The early 1940’s were a particularly fertile time for creativity in American movies. In hindsight, this artistry was hard won under the stringency of a Production Code that forced strong-minded women into a sort of perpetual carousel of on-screen martyrdom. Women, particularly those striving to cut it in a man’s world, were generally brought to heel at the altar of the ensconced patriarchy, or fall in love with a man, thus surrendering her own thoughts, ideals, dreams, et al to become his ever-lasting appendage; one heart, one mindset. It all seems so innocuous, so invisible and so right, that the insidious sexual politics behind it was never questioned…at least, not then…or rather…by many. Women in movies were variations on either the virgin or the whore. A bad girl could ostensibly ‘find her way back’ from the brink of wickedness, either by discovering God or a Godly man to change her fickle heart. But she could never do it alone and this, it seems, has been the bone of contention most feminist film scholarship is based upon.
Somehow, such scholasticism always forgets to mention there were women on screen who bucked this trend or, perhaps, wormed their way outside of ‘the norm’ to pioneer a new kind of strong-minded, take charge gal of tomorrow. Joan Crawford was one such trailblazer: Bette Davis, emphatically, the other. Neither actress ever took guff from any of their leading men: either on or off camera. Frequently they bickered, fought and clawed their way for better parts. It is rumored Warner Bros. studio chief, Jack L. Warner used to duck into the men’s room every time he saw Bette Davis marching down the halls to his executive office, eager to avoid another confrontation. In fact, for a time, Davis was known around the back lot as ‘the fifth Warner brother’. Walking out on her ironclad studio contract eventually netted Davis a staggering autonomy over her pick of future film projects – even ones Warner himself would rather have not made. ‘Hell on heels’ is the way Jack Warner reportedly once described Davis to gossip maven and columnist, Hedda Hopper (strictly off the record, of course), a moniker Davis wore with distinction for nearly two decades and would carry over into her career endeavors elsewhere after Jack gave her the old heave-ho.
Female martyrdom, at least on the big screen, was fueled by every studio’s plush surplus of female stars, most relishing the opportunity to ply their craft in what is today disparagingly referred to as ‘the women's picture’. Personally, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this moniker, being male and an ardent lover of these movies too, but somehow excluded from the opportunity to enjoy them without feeling a tad sissified and out of step with my fellow man. Sexual politics aside, the ‘woman’s picture’ dominated the box office for nearly two decades; Hollywood’s shifted focus on the ‘female perspective’ correlating with the advent of WWII – women being the primary target audience left behind while their men went off to fight.
Basically, 'a women's picture' is a melodrama featuring female protagonists struggling to make their way in the world. Clever, witty and written with a decidedly domestic slant and appeal that almost completely eschewed women’s contributions to the war effort, in hindsight, what is most remarkable about ‘the women's picture’ is how universal and enduring its audience appeal has remained to this day. Despite changing times, social and sexual politics veering wildly in a more ‘progressive’ direction, the need for the proverbial ‘good cry’ is alive and well and frequently re-embraced and reinterpreted by every new generation rediscovering these films since their own time. This is, in no small way, due to the caliber of female star the studios had under contract throughout the 1940’s. There’s not a one today that can hold a candle to these vintage ladies of love and lament. Aside: it's rather interesting to note that MGM - with more stars than there are in the heavens - chose not to directly partake in the 40’s groundswell of ‘women's pictures’ permeating the cinema landscape, focused instead on a series of lavishly appointed costume epics and musicals, capitalizing on the 'youth market' instead. Virtually all of MGM's great female stars - from Garbo, to Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford had run their course and were outside looking in by 1943, the year Bette Davis went before the cameras in director, Vincent Sherman's Old Acquaintance over at Warner Brothers.
The movie cast Davis as mousy, though good-natured, Kit Marlowe, a subordinate to her best friend, Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins) who rather fancies herself an authoress of some stature. The reality is that Kit is the real woman of substance – quiet and understanding - while Millie is a vacuous and tart-mouthed flash-in-the-pan, who writes cheaply sentimental novels garnering the publics’ fascination temporarily, but whose fleeting success destroys her chances for marital bliss. Old Acquaintance is based on John Van Druten's highly successful stage play, and in hindsight, the movie is one of the quintessential ‘women’s pictures’ to emerge from Hollywood’s golden age. Lenore Coffee and Edmund Goulding contributed revisions to Druten's original stagecraft along the way; Bette Davis - working closely with her director – to shape and mold the material into a finely wrought piece of stagecraft for the cinema. Sherman and Davis had a casual affair while filming progressed, despite the fact both were married at the time. Meanwhile, Davis and Hopkins had worked together previously on The Old Maid (1939), a smash hit for the studio. Alas, it was their backstage cat fights on that set that became legendary.
The crux of their mutual hatred seems to have stemmed from an old wound incurred while both were appearing in an east coast play, Excess Baggage (1928). At this juncture in their respective careers, it was Hopkins – not Davis – who was considered the rising star – a trend to continue when Hopkins, again, came first out of the gate to land starring parts in the movies; proving particularly effective as the empathetic cockney guttersnipe, Ivy, in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and winsome time-share gal pal to Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Ernest Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). Professional jealousy continued to brew between Davis and Hopkins as Hopkins effortlessly bounced back to Broadway with an all too brief turn in Jezebel that same year. Although the play was not a hit, it sparked considerable interest from WB’s front office. Alas, in the interim, Davis’ star had risen to a competitive level on the back lot. As Hopkin’s owned the rights to Jezebel, she naturally assumed the studio had bought the property for her. Instead, Jack Warner gave it to Davis who had, by 1933 – stormed out in a much publicized huff over her treatment at the studio. The courts sided with Jack, but Jack elected – rather slyly – to back Davis, promising her more challenging parts. Hopkins was livid, her rage boiling over into frustrated tears when Davis won her second Oscar for the movie version of Jezebel.
Whether deliberately to capitalize on their feud or simply to exploit each actresses’ talents, Jack cast the pair in The Old Maid; Hopkins forced to play second fiddle to Davis yet again, this time in Edith Wharton’s inspired tale of a mother’s supreme sacrifice for the happiness of her illegitimate child. Davis pursued a quiet policy of one-upmanship in the scenes they played together and Hopkins counterattacked in tandem with likeminded voracity. If life on set was hardly ‘joy galore’ for director, Edmund Goulding, no one could argue with The Old Maid’s meteoric box office. Davis and Hopkins were pure gold, ringing registers around the country. But Hopkins jealousy extended off the set too. She even suspected Davis to be having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak. While Davis did eventually find time for a tryst with Litvak, it was not until their work together on 1940’s All This and Heaven Too – a full year after Litvak and Hopkins were already divorced.
Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins were then cast in Old Acquaintance; Edmund Goulding once more assigned double duty as director/actress wrangler. Regrettably, he suffered a mild heart attack shortly before production was slated to begin. Jack Warner would jokingly suggest Goulding did so to escape a second chance to spar with these tempestuous ladies. But actually, Davis was mostly cordial toward Hopkins – except in a memorable sequence that, under director Vincent Sherman’s tutelage, allowed Davis considerable latitude to give her real life arch nemesis a good shake – literally! The scene takes place midway through the pair’s on-screen rivalry; Kit (Davis), tolerant and level-headed until now, decidedly having had quite enough of her spoiled, simpering and downright childish ‘best friend’, Millie who has had the temerity to accuse her of an infidelity with her husband, Preston (John Loder) and an even more cruel attempt to steal her own daughter, Deirdre (Dolores Moran) away from her. Playing a scene ripped from one of her soapy novellas, Millie orders Kit out of her apartment with a dramatic wave of her hand, Kit instead approaching Millie with cautious steps. Then, quite suddenly and without reservation, Kit seizes Millie by the shoulders, violently shaking her for a few electric moments, before declaring with gently facetious politeness, ‘sorry’.
Depending on one’s perspective, Old Acquaintance can be interpreted as something of a bittersweet testament to female friendship. After all, Kit and Millie do eventually reconcile their differences, even if the implication is that they will persist in burying the hatchet in each other’s backs. Interestingly, the pair forsakes the men in their lives. Millie’s marriage to Preston ends amicably. But his amorous pursuit of Kit is a disaster; one effectively thwarted when Kit refuses to sacrifice her devotion to Millie for this handsome, if temporary love interest that, arguably, could be so right for her. And Kit, in spite of her nobleness, is nearly destroyed by it when she realizes she has lost the only man she’s ever wanted for her own, Rudd Kendell (Gig Young) to Deirdre; not through any fault in their stars, but rather because of a simple disparity in their respective ages. Rudd’s youth and temperament are much better suited to Deirdre and Kit knows it. Still, it’s a bitter pill to take, even if, at story’s end, Millie and Kit wearily revert back to their old college days – only now, as a pair of glamorous spinsters, waiting in the New Year together, though decidedly alone.
The finale to Old Acquaintance leaves us with imperfect ideas about the passage of time, the transcendence of love – unrequited or passionately felt – and the future of two tragically groomed heroines, arguably suited to no greater purpose in life than their own ongoing love/hate relationship. We can feel for these characters because Hopkins and Davis are drawing so obviously/richly on their own bitchily conflicted back story to will these fictionalized feuding females to life. In hindsight, it’s Hopkins’ snooty and atrocious silliness that spelled the kiss of death for her movie career. Perhaps she could already see the proverbial writing on the wall. No longer considered weighty enough to carry a film alone; at 40, too young and glamorous to play the diva, too old to still be considered the ingénue, Hopkins packed her bags, sold her Brentwood home and headed back east to launch a second career with her first love: the stage.
Old Acquaintance opens with the melodic time-honored strains of Auld Lang Syne married to Franz Waxman’s appropriately affectionate love theme. We meet Millie, a new wife and soon to be mother, fastidiously planning the perfect homecoming for her old college roommate, Kit Marlowe. Nothing modest or matronly will do and Millie, a devoted – some might say, obsessive – homemaker has virtually every second of Kit’s visit mapped out. Preston is fairly accommodating. He drinks a tad too much, but never to intoxication. Then again, with a wife like Millie, is there any reason why he shouldn’t? It’s 1924, and Millie scurries down to the depot to meet Kit’s train in an old Model T. Too bad, John Hughes’ art direction and Fred M. MacLean’s set decoration belying this period; the exteriors shot on the old MGM back lot, but looking very 1940’s suburbia, apart from the obvious vintage automobiles; ditto for costumier, Orry-Kelly’s double-breasted suits.
It doesn’t matter on the whole because the Van Druten/Coffee screenplay (based on Van Druten’s celebrated stage play) is meticulously crafted; Vincent Sherman’s direction moving the action along at a breakneck pace. At first, it looks as though Kit has missed the train. But Millie finds her asleep onboard and blissfully obtuse to the fact she has only moments to disembark. The old girlfriends share a scant few moments together until a carload of ridiculous college girls from the local chapter of the Kit Marlowe Fan Club descend upon the station; ushering Kit away in a frenetic flurry of pom-poms. Millie is outraged. Her plans have been ruined. Back at the house, she throws a temper tantrum; quite unaware Kit has eluded her collegiate captors and made it back to the house first. Millie then storms off to the bedroom to weep. But Kit is patient and comforting and soon the two reconcile. That evening, Millie divulges a secret to Kit; in her spare time she too has written her first novel. It’s pure pulp of the lowest romantic drivel. But, alas, on Kit’s recommendation to her publisher, Millie’s book sells. In rapid succession, Millie embarks on her own competitive writing career. Although infinitely more prolific and successful than Kit, she is hardly considered the purveyor of quality literature.
Our narrative timeline jumps ahead to 1932 and Manhattan. Millie has ensconced her young daughter, Deirdre (played as a child by Francine Rufo) and Preston, who has been incredibly miserable in their marriage for some time, in a fashionable penthouse apartment. On the surface at least, life is good. Millie buys Pres’ expensive clothes and handsome baubles for herself. But when New York literary critic, Belle Carter (Anne Revere) inadvertently makes an off-hand comment about the strengths of Kit’s authorship, compared to ‘those who turn it out like sausages’, Millie is flung into a rage. In private, Preston swears his love to Kit. She rejects him outright and urges prudence. Alas, this time Millie has gone too far and once too often. Preston packs his bag and leaves her. Several hours after Kit’s triumphant debut as a Broadway playwright, she and Preston are reunited in a hotel lobby; Pres’ again pitching woo and, again, shot down in his efforts. “There are some things you just don’t do,” Kit admits, trying to explain how her lifelong friendship with Millie is a bond unlikely to be sacrificed for love.
Pres’ steps out of the picture and Millie and Kit continue their tempestuous friendship. Deirdre grows up, or rather, into something of a spoiled brat. Now middle age, Kit takes a younger lover, Rudd Kendall, who is obsessively enamored with everything she does. Aware of the passionate follies of youth, Kit steers Rudd away from her. She repeatedly deflects his advances and love-sore pleas they become engaged. Kit takes on a housemaid, the ever loyal, Harriet (Esther Dale). Deirdre begins to run with a fast crowd, taking up with Lucien Grant (Philip Reed); a notorious playboy. Kit puts Rudd in charge of Deirdre’s care…sort of…asking him to escort Deirdre home. Rudd complies, but quickly realizes he and Deirdre (who he initially disregards as nothing better than a child) have far more in common than first meets the eye. At the same instance, Kit decides to accept Rudd’s previous proposal of marriage and Preston, who has enlisted in the war as a colonel, has come to ask Millie if she would consider sharing their daughter with him.
Instead, Millie, who has misperceived the reason for their reunion, is cruelly notified of Pres’ intensions to marry another. As retaliation, Millie accuses Pres’ of always being disloyal and he admits he once pursued Kit, even while they were still married. However, he also confesses Kit wanted no part of him simply for the reason he was married to her best friend. Millie flies off the handle, refusing to believe the truth. Furthermore, when Deirdre arrives after Preston has already left, Millie spins a yarn that Kit is responsible for breaking up their happy home. Millie further accuses Kit of standing in the way of Deirdre’s happiness with Rudd. Briefly believing her mother’s flights into fantasy, Deirdre bitterly throws herself at Lucien’s head. But Kit, having intercepted these rumors – and given Millie a good shake besides – arrives at Lucien’s bachelor pad, calling Deirdre out from behind a screen and forcing her into a taxi. She explains the truth to Deirdre and helps to reunite her with Rudd inside the lobby of the hotel. Afterward, Kit returns to her home, only to discover Millie is already there. Millie begs for Kit’s forgiveness and Kit accepts her apology. Millie then slips into another dramatic moment, declaring her next book could benefit from such an ending as this. “If it’s about us,” Kit suggests, “…why not call it ‘old acquaintance’?”
Old Acquaintance is a deliciously handsome ‘woman’s picture’ without the prerequisite ‘three hanky weepy’ factored in for good measure. Only in hindsight is its final act somewhat problematic, in that it seems to suggest the best any woman of a certain age can hope for is to renew her bond within the sisterhood of her immediate female company and forgo a life spent blissfully with any man. Then again, this ‘domestic alternative’ is probably as condescending to feminists as an 'either/or' scenario. However one chooses to interpret the text – and subtext – of the film, there is little to deny Bette Davis is given the more plum role, despite Miriam Hopkin's flashier attempts to chew up the scenery. Davis plays youth and middle age convincingly, with an understated benevolence, gradually matured over time. Davis’ interpretation of the part works particularly well opposite her more gregarious costar as, no doubt, Davis was assured either of in herself or by her director, Vincent Sherman. The rest of the cast are little more than palpable window dressing for this very glossy cat fight. But everything works surprisingly well under Sherman's tight direction.
Behind the scenes Sherman and Davis had a short-lived love affair. On screen, the results of their grand amour are most palpably present in the way Sherman and his cameraman, Sol Polito light Davis' close-ups. Bette Davis would be the first to admit she was not a ravishing beauty. And yet, Polito’s careful lighting takes her from fresh-faced ingénue to stately woman of the world with one seemingly effortless arc of transition. Davis positively glows as she oozes sincerity from every pore. And something else: intangible 'every day' glamour not immediately apparent, but understated and ever-present. In the last analysis, Old Acquaintance is a charming story, told with great empathy. Evidently, director, George Cukor wholeheartedly agreed, remaking it in 1980 as Rich and Famous. Once again, its formulaic narrative proved a solid success for its two costars: Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen. As fine as Cukor’s reinterpretation of this chestnut is, it must be stated it pales to the original. Like so many of Warner’s finely crafted romantic/dramas catapulted into theaters with nauseating frequency throughout the 1940’s, Old Acquaintance holds up under very close scrutiny; its sheer entertainment value never diminished upon repeat viewing. It’s a good show with Davis and Hopkins ensuring an equally flavorful, claws-out catfight. Meow and prepare to purr. Old Acquaintance is one of the best ways I can think of to ring in the New Year!
Warner Home Video's DVD is, for the most part, fairly crisp and detailed. The gray scale is adequately rendered, although occasionally the image appears rather softly focused. Roughly fifteen minutes into the film – in the bedroom scene when Millie confides in Kit about her first novel - there is some peculiar water damage and speckling. We get other minor age-related artifacts scattered throughout. There’s also some extremely minor (though obvious) edge enhancement. This minutely distracts during the latter half of this presentation. Black levels seem just a tad weaker than expected and the image also appears to suffer from a somewhat scrubbed look; too much DNR applied to minimize the grain structure. We won’t poo-poo it further. This isn’t a bad looking disc, but there’s obvious room for improvement. Perhaps Warner will furnish us with a new Blu-ray in the New Year. No, this isn’t a head’s up, but one can sincerely hope. The audio is mono as originally recorded, and presented at an adequate listening level with no discernible shortcomings.
Extras are limited to an audio commentary by Vincent Sherman with film historian, Boze Hadleigh acting as the inquisitive mind asking all the wrong questions. Sherman is particularly proud of the fact he bedded both Bette Davis and her arch enemy, Joan Crawford, even though he never divorced his wife, who knew about his peccadillos but did not divorce him. “My wife was a remarkable woman,” is the way Sherman puts it. We also get a few short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)