Saturday 7 November 2009

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Director: Vincent Sherman
Stars: Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins
When I watched All This, and Heaven Too last month, I discovered that Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins hated each other and for a pretty good reason too: Bette had been having an affair with Miriam's husband, film director Anatole Litvak. That was presumably going on in 1939 when they made The Old Maid together, a film which called for their characters to hate each other even though they were sisters. A year later, when Litvak directed Davis in All This, and Heaven Too, the marriage had already ended in divorce. Yet Warner Brothers found a sense of humour, albeit a rather twisted one, when a mere three years on they cast Davis and Hopkins together as inseparable friends. I wonder what life on the set must have been like.

It's 1924 and the Birchfield Beacon proudly proclaims on its front cover that Miss Katherine Marlowe, is returning home to give a lecture. She's Bette Davis of course, a serious prize winning and critically acclaimed author, and before she left Birchfield for fame and fortune in New York she was known as Kit. Now she's a star, so much so that there's a crowd of young college girls ready to sweep her up and steal her away to discuss her great work. Davis is firmly in jolly hockey sticks mode here, more animated than I think I've ever seen her. It's also the most of her I think I've ever seen, as she strips off in the closet and goes to bed in a man's shirt with nothing underneath.

Miriam Hopkins plays Kit's best friend back in Birchfield, from whom she was inseparable growing up. She was Millie Everhart then, but now she's Millie Drake as she's settled down with a husband and a baby on the way. She's an emotional soul, but one that was called by her muse too. After Kit dedicated her book to Millie, she churned out her own novel, writing in secret and finishing just in time for Kit to read it during her visit. Of course it promptly becomes a huge success, immensely popular and wildly selling, but rather than being serious literature it's popular romantic trash so Kit gets the acclaim and Millie gets the sales.

We quickly skip through the years to 1932 where none of our actors have aged a day, though Mildred Watson Drake now has eight novels to her name and one daughter, eight year old Deirdre. Now we're in New York where the press are after both of them because Kit's play is about to premiere and Millie is, well Millie. And what won't surprise anyone is that Kit and Preston Drake are getting on very well indeed, something that I can't separate from reality. These lines of dialogue must have rung through the script into the real lives of the actresses and we're right back at wondering what life on the set was like. 'I like your husband' says Kit. 'I'm above jealousy, you know that.' says Millie. 'What have I done to you?' asks Kit. It would be awesome stuff with any actresses effectively playing themselves but Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins? Nobody else in the film has a chance.

John Loder has a try as Preston Drake, even though he's stuck on the periphery of the first half of the story while the two women take centre stage. Then he leaves, as Millie has driven him to desperate measures and Kit won't take him on even the pair of them love each other. Bizarrely while he really has very little to do with the film it goes south when he leaves and only kicks back in when he gets back. In between we get something that can only be described as an interlude even though there are still people up there on the screen acting out their parts. It doesn't help the film as all the momentum it built up early on dissipates and isn't recovered even with some great scenes towards the end.

Gig Young turns up late in the film as Kit's young beau but he doesn't have enough of a part to make much of an impression. Wartime pinup girl Dolores Moran is a pretty enough distraction but not much more as the grown up Deirdre. Outside the leads the most memorable characters go to Roscoe Karns as a drunken Birchfield reporter, hardly a stretch for him, and Esther Dale as Harriet, a blissfully down to earth maid. Of course, even though they're both excellent, they only have tiny parts while dry and bitchy Bette Davis and histrionic Miriam Hopkins have far better material and far more screen time. The film is not a great thing but both of them shine very brightly indeed.

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