Watching 1939: The Old Maid

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:The Old Maid

Release date:  Aug. 16, 1939

Cast:  Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Jane Bryan, Louise Fazenda, James Stephenson, Jerome Cowan, William Lundigan, Cecilia Loftus, Rand Brooks, Janet Shaw, William Hopper, Marlene Burnett (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  Edmund Goulding

On her wedding day, Delia’s (Hopkins) former beau Clem (Brent) arrives, reminding her that she promised to marry him. Delia’s cousin Charlotte (Davis) goes after Clem to comfort him. Clem enlists with the Union in the Civil War and Charlotte discovers she’s pregnant. The child alters Delia and Charlotte’s lives and close relationship.

1939 Notes:
• The only film Miriam Hopkins was in 1939
• Louise Fazenda’s last film. Fazenda’s first film was in 1913 and she was in 267 films.
• Jane Bryan was in six films released in 1939
• Donald Crisp was in six films released in 1939
• Jerome Cowan was in eight films released in 1939.
• James Stephenson was in 13 films in 1939.

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in “The Old Maid”

Other trivia: 
• Based on Edith Wharton’s novel “The Old Maid” and was adapted into a play in 1935 starring Judith Anderson and Helen Menken.
• Ernst Lubitsch bought the rights to the play with hopes to
• To make Bette Davis look old, make-up artist Perc Westmore used pale make-up, and Davis didn’t wear eye makeup or lipstick.
• Loretta Young and Miriam Hopkins performed “The Old Maid” on Lux Radio
• Bette Davis wanted to play a dual role as both cousins: Charlotte and Delia, according to the book Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel  by Allan R. Ellenberger
• The film was supposed to begin with Delia, Charlotte and grandma buying Delia’s trousseau. Davis convinced director Edmund Goulding to cut the scene and the film begins on Delia’s wedding day, according to Ellenberger’s book.
• Gilbert Roland and David Niven were first choices to play Clem. The studio then settled on Humphrey Bogart, who was replaced by George Brent, according to Ellenberger’s book.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Bette Davis made four movies in 1939 and is magnificent. It’s almost amazing that so many good films could be released in 1939.

The Old Maid” is one of two films Davis made with Miriam Hopkins, the other was “Old Acquaintance” (1943). Davis and Hopkins’s films are notable as it seems the two actresses had a greater feud than what Bette Davis and Joan Crawford supposedly had. In Davis’s book, “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography,” she wrote that socially Hopkins was fine, but when working with her expert her to steal the scene.

Marlene Burnett, Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in “The Old Maid”

Though they apparently didn’t like each other, Davis and Hopkins are wonderful together in films. “The Old Maid” is a wonderful but also terribly sad move.

(Spoilers) Davis’s illegitimate child starts calling Hopkins “mommy,” and Hopkins takes the child’s affection and raises her as her own. Davis moves to the background as “Aunt Charlotte” and grows bitter and sharp-tongued towards her child. These movies where children grow up not knowing their mother and the mother has to stand and watch are always gut-wrenching, but “The Old Maid” is especially. Not only is Davis’s character robbed of her child, but she’s also robbed of happiness when Hopkins thwarts her marriage, spiteful that the baby is the child of George Brent.

Davis plays the role of Charlotte magnificently and is also heart-breaking to watch. She begins the film as bright, cheerful, young and giddy. Over time she grows hard and bitter, and it’s hard to believe she was ever young or happy. But we see small glimpses of the girl she once was. But in the end, Davis is bitter and alone.

Hopkins’s character of Delia is flighty, bright and selfish, throughout the film. When Delia helps her cousin and shows her love, it’s unclear if it’s out of love or if she is doing everything for herself.

George Brent and Bette Davis in “The Old Maid”

George Brent’s role is brief, but he is wonderful and memorable, per usual. Also worth noting is actress Jane Bryan, who plays Davis’s daughter grown up. Bryan and Davis were friends, and Bryan was Davis’s protege. The two were in four films together (Marked Woman, Kid Galahad, The Sisters, The Old Maid), and “The Old Maid” was their last picture together. Bryan does a great job of playing a spoiled, ungrateful, bratty young woman in this.

As for the 1939 features? This was Miriam Hopkins only film in 1939. According to her biographer, she needed this film to get back into films and gain popularity again. Hopkins didn’t release any pictures in 1938.

This was also the last film of actress Louise Fazenda, whose film career started in 1913.

“The Old Maid” is also interesting because it proves wrong an old movie myth: That all classic movies were clean, pure and no one had sex. This whole movie is pretty much all about how a woman had sex with a man and got pregnant. We don’t see it. George Brent and Bette Davis leave together and then he brings her home. While the film dances around and never uses the words “pregnant” or “sex,” I’m almost surprised this got past the censors.

While “The Old Maid” is relatively gut-wrenching, as some frustrating moments in the story, and is overall sad, I really do love this movie.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: The Old Maid

  1. It really is amazing–no, STAGGERING–how many great movies came out in 1939. I didn’t quite realize how many – outside the usual suspects that always get listed – until you started this wonderful blog series. Keep up the great work, Jessica!


  2. Good background while watching the movie on Turner classic movies. Thanks for your commentary.


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