Miriam Hopkins in a publicity shot for Becky Sharp
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.
During 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.
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.
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.
But, 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.
Later on, check out Allan's other q&a's at altfg: Anita Page, Celebrities in the 1930 Census, the Rudolph Valentino Legacy. And if you have any information, whether personal or professional, about Miriam Hopkins, please contact Allan at email@example.com.
Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins in All of Me
First of all, why Miriam Hopkins?
The films she made with Bette Davis – The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943) – first attracted me to Miriam Hopkins. Also, the stories of their purported feud and Davis' virulent comments that she spouted forth during her last days piqued my interest. Davis has always been a favorite of mine, so anyone who could incur this diva's wrath must have something going on. I also felt that Hopkins is one of the most underrated actresses from Hollywood's golden era. Regardless of the quality of her vehicles, she always gave an interesting performance.
When people think of the major stars of the 1930s, Miriam Hopkins' name hardly ever pops up. Why isn't she better remembered today?
That's a good question. Hopkins first appeared on the Broadway stage in 1920. However, it was in the role of Sondra Finchley in the 1926 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy that theatergoers really took notice.
It was her popularity on stage that brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Mack Sennett first tried to hire her as one of his “Bathing Beauties” in the mid-20s, but she turned him down. Finally, in 1930 Paramount signed her to make films during the day while she appeared on stage at night in Lysistrata.
Hopkins was very popular in films throughout the 1930s. During that period, in all of her films she either was the headliner or shared equal billing with her co-stars. But you have to remember that Hopkins appeared in only 35 films during her entire career, and 22 of them were made from 1930 to 1937. Because Paramount sold their library of films to Universal in the 1950s, most of her titles have not been available to the public. It's still almost impossible to find The Story of Temple Drake (1933), for instance, except at special screenings or in a very inferior video copy that has made the rounds among collectors.
It's sad to say, but she is mostly known for the two Davis films and many are unaware of her early work, especially for Paramount. So, she doesn't have quite the same exposure today as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, or Marlene Dietrich, to name a few.
Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Considering that Miriam Hopkins was one of the foremost performers in pre-Production Code films - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Story of Temple Drake, The Smiling Lieutenant, Design for Living, 24 Hours, among others - why don't film scholars give her a more exalted position in the Pantheon of classic Hollywood stars?
I believe that when those films you mentioned are discussed, she is given her due credit - at least in most of the books I've read so far. I think it's in regard to her overall film career and to herself as an individual performer that she lacks acknowledgment. As I mentioned previously, Hopkins' film career spanned 35 years, yet she appeared in fewer films than many of her contemporaries. This alone limits her recognition.
Miriam Hopkins in 24 Hours
Continuing with the pre-Code theme: Hopkins was a daring actress on screen. What was she like in real life?
Hopkins was daring – she was a sexually liberated woman who had numerous lovers and she was also a very complex individual.
A true Southern belle [born in Savannah, Georgia, on Oct. 18, 1902], she was petite, only five feet two inches tall, weighing 102 pounds. A sophisticate, Hopkins, who had very few actor friends, admired and sought out the company of intellectuals. Those she was closest to throughout her life were writers Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ward Morehouse, Dorothy Parker, and Tennessee Williams, just to name a few. Except for her first husband, an actor [Brandon Peters] whom she never discussed, she married two writers [Austin Parker and Raymond B. Brock] and a director [Anatole Litvak]. Most – if not all – of her love affairs were with writers, including Patrick Kearny, William Saroyan, and John Gunther.
Very well-read, she had a huge book collection, many of which were first editions. She had a volatile temper and once trashed the library of her New York home after hearing on the radio that Bette Davis had won the Oscar for Jezebel (1938). [Hopkins had originated the role of the brash Southern belle Julie on Broadway, after replacing an ailing Tallulah Bankhead.] Even though she supported her mother financially from a sense of duty, the relationship was strained.
Surprisingly very straitlaced – despite her highly erotic early screen roles – she had a lifelong aversion to obscenity. Now, she did believe in the occult and would not accept roles, move to a new home, or take long trips without consulting a psychic.
Unfortunately for a biographer, she was not sentimental. Even though she always wanted to be a writer, she never kept a diary or saved correspondence. She left no scrapbooks, but did leave an impression on those she knew and loved.
I understand that Miriam Hopkins turned down a large number of parts. Could you name a few of those? And was there anything she felt sorry she missed out on – any part she rejected but then came to regret her decision, or any part she wanted to play but lost out to someone else?
[Photo: One role Miriam Hopkins accepted: the schoolteacher in These Three, opposite Merle Oberon.]
During her career, Hopkins was scheduled to appear in countless films that were never made, or the parts were given to another actress. Of course, it was a combination of her changing her mind about projects and in some cases the studio changing theirs. Some of the roles she refused were those in The Song of Songs (1933) [Marlene Dietrich got the part], It Happened One Night (1934) - which she regretted [Claudette Colbert got the part and an Academy Award], The Trumpet Blows (1934) [Frances Drake got the part], Peter Ibbetson (1935) [Ann Harding], and Come and Get It (1936) [Frances Farmer].
Curiously, some of the films Miriam Hopkins refused were then given to [fellow Paramount contract player] Carole Lombard, Hopkins' co-star in her first film, Fast and Loose (1930). In the case of No Man of Her Own (1932) – known at that time as “No Bed of Her Own” – Hopkins was assigned the film while co-star [and future Lombard husband] Clark Gable was borrowed from MGM. Hopkins and Gable even posed for publicity pictures (where are those photos now?), but finally Hopkins walked out and went to New York. She said the part didn't “suit her.”
Other Lombard films [at Paramount and elsewhere] that Hopkins was originally offered include Twentieth Century (1934), Bolero (1934), and Hands Across the Table (1935). Hopkins was also Ernst Lubitsch's first choice for To Be or Not to Be (1942).
In Badlands of Dakota (1941), she left the film two days after agreeing to be in it, stating that she was unhappy with both her role [apparently Calamity Jane] and the final draft of the script. [Frances Farmer replaced her.] This was a common explanation that Hopkins used for refusing a part. In many cases she demanded script approval and in some instances it was granted. To her credit, she turned down the role of Joan Madison in Law of the Tropics (1941) because she felt she was too old to play opposite Jeffrey Lynn. [Constance Bennett, two years younger than Hopkins and nearly five years older than Lynn, stepped in.]
It may not be known that in many public polls Miriam Hopkins was the overwhelming choice to play the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Author Margaret Mitchell, who was never consulted by David O. Selznick, also said that Hopkins would be her first choice to play the part. “Miriam Hopkins has been my choice from the beginning,” Mitchell explained, “but I know what I had to say wouldn't matter so I said nothing.”
But it was probably All This and Heaven Too (1940) that was Miriam Hopkins' biggest disappointment. The story was originally bought for Bette Davis, but for whatever reason she didn't want to – or couldn't – do it. So, Warner Bros. offered it to Hopkins, who had just finished The Old Maid at the studio and was contracted to do two more pictures. The first was to be We Are Not Alone (1939); however, Paul Muni refused to do the film if Hopkins was to be his co-star. The two did not get along during the making of The Woman I Love (1937) and Muni wasn't about to have a repeat. [Flora Robson was Hopkins' unlikely replacement in We Are Not Alone.]
Before she could make All This and Heaven Too, Hopkins divorced her husband, director Anatole Litvak and had to spend six weeks in Reno to be granted the divorce as was the custom at that time (remember The Women). While she was in residence there, Warners pulled the plug on the film, blaming the war in Europe and the anticipated fall of the European market. (In a scathing letter to Jack Warner, Hopkins complained, “Now Jack, first it was Mr. Muni, – now it's Mr. Hitler.”)
After a huge legal argument, Warners offered Hopkins Virginia City (1940), co-starring Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott [right]. Then, after the Hopkins mess was settled, Warners returned All This and Heaven Too to Davis, which did not endear her to Hopkins.
Miriam Hopkins was a contract player at Paramount, Goldwyn, and Warner Bros. – all within a period of about 10 or 11 years. Why so much hopping about?
Maybe that's how she earned the nickname “Hoppy.” No kidding, that's what many of her co-workers called her, even Bette Davis. Hopkins did not have the typical contract life of most actresses. She was at Paramount only four years; yet, her contract was adjusted at least three times.
During the time period you mentioned, she was also loaned out to MGM once and four times to RKO. In fact, when she left Paramount, RKO wanted to sign her (she was doing Becky Sharp for them at the time), but she decided to go with Samuel Goldwyn instead.
Now, even though she made three films with Warners, during that time she was still under Goldwyn's contract, which expired in 1942. For each of the Warner films (The Old Maid, Virginia City, Lady with Red Hair) there were individual contracts and financial arrangements made.
Hopkins didn't enjoy making films; she preferred the stage. So, maybe this was her motivation. It's a shame because she was a talented actress and under the right conditions she gave stunning performances.
Becky Sharp was the first feature film in three-strip Technicolor. Why was Miriam Hopkins selected for the title role? And what was filming like?
Hopkins was producer Jock Whitney's choice for the role from the beginning; I'm not aware of anyone else being mentioned. However, she almost lost it when she couldn't come to an agreement with RKO over her salary. The studio then considered replacing her with Myrna Loy (who had starred in a modern-day version in 1932) or Claudette Colbert, who turned down the role after reading the script. Finally, Hopkins and RKO came to terms and she was reinstated.
Jock Whitney and his Pioneer Pictures' first attempt at Technicolor was an RKO-released short, the Academy Award winner La Cucaracha. They were so pleased with the results, they proceeded with plans for a full-length film – Becky Sharp, which was based on William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel Vanity Fair.
Production began in early December 1934 at the RKO-Pathe Studios (now the Culver Studios) with Lowell Sherman signed to direct. Not long after filming began, Sherman developed a cold, but continued working (with a nurse on the set) until he collapsed on December 27 and died the following day of pneumonia. It was another week until Whitney hired Rouben Mamoulian as Sherman's replacement.
Mamoulian discarded all of Sherman's footage and started from scratch.
Shortly after, Hopkins also developed pneumonia and collapsed in the middle of a ballroom scene; she was off the set for ten days. A sequence edited from 6,000 ft. of negative was burned in a projector and had to be recut, which took a week. In one scene, the sleeve of Hopkins' dress caught fire when she reached over a lit candle. (Fortunately, it was quickly put out and Hopkins wasn't injured.) Then, the film's premiere was delayed a month because of problems with a new recording process. So, the production had its share of problems.
Also, a bit of trivia - in the scene where Hopkins and Cedric Hardwicke [above right] are dancing around the ballroom, among the 400 extras are two young women looking on. One of them was Thelma Ryan, better known today as Pat Nixon, former First Lady of the United States.
Whereas Becky Sharp received mixed reviews, Hopkins herself was praised for her performance and received her only Academy Award nomination. [She lost to – who else? – Bette Davis in Dangerous.]
Miriam Hopkins in The Children's Hour
Miriam Hopkins went from stardom to supporting roles rather rapidly. In the early 1940s, she was still an alluring star, but later in the decade she was playing older women in relatively small roles. Why such a drastic drop in status?
I don't necessarily see it that way. She did take a five-year break in making films, but certainly wasn't idle. Hopkins made Old Acquaintance in 1943 and literally left Hollywood until she returned to co-star in The Heiress (1949). During that time she put her resources into the legitimate stage, appearing in three Broadway plays and several major road-show productions. [Among those was The Heiress, with Hopkins in the title role, which went to the younger Olivia de Havilland in the film version.]
When she did return, it was in supporting roles in several important films. Besides The Heiress, she played an interfering mother-in-law in The Mating Season (1951), an aging hooker in The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952), and what I believe is one of her most evil roles, Laurence Olivier's scornful wife in Carrie (1952).
During the remainder of the '50s she did television and toured in several plays, ending the decade on Broadway replacing Jo Van Fleet in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Look Homeward Angel. In this production she received the best reviews of her career, later taking the play on the road for a year. So, even though she no longer reigned at the box office after the mid-40s, she continued to succeed in the projects she chose.
Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper in Design for Living
To say that Miriam Hopkins has the reputation of having been a total bitch would be an understatement. Would you say that assessment of Hopkins' character is accurate, inaccurate, or somewhere in-between? How did she get along with studio heads, her directors – e.g., Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Vincent Sherman – and co-stars – e.g., Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March, Joel McCrea?
I would have to say it's mostly in-between. For whatever reasons, Hopkins felt she had to fight for what she wanted - she knew that she wasn't about to have it handed to her. That's the way she thought and the way she lived. Perhaps she was paranoid in many situations and overreacted, which caused flare-ups on the set. As far as studio heads and directors, in most cases there were few problems unless she felt they were trying to railroad her. She walked out on Paramount on several occasions, going to the desert or to New York in order to think things out.
Sometimes, moguls would get frustrated when she turned down scripts that they bought expressly for her. I think this contributed to her problems with Samuel Goldwyn and her being loaned to Warner Bros. for the remainder of her contract. When Goldwyn first signed her, she was his main female commodity (she was Anna Sten's replacement). Goldwyn bought Come and Get It (1936) for her, but she refused the part so he borrowed Frances Farmer [from Paramount].
Directors were a different story. In addition to writers, she loved spending time with directors – she married one and had affairs with several others. Problems arose if a director couldn't “handle” her. However, if she worked with a director she trusted and admired, such as Lubitsch, Mamoulian, and Wyler, the results could be magic. Just look at the films she made with them; they were able to get a controlled, stylized performance from her.
With actors, I truly believe it was a matter of ego, which most actors have in abundance - including Hopkins. Everyone knows about her feud with Bette Davis. Reportedly, Fredric March would complain about her scene-stealing, and it's no secret that George Raft and Paul Muni hated her. However, she got along well with Carole Lombard, Kay Francis, Ray Milland, Rex Harrison, and Joel McCrea.
In his autobiography, Edward G. Robinson wrote about his troubles with Hopkins on the set of Barbary Coast (1935). In one scene he has to slap her; Robinson was so frustrated with Hopkins egging him on that he really gave her a hard smack. In later years, they evidently cleared up their problems since Robinson was a frequent guest at Hopkins' famous Sunday afternoon parties. [In his bio, Robinson claims that Miriam Hopkins was a right-winger. That is not true.]
Miriam Hopkins blacklisted during the post-war anti-Red hysteria? Why? And how come that fact – to the best of my knowledge – has never been discussed anywhere?
During the late '30s and throughout the '40s, Hopkins was involved with several political and social groups that were considered fronts for the Communist Party. These groups included the Motion Picture Democratic Committee (of which Hopkins was 2nd vice president) and the incendiary League of Women Shoppers.
In 1945, Louis Bundenz, a Communist Party functionary and the managing editor of the Daily Worker, renounced communism and in 1950 created a “List of 400 Concealed Communists” for the FBI. Miriam Hopkins was on that list. Of course she wasn't blacklisted to the extent that many in the entertainment industry were. However, in her mind, she considered herself blacklisted. After her 1952 role in Carrie, she didn't appear in films again until William Wyler cast her in The Children's Hour nine years later. Now, was this due to blacklisting or just a lack of roles for middle-aged women? During that time she continued to appear in plays and summer stock, and on television.
Hopkins' FBI file is almost 100 pages long, showing that they monitored her activities from 1937 almost up to the time of her death. Most of the accusations claimed Hopkins was a communist “sympathizer,” which in the eyes of the FBI was just as damning. However, there are letters in her file that pointedly accuse her of being a real communist. One anonymous letter addressed to J. Edgar Hoover stated, “Why not investigate the following: Miriam Hopkins, Hollywood. [Screenwriter] Donald Ogden Stewart, Hollywood. They are sure Reds.” Perhaps it was from a disgruntled “fan.” In any event, it doesn't appear the FBI took that letter too seriously, or I'm sure the consequences would have been worse.
Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living
Did Miriam Hopkins have a favorite film or film role? In your opinion, which films best reflect Hopkins' acting abilities?
The films she made with Lubitsch [The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living] were her favorites, and she would reminisce more about them as she got older. At one time, The Story of Temple Drake was a favorite, but she later had a change of heart after seeing it with an audience shortly before her death.
Besides the Lubitsch films, I feel her acting abilities were best displayed in 24 Hours (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (she was strangled in both films), and These Three (1936). And in supporting roles, she made quite an impression in The Heiress, Carrie, and The Children's Hour.
Miriam Hopkins, Louise Fazenda, Bette Davis in The Old Maid
And inevitably … Did Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis truly hate one another, or was that just studio publicity that Davis herself decided to perpetuate after Hopkins' death?
It's true that they felt very little affection for each other - Bette was just more outspoken about it (surprise!). Miriam would never publicly admit to a feud with Bette or with anyone else for that matter – and there were several that she did not get along with, including the aforementioned George Raft and Paul Muni, in addition to Errol Flynn. (Bette reportedly had problems with him, too.)
It's too bad that Bette was so vocal about it so many years after Miriam's death. Once during an interview with one of the morning news programs, Bette was asked about working with difficult actors. Of course, she mentioned Joan Crawford and when asked about Hopkins she replied, “Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!” Unfortunately, Miriam's family was watching that interview and it hurt them deeply. They didn't think it was fair that Bette was so virulent about Miriam when she was no longer around to defend herself. I understand how they feel, but Davis defenders will say she was old and had suffered a stroke, which I'm sure contributed to her bluntness.
Say what you want about Miriam Hopkins, but she was more of a class act in that respect because she refused to air her dirty laundry in public. She really could have ripped Bette a new one if she wanted - and rightly so – but she chose not to.
Now, this is bad for me, of course, when it comes to researching her life for a biography. But it says something about her character.
Photos: Allan Ellenberger Collection