Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Viewing: "The Old Maid," 1939

Warner Brothers Pictures
No, Bette Davis didn’t get along with everyone. Neither, in fact, did Miriam Hopkins. The two actresses—one at the height of her career, the other fading out—had a good many reasons to dislike one another. Miriam Hopkins suspected that Bette Davis had entered into an affair with her husband, Anatole Litvak, during the shooting of the Davis film, The Sisters. She was also a bit miffed that Bette had just won an Academy Award for Jezebel—the film version of the stage play in which Hopkins had played the lead (and flopped). Davis, on the other hand, felt that Hopkins was an overwrought scene stealer who would pull “every trick in the book” to divert attention from her co-stars. Their rivalry went back to their days on the New York stage when Hopkins was an established star and Davis was an ingénue. Hopkins was long considered a self-centered actor. Even in her later career when she had been relegated to playing character parts, she still fancied that each film was about her character. In The Heiress, for example, she believed that the film was about a caring aunt who had to guide her timid niece into a relationship with a handsome man. This interview with Bette Davis sums up her feelings on Miss Hopkins perfectly.

For this reason, the executives at Warner Brothers knew that a pairing between Hopkins and Davis would make for explosive drama. And, so, they presented the pair with the script for The Old Maid. Davis was against it. At the peak of her career, she didn’t wish to share starring credit with another actress—particularly Miriam Hopkins. Davis’ solution was simple—she would play both female leads. Warner Brothers declined her offer.

Warner Brothers Pictures
Production on The Old Maid began in 1939 based on the 1935 play of the same name by Zoe Atkins (a play which, incidentally, won a Pullitzer Prize) and adapted from the Edith Wharton novel, The Old Maid: The Fifties. The film was produced by Hal B. Wallis and directed by Edmund Goulding. Goulding had his hands full with these two bickering stars. Davis, to her credit, tried her best to be cordial, but Hopkins was typically histrionic. Davis later described how Hopkins would do anything possible to attract attention to herself in a scene—tugging on a button, fiddling with props. Hopkins also worked with makeup artist Perc Westmore to ensure that as the characters aged, Davis would always look considerably older.

By the end of filming, the feud between the two stars had reached an apex. Each feigned illness to avoid coming to the set. Production was stalled for eleven days because of their antics. In the end, however, the result was a perfectly lovely picture which used their animosity to its advantage.

The Old Maid is set in the United States during the Civil War and concerns two cousins—Davis playing Charlotte (why were her characters so frequently named Charlotte?) and Hopkins playing Delia. Delia and Charlotte both loved the same man—Clem Spender—played by George Brent who replaced Humphrey Bogart after only shooting for two days. Bogart was considered not manly enough for the part. Clem returns to interrupt Delia’s wedding to another man. Delia, however, proceeds to marry the moneyed gentleman. Broken-hearted, Clem is comforted by Charlotte and seduces the girl.

Warner Brothers Pictures
With Clem gone to battle, Charlotte discovers that she’s pregnant. When Clem is killed, she hides the pregnancy and opens up an orphanage so that her child, Clementina, can be raised amongst other “parentless” children. Charlotte is slated to marry Delia’s brother-in-law, but when Delia finds out the “Tina” is Charlotte’s illegitimate daughter, she stops the wedding.

Many years later, when Delia’s husband dies, she invites Charlotte to reconcile and move into her mansion with Clementina. Tina, who is unaware that Charlotte is her mother, begins to look to Delia as a mother-figure. Charlotte takes on the role of “The Old Maid” Aunt and her resentment toward Delia reaches a startling climax.

Despite all the off-set feuding, the two manage to deliver fine performances. With a musical backdrop by Max Steiner and the usual sumptuous Warner Brothers sets (Seriously, look at the staircase. It’s the same staircase that’s in every Bette Davis film, just with different railings), this picture is a lot of fun and offers some beautiful tension and drama.

By the way, Warner Brothers tried once again to capitalize on the much-publicized feud between the two stars with 1943 film, Old Acquaintance. That’s a real gem, too! After that film, Hopkins took a decade-long break from Hollywood.

Enjoy this trailer for The Old Maid.

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