Thursday 20 August 2009

The Old Maid (1939)

Director: Edmund Goulding
Stars: Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Another 1939 movie, just to prove that I haven't seen them all yet, this one was overshadowed by other films, not just because it was released in 1939 but because of what else everyone was doing. The star is Bette Davis, but she was Oscar nominated for Dark Victory instead; and even if she hadn't, there would be her performances in Juarez and especially The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex to fall back on. Donald Crisp was in both those too, along with the Olivier version of Wuthering Heights. George Brent was the doctor in Dark Victory, along with The Rains Came. Jane Bryan was the leading lady in Cagney's Each Dawn I Die. Director Edmund Goulding directed Dark Victory, which was also nominated as the Best Picture of the year. Only Miriam Hopkins, who shares the title card with Davis, didn't do anything else important on screen in 1939.

This is one is a glorious maelstrom of melodrama, set back in the days of the War Between the States. To detract from the war, Delia Lovell is marrying into society, to Jim Ralston. Jim is a great catch but there's a third wheel, as Delia had promised to marry Clem Spender instead, her childhood love. As Lt Spender, Clem has been off fighting the war for two long years but it's a girl's duty to be married, apparently, so she takes her opportunity. Conveniently though and apparently through utter coincidence, Clem arrives back in town right on the day of his fiancee's wedding to someone else. Hollywood has always loved coincidences like that.

Now while Clem loved Delia, Delia's cousin Charlotte loved Clem, quietly of course. But now circumstances have changed and Charlotte has her chance, but Clem only has a day before heading back to the battlefield and sure enough, he dies at Vicksburg without ever coming back to her. Even in the 1860s one night is enough and we soon discover why Charlotte spent most of a year out west and came back to run the Charlotte Lovell Nursery for War Orphans: one of them is hers, young Clementina. No, it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to put those clues together.

And here's where things escalate. Delia doesn't know but she finds out on Charlotte's own wedding day to Jim's brother Joe. Through jealousy and spite she plays her little games and causes Joe to break it all off on the day of the wedding. To make it worse, when Jim dies and leaves her alone in the lap of luxury with her children, she has Charlotte and Clementina move in with her, bringing little Tina up as her own. Oh what a tangled web we weave, a web that gives Bette Davis plenty of room to exercise her considerable talents and Miriam Hopkins the opportunity to try to be worthy of sharing the screen.

This film is a war between two women, every bit as much as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, merely tempered by southern manners. It belongs utterly to Bette Davis, who doesn't just dominate the screen when she's on it, she dominates it when she's hanging around in the corner and she even manages the stunning achievement of dominating it when she's off screen, because we know precisely where she is, what she can hear and what it means to her. It's a stunning performance, at times soft and vulnerable, at times ripping with vitriol with her back as ramrod straight as any soldier could dream of. It's a performance any actress would be proud of and yet the most telling thing is that it's probably the least of the four Davis gave that year.

Miriam Hopkins can't keep up but she does give a good showing as Delia. George Brent gets too short a part and Donald Crisp isn't given the aging everyone else gets. Jane Bryan, who plays the grown up Tina, flounces around admirably but doesn't quite get at the depth that her role could have given her, even in the unfortunate version we have. I couldn't help but picture this as a precode, which but for five short years it could have been, because it could have been handled properly without the copouts needed under the code. The biggest problem with this film is that the wrong people win. The people who should win are left with mild victories that are really inconsequential in the long run and both they and we are supposed to be happy about that. I'm sorry, but I couldn't buy into the morals of the piece.

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