They Were Sisters

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.

They Were Sisters
UK release poster
Directed byArthur Crabtree
Produced byHarold Huth
Written byRoland Pertwee (from novel by Dorothy Whipple)
StarringJames Mason
Phyllis Calvert
Dulcie Gray
Anne Crawford
Music byLouis Levy
CinematographyJack Cox
Edited byA. Charles Knott
Release date
2 July 1945 (UK)
23 July 1946 (US)
Running time
115 min.
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box officeover £300,000 (UK)[1] or over £1 million[2]


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 end of the First World War, 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 a permanent hangover as a result of his using drinking 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), Vera (Anne Crawford) and Charlotte (Dulcie Gray). It opens at a dance in 1919, establishing their personalities and following them through courtship and marriage. While the sisters remain close to one another, their characters and paths through life are very different.

Lucy is the most stable, sensible, practical and in a happy marriage, whose greatest sadness 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, indulging her appetite for adventure and excitement through a series of flirtations, which sometimes go beyond the bounds of the socially acceptable. Charlotte is a cowed drudge, suffering emotional abuse at the hands of her manipulative, brutal husband Geoffrey (James Mason), who belittles and humiliates her in front of their three children.

The film shifts between the three households but its main focus is the way in which Lucy and Vera have to look on, unable to provide effective help 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 descends into alcoholism to blur her despair. A final attempt by Charlotte to flee Geoffrey ends in tragedy. Vera's marriage, too, crumbles as her husband discovers her in a serious extra-marital relationship and petitions for divorce. The film ends by showing Charlotte's and Vera's children 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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