Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Her Sister’s Secret (1946), which screens tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is that the movie contains no villains. The story is about an unwedded mother who’s unable to find the father of her child, yet the filmmakers refuse to demonize either the woman or the man who impregnated her. They present the situation as the result of unfortunate accidents—no one is at fault. Further, they show the people in the woman’s life as being sensitive to her plight, offering solace and help in her time of need. The nonjudgmental, nonhysterical approach to sensitive subject matter makes Her Sister’s Secret feel decades ahead of its time, which is one reason why it deserves to be better known.
Another reason is that it’s simply a beautiful piece of filmmaking, elegantly stylized and tenderly performed. Director Edgar G. Ulmer invokes a world of heightened sensitivity, creating a plausible context for the compassionate behavior onscreen. (The mood couldn’t be more different than that of the director’s most famous films: the Universal horror picture The Black Cat  or the cult-classic noir Detour , two dark and disturbing works that display the overt influence of German expressionism.) One could imagine Anne Green’s screenplay—adapted from a novel by pulp author Gina Kraus—yielding something shrill or tawdry, yet Ulmer’s subtle, understated approach imbues the material with rich emotion. He doesn’t try to frame the illegitimate pregnancy as a social problem—instead he plays up the intimacy between the characters, staging the drama on a relatable, human scale.
Her Sister’s Secret does open with some exceptional crowd shots, with Ulmer and company re-creating a New Orleans Mardi Gras festival. Before the filmmakers introduce the heroine, Toni (Nancy Coleman), they show the city in celebration, and the tone is wildly romantic. The mobile camera briefly stops in front of a cafe, where a group of young adults swindle the owner, Pepe (who will become a significant character), out of a bottle of champagne. Pepe accepts the loss with a shrug of the shoulders, saying, “Eh, once a year . . .” as if to imply that it’s normal for people to stray from their better nature sometimes. This brief act of understanding sets the stage for the rest of the film, as characters respond with unwavering sympathy to Toni’s transgression.
Ulmer doesn’t foreshadow in these opening scenes that an act of transgression will occur. Toni falls in love at first sight with Dick (Phillip Reed), a soldier on leave, and the two get away from the celebration to spend a quiet, romantic evening together. The next morning, they return to Pepe’s cafe and pledge to meet again in six weeks, the next time that the soldier can get away from base. (The couple’s romance, achieved in a brief window of time, recalls Vincente Minnelli’s wartime melodrama The Clock, which was made the previous year.) In the intervening weeks, Toni discovers she’s pregnant, and she looks forward to telling Dick the news. But when their date arrives, Dick’s unable to get away from base, and the letter he sends to the cafe, explaining his situation and telling Toni how she can reach him, gets thrown away by accident by Pepe. Toni, considering herself abandoned, then goes to New York City to seek help from her older sister Renee (Margaret Lindsay).
The first extended encounter between the two sisters constitutes the heart of the film. After a pleasant conversation with Renee’s husband, who’s about to go off to war himself, Renee confronts Toni over her distressed demeanor. “I don’t know how to say it so it doesn’t sound like something out of a magazine story,” Toni says, before bursting into tears. Renee calmly reassures her and finds out what the story is, refusing to judge Toni as she explains her plight. Ulmer reflects Renee’s attitude in his quiet, patient staging, giving the actresses room to embody their characters fully. The scene is incredibly moving, showing what a bit of tenderness can do at a fraught time. Renee doesn’t judge her sister, and the filmmakers suggest that the audience shouldn’t either.
The two sisters come to a solution to Toni’s problem: Renee, who’s childless, will raise Toni’s child as her own. Before her sister gives birth, the two will go to a ranch in New Mexico where Toni can come to term in privacy, and Renee will tell others back home that she’s the one who’s pregnant. The characters never overtly discuss the stigmatization that Toni would experience as a single mother—instead they focus on the joy that Renee will experience raising a child. Illegitimate pregnancy becomes a cause for celebration that unites the two sisters, who go about preparing for the birth with enthusiasm. This development might seem reactionary by today’s standards, but Ulmer realizes it with such sensitivity that one sympathizes with the situation and shares in the sisters’ happiness.
What follows is pure melodrama. Three years after the child is born, the sisters’ father dies, and Toni—who’d agreed not to visit Renee for an extended period so as not to develop an attachment to her child—gets lonely on her own in New Orleans. She returns to New York and starts to stalk her son. Renee soon realizes what’s going on, but she forgives Toni for her behavior—again, she understands how her sister’s need for human connection can lead her to act in less-than-admirable ways. This act of forgiveness represents the film’s second emotional peak and sets the stage for an implausible happy ending. Yet one accepts the resolution, since the filmmakers have inspired so much sympathy for the characters that one wants to see them have their wishes fulfilled. Her Sister’s Secret so succeeds at conveying the problem of illegitimate pregnancy on the characters’ terms that one accepts the resolution on those terms as well.