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Errol Flynn got top billing in Warner Bros.' 1938 film The Sisters. But it was really Bette Davis' show. The storyline - three sisters find love at an election-night ball and then face tribulation in their romances - practically screams "women's picture." And of course, Davis' character was at the center of the drama. She, as the eldest sister, Louise, runs off with Frank Medlin, played by Errol Flynn. He promptly ships out to Singapore, abandoning her in San Francisco just in time for the 1906 earthquake (she's also pregnant). The Sisters was Davis and Flynn's first screen pairing (they would later co-star in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)). While Davis was happy to work with Flynn, she was less than thrilled with his star billing. The Sisters came at a turning point in Davis' career; in 1938-39, she would go from being a respected studio actress to a bona fide movie star and box office draw who could write her own ticket in Hollywood.
Davis wrapped filming of Jezebel in January of 1938. The film would be released in March to rave reviews (Davis would go on to win her second Oscar® for her role as the tempestuous Southern belle). After completing Jezebel, she asked for leave from the studio. She'd been working non-stop and her father had just died. Davis needed time to recover. During these months, the studio sent her two scripts, Comet Over Broadway and Garden of the Moon, which were intended to be her next projects. Davis declined both films and Warners put her on suspension. It seems both sides had a point to make. The studio was, according to the order of the day, in charge. They assigned the roles. And Davis felt, considering her track record, that she should be given more freedom in selecting her roles. It wasn't the first Davis-WB tangle. In 1936, she'd refused a role and defiantly fled to England. The studio sued for breach of contract. On this second time around, however, her suspension didn't require legal action. Davis read the script for The Sisters and agreed to make the film. She later commented on this decision, saying, "I was delighted with this part because it was a change of pace. My ambition always has been...for variety in the kinds of parts I play. My career has proved this. I was always challenged by a new type of person to play."
But the fights weren't over between Davis and the studio. She refused to stand for official billing for The Sisters; one that called for Flynn to be billed above the title with her name falling below it. As Davis later explained it, "at that time I had no billing clause in my contract. I felt after Jezebel that my name should always appear above the title. That is star billing. Warner Bros. decided to bill Errol Flynn as the sole star...my name far below the title." Aside from simple star vanity, Davis felt the proposed "Errol Flynn in The Sisters" sent a mixed message to the moviegoer, not to mention that the film was really geared toward female audiences. Flynn was paid twice as much as Davis for The Sisters - $4500 a week to her $2250. But Davis would get her way with billing it would read "Errol Flynn and Bette Davis in The Sisters." The film's producer, Hal B. Wallis, would later admit in an interview that the whole billing dispute had really been the studio's way of keeping Davis in check. Warners knew it had a big hit on its hands with Jezebel. And as Wallis put it, "their business instincts would have dictated their giving her that top billing before the picture went out to theaters, but meanwhile they enjoyed giving her a dose of her own medicine."
Davis would go on to make a string of pictures following The Sisters that would confirm her star status. Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex would all be moneymakers in 1939. And of course winning that second Oscar® for Jezebel didn't hurt Davis' Hollywood clout.
Other points of interest in The Sisters include director Anatole Litvak who had previously helmed two at Warner Bros. (Tovarich (1937) and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)). Litvak refused to allow Davis a double for the San Francisco earthquake scenes. The sequence, which would take up just two and a half minutes of screen time, would also include stock footage from Old San Francisco (1927). Future Davis collaborator Irving Rapper also had a hand in The Sisters - as dialogue coach. Rapper would go on to direct Davis in two very successful films, Now, Voyager (1942) and The Corn Is Green (1945). Also of note: Susan Hayward appears in only her second film as a telephone operator (we only see her from the back). And half of the "Battling Bogarts," Mayo Methot (AKA the third Mrs. Humphrey Bogart), makes an appearance as a blonde at the boxing match.
Producer/Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Milton Krims, Myron Brinig
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: Bette Davis (Louise Elliott), Errol Flynn (Frank Medlin), Anita Louise (Helen Elliott), Ian Hunter (William Benson), Donald Crisp (Tim Hazelton), Beulah Bondi (Rose Elliott), Jane Bryan (Grace Elliott Knivel), Alan Hale (Sam Johnson), Dick Foran (Tom Knivel).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames