The Confidante Game: Trading on That Old Acquaintance

Well, here’s an acquaintance worth making. Old Acquaintance, that is, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of which is currently in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. Judging from the walkers and hearing aids on display at last Tuesday’s performance—not to mention the gas passed noisily in the lobby—I suspect that quite a few of the folks in attendance that evening got to see John Van Druten’s comedy during its original run back in 1940-41, while some of the friends of Dorothy’s we passed in the aisle were most likely on intimate terms with the 1943 film adaptation starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, two leading ladies on less than friendly terms.

Whether or not you (think you) are familiar with this story of a longtime rivalry redefined as friendship, the Roundabout production is likely to teach you a lesson or two about the nature of that least clearly defined of social compacts and about Hollywood’s (s)elective affinities with Broadway.

I caught up with Vincent Sherman’s soon-to-be-remade melodrama (and one of its radio versions) only after seeing the play, which made me appreciate the stage version’s maturity all the more. Van Druten, who was involved in the screen adaptation of Old Acquaintance, sure learned how to compromise in order to make it in Tinseltown. That he turned his sparkling comedy into an even larger crowd-pleasing sentimental melodrama is all the more remarkable considering that the English playwright’s first drama, Young Woodley (1925), had initially been banned in Britain for its treatment of sexual awakening. Production code conformity in the case of Old Acquaintance—as in most cases—meant turning mature women with careers as well as sex lives into silly girls or stoic old maids.

The silly girl in the Hollywood version is Miriam Hopkins, whose Millie is so envious of the publicity enjoyed her novelist friend Kit that she, however ill equipped for literary fame, turns to the writing of romances. The old maid is Bette Davis, whose romantically luckless Kit is willing to hand down her much younger lover to Millie’s daughter, Deidre, for which sacrifice she is duly rewarded with a cup of human kindness, shared with a remorseful Millie by the fire that warms them when the heat of passion is no longer in the Hallmark cards.

All this bears little resemblance to Van Druten’s original three-act play, a witty, tightly constructed comedy of manners. As one astute online reviewer of the movie points out, it becomes difficult to understand why Kit and Mollie became such old acquaintances once their careers are pushed into the background. In the stage play, it is Millie who, though a trash novelist herself, enjoys Kit’s respect as a keen and candid editor of Kit’s ponderous, overly analytic storytelling. However different in temperament, Kit and Mollie come across as equals, which explains at once their closeness and their rivalry.

On stage, Old Acquaintance echoes La Rochefoucauld’s maxims that friendship is “nothing but a transaction from which the self always means to gain something” and that in the “misfortunes of our friends we always find something that isn’t displeasing to us.” Concurring with the latter, satirist Jonathan Swift remarked about his relationship with fellow authors:

To all my Foes, dear Fortune, send
Thy Gifts, but never to my Friend:
I tamely can endure the first,
But, this with Envy makes me burst.

In the current stage revival, Margaret Colin’s Kit is less pathetic than Davis’s, while Harris’s portrayal of Mollie is more sympathetic than that of Hopkins (who reprised her role, opposite miscast Alexis Smith, in the 29 May 1944 Lux Radio Theatre production). If not nearly as assured and brilliant in her comic timing or line reading as Rosalind Russell, with whom in mind the rights to Old Acquaintance were secured by Warner Brothers, Colin is both real and regal. Davis, who was asked to drop her pajamas to expose her less-than-glamorous legs, is matronly by comparison, suggesting that she sacrificed her juvenile beau to play surrogate mother to her best friend’s daughter.

The marvellous Harriet Harris, in turn, hands Millie back her brains. Whereas Hopkins’s character comes across as an impulsive, overgrown schoolgirl, spiteful and pouting, Harris’s Millie is calculating, smart, and rather dangerous (not unlike her Tony Award winning Mrs. Meers, in Thoroughly Modern Millie and her scheming Felicia Tilman in Desperate Housewives). Not content to see her best friend succeed, Millie intends to succeed her in fame and fortune. Her dramatic outbursts are an expression of her frustration when she realizes that the unmarried and childless Kit is not only a better mother to her daughter, but that she might also have been a better, and more desirable wife to her former husband.

If you prefer expensive theatre seats to cheap Hollywood sentiment, the revival of Old Acquaintance is your ticket.

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