Bette Davis as Kit Marlowe in Old Acquaintance.
Warner Bros. mixed equal parts of champagne, soap and bile for this popular 1943 woman's picture, with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins co-starring as novelists who become literary and romantic rivals. One of the most gossiped about films of its time, Old Acquaintance opened to high expectations for on-screen cattiness that it more than satisfied.
The catfight started early for Davis. Considering her power at the box office, she should have been first choice for every major female role at Warner Bros. When they bought the rights to John Van Druten's hit play in the early '40s, however, they were planning it as a vehicle for Rosalind Russell. On stage, Old Acquaintance had been a sophisticated comedy. Russell had just scored a hit for Warners in another high comic romp, No Time for Comedy (1940), and seemed a natural for the role of Kit Marlowe, an unmarried novelist with an unbridled wit and a string of failed love affairs. They were even willing to pay her $150,000 for the new film, much more than anything they'd have to pay Davis. But when problems with the Production Code Administration over the leading lady's love life slowed script development, Russell accepted a role in My Sister Eileen (1942) at Columbia, and production delays forced her to withdraw. They then turned to Irene Dunne, who dragged her heels while director Edmund Goulding tried to develop a suitable script. Finally Dunne withdrew, and the studio approached Davis, offering her a choice of roles: sweet but tough Kit or temperamental Millie.
Initially, the studio considered teaming her with Mary Astor, who had scored a hit and an Oscar® opposite Davis in The Great Lie (1941). The natural choice would have been to repeat their casting, with Davis as the good friend and Astor as the bad one. As a result, Davis agreed to play Kit. Then studio head Jack Warner decided the project needed a bigger star as Millie. Miriam Hopkins had appeared memorably in Davis's biggest hit of the '30s, The Old Maid (1939), despite off-screen fireworks between the stars, so they offered the role to her. Then she made so many demands -- $5,000 a week salary, complete control over her hair, makeup and costumes -- that they dropped the matter. But neither Margaret Sullavan nor the recently retired Norma Shearer would consider playing a character as nasty as Millie. Producer Henry Blanke suggested casting Janet Gaynor against type (she was usually bubbly and upbeat on screen) but Goulding felt it wouldn't work. Finally, they went back to Hopkins and worked out a compromise.
Memories of Hopkins' off-screen antics during The Old Maid threw Davis and Goulding, who had directed the film, into a panic. Then they started fighting over the choice of cameraman. When Hopkins started making more demands, Goulding had a heart attack, so the studio replaced him with rising young director Vincent Sherman, thereby prompting Goulding's speedy recovery. Davis wasn't sure of Sherman, though, and sat out the first week of shooting, claiming ill health. Then she showed up on the set with her agent to ask how the film was going. He offered to show her the first week of rushes, and she was delighted with the controlled performance he had gotten out of Hopkins. She complimented him on his work with her, and then asked when he wanted her on the set. They started shooting the next day.
But it was not a peaceful set. Hopkins immediately started pulling every trick she could to upstage Davis and throw her off. She kept coming up with props that covered Davis's face or things to fuss with during the star's big speeches. When Davis tried to discuss scenes with her, she feigned hearing problems, producing a large, elaborate hearing aid that never seemed to work. Finally the day came to shoot the characters' big showdown, in which Davis was supposed to shake Hopkins viciously and then throw her into a chair. The set was mobbed with on-lookers, eager to see the fur fly. But when Davis went to shake her, Hopkins went limp, flopping around like a rag doll. Sherman explained that she needed to offer some resistance or the scene would get laughs. But each time they re-took it, Hopkins just went limp again until Davis walked off the set in disgust. Finally, Sherman got his stars back together and managed to get a few shots he could edit together.
The leading ladies' notorious clashes slowed production significantly, with the shoot lasting almost twice as long as scheduled. Although this drove the executives mad, it provided one benefit for Davis. At Goulding's urging, Davis had agreed to cast screen newcomer Gig Young as the naval officer Kit loses to her rival's adult daughter. Although both were married, and Young was five years younger, he and Davis carried their on-screen relationship into their private lives with a series of late-night trysts in her dressing room. When his wife asked where he had been, Young could blame his late hours on the film's notorious delays. The affair would not last beyond Young's role in the film -- he had to finish early because he had been called up for World War II service -- but the friendship would remain strong for the rest of their lives.
With work still remaining on the film, Davis developed a new romantic interest. After a late-night shoot, Sherman drove her home, and she admitted that she had fallen in love with him. They spoke for hours in his car, but before anything could happen they were interrupted by Davis's mother, who ordered Hollywood's biggest female star into the house. When production finally ended, Davis invited Sherman to meet her in Mexico, where she was going for a much-needed vacation. Then Davis's husband, Arthur Farnsworth, paid Sherman a visit and told the director he was trying to save his marriage to the star. Sherman was happily married at the time, so he begged off his rendezvous with Davis. They would finally get together the following year, when he directed her in Mr. Skeffington (1944). Sherman claimed he embarked on the affair in hopes that it would help him control the temperamental star. It didn't.
With all the off-screen scandal and Davis's undeniable popularity in the '40s, Old Acquaintance couldn't miss at the box office. Critics admired the performances of the two stars, though some carped that the film had turned the sophisticated comedy into more of a soap opera (largely because of Davis's and Sherman's re-writes during shooting). Rich and Famous, a 1981 remake starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen under George Cukor's direction tried to reinstate the humor and the sex in the story, but failed at the box office. Fans continue to value the original because of Davis's performance in a totally sympathetic role (she often said Kit was closer to the real Davis than any character she'd ever played) and the on-screen sparks generated by the film's dueling divas.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Vincent Sherman
Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee, John Van Druten, based on the play by Van Druten
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Bette Davis (Kit Marlowe), Miriam Hopkins (Millie Drake), Gig Young (Rudd Kendall), John Loder (Preston Drake), Dolores Moran (Deirdre), Philip Reed (Lucian Grant), Roscoe Karns (Charlie Archer), Anne Revere (Belle Carter).
BW-111m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller