In a typical melodrama, we first get to know a family or community, which seems fairly stable. In the movie Four Daughters, there is a family of a father and four daughters, along with an aunt. Two of the daughters, Ann (Priscilla Lane) and Kay (Rosemary Lane), have no boyfriend. Thea (Lola Lane) plans to marry Ben (Frank McHugh), whom she does not love, but that doesn’t matter to her. She says that love is overrated. What is important is that Ben has lots of money and can provide her with status. This would not be so bad if she were good at faking it, as some gold diggers are, but throughout the movie it is obvious that she cannot stand him physically, recoiling whenever he tries to be affectionate. Emma (Gale Page) is just the opposite. She has a suitor named Ernest (Dick Foran), whom she jokes about marrying. However, she does not love him, and for her, that is very important. She talks about wanting a “storybook” romance, a “knight in shining armor on a white horse,” while Ernest is quite the other thing. As a result, she figures she will end up an old maid. Ann is perplexed about the whole notion of love, asking Emma if it is possible for someone to come along that she would love more than the members of her own family. This turns out to be more than an idle question.
As is also typical in a melodrama, once we are acquainted with a stable family or community, a bachelor comes along and really stirs things up. In this case, the bachelor is Felix (Jeffrey Lynn), who is handsome and supposedly charming, but I found him to be a bit irritating. He thinks he is being oh so cute when he flirts with the elderly Aunt Etta (May Robson), acting as if she is young and pretty. Well, Etta goes for it, but a lot of older women hate that kind of patronizing attitude, because it only underscores just how old and unattractive they are. Especially irritating is the way that men who do that sort of thing seem so pleased with themselves, imagining that they are bringing a little happiness into the life of an old woman. And he is bossy, telling everyone where to sit at the table in their own home. But just like Aunt Etta, everyone in the family seems to be charmed by him, to the point that all four sisters start falling in love with him.
As if one bachelor were not disrupting enough, another one enters the community, a man named Mickey (John Garfield), who is convinced that the fates are against him and that he will always be a loser. He falls in love with Ann. However, Felix asks Ann to marry him and she accepts. They announce their engagement at her father’s birthday party. Mickey is crestfallen, and so are the other three sisters. Kay, who had been procrastinating about going to Philadelphia to study for a singing scholarship, immediately announces that she intends to do just that. Thea, who had been stalling Ben about setting a marriage date, immediately announces that she will marry him in June. Ernest, thinking that Emma will be similarly disposed, suggests getting married, but she rebuffs him, and goes into the kitchen to cry.
On the day of Ann’s wedding, Mickey not only tells Ann that he loves her, but also reveals that Emma was heartbroken when she found out that Felix was going to marry Ann instead of her. At first Ann does not believe it, but later she sees that it is true. Now we get the answer to Ann’s question as to whether romantic love is stronger than love for a family member. In what can only happen in a melodrama, she leaves Felix standing at the altar and elopes with Mickey. This is absurd for two reasons. First, Ann believes that by jilting Felix, he will marry Emma on the rebound, but of course that doesn’t happen. In fact, Emma ends up settling for Ernest after all. Second, even if she did think that her sacrifice would result in Felix and Emma getting married, there was no need for her to marry Mickey, whom she did not love.
Four months later, Ann and Mickey are struggling financially. When they go back home for a family reunion at Christmas, Mickey sees how Ann reacts when she sees Felix again, realizing she still loves him. In a typical melodrama, things get so messed up and complicated that someone has to die in order for things to get straightened out, and that is what happens here. Between not being able to provide for Ann, and her still loving Felix, Mickey decides to commit suicide by driving really fast in a snow storm. Apparently he had never read Ethan Frome. Well, things don’t turn out that bad, but he does wind up in the hospital, living just long enough to say a few words to Ann before he dies. In the next scene, we see it is spring. Felix returns and it is clear that eventually he and Ann will get married.
In the remake, Young at Heart, Mickey, under the name of Barney (Frank Sinatra), does not die. However, the happy ending is suspicious, because we never see him get out of the hospital. We go from Barney apparently dying in the hospital at Christmas to Barney sitting at the piano in the Spring, surrounded by the entire family, including his wife Laurie (Doris Day), who corresponds to Ann. Furthermore, for the first time in the movie, he seems to be happy, instead of being the disgruntled loser that he has been through the whole movie.
There are two ways to interpret that ending. Either it is just a completely artificial, tacked-on happy ending, with no effort made to explain how he recovered or why his personality has changed; or it is Barney’s final hallucinatory dream just before he dies. I prefer the latter interpretation.