The Sisters (Anatole Litvak, 1938)

This posting is my contribution to the Bette Davis Blogathon, organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit and read the other postings. 

the sisters 3Bette Davis might be best remembered for her “bad girl” roles, but these were not the only characters she played. In The Sisters she pours her emotional power into the role of quiet and self-sacrificing wife Louise. This might be one of her lesser-known titles, but it’s a film I like a lot, partly for the daring way that both Davis and male lead Errol Flynn, playing a waifish alcoholic, are cast against type. (They went on to star together in more characteristic roles in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Director Anatole Litvak made a number of good romantic melodramas and is someone I’ve been meaning to write more about on this blog. This is a period piece set in the early years of the 20th century and includes some spectacular footage re-creating the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s available from Warner Archive and there are also Spanish and Italian DVD eleases in region 2.

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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.    

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