The Old Maid (1939)

Obviously, this movie might be classified as a chick flick since it deals with subject matter that only a woman could enjoy. At least a woman from 1885 that is. I frankly think that most modern women who see this Bette Davis flick would think she was a doormat for no good reason. The guys who see this movie are obviously just trying to suck up to their girlfriends or probably have no use for girlfriends.

This one came out in 1939 so I suppose it was possible that some unwed mother could have had to lie about her baby’s origins for her whole life just so that her baby could have the advantages of being a rich adopted kid instead of a poor bastard. But this movie piled on the drama beyond that and the result was that I never quite figured out the purpose for most of Bette Davis’ actions. Oh I understood it was because she loved her daughter very much and wanted only the best for her, I just never got why that required her to become a dried up, crabby old maid.

Delia Lovall is about to get her money-grubbing, social-climbing hooks into one of those Ralston boys that everyone in town knows is a fine catch. Everyone is excited that Delia is getting married. Everyone is less than excited that a telegram comes mere hours before the ceremony.


A telegram in these old movies is never good news and most often gives us information on one of two things: somebody just died off-screen or someone is finally coming back from a trip abroad to reclaim their old girlfriend back. This time it is the latter and involves a guy named Clem Spender.

Her cousin Charlotte (Bette Davis) hooks up with Spender and sees him off at the train station so that he can go get himself killed in the Civil War. It’s a bittersweet moment when he sees Delia at the train station and seems to take a greater interest in her than he does in Charlotte, but then again it is Charlotte who gets inseminated by Spender without even being married. I guess you could say that this was definitely before her “old maid” phase.

After the Civil War, Charlotte turns to running an orphanage. Charlotte seems to be very attached to one little girl in particular, a little foundling named Tina. Tina is of course the child fathered by Spender.


Charlotte also has herself a new boyfriend, the other Ralston boy. Their planned wedding doesn’t occur and Charlotte thinks it was because Ralston found out she had a kid out of wedlock. Therefore, she’s really pissed when it turns out that Delia told him she had lung disease instead! I never quite got the nuances involved here – to me it seemed like the end result was the same – no man and Charlotte’s life is ruined.

Charlotte and Tina move in with Delia and Tina immediately starts calling Delia mommy and refers to Charlotte as her aunt. Tina is then raised in this household not knowing that Charlotte isn’t just the nasty old aunt, but actually her biological mother.

Charlotte treats Tina like crap while Delia is very nice to Tina. There are frequent scenes where Charlotte is prim and an ass to her, always minding her business and telling her what to do while Tina retorts that Charlotte has never known love and never danced and is just a crappy old maid! (They make sure to get that line out a couple of times, just in case you forgot what this movie was called.)

I began to think that maybe Charlotte wasn’t simply one of those mothers that puts everyone ahead of herself, but was in fact mentally unbalanced. This is most striking when Charlotte actually practices saying cold, stern things to Tina and sits in the dark going through her speech to Tina before Tina even gets home!


She dotes on Tina early in the film, but for some reason their relationship ends as soon as they go live with Delia. Charlotte suddenly turns into the stereotypical old maid, complete with bun hairdo and constipated face.

These unexplained changes just underscore that the film desperately wants to squeeze emotion from the audience, even if it isn’t necessary or justified. It’s not made clear why all the deception was necessary, but even one accepts the outdated notion that Tina’s origins couldn’t be revealed so that she could marry into a good family, why couldn’t Charlotte have told Tina herself? Or at least not been such a bitch to her? What kind of martyr is that?

Davis’ talents are wasted in this slice of tearjerker cinema that doesn’t ever come closer to jerking anything other than your chain, chiefly due to the unsympathetically crazy main character and the pointless sacrifices the story demands that she make.

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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