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They Were Sisters

They Were Sisters(1945)

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During the 1940s, Britain's Gainsborough pictures made a series of what the British Film Institute calls "lurid and often ludicrous costume melodramas" based on popular novels, which dealt with "gypsies, wanton women, and lustful aristocrats. They were made into films which mine a rich seam in British popular culture and were visually extravagant and morally ambivalent." The films included The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and The Wicked Lady (1945), and featured new young stars such as Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger, and James Mason. They were aimed at female audiences who comprised the majority of the filmgoing public during World War II. As the war dragged on, the studio also began turning out contemporary melodramas aimed at women and focusing on their problems.

One of these was They Were Sisters (1945), also based on a popular book - "from the famous novel by Dorothy Whipple," as the credits have it. The story follows the lives of three sisters, Lucy (Phyllis Calvert), Vera (Anne Crawford), and Charlotte (Dulcie Gray). Lucy marries happily, but her happiness is marred by her childlessness. Vera weds a man she doesn't love, and has affairs. Meanwhile Charlotte is married to a sadistic brute who abuses her. To play Charlotte's husband Geoffrey, Gainsborough turned to its resident sadist, James Mason, who had become a star by being mean to women in two Gainsborough hits, The Man in Grey and Fanny by Gaslight. To make Geoffrey even more reprehensible, the couple's teenage daughter was played by Pamela Kellino, Mason's real-life wife, adding a creepily incestuous element to his nastiness.

In his autobiography, Mason commented on the many beastly men he played during this period, commenting about They Were Sisters, "the writer had such a busy time setting down all the most colorful events in the lives of all three sisters and their husbands that he had neglected to supply motivations." At least one British critic agreed, writing in the Sunday Express, "There is absolutely nothing to motivate Mr. Mason's viciousness. He is flung on the screen as the husband of one of the three sisters who drives his wife to suicide, loathes his own son, snubs the servants, threatens his own sister when she interferes, and behaves generally with incredible caddishness. Why? It will never be known." Mason recalled that he had to fill in the blanks on his character. In a 1974 interview, he joked, "To satisfy me, motivation-wise, I had to tell myself that the sister whom I had married (Dulcie Gray) had a heavy hand in the kitchen, provoking antagonism and dyspepsia." Mason wrote in his autobiography that filmgoers accosted him asking if he was really so vile, and if he treated his own wife that way. In response, he wrote what he called "a little facetious article" titled "Yes, I Beat My Wife" with his own satirical illustrations, which was published in a British humor and arts magazine, Lilliput.

Several critics found much to like in They Were Sisters. The Times critic wrote, "the merit of this long and intelligent film lies in the skill with which it establishes the personalities of the sisters...the acting throughout has strength and sincerity." Mason's performance was singled out for praise. "James Mason acts with sinister subtlety," according to the Kinematograph Weekly. The Picture Show critic agreed. "James Mason gives another very fine performance...a tragic story beautifully told." British audiences turned They Were Sisters into one of the top British-produced hits of 1945.

The success of They Were Sisters led to more of the same for Mason, who continued to menace women in The Seventh Veil (1945), and played a highwayman in The Wicked Lady (1945). By the end of that year, Mason was chosen Britain's top star in a poll. The Seventh Veil was a hit overseas as well, and Mason became an international star. His next film, Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) was one of the best of Mason's career, offering him a chance to play a nuanced character in a superb film by a master director. Inevitably, Mason would go to Hollywood, where he would play a variety of roles, but would continue to be typecast as a suave villain. Such typecasting would limit what was a long and often brilliant career, sometimes denying him roles that were equal to his great talent.

Director: Arthur Crabtree
Producer: Harold Huth
Screenplay: Roland Pertwee, adaptation by Katherine Strueby, from the novel by Dorothy Whipple
Cinematography: Jack Cox
Editor: A. Charles Knott
Costume Design: Yvonne Caffin
Production Design: David Rawnsley
Music: Hubert Bath
Principal Cast: Phyllis Calvert (Lucy Moore), James Mason (Geoffrey Lee), Hugh Sinclair (Terry Crawford), Anne Crawford (Vera Sargeant), Peter Murray-Hill (William Moore), Dulcie Gray (Charlotte Lee), Barry Livesey (Brian Sargeant), Pamela Kellino (Margaret Lee), Ann Stephens (Judith Lee), Helen Stephens (Sarah Sargeant), John Gilpin (Stephen Lee).

by Margarita Landazuri

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