Program Notes: The Old Maid (1939)

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The acting duel you see on screen in The Old Maid isn’t all acting. It reflects the genuine animosity between its two stars, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The 1939 film version of The Old Maid had quite a pedigree. It began as a novella by the great writer Edith Wharton, and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Zoë Akins.

The story is pure, unadulterated melodrama.

In the 1860s New York, debutante Delia Lovell (Hopkins) learns on her wedding day that the man to whom she promised herself years before has finally returned, having been out of contact for several years while he made his fortune. Determined to forge ahead with her marriage into a high society banking family, Delia sends her cousin Charlotte Lovell (Davis) to deal with this old beau, Clem (George Brent).

Film Screening:
The Old Maid (1939)
Saturday, Apr. 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Charlotte comforts Clem. Apparently she really comforts him, because after a long visit to the country for her "health," she returns to NYC with a baby girl. Little Clementine, Charlotte explains, is an orphan she picked up on her trip. In fact, Charlotte begins operating an orphanage for children left parentless by the Civil War.

Clem, little Clementine’s papa, died fighting for the Union. Anyway, Clementine’s heritage is Charlotte’s most closely guarded secret. The only other person who knows the truth is Delia, now a rich widow. Delia has Charlotte and Clementine come live with her, and Clementine grows up thinking that Delia is her adopted mother and that Charlotte, a bitter old maid, is her aunt.

Motherhood! Jealousy! Rejection!

Bring on the violins! (No, seriously...Max Steiner’s musical score keeps the string section madly sawing away. You never have to guess what you’re supposed to be feeling in any scene because the overwrought music does that job for you.)

By 1939 Bette Davis was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Much of her fan base consisted of women, and in fact Davis titles like Dark Victory and The Old Maid are regarded as classic "women’s pictures."

Hopkins, who was six years older, was a star as well, but a few rungs down the celebrity ladder from Davis. And this seems to have really galled Hopkins.

Years earlier, both women had been part of a theatrical stock company run by director George Cukor. Back then the older Hopkins was the company diva, while Davis was an ingenue. In the ensuing decade their roles had been somewhat reversed. Davis was now one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters.

Hopkins was not amused.

Another point of contention: While The Old Maid was in pre-production, Davis had lobbied to play the roles of both Delia and Charlotte. (Actually, that would have been a far more interesting movie than the one they ended up with.) No doubt Hopkins knew all this going into the project and carried a chip on her shoulder.

More bad blood between these two? No problem. On stage Hopkins had originated the role of selfish, manipulative Julie in the antebellum melodrama Jezebel. But when the movie was made, she lost the role to Davis. Hopkins reportedly wept for days. Even more galling, Davis won an Oscar for that performance.

So there are all sorts of reasons for friction between these two ladies. But we haven’t even touched on the main one.

Hopkins believed (wrongly, it seems) that Davis had had an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak, who a year earlier had directed Davis in the film The Sisters. (Actually, Davis and Litvak had an affair a year after The Old Maid. By that time he was divorced from Hopkins.)

On her first day on the set, Hopkins wore an exact duplicate of the dress Davis had worn in Jezebel. And Hopkins proceeded to try to steal every scene.

Recalled Davis in her autobiography: "When she was supposed to be listening to me, her eyes would wander off into some other world in which she was the sweetest of them all. Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy."

Apparently Davis tried to keep a lid on her growing exasperation. "Miriam used and – I must give her credit – knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one ... Keeping my temper took its toll. I went home every night and screamed at everybody."

Hopkins was also paranoid about being the older woman in this relationship. In the film’s opening scenes she was required to play a woman in her early 20s. At the time Hopkins was 38.

Perhaps that’s why she kept toying with the makeup designed to make the two women age over 20 years. Cinematographer Tony Gaudio notified the front office that he was exasperated because Hopkins kept altering her makeup to look younger while Davis appeared ever more spinsterly.

Moreover, both Hopkins and Davis missed days of work, citing illness. The production fell almost two weeks behind schedule.


Bette Davis, Edmund Goulding & Miriam Hopkins

The Warners publicity department wasn’t above exploiting this feud. They mailed out staged photos of Davis and Hopkins going for each other’s throats while director Edmund Goulding attempted to referee.

The pairing of the battling divas generated so much heat that four years later the two women once again starred together in Old Acquaintance, a film in which they played rival authors.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Romance”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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