“You know, sometimes a man goes from wanting too much, to wanting nothing. He ought to do it gradually, or he gets all mixed up.”
After her infamous legal case battle with Warner Bros. in 1936, Bette Davis embarked on a journey that would lead to astronomical success. Two years later, she received her first Academy Award for her performance in Jezebel, and around the same time she was lured into the arms of the iconic Australian born actor, Errol Flynn, who was fresh out of work from the swashbuckling epic, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Bette Davis had great respect for Errol Flynn. She admired him for his contributions to the art of cinema, and was continuously clinging to the hope that she would one day work with him. These dreams were achieved in 1938 when Davis was cast alongside Flynn in The Sisters, a film adaptation of Myron Brinig’s novel of the same name.
After the success of Jezebel, Bette thought that golden opportunities would be imminent. However, that was not entirely the case. Before attaining the role of Louise, Davis was being offered menial films that lacked the prestige. Due to her current status and catapulting popularity, Bette refused to degrade herself by accepting roles in films that would descend her appeal. Instead she decided that it was time for a vacation, an absence that would last until Warner Bros. agreed to treat her talents respectfully. As a result, Davis was put on suspension. But this time the suspension was only short. Warner Bros. finally realized that Bette Davis was a great asset to the studio, and so they sent her a script for a family melodrama titled The Sisters.
The casting of Bette Davis in The Sisters was a stroke of fate. Initially, Irene Dunne, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis were scheduled to play Louise, but when all three stars declined due to various reasons, Davis was offered the part. At one stage the script was purchased for Kay Francis. However, this idea was soon scrapped when the studio decided to relegate her to B movies for the remainder of her contract. The task of finding a suitable actor to play Frank proved to be just as erroneous. Both Frederic March and John Garfield were the first in line for the role, though several disagreements led to Errol Flynn attaining the part.
The role of Louise Elliot in The Sisters was a part that Bette desperately wanted. This was a character that would provide her with the opportunity to unleash her full potential as well as allowing her to play a person that was quite a contrast to anybody else she’s portrayed. Bette later stated, “I was delighted with this part because it was a change of pace. I was always challenged by a new type of person to play.”. There was also another reason why Davis excepted the offer, and that was because it starred Errol Flynn, an actor she secretly idolized from afar.
“For this particular role of a restless, confused newspaperman, he was well suited. Handsome, arrogant and utterly enchanting, Errol was something to watch.”
( Bette Davis )
Directed by Russian born, Anatole Litvak and written for the screen by Milton Krims, the film starts at the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt, and follows the trials and tribulations that the three Elliot sisters face in married life. The main character of focus is Louise Elliot ( Bette Davis ) whose immediate elopement with sports writer, Frank Medlin ( Errol Flynn ) fuels emotional strain and heartbreak when financial problems begin to dominate her marriage and forces Frank to resort to the bottle. While Louise is struggling in San Francisco, her sisters back home in Silver Bow, Montana are also experiencing a set of difficulties of their own, but luckily they can benefit from the constant presence of their parents, Ned ( Henry Travers ), a pharmacist, and his wife, Rose, played by Beulah Bondi.
The problems that Bette’s character Louise was enduring on-screen would soon spread to the home front. Off-screen, Bette was fighting a tumultuous battle with her first husband, Harmon Nelson. Although their marriage crisis had been looming for a while, it has been said that Davis’ work schedule exacerbated their already unhappy union. Harmon was always conjuring up the idea that his wife’s profession took higher precedence over him. He expected Bette to play the role of his dutiful wife twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When Davis didn’t oblige, he moved out of the Coldwater Canyon house they shared together. After six years of marriage, Bette Davis and Harmon Nelson filed for divorce on November 22nd, 1938.
In addition to her marital hardships, Bette Davis was trying to deal with the sudden death of her father, Harlow, who suffered a heart attack and passed away on New Year’s Day in 1938. Davis’ relationship with her father was difficult and was often on the verge of permanently collapsing, but despite their indifferences and communication barriers, Bette still grieved his loss. Seeing as their ties were partly severed, Davis decided not to attend his funeral on January 3rd. Instead, she used this time to reflect back on the positive memories she had of her father.
The year 1938 was a turning point for Bette Davis professionally. Attaining the Academy Award for Jezebel brought her much happiness and propelled her career to an even higher zenith, but that was not enough. Bette wanted to do something meaningful with her life. She believed in supporting a cause and helping those less fortunate than her. What she really wanted was to utilize her passions in a charitable way. Her answer to this was becoming president of The Tailwaggers, an organization that cared for abandoned and lost dogs. Bette transmitted all her energy into running this group. She oversaw all problems and fixed them accordingly, but first and foremost, her intent was to assist in the care and maintenance of the dogs. In her autobiography, The Lonely Life, Bette Davis stated, “A lifelong dog lover, I became president of the group and during my tenure of office we trained dogs for the blind. The work became infinitely satisfying and accomplished a twofold purpose. In order to raise money, Bobby helped me arrange for a dinner party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, to which the movie colony responded generously.” . This was not the only time Bette Davis lent her efforts to philanthropic duties. In 1942, Davis and John Garfield launched The Hollywood Canteen, a club that served food, entertainment and dancing to servicemen, who were on their way overseas.
The Sisters may not be the most memorable film from 1938. These days its quite obscure and is often listed among the lesser known titles by each player, but what it does benefit from is the indomitable presence of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Both stars exuded that special cinematic quality and infused splashes of their genius into their performances. Errol Flynn was the perfect Frank Medlin. His embodiment of the nonchalant and rebellious spirit was superbly captured in his portrayal of the arrogant and perturbed sports writer, who is constantly plagued with problems. This type of character worked in great harmony with Bette, who always succeeded in playing wretched victims. Her portrayal of Louise is indelible in all respects. As his long suffering wife, Louise inhabited a fierce determination and tenaciousness that forced her to follow her goals and advance to a higher level, so she can help support her husband when he was left without a job.
“You know what happened to me today? A very funny thing. I was asleep in a nice, comfortable gutter. I mean, there were no rents to pay, no novels to write, no nothing… But all of a sudden I remembered that I was a man of responsibilities. Ha ha! A man of responsibilities – that’s me.”
Initially, the teaming of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn was set to be a scene for disaster. Due to their contrasting personalities and different approach to their work, both stars were expected to be embroiled in a duel – That is usually what happens when two people with tempestuous natures collide, but surprisingly, there were no dark clouds in the sky. Apart from a few small quarrels that were mostly fueled by impatience, the relationship between the two stars was amiable. Neither Davis or Flynn were consensual – Errol hinted at it on a few occasions, but Bette being the consummate professional that she was, shrugged off any advances that Flynn may have made.
Bette’s serious approach to her work is clearly evident in The Sisters. While some stars would request a double to film any scene that may cause injury, Davis demanded that she do all her own stunts. The thought of placing herself in peril never really crossed her mind. After all, Davis loved a challenge and was always willing to take risks. The way Bette narrowly escaped danger during the famous earthquake sequence is a prime indication of her gallant behavior. The actress herself even admitted it, and wrote in her autobiography The Lonely Life, “On the set of The Sisters I was risking life and limb daily. During the San Francisco earthquake sequence, my director, Anatole Litvak, ordered a button pressed and the ground opened beneath me and walls came tumbling down around me. If I had been a fraction of an inch off my position, that would have been that. As it was, a splinter from a crystal chandelier flew in my eye.”
Although not as successful as Bette Davis’ previous film, Jezebel, The Sisters was well received by audiences in 1938, and still holds up relatively strong today. The pairing of Davis and Flynn was considered an unusual teaming at first, but both stars manage to create a believable character study through the authenticity of their chemistry. This was not the last time Davis and Flynn would work together. The two reunited the following year to make, The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex, starring their frequent co-star, Olivia de Havilland.
The Sisters achieves at giving viewers a more accurate glimpse of life during the early 20th century rather than looking through the lens at the idyllic and idealized world that was so often depicted on screen. From Errol Flynn’s portrayal of a man caught between the bottle and his failed literary ventures to Bette Davis’ achingly rendition of his neglected wife, who deals with her husbands demons, this is a film that continues to intrigue and entertain audiences of all generations.
Originally the film credits were to read “Errol Flynn in The Sisters”, but Bette Davis demanded equal billing alongside Errol Flynn. She also pointed out that the original credits had an unwelcome sexual connotation.
The earthquake sequence took three weeks to shoot and cost $200,000 ($3.45M in 2017).
In the novel on which the film was based, the character of Louise Elliott ends up marrying a different man in the denouement.
Bette Davis: Born, Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Died: October 6th, 1989 in Neuilly, Sur Seine, France. Aged 81. Cause of death: Breast Cancer.
Errol Flynn: Born, Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn on June 20th, 1909 in Tasmania, Australia. Died: October 14th, 1959 in Vancouver, Canada. Aged 50.
Beulah Bondi: Born, Beulah Bondy on May 3rd, 1889 in Chicago, Illinois. Died: January 11th, 1981 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 91.
Henry Traves: Born, Travers John Heagerty on March 5th, 1874 in Prudhoe, Northumberland, England. Died: October 18th, 1965 in Hollywood, California. Aged 91.
Anita Louise: Born, Anita Louise Fremault on January 9th, 1915 in New York City. Died: April 25th, 1970 in West Los Angeles. Aged 55.
This post was written for the Made In 1938 Blogathon, hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and myself at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.