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CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Old Maid

Gasser

The Old Maid (1939)

     1939 was a major year for films and not a bad one for Bette Davis either. She might not have landed the much coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, also to be released that year, but she was busy with two other projects. Dark Victory would stand up as one of the greatest roles of her career –an Oscar-nominated one– but Davis would also go head to head with Miriam Hopkins –off screen that is– for The Old Maid.
 
     Hopkins’ Delia is preparing to wed Jim (James Stephenson) right at the start of the Civil War, but her ex-fiance Clem (George Brent) shows up and is horribly heartbroken by the goings on. Thankfully Davis’ Charlotte, as the cousin, eases his pain and sends him away to die in the war. Now stuck with an illegitimate child, Charlotte starts a home for war orphans, her daughter Tina hid among them. Delia invites the two to live in her mansion and raises Tina as her child while the girl refers to her actual mother as Aunt Charlotte. Fifteen years later, Tina is ready to marry a man of stature, so Delia officially adopts her to give the girl a proper background, which causes turmoil with Charlotte who must decide whether to reveal the truth of the girl’s origins.
 
     I do not know a whole lot about Hopkins, but I can see how she might have been a pill off-screen. Davis, as we know, was far worse. She could make enemies of the best people. Davis was once quoted as saying:
“Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially. Working with her is another story. On the first day of shooting, for instance, she arrived on the set wearing a complete replica of one of my Jezebel costumes. It was obvious she wanted me to blow my stack at this.”
Davis said she ignored the incidence but that the mounting tricks of her costar took their toll and she would explode when returning home at night. Davis also said Hopkins liked to interrupt any time the star had a difficult speech, once requiring Davis to make 20 takes of one scene. During one day of shooting, Davis fainted and was sent home where she remained for the following two days, at which point Hopkins decided she was also sick and headed home. The two would be reteamed in Old Acquaintance when they would play competing writers.
 
     At one point there was also some trouble relating to Hopkins’ makeup that got Director Edmund Goulding involved. Goulding had noticed the star was coming onto the set appearing younger each day. Executive Producer Hal Wallis ordered the makeup man to stick to the makeup design originally approved. Davis’ makeup, on the other hand, managed to age her character convincingly and with little effort. The older Charlotte simply lacks eye makeup and lipstick and was given an ashen powder as foundation. The awful hairdo completes the effect. Bette’s figure, however, remained youthful in the form-fitting costumes masterfully designed by Orry-Kelly.
 
     Performance-wise Davis wins the battle. Hopkins brings plenty of energy to her roles, but I think she over does them a bit and fails to give the natural performances Davis did in all her work, which makes one think she must be just like her characters off-screen, no matter how diverse her repertoire. Like Dark Victory, The Old Maid also features Brent, and he also disappoints here with his empty, unexpressive eyes. The annoyance is not for long, however, as the part is fleeting. The film itself certainly does not stand well against Dark Victory as it is a bit melodramatic at times in its story. Davis, however, never gave a bad performance, so there is no real threat of disappointment with The Old Maid.
 
Please check out the other participating posts for the Classic Movie Blog Association-sponsored blogathon surrounding the movies of 1939.
  • The Old Maid is set for 8 p.m. Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov; Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; TCM.com

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9 Responses

  1. Good movie; good review.

  2. This is such an interesting film in many ways, particularly the arc of Bette’s character: we see her change from a fresh, lively, spirited girl into an embittered middle-aged woman who’s been denied the love of her own child. A very well-directed, well-acted film; thanks for your excellent post.

  3. I always suspected that the backstory to the making of thise film was more interesting than the movie itself–and you have proven that. Bette and Miriam were both known for their strong personalities. Thanks for a fascinating look behind the scenes!

  4. I’ve been doing a lot of reading up on Bette Davis these days, preparing for my own blog and in the process come upon stories about the Davis/Hopkins relationship. It was so bad that Bette had nothing good to say about Hopkins years later, either. It seems to me there was an end to that anecdote about Hopkins showing up on the set in the Jezebel dress. Something like, “she not only wanted to be in my dress, but also my shoes.”

  5. MacGuffin,
    Two things! I despised this film and I was angry at the studio for making it! And you almost made me forgive that same studio with your well thought out review.

    I adore Bette and her moxy because she was a class act and a fireball when it came to her principals then her body of work!

    You made me forgive everyone for The Old Maid while adoring Bette and her body of work. Thank You!
    Page

  6. Good review! This is one of those films where I find it hard to take Hopkins. Perhaps the feud forced her to overact. It may not be the best Bette Davis film, but an interesting one in terms of her exhausting output from this time period.

  7. I saw this movie as a child, and it is one I still remember vividly. I also have to add that Davis is my favorite screen actress ever. But even though I like “The Old Maid,” I think you pinpointed what keeps it from being a better movie. Davis is great. But Hopkins always had a tendency to overact. That comment about the “Jezebel” costume was an interesting one because the origin of the famous feud between Davis and Hopkins seems to be the film “Jezebel.” Hopkins played the lead on Broadway and expected to be cast in the movie version, and it was evidently a great blow to her (by all accounts rather large) ego when the part went to Davis. Still, as you say, it’s not a bad movie, just not a great one, but worth seeing for the way Davis makes you feel for her disappointment at her mistreatment by Hopkins and her rather cruel rejection by her own daughter.

  8. I think Bette Davis is top drawer, I love this movie despite its flaws, and though Miriam Hopkins can be good, this character of Delia was one I wanted to slap around a lot! Your article is fascinating with the background stories, most of which I didn’t know. No wonder Bette put so much effort into the famous scene in (doggone it, what was the name of the movie?), where she gets to shake Hopkins until you think her head is going to fall off!

    Wonderful stuff! What a great contribution to the blogathon! It is so interesting and I love it!

  9. I have never watched this film through, but I know The Great Lie (1941) treats the subject with delicacy and I prefer Mary Astor to Miriam Hopkins any day. I have seen the teaming of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance, and the latter’s portrayal of a petulant and temperamental woman just seems like so much typecasting.

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