Largely forgotten now, Miriam Hopkins was one of the sauciest actresses of the pre-Code age, excelling in light comedies and lurid melodramas alike and nabbing an Oscar nomination along the way. Her early sound movies are some of the best of the era, yet often proved too scandalous to be re-issued once censors began taking scissors to Hollywood's past. Coupled with the years lost while she languished on the McCarthy-era blacklist, and even film fanatics can admit to having rarely seen her work.
That's a situation we here at the Monkey will try to correct.
Hopkins was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in a small town on the Alabama border, but she was acting on the Broadway stage by the age of eighteen with her turn in the stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy in 1926 really making audiences sit up and take notice for the first time. She made her feature-film debut in the 1930 comedy Fast and Loose, and within a year turned in two of her best film performances, in Ernst Lubitsch's musical comedy The Smiling Lieutenant and Rouben Mamoulian's adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In the first of these, Maurice Chevalier plays a randy lieutenant in the Austrian army who beds down with an equally randy violinist played by Claudette Colbert. (Her band's name? "The Viennese Swallows." Ahem.) The two make beautiful music together, literally and figuratively, until by accident, Chevalier finds himself mistakenly flirting with a visiting princess—the prim, virginal Hopkins—instead of Colbert, threatening an international incident.
"When you winked at my daughter," asks the king, "were your intentions honorable?"
"They were," says the lieutenant.
"Well, then naturally you'll marry her."
"My intentions were dishonorable!" the lieutenant says quickly.
"Then you'll have to marry her!"
Hopkins's princess is as naive as Colbert is worldly, and when a marriage is hastily arranged, she has no clue what to do with her unwilling husband. For his part, Chevalier can't wait to get back to Claudette Colbert.
Variety in a contemporary review praised Hopkins as the more experienced Colbert's equal, while eighty years later Dan Callahan noted, "Hopkins gives an expertly timed comic performance as plain-Jane royalty with Princess Leia buns on her ears who makes a play for Chevalier."
By the way, those looking for an example of the "Lubitsch touch" need look no further than The Smiling Lieutenant. On the royal couple's wedding night, a manservant and maid prepare the bedchamber—the man puts two pillows on the bed, the maid studies the arrangement, then moves the two pillows together so they're touching; the man looks it over, thinks a moment, then plops one pillow on top of the other. The man and woman look at each other, smile knowingly, then declare the royal bed ready.
All quite clean yet oh so dirty and served up without one extra word, glance or gesture. That's the Lubitsch touch.
A movie fan of today who knows Hopkins's pre-Code work waits a little impatiently for the princess to bust out—knowing that when she does, it'll be worth it. But an audience of the time, not knowing Hopkins and what she was capable of, must have found her transformation from a prudish virgin to a cigarette-smoking, jazz-playing temptress just as shocking as Chevalier's lieutenant does.
It's a fun movie, loaded with double entendres and sexy situations, served up with the director's typically light, frothy style. I tell you, it's as bracing and intoxicating as cold champagne.
Hopkins followed up her success in The Smiling Lieutenant with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a movie that is the polar opposite of Lubitsch's comedy in every sense but quality. Both pictures received Oscar nominations, the former for best picture, the latter for actor, cinematography and screenplay.
The basic outline of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is familiar to us all—a scientist drinks a potion that turns him into a murdering beast with hairy hands and bad teeth. What tends to be forgotten is the why. Dr. Jekyll (here pronounced with a long "e," as in "gee whiz" rather than the familiar rhyme with "heckle") is striving for the perfectability of man, using science to distill out our bestial dark side, freeing the angels of our better nature to pursue more virtuous callings.
As in the other great horror picture of 1931, Frankenstein, the hubris of playing God leads to disaster.
Here, Hopkins plays Ivy Pearson, saloon singer, prostitute, and physical embodiment of Jekyll's base desires. The character is not in the novel, but is so perfect, you wonder why not. Taking full advantage of the pre-Code era's permissiveness, there's no question that Ivy is a prostitute and Hopkins doesn't try to soften her. Her Ivy is both lovely and—what is the word?—skanky at the same time. Her play for Jekyll is coarse and obvious, pulling up her skirts to show her legs, offering to be his slave. Even the priggish and pompous Jekyll feels the pull of the animal, and his shame is what drives him to try to cleanse himself of his base nature, resulting in the experiments that divide him.
That's the flaw, by the way, in the great Ingrid Bergman's performance as the same character in the 1941 remake. Her Ivy may live in low economic circumstances, but Bergman can't convince us that even on her worst day she was ever low or common, and thus Jekyll's revulsion at himself for wanting her makes no sense. But Hopkins? Well, she's very convincing as someone who'd inspire you to both sleep with her and then scrub yourself with lye soap and a wire brush afterwards, so different from the prim and proper princess of The Smiling Lieutenant you wonder that it's the same actress.
When Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was re-released just five years later, by the way, it required eight minutes of cuts to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Production Code and the best of Hopkins's performance wound up on the censor's cutting room floor. It was decades before audiences would rediscover Hopkins in the restored print.
After the triumphs of 1931, Hopkins would top herself in two more Lubitsch comedies, Trouble in Paradise, in which she plays a con artist who teams up romantically and professionally with Herbert Marshall's master thief, and Design For Living, in which she scandalously resolves a love triangle with Fredric March and Gary Cooper by living with them both.
Even more scandalous was 1933's The Story of Temple Drake. Based on William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, the story of a flighty debutante's rape proved so shocking, it was banned in many states; Joseph Breen, who succeeded Will Hays as the head of the Production Code Office, later ordered it withdrawn from circulation and it remained unseen for decades.
In 1935, Hopkins received her only Oscar nomination, for playing the conniving title character in Becky Sharp. Being a fellow Georgian, she was Margaret Mitchell's choice to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, but of course it was David O. Selznick's opinion that mattered.
Despite her success on screen, Hopkins was not well-liked by her Hollywood peers and she bounced around several studios in a short number of years. She had several well-publicized battles with Bette Davis on the sets of The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, Davis later declaring, "Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!" (That Davis was having an affair with Hopkins's husband, Anatole Litvak, was no doubt a primary cause of the friction.) Hopkins also disdained Hollywood society, preferring the company of writers such as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser and William Saroyan. And even her sympathetic biographer Allan Ellenberger admits she had a volatile temper, waging on-set and behind-the-scenes battles with producers, directors and co-stars alike. She was also well-known for her eccentricities, for example, always consulting a psychic before accepting a new role, leading her to turn down the lead role in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, a part that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar, proving once and for all that the stars may control our fates but they don't know a damn thing about the movies.
Hopkins grew in- creasingly unpopular as the decade wore on—in 1940, the Harvard Lampoon dubbed her "the least desirable companion on a desert island"—and she retired in 1943. She didn't appear in another movie for six years, then made her comeback in The Heiress as Olivia de Havilland's aunt, a performance the Golden Globe awards recognized with a nomination for best supporting actress. In 1952, however, Hopkins was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and again she was out of the movies, this time for nine years.
In all, Hopkins made only thirty-three movies in her career, twenty-two of them by 1937.
Hopkins launched yet another comeback in the 1961 film, The Children's Hour, playing Shirley MacLaine's ditsy aunt to good reviews. (Coincidentally, Hopkins had played the MacLaine role in the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play in 1936 when it was produced under the title These Three.)
Hopkins also did a lot of television back when that meant appearances in live theater productions on shows such as Studio One and Lux Video Theater. She continued to work almost up to her death of a heart attack in 1972.