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The set of a Bette Davis movie was rarely a calm, peaceful place to be. This was certainly the case while filming one of her best vehicles, The Old Maid (1939). Based on the Edith Wharton novel, it starred Davis and Miriam Hopkins as cousins in love with same man, fighting over the custody (and love) of one cousin's illegitimate daughter.
Bette Davis was fresh from the successes of Juarez (1939), Dark Victory (1939) and her Oscar-winning Jezebel (1938). The director, Edmund Goulding, had already guided her through two films (and would work with her again on The Great Lie in 1941). Jane Bryan, playing her daughter, had previously costarred with Davis in three films; the actresses were to remain lifelong friends.
But there were two very complicated relationships on the set. One was with her leading man, George Brent. He was to costar with Davis in a total of ten films and, in the early 1930s, he and Davis had indulged in a passionate affair (at a time when both were married to others). That had, happily, settled into a comfortable friendship by the time The Old Maid began shooting in March of 1939. The real fly in the ointment was Davis' female costar - the first time since becoming a star that she'd had to share the screen with another woman. Playing cousin Delia was the brilliant, Savannah-born actress Miriam Hopkins, who had earned praise on Broadway and in such films as Becky Sharp (1935) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).
Bette Davis started filming with ill feelings: "I was never mad about the part," she admitted in her memoirs. She'd asked the studio if she could play both female roles, in a split-screen effect. Instead, the more colorful role--fluttery, selfish Delia--went to Hopkins. Hopkins, in turn, resented Davis for winning an Oscar as Jezebel--a role Hopkins had played on Broadway. The fact that Hopkins was in the midst of a divorce from director Anatole Litvak made her no easier to deal with on the set.
Davis had never before encountered an actress who dared to pull rank on her set, but Miriam Hopkins had no shame. Davis later recalled that while she was uttering her lines, Hopkins would go into a daze: "Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy." Rather than fighting back, Davis cleverly sweet-talked director Goulding into trimming Hopkins' best scenes. She also indulged in the occasional "fainting spell," holding up the expensive production. But both actresses were, above all, professionals--and they made their mutual antipathy work onscreen.
When interviewed on the set, Hopkins batted her eyes sweetly and told reporters, "It makes a good story when women have feuds on their pictures . . . Somebody thought it would be good publicity for Bette and me to have a feud." Davis, in turn, said in icy tones "Hoppy and I are going to get a couple of pairs of boxing gloves and pose for a picture glowering at each other." She knew full well that being referred to as "Hoppy" alone was enough to send Hopkins into a tantrum.
Happily, though, both actresses came out winners. Davis gives one of her more restrained and tragic performances as the bitter old "aunt," her stillness accentuating her eyes and her voice. Hopkins, in turn, shines as the selfish, terrified woman who steals the love of her cousin's child. The Old Maid was one of the great films--a financial and critical success--in a very impressive year in film history. So much so that Davis and Hopkins were given a rematch at Warner Brothers, as battling authors in Old Acquaintance (1943). Once again, the battle reached a fever pitch, to the point where half the studio crowded in to see the scene wherein Davis had to shake Hopkins till her teeth shook--such was Davis' enmity that she fondly recalled it as a slap in her autobiography. But, as other actresses (from Joan Crawford to Lillian Gish) were to prove, being disliked by Bette Davis was one of the best ways to spur her on to a good performance. The Old Maid and Miriam Hopkins are certainly proof of that.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Casey Robinson, Zoe Akins (play), Edith Wharton (novel)
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: George Amy
Music: Max Steiner
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Cast: Bette Davis (Charlotte Lovell), Miriam Hopkins (Delia Lovell Ralston), George Brent (Clem Spender), Donald Crisp (Doctor Lanskell), Jane Byran (Tina), Louise Fazenda (Dora), James Stephenson (James Ralston), Jerome Cowan (Joe Ralston), William Lundigan (Lanning Halsey).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Eve Golden