Tuesday, September 27, 2011
The Old Maid (4 stars)
The Old Maid, from 1939, is a period drama starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. George Brent gets third billing, although he is only in the film for the first fifteen minutes or so. Donald Crisp and Jane Bryan take on co-starring roles in this film, which begins in the early 1860's.
Misses Davis and Hopkins portray cousins, Charlotte and Delia Lovell. As the film begins, Delia (Hopkins) is about to be married, and on her wedding day, her former love, Clem Spender (George Brent), arrives back in town and stops by for a visit. Clem had left town a few years before---off to make his fortune---and when he didn't return, Delia assumed he no longer loved her, so she made plans to marry another man---one who was wealthy and socially prominent. Clem still loves Delia, and he declares his intent to make a scene at the wedding, so cousin Charlotte (Bette Davis), who is in love with Clem herself, sets off to reason with him. Wanting to comfort him, she ends up spending the night with him; the next day, however, Clem, now part of the Union Army, sets off for war...and he never returns, having been killed in battle.
Fast forward a few years...Charlotte, now engaged to Delia's husband's brother, is running a home for war orphans. It is expected that when she marries, she will give up the home; however, there is one particular child, a girl named Tina, whom Charlotte will never give up. When, on Charlotte's wedding day, Delia discovers that Tina's full name is Clementina and that she is, in fact, Charlotte's own child, from a man who died in the war, she puts two and two together and realizes that Tina is Clem's child...a fact that enrages Delia. To think that Charlotte had been with Clem---HER love---is more than she can stand; determined to make Charlotte pay, she lies to her brother-in-law and he calls off the wedding.
Several months later, after Delia's husband dies, she invites Charlotte and Tina to come live with her. Since Charlotte was never married and cannot publicly call Tina her child, Tina calls her "Aunt Charlotte." Delia becomes rather a mother to the little girl, and once, to Charlotte's incredible heartbreak, she even calls Delia "mommy."
Fast forwarding several more years, Tina has become a young woman (played by Jane Bryan), and Delia, not Charlotte, receives her love, praise, and affection. Aunt Charlotte, who has sacrifced for years, is despised and mocked by the girl. Yet to tell Tina the truth---that Charlotte, an unwed woman, is her mother---would destroy all hopes for a legitimate beau, so Charlotte says nothing, all the while being totally brokenhearted because the daughter she loves has rejected her and now calls Delia "mother." Will Tina ever change? Will Charlotte's broken heart ever heal?
The Old Maid is alot like one of my top 15 films, Stella Dallas, in that it is the story of a mother's sacrificial love for her daughter. However, I definitely prefer Stella Dallas to this film. While I love Bette and think she does her usual stellar job, it's the daughter's character that bothers me. Tina is selfish and obnoxious, while Lolly (Anne Shirley's Stella Dallas character) is loving and caring. Though I loved Charlotte here in The Old Maid, I just never really cared about Clementina. Bette, though, was brilliant...as she always was! And she was always willing to take on unglamorous roles, being willing to be seen as dowdy, ugly, and unsophisticated. Her acting was so terrific that she didn't have to get by on looks alone.
This film is out on DVD and should be quite easy to track down. It really is a lovely film, and I hope you get a chance to see it.