The arrival of an ex-lover on a young woman's wedding day sets in motion a chain of events which will alter her and her cousin's lives forever.The arrival of an ex-lover on a young woman's wedding day sets in motion a chain of events which will alter her and her cousin's lives forever.The arrival of an ex-lover on a young woman's wedding day sets in motion a chain of events which will alter her and her cousin's lives forever.
One of classic representatives of a drama where so much is being felt yet so much being left unsaid is a play by Zoe Akins which inspired screenwriter Casey Robinson and director Edmund Goulding to adapt it to the screen in 1939. Initially, it had been a project by Lubitsch within the Paramount studio with the leading roles planned for Judith Anderson and Helen Menken. That, however, had not materialized. Instead, this Warner Bros production stands out as one of the key entertainments of its time. Goulding's subtle direction can be analyzed as a model from different points; Robinson proved to be faithful to the theatrical source making only some little alternations for the moral requirements of the Code; Tony Gaudio's cinematography boasts of some outstanding moments with striking undertones of images...but those important aspects are not where the movie's true strength lies. It does lie in the cast who make a rather 'unattractive' (for today's viewers) content highly interesting.
BETTE DAVIS and MIRIAM HOPKINS in the roles of 'Mrs Stubborn' and 'Mrs Serious,' as the two sisters nickname each other, have equal screen time as female co-stars. That makes THE OLD MAID not merely a vehicle for the Warner Bros star (Davis) but a highly unique, sometimes extremely controversial collaboration of the two. The treasure of skill and movie's major merit is not really hers (Davis's) but theirs...It is impossible to say whose performance is better; that would never be an idea of looking at the film. It is enough to state that the two prove unusual talents and extraordinarily generous acting. The lives of the two actresses crossed at the moment, faced conflicts. Consequently, those emotions are excellently put into all the effect they achieve together on the screen. While Davis was an important star of Warner studios at the time, Hopkins, unfortunately, remained underrated though she already had some great roles behind her. As far as Bette Davis is concerned, I totally agree with New York Times reviewer Frank S Nugent who observed: "Miss Davis has given a poignant and wise performance, hard and austere of surface; yet communicating through it the deep tenderness, the hidden anguish of the heart broken mother." Her portrayal, with the time span of one generation, is supplied with undeniably broad emotions and torments that she pays seeing herself in her own daughter - the girl who was hers only when being very little and who, as a teenager, can call her nothing else than 'aunt Charlotte.' She is a very sympathetic character and easily identified with by various female viewers – there lies the heart of a temperamental maid and a broken mother. Meanwhile, Miriam Hopkins, 'the least desirable companion on a desert island' as the Harvard Lampoon labeled her, proves to be a top notch talent here depicting various tricks of emotional crush with ease. Her Delia is a sort of 'forever young'... a woman of sophisticated appeal and harsh inaccessibility desirable for the kind of role she portrays. But the tensions reach climax when the two women are together. Among many scenes, I would mention the Christmas scene when the time comes for bitter words...though everyone's supposed to be jolly...
In between them, as an object of their jealous love, comes Jane Bryan as a young, vibrant, temperamental 'foundling' CLEMenTINA. 'When she talks, she laughs; when she walks, she dances,' as Dr Lanskell (Donald Crisp) nicely defines her. Miss Bryan, though given a considerably limited but significant screen time, gives a lively performance and steals one or two moments of attention from others. Being very memorable here, we can say that she is, in a way, the third female top notch performer. Her movements before the camera, her vibrant gestures, her acting in general call the attention even of the most 'pretentious' viewers. In the supporting roles, a mention should be made of a mainstay of old Hollywood classic (especially in Bette Davis film), Donald Crisp as Dr Lanskell. His remarks are cutting at moments and his presence filled with positive portrayal of an elderly, experienced guy. George Brent, given the role thanks to Bette Davis (the first choice was Humphrey Bogart), has his few moments of good acting as Clem though the role is quite marginal.
Finally, I would like to address the appealing psychology of the film. It accurately depicts the culmination of feelings within the wretched scapegoating of other people, sometimes even those who have more rights to something or somebody than we do. Mind you that many scenes take place on staircase that marks the undertone of higher and lower status within favoritism. Charlotte is the scapegoat of the events and yet...there is some hope for her, too... when a great day comes. The finale is so touching because of its simplicity at a relatively satisfactory pace. THE OLD MAID reminds us of universal laws that govern human relations where one loving deed redresses many bitter ones.
Let me quote Frank S Nugent who observed something quintessential about this old Hollywood classic: "Scenically, it is a trifle on the static side, which could not be avoided altogether. But dramatically, it is vital, engrossing and a little terrifying." Indeed, its drama has not dated and, though a sweet tearjerker at certain moments, it may wonderfully absorb the viewers of today. Who makes it 'vital, engrossing, little terrifying' if not the PERFORMERS? Thank you Bette, Miriam and Jane! Thank you all!
- Mar 11, 2012