Friday, February 7, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943)

Old Acquaintance (1943) is primarily famous today for a scene in which Bette Davis violently shakes her off screen nemesis Miriam Hopkins and then offers a very insincere "sorry" to her victim, but if you watch the entire film you'll be completely on Bette's side about Miriam needing to be shaken. Directed by Vincent Sherman, this romantic melodrama stars the two feuding actresses as lifelong friends who weather ups and downs and disappointment together, but Miriam's character is just about the worst, most annoying frenemy a woman could imagine, leaving the viewer to praise Bette's heroine for just shaking her instead of opening up on her like Leslie Crosbie at the beginning of The Letter (1940). The picture is a compelling depiction of life with an emotional vampire, with a great performance from Davis and very solid support from John Loder, Gig Young, and Delores Moran, but Miriam Hopkins is the one you'll love to hate for her role as selfish, shallow, envious Millie Drake.

Davis plays up and coming novelist Kit Marlowe, who returns to her hometown at the beginning of the film and is reunited with her childhood friend, Millie (Miriam Hopkins). Jealous of Kit's success, Millie then becomes a writer of pulpy romances and enjoys immense wealth but still envies Kit's critical praise. As the years pass, Millie makes her husband, Preston (John Loder), miserable, and he yearns for a second chance at happiness with Kit, who also acts as a substitute mother for Millie's daughter, Deirdre (Dolores Moran). Kit is torn between her loyalty to Millie and her love for Preston, and her decision has lasting consequences for everyone involved.

Although she could play the diva as well as anyone, Davis is the straight arrow here, modest, loyal, practical, and self-sacrificing. Kit embodies the writer as a quiet intellectual, determined to make great art even if it only brings modest success. Millie, on the other hand, craves the limelight and the show of wealth; she churns out frothy popular romances like sausages, as one journalist (played by Anne Revere) accurately but too candidly observes. The public eats up Millie's romances, but Millie never outgrows her persistent jealousy of Kit. Hopkins chews the scenery with her tantrums and hysterics while everyone else has to react to them and attempt to placate Millie, who manages to make other people apologize for her bad behavior. The film wants us to accept that this friendship is important enough for Davis' Kit to make huge sacrifices to maintain, but modern audiences might be too keenly aware of the danger signs of unhealthy relationships to think either Kit or Preston should put up with Millie's emotional blackmail and constant theatrics.

Like numerous other romantic melodramas of this era, Old Acquaintance takes place over several decades and offers us scenes from different key points in the characters' lives. I admit to being a sucker for this kind of story because I love to see the ways in which the costumes, makeup, and lighting try to make young girls out of grown women and then continue on to show them as they grow old. Davis moves from a college girl's suit and energy at the opening to a matronly World War II uniform and a prominent gray streak in her hair near the end, while Hopkins' Millie never gives up her preference for showy, floating confections no matter how old she gets. The decades offer us an opportunity to contemplate what changes and what remains constant in the characters' lives, and for the two leads the passage of time is more distinctly emphasized by the growth of baby Deirdre into a young woman with romantic aspirations and frustrations of her own. Kit in particular is forced to think about herself in contrast with Deirdre when she finds out that Deirdre is in love with Kit's much younger boyfriend, Rudd (Gig Young). The situation puts Kit on the spot once again as she has to choose whether to fight for her own happiness or prioritize her loyalty to another woman.

If you enjoy the pairing of the two rivals, be sure to watch The Old Maid (1939), which also stars Davis and Hopkins as women tied together by jealousy and love. For more decades spanning stories with Bette Davis, see Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Payment on Demand (1951). Miriam Hopkins also stars in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), and Becky Sharp (1935), the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

See also: In Praise of Women's Pictures

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Reasons to Keep a Movie Log

A page from my movie log
Do you keep a record of the movies you watch? Should you? A movie log is a great way to keep track of your viewing over time, and it can be a helpful memory jogger when you're trying to think about which Oscar contenders you saw as soon as they came out and what year you finally discovered that overlooked gem that became a personal favorite. You can make a log as detailed or as basic as you like, but I think even a simple record has real benefits for the serious cinephile.

I have kept a simple movie log since June 2009, when I first started with a small ringbound journal. I'm still using that journal more than a decade later because I only list the year and month, the name of each film, and the release date of the film. When I first started the log I tried to be more detailed and include a mini review with a star rating, but I quickly realized that I was more likely to keep the log current if I just stuck to the basic information. I was watching a lot of movies each month back then (27 in August 2010!) because I was getting paid to write frequent columns for the now defunct and was still discovering a lot of classics for the first time thanks to the internet, Netflix DVD rentals, and more time at my disposal.

There are several websites you can use to keep a movie log if you are so inclined, including Letterboxd, but personally I prefer the old school paper journal because I like being able to flip through the pages and make notes in the margins when necessary. The written journal feels more intimate, and I can see at a glance if I got hooked on a particular star in April 2012 (Henry Fonda) or became obsessed with a series in November 2016 (I watch Star Trek and Star Wars when I'm depressed or anxious, and I watched A LOT of Star Trek in November 2016).

At the end of each year I can easily tally the total number of films I watched and note which ones I saw both in the theater and at home when they came out on disc or streaming. I could also break down my viewing by month and see which months are my busiest for movie watching, although I know it's generally around Halloween, when I watch a lot of classic horror favorites, and Christmas, when I have must-see holiday traditions and more time with the family at home to watch new movies together. I don't keep track of TV series episodes, just feature length films and shorts where relevant, but you could certainly include those in your own list if you want to be thorough.

Here's the record for January 2020:

The Black Cauldron (1985)
But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Bombhsell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2015)
Troop Zero (2019)
MIB International (2019)
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Master of Dark Shadows (2019)
Payment on Demand (1951)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Old Acquaintance (1943)

It's very simple and straightforward, but the list gives me plenty of information about my general viewing activity for the month, and the minimal record is enough to jog my memory later if I need to think about the films. You can also see blog posts summarizing my movie log for a full year, if you want to see a complete list:

2019 Movie Log in Review
2018 Movie Log in Review
Film Log for 2017

If you aren't already keeping a movie log, I do recommend giving it a try, whether it's on Letterboxd, in a document on your computer, or in a notebook. If you do keep a log, I'd love to know what information you include and what you learn about yourself and your habits by keeping track!