Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Old Maid (1939)

I hadn't really given it much thought before, but sibling rivalry (specifically of the sisterly variety) is a prominent recurring theme in Bette Davis movies. A fierce screen presence even when dealing with mediocre material, Davis often steamrolls over her co-stars, and it takes a strong sparring partner for her to come off as evenly matched. Luckily, Davis played sister to the likes of Olivia de Havilland, Joan Crawford and even herself (twice), and when she had a worthy adversary, the results were often thrilling. Her counterpart in The Old Maid is Miriam Hopkins, and while the two reportedly had a bitter rivalry and were constantly trying to outdo each other, Davis clearly comes out as the winner, overshadowing Hopkins even as she gives a remarkably internal performance.

Davis' Charlotte and Hopkins' Delia aren't actually sisters, but they might as well be: They're cousins raised together by their grandmother, and they have a very sisterly relationship. Delia is the favorite, the older cousin and the one who has her life on track. She marries a wealthy man with good standing after ditching her flaky boyfriend (perpetual Davis co-star George Brent), and has a couple of kids before her husband dies in a tragic accident. Charlotte, meanwhile, picks up Delia's leftovers by getting knocked up by Delia's shiftless ex, right before he goes off and gets himself killed during the Civil War. Delia gets to be self-righteous and superior about living the better life and raising Charlotte's illegitimate child (who never knows her true parentage), while Charlotte plays the martyr, always reminding Delia how she sacrificed all of her own happiness for the sake of her daughter.

In short, it's a bunch of typically overwrought melodrama, and Hopkins plays it to the hilt. Davis, however, keeps things much more low-key, and conveys Charlotte's anguish with her eyes better than Hopkins manages with her entire body. The woe-is-me stuff gets awfully overdone after a while, especially in the movie's final section as Charlotte's daughter is grown up, about to get married herself and acting like a whiny ungrateful brat. In between the silliness, The Old Maid makes some pointed comments on the hypocritical sexual mores of the Civil War era, although really a movie set in 1939 about a woman with an illegitimate daughter could feature many of the same plot points. Most of its social relevance gets drowned in over-emoting anyway, but Davis manages to make Charlotte's emotions feel earned all the way through until the end.

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