Though relatively forgotten and, when remembered, usually dismissed as a second-rate talent (quite possibly by those who have never seen her on film), Miriam Hopkins was actually a highly capable performer who worked with some of the most renowned directors in Hollywood history – Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch, and William Wyler, among them.
Apart from the fact that time tends to dim memories, that most early Paramount films are shamefully unavailable (thanks to thoughtless executives at Universal, the studio that now owns most of the Paramount classics), and that most U.S. film critics and historians seem to believe that American movie history begins with Bonnie and Clyde, Miriam Hopkins' professional legacy has suffered more than those of most major stars of her era because of her off-screen reputation.
To say that Hopkins was considered “difficult” would be an understatement. In fact, when her name comes up in current publications – not infrequently accompanied by the word “bitch” – it is almost invariably tied to that of her arch-enemy Bette Davis, with whom Hopkins had well-publicized fights when they co-starred in two Warner Bros. productions during the height of the studio era.
What few care to remember – or to learn – is that before Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert became full-fledged stars, Hopkins was a top Paramount attraction, playing sensual and sexually liberated women in numerous classics.
Among those were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (right, 1931), in which she is outstanding as the “loose” girl who gets strangled by Fredric March's animalistic (and animalized) doctor; Trouble in Paradise (1932), a brilliantly comic performance, hitting all the rights notes as sophisticated thief Herbert Marshall's lover and accomplice; the three-way comedy of (sexual) manners Design for Living (1933), making merry with fellow bed partners Gary Cooper and Fredric March; and The Story of Temple Drake (1933, above, with William Gargan and Jack La Rue), in which she gets raped in this controversial film adaptation of William Faulkner's Sanctuary.
The Savannah native (born in 1902) from a well-to-do family began her show business career while dancing in the chorus of Broadway productions of the early 1920s. With the arrival of sound later in the decade, Hopkins – by then a well-regarded stage performer – was signed by Paramount, which, along with other Hollywood studios, was looking for stage-trained actors to populate talking pictures.
After only two years, Hopkins had become a major film star. Upon leaving Paramount in mid-decade, she received an Academy Award nomination for playing the title role in Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935) at RKO, the first feature film in three-strip Technicolor.
At about that time, she also signed with Samuel Goldwyn, for whom she starred in These Three (1936), a bowdlerized – though still powerful – version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour. In the play, Hopkins' character was in love with her fellow (female) teacher; in the film version, the love triangle had Joel McCrea's character at the top. (Merle Oberon was the third corner.)
Hopkins was also one of the contenders for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Like the novel's heroine, the actress was a not-so-prim and not-so-proper Southern belle, thus becoming author Margaret Mitchell's initial choice for the part.
In Edmund Goulding's first-rate melodrama The Old Maid (right, 1939), her first pairing with Davis (who had reportedly had an affair with Hopkins' then husband, director Anatole Litvak), Hopkins all but wipes the screen with her badly miscast co-star.
Even so, by the early 1940s Hopkins' film career had lost steam. A second pairing with Bette Davis, in Old Acquaintance (1943), directed by Vincent Sherman, did little to help stem her professional decline. (In that one, Davis gets the chance to – literally – give Hopkins a thorough shake-up.) By the end of the decade, the former star had been reduced to playing supporting roles – though usually doing so with all the verve of yore.
Among her later films were William Wyler's adaptation of Augustus and Ruth Goetz's play The Heiress (1949), which itself was taken from Henry James' novel Washington Square, and in which Hopkins plays Olivia de Havilland's aunt; Carrie (1952), playing Laurence Olivier's prepossessing wife in Wyler's careful adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel; and The Children's Hour (1961), excellent as the ditzy aunt in Wyler's second adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play, now with the lesbian theme restored. (Shirley MacLaine played the old Hopkins role; Audrey Hepburn and James Garner were the other two sides of the triangle.)
Hopkins last film appearance was in the little-seen Savage Intruder (a.k.a. Comeback, 1970), a Sunset Blvd. redux in which she plays a former film star who becomes entangled with rough trade in the form of John Garfield Jr. (Despite her stint at Warner Bros., Hopkins never worked with his father.)
A well-to-do woman to the end, Hopkins died of a heart attack in 1972.
Through his research, Allan has uncovered a Miriam Hopkins (above, with Maurice Chevalier in The Smiling Lieutenant) that is considerably more complex than the Mega-Bitch of lore. “Difficult” she may have been, but Hopkins was also a cultured woman who enjoyed to be surrounded by writers and intellectuals, and one who made more than a few male hearts flutter in her heyday.
Allan is currently looking for more leads on Miriam Hopkins. Those who have pertinent information, please contact him at Aellenber at aol dot com.
Photos: Courtesy Allan Ellenberger Collection