Based on Zoe Akins’ stage play, itself a derivative of the novel by Edith Wharton, Edmund Goulding’s The Old Maid (1939) remains an exercise in maudlin melodramatic tripe, admirably executed in both performance and craftsmanship. In a year of superb filmic offerings from all the major studios, The Old Maid is but a footnote – notable today for its first screen pairing of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins; grand dames in front of the camera, but roaring barracudas behind the scenes.
In fact, the rivalry between these two great ladies had begun some years earlier with Davis usurping Hopkins for the part of Julie in William Wyler’s Jezebel (1936); a role originally created by Hopkins with only moderate success on the stage. On film, the same part garnered Davis her second Best Actress Academy Award. However, by 1939 Hopkins had a new reason to be envious. Davis was having a very public affair with her fiancée.
Casey Robinson’s screenplay ever so slightly improves upon Akin’s histrionics. Set during the American Civil War, the story concerns a sustained rivalry between two Philadelphian blue-bloods - cousins Charlotte (Bette Davis) and Delia Lovell (Hopkins) on the day Delia’s is to wed snooty well-to-do Jim Ralston (James Stephenson). This nuptial merriment is interrupted with the arrival of former love, Clem Spender (George Brent) who went away for two years to make his fortune and be worthy of Delia’s love.
Clem’s sudden appearance reawakens feelings of desire and passion in both sisters. Delia suppresses hers, spurns Clem and marries Jim. However, Charlotte seizes upon the opportunity to bow out of Delia’s ceremony and run off with Clem – presumably for an afternoon of pity sex that results in the birth of an illegitimate child – Clementina (Marlene Burnett as a child, Jane Bryan as an adult).
Unknowing of Charlotte’s ‘condition’, Clem enlists in the civil war and is killed. Meanwhile, Charlotte retreats – first to the West to have her baby – then, into the life of a dutiful caregiver for war orphans that also serves to conceal Clementina’s true identity amongst the rest. Nevertheless, Delia discovers Charlotte’s secret on the eve that she is to wed Jim’s younger brother, Joseph (Jerome Cowen). Partly from spite – for it was she who would have wished for Clem’s baby - Delia lies to Joseph, telling him that Charlotte has tuberculosis and thus ending their chances for marital happiness. Joseph releases Charlotte from her commitment.
A twist of irony makes Delia a widow. As the years pass, she diverts her grief to doting on Clementina instead. Not knowing the truth about her origins, Clementina begins to refer to Delia as her mother – a misconception that Delia embraces under Charlotte’s watchful spinster’s eye. However, when it seems as though Clementina’s romance with Lanning Halsey (William Lundigan), a handsome suitor of social ‘respectability’ is threatened by her illegitimacy, Delia offers Charlotte to adopt the girl, thus giving her the Ralston name.
In retrospect and on further reflection The Old Maid is quite a nothing without its superb casting. The sparks between Davis and Hopkins fairly ignite the ornate tapestries hanging in the parlor of the Ralston home. Elegant Donald Crisp proves a sympathetic backbone as Dr. Lanskell – a friend of the family heavily invested in the happiness and security of both Charlotte and Delia.
Even the supporting players briefly glimpsed; Cecilia Loftus as Grandmother Lovell and Louise Fazenda as ever loyal maid, Dora deliver sterling cameos that not only augment, but compliment the story. In the final analysis, The Old Maid is second tier Bette Davis – but pitched to the public with all the muster and elegance of a first rate production. More often than not, it never fails to entertain.
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is quite gorgeous; a refined B&W image with exceptional tonality and nicely balanced contrast levels. Film grain and age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum for a very smooth and satisfying image that will surely NOT disappoint. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include the expected ‘Warner Night at The Movies’ smattering of news reels, trailers and short subjects. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)