Ryan Murphy might have spent an entire season talking about the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but the story that’s always enthralled me is about a different feud: Bette and Miriam…Hopkins that is. The two Grand Dames of Warner Bros. in the ’30s had a, let’s call it contentious, relationship. And yet the studio capitalized on that and cast them in not one, but two movies! Their first pairing was this 1939 weepie and it shows how professional these two women were. What threatens to boil over into a full-tilt drama about jealous women ends up becoming a tenderhearted treatise on aging and the various interpretations of motherhood.
Delia Lovell (Hopkins) is prepping for marriage to a wealthy man. On the day of her wedding her ex-lover, Clem Spender (George Brent) arrives. The two say their goodbyes but Delia’s cousin Charlotte (Davis) can’t let Clem go quietly into the night. She confesses her long-standing love for him, Clem goes off to fight in the Civil War and that’s presumably the end of things. Years pass and Charlotte is taking care of a group of war orphans, forming a close bond with one little girl in particular. Delia, living in the lap of luxury, soon learns the little girl is Charlotte’s illegitimate daughter with Clem, and hoping to save her cousin’s reputation she adopts the child leading to all manner of issues as the girl grows into a woman.
With a plot ripped straight out of a soap opera, or inspiring several of them, The Old Maid situates itself as a fraught look at love. Delia is the pre-Civil War woman desperate for money and security, and if love comes with it that’s all well and good. She’s in stark contrast to her homelier, sweeter cousin Charlotte, who is beautiful but doesn’t have the sexuality of someone like Delia. George Brent only has three scenes in the entire film but, like most men in these movies, it’s enough to cause long-term ramifications. What Casey Robinson’s script doesn’t do is demonize either of its female leads. Clem tells Delia she’s in for a life of “elegant boredom” if she marries a man she doesn’t love, but the audience never sees that. In fact, their relationship seems pretty decent, up until her husband dies in a riding accident. There’s never any harsh punishment meted out for her.
What sustains The Old Maid is the relationship between Charlotte and Delia. The two aren’t immediately situated as rivals, although that’s an issue that perpetually threatens to bubble over into animosity. The two love the same man, but only Charlotte is courageous enough to go after him which leads us to the biggest surprise in this movie: Charlotte isn’t punished for sleeping around. Okay, sure, Delia ends up screwing her over in her relationship with the kind Joe Ralston (Jerome Cowan), but Charlotte is never smited or forced to atone for her deeds. I waited to see if the movie would reveal her and Clem were married, or in some way legally acceptable and nope. The audience assumes her impending marriage to Joe will be the movie’s linchpin, with Delia proving herself as a false friend by revealing Charlotte’s secret, but the script understands that you need to support these two women. So, Delia lies and says Charlotte is ill, giving Joe and Charlotte a clean way to save face.
This is Bette Davis’ movie, but it’s just as easily a co-production with Miriam Hopkins. The two’s hatred of each other was infamous, with Davis having a torrid affair with Hopkins’ husband the year before. Davis was said to consider Miriam one of the more manipulative actresses in Hollywood, yet you’d never know these two women hated each other. (That’s why they’re professionals!) The relationship between Charlotte and Delia is fraught with tensions, mainly that Delia is prettier and more personable than the homely, sweet Charlotte. But once Delia learns of Charlotte’s secret, and the little girl she’s been raising, Delia decides to give Charlotte and the child everything she has.
The arrival of Tina (played as an adult by Jane Bryan) is where The Old Maid saves its sharpest discussions. Charlotte wants to raise her daughter on her own but, like that other sacrificial mother, Stella Dallas, Charlotte realizes she can’t give Tina the trappings of wealth (and, more importantly, a good reputation brought on by a strong family name). The minute Tina starts calling Delia “mommy,” the audience (and Charlotte) realize this will become a double-edged sword. As Tina grows up she becomes a spoiled teenager, but one who is full of life. Jane Bryan is absolutely perfect as the entitled Tina. You certainly hate her petulance by the end of it.
However, the movie is never her story, but Charlotte’s as she navigates both the realization that she’s pigeonholed herself as an old maid out of maternal sacrifice, as well as navigating the boundaries of what motherhood is. Really, the movie looks at how women deal with losing their children to age, and ultimately questioning when they’re meant to let their children go. What’s refreshing is that the movie ends with Delia and Charlotte content to spend their lives together, content in the knowledge they’ve both loved Tina. What’s important is not their contentious love for a man, but the mutual adoration they’ve given to one little girl.
The Old Maid is far from the best film either Davis or Hopkins made in their career, but the strides it makes regarding female friendships is heartening to watch.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.