By: Megan McGurk
Sexual competition in Old Acquaintance (1943) distracts from the main event. Our primary order of concern regards the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins feud over book sales. John Loder seems like the type who asks for his slippers rather than whisper any racy propositions into the back of your neck. He’s too slow and measured; too reticent and mannered to arouse a lady’s blood. Stage the conflict around their ranking on the bestseller list, instead of who gets to change his pillowcases stained with black hair dye. Old Acquaintance rates at the top of the woman’s picture canon because of its plot about rival authors. No one gives a fig about who wins John Loder.
At the wrap party, Bette Davis presented director Vincent Sherman with a token gift to remember the production: a blown-up photograph of the director between his leading ladies set inside a boxing ring. As Sherman recalled in his memoir Studio Affairs, his position as director often reduced to referee, in keeping each woman in a separate corner. Long before Davis’ icy relationship with Joan Crawford snowballed into Hollywood legend, her grudge match with Miriam Hopkins traced back to a stock theatre company under George Cukor in 1928. Bette resented Miriam’s shameless promiscuity and felt Cukor encouraged it; moreover, she balked at the way he seemed to favour the southern belle. Later, Miriam didn’t like it when Bette had an affair with her husband (Anatole Litvak) during All This and Heaven, Too (1940). On set of Old Acquaintance, as Bette recounts in her memoir The Lonely Life, Miriam used little tricks to throw her co-star off or steal the camera, from leaning out of a shot to fidgeting and finding little bits of business to distract Bette. Maybe Miriam settled into an irascible mood because of her limited role as a petulant brat. Look for Miriam in the promotional posters–you’ll have trouble finding her. Jack Warner, studio head and executive producer, probably frog marched Miriam to play the heavy in a Bette Davis vehicle.
Anyone would rebel against a part limited to childish greed, and crappy bestsellers. Why should a woman who writes spicy bodice-rippers that sell like hotcakes fold into tawdry stereotypes, even in 1943? Miriam’s character somehow achieves success without any real depth or struggle. She just breezily pens huge volumes on a whim to compete with the high-brow novels that Bette’s character writes, but that no one reads or recommends. The high versus low cultural divide seems misplaced in a woman’s picture when the audience consumes both historical romance and serious literature. It’s a curious strategy to frame so much disdain for what your audience loves. What’s next, a treatise against hats?
Differences between the women extend to their wardrobe. Bette’s Kit Marlowe enjoys a literary surname that lends gravitas to her artistic efforts. She’s clad in simple menswear, a button-down shirt, tie, A-line wool skirt and flat shoes—no silly fripperies for Kit Marlowe. Girls from her alma mater sponsor a fan club in her name and host a little party for the homegrown author. No one mentions that her fame remains limited to campus or that her book gathers dust in the shops. Meanwhile, Miriam’s character Millie Drake sounds like the name from one of her bonkbusters. She never met a length of frill or ruffle that she didn’t like. Her clothes appear anachronistic and out of step with contemporary fashion, as does her hair, pulled up in a fussy pile of curls. Millie Drake looks like she stepped out of a Gone with the Wind wardrobe test, while Bette looks like she has inherited H.D.’s trunks. We’re primed to evaluate Miriam unfairly. She’s a horrible mother, wife, and author the film tells viewers. At the same time, Bette’s character boasts not a single flaw, other than her long-suffering friendship with Miriam’s Millie.
In The Lonely Life, Bette discussed the big day when she finally delivers Millie’s comeuppance and violently shakes her co-star on camera, noting that everyone halted work at Warner’s to watch the legendary confrontation. At one of the most time-harried, fast-paced studios in Hollywood, other film production ceased so that cast and crew could witness Bette whoop some ass. Can you imagine what Miriam felt like when she walked on set that day? The whispers and sniggers? Miriam, attired as a Havisham without the cobwebs, in a horrific musty taffeta number with girlish buttons and a stiff lace collar, pasted up with rigid starch around her neck, becomes a Cruella de Vil of the plantations, resembling every inch the villain. She’s seems like a buffoon before she opens her mouth to tell Kit Marlowe she can enter. She has the requisite lace hanky clutched in her hand, a style echo for the dreadful collar. By striking contrast, Bette’s in a high fashion Persian lamb coat with matching fez-inspired hat. She’s chic, modern and well-heeled next to Miriam’s prissy dressing gown. Their spat boils down to the same accusation of you’ve-always-been-jealous-of-me. It’s a wonder Bette didn’t snap Miriam’s neck while she shakes her like she was a piggy bank with coins left clinking inside. Afterward, Miriam dissolves in a tantrum, as she wails and beats on the sofa cushions. Snidely Whiplash projects a more credible navigation of a moral compass than Millie Drake. No one’s rooting for her.
The dialogue for their confrontation scene doesn’t reach the dramatic crescendo of Bette’s firm grip on Miriam’s shoulders; if anything, it seems like a safe choice that maybe over emphasises the physical dynamic. These women are writers. They make a living on character, dialogue and conflict, so it creates a vacuum in the scene to settle for accusations of jealousy. Why not insult each other’s prose? If Kit’s really meant to walk out of Millie’s life forever, it seems more realistic that she would have a snide comment about the work Millie refers to as ‘inviolate’. Kit could easily brand them as one-handed reads for bored housewives. She could have savaged Millie’s saccharine love scenes. And rather than pound pillows, Millie could have reminded Kit that in Hawthorne’s words, she’s still only another scribbling woman, not a modernist genius. She could have offered scathing remarks about literary vainglory. Years of pent-up frustration and resentment would naturally culminate in barbs traded. Anyone who has rubbed elbows with mere fledgling novelists knows the scorched earth comments they issue about competitors, stuff so caustic it would melt your hair upon utterance. It seems like a missed opportunity.
The screenwriter, Lenore Coffee, provides an explanation in an interview with Patrick McGilligan (from Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age). When asked about how she managed different approaches to writing for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (Coffee wrote Possessed (1931) and Sudden Fear (1952) for Crawford; for Davis, The Great Lie (1941), Old Acquaintance (1943) and Beyond the Forest (1949):
The difference was entirely in the dialogue. Bette spits out her words, Joan doesn’t. I gave Bette short sentences, short speeches.
Coffee’s approach lends context for me to understand the scene in a new light. Davis does not reach for strong denunciatory invective during the scene, but in her delivery, the lines fall like poisoned darts that pin Miriam to the wall. At the end of the almighty shaking Davis administers, she says ‘sorry’ in a manner that lobs a punch to the bread basket, a follow up to the concussive rattling. What she says carries less weight than how she says it. Bette’s enunciation proves sharp enough to slice bread. She propels words with enough cataclysmic force to pockmark the set. Acute vocal precision means Bette Davis transcends the need for lengthy diatribe. A tirade seems pointless; she has that 21-gun salute voice.
Lenore Coffee has another character mouth a derisive comment for Miriam’s novelist and thereby reserves Bette’s firepower. Anne Revere, as Belle Carter, an editor, siphons the tension between the childhood pals and offers an innocent remark. She says what Bette’s Kit Marlowe doesn’t say:
Belle: Tell me, how is your new book coming along?
Kit: Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.
Belle: But at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…
I suppose I could cut my throat.
Millie: There’s a knife on the table!
Sometimes we long for an altercation that instead assumes covert form. The indirect and off-hand represent the bread and butter of woman’s pictures.