Friday, 10 May 2013

Davis vs Hopkins, round one: The Old Maid (1939)

They were two of the most famous actresses of the 1930s - one achieve stardom before the other, who ended having a longer career. Both had a reputation of being difficult. One made a career and won an Oscar out of the other's Broadway flop. They hated each other's guts. And they were paired by Warner Bros. in two films. Edmound Goulding directed the first and was meant to direct the second but decided he couldn't face the two again, and Vincent Sherman directed it instead. And from this rivalry, two of the great melodramas of the war period were born: "The Old Maid" (1939) and "Old Acquaintance" (1943). They are, of course, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The two films hinge on a similar topic, the rivalry between two women who share a strong bond. The first film, "The Old Maid" is the darker of the two. Adapted from an Edith Wharton novella, it starts as the story of two cousins in love with the same man. On the day of Delia's (Hopkins) wedding, her former fiancé (George Brent) comes back to see her. Distraught, he founds consolation in Charlotte's (Davis) arms. When Delia finds out about this, and that a child was born, she acts out of spite, setting a chain of events which will bound the two women with an ever tighter knot. They themselves summarise it best, when after finding out Delia's machinations, Charlotte tells her that she hates her - to which Delia, horrified, replies "Hate, such word between us" and Charlotte tells her there was never another word. The ending, as Delia herself admits, is bleak. The two women will end alone, in a house, until one of them dies.

Although our sympathies are supposed to lie with Davis, the film becomes increasingly ambiguous as it progresses. Hopkins' character, is a clear bitch at the beginning of the film. She's a monster under fine lace, who destroys bit by bit her cousin's life. But, as she ages (looking increasingly younger) she becomes fully aware of the consequences of what she has done, and what that entails for both of them and seeks to atone for her actions. Davis' character, on the other hand, becomes harder and harsher, increasing less forgiving, after losing in sequence, the man she loves, the man she hoped to marry and her daughter. Davis avoids asking for our sympathy becoming nearly odious at times - although there is the wonderful scene, where alone she practices her voice to take all tenderness out.

The film (and "Old Acquaintance" as well) says a lot about women's position: you make a mistake (sex before marriage), and you're expected to pay for it for the rest of your life, even if only one (or two) other person knows. Or worse, if you try to show some independence (her orphanage) and you get crushed. You must always conform. This is, almost like Cukor's "The Women", a film about men, where although hardly visible, their presence or absence is overwhelming felt.

Other than the two leading actresses, the other highlight of the film for me was Donald Crisp, as the all sage Greek chorus. George Brent is hardly on the screen (he can't have more than three or four scenes) although that was enough to give him third billing. On the other hand, Jane Bryan as Tina just managed to irritate me, and to be fair, I couldn't care whether she got the boy or not.

On a final note, I watched the trailer immediate after the film, and you can actually see a couple of bits that didn't make the final cut, particularly a visit alluded to of Charlotte's fiancee to her orphanage.


Judy said...

I really like both this and 'Old Acquaintance' - there's so much warmth between Davis and Hopkins that it is hard to believe they didn't get on in real life. Miguel, I think you are spot on that in this one Hopkins becomes more sympathetic and Davis less so as the film goes on. I will have a look at the trailer to see the scenes which were cut.

Miguel said...

Thank you. There is a plan to address "round two" (originally I meant to write them at the same time, but alas, it didn't happen).

There are also cut scenes for "Old Acquaintance" if I recall correctly; but I am not sure what they were.