Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins starred in two films together for Warner Brothers in 1939 and 1943 respectively. Their combative rapport (the origin of which can be attributed to several things) is the stuff of legend now; a lesser known kind of the Davis/Crawford feuding. Competitive and sneaky spotlight hogging, Hopkins’s propensity for flighty dramatics, threw Davis for a bit of a loop with both attempting to micromanage at every turn. For this Potential Double Feature post, I suggest watching their onscreen pairings back-to-back. They represent some of the best that ‘women’s pictures’, a derivative label that I use in efforts for reclamation, of the studio era have to offer. The former is the more respected and better remembered of the two, but the latter is underappreciated, cleverly taking some of the same interpersonal components of The Old Maid while telling an entirely different story about fraught female friendship.
The Old Maid (1939, Goulding)
IMDB Summary: The arrival of an ex-lover on a young woman’s wedding day sets in motion a chain of events which will alter her and her cousin’s lives forever.
Where Old Acquaintance is related to The Old Maid, The Old Maid is related to Jezebel in setting and the similarities in cast and crew. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, in turn based on Edith Wharton’s novella (which I’m reading now), The Old Maid traces the mistakes and regrets of two women (also cousins) during the Civil War era and how those follies inextricably bond them for better and worse. These follies come in the form of Charlotte (Davis) giving herself over to spinsterhood and rigid aunt-dom while her illegitimate child is raised by Delia (Hopkins) as her own. Support and deceit go hand-in-hand as Charlotte and Delia mark the years together with loss. Their friendship is complicated. I see many who note the two characters as being purely antagonistic, with Delia’s actions clearly marked by selfishness and old world loyalty. Delia’s traditional beliefs and unforgivable decision are certainly present, but her insistence on helping Charlotte as well as her regrets and genuine care for her, are what prevent The Old Maid from being cut-and-dry, making it an especially engaging feature of grey shades of mutual jealousy. Then add Clem (George Brent), the man killed-in-combat that both loved, and the father of Charlotte’s child, and you’ve got Delia’s major regret, a thorn in her side that she won’t fully admit to herself, subconsciously resenting Charlotte for doing what she could not bring herself to no matter the consequences.
Regret turns murky, because to call Tina a ‘mistake’ discredits that she becomes the epicenter of Charlotte and Delia’s collective life together. They form a good-mother bad-aunt team; rambunctious Tina grows to have a warm bond with “Mummy”, while Charlotte, because “she must never suspect”, transforms herself into a constantly chastising bitter old maid. It’s one of Davis’s best performances, going from pining third wheel beauty to icy and faded with sacrificial verve. It’s a showy role that goes beyond the physical feat. There’s a scene towards the end where she is by herself, pretending to talk to Tina. Her words are kind-hearted and cautionary, full of soft concern and advice. We then see her saying those same words, but now they sound completely different. As filtered through “Aunt Charlotte”, they become a harsh and brittle critique. She literally has to purge every motherly instinct by acting through these moments with herself. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
Edmund Goulding, who I’m learning more about, orgies and all, is an underappreciated director. He favors longer takes, and is able to connect with the emotional center of a film, and with the characters operating within that, and have it spring out at you.
Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)
IMDB Summary: Old friends Kit Marlowe and Millie Drake adopt contrasting lifestyles: Kit is a single, critically acclaimed author while married Millie writes popular pulp novels.
Four years after the success of The Old Maid, Davis and Hopkins teamed up again, this time under Vincent Sherman for a much more clear-cut kind of friendship uncomplicated by familial bonds, but instead sustained through a freakish strand of loyalty on the part of Davis’s Kit. Though it, of course for 1943, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its study of lifelong friendship somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; her voluntary loyalty borders on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.
Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.
I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.
Watching Them Together:
Each write-up marks some clear similarities in content and theme between the two films (and also the titles). Female friendship, sacrifice, loyalty, jealousy, the passage of time, hostility, competitiveness, etc. The male characters are all dolts or dead. A simmering tension between Davis and Hopkins is always capitalized on, much more openly in Old Acquaintance since their dislike for one another would have been well known to the public at that point. There’s even a memorable moment in “Acquaintance” where things get physical, as Kit wrings Millie’s neck (!), shaking her like a rag doll (she had it coming, trust me). Structurally the latter takes from the former as well. Our protagonists start as young brides, brides-to-be, or brides-not-to-be, and ends with the younger generation becoming part of the story before eclipsing the elder. Each has a clear three-act passage of time, with two significant time jumps apiece. And finally, the end of each film sees Davis and Hopkins together, toasting to their friendship or resignedly walking arm-in-arm.
Despite all of these similarities in structure and theme, the content and central friendship of the two are so different. Just look at the IMDB summaries! From the perspective of a basic synopsis, these are two stories with virtually nothing in common. The Old Maid‘s interactions with youth are based in the familial, in Old Acquaintance the romantic. The love triangles of each show a preoccupation with the past in the former and the contrast between middle age and youth in the latter. The loyalty of Delia and Charlotte comes from a place of sacrifice and regret. In Old Acquaintance it comes from a place of acceptance and accommodation. Old Acquaintance is about the ‘modern woman’, a woman who attempts a career and a family. The Old Maid is about a woman who is denied both. Most importantly, you get a sense of the trajectory with a second film that is self-aware in what it has with the Davis/Hopkins face-off. Thus, while Old Acquaintance may not not be as consistently engaging or tensely tethered as The Old Maid, the simplicity of the antagonism makes it lighter fare with clear-cut hatred aimed from the audience at Millie at all times. Charlotte and Kit each play second fiddle, though not Bette Davis The Actress, to Delia and Millie. The different is in the first it’s by all-in necessity, and in the second it’s by choice.