Bette Davis had already distinguished herself in DARK VICTORY and JEZEBEL, but she plumbed new emotional depths in this film, and her performance is a revelation. She always liked roles that forced her to stretch as an actress and, despite the fact that she had only just turned 30, she is
convincing as a 60-year-old here. Reportedly, Davis and Miriam Hopkins had many battles on the set, and Hopkins did her best to upstage Davis, though, as you might expect, she had little luck. Edmund Goulding and Casey Robinson had collaborated on DARK VICTORY and the task of adapting this
Pulitzer Prize-winning play fell to them. But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, THE OLD MAID received no Oscar nominations, though it must be remembered that 1939 was the year of GONE WITH THE WIND; GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS; STAGECOACH; WUTHERING HEIGHTS; MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, and
numerous other great films.
In Philadelphia during the Civil War, Hopkins breaks her engagement to Brent, who's been away for two years, and marries the wealthy Stephenson. Stunned by the marriage, the dashing Brent is comforted by Hopkins' cousin, Davis, whom he has always liked but to whom he has never been very attracted.
His opinion of her changes after they sleep together, and it appears they may have a future together when he returns from the war. However, Brent is killed at Vicksburg, and Davis, who is carrying his child, is sent off to Arizona by the family doctor, Crisp, to cure the "lung problem" that is
manufactured to explain her sudden departure. After the war, Davis returns to Philadelphia to run an orphanage for the children whose parents have died in the conflict, and her position allows her to hide her daughter, Burnett, in the orphanage population. Meanwhile, Cowan, Hopkins'
brother-in-law, takes a romantic interest in Davis. However, when Hopkins learns that Burnett is Davis' and Brent's child, she tells Cowan that her cousin is too sick to marry. This lie opens a rift between Hopkins and Davis that closes only after Cowan dies in an accident, at which point Hopkins
invites Davis and Burnett to live at her house. Little Burnett grows up to be Bryan and thinks that Davis is her old maid aunt and that Hopkins has rescued her from the orphanage. This odd lineage becomes a problem when Bryan falls in love with Lundigan, whose wealthy family doesn't look kindly on
his involvement with an orphan. To overcome their objections, Hopkins suggests that she officially adopt Bryan, thus giving the young woman a good family name. Davis agrees, but promises herself that she will reveal the truth to Bryan on the girl's wedding night. But when the big night rolls
around, Davis can't bring herself to spoil Bryan's happiness. Bryan and Lundigan prepare to depart on their honeymoon and Bryan bids everyone goodbye, then saves the last kiss for her old maid aunt, Davis, who knows that she will never be able to tell her daughter the truth and must spend the rest
of her life with Hopkins, who cannot forgive her for having the child by Brent. Bring lots of hankies for this one and be prepared to watch a star turn by Davis, who has seldom been better.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Bette Davis had already distinguished herself in DARK VICTORY and JEZEBEL, but she plumbed new emotional depths in this film, and her performance is a revelation. She always liked roles that forced her to stretch as an actress and, despite the fact that sh… (more)