Miriam Hopkins: Q&A with Author Allan Ellenberger

Miriam Hopkins as Becky Sharp
Miriam Hopkins in a publicity shot for Becky Sharp

Miriam HopkinsMiriam Hopkins.

If mentioned at all today, Miriam Hopkins' name pops up in the media for two reasons:

  • One of her movies is being shown on cable or at some retrospective or other, and someone says or writes that Old Hollywood's Miriam Hopkins was a selfish, self-centered, megalomaniacal, scene-stealing, temperamental, fire-spitting Bitch from Hell who made life difficult for co-stars, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, hairdressers, manicurists, costume designers, studio carpenters, and special effects personnel, among others.
  • Miriam Hopkins was Bette Davis' Foremost Nemesis. Davis hated her so much, but so much, that Joan Crawford, Jack Warner, Errol Flynn, and whoever else Davis feuded & fought with during her sixty-year career were transmogrified into angelic babes in comparison. (What's not widely known is that Davis had an affair with director Anatole Litvak when they were filming The Sisters in the late 1930s. At that time, Litvak happened to be Hopkins' husband.)

Well, talk about an unfair rap. One, for that matter, that has been going on for decades. (In 1940, for instance, the Harvard Lampoon cited Hopkins as “the least desirable companion on a desert island.”)

I've written about Miriam Hopkins before, informing Alt Film Guide visitors that author Allan Ellenberger, who has written books on silent film actor Ramon Novarro, silent era Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino, and MGM child actress Margaret O'Brien, has been working on a biography about the 1930s star of classics such as The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among others.

Here are a few more samples of Hopkins' 1930s screen work:

  • Design for Living, in which she is part of a cozy love/sex triangle;
  • the scandalous The Story of Temple Drake (taken from William Faulkner's equally scandalous Sanctuary), in which she gets raped (possibly with a corncob);
  • Becky Sharp, which happens to be the first all-(three-strip)Technicolor feature film;
  • These Three, a un-scandalous film version of The Children's Hour, the scandalous Lillian Hellman play about lies and lesbianism (Hopkins had a supporting role in the more “explicit” 1961 remake);
  • the classic tearjerker The Old Maid, in which Hopkins plays opposite none other than Bette Davis;

Additionally, I should mention the 1943 melo Old Acquaintance, also co-starring Davis, which inspired both (unofficially) the multiple Academy Award-nominee The Turning Point and (officially) Rich and Famous.

Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDuring her heyday as a major Hollywood star, Miriam Hopkins co-starred with the likes of Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Joel McCrea, George Raft, Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Fredric March (right, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Ray Milland, Bing Crosby, Randolph Scott, Maurice Chevalier, and Claude Rains.

She also played opposite quite a few women: Claudette Colbert, Merle Oberon, Kay Francis, Carole Lombard, Frances Dee, Fay Wray, and, as mentioned above, Bette Davis.

Hopkins was Ernst Lubitsch's favorite actress, starring for the director in three films (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living). Additionally, she worked for top-notch talent such as Rouben Mamoulian, William Wyler, Edmund Goulding, John Cromwell, Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, and Vincent Sherman.

Now, allow me to commit a major heresy here:

If I had the choice between watching Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis, I wouldn't think twice; Miriam Hopkins would be my pick. Davis excelled at playing Bitches from Hell – and some of Davis' Bitches are the Greatest Ever – but in my view she was a dismal “sympathetic” heroine, as lightheartedly funny as a funeral and as sexy as Margaret Hamilton. Hopkins, on the other hand, with the right guidance could play just about any kind of role with ease.

She could be dramatic, all but stealing the show from Academy Award winner Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; turning the bowdlerized These Three into a powerful, visceral drama; fully obfuscating Bette Davis in The Old Maid; and even teaching none other than Laurence Olivier a lesson or two in screen acting while playing his unrelentingly nasty wife in Carrie.

Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert in The Smiling Lieutenant, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The man they're discussing is Maurice Chevalier. Clip posted by carpalton

She could be funny, as can be attested by her charming thief in Trouble in Paradise, her unhappy princess who finally learns how to jazz up her lingerie in The Smiling Lieutenant (above), and even her cheesy – and highly successful – novelist in Old Acquaintance.

And she could be sexy: just look at her in the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or check out her free-thinking sophisticate having a three-way with Gary Cooper and Fredric March in Design for Living. And though “sexy” isn't quite the word for the sixty-something, matronly Hollywood has-been in Savage Intruder (1970), Hopkins does prove that nearly forty years after her pre-Coders, she still got what it took to seduce a guy – even if that basically meant sheer gutsiness and willpower.

Miriam HopkinsBut, you ask, was Miriam Hopkins really difficult?

Well, Allan talks about her reputation below. But what I, personally, think is utterly unfair is that Hopkins should be remembered for her temper and not for her work when she could be – and often was – an outstanding actress, superior to and more versatile than many other actresses of the era who are more fondly remembered.

In fact, Miriam Hopkins, who suffered a fatal heart attack in October 1972 shortly before her 70th birthday, remains a thoroughly underappreciated performer; one that merits a reevaluation of her long – and quite fruitful – career.

Allan has kindly agreed to answer several questions (via e-mail) about his biographical subject, ranging from her relationship with Bette Davis to her dealings with the highly subversive League of Women Shoppers. See next page.

Later on, check out Allan's other q&a's at altfg: Anita Page, Celebrities in the 1930 Census, Rudolph Valentino. And if you have any information, whether personal or professional, about Miriam Hopkins, please contact Allan at aellenber@aol.com.

Photos: Allan Ellenberger Collection

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