Her Sister's Secret (1946)

Film Review

HER SISTER'S SECRET

Release Date: 23 September, 1946

Studio: Producers Releasing Corporation

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Starring: Nancy Coleman, Margaret Lindsay, Philip Reed, Regis Toomey, Winston Severn, Fritz Feld

Screenplay: Anne Green, from the novel Dark Angel (1934) by Gina Kaus

Cinematographer: Frank F. Planer

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

Her Sister's Secret was shown as part of the Sister Acts theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speakers were Jan-Christopher Horak, Director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Arianne Ulmer Cipes, daughter of Edgar Ulmer.

Further Reading

Bachelor Mother (1939) examines unwed motherhood from a humorous perspective.

Synopsis

In New Orleans at Mardi Gras, Toni DuBois (Coleman) meets handsome soldier Richard “Dick” Connolly (Reed) and spends the night with him. Unsure of their feelings, they promise to meet again in six weeks. Dick's leave is cancelled, and his letter of explanation to Toni is not delivered. She believes he did not want to meet again. She tells her married sister, Renee DuBois Gordon (Lindsay) about her pregnancy, and Renee, who is childless, proposes that Toni give her the baby. Renee and Toni exchange names and go away for the birth. Renee takes the baby, and Toni agrees not to visit the child for three years. Those years are difficult for Toni who longs to see her child. After two years, she goes to see him and nearly runs off with him. At the end of the three years, she comes to Renee and demands the boy, but Renee points out that Billy (Severn) regards her as his mother. Dick, who has been searching for Toni, finds her, and she learns of the lost letter. Again she goes to Renee and asks for her child. As she approaches him, Billy runs away, and Toni admits that Renee and Bill (Toomey) are his parents. She goes to Dick who is waiting for her.

Discussion

PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), an independent film production company, was comprised of a group of contract producers. These producers made inexpensive films intended for the lower half of cinema double bills. In general, each film was produced on a brief shooting schedule, with a hastily written script, inexpensive sets, second-class actors, and an undistinguished director. Most PRC films were mediocre, at best. The films of director Edgar G. Ulmer are noteworthy exceptions to the second-rate product of the company. Despite low budgets and short production schedules, Ulmer turned out stylish, creative, individualistic films, such as Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945), and Detour (1945). Ulmer's films are notable for their compelling depiction of the nightmarish situations that envelop his characters.

Her Sister's Secret differs significantly from Ulmer's other PRC films. Poignant rather than nightmarish, the drama focuses on the longing of a mother for her child and the resulting painful dispute between affectionate sisters. The plot is based on the social unacceptability of unwed motherhood that stigmatized both mother and child. The script and direction delicately emphasize the emotional dilemma of the sympathetic characters. PRC gave the film's producer, Henry Brash, an unusually large budget that provided for an extended running time, handsome sets, and a quality cast.

Scenarist Anne Green has only two screen credits, Her Sister's Secret and The Red Lash (1953), an episode of the television series Orient Express. Green may have had opportunities to work on additional projects. For example a short notice in Variety (7/26/1945) states that Anne Green Koch and Richard Collins had been signed by Cassidy Productions to write a script from the novel See What I Mean (Lewis Brown, 1943), however, if she worked on a script for the proposed film, nothing resulted from it. Green met and married noted screenwriter Howard Koch in 1943 when she was his personal assistant during the writing of the script for Mission to Moscow (1943). In 1951, she moved with Koch to England after he was blacklisted, at least partly due to his work on Mission to Moscow, a film labeled Communist propaganda by anti-Communist film executives and government officials. In England, Koch and Green assumed the pseudonyms "Peter Howard" and "Anne Rodney" in order to obtain contract work. As "Anne Rodney", Green wrote episodes of the English TV series Robin Hood (1955-7). After four years in England, Koch and Green returned to the US, and Koch resumed screenwriting under his own name. Green, apparently, ceased writing.

Gina Kaus (1893-1985), the author of Dark Angel (Die Schwestern Kleh, 1934) from which the film's story was adapted, was an ardent feminist and noteworthy author in her native Austria. Her novels, including Dark Angel, Tomorrow We Part (Morgen um Neun, 1932) and Catherine the Great (Katharina die Grofe, 1935) sold well in England and the United States. She fled Austria shortly before it was annexed by Nazi Germany and within months settled in Hollywood where she joined the mostly male colony of Jewish-Austrian exiles. In 1942 she started writing for films and over the next 15 years collaborated on stories and scripts for American and, after the war, German films. She wrote her autobiography (in German) in 1975.

Cinematographer Frank F. Planer (1894-1963, born Franz F. Planer in Austria-Hungary) studied portraiture as a young man but soon switched to photographing actors. He worked in German cinema throughout the silent and early sound eras but left Austria in 1937 and became another exile in Hollywood. His first American film, Holiday (1938), was directed by George Cukor and starred Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. At Columbia in the 1940s, he was the cinematographer on five or six programmers a year. From the late 1940s, however, he worked on big budget pictures such as Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Decision Before Dawn (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). The excellence of Planer's work was acknowledged with nominations for five Academy Awards (never winning) and four Golden Globes (winning three).

In 2006, Winston Severn, who played Billy, wrote some reminiscences about the film on the Internet Movie Database.

Guest Introduction

Guests Jan-Christopher Horak and Arianne Ulmer Cipes explained that Her Sister's Secret was an expensive production for PRC, and that the film is one of director Edgar G. Ulmer's best. Ulmer received a trifling $200.00 a week for a film that did well at the box office and made the studio 5-10 times what it cost. Dark Angel, the novel on which the film is based, had been declared immoral and unsuitable for film adaptaion by Joseph Breen, head of the Motion Picture Production Code. The film has European morality, no punishment for unwed motherhood, and an ambivalent ending.

Ulmer used immigrants to make films. Ulmer's immigrant friends were employed as actors and behind the camera. He worked often with his friend Fritz Feld and with Margaret Lindsay, whose voice he particularly admired.

The New York Times did not like the film, but Louella Parsons did and recommended it.

Arianne Ulmer Cipes

Jan-Christopher Horak, Director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive

References

Howard Koch. Bard College Archives. 2014

The Life of Gina Kaus, in Positioning Gina Kaus: A Transnational Career From Vienna Novelist and Playwright to Hollywood Scriptwriter, PhD. Thesis. Regina Christiane Range. University of Iowa. 2012