Adapted from three previous posts on the occasion of Miriam Hopkins's 109th birthday.
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.
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. 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!"
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."
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.
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.
Trouble In Paradise is the story of a pair of sophisticated lovers, Gaston and Lily—Herbert Marshall and Hopkins—who romance and thieve their way across Europe, only to find their happiness threatened by a beautiful young widow who also happens to be the target of their latest scam.
The widow, who may well know she's being taken but is still eager for the ride, is played with sympathy and sex appeal by Kay Francis. Her polished, dark beauty contrasts nicely with Hopkins's earthy blonde charms and no doubt was a factor in her casting, as was her performance earlier that year in Jewel Robbery, in which she plays a willing victim to William Powell's elegant jewel thief. Although her career would later take a nose-dive after a bitter contract dispute at Warner Brothers, in 1932, she was at the peak of her popularity.
Just the plot I've described so far would provide the makings of a good comedy (or spun in a different direction, suspense thriller), but Lubitsch ups the ante by creating genuine chemistry between Gaston and the widow. Suddenly Trouble In Paradise is no longer a simple story about the theft of money, but the theft of Gaston's affections as well, which realistically can't end well for somebody. The inevitable heartbreak adds what Andrew Sarris called "a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments," and is what, I think, lifts this sparkling comedy to the level of pure genius.
And that's without even addressing the numerous examples of Lubitsch's mastery of the technical end of his craft, which not only keeps the story moving but gives this confection its airy, art Deco style. "I think I have done nothing better or as good," he wrote of the film shortly before his death.
If Trouble In Paradise, with its depictions of thieves living happily ever after, had pushed the limits of pre-Code permissiveness, Hopkins's next picture, Design For Living, blew right past them.
The story of a woman who loves two men and makes them like it, Design For Living was based on Noel Coward's play about his own tangled relationship with Broadway's most famous acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a triangle marked by professional and romantic jealousy, and self-destructive egotism.
As the movie opens, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) are, respectively, an unsuccessful painter and an unsuccessful playwright—deservedly so judging by samples of their work. On a train to Paris, they meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist not the least bit embarrassed to earn a living painting advertisements of Napoleon in long underwear. She immediately recognizes the innate quality of both men and is determined to give George and Tom the pointers they need to become great artists while taking advantage of their soon-proven talents as lovers.
"A thing happened to me that usually happens to men," she says. "You see, a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of, uh, interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it's alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but—"
"That's very fine," says Tom, "but which chapeau do you want, madame?"
Hopkins is perfect in the part, never veering too far into either smug certainty or guilt-wracked introspection. Lubitsch always wrote interesting female characters, and Gilda is one of his best. We think of feminism and the sexual revolution as primarily modern movements, a product of baby boomer discontent, but in fact, many movies in the pre-Code era were about strong women insisting on sexual and economic freedom. Barbara Stanwyck's Lily Powers, who sleeps her way to the top in 1933's Baby Face, was the most ruthless incarnation of the pre-Code feminist, but Lubitsch's Gilda may well have been the strongest.
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. (Click here for Erik Beck's review.)
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.