When Zoë Akins' play The Old Maid (based on a novel by Edith Wharton) won the 1934-1935 Pulitzer Prize, the selection was roundly condemned by critics, who felt that Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour was more deserving, but had lost because of its lesbian theme. Certainly, Akins' story of the relationship between two Southern cousins in the years between 1833 and 1854 is nothing spectacular. Delia Lovell marries James Ralston, leaving her old beau Clem Spender out in the cold. Delia's cousin Charlotte comforts Clem by spending the night with him. Charlotte becomes pregnant, secretly farming out her daughter, Tina, to another family. The years pass; Charlotte sets up a day nursery so that she may remain close to her daughter (still in the dark as to the true identity of her mother). Meanwhile, Charlotte has become engaged to Ralston's brother Joseph. The troublesome Delia, who discovers her cousin's secret, contrives to prevent Charlotte from marrying Joseph, then arranges to have Charlotte raise Tina as her niece rather than her daughter. More years pass; Tina regards Delia as her mama and Charlotte as just an "old maid." At Tina's wedding, Charlotte almost reveals the truth to her daughter, but.....It's all slick romance-magazine stuff, and hardly worthy of the Pulitzer. On the other hand, the film version of The Old Maid, starring Bette Davis as Charlotte and Miriam Hopkins as Delia, is a classic of its kind, and one of Davis' best vehicles. The story is given additional substance by moving the early scenes up to the time of the Civil War, making Clem Spender (George Brent) less of a cad by killing him off at Vicksburg, thus rendering it impossible for Clem to make an honest woman of Charlotte. From the vantage point of the 1990s, when film stars find it difficult to turn out more than one picture a year, it is incredible that The Old Maid was but one of four first-rate Bette Davis films to be released in 1939; the others were Dark Victory, Juarez, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
by Hal Erickson synopsis