Review: Irving Rapper’s “The Gay Sisters,” Starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent

Nancy Coleman and Barbara Stanwyck in
Nancy Coleman and Barbara Stanwyck in "The Gay Sisters"

A rote melodrama from Warner Brothers and director Irving Rapper, The Gay Sisters does feature a typically fiery performance from Barbara Stanwyck, but little else worth recommending.

Fiona (Stanwyck), Evelyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and Susanna Gaylord (Nancy Coleman) make up the titular sisters—who, as children, are left an enormous fortune by their deceased parents, only to have it all tied up in legal troubles for most of their life. Their situation is complicated by Charles Barclay (George Brent, wooden as ever), a real estate tycoon who wants to buy their mansion to tear it down for the land—and who knows a secret about Fiona and a young boy (Larry Simms) who lives in the Gaylord mansion with their housekeeper. As the legal battles continue, it becomes clear that Barclay is not really after the land, and the pressure of the situation takes a toll on all three sisters.

Barbara Stanwyck in "The Gay Sisters"
Barbara Stanwyck in “The Gay Sisters”

The situation never feels especially dramatic, however. The worst the sisters are faced with is collecting even more money for their massive estate, or receiving some bad press—and yet there is an opportunity presented for a truly compelling predicament. Midway through The Gay Sisters we learn that years ago, Fiona had married Barclay for money with no intention of staying with him. When he learns this on their wedding night, he lets her know she still has to spend the night with him. “Don’t scream. I’m your husband,” he says, pushing toward the bed. Rapper cuts to the sisters, who Fiona has been relaying the story to, all laughing about the incident. What is really a story of a sexual assault victim forced by her affluent rapist to give up their child plays out instead as practically a romantic comedy, with a supposedly happy ending of the whole family finally together. The cinematic treatment of this situation is not only sickening, but also a poor dramatic choice. Here is a truly tense situation—a mother forced to pretend a child is not hers in order to keep him from living with the man who raped her—that is not a situation a film at this time would ever portray. Yet Lenore J. Coffee’s screenplay stumbles into it through his own misogyny.

Perhaps the most notable element in The Gay Sisters is the casting of Byron Barr in a supporting role as Gig Young. It was the actor’s first major part in a film, and for whatever reason, Barr chose to adopt the name of his character. As a result, we see in the credits that Gig Young was played by Gig Young—a strange origin for the actor, whose career flourished in the fifties and sixties, and who won an Oscar for his role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1969.

Rapper went straight from this to shooting Now, Voyager, a far better “women’s picture” starring Bette Davis. The Gay Sisters, though a decent moneymaker for the studio, was quickly forgotten—Stanwyck even removed it from her professional list of credits, and rightly so1. Despite showing how the actress could command the screen even with bad material, The Gay Sisters rarely worthwhile whenever the camera cuts away from her.

Where to Watch

Check TCM Listings

For More on The Gay Sisters

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Violet LeVoit, “The Gay Sisters,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed March 9, 2017.