Originally released 2 Sep 1939
Written by Casey Robinson
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Starring Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, George Brent, Jane Bryan, and Donald Crisp
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Heartbreaking story of the love-hate relationship between two cousins that leaves one a bitter and frustrated old maid.
Hollywood today doesn’t have much interest in women’s stories. Films with male protagonists make up the vast majority of the most lauded and awarded films and have for the last 70 years. Stories about men are just considered more important. Stories about women and people’s emotional lives are often dismissed as chick flicks or melodrama.
That wasn’t always the case. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, women’s stories had at least equal treatment with men’s. Until the mid-1940s, about half the movies that won the Best Picture Oscar had female protagonists. Women’s stories were considered serious and important.
The Old Maid is a quintessentially female film. (Yes, the screenwriter, Casey Robinson, was male, but it was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Zoe Atkins, which in turn was based on an Edith Wharton novella.) The story about the relationships between women and the social limitations placed upon women could not have originated in the male mind. It’s something alien to the male experience and, thus, all the more important to depict.
The story follows the love-hate relationship of two cousins, Charlotte (Bette Davis) and Delia (Miriam Hopkins), over the period of 20 years. During the course of two decades, Delia, without intending to be cruel, strips Charlotte of everything meaningful in her life, leaving her a bitter, frustrated old maid.
The movie begins at Delia’s wedding to the wealthy Jim Ralston (James Stephenson) and features three more weddings. It takes place in a world where a woman’s marital status and choice of a husband defined her worth. That Charlotte doesn’t marry, becoming the old maid of the title, signifies her failure as a woman.
The story highlights the unfairness of this social situation. Indeed, the entire film hinges on the notions of unfairness. The way Charlotte is treated and viewed is incredibly unfair, and the audience can’t help but seethe at the injustice of her situation.
Delia, however, is not a clear-cut villain. She, too, must function in an unjust system, and she manages to thrive by throwing away her only true love to marry a wealthy and powerful man. Her single truly cruel act, out of spite denying Charlotte the opportunity to marry, she manages to justify to herself. She does this by choosing to believe that Charlotte is entering into the marriage dishonestly, which she would be because the social mores of the time would render her suitability for marriage questionable since she gave birth to child out of wedlock. That Delia uses deception to prevent the marriage adds a painful irony to her act.
The film’s depiction of Charlotte’s relationship to her daughter, Tina (Jane Bryan), puts this film in the cycle of maternal sacrifice films, which includes Madame X, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, To Each His Own, and My Foolish Heart. In these films, usually (Stella Dallas is a notable exception), the woman gives birth to an illegitimate child and must pay for the sin of sex outside of marriage with a lifetime of unhappiness, particularly with estrangement from the child that is the product of that illicit union. In many cases, especially The Old Maid, the child prefers a female rival who is free from the taint of forbidden sex.
On the one hand, we can see the work of the old Hollywood moral code, where sin had to be punished. On the other, these stories offer a sharp critique of a repressive social system that punishes women for a single act of transgression against the system.
The film has two striking moments of almost unbearable hurt. In one, Tina, believing herself to be a parentless foundling and seeing Charlotte as only a repressed old maid, harshly proclaims that Charlotte never had any fun, never “danced.” Charlotte emotionlessly escapes to an unoccupied room and ever so subtly begins to sway to the music, showing a hint of the carefree young woman she once was and can never be again. In the other, the family doctor, played intelligently by Donald Crisp, who knows the truth about Tina’s parentage and Delia’s deception, comments that Delia’s punishment is that, having turned Charlotte into a bitter and frustrated woman, she now must live with her. Viewers must realize how outrageously patronizing his comments are to Charlotte, made all the more painful because, throughout the film, he’s seemed the most sympathetic to her.
Delia responds to the doctor about her relationship with Charlotte, “Till death comes for one of us, we’ll be sitting here alone together” with a clear sense of inevitable doom. This complex relationship between the two cousins is the focus of the film. Bette Davis never found a male costar who could match her power and her presence. However, she thrives in films that pair her with a strong female costar, such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Joan Crawford), All About Eve (Anne Baxter), The Great Lie (Mary Astor), and here with Miriam Hopkins, who is more than up to the task of contending with Davis. Hopkins was one of the most dynamic performers of the 1930s and, sadly, is often overlooked today.
The men in this film, save Crisp, tend to fade into the background. George Brent, one of Davis’s recurring costars, appears briefly in the beginning as the feckless man loved by both cousins. Typically bland, he makes little impression. As does Jerome Cowan as Charlotte’s fiancé.
Bryan is more memorable as Charlotte’s ungrateful daughter. The character is hard to like. However, unaware as she is, Tina can hardly be blamed for her attitude towards Charlotte, who puts on a harsh façade with the girl lest she discover the truth. Louise Fazenda has a nice turn as the family’s loyal servant. The women definitely dominate this movie.
When people think of Bette Davis tearjerkers, Dark Victory (also written by Casey Robinson and costarring George Brent) is usually one of the first that comes to mind. The Old Maid, which was released the same year, is less well known. It’s an emotionally more complex film. It derives its tears from frustration and a sense of injustice. The depth of the characters, the multifaceted relationship between the cousins, and the underlying social critique elevate it above the simple dying-with-dignity story of the more famous film.
Bette Davis’s output in 1939 is extraordinary. In addition to The Old Maid and Dark Victory, she also appeared in Juarez and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (her first portrayal of Elizabeth I). She had just received an Oscar for Jezebel. She was at the height of her career, and The Old Maid provides a powerful showcase for a legendary actress at her zenith.