Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, George Brent
This is a melodrama set in the South @ the beginning of the Civil War and finishing well into the 1880s. Delia Lovell (Hopkins) is the older cousin to Charlotte (Bette Davis). The older Lovell belle grows weary of waiting for her fiance Clem Spender (George Brent) to propose marriage so she dumps him and marries a wealthy banker named Jim Ralston — played by James Stephenson — instead. Having held a torch for Clem herself for several years, Charlotte is thrilled and the two commence a romance immediately. When young Spender gets called to war, Davis’ character “comforts” him. The family eventually receives word that Charlotte’s lover is killed in action. This is the worst possible news because Ms. Lovell finds herself in the family way. Wishing to avoid scandal and any pox on the family name, the expecting mother travels out West to give birth in veiled secrecy.
Upon her return, Charlotte witnesses the devastations that war can leave in its wake. Wishing to contribute to the restoration of the South, our lead establishes a school for orphans. This has the added benefit of being a cover for her own child. When Delia finds out who the real father is to Clementina (Jane Bryan) she pleads with her cousin to move into her own home. Hopkins’ cousin suggests that the child has a birthright to a good name and financial resources. What appears as a gesture of Delia’s kindness at first is revealed to be anything but. As the years follow, Charlotte’s personal life is nearly snuffed out by this competitor for her daughter’s feelings. Davis’ character goes through Clementina’s adolescence reduced to the role of an annoying aunt while Delia pretends to be the child’s mother. Throughout the film, her older cousin’s selfish decisions have thwarted any chance Charlotte had @ happiness whether it be in romance, society, or in motherhood. As Clementine prepares for wedlock, our protagonist is sick of being a martyr and a doormat. The final scenes are a great payoff and combined with the rest of the movie, they make The Old Maid one of the better “women’s pictures” out there.
Hats off to Goulding for playing referee in this project as none of the notorious enmity each of these divas harbors for the other shows up in the frame. I have to compliment Davis with not being a grandstander in several scenes, as she chose correctly to play Charlotte stoically with measured reserve. Hopkins plays a detestable southern belle with verve and her insidious, machiavellian treatment of Davis’ Charlotte alienates the viewing audience. In short, she nails the part. What could have unraveled as a weepy, lame melodrama is given booster rockets by Hopkins and Davis. Give The Old Maid a spin if you want to see an acting clinic.