pleasure, adding that she was “terribly cooperative and the easiest lady to work with.” Nancy Coleman (who, unlike her timid character, had much more backbone) also had kind words for the experience of working with Stanwyck, especially for their big drunk scene that “I still think that may be the best piece of acting I ever did.” (Her only regret about forming a close relationship with Stanwyck was that she taught her how to smoke.)

The Gay Sisters received encouraging early notes, with Variety writing that it was “long, dignified, rather weighty, fairly impressive and varyingly entertaining picture.” While praising Stanwyck for “a vibrantly believable performance” it took Brent to task for “underplay[ing] to such an extent he might as well be thinking of something else”, concluding “more severe editing would not only shorten the picture pleasantly but would give it added cohesion and force.” However, it did poorly at the box office and Stanwyck curiously omitted it from her list of professional credits later in life. Stanwyck moved on, honing her knack for tough-minded, unstoppable women in role after role. In two short years all that toil paid off when she landed her ultimate cold-blooded dame role in Double Indemnity (1944.)

Gaylord is a fairly common name for (north) Indian restaurants. There was one in Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, and there still is one on El Camino in Menlo Park.


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