They Were Sisters

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They Were Sisters
UK release poster
Directed by Arthur Crabtree
Produced by Harold Huth
Written by Roland Pertwee (from novel by Dorothy Whipple)
Starring James Mason
Phyllis Calvert
Dulcie Gray
Anne Crawford
Music by Louis Levy
Cinematography Jack Cox
Edited by A. Charles Knott
Release date
2 July 1945 (UK)
23 July 1946 (US)
Running time
115 min.
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office over £300,000 (UK)[1] or over £1 million[2]

They Were Sisters is a 1945 British melodrama film directed by Arthur Crabtree for Gainsborough Pictures and starring James Mason and Phyllis Calvert. The film was produced by Harold Huth, with cinematography from Jack Cox and screenplay by Roland Pertwee. They Were Sisters is noted for its frank, unsparing depiction of marital abuse at a time when the subject was rarely discussed openly. It was one of the Gainsborough melodramas.


Unlike most of the hugely successful melodramas made by Gainsborough during the mid-1940s, They Were Sisters has a near-contemporary rather than a costume setting, spanning the years from the immediate aftermath of World War I through to the late 1930s. The screenplay was developed by Pertwee from a popular novel of the same name by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943.

They Were Sisters features the spouses of both Mason and Calvert; Pamela Mason (billed under her maiden name Pamela Kellino, and playing Mason's daughter despite being only seven years younger) and Peter Murray-Hill. Mason later admitted that he acted most of his bullying, sadistic role with effectively an ongoing hangover as a means of dealing with the frustration he felt from his role and the British film industry in general.[3]


The film focuses on the lives of three sisters; Lucy (Phyllis Calvert), Charlotte (Dulcie Gray) and Vera (Anne Crawford). The film opens at a dance in 1919, establishing the personalities of the four main protagonists and following them through courtship and marriage. While the sisters have remained close to one another over the years, both their characters and the paths down which their lives have travelled are very different. Lucy is the most stable of the three, a sensible and practical woman in a happy marriage, whose greatest sadness in life is her inability to have children which she sublimates by lavishing affection on her nephews and nieces. Vera is married with a child but the relationship is humdrum and loveless and she is restless and bored with her dreary home life, indulging her appetite for adventure and excitement through a series of flirtations with other men which sometimes go beyond the bounds of the socially acceptable towards the promiscuous. Charlotte is a cowed, fearful and flinching drudge, suffering severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her manipulative, brutal husband Geoffrey (James Mason), who constantly belittles and humiliates her in front of their three children.

The action of the film shifts between the three households, but its main focus is the way in which Lucy and Vera have to look on impotently, unable to do anything to help matters despite their best attempts as Charlotte's treatment by her husband (who, it is strongly implied, is also engaging in an unhealthy relationship with their elder daughter) becomes ever more shocking and she spirals into alcoholism in an attempt to blur her despair. A final attempt by Charlotte to flee Geoffrey ends in tragedy as she is struck and killed by a car. Vera's marriage too crumbles, as her husband finds out about a serious extra-marital relationship in which she is involved, and petitions for divorce. The film ends by showing the four children of Charlotte and Vera being cared for by the childless Lucy.



The film was very popular at the British box office, being one of the biggest hits of the year.[4][5]

The Times 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."[6]


  1. ^ "Actor's Views May Bring Ban". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 13 September 1945. p. 2. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  2. ^ "No title". Western Mail. 61, (3, 207). Western Australia. 14 February 1946. p. 26. Retrieved 9 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  3. ^ Macnab, Geoffrey (30 October 2003). "Odd Man Out". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
  4. ^ Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48, p 207
  5. ^ Gaumont-British Picture: Increased Net Profit, The Observer, 4 November 1945
  6. ^ "They Were Sisters (1945) - Articles -". Turner Classic Movies.

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