Forget the Amazon editorial review of this movie. "Fatally soppy" indeed. There's nothing maudlin here at all. This is a perfectly observed movie by several giants of the movie screen: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, and Vincent Price at their finest, with outstanding back-up by Ann Sothern and Harry Carey, Jr. It is a moving, melancholy, sometimes almost elegiac look at two elderly sisters in their picturesque Maine cottage, dealing with memories and mortality. The movie takes place over the space of one day, in the 1950s.
Bette Davis is Libby, the caustic blind sister who seems to thrive on bitterness and offending others. But she is also quite astute and, in the end, is the one holding out hope to see the whales of August, to see that change can be good even near the end of a long life.
Gish is the kind, long-suffering sister who owns the cottage, and is a widow like her sibling. She dearly misses her husband, dead for many decades, and wonders what to do with her irritable sister.
The sisters are visited by Tisha (Ann Sothern), the island gossiper and spark plug who is also beginning to really feel her age (she has just had her driver's license suspended). Also visiting is the courtly Maranov (Vincent Price), a refugee from imperial Russia who has lived off his mother's jewels and with friends all his life. A sport fisherman, he brings his catch to a dinner with the sisters, with Libby rebuffing him out loud for angling for more than just a meal.
There are frequent, peaceful scenery shots of the house and property, and of the sere yet beautiful cove and shoreline nearby. And always the gentle clanging of an old buoy in the cove, the same one that was there when the sisters were young and spry, and the whales came by every August. Handyman Harry Carey, Jr. is the one fly in the ointment. While injecting a perhaps useful counterpoint of noise and gruffness to this gentle movie, not to mention a bit of lament about how times are changing (tourists with their autos have discovered the island), he is quite profane. The movie didn't need this jarring quality, but I suppose a reputation as a "G"-type movie (my VHS is unrated) would be considered the kiss of death to adult viewers and yet this subtle a movie too boring for kids.
Such an extraordinary and rich story this movie enfolds. The contrast of youth and age; the way life "fools" us (a constant refrain with Libby); the sorrow of a long life and yet the promise of good things worth living for, and the perfect photography which precisely complements the movie's moods. This is superb filmmaking and acting. Understated but clear, this show will haunt your quiet moments. The older you get, the more you'll understand it.
Early in the movie Sarah asks Libby, who seems more irritable than usual, if something's wrong. "I'm all right," Libby replies in a way that the viewer finds out can be taken two ways, "just a touch of November in my bones." But there's always hope that a memento of their youth, the passage of the whales every August, will be there in their dotage.
This was the last or one of the last movies the principals in it made. It is a beautiful farewell and all the more touching because of it.