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Her Sister’s Secret (1946) – A Forgotten Feminist Classic

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Margaret Lindsay and Nancy Coleman in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret (1946)

As the blogger “Laura” wrote on her website Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings a few days ago, “Her Sister’s Secret is fairly unusual for the mid ’40s insofar as it deals at length with unwed pregnancy. There were other films made on this topic in that era, such as To Each His Own (1946), but it was still fairly daring subject matter for the Production Code era. Anne Green’s screenplay was loosely based on a novel by Gina Kaus titled Dark Angel. The title of the film has a double meaning, referring to one sister’s secret pregnancy and the other’s secret adoption of the baby.

Toni DuBois (Nancy Coleman) falls in love with soldier Dick Connolly (Phillip Reed) during a WWII-era Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, but when he ships out and they lose contact she finds herself in a desperate situation, alone, unmarried, and pregnant. Toni’s sister Renee (Margaret Lindsay) is happily married to Bill (Regis Toomey), but they are sadly childless. While Bill is away on military service, Toni secretly gives birth, and the sisters agree to pass the baby off as Renee’s. Bill is told that little Billy (Winston Severn) is his son, although it eventually turns out that the kindly man isn’t quite as unobservant as the sisters believe.

After giving the baby to Renee Toni stays away for an extended period, but as time passes she can’t resist the chance to see the child, triggering territorial conflict with Renee. And when Dick unexpectedly reenters the picture, things become even more complicated. Her Sister’s Secret has many positive attributes, including fine performances and gleaming black and white photography by Franz (Frank) Planer. The film has a great sense of mood, whether the setting is a masked party in New Orleans or a comfortable apartment in New York. Coleman and Lindsay are always very watchable actresses, and this film is no exception. The movie also offers a small but attractive role for Regis Toomey as the likeable Bill.

As Jan-Christopher Horak of the UCLA Film & Television Archive wrote of the film, in Noah Isenberg’s book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, ‘for a B-picture, the film demonstrated an unusual sensitivity for the complexity of human emotions, for the giddiness of great love affairs, for the difficulty of motherhood, and for the barely repressed jealousy between siblings.’ The film is considered by some critics to anticipate Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, such as Written on the Wind (1956).”

About ten years ago, I was given a 16mm print of this film for a birthday present, and I wholeheartedly agree with Laura’s assessment; this is a stunningly beautiful piece or work. For a six day picture shot at the lowest of all Hollywood studios, PRC, the film is not only stylish, but also deeply perceptive, and much more forthright about the position of women during the 1940s, and the social pressures that they faced in their everyday lives. Indeed, the scenario of the film is so progressive that it’s a wonder that the MPAA didn’t step in and censor the film. Her Sister’s Secret is seldom mentioned in conventional film histories, but in many ways, it’s one of the most important films of the era; a film that told the truth in an era of evasions.

The film is now in the Public Domain, but DVDs of it can be found on the web; you can also see it on TCM from time to time.

Get Yourself A College Girl (1964)

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief clip from Get Yourself A College Girl.

And while we’re on the subject of 60s California pop, here’s a truly amazing film which has just been released on archival DVD — no masterpiece, this, but a wildly disparate cast in a completely nonsensical plot — featuring a truly amazing group of recording artists of the period, all shot in 6 days in glorious Metrocolor.

Get Yourself A College Girl was produced by the legendary “speed artist” Sam Katzman, who had an iron clad rule that no film he produced would take longer than six days to get in the can — until he lengthened his schedules in the late 60s to a lavish 15 days for some of Elvis Presley’s later films — and directed by former child actor Sidney Miller, whose other credits include directing episodes of Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Smothers Brothers Show, My Favorite Martian and even The Mickey Mouse Club.

Mixed into this cinematic stew are Nancy Sinatra, Chad Everett, Hortense Petra (Katzman’s wife, a “good luck” charm in all of his later films), plus musical guests The Standells, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, jazz organist Jimmy Smith, jazz sax player Stan Getz with vocalist Astrud Gilberto, and a whole lot more, none of it making any sense at all, but featuring that slick, candy-colored sheen that typified California pop music of the era.

As critic Mel Neuhaus noted on the TCM Website, “A curious 1964 hybrid of teen movie musical with pre-feminist overtones as well as a parody of moralistic anti-rock message films, Get Yourself a College Girl is a must-see due to its strange guest-star cast, who help elevate the formula narrative into a near-surreal ’60s happening. The basic plot follows Mary Ann Mobley’s transition from songwriter to a controversial figure in the music industry who’s wooed by a song publisher (Chad Everett) and a politician seeking the youth vote [. . .]

The choice of music guest stars is one of the most freakish conglomerations in any movie musical. Let’s face it – any picture featuring rockers The Dave Clark 5 (Thinking of You Baby, Whenever You’re Around), The Animals (Blue Feeling, Around and Around), and The Standells (Bony Moronie, The Swim) alongside the Jimmy Smith Trio (The Sermon, Comin’ Home Johnny), plus jazz greats Stan Getz and velvet-throated vocalist Astrud Gilberto (doing their cornerstone of ’60s cool, The Girl from Ipanema) has got to be seen (and heard) to be believed.”

It’s a fascinating time capsule of a time long vanished, and worth savoring for the sheer explosion of musical talent on the screen. And, of course, everyone looks like they’re having a lot of fun.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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