The Old Maid: Review
Of all the great works of 1939 no other film demonstrates the impact a tremendous acting talent has upon a mediocre tale so effectively as The Old Maid. In an otherwise standard melodrama Bette Davis raises so far above the material she leaves no doubt as to why she is considered the greatest actress the silver screen has ever known.
Don’t get me wrong The Old Maid is a very good film with the very best of production values including a superb cast (a roguish George Brent, the wise and fatherly Donald Crisp, and a catty Miriam Hopkins), a gorgeous antebellum set design, lush period costumes, and an exceptional pedigree. The play on which it is based received the Pulitzer Prize, and was itself based on an Edith Wharton novel (Wharton also wrote The Age of Innocence). But, the very dramatic story falls into the category of what the filmmakers of the day condescendingly termed a woman’s picture. Which in this case is a very accurate assessment. However, I don’t think it’s fair to be so gender specific when describing a genre that focuses on emotionally repressed characters struggling under oppressed conditions.
The Old Maid is about a woman (played by Davis) who nobly endures years of suffering after secretly bearing an illegitimate child during the era of the civil war. Although anyone (male or female) who doesn’t care much for the dramatics of a plot similar to that of a modern day soap opera may be put off, they should reconsider giving The Old Maid a fair chance. Because in the hands of a skilled artist such as Davis an otherwise overwrought character evolves into an empathetic woman any audience can empathize with, transforming the film into the type of tearjerker by which viewers will enjoy having their emotions manipulated. This is the great Bette Davis after all, and her feminine emoting is of such style and grace it’s hard not to be completely drawn in. No kidding, you better have the Kleenex handy before you hit the play button. And prepare to once again be impressed by the talent that is Bette Davis.
Admittedly, in another time (and certainly with a lesser star) The Old Maid would never have survived the transition from the stage to the screen, let alone have weathered well over the years to become the classic it is today. Undoubtedly, this is due to Davis whose acting has always been regarded with high esteem, and not just for her ability but also for her willingness to portray women who were less than idyllic, who had flaws and (god forbid) aged. It’s the rare actresses like Davis who gave strength to vulnerable characters and provided them with the fortitude necessary to sustain the interest of an audience throughout the duration of a feature film.
Although many other names stand out amid the female stars of the Golden Age of cinema (Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, etc.) Bette Davis always manages to retain a special place among the elite. No matter who’s making the list or how many years go by Davis has been and will always remain the standard by which others are measured. When you watch The Old Maid you’ll see exactly what I mean.