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Miriam Hopkins Movies: The Smiling Lieutenant + Virginia City

Miriam Hopkins actress
Actress Miriam Hopkins: Early image courtesy of Allan Ellenberger.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

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
Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. Photo: Courtesy Turner Classic Movies

Pacific Time

20 Thursday

3:00 AM Chase, The (1966)
A convict’s escape ignites passions in his hometown. Cast: Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford. Director: Arthur Penn. Color. 133 min.

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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: 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. Director: William Wyler. Black and white. 93 min.

1:30 AM Lady With Red Hair (1940)
An actress hopes to regain her lost son by making it to the top. Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Claude Rains, Richard Ainley. Director: Curtis Bernhardt. Black and white. 78 min.

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Richard McLeod -

Forgot to mention that Leonard Maltin lists MGM’s film, “Stranger’s Return” starring Miriam Hopkins, Franchot Tone, Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi as one of the Ten Most Neglected and Forgotten films of all time.

Again, this is another very hard film to locate, as it has never been put on Commercial DVD, but can be secured from private collector’s and purchased on DVD with often times better film quality than what is available on Professionally sold DVD’s. Such is the case with the commercially released version of “Becky Sharp”, as this film was restored by Bob Gitt at UCLA, and if you look hard enough can find that restored version. This has been shown on TCM before in the restored version, and the color is excellent.

“Becky Sharp” was the film used for the kickoff of Film Restoration at UCLA back in the mid 1980’s, and was initially shown in the restored version at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In addition to the restored version of the film being shown, additional footage of original Technicolor screen tests were also shown, including the footage of Mrs. Leslie Carter, who did not get the role, as it went to Alison Skipworth in the finished version of the film.

I was fortunate enough to be there for that initial Preview showing of “Becky Sharp”, and it was fascinating watching the Restored Version in 35MM, and also noting the many Celebrities there that evening including Jane Wyatt, Charleton Heston, Karl Malden, Lyle Wheeler (noted Art Director for many, many films) and many others I was probably not aware as to who they were.

Richard McLeod -

This is wonderful for TCM to dedicate this day to truly one of Hollywood’s most underrated Actresses and the favorite Actress of Ernst Lubitsch. I only wish “Becky Sharp” which was the first 3 Strip Technicolor film and a Nomination for Best Actress for Miriam Hopkins were being shown along with some others I have listed below.

In addition, “The Story of Temple Drake” has its’ place in that unusual pantheon of films featuring Miriam Hopkins, as it was Pre-Code Hollywood, and had the added distinction of the screenplay having had the author William Faulkner work on the Screenplay as was similarly the case with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” with Fredric March. Miss Hopkins also starred in both the original and re-make of “These Three” and the later “The Children’s Hour”, both directed by the great William Wyler, who also considered Miriam Hopkins one of his favorite Actresses.
Maybe on another day!
I can’t think of another Actress with the versatility of Miss Hopkins in the unusual roles she played, not to forget the Radio, Television and Stage roles she performed in well into the late 1960’s.

Thomas C. Kelly -

Many years ago, I saw a friend’s video copy of 24 Hours from 1931 with Miriam Hopkins & Kay Francis. It was fascinating and NEVER boring. Hopkins sang two or three torch songs beautifully. She also looked gorgeous. She had a phonograph playing 78 records in her apt. I didn’t know they had automatic record changers in 1931. The record she played was “Out Of Nowhere.” It was a very popular song recorded by Crosby and many others at the time. I won’t give away what happened to her. WHEN OH WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO RELEASE THIS ON CD OR AT LEAST SHOW IT ON TCM?? ALSO THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, TWO KINDS OF WOMEN, THE WORLD AND THE FLESH???

Dave -

I like reading stories about Miriam: here’s one from Linda F. Cauthen I found on “google groups”:

Miriam Hopkins – Only met her by phone, but 25 years later she lives on in my mind as the biggest bitch I can think of. Remembering her makes me consider renouncing my sins so I can go to heaven and be sure of never running into her again. Miriam was a real bitch. I worked for Schwab’s drugstore back in the early 70s and she was a regular customer – and a real pain in the ass. *Nobody* wanted to take her calls. She lived in the Shoreham Towers and rarely left her apartment. Once I was trying to explain something to her about an item in stock, and I had the item in front of me. She said snippily, “Is there anyone there who knows more about this that *you* do?” I said, “No.”

DJ Olson -

I’m glad to discover another Miriam Hopkins fan. She is perhaps the most underrated actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As good as, if not better than, most of the other big names of that era.


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