Becky Sharp (1935)
With her contract expired, and coming off the overwhelming success of The Richest Girl in the World (’34) for RKO, Miriam signed a contract with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. After initially balking at RKO’s salary offer for Becky Sharp, & both Myrna Loy & Claudette Colbert also rejecting it, Miriam received a higher offer & accepted the role. Filming began on December 11, 1934 with Lowell Sherman directing. 2 weeks into shooting , however, Sherman was stricken with pneumonia, hospitalized and died on December 28th.
Rouben Mamoulian was suggested by Hopkins to take Sherman’s place, but hated both the script & Sherman’s footage, so both were scrapped & the production started over. Mamoulian’s adaptation is primarily known as being the first film to utilize the 3 strip Technicolor process, whereby the camera captured separate color records on 3 strips of film that were then combined in printing. While the script issues were not solved, Mamoulian’s use of color to reflect story, mood & meaning are certainly the film’s lasting legacy. When watching the film, pay close attention to the color of Becky’s dresses, for instance, because they each indicate her station in life, as well as her intentions within the scene. Tom Milne points specifically to the grand ball scene, on the eve of Waterloo, as a perfect indication of color as story indicator. In the scene the overwhelming “…blues, greens & yellows are gradually drained away to leave the screen suffused by a crescendo of red” (p. 91) to show the impending blood bath of the battlefield
In many ways, Becky Sharp is the perfect character for Hopkins to play because both can easily be accused of demanding that any & all attention in a room be focused solely on themselves. Hopkins was notorious for undermining fellow actors by moving upstage & forcing them to put their backs to the camera. During Sherman’s 2 weeks of shooting, she created repeated complaints & even reduced a fellow actor to tears. Bette Davis hated Hopkins’ efforts in this manner during the making of The Old Maid (’39), that after their second film together, (Old Acquaintence-43), she vowed to never work with Hopkins again. Similarly, our introduction to Becky, in the opening scene of Becky Sharp, wonderfully mirrors this self-absorption when she cuttingly comments on Amelia’s popularity, drawing attention from her. Becky’s theatricality runs throughout this abridged version of Thackeray’s story, crying on demand, being outraged at small slights and feigning horror at perceived indiscretions. She is a creation of her own making and manipulates men & women equally, often with different results, but always climbing upwards.
The underlying theme of Vanity Fair (the novel) seems to be is it better to be cleaver or to be kind. Amelia initially has wealth, popularity & love, but is unable to deal with life when she loses everything. She is kind, but weak. Becky, on the other hand, has nothing & relies on the goodness of others to survive. She is an orphan, taken in by the schoolmistress to teach French to the other girls, then a governess, a wife, a mistress & finally a casino “hostess.” In each phase of her life, however, she uses her cleverness to achieve wealth, position & finally salvation. She is a horrible person without scruples, but she is a survivor. The Script for Becky Sharp softens many of Becky’s worst impulses from the novel, which in turn weakens the character. She is less evil, less cruel & ultimately becomes less interesting. In the film, she allows Rawdon to scheme to place Becky with his wealthy spinster aunt. There is also no child for Becky to ignore & the script has the pompous George Osborne to be the aggressive in their furtive relationship. In each instance to make Becky a more appealing lead character the script makes her more a willing participant, than the driving force that destroys people, marriages & family.
Becky Sharp is by no means a great film. Hopkins’ performance and Mamoulian’s use of color are what make the film memorable & worth seeing. Because filmmakers seem willing to adapt & create different versions of Vanity Fair every 10 years or so there are many better, more complete & more enjoyable versions than Becky Sharp, including the mini-series mentioned above.
Miriam Hopkins: Life & Films of a Hollywood Rebel. Allen R. Ellenberger. University Press of Kentucky. 2018.
Cinema One Vol 13: Mamoulian. Tom Milne. Indiana University Press. 1969.
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