They Were Sisters (1945)

Good morning!

Ready for another installment of "moody Mason"? 

Our next picture finds the star of the hour at the height of his handsomeness and onscreen viciousness...James Mason never looked as good or behaved as badly heretofore as he does in this movie, the first of the four pictures he was to make for Gainsborough. As he continues to build his reputation as a villain you love to hate, let's take a look at 1945's They Were Sisters.

While a weaker entry in his Gainsborough cycle, there's still a lot of Mason-based electricity coming off in the meaner scenes of They Were Sisters. And oh, the mean scenes of this movie. Featuring Phyllis Calvert, Dulcie Gray, and Anne Crawford as the trio of sisters mentioned in the title, the story follows their (VERY BRITISH) loves and losses in the between-wars England of 1919-1939, with a special spotlight on the acidic relationship between poor Anne Crawford and brutish James Mason.

I'm getting ahead of myself, let's talk synopsis. If you live in a region 2 country, you can order a PAL dvd of They Were Sisters on Amazon; if you're stateside like me, there's a fuzzy but serviceable print of the movie on

The movie opens with Lucy (Phyllis Calvert), Vera (Anne Crawford), and Charlotte (Dulcie Gray) trading stockings and readying themselves for a thé dansant being held in town, year of our Lord 1919. As in any traditional women's picture, the sisters' initial motivation is single-minded-- find husband, get married. At the dance, a bow-tied Geoffrey (Mason) makes a pass at vivacious Vera on the dance floor, but is swiftly rebuffed. Undeterred, he finds a quick rebound with shy Charlotte, who fairly sees stars as Geoffrey pays her attention. From the get-go, Vera harbors a bad feeling against Geoffrey, which, naturally, only makes Charlotte all the more ferociously defensive of their relationship. At one point after their engagement, and a particularly ungenerous reaction to said news from Vera's camp, Charlotte vows never to speak to or see her again if she says ill of Geoffrey again and Vera knows wherever this is headed is not good. Spoiler: Vera is correct in her prediction.

But they marry anyway. Geoffrey and his friends get wrecked at the wedding reception and more or less spoil the occasion with their boisterousness-- Geoffrey is carried down the stairs at one point by his friends, hollering, "Here! I've got an appointment to keep! Leave go of my coat! Stop arsing about! Leave go of my foot!" before bounding over the banister and making good his escape to the newlywed's car. Lucy looks on hopefully, Vera dubiously, as their sister rides off in Geoffrey's roadster and into married life.

Vera and Lucy turn their beaux into husbands, to differing effect. Vera marries a man who is devoted to her, but her restlessness and roving eye make both of them miserable. Lucy marries happily but is unable to have children, leaving a void in an otherwise good match. And Charlotte....whoo, Charlotte. When the plot jumps some twenty years forward, the lovely, gentle girl of the first twenty minutes has been replaced by a nervous, overwrought creature. Why? Because guess who has been working full-time, full tilt on Charlotte for the last two decades-- generally breaking down her spirit as if it were a paying job. 

Charlotte's devotion to Geoffrey has never flagged, but it also has never paid any dividends-- her husband is indifferent at best and cruel at worst, picking her apart and then faking attacks of angina to get her sympathy. The youngest of their three children, Judith, says to her aunt Lucy, "I believe Daddy only has his attacks so Mummy will feel sorry for him...after he's been horrid to her, you know," with the simplicity of a known fact. Geoffrey strongly favors his older daughter/also his secretary Margaret (Pamela Kellino), while being more or less indifferent to Judith and her brother Stephen. Here's a good piece of weirdness, an exchange as father and daughter hold hands and she perches herself on the arm of his armchair: 
Margaret: Things seem to go from bad to worse with you and Mummy.
Geoffrey: You can hardly blame me for that.
Margaret: I'm not blaming anyone, but you do seem to get on each other's nerves. Wouldn't it be better if perhaps she went away for a bit?
Geoffrey: It would be much better from a domestic point of view, but one of the essentials of a successful business man is to keep up the appearance of having a happy family, even if he hasn't one.
Margaret: But surely...Mummy's happiness and yours is more important than successful business? [pause] It does seem so awfully miserable...
Geoffrey: And so it would be if we hadn't each other, Margaret...[looks up at here]
Me if I were Charlotte: you do me a favor and not discuss our relationship with my child while I'm not home as if the child were a contemporary? Ok, thanks, just wanted to clear that up. [eyes heavenward]

Can I add that Pamela Kellino, the actress playing Margaret, and our sainted James Mason were married in real life at the time of the filming? We'll talk more about the long time and first Mrs. James Mason in a future post, but doesn't that just add an extra frisson of creepiness to the whole thing!
The costumes are hard to make out on the copy of the film, but I am living for that tiny hat.
More from the echo chamber of oddness: Judith, on holiday with Lucy and her husband William, pointedly asks the latter of those two at one point during their visit, "Would you like to shoot an apple off my head, Uncle William?" "No, why should I?" "Just to show that I trust you like anything." Got to remember this in meeting new people, to show them they've gained my trust. Later, she returns home and thoughtlessly tells her brother, "I think Uncle William is the most rippingest man I ever met, and to prove it I said he could shoot an apple of my head if he wanted to." "Why? More fool you." "Why? I trust Uncle William like anything!" Whereupon, obviously, Geoffrey overhears and makes a show of asking Judith to play the William Tell act with him, there, in the house, which she rightly refuses. I would, too, as he would very likely just kill me for no reason, this character does not need motivation to make my life difficult and/or end it.

Petulant Geoffrey then has this exchange with his long-suffering wife, who tries to talk him out of a tantrum about her extension of her stay with her sisters and Judith by a day or two:
Charlotte: Geoffrey...I want you to understand why we spent those extra few days at Lucy's. We hadn't all been together since father died. The fresh and sunlight were doing Judith so much good-
Geoffrey: When I want an explanation, I'll ask for it.
Charlotte: I didn't think you'd mind if I stayed a few more days--
Geoffrey: Mind? You flatter yourself. It's a mystery to me anyone wants you.
Charlotte: Oh, Geoffrey. We're all very fond of each other, we always have been
Geoffrey: How wonderful. I'm not interested in mutual admiration societies-- when my own child comes back slopping over with praise for dear uncle William--you can't expect me to be enthusiastic.
Charlotte: Nobody could be kinder than he was.
Geoffrey: Reeeally. It's a wonder you managed to drag yourself back at all.
Charlotte: I knew I wasn't wanted I decided that perhaps I--
Geoffrey: You decided?! Since when have you decided anything? Haven't even the guts to ring up and tell me yourself, making me out to be a bully I suppose so your precious sisters could pet and pity you.
Charlotte: Oh Geoffrey, you know that isn't true, you know that I'd never--
Geoffrey: Ohhhh, stop whining! You're no more use to me than a sick headache.
Charlotte: Oh Geoffrey, please, please don't talk to me like that, I can't stand these scenes.
Geoffrey: All right then, get out of here and stay out-- from now on this isn't our room, it's mine!
Charlotte: No, Geoffrey no! You can't do this to me! For seventeen years I've done everything for you! Put up with everything from you! Because, can't do this Geoffrey! I won't let you!
Geoffrey: Get out.
Charlotte: [goes downstairs to cry and drink by herself]
"You're no more use to me than a sick headache." Yikes. Lesson learned: homeboy does not care. Things to think about in that exchange: one, how many times can one person say Geoffrey in a three minute scene? Answer: six, but it felt more like six hundred. Two-- how snappishly, almost preeningly arch James Mason plays the scene...he has a tendency in these early films, especially in more heated moments, to rush the lines so that you're surprised he can say all the words as quickly as he does without tripping over them. Every line is a sneer and yet somehow he gets away with it without sounding like Charles Nelson Riley (RIP, but it would ruin the scene for Mason to be any less believable as the lines themselves are already so catty/over the top). Three: Why is she so worried about moving out of the bedroom? Good riddance to bad rubbish! People in these forties' movies act like life itself will end if you're thrust out of the marital bed, I would be like...well, great, I guess I'm moving down the hallway of our spacious home and not have to deal with you bawling me out every time I open my mouth. Oh, we're not going to share a room as man and wife? Heaven forfend. What will the servants think. Anyway, Charlotte is upset and drowns her disappointments in a decanter of whiskey. Where does this selfless, slavish devotion come from? Where's her breaking point?

In answer to my question, Charlotte gathers up the shreds of pride she has left after the preceding incident and asks her maids (two, she has two maids) to pack her things and call a taxi. Of course, what does James Mason do? Bid her fond adieu as he really doesn't care for her in the first place? Nope, he fakes one of his phantom fits and she comes right back around to being a welcome mat. Also, notice that Mason, in this and The Wicked Lady, extends his hand over the girl's face when they close in for the clinch, a very deliberate move. This and his tendency to say a very barky "HMM" as its own word and in the place of an "ahem" in dialogue seem particularly idiosyncratic to me. [You're in too deep on this Mason project, Lisa! You're in too deep!]
Things go from bad to worse with Geoffrey generally escalating in bad acts-- he tries to undermine young Margaret's courtship with a local boy her age, gets a dog for the kids and then turns around and makes them give it away/threatens to drown it for almost no reason. He acts so badly towards Stephen that the boy decides to run away (but is brought back by kind, not-shooting-apples-off-kids-heads Uncle William) and continues to constantly berate Charlotte, who is seriously bad off in terms of physical/mental health at this point between the alcohol and the despair. Lucy tries to cook up a scheme for Geoffrey to be out of the house so a doctor can see Charlotte about her drinking and general deterioration, but is thwarted...which leads to a final confrontation between Geoffrey and his wife with tragic consequences. Again, it's high time you go and watch the movie to find out what happens, but let's say that it doesn't end well for either of them. Consolation prize: there's a pretty good courtroom scene towards the end and the picture does end on as "happy" a note as I guess it could, considering it's been a long slog of "let's see how bad Geoffrey can act towards this poor woman". But the main question to ask throughout the whole movie is why, why, WHY is he so mean to her? What does he get out of it? What motivates him? You can't even 100% believe that he's just "bad" because he's pretty all right if a little self-important at the beginning of the movie. Where is all this vitriol coming from? They never really come around to it, and that's honestly the biggest flaw in an otherwise shipshape enough melodrama.

Overall verdict? The script is almost too 1940's British-- if someone wrote it as a period piece or dialogue for one of those "set in postwar London" shows like Call the Midwife, I would think they were laying it on too thick, but this is actually almost contemporary for the time. Lots of "beastly", "ghastly", "don't lets quarrel", "thanks awfully", "thanks ever so much" and diction so sharp you could cut yourself on it. While James Mason's Geoffrey is ultimately a character with that whole "sound and fury signifying nothing" vibe going on, at least he brings some much needed energy to the dialogue and looks, as previously stated, as handsome as he ever will even as he's playing a very bad man.

Swedish poster from to James Mason: "No, not to worry, you don't actually look anything like that in real life."
Have you seen They Were Sisters? Which of the three sisters are the most sympathetic to you? Can you make rhyme or reason of Geoffrey's singleminded meanness? Are there any British movies from this time period that you think of as almost over-the-top in their Britishness? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but more to come! Talk to you soon. Til then.

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