Thursday, October 15, 2009
Old Acquaintance (1943)
“Old Acquaintance” (1943) is a tour de force for both stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a film could be this good with two terrific actresses and a witty, literate script by John Van Druten. Somehow, though, the movie can still astonish, in large part because much of it seems like a lighthearted romp, even though we get splashed with soap opera elements and Miriam’s personality disorder that hammers us like a hangover.
Perhaps because it flows something like a concerto with different movements. The soap opera quality to the plot involves the complicated relationship between two old friends who face, together and separately, the “passing parade of years” (which should be a movie genre unto itself), but there are also elements of screwball comedy, and social commentary.
The film, something in the manner of the play on which it is based, is presented in three acts. First, we come upon a young and triumphant first-time author, Bette Davis, returning to her hometown. It is 1924, and she arrives as the guest of her girlhood chum, Miriam Hopkins, now a housewife expecting a baby.
Davis breezes into town, spirited, somewhat hoydenish, exuding good-natured self effacing humor, when she is carried away by a flock of serious co-eds who make her their heroine. Davis laughs off their attention, but Miriam Hopkins is furious when her plans to lead the welcoming committee are derailed. Miss Hopkins gets into a minor car accident with a farmer’s truck loaded with cages of chickens. Seems to be a mainstay of old movies, doesn’t it? Car crashes with chicken cages. You don’t hear things like that happening these days, but apparently in the 1930s you couldn’t back out of your own driveway without smashing eggs, or plowing into squawking chickens.
Miss Davis meets Hopkins’ good-natured husband, played by John Loder, and they become fast pals. Look for Roscoe Karns as the annoying local newspaper editor. We saw him as the annoying traveling salesman in “It Happened One Night.” If only we could all make a living just being annoying, what a wonderful world it would be.
Miss Hopkins returns, furious at her grand welcome being foiled, especially since she is chafing in the mundane life of the housewife. She envies Davis’ fame. She confides to Davis that she herself has literary ambitions and has written a romance novel. We have a few flippant, but spot on, observations on the monetary success of genre fiction as opposed to what is called literary fiction, the kind that Davis writes that gets applause from the critics but that doesn’t sell well. Not much has changed in the publishing world, though it would be interesting to see what the future has in store for “ebooks” and the literary market.
Getting ready for bed, Miss Davis shocks Miss Hopkins by appearing in only the pajama top and not the bottoms, exposing her legs to us as she strolls to her bed. Even before he says goodnight to her, we see that swell guy husband John Loder is charmed by Bette Davis, a hint for what will follow.
This first “act”, so to speak, is screwball comedy, but the tone changes in the next act when we find ourselves in the mid-1930s. Davis, who plods carefully along in her writing, still critically successful but still not rich, is nervously preparing for the opening night of her first play. Meanwhile Hopkins, ever confident and prolific, has by this time dashed off one potboiler after another, making buckets of money.
Miss Hopkins is no longer the homey housewife, but has morphed into a career woman with all the charm of a steamroller. Society columnist Anne Revere has come to interview her in her New York City hotel digs. Anne Revere as a gussied up Manhattan sophisticate is treat, a 180-degree turn from her usual earth mother type roles. Perc Westmore must have slapped the pancake makeup on with a trowel to cover up those peasant freckles of hers.
Miss Revere asks about the progress of Bette Davis’ new novel, to which Davis modestly replies, “Well, I write and re-write, and I still don’t like it.”
Revere encouragingly replies, “Well, at least when you do turn one out it’s a gem. None of this grinding them out like sausage.” Miss Revere suddenly realizes the indirect insult to romance novelist Hopkins and offers, “I suppose I could cut my throat.”
“There’s a knife on the table,” Hopkins replies.
We see by now that Miss Hopkins’ swell guy husband is still full of comic asides, but there is a note of sarcasm now. He drinks a good deal, is neglected by his wife for the sake of her career, just as she neglects their young daughter. He puts up with it gallantly, without seeming jealousy for her success, but becomes angry only when Hopkins flings one too many cruel barbs at her old pal Davis. Hopkins’ irritation has grown with her income. No matter how successful she has become, she is still insecure and jealous over Davis. Davis, perhaps because of her quiet seriousness about her work, appears to have grown more introverted in contrast to her friend’s more explosive personality. Davis also chain smokes through the movie, and I lost count after a while.
John Loder’s fondness for Davis has evolved into infatuation, which Davis will not return, holding him off out of loyalty for Hopkins. She recounts for him her lonely childhood when Hopkins was her only friend. When she was orphaned, Hopkins’ parents took her in. Another actress could take the speech and make it maudlin, but Bette Davis has that quality of hard unblinking honesty that makes it work. This section of the movie has become a soap opera, but the pace is not slowed. There is poignancy to the growing resignation and sadness of the Bette Davis character, after having appeared so resilient and devil-may-care in the preceding act when she was a younger woman.
At the end of this “act”, John Loder gets fed up with walking the tightrope of Miriam Hopkins’ moods, and leaves her.
Act three brings us to the 1940s and the solemn urgency of wartime. Davis, appearing in a Red Cross volunteer’s uniform, makes a plea for support during a radio broadcast rally. We see she has entered middle age by the heavy glasses she wears to read her script, and that artistic streak of gray in her hair that, like driving your car into a chicken-filled truck, was a movie cliché.
Miriam Hopkins’ daughter is now grown up, dating a gigolo, and Bette Davis is dating Gig Young, a man ten years her junior. She is sensitive about this, and hesitant to marry him because of it. Now, nearly 20 years after we first met her, she is bedeviled with insecurities and regrets, but still steadfast in her loyalty to Hopkins, and by extension, to Hopkins’ daughter.
She is also, delightfully, still wearing only pajama tops and still giving us a glimpse of her legs as she strides across her bedroom. We see that despite the gray streak in her hair, despite the fear of aging alone, she still has a tiny bit of that careless young Jazz Age writer in her. It’s a nice bit of continuity.
We have a bit more soap opera with the reappearance of John Loder, a fuming Hopkins who seems to destroy Davis’ one last chance at happiness, and the romantic troubles of the daughter, but here again, the pace never slows. This act contains one of the funniest Bette Davis scenes ever, where she finally gets fed up with Hopkins, shakes her nearly to death, shoves her on the couch, and mutters a perfunctory, “Sorry.” We are back to screwball comedy.
Other nice touches that reflect the war period are the way when Davis, needing time to think, tells the cab driver to just drive around and he replies he is not allowed to because of gas rationing. Also, John Loder, now in uniform, appears to have something of a military haircut, which is realistic detail we don’t often see in Hollywood films of this period, despite their intention to reflect what was happening in the country at this time.
Miriam Hopkins is the engine that drives much of the conflict, and though one might accuse her of overacting, I would guess many of us actually know people like this character she plays, over-sensitive, quick to accuse, where almost any conversation turns into high melodrama.
The film’s final moments with Davis and Hopkins drinking flat champagne in a tribute to their cockeyed friendship, and especially to the passing parade of years, is another astonishing scene, made so by the unexpected sudden camera pan back from behind and above them. It seems they will age together, as their characters did in their previous film “The Old Maid” (1939). In films of later decades, two women aging without romantic partners might be depicted either as a sad failure, or else not depicted at all. Here, there is almost a note of triumph that they have weathered the years and the ups and downs of their relationship.
Inevitably, one of the guilty pleasures of watching the film is doing so with the knowledge that Hopkins and Davis disliked each other in real life. You don’t see it in this film, where both actresses are deeply engaged in the dynamics of their characters’ relationship, like two old warhorses charging out of the gate.
Well, maybe you see that dislike in one scene. Have a look at the famous shaking scene from “Old Acquaintance.”