The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding / U.S., 1939):

Bette Davis back in 1800s theater of cruelty, though Edmund Goulding’s grasp is more merciful than Wyler’s. As in Dark Victory, her speed is the key -- the spry bounce of a Philadelphia debutante becoming a spinster’s congealed glide. Her cousin (Miriam Hopkins) is about to marry into "a life of elegant boredom," Davis sneaks out still in her bridesmaid gown to console Hopkins’s estranged beau (George Brent); cut to one montage of battlefields and graveyards later, and Davis is heading a nursery for war orphans and doting on one little girl with suspiciously motherly care. When the truth is revealed, Hopkins gets revenge by dissipating Davis’ own nuptials, and then inviting her into her home and adopting the illegitimate daughter (who grows into Jane Bryan). Davis’ best lava-spilling moment is a swift dart of the eyes as she learns from her ex-groom (Jerome Cowan) about Hopkins’s lying, but soon she’s desiccated, powdered, and corseted, playing meddling "aunt" to her own child. ("What else can she ever call me," she sighs masochistically.) It opens and closes with weddings, and in between them Davis and Hopkins run through a well-oiled assembly of betrayals, vendettas, and maternal passion plays. The Edith Wharton original is twice removed (play by Zoe Akins, screenplay Casey Robinson), yet the weight of social rules still suffuses the characters’ self-lacerations. A chilling "happy ending": The daughter’s position in society is made "unassailable" while the two divas are left to each other, alone "with God knows what thoughts" for the benefit of Gertrud. With Donald Crisp, William Lundigan, James Stephenson, Louise Fazenda, and Cecilia Loftus. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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