For the Ladies – Old Acquaintance
One of the more prevalent subjects in the Women’s Pictures of the thirties, forties, and fifties is female friendships. Often it is relegated to subtext or incidental material, but every once in a while it takes center stage, as in the 1943 film Old Acquaintance, directed by Vincent Sherman. It is an uneven—but enjoyable—film that deals with the life-long friendship between Kit Marlowe (Bette Davis) and Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins). Through various ups and downs, the two women experience a friendship that survives self-centeredness, romantic intrigue, and the vagaries of the human heart.
The film opens with Katherine “Kit” Marlow returning to town, triumphant after a well-received first novel. She is a free spirit who takes her writing seriously and works hard to maintain its primacy in her life. She has come to visit her life-long best friend, Millie Drake, who has chosen a life of domesticity with a nice husband and a child on the way. Millie, however, is jealous of Kit’s success and wants to make her own mark on the world. She, too, writes a novel—a romantic bestseller—and embarks on her own career. She churns out a novel every year, but her reviews are nothing compared to the critical accolades Kit gets. Happily for Millie, Kit’s sales are pretty low, and Millie can feel the more successful of the two.
Unfortunately, Millie’s belief that she has it all falls apart when her husband Preston (John Loder) leaves her and asks Kit to marry him. Kit refuses; not because she doesn’t love him, but because stealing your best friend’s husband just isn’t something good people do. She’s not sure if she loves him, but she knows that she does love Millie. She never discusses this with anyone, and when Millie finds out many years later, she mistakenly believes Kit stole Preston from her, rather than Preston leaving because he could not deal with Millie’s constant need to be the dominate partner in any relationship. Will Kit and Millie save their friendship? Will Kit marry the much younger Rudd Kendall (Gig Young?) Why has Preston come back to talk to Millie after all these years? Watch and find out!
This is an enjoyable melodrama that is overshadowed by some pretty horrible acting choices. I’d like to read the script someday to get an idea of how things were supposed to play out. Rumor has it Davis and Hopkins hated each other, and while it may make for good gossip, it doesn’t make for a subtly acted film. Miriam Hopkins overacts like crazy, displaying none of the clever comedic timing of her Lubitsch years in the thirties. She plays Millie so broadly and appears so crazy and unpleasant, one wonders why Kit would stay so loyal to her. And Davis underplays Kit to the point that she verges on boring. But they are just good enough to keep the viewer engaged; it’s not that good, but it sure is fun.
The unfortunate acting choices made in this film make the viewer question why the women are still friends, but the film itself never loses sight that it is about a friendship that supersedes all romantic relationships. Kit may long for men she cannot have, but she always puts the needs of the women in her life first. Millie may not be able to control her jealousy and ambition, but she is not afraid to humble herself before Kit and apologize, even if she would never do so for her husband. Their shared history is more important than temporary disagreements, and Sherman never waivers when showing their commitment to the long term.
And why are they so committed even though Millie is nuts and Kit is cloyingly noble? Because underneath it all, both women are loyal only to their own needs and careers. The most important thing to them is their writing, and neither one is going to let very much get in the way, and they each need the help of the other to achieve their goals. Kit is all about her art and never seriously pursues any opportunities for a marriage or children. She enjoys Millie’s family ties, becoming a de facto aunt to Millie’s daughter Deirdre and maintaining a romantic, but chaste, relationship with Preston. Millie wants to have as much success as she can, and doesn’t often mind sharing Deirdre with Kit, since that clears up some time for her to get things done. Kit’s lack of monetary success also contributes to Millie’s less-than-admirable need to be top dog; each woman gets exactly what she wants emotionally from the other. They often encourage each other to behave in a more “womanly” fashion throughout the film, but underneath it all, their actions are mostly geared towards helping each other succeed in their careers.
They do get punished for this. Neither one has much romantic success or a relationship with Deirdre that is all that great. But, in the end, they have each other, and their imperfect friendship allows them to focus on the one thing that has meaning to them: writing. I don’t want to make it seem as though the subtext is the only interesting part of this film, though. It’s great fun to watch Hopkins chew the scenery, and there’s enough here to keep most folks interested. Its focus on friendship is a breath of fresh air, and while it’s not one of the great Women’s Pictures, it is certainly good enough to justify a screening or two.
Availability: Old Acquaintance is available at all finer DVD sales and rental outlets.