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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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