Wednesday, February 25, 2015
"The Old Maid": post Civil War classic relives a disturbing concept for women of the time
“The Old Maid” may sound like a derogatory term from times past – remember that scene in “Gone with the Wind” where some of Scarlet’s friends worry they will grow up to be just that.
But it’s also a rather forgotten 1939 drama film, black and white, directed by Edmund Goulding, based on the play (rather literally) by Zoe Akins (adapted by Casey Robinson), from a 1924 Edith Wharton novella, “The Old Main” The Fifties” from a collection called “Old New York”.
I think my parents saw it together shortly before they got married (in 1940).
Bette Davis plays Charlotte, the “old maid”, but already gives a hint of the chilling character she would become in “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” in 1964. The plot of this 95-minute film is rather intricate. It starts in 1861, with warnings about war. Charlotte has a baby, Tina, out of wedlock with Clem, who gets killed in the Civil War. (There is a sign trying to recruit soldiers to defend Washington!). Her cousin, Delia (Mariam Hopkins) winds up raising Delia as hers after Charlotte runs an orphanage, and then subterfuges Charlotte’s opportunity to get married to another man who will the die in a horse accident (echoing “Gone”). Tina remains unaware that Charlotte is her mother even up to the time Tina is to get married herself, in 1881.
The film actually looks sharp, with a lot of detail to the interiors; Warner Brothers did a good job of restoring the film for DVD. There were a number of films set during and right after the War Between the States made during this period.
The title, of course, reminds one of the popular card game from past generations. I think there is one in the house somewhere, but couldn’t find it. So for the artwork, I used a copy of “Judge”.
When my cousin and I made filmstrips back in 1954 (account on here ) I think one of my strips was called “Old Maid”, and my mother got upset about it and told me to destroy it! The idea was very disturbing to young women in previous generations, and it’s worth pondering.