The Old Maid (1939)

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Edith Wharton. Zoe Akins. This Bette Davis outing had serious literary chops,with Wharton’s short story adapted first for Broadway by Akins and then Casey Robinson was appointed by Warners to bring it to the screen with the era’s most vital actress – and her longtime rival, Miriam Hopkins. This is the one where Bette has a little affair with Clem Spender (the splendid George Brent – sigh) who has returned after disappearing for two years to discover his fiancee, Bette’s cousin Miriam, is about to get married to a wealthy rival. He departs once again and dies in the Civil War. Cut to: six years later and Bette is running an orphanage for war foundlings … including her own secret illegitimate daughter, Tina, short for Clementine… nomenclature being what it is we know who Papa was. Bette’s about to get married to Miriam’s brother in law but she confesses to Miriam right before the ceremony who Tina’s father is … and jealous Miriam sabotages her wedding with a lie and then strong-arms Bette into giving up her daughter to be brought up with her cousins, themselves now fatherless following an accident. The daughter grows up to be the nasty, vicious Jane Bryan, who never discovers who this greying maiden aunt really is … Sob! The women are just fabulous and Bryan really stays in the mind:  it was her third time to act with Davis after Marked Woman and Kid Galahad and Warners had her marked for great things. But she abandoned acting and married a very wealthy man on New Year’s Eve 1939 and ended her career. She and her husband were fervent Republicans and got their good friend Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980. Tony Gaudio’s camerawork is luminous and it’s directed by Edmund Goulding, who worked with Bryan the following year on We Are Not Alone; and with Davis a handful of times, including in the incredible Dark Victory the previous year which also co-starred Brent. I’ve written about Davis’ intriguing dualistic career for the Canadian journal Offscreenhttps://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.