What is it that makes the hotter, smarter younger sister so much more sophisticated, precocious, intelligent and adorable than the older lead in movies? Maybe it’s because she’s free of the normalizing effect of mature sexuality. The younger girl compensates for her lack of sexuality by satirizing it, exaggerating her girlish longing in the style of the soaps her older sister watches, posing in adult fashions she’s gleaned from the magazines. She doesn’t need to mind the rules of the code; she’s still a nymph at play who could hurl herself into the arms of the hero without worry he would abuse her trust, at least that was how it was until the 1980s when Satanic panic, daycare scandals and America’s Most Wanted relegated all precocious childhood behavior, and any and all older man-younger girl friendships–no matter how platonic–to the bin marked “incestuous evil.”
To celebrate, then, the beauty and quick wit of the little sisters of cinema, I present “The Hotter Younger Sister Thing” – my follow-up to 2007-8’s series, Great Dads of the 70’s.
DIANA LYNN AS EMMY KOCKENLOCKER in MIRACLE Of MORGAN’S CREEK (1944, dir. Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges always seemed to do better with his minor characters than his leads, who were often moronic guys in the grasp of more intelligent forces. In Miracle, we have perhaps the most shrill of leading couples — the overplaying schnook Eddie Bracken and the brassy, moralistic to a fault Betty Hutton. Luckily William Demarest is in the picture as Betty’s two-fisted loudmouth papa, and Diana Lyn her canny, witty extraordinarily cool little sister, Emmy. A real pal to the much more dimwitted Hutton, the thin and demure Diana schemes, plans, plays barrel house boogie-woogie on Christmas Eve and regularly jumps on papa’s back to keep him from slugging Bracken.
This would all be kind of tragic in anyone else’s hands but Demarest’s, who in one scene actually shoves his younger daughter so hard she falls back onto the porch steps. In a movie made today, poor Emmy would have broken a collar bone, been rushed to the hospital, and child custody services would have thrown dad into the slammer. Instead Emmy just shrugs it off and leaps back into the fray.
What’s interesting too is the lack of moody underscoring that this guy is an abusive dad by today’s standards. If this was made today there’d be ominous music cues every time he glowered. Before he makes up for all his anger management problems with a heartbreaking scene of support for a distraught Hutton, Demarest fumes and shouts and bullies his daughters, neither of whom bat an eyelash or take any of it seriously, except to worry he’ll hurt Bracken, who breaks just like a little girl (as opposed to Lyn, who is unbreakable).
Notice how Demarest complains about Diana’s piano playing, but never tells her to stop. He doesn’t expect his gruffness to be taken seriously, except as a show of strength to make his girls confident they have a true protector on their side. He overreacts to non-issues but when the shit hits the fan, he reacts like a champ, and his younger daughter is his perfect foil all the way — aiding, abetting, infuriating. Love and irritation go hand in hand in this real dysfunctional family, where each element finds its own brave niche to thrive in while dealing with the insanity of the other members. Forced to raise two daughters without a mom in the house, Demarest does it the only way he knows how, as a blustery cop, and The amazing Diana Lyn rides him like a law-breaking anarchist every step of the way. The dads of today who try to be “friends” with their kids should take a lesson from Demarest, and the Wrestler for that matter, and learn to enjoy expressing their familial love via dramatically staged combat. Sometimes they need a shoulder to cry on, but some times they also need an ogre to scream at. The dad who can play the ogre when needed, but still have a light heart–in short he enjoys his “ogre” role rather than succumb to ogreish temperament–he, Siir, is a man for me.