Miriam Hopkins, one of the most underrated performers of the studio era, will have her “Summer Under the Stars” day on Thursday, Aug. 20.
Turner Classic Movies will present fourteen Miriam Hopkins films, including one TCM premiere – the Samuel Goldwyn production of Barbary Coast – and three of Hopkins’ saucy pre-Code vehicles made at Paramount.
Although there are no Hopkins rarities in the program – TCM must lease the Universal library, which contains both the Universal and Paramount classics – it’s great to have a day dedicated to an actress who, no matter how good, has been usually dismissed because of her (alleged) off-screen behavior.
As I’ve discussed before in this blog – including in the Hopkins interview I did with author Allan Ellenberger, who’s currently working on a biography of the actress – Miriam Hopkins’ lasting claim to fame is that she was difficult.
Fredric March accused her of trying to steal his scenes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Edward G. Robinson dissed her in his autobiography (he also infers that she was a right-winger, when she was anything but); Edmund Goulding almost went bananas trying to control her on the set of The Old Maid.
And Bette Davis called her “a bitch.”
(As quoted in Matthew Kennedy‘s biography Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, Hopkins had referred to Davis as “a greedy little girl at a party-table who just had to sample other women’s cupcakes.” One of those cupcakes had been Hopkins’ husband, filmmaker Anatole Litvak, with whom Davis had an affair the year before the two actresses shared the screen in The Old Maid.)
So, perhaps Hopkins was difficult, but then again she wasn’t the only one. And just as importantly, in front of the cameras she was delightful in comedies and remarkably effective in dramas. You can see it for yourself come next Thursday. In fact, as in the cases of both Jennifer Jones and Deborah Kerr, I’d recommend every single Hopkins film simply because Hopkins is in it. That said, I’d particularly recommend the following:
In The Old Maid, Hopkins completely eclipses Bette Davis, badly miscast as a bitter spinster who made one false move back in her younger days (the result was Jane Bryan). Edmund Goulding’s classy direction, the Warner Bros. artisans and technicians’ glossy work, and Hopkins’ well-etched, mature performance turn a potentially sickening melo into an emotionally gripping cautionary tale.
(Kennedy quotes Goulding as saying that “whatever respect they [Hopkins and Davis] had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way. If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times when they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both and I think the admiration was likewise.”)
The Heiress isn’t really a Miriam Hopkins vehicle, as it belongs to Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (who, by the way, got along quite well with the older actress). And even though I don’t think The Heiress shows Hopkins at her best, I must recommend it because it’s one of the most “adult” movies of the 1940s, while de Havilland is outstanding as the ugly duckling who learns life’s lessons the hard way. William Wyler directed from a screenplay by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapting their own play, which in turn was based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square.
Wyler directed Hopkins the previous decade in These Three, which happens to be one of the most “adult” movies of the 1930s – even if not quite as adult as it would have been had they been allowed to keep the lesbian subplot found in Lillian Hellman’s play.
In this bowdlerized version, bratty Bonita Granville’s lie has to do with a love triangle involving Hopkins, Merle Oberon (right, who’s also quite good), and Joel McCrea. (Hopkins would later land the role of the ditzy aunt – here beautifully played by Catherine Doucet – in Wyler’s 1961 remake, which restored the lesbian elements to the plot.)
And finally, Hopkins’ three Paramount comedies: The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living, all directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who was apparently at one point madly in love with his star. I’m not wild about any of those three films (though I admit I need to watch Trouble in Paradise again), but they’re all worth a look because of the performances, their pre-Code sensibility, and the renowned Lubitsch touch.
If Maurice Chevalier is his usual hammy self in The Smiling Lieutenant, Hopkins and Claudette Colbert are thoroughly charming as the two women who (however inexplicably) are in love with/lust after him. (Check out their “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number.) Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, and Kay Francis are all pitch-perfect in Trouble in Paradise, which features another love triangle. And Design for Living boasts what could have been the love triangle for the ages – Hopkins sandwiched between Fredric March and Gary Cooper – if only they had added a heavier dose of pansexuality to the proceedings. But there was a limit to what Hollywood filmmakers could do even before the Production Code came into full effect.
Now, Virginia City isn’t the greatest Western ever made, but Hopkins, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott are all good in it, while Old Acquaintance provided Bette Davis with the opportunity to give Hopkins a violent shake-up. That moment alone makes the film worthwhile.
Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. Photo: Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
5:15 AM Richest Girl in the World, The (1934)
To put off fortune-hunters, an heiress trades places with her secretary. Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Fay Wray. Dir.: William A. Seiter. Black and white. 76 min.
6:45 AM Wise Girl (1937)
A rich girl plays poor to win over a Greenwich Village artist. Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Ray Milland, Walter Abel. Dir.: Leigh Jason. Black and white. 70 min.
8:00 AM Woman Chases Man (1937)
A millionaire hires a lady architect to con the money for a housing project out of his wealthy son. Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Charles Winninger. Dir.: John G. Blystone. Black and white. 69 min.
9:15 AM Old Maid, The (1939)
An unmarried mother gives her illegitimate child to her cousin. Cast: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Bryan. Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Black and white. 95 min.
11:00 AM Old Acquaintance (1943)
Two writers, friends since childhood, fight over their books and lives. Cast: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young. Dir.: Vincent Sherman. Black and white. 110 min.
1:00 PM Virginia City (1940)
A rebel spy poses as a wild West dance hall girl. Cast: Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart. Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Black and white. 121 min.
3:00 PM Heiress, The (1949)
A plain young woman’s money makes her prey to fortune hunters. Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson. Dir.: William Wyler. Black and white. 115 min.
5:00 PM Smiling Lieutenant, The (1931)
A misfired flirtation lands a young lieutenant married to a princess instead of the one he loves. Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins. Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Black and white. 89 min.
6:45 PM Trouble In Paradise (1932)
A love triangle ignites trouble between two jewel theives and their intended victim. Cast: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis. Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Black and white. 82 min.
8:15 PM Design For Living (1933)
An independent woman can’t chose between the two men she loves. Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper. Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Black and white. 91 min.
10:00 PM Barbary Coast (1935)
A vice king’s girlfriend falls for a young miner. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Miriam Hopkins, Joel MacRae. Dir.: Howard Hawks. Black and white. 90 min.
11:45 PM These Three (1936)
Scandal destroys the lives of two small-town schoolteachers. Cast: Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea. Dir.: William Wyler. Black and white. 93 min.