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?