October 20, 2021

The Old Maid (1939)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Edmund Goulding
Stars: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Bryan

What it's about. A period costume drama set in 1860s to 1880s Philadelphia. Cousins Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are in love with the same man, dashing George Brent. But Brent goes off on a long adventure, and Hopkins decides to instead marry wealthy businessman James Stephenson.

Because it is a movie, Brent returns to Philadelphia on Hopkins' wedding day. He is crestfallen, and Davis uses the situation to enjoy a brief fling with Brent before he volunteers for the Civil War. Davis is pregnant, Brent dies in combat, and Davis returns from a "long country visit" to run a charity orphanage for girls, with her daughter Tina (Marlene Burnett) as one of the foundlings.

Davis becomes engaged to Stephenson's brother Jerome Cowan, but Hopkins busts the wedding plans when she learns that Tina is Davis' daughter. Stephenson dies, and Hopkins asks Davis and Tina to live with her. Hopkins eventually adopts Tina, now played by Jane Bryan, to give her a last name and make her a marriage prospect for beau William Lundigan.

The ponderous plot circles around the status of the status of Davis and Tina. Tina, and society, must never know that Davis is the biological mother of Tina, since that would apparently be too great a shock for 1881 Philadelphia high society. It remains a secret known only by Davis and Hopkins, though one or the other regularly threatens to spill the beans to Tina, who is much kinder to Hopkins than to killjoy Davis.

In supporting roles are Donald Crisp as a benevolent family doctor, Louise Fazenda as Hopkins' loyal servant, and Cecilia Loftus as the cantankerous grandmother of Davis and Hopkins.

How I felt about it. Reportedly, the two leads, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, disliked each other. Hopkins was the star of the hit Broadway play "Jezebel." In its screen adaptation, though, Davis seized the lead role, and won the coveted Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.

But those hoping for fireworks between the two actresses will be disappointed. They are both professional, but confined by a dull script and story. Goulding's direction is equally uninspired, leaving little to admire but the sumptuous costumes and period set decoration.

Nonetheless, Hopkins was likely pleased with the movie, a box office success that led to another Davis-Hopkins pairing, Old Acquaintance. Here, Hopkins has as much screen time as Davis, and her character gets to be nicer, more wealthy, and more magnanimous than Davis. There are a couple of scenes where the actresses fangs come out toward each other, but the hoped-for cat fight never arrives.

As for Bette, she probably enjoyed her top billing, as well as her often antisocial character. But she probably preferred her other films of 1939, where she was paired with famous actors Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, and Paul Muni.

In The Old Maid, the cast does their best to enliven the by-the-numbers script and story. The effort is appreciated by most viewers, given the higher user rating of 7.6 (out of 10) at imdb.com. Women over 45 like the movie best (8.0) while men grade it lower at 7.4. The typical viewer is a Bette Davis fan who relishes the prospect of watching her at work in another classic Warner Bros. "A" picture. Davis was nominated for 11 Oscars during her long career, probably a record at the time of her final nod for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

My chief observation regarding The Old Maid is that Davis and Hopkins spent most of the movie focusing on Tina, Davis' beautiful but shallow and spoiled daughter. She seems unworthy of their sacrifices, reminiscent of Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce. Davis should have married Jerome Cowan and left the brat with Hopkins.