The 1939 movie, “The Old Maid,” from Warner Brothers, stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as two cousins in love with the same man. As the film begins, everyone in the Lovell household make preparations for Delia Lovell’s wedding to the wealthy Jim Ralston. Suddenly, word comes about the imminent arrival of Clem Spender, a suitor who Delia (Hopkins) promised to marry 2 years previously. Clem (George Brent) wanted the marriage but then went off to seek his fortune and expected Delia to wait for him.
Delia’s cousin Charlotte, played by Davis, wants to go the train station to meet Clem, but Delia doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Eventually, Delia relents and at the station, we can immediately see that Charlotte desires Clem. She tells him to move on but he insists and seeing Delia. The wedding happens anyway, and Clem spends the rest of the night with Charlotte. Clem soon goes off to war, leaving Charlotte with a little secret she hides for the rest of the film.
After the war, Delia runs an orphanage, which aggravates Delia and the man Charlotte plans to marry , Jerome Ralston (Jim’s brother). Charlotte becomes the Old Maid of the title when her marriage falls through, and the rest of the film concerns Charlotte’s relationship with her successful and rich Cousin Delia. Years pass, and while Charlotte and Delia grow older, Davis’ bitter and stern portrayal of Charlotte belies what we knew of the younger character. By the midpoint of the movie, we wonder why Charlotte embraces her strange behavior so fully. It seems like she’s going crazy, but the film doesn’t go to that extreme.
The action takes place in the 1860s, at a time when the major plot point could become a scandal. Donald Crisp plays friendly Dr. Lanskell, whose affection for Delia’s family provides a strong male counterpoint to the tension between the cousins. Miriam Hopkin’s Delia doesn’t age much at all, even though the story runs close to 20 years. The story comes from an Edith Wharton novella published in 1922.
In Wharton’s version, the Charlotte character is known to have suffered from a childhood illness that limits her ability to marry. However, the film version features an unusually strong Charlotte, who must portray unrelenting regret despite the advantages of wealth and privilege. Edmund Goulding also directed Davis in 1939’s “Dark Victory,” another film where Davis portrays a martyr.