Remembering Miriam Hopkins
Although 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.
Hopkins was also a household name in the 1930s, a time when she co-reigned, at least for a brief while early in the decade, as one of the Queens of Paramount.
Apart from the fact that time tends to dim memories, that most early Paramount films are disgracefully unavailable (thanks to thoughtless executives at Universal, the studio that now owns most Paramount classics), and that the majority of U.S. film critics and historians seem to believe that American cinema began with Bonnie and Clyde, Miriam Hopkins’ professional legacy has suffered more than those of other 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 (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), in which she gets raped in this controversial film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
The Savannah native (born on Oct. 18, 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 (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.
Author Allan Ellenberger, whose previous books include a biography of actor Ramon Novarro and a book on the aftermath of Rudolph Valentino’s death, is currently working on a Miriam Hopkins biography.
Through his research, Allan has uncovered a Miriam Hopkins 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.
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.
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.