‘Hollywood Rebel’ or ‘Magnificent Bitch’? Miriam Hopkins discussed in interview with biographer Allan Ellenberger
On her good days, Tennessee Williams described Miriam Hopkins as “morning mail and morning coffee.” On her not so good days, Williams summed her up as “like a hat-pin jabbed in your stomach. The quintessence of the female, a really magnificent bitch.”
There doesn’t seem to have been any “morning mail” days for Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, who hated working with Hopkins in, respectively, Barbary Coast and The Woman I Love. Feeling like she had a hat-pin jabbed in her stomach, Bette Davis waged fierce battles with her co-star during the making of The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance. And Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde director Rouben Mamoulian admonished Ms. Morning Coffee to stop directing him.
But was Miriam Hopkins that difficult?
Of course not. Well, at least not in her view.
“Proof of that is that I made four pictures with Willie Wyler, who is a very demanding director,” Hopkins told the press at the time of her 1961 comeback in a supporting role in Wyler’s The Children’s Hour. “I made two with Rouben Mamoulian, who is the same. Three with Ernst Lubitsch, such a dear man. When you are asked to work again with such directors, you cannot be temperamental.”
Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, et al. would undoubtedly disagree with that self-assessment. But to merely focus on Hopkins’ ego trips, control-freakishness, and volcanic temper would be doing a disservice to an actress whose notable career spanned half a century, on stage, in film, and on television, and to a liberal activist who became involved in causes such as the establishment of the Screen Actors Guild and the pro-New Deal Motion Picture Democratic Committee.
Best Actress Academy Award nominee & seductive pre-Code antiheroine
As discussed in detail in Allan R. Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel (University Press of Kentucky), Miriam Hopkins became a Broadway celebrity in the 1920s (An American Tragedy, The Garden of Eden), moving on to motion pictures at the dawn of the sound era.
Hopkins was the star of the first three-color feature film, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1935), which earned her, as the social-climbing title character, her one and only Best Actress Academy Award nomination. One of her Lubitsch films, the romantic comedy-musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), was a Best Picture nominee; another, Trouble in Paradise (1932), is considered one of the greatest comedy classics of the studio era.
On the wild side, she ends up very dead indeed after unashamedly seducing Mr. Hyde – and the audience – in Mamoulian’s pre-Production Code classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). She also pays for her freewheeling ways in Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake (1933), getting raped in a corn crib – after moistening her lips as attacker Jack La Rue approaches her – in this adaptation of William Faulkner’s “scandalous” novel Sanctuary. And in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), she, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March are members of a frolicsome threesome.
And that’s not all.
‘Gone with the Wind’ & Tennessee Williams + Bette Davis
Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell saw Miriam Hopkins (born in Savannah on Oct. 18, 1902) as the ideal Hollywood star to play fellow Georgian Scarlett O’Hara, writing to a friend, “she has the voice, the looks, the personality and the sharp look.” Ellenberger makes clear in Hollywood Rebel that Mitchell wasn’t the only one to feel that way, as Hopkins “consistently led in the polls and was the choice of fans across the country.”
But if producer David O. Selznick remained unmoved (minor British actress Vivien Leigh was eventually cast in the Civil War epic), a young playwright, Tennessee Williams, was fervidly attempting to get Hopkins to star in his first play, Battle of Angels. As Ellenberger tells us, Williams urged a mutual friend, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, to use “his ‘influence, moral or otherwise,’ upon Miriam, anything ‘short of abduction from the studio lot.’” The story of the insanely combative and hysterically funny production of Battle of Angels is a movie begging to be made.
Although it’s debatable as to who came out victorious in the myriad Bette Davis v. Miriam Hopkins battles fought during the making of Edmund Goulding’s The Old Maid (1939) and Vincent Sherman’s Old Acquaintance (1943), the hands-down on-screen winner was Hopkins, effortlessly stealing both movies from the Queen of Warner Bros.
Lastly, how many Hollywood actresses of the studio era can claim to have been targets of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI well into the 1960s?
Hollywood Rebel & Magnificent Bitch
In Hollywood Rebel, Allan Ellenberger delves into the life and times of the mercurial Hollywood star, a tenacious, first-rate talent “who happened to have both her own set of rules and her own personal demons” – and who may just have been the perfect fit for both the Hollywood Rebel and Magnificent Bitch labels.
Ellenberger answers a few questions (via email) about his Miriam Hopkins biography in the interview below.
Miriam Hopkins interview: Author Allan Ellenberger discusses ‘The Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel’
- First of all, how easy/difficult was it to write about Miriam Hopkins?
You hear stories about biographers whose subjects left their personal papers, diaries, and interviews to schools or archives, but Miriam Hopkins did nothing like that. She never kept scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, or any other such documentation about her career or personal life. Her mother kept a scrapbook of photographs and some odd newspaper articles which I was able to use, but nothing substantial.
I did find from an independent source a six-page letter that she had written to her aunt living in Syracuse (whom she also supported) that was remarkably filled with information about her time at the Goldwyn studios, her relationship with her mother, and her adopted son. It was a great resource.
One of my requirements to write the book was to get the support of Hopkins’ family – and I was able to find her grandson, Tom. He gave me his cooperation and the contact information for his mother and father, Hopkins’ son, who was cooperative and helped in any way he could.
I interviewed several people that worked with her or were close friends, including Olivia de Havilland, Andrew Prine (who worked with her on Broadway), and Becky Morehouse, a journalist and the best friend of Hopkins during the last several years of her life. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to find them or convince them to help. They were happy to do it.
Surprisingly, the only person who refused to be interviewed about Hopkins was her The Children’s Hour co-star, Shirley MacLaine, which surprised me.
I was able to watch every movie she made (thanks to eBay) in addition to several television and radio shows.
As for Bette Davis, there wasn’t much from Hopkins’ side since she always insisted there wasn’t a feud. However, Davis herself was very vocal about her feelings of Hopkins, and the daily call sheets of their two films together that are preserved in the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, gave a day-to-day picture of their arguing that was witnessed by assistants and other personnel. It was a great resource.
‘The Old Maid’ & ‘Old Acquaintance’ On-Set Wars
- The two movies Miriam Hopkins made with her so-called “archival” Bette Davis – The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance – each has its own chapter in your book. In terms of what went on behind the scenes, how would you compare them?
Miriam Hopkins went into The Old Maid not happy with Bette Davis for a few reasons: Hopkins originated the lead role in Jezebel on Broadway and felt that Davis stole the film version  from her – and the Academy Award that went with it.
In addition, only a few months before they began filming, Hopkins learned that her husband at the time, director Anatole Litvak, had a weekend affair with Davis during the filming of The Sisters (1938).
As for Old Acquaintance, by then Hopkins was struggling to keep her career afloat while Davis was one of the top stars in Hollywood; she was obsessed with making Davis’ life miserable. She wanted to outshine her co-star and did what she could to upstage her, doing as Davis said, “every trick in the book.”
There were opportunities to pair the two again in films, especially in The Great Lie (1941). Hopkins was signed to play the role of the famous pianist before Davis was brought into the project. When Davis accepted the lead role and learned that Hopkins was to be her co-star, she did what she could to oust her from the film – and succeeded. She convinced Mary Astor to take the role, and as we know today, Astor won an Academy Award.
Another reason for Hopkins to hate Davis.
The FBI vs. Hollywood liberals
- As you discuss in Miriam Hopkins: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel, Hopkins’ liberal politics made her an FBI target. How did that affect her personal/professional life?
It doesn’t look as if it affected her personal or professional life that much. Even though the FBI followed her closely for nearly forty years, I doubt that she knew it was happening.
During the 1950s, she worked steadily, mostly in plays and television, and to my knowledge she never lost a job because of her politics even though she was on the FBI’s list of 400 Concealed Communists.
Although I don’t believe she was committed to the communist cause, she associated with those who did, which brought her to the FBI’s attention.
- Speaking of Miriam Hopkins’ politics, in his autobiography, Edward G. Robinson describes her as a right-winger/conservative. Was there a misperception about where she stood, or, at some point, did she – radically – change her political views?
As we know, people evolve in their beliefs and that was probably the case with Hopkins. In her early Hollywood years, politics did not seem that important to her. During that period of her life, I found no evidence that she leaned to the right or to the left.
As for Robinson, they disliked each other so much, I doubt they ever discussed politics between themselves. She would have associated with other cast members such as Joel McCrea, who was a conservative, so that Robinson may have assumed she held the same politics.
Hopkins’ interest in liberal causes began shortly after she met her third husband, Anatole Litvak. He took her to political meetings where her interest was piqued, and she became involved by attending meetings and sitting on the board of several political organizations that the FBI considered subversive.
Free spirit or ‘magnificent bitch’?
- In the 1930s – up to 1940 – Miriam Hopkins was a star at Paramount, Goldwyn, and Warner Bros. Why so much hopping about? Do you believe she had a tough time at the studios because she was “an opinionated woman”? Or was it because she was just really, really difficult?
If you look at it closely, Hopkins moving to different studios was not so unusual. Many stars worked at different studios.
She spent nearly five years at Paramount before signing with Samuel Goldwyn, who used her in only four films and loaned her out to RKO several times before practically forcing her, in an agreement with Jack Warner, over to Warner Bros. Part of the problem was that the studios didn’t know what to do with her, especially Emmanuel Cohen at Paramount, and of course, Goldwyn.
Don’t misunderstand, Hopkins was also to blame. She could be difficult; she was difficult at times and gave more than one studio mogul a headache. She turned down good projects and chose ones that were not that good.
Many of her rejects became hits for other actresses—in many cases, Carole Lombard. She admitted that she had difficulty recognizing a good screenplay. Her biggest regret was turning down the Claudette Colbert role in It Happened One Night. To her it was just a “silly comedy.”
Woman ahead of her time
- How would you define Miriam Hopkins to 21st-century book readers & movie fans? What would make her a subject worth learning about?
Miriam Hopkins was a woman who fought against many of the same problems that her present-day counterparts are dealing with. I never uncovered any instances where she was forced to give sexual favors to a mogul in order to get a part. If any tried, she never revealed it. Also, I don’t believe she would have done that, unless she initiated the relationship herself on her own set of rules.
However, she did have to deal with salary inequalities. For instance, her Trouble in Paradise co-star Herbert Marshall made $3,500 a week while she made half that – $1,750. It’s remarkable that these same disparities occur today.
Miriam Hopkins’ Best movies + ‘Don’t Open ’til Doomsday’
- For those interested in becoming acquainted with Miriam Hopkins, which movies would you say are her greatest showcases?
That’s not an easy task since, in my opinion, there are so many. But, the three Lubitsch films (The Smiling Lieutenant, Design for Living, and Trouble in Paradise) should be viewed. There’s also Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Becky Sharp (for which she received her only Academy Award nomination).
She could be versatile in her roles, such as playing a rape victim in Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake, a schoolmarm suffering from an unrequited love in William Wyler’s These Three, and, in a supporting role, she excels as a shrewish wife to husband Laurence Olivier in Wyler’s Carrie.
In addition, she received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance opposite Olivia de Havilland in Wyler’s The Heiress. And of course, her two films with Bette Davis — The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance — should not be missed.
Hopkins also had quite an extensive television career; one stand-out is The Outer Limits episode “Don’t Open ‘til Doomsday.” In it she delivers a tour de force, playing a woman whose husband disappears on their wedding night and is transported in a box by an alien creature. She waits thirty years for someone to come take his place. The episode is available on DVD.
- And finally, any new book projects in the works?
Right now, I’m co-authoring a career chronicle of silent film actress Anita Page (McFarland) with a friend from England. It will be like my Margaret O’Brien book, describing the making of Page’s films, along with a detailed biography.
After that, being the resident historian at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, I hope to write a comprehensive history of that iconic location, a subject I’ve been interested in for some time.
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“Magnificent bitch” and other quotes via Alt Film Guide interview subject Allan Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins biography The Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel: University Press of Kentucky.
Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March Design for Living image: Paramount Pictures.
Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde images: Paramount Pictures.
Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins Old Acquaintance image: Warner Bros.
“Miriam Hopkins Interview with Biographer Allan Ellenberger: ‘Hollywood Rebel’ or ‘Magnificent Bitch’?” last updated in July 2019.