Under-Rated Movies #6: Four Daughters (1938); Dir. Michael Curtiz

6. Four Daughters


Here is another nearly-forgotten film (even though at the time it was nominated for Oscars left and right). It was directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, the man responsible, naturally, for such little-known art-house films as The Sea Wolf, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Four Daughters was done the same year as Robin Hood (1938), and was basically a vehicle for a new leading man named Jeffrey Lynn.

Unfortunately for Lynn, the smaller part of the outsider who barges into the family’s neat little existence, was given to John Garfield from New York, in his film debut. Garfield is in the film for, maybe, half an hour, but he’s all you can look at when he is on screen. When he’s not in a scene, you keep wondering when he will show up again. He brings with him a sense of the unpredictable. He’s dangerous. He’s sexy. Jeffrey Lynn didn’t stand a chance, even though he might have been a fine actor.

John Garfield is Marlon Brando 10 years before Marlon Brando. (He was actually the producer’s first choice to play Stanley in Streetcar on Broadway.) He is the introduction of a new kind of acting, he is the introduction of the sexiness of the anti-hero .

I’ve got a real soft spot for John Garfield (Jules Garfinkle was his real name, his good friends all still called him “Jules-y”.) It is so worth it to keep your eye open for this hard-to-find film, which isn’t even on DVD. Keep your eye open for listings on TCM. The picture has a good story, and the 4 daughters of the title are wonderful and natural and funny, but Garfield is the reason to see it. He is a message from the future.

His style – his naturalistic style – even the way he smokes a cigarette – foreshadows Brando, Pacino, Duvall.

Steven Vineberg wrote a book about Method actors (Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style), and while it can be a bit tiresome and academic, there’s a lot of value in it, and he devotes an entire chapter to Garfield in Four Daughters.
Listen to Vineberg’s description of Garfield:

But the particularly independent nature of the role (Mickey is an outsider, never truly integrated into the family) liberated Garfield. Unshaven, his eyes half-closed, his hair mussed, his hat battered and his tie loose, he makes such a striking first entrance that it’s probably not an exaggeration to say he was a star by the end of the reel

His first entrance is all it would take to make the entire audience lean forward and go: “Who the hell is that?”

Vineberg goes on:

It’s a theatrical entrance: He thrusts himself into the Lemps’ living room, bums a cigarette from Felix, and starts right in on the wisecracks, disdaining everything in the Lemp household as “normal” and “domestic”. What Garfield does is bring Odets’s street-wise rebel, with his dark Semitic looks, into a small-town middle-class house full of Gentiles. Borden isn’t written as Jewish, of course: Because of Hollywood’s Jewish studio heads’ obsession with assimilation (their terror of anti-Semitism), Garfield wans’t allowed to play specifically Jewish characters until after the war. But in a sense he never played anything else, because he was always drawing so closely on himself. In this early performance, you can spot a slight staginess, a trace of theatrical self-consciosness, but he’s got more dynamic presence and genuine banked energy than anyone else on screen, and his acting carries infinitely more wit and authority than that of his dimpled costafs. Four Daughters is a carefully cultivated Norman Rockwell fantasy, but Garfield is an emissary from the real world. It’s only when he’s on screen that we believe there’s a Depression going on outside the Lemp household.

It’s one of those completely forgotten moments of genius. I have heard people proclaim that Ed Norton’s debut in Primal Fear was one of the most powerful debuts in cinema history. People who say that must have very short memories. Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not? Or Garfield in Four Daughters?

It is a star-making moment.

Vineberg says he “broods through the film like a ghetto Heathcliff.” This type of acting has become not only so common now, but cliched to some degree, and it can be hard to realize how truly revolutionary Garfield was at the time.

The best thing about Four Daughters is that you can see the two acting styles up side by side. Nothing wrong with any of the daughters in the film; as a matter of fact, they are uniformly adorable, and they don’t push, or over-act. But they’re recognizable types. Garfield, by resisting labels entirely, takes all the focus, just by entering the room. He actually seems HUMAN.


Garfield carries this stuff off by displaying a bright-eyed tough-hide sincerity (and he’s most successful when he throws his lines away). In his scenes with Priscilla Lane he’s a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, eager to make a good impression but not sure how to go about it. Ann tries to straighten Mickey out, to infect him with her wholesome optimism, but he stays resolutely bent. Even his manner of sitting on a couch — his hip thrown sideways, his leg twisted — has a renegade quality to it …

Garfield plays outsiders like Mickey Borden brilliantly – injured men with restless, brooding minds and a feeling of entrapment that amounts almost to paranoia. In fact, he rarely plays anything else. Mickey touches us most when he’s standing apart from the other characters, watching the Lemp family hijinks around the Christmas tree; though they’ve tried to include him, he feels naturally left out.

Garfield’s debut still seems fresh and dangerous to contemporary eyes.

More Under-rated Movies

1. Ball of Fire

2. Only Angels Have Wings

3. Dogfight

4. Zero Effect

5. Manhattan Murder Mystery

6. Four Daughters

7. In a Lonely Place

8. Searching for Bobby Fischer

9. Joe vs. the Volcano

10. Something’s Gotta Give

11. Truly, Madly, Deeply

12. Mr. Lucky

13. Eye of God

14. Love and Basketball

15. Kwik Stop

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9 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #6: Four Daughters (1938); Dir. Michael Curtiz

  1. brendan says:

    arizona dream. i know you concur.

    the night is a lonely hunter. holy shart.

    blow out. travolta goes serious a decade too early.

    down by law. jarmusch and roberto benigni? a classic comedy/road pic/jailbreak absurdity.

    tank girl. iknow, but trust me.

    how ya doin’ sheil?

  2. red says:

    Bren – Blowout’s on my list, too!!

    I’m doing good – I owe everyone phone calls, I know.

  3. Cullen says:

    I love Tank Girl.

    I finally posted my top five. Well, maybe not top five, but five.

    Punch Drunk Love is on my list.

  4. Ken says:

    Re: Jules Garfinkel (and, as usual, apropos of not much), the character actor Allen Goorwitz (I particularly liked him as Belushi’s editor in Continental Divide and as the screenwriter in The Stunt Man) also went by Allen Garfield. Wonder if it was a tribute.

    As for “who the hell is that?” debuts, how about Gary Cooper in Wings? He was only on screen about two minutes, if that, but they might as well have run a card saying “This guy is gonna be a monster star.” I’m not sure it was his actual screen debut, but I’ll throw it out anyway.

    Brendan is dead on with Blow Out. Loved it. It might make my list too, along with The Stunt Man.

  5. Ken says:

    Oops–never mind on The Stunt Man. Never twigged it got three Oscar nominations. Sorry.

  6. red says:

    Ken – Four Daughters was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. John Garfield was the only actor in the cast to get a nomination, which is quite telling. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

  7. Ken says:

    Oh, okay–neither did The Stunt Man.

  8. kelly says:

    I can’t believe I can’t get “Four Daughters” from netflicks!!

  9. red says:

    kelly – damn, really???

    I had a helluva time finding mine – I finally just ordered it off of Amazon – but I had to get a used copy.