Old Acquaintance (1943)
Old Acquaintance (1943) is the story of two childhood friends who both grow up to be writers and fall in love with the same man, yet somehow remain buddies all the while.
This film is an adaptation of John Van Druten’s 1940 play. (Druten also wrote Bell, Book and Candle (play 1950, movie 1958) and I Remember Mama (1948).
Old Acquaintance stars Bette Davis, who scored a big hit with The Old Maid (1939), though this second pairing almost didn’t happen.
Originally, this movie was planned as a witty comedy intended to showcase Rosalind Russell, but when the script slowed and became mangled due to Production Code objections (more on that later), Russell took My Sister Eileen (1942) instead. Warner Bros. then asked Irene Dunne to star in the film, but when she turned it down they finally called Bette Davis.
Warner Bros. offered Davis her pick of the two female leads, the selfish, childish Millie or the sophisticated, compassionate Kit. Unlike many actresses, Davis did not shy away from unsympathetic characters, but this time she chose Kit, and would later say that this role was one of the closest to the “real Bette Davis” that she ever played.
Now Warner Bros. had to find Davis’ co-star. Davis asked for Norma Shearer, but Shearer refused to play the part. So Warner turned to Miriam Hopkins. Davis wasn’t thrilled with this choice, because the two stars had struggled to work together on 1939’s The Old Maid. During production of that film, Miriam Hopkins thought that Bette Davis was having an affair with Hopkins’ husband, filmmaker Anatole Litvak…so she made things difficult for Davis.
But the conflict went even further back than that. Hopkins and Davis had worked together in the theater when Hopkins was the established star and Davis was the up-and-coming new girl.
Hopkins didn’t like it when Davis became a star, too, and she hated it when Davis won the Academy Award for Jezebel (1938): Hopkins had originated the role on Broadway.
When they worked together on The Old Maid, a jealous, insecure Hopkins tried to undermine, upstage, and disrupt Davis’ performance by messing with makeup (both women were supposed to age throughout the film, but Hopkins would re-do her makeup just before takes so that she looked much younger than Davis), props, (fussing with them or holding them in front of Davis) and blocking (moving around so as to obscure Davis from the camera), etc…very mature stuff. I remember being bummed when I heard about Hopkins’ machinations, as I love her in 1930s screwball comedies and she seems like such a fun, carefree lady! Movie magic.
Anyway, Hopkins made so many demands after Warner Bros. cast her in Old Acquaintance ($5,000 a week, total control over her makeup, hair, and costumes) that they then tried to slide someone else into the role. But when Margarat Sullavan said no and Janet Gaynor was deemed unsuitable, they returned to troublesome Hopkins.
The troubled past between Davis and Hopkins works in the film, though their behind-the-scenes tussles and Hopkins’ on-set schemes made the production last twice as long as planned. But the movie did get finished, providing us with this melodramatic saga of friendship, love, career, and cigarettes. There’s lots of cigarettes.
So Kit (Davis) and Millie (Hopkins) grew up together in a quaint little town. They have been best friends since they can remember, but they haven’t seen each other in a while. It’s 1924, they are grown women, and Kit has moved to New York to be a writer. Millie stayed, got married, and is having a baby, though there’s no sign of a tummy, ever.
Kit is coming back to town after publishing a critically lauded but slow-selling book. Thank you, newspaper, for giving us this information so efficiently:
Kit dedicated the book to Millie, by the way, and Millie is in a tizzy about Kit’s visit. She’s thrilled to show Kit her husband, her house, and her life. Millie picks Kit up at the train station and they embrace (probably an awkward day on set):
The costumes tell a great deal of the story here: notice Kit’s mannish blouse, tie, and simple skirt, along with her makeup-free face and short, simple, pinned back hair.
Compare that to Millie’s frilly blouse, black pinafore dress, curled hair, and big hat with flowers. Kit is “career woman” in the big city, and Millie is “small town wife.” (Orry-Kelly was the costume designer on this film.)
The newspaper furthers this dichotomy by telling us that Kit’s lecture topic is “Modern Woman.”
The Kit Marlowe Fan Club shows up and whisks Kit away, upsetting Millie terribly since her carefully arranged arrival plans are ruined. You can watch the scene here. It seems as though Millie is the sweet, considerate friend and Kit is the selfish one, but that characterization won’t last long.
Millie’s furious and embarrassed, plus she backs into a milk truck on her way home from the station. When she walks into the house she’s in quite a state. She’d be in even more of a state if she knew that Kit and Millie’s husband, Preston, were having a very nice conversation in Millie’s absence…
Millie is fuming and Kit has to calm her down, which she does quite well. We get the feeling that this isn’t Millie’s first blow-up. Suddenly Millie seems very childish in her bow-blouse sitting on the bed.
The friendship is saved, Millie gets to throw a big party for Kit, and afterwards the bombshell drops. As Davis gets ready for bed, Millie yammers on about how she’s written a novel, too, though it’s quite different from Kit’s. Millie knows what people want, you see (subtle jab at Kit’s “artistic” but unpopular writing.) Do notice the contrast in costume in this scene, too. Same thing as at the train station, and they carry on the trend of huge accessories and fussy clothes for Millie/simple, elegant attire for Kit throughout the movie.
Millie has stars in her eyes as she tells Kit about her romantic novel. The filmmakers go out of their way here to make Millie seem silly and selfish, and Kit seem awfully down to earth. It’s certainly not a glamorous scene for Bette Davis. She even removes her stockings, and there’s a whole thing about how she doesn’t wear pajama bottoms, only the tops!
Then Preston (John Loder) pops his head in to say goodnight. Look at their faces–foreshadowing!
Now we skip forward with a helpful montage! Millie is a wildly successful author, churning out seven books in as many years!
It’s 1932, Millie is a rich, popular writer, and she’s got a daughter named Deidre. They’re in New York, her marriage to Preston is on the rocks, and Deidre seems to adore Kit, who adores her right back. Preston still seems enamored with Kit, too, as is the reporter who has come to interview Millie. Everyone smile at Kit!
Kit has her first play opening that very night, but naturally Millie has to upstage her. Millie returns from shopping in a frankly ridiculous hat, and proceeds to be rude, patronizing, and dismissive to her husband. So he finds Kit and professes his undying love to her, though she rebuffs him…You can watch the scene here.
Then Millie shows everyone the extravagant diamonds she purchased, making sure to remind her husband that it was her money that paid for them. (Love this mirror shot! It’s a lovely film with shots like this sprinkled throughout.)
This is the final straw for poor, emasculated Preston. Millie is shocked, shocked! that he’s going to leave her.
Preston hides out in a hotel and asks Kit to meet him there. She comes straight from her opening night, poor thing, rebuffs Preston’s advances and “I love yous,” again, telling him again that even though she’s in love with him, she could never do that to Millie! She does relent enough to kiss him goodbye…
Then Millie shows up, thankfully not until after the kiss. She’s almost hysterical, not at losing Preston so much as with losing her “husband” and the image she had of her perfect life of money, hubby, baby, and career. Poor Kit is then subjected to this ironic (both in the film world and the real world) tirade:
Sure, says Kit.
Next thing we know, the film has jumped forward ten years…it’s 1942 and WWII is waging. (This movie was released in November of 1943, so, as in Cover Girl, the war is very much present though in the background.)
Kit is doing her part for the war effort, writing stirring pleas to support the Red Cross. (In what might have been an effort to appear ten years older, Davis goes completely dignified in her demeanor and voice, which appears somewhat stiff and unrealistic to me.) Millie is as dramatic and selfish as ever, but Deidre is a teenager now.
And, most importantly, Kit’s got a boyfriend! It’s Rudd (though at first one assumes it’s “Rod” and Davis is just saying it oddly in her dignified, almost-British accent), played by Gig Young. Even though Davis and Young were both married, they carried on a dressing-room affair during production of this film…
Davis also apparently fell in love with the (married) director, Vincent Sherman. She declared her love to him, and they made plans to meet in Mexico after filming, but then Davis’ husband told Sherman he was trying to save his marriage with Davis, and Sherman left her alone.
The play on which this film is based was a sophisticated comedy, (the movie is much more akin to a soap opera) and Kit was a sophisticated woman with strings of lovers. Of course, the Production Code demanded that they tone down this side of the story, so we lose that Kit-as-sexual-woman-with-many-lovers until this final act of the film. Her “experience” is then thrown in our faces, but it rings a little hollow, as up until now Kit has been a lonely writer with an impossible love.
Anyway, Rudd is ten years younger than Kit the cougar (Young was actually just five years younger than Davis), and Kit is afraid to marry him because of the age difference. She keeps telling him that he should be with someone young who can start a family with him, etc. She’d better be careful what she wishes for!
Then Preston comes back into her life. He’s a Major, and he’s thrilled to see Kit and his daughter Deidre, whom he hasn’t seen since he left Millie ten years before. Wild, right? Another wild thing: look at the white Bride of Frankenstein streak in Kit’s hair! They really wanted to age her…
Millie, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have changed very much. She still likes fussy hair, white fussy clothes, and lots of fussy accessories.
Just so I don’t give away absolutely everything, something happens and Millie finds out that Preston and Kit were in love with each other a decade before…She goes crazy and seeks to wound Kit. So she tells Deidre, who loves and respects Kit, that Kit is a shameful, sexual woman who has already had sex with Rudd even though they aren’t married! Millie also blames the breakup of her marriage on Kit’s “snake-in-the-grass” stealing of Preston!
Deidre (Dolores Moran) is devastated, and not just about losing her idol. You see, Rudd took Kit’s words to heart and found himself a nice young girl. Kit probably didn’t mean for him to fall in love with Deidre, who is basically an adopted daughter, but it happened. Dear Deidre didn’t seem to have any problem flirting with Kit’s boyfriend, either…perhaps she’s more like Millie than we thought.
And she says dumb things like this:
More things happen, as one knows they must when love triangles like this ensue. Kit finds out what Millie thinks of her, but she stays calm even in the face of such terrible accusations. She finally does lose control a little, and shakes Millie before uttering a calm “Sorry” and leaving the room. It’s a great scene, especially when you know the backstory.
Davis was rather looking forward to this scene and the chance to shake Miss Hopkins. Throughout the filming, just as she did in The Old Maid, Hopkins did everything she could to disrupt Davis, so this was finally Davis’ chance!
But when Davis strode across the floor and grabbed Hopkins by the shoulders, Hopkins went limp. The director stopped it and told Hopkins that she couldn’t flop around like that because it looked ridiculous; she had to resist the assault just a little. But Hopkins kept up her rag-doll routine until Davis stormed off the set. Eventually, the director forged a truce and they were able to get the scene, but just barely. Definitely watch it here.
After the shaking, Kit puts on a pretty chiffon and sequined gown and pours some champagne, but the evening falls apart.
So she calls for her “Persian Lamb Coat” and goes off to fix things. She fetches Deidre from an unsavory man’s apartment, calling for Deidre to come out from where she is hiding behind a screen.
She tells her: “My dear, I was hiding behind screens before you were born,” and “If you’re going to throw yourself away, and least do it with some originality.” So a little bit of the sophisticated play comes out in the film, but unfortunately just a little. It’s hard to believe that Kit has ever hidden behind a screen, but okay.
We get these marvelous close-ups of that marvelous, made-for-the-movies face, in one of the few wholly sympathetic roles she ever played:
And it somehow ends with “friendship” (seems like a bad friendship to me, though) restored and this immortal line:
If you’re looking for a classic melodrama with two giants of the silver screen, a lush score by Franz Waxman, and faces wreathed by ever-present cigarette smoke, this is your movie:
Fun fact: It was re-made in 1981 as Rich and Famous starring Jacquline Bisset and Candice Bergen, directed by George Cukor (his final film) but it didn’t do very well.