April 13, 2018
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
here is one good scene in Vincent Sherman’s overly ruffled Old Acquaintance (1943), and it lasts for approximately 45 seconds, contains just three lines of dialogue, and can be found on YouTube. The scene takes place toward the end of the movie, which stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. In it, the camera watches hungrily as the former walks calmly up to the latter, says hardly a thing, and then violently shakes her by the shoulders, apparently to force her out of whatever psychological bind she’s in. The orchestral music explodes; Hopkins yawps. “Sorry,” Davis deadpans once she’s finished.
The scene makes for a brief precursor to what television shows like Dynasty (1981-’89) would become famous for, and acts as a moment of inspiration in a movie that’s just as dramatically ostentatious but not as enjoyably so. It also has become a fan favorite moment for those infatuated with the paragon of boss women that is Davis, as it both encapsulates her infectious take-no-prisoners attitude and her famed feud with the inferior Hopkins.
Nothing else about Old Acquaintance is quite so effective, though: Without its violent shoulder herky jerk, it’d in no doubt be as forgotten as other underwhelming Davis vehicles, from In This Our Life (1942) to Deception (1946).
It is about a decades-long semi-feud between frenemies Davis and Hopkins, who are both successful novelists, blonde, and ridiculous. Davis’ character writes dignified novels that earn her literary acclaim and commercial recognition; Hopkins’ character, who’s exhausting, avidly churns out hackneyed romance novels that sell like hotcakes.
Their relationship, which spans decades and drives the movie, is supposedly rooted in the fact that they’ve known each other their whole lives. But it’s more messy than anything: Jealousy, husband-tempting, and backstabs are almost more part of their friendship than actual affection.
And it's a bore: What an inane, elephantinely mounted melodrama this is. The central relationship is unconvincing and uninvolving, mostly consisting of Hopkins overacting and Davis calming her down.
The 110 minutes allotted for its running time are generous. Its subject doesn’t even sound like all that good an idea when placed in the confines of a plot summary – I suppose Jack Warner and his men thought pitting Davis and Hopkins against one another following their other movie together, 1939’s The Old Maid, would make for indelible movie magic without actually going about how to provide them with premier material.
It shows: There’s barely a salvageable item here. Every one of its defining characteristics is copied and pasted from other women’s pictures of the era; all the expected attributes, from incongruously grandiloquent monologues to gargantuan fur coats, from comparably bland male leads to tiresome histrionics, are here, and presented aridly.
Almost everyone is phoning it in. Hopkins is Faye-Dunaway-in-Mommie Dearest bad. Sherman’s direction is banal; it is as though he were passing the time between paychecks. The men in this movie, Loder and Gig Young, could have been played by patched sock puppets. Only Davis, incapable of being anything less than watchable, isn’t bogged down by this asinine, tedious material: her performance is expectedly animated and believable, the only thing worth savoring in a movie that could have been made in a soap opera bottle. And, I guess, that shaking scene. C-