Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Miriam Hopkins - A Daring Diva

Miriam Hopkins ranked among the top film actresses of the 1930s, especially among the critics. Like her peer, Bette Davis, her stellar career spanned from the 1920s through the 1960s and encompassed theatre, radio, television and film. From her first film in 1930 she displayed a verve that made her destined for stardom, but, unlike Davis, she did not have the fighting spunk to make a "comeback" in the 1950s to keep her name in the headlines. 

This minor detail, and the fact that the majority of her films have not been released for home viewing, have contributed to Hopkins becoming one of the most underrated and overlooked actresses of the silver screen.

Whereas stars like Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Constance Bennett are acknowledged and revered in books, blogs, and photo sites, Miriam Hopkins seems to have been buried in the sands of forgotten film greats. And unjustly so. Hopkins possessed more than just a pretty face. She was one heck of a great actress. Although she was capable of portraying any kind of role she was handed, she really excelling at playing provocative and tantalizing hussies. B****s to be precise. This was her forte and no one came close to displaying the talent she had at portraying these kind of women.


The Early Years


Ellen Miriam Hopkins was born into a wealthy Savannah family on October 18, 1902. As a young woman she attended some of the finest educational institutions such as Goddard Seminary and Syracuse University. After studying dance in New York she tried her hand at show business, beginning as a chorus girl and later appearing in local musicals before she attempted dramatic parts during the mid-1920s. While appearing in stock companies in the East Coast she receiving rave reviews for her performances and decided to head out west to California and fight her way to stardom. 

Paramount Studios was eager to sign her to a contract and her experience as a stage actress landed her a plum first part in the film Fast and Loose ( 1930 ). Within a year she was performing opposite Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and starring with Paramount's biggest actor, Maurice Chevalier, in Ernst Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant. She went on to make two more films for Lubitsch ( Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living ) which she recalled in later years as being her personal favorites.

Hopkins was basking in the glory of stardom during the early 1930s. It was her most active decade and of the 35 films she made in her entire career, 22 were produced between 1930 and 1937. The majority of these films were huge successes, both financially and critically, notably The Story of Temple Drake, which became famous for clamping the lid on eroticism and sexuality on film and effectively launched the Catholic Legion of Decency into action, putting an end to the pre-production code era. 


Hopkins showed America a new kind of woman, unlike any other seen in Hollywood. She portrayed connivers and schemers and cold-hearted Hannahs with a brassy playfulness that made her irresistible. You knew she was bad, but man was she good at it! 

Some of her most popular films of the 1930s were Dancers in the Dark ( with George Raft ), Two Kinds of Women, Becky Sharp ( the very first three-strip Technicolor feature film ), and the bowdlerized version of Lillian Hellman's scandalous play The Children's Hour - These Three ( 1936 ).

"Hoppy"


Off-screen Miriam Hopkins had very few actor friends, instead surrounding herself with a company of intellectuals, hobnobbing with - and bedding - many men of the literary set. Some of her closet companions were Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ward Morehouse and Tennessee Williams. 

Hopkins was known for being very fussy when it came to selecting scripts and wanting final script approval. Although she was an actress highly in demand by many of the studios and a number of directors, her hen-picking of the scripts stirred up the studio heads to boiling point in frustration. In the four short years that she was with Paramount studios her contract was adjusted three times to suit her demands. RKO wanted her to sign with them after her contract expired, but she chose to go with Samuel Goldwyn instead. RKO needn't have fussed over her, for her temperament at Goldwyn led her to being loaned out many times and they managed to snag Hopkins for four films. While at Goldwyn she was also under contract to Warner Brothers ( for three films ) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It's no surprise that she earned the nickname "Hoppy".

Her flitting ways proved to be her downfall on many an occasion, especially when some of the film projects she was offered turned out to become hits for other actresses. The Song of Songs ( Marlene Dietrich, 1933 ), It Happened One Night ( Claudette Colbert, 1934 ), Twentieth Century ( Carole Lombard, 1934 ), Peter Ibbetson ( Ann Harding, 1935 ), and To Have and Have Not ( Lombard, 1942 ) were all parts that she had declined. 


In some situations Hopkins just got the short end of the stick. In 1938 the country was abuzz with rumors as to who would play Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Hopkins auditioned for the role, having an advantage over all the other applicants by being a native born Georgian, but eventually lost the part to Vivien Leigh. This was a sore disappointment to her and to many "Gone With the Wind" fans across America. Just as Clark Gable was America's choice for the part of Rhett Butler, Hopkins was the overwhelming choice in the popular polls for Scarlett. Even Margaret Mitchell herself declared, 

" Miriam Hopkins had been my choice from the beginning, but I [knew] what I had to say wouldn't matter so I said nothing ". 

While Miriam Hopkins was filming The Old Maid ( 1939 ) opposite Bette Davis, she was married to director Anatole Litvak, her third of four husbands. Litvak had directed Davis in The Sisters a year prior and Miriam had suspected that the two had had an affair. In the meantime, Warner Brothers had purchased the story rights to All This and Heaven Too as a vehicle for their leading lady, Ms. Bette Davis. For some reason, Bette turned the project down and so Warners offered it to Hopkins, who had signed a three picture deal with the studio. She was delighted to do the film, but first had to settle her divorce with Litvak ( she wouldn't stand for an adulterous husband of course! ). This meant six weeks in Reno. Alas, while the divorce papers were being finalized, Warners changed their mind about All This and Heaven Too, thinking that the European market would be very bad at the moment with Hitler invading. As a condolence they offered Hopkins Virginia City ( 1940 ) co-starring Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott and then threw her a looper, picking up the All This and Heaven Too project but giving the part this time to Bette Davis. 


Bouts with Bette 



These days Miriam Hopkins is best remembered for the films that she made with Bette Davis, her arch nemesis, and the "Hatfield and McCoy" feud that the two engaged in off-screen. The screen divas couldn't stand the sight of each other and Davis was said to have "thoroughly enjoyed" throttling Hopkins in Old Acquaintance

Miriam Hopkins truly did have enemies in Hollywood, especially among her co-stars, but being the southern belle that she was, never publicly dissed them. On the other hand, Davis, who was asked during an interview on a morning news program whom she had difficulty working with, bluntly sputtered "Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!"

Their feud most likely began in the late 1930s, when Warner Brothers cast Bette Davis in the lead role of Jezebel, a role which Miriam Hopkins had made famous on stage. Her ego was deeply damaged and she thrashed the library in her New York home when she heard on the radio that Davis had won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her part of Julie Marsden.


Audiences adored seeing these two temptresses lock horns and the box-office receipts for The Old Maid inspired Warner Brothers to team up Hopkins and Davis once again for Old Acquaintance, a particularly juicy piece of pulp fiction, ripe with catty scenes. 


The Later Years


During the 1940s, Hopkins focused her talents towards the stage - her true love - and appeared in the comedy The Skin of our Teeth, and the dramatic The Perfect Marriage and Message for Margaret ( 1947 ). She also kept active on radio, performing in The Campbell Playhouse, Lux Radio Theatre, Suspense and Inner Sanctum before she returned to the screen in a supporting role in William Wyler's The Heiress. 

Although the days of being a glamorous leading lady were past, Hopkins did not seem to mind at all, instead focusing her energies on giving stellar performances in character roles, some of which included that of the aging hooker in The Outcasts of Poker Flat ( 1952 ) and the deliciously diabolical role of Laurence Olivier's wife in Carrie that same year. Hopkins was also one of the first major actresses to embrace the fledgling medium of television, appearing in Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Lux Video Theater, Studio One, and Climax. Television permitted her to perform a wide variety of characters which she had not tackled on stage or in film. One of these roles was that of Norma Desmond in the 1955 Lux Video broadcast of Sunset Boulevard

During the 1960s she performed in a handful of films, notably in the remake of The Children's Hour ( 1961 ) starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Ironically, one of her last television appearances was that of an aging forgotten film star in "Don't Open Till Doomsday", an especially memorable episode of The Outer Limits. 


Hopkins passed away on October 9, 1972, just nine days shy of her 70th birthday. She was a sophisticated and immensely talented actress who deserves to have a much more exalted position in the Pantheon of classic stars, if only to introduce her to new audiences. Among the appreciative she is not forgotten and never will be. Let's raise a glass in toast to Miriam Hopkins, her incomparable appeal, and all the glory she basked in during her prime.

This post is our contribution to the Forgotten Film Stars blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to read more about all of you favorite forgotten film stars...don't forget now!

28 comments:

  1. Excellent post. When I think of Miriam Hopkins, I'll always remember her as Ivy in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". Her performance should have been nominated for an Oscar.

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    1. It was kind of sad to learn that her performance was much much longer in Dr. Jekyll but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. I guess that is the fate with many actor's performances. Still, what remained on screen was memorable and that's a testament to her fine acting ability.

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  2. Yes, you are right. Miriam Hopkins deserves to be more well-known. You get the feeling she gave everything she had with each performance.

    Your post is a wonderful tribute to an amazingly talented actress.

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    1. Thank you for your comment! Hopkins was indeed an amazingly talented actress...it's such a shame she does not get the attention she deserves.

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  3. I love this actress - especially as a pre-code minx. She was smart, sexy and a real ball of fire. She seemed to get a little brittle as she aged, but, hey, who doesn't? Great post about an actress who deserves more respect.

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    1. Hopkins later roles generally did encompass frustrated nasty women, but she gave a really stand out performance in Old Acquaintance. Vincent Sherman must have had his hands full with both Davis and Hopkins vying for the spotlight in that film!

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  4. It took me a while to appreciate her, I admit. I thought she was a bit overdramatic at first, which she certainly could be. But her performances lingered for me after I'd seen them, and I started to appreciate just how compelling she could be. And then I saw Trouble in Paradise and decided I had been wrong to dislike her all along:) Thanks for the great review--and some good ideas for my next film of hers:)

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    1. It's interesting that you mentioned that. I felt that way about Bette Davis at one time. It seemed like she was always portraying the same character, until you look back on each one of her performances and realize just how different they really were. I'm glad you are a fellow Hopkins fan now!

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  5. I enjoyed learning Miriam's fascinating life and background.

    Like her enemy Davis, I think Miriam did some of her best work with William Wyler. It is especially noteworthy that they collaborated on both "These Three" and "The Children's Hour".

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    1. Good point indeed. Wyler seemed to have brought out the best in every actress that he worked with...a credit to his directing ability.

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    2. Both Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins had a very good relationship with William Wyler, and both were possibly romantic in nature. That in addition to Bette Davis having had an affair with the Director Anatol Litvak, who was married to Miriam Hopkins at the time, did not help the matter any in that regard as to how well Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins got along.

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  6. I love Miriam Hopkins especially when she's going screwball. I also enjoy tales of her upstaging tricks and escapades on set when she wasn't happy...Thanks for this wonderful tribute to a versatile, unique actress! I didn't know that she was such a pioneer in TV, or that her nickname was Hoppy!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed our post. Miriam did have a flair for dramatics ( onscreen and off ) and I think that's what made her so special. Later today I'm going to check out her Suspense radio performance. It's amazing how so many actors performed on radio equally as well as onscreen, I would think it was an entirely different kind of medium to work with.

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  7. Excellent look at Miriam Hopkins. I love her pre-Code output, so it's nice to be reminded of her later work that I often overlook. For an actress that appeared in fewer than 40 features, I'm always stunned by how many turned out to be memorable classics.

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    1. I guess her picky way of choosing scripts ( like Davis ) really paid off in the end. Hopkins didn't settle for just any role and so she ended up with quite a stellar filmography. I'm actually not all that familiar with her pre-code so I'm going to have to look into those! Glad you enjoyed the post, Mr. Aliperti.

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  8. Great reading, Miriam was fantastic, sharp in both comedy and drama, very intense and brought so much to every role.

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  9. I love Miriam Hopkins and really feel she did not get her due as an actress of immense, varied talent. (I think she stands up quite well to Davis in both their films.) She always brought an edge of sophistication to her roles; you sensed what an intelligent woman she was. I didn't know about her TV career - wonder if a copy of her performance as Norma Desmond exists? I would love to see that!

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    1. Gosh, you might have to do some digging to uncover that version of Sunset Boulevard. I think James Daly played William Holden's part in the TV version, and I do know that Mary Astor and Darren McGavin starred in a Robert Montgomery Presents version of the film as well. If some film archive ever finds the Lux Video Theatre broadcasts ( or were they destroyed? ) I would love to see them all on DVD! Thanks for your comment about Hopkins, she was indeed one classy actress.

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    2. A copy of these early television shows with Miriam Hopkins and Mary Astor both playing the role of Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" would indeed make a great DVD set, just on the many early versions including the original movie with Gloria Swanson.

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    3. The Criterion Collection has released a DVD set of the early films of Ernst Lubitsch, including many with Miriam Hopkins (Ernst Lubitsch's favorite Actress) and those can be seen in crystal clarity as the Criterion Collection will only put out the best prints available including very interesting commentaries, original preview, and many other associated films or commentaries and oftentimes outtakes and any film associated with a particular. "Trouble in Paradise", "Design for Living" and a boxed set of the Ernst Lubitsch Musicals have been released by the Criterion Collection and have all the extras including crystal clarity in the DVD prints.

      Criterion Collection DVD's and boxed sets are more expensive, but definitely worth the additional cost due to the clarity of the print and the many extras that come with the Boxed set of Movies, or in many cases done with only the one film being sold by the Criterion Collection. Many DVD's from the Criterion Collection can be found used on Ebay at greatly reduced prices and generally in very good condition. Their condition is always described in the section regarding the specific DVD.

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  10. i loved her in THE HEIRESS.

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    1. The role Miriam Hopkins played in "The Heiress" was the only comic relief in the film. She was delightful, good friends with the Director William Wyler, and he knew Miriam was perfect for the role of the Aunt as he had directed Miriam in previous films from the past and would do so again in future films. They were good friends off screen, as was Bette Davis a very good friend with William Wyler. Perhaps that had something to do with the negative comments Bette Davis made about Miriam Hopkins after her death.

      Montgomery Clift and Miriam Hopkins got along well during the performance, as it was a stressful endeavor for Montgomery Clift and Miriam realized this and offered her very needed friendship and encouragement.

      In their scenes together during the filming of "The Heiress", the viewer can obviously detect their fondness for each other, not only as human beings, but also during screen rehearsals and actual filming when he needed the most emotional support and received it from Miriam. Being sympathetic characters in the film helped out also, but Miriam Hopkins seemed to recognize the fragility of his personality as was also the case with Elizabeth Taylor.

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    2. Mr. McLeod : Thanks for sharing that bit of news with us. I knew Miriam had a soft side to her underneath her feisty veneer. Elizabeth Taylor did indeed reach out to many of her co-stars, always eager to lend an open ear and a compassionate heart.

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  11. Miriam Hopkins once said she would never retire. In reviewing her long career, that is certainly the case.

    Miriam Hopkins flew to Australia for a performance on the Australian LUX Radio Theater in the early 1950's to perform Lucille Fletcher's famous Radio Play "Sorry, Wrong Number", in this rarely heard 1 Hour version. This performance is not listed in her works, yet is a significant performance and compares well with the one's performed by Agnes Moorehead and Barbara Stanwyck. She also starred on the American LUX Radio and Video Theater from the very beginning of LUX Radio Theater in the States.

    Miriam Hopkins had no trouble in transferring her acting skills from Stage, Film, Radio and Television. An interesting performance I have never seen is the 1955 version of Miriam Hopkins in the American LUX Video Theater presentation of "Sunset Boulevard". Finally being able to see Miriam Hopkins in the role of Norma Desmond in this early television version of "Sunset Boulevard" would indeed be a delight just waiting out there to be seen again.

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    1. We too would like to find the Hopkins version of Sunset Boulevard. I'm sure there is some collector out there who has recordings of these old Lux Video presentations that will one day surface on Youtube. I'm still hunting for the Teresa Wright/Michael Rennie television production of The Enchanted Cottage as well.

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  12. I did notice that Mary Astor also played the role of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" on the "Robert Montgomery Presents" television show.

    This would make two additional versions of "Sunset Boulevard" presented on early television with Miriam Hopkins playing the part of Norma Desmond on the "LUX Video Theater" (performed in 1955) and Mary Astor on "Robert Montgomery Presents".

    I have yet to be able to find a site that will allow these programs to be shown, but they should both be quite interesting, with two of the most talented Actresses from the early days of talking pictures in Hollywood. Both Miriam Hopkins and Mary Astor would both have been the right age, and also knew the territory of the material needed to play a role such as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard".

    If anybody out there has any clues as to how these two early television shows can be seen, please make a comment with the information on how they can be seen.

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