The Old Maid (1939)

After thoroughly enjoying Old Acquaintance, which teamed Bette Davis with Miriam Hopkins, I was keen to see their earlier film together, The Old Maid. I’d seen this movie described somewhere as a “soap opera”, but I think that’s very misleading. In fact, it is an adaptation of a stage play based on a novella by Edith Wharton, in her collection Old New York. While it does have elements of melodrama, it also has complicated characters, painted in shades of grey, neither impossibly good nor impossibly bad.   

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Once I’d seen the movie for the first time, I got hold of Wharton’s novella and read it and then watched the film again. If anything, I was even more impressed the second time round.  There are some changes to Wharton’s plot, notably moving the story to the period of the American Civil War and stepping up the character of Clem Spender, played by George Brent – but to me the portrayal of the two central women seems essentially true to the original story.

Hopkins stars as the beautiful, spoilt Delia Lovell, with Davis as her cousin,  Charlotte, who is somewhat under her shadow and later becomes the embittered “old maid” of the film’s title. Davis originally wanted to play both main female roles but in a way she is already playing two parts, since Charlotte later in the film is so different from the lively young girl in the opening scenes. I’m glad the dual role was decided against, since there is so much chemistry between her and Hopkins. Watching the two portray lifelong friends, it’s hard to believe that they disliked one another so much in real life.    

At the start of the movie, Delia is just about to marry Jim Ralston (James Stephenson), a member of a rich and prominent family, when  her old flame, Clem Spender, arrives back home after more than two years away trying to make his fortune. Delia, who waited for him and then lost patience, says she can’t possibly see him before her wedding, so Charlotte offers to go and meet him and break the news. He takes it badly, and confronts Delia in her wedding dress, bitterly upbraiding her – but then consoles himself with Charlotte, before going off to fight in the Civil War, where he is killed.

Brent only has these opening scenes to make any impression, as his character dies so early in the movie, but I think he does a fine job. From the other films I’ve seen him in, I’ve tended to think of him as rather suave and smooth – but here he is playing a restless drifter, and he is convincing in the role.  Through the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, he manages to make it clear that Delia is the the real love of Clem’s life and that he is involved with Charlotte on the rebound. When both women arrive at the station to see him off to war, there is little doubt where his heart really lies.

There are some reports that Humphrey  Bogart was originally supposed to play Clem and then sacked from the movie. It’s a pity in a way if this is true, as, although Clem is a small part, you’d think it would have been ideal for Bogart, since he was really from a privileged “Old New York” background, but had an unhappy childhood, was a restless character and even went to war himself after being expelled from school, signing up for the  Navy in the First World War as soon as he was  18. (It would surely have been a better role for him than his miscasting as an Irish stablehand in Dark Victory, another Bette Davis movie directed by Edmund Goulding in the same year.) However, since Brent (who also had his wild side, as a member of Michael Collins’  unit in the IRA as a teenager) is so good in the part, there’s not much point in wondering how Bogart would have played it.

Bette Davis as Charlotte with the young Tina

Bette Davis as Charlotte with the young Tina

After Clem’s death, Charlotte sets up a home for orphans, including the foundling, Clementina, who is really her illegitimate daughter by Clem. (She spent time away supposedly recuperating after a lung disease and gave birth secretly.)  She becomes engaged to Joe Ralston (Jerome Cowan), brother of Jim – but he wants her to give up the orphanage, fearing for her health.

In desperation, she confides in Delia, who is sympathetic but also jealous when she realises that Clem is the child’s father. Delia gets Charlotte’s marriage broken off at the last minute, falsely telling Joe that Charlotte is ill with a recurrence of her lung disease and should not marry anyone.  In the novella, this is mainly because Delia is so conventional in her views and believes it is unthinkable that a woman who has already had a child should marry without telling her husband. However, the film plays up the element of sexual jealousy, making it appear that Delia partly gets the marriage broken off to punish Charlotte for having had sex with Clem. Surprisingly, I think this has the effect of making Delia’s action more clearly wrong-headed in the film, made under the code, than in Wharton’s book. The film seems to signal clearly that Charlotte should be allowed to marry Joe – and even suggests that he would probably accept her if he knew about her daughter.

After the match is broken off, Charlotte and Delia are briefly estranged – but they are thrown back together when Delia’s husband dies tragically. There’s a melodramatic scene where, as Jim is dying, Charlotte discovers how Delia lied to Joe, and confronts her. Despite this, soon the two cousins are sharing a household, and Tina is starting to call Delia “Mummy”. Charlotte is forced to take on the role of maiden aunt to her own daughter – something she resents bitterly.

Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins

The later part of the film shows Charlotte as the “old maid”, watching Tina, now grown up and played by Jane Bryan, like a hawk. She fears that Tina will make the same mistake she made, ie having sex before marriage – and so she is strict and fierce with her, constantly harping on about how Tina is a poor relation and shouldn’t put herself forward, in a bullying way that at times recalls Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park.  By contrast, Delia is still full of joy in life and wants to make all Tina’s dreams come true, working things out so that she needn’t be a poor relation and can marry the man she loves. The ironies build up endlessly, and there are many twists which bring out the different characters of the two women – and show how different Charlotte could have been if she hadn’t been forced into a corner.

All in all, I think this is a wonderful film, with fine performances by both Davis and Hopkins. Inevitably, it loses some of the subtlety of Wharton’s  novella and changes some of the motivations, but I think the film and the book are both masterpieces in different ways.


4 thoughts on “The Old Maid (1939)

  1. I saw this movie and half-remember it. I was very moved at the time. In my mind I linked it to Henry James, say the seething feelings of _Washington Square_. I never knew it was based on a Wharton story. It was not on Channel 9 that I saw it or I’d remember it better (as it would have played all week long and all day long on Saturday and Sunday). But it was on TV.

    Is it not interesting that we have this motif of a mother forced to pretend to be an aunt to a child of her own? _East Lynn_ stuff? Not obsolete if you are deeply engaged by _Possession_ where the same thing happens and the mother is also by personality estranged from the child who is more comfortable with her (unknown to her) aunt.

    The secret sex and secret births reflect real life conditions until recently (say 20 years ago) when the stigma finally went. In Victorian times the child would be removed (as in _Shirley_). Just yesterday the New York Times had a story about single women with two children as families today.

    Davies is not really a traditional old maid: the pictures explodes this stereotype, for she has had a lover, chance at marriage and child. Yet we are to believe this was a frustration that ruines her whole life. _Tertium non est_.

    It’s probably the relationship between the women that’s gripping too. For myself I wonder if I would be as moved today, for speaking frankly, it’s not uncommon with me to wish I had not had children. Jim once showed me a statistic which went to prove most women do, far more than actually marry.



  2. Sorry to be slow in replying, Ellen. I was also reminded of ‘East Lynne’ – which is similar in the way the mother is punished by becoming apparently unattractive and holding a lower social position. And I agree this repeat motif of watching a child grow up without being able to acknowledge parenthood turns up in so many books and movies.

    As you say, this often happened in real life – there are plenty of families where people discovered that an aunt or older sister was in fact their mother, or that an uncle or family friend was their father.


  3. I really liked both this movie and Old Acquaintance and I always thought “what could have been” knowing the way Davis and Hopkins felt about each other if Miriam Hopkins had been cast in the Joan Crawford role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?! Just imagine the fireworks.
    Great post.


  4. Thanks for the kind comment, Rupert, and congratulations in return on your new blog! I must admit I haven’t seen ‘Baby Jane’ as yet – one of the many movies I want to get to in the future.


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