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The Old Maid (1939)

British-born Edmund Goulding was noted for his ability to get great performances out of actors, from Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932) to Tyrone Power in the original Nightmare Alley (1947). He’d already directed Bette Davis twice—in That Certain Woman (1937) and Dark Victory (1939)—when he stepped in as referee between her another notably temperamental star, Miriam Hopkins, for this adaptation of Zoë Akins’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which itself had been adapted from the Edith Wharton novel.

When Hopkins’s former fiancé (George Brent) shows up at her marriage to another man, she rejects him, leaving him to be comforted by her cousin (Davis) before he joins the Union Army. His death leaves Davis pregnant and unwed, so she goes off to have the baby in secret. Eventually, she winds up living with the now-widowed Hopkins, who raises the child as if she were her own, leading to a life of frustration for both. Hopkins resents Davis’s relationship to her former beau, while Davis feels her cousin has stolen her child’s affections.

There are many who have spoken of Hopkins’s kindness and generosity (Tennessee Williams worshipped her). Davis, however, was not one of them. Part of the problem was that Davis had tried unsuccessfully to convince Jack Warner to let her play both roles in The Old Maid, a feat she would not achieve until she made A Stolen Life (1946). The other was that Hopkins resented Davis for winning an Oscar for Julie in Jezebel (1938), a character she had played on Broadway and hoped to bring to the screen. Early in the shoot, Hopkins showed up for a scene in a dress Davis had worn in that film. She had a habit of not just upstaging Davis in two-shots but also fussing with business during Davis’s lines. And in the scenes where they were supposed to be older, she kept changing her makeup to look younger. For her part, Davis took to calling her costar “Hoppy,” a nickname Hopkins hated, and had fainting spells whenever things got too heated. It’s to Goulding’s and the stars’ credit that the film worked and became one of the many hits of 1939—considered by many to be Hollywood’s greatest year.

d. Edmund Goulding, 95 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics