Mariam Hopkins was beautiful, talented, worked throughout the classic Hollywood era, starring with and being directed by some of the greatest names in Hollywood history, yet is not widely well known outside of hardcore film fans. Perhaps the fact that while her career spanned 40 years she appeared in less than 35 features, periodically focusing on theatrical work when she tired of the politics or personalities of Hollywood. Perhaps it was her ‘difficult’ personality that allegedly created decades-long feuds with no less than Bette Davis among others. Perhaps it was her unwillingness to play ‘the Hollywood game’ of self-promotion and her desire instead to live a quiet and peaceful life outside of the spotlight. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame that more people aren’t more familiar with Mariam Hopkins work because she had a presence on screen that rivaled most of her contemporaries and is worthy of closer study. Perhaps she herself understood her ultimate place in the Hollywood firmament when she said “An actress is rarely famous…and of all the actors and actresses in Hollywood today, how many will be remembered? Only Chaplin, Garbo & Mary Pickford stand any chance of enduring fame. The rest of us are merely people who flit across the screen & then, often while we are still young, merge into living shadows.” (1935 quote, excerpted from Ellenberger). While flitting across the screen, Hopkins made a lasting impression as a fine comedienne, a free spirit and a brilliant actress.
If for no other reason than starring in 3 of Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest films, Mariam Hopkins should have gone down as one of the greatest actresses of the 1930’s. Her performances in The Smiling Lieutenant (’31), Trouble in Paradise (’32) & Design for Living (’33) evolved from innocent dimwit, to conniving conspirator and finally to a mature & knowing hedonist & each shows her versatility as an actress & her growth in confidence under Lubitsch’s magic touch. In Smiling Lieutenant she plays the naïve daughter of a king in a small European country who mistakenly intercepts Maurice Chevalier’s flirtatious wink to his mistress played by Claudette Colbert. “When we like someone we smile, when we want to do something about it we wink,” explains Chevalier to Hopkins. Chevalier is a randy lieutenant in a neighboring country who is all too comfortable sprinkling a heavy dose of sexual innuendo throughout his songs, his interaction with fellow soldiers & with every woman he comes across, singing lasciviously that “we give the girls a rat a tat tat.” The high point of the comedy is the female bonding song “Jazz up your lingerie” sung by Colbert as advice to Hopkins after her wedding night failure with reluctant husband Chevalier. Hopkins’ deer in the headlights niavete is pitch perfect as the foil in the code flaunting sexual romp. A post marriage exchange between the couple perfectly sums up the relationship and the tight as a drum script Ernst Vajda & Samson Raphaelson script, based on the famous operetta.
Trouble in Paradise is the bridge piece in this director/star trilogy, but many consider it Lubitsch’s best. In it Herbert Marshall & Hopkins play completing thieves who team up to dupe a rich business woman out of her jewels. Hopkins impersonates a naïve and helpful personal secretary, but all the while works to undermine Marshall’s emerging feelings towards Kay Francis’ Madame Colet. The rapid fire dialogue between Marshall & Hopkins in the opening scene foreshadows later screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (’40) & My Man Godfrey (’36) & teams with overt sexual references that the later, post-code films could not. Hopkins plays sexy, mischievous & jealousy in equal measures, creating a rich character that hides her true emotions, at the same time wearing them on her sleeve. Her sexual chemistry with Marshall is based on wise cracks & sideways comments, but the second acts romance between Francis & Marshall, crystalizes the final embrace between to characters too similar not to be in love!
In Design for Living there are no doubts about Hopkins’ characters feelings or goals. She is neither duplicitous nor stupid. She is a sexual creature at the fulcrum of cinema’s greatest sexual triangle and she makes no bones about, admitting “it’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I’m no gentleman,” before bedding Cooper’s struggling artist George Curtis. Sure, she is manipulative, but only in the most above board & straightforward manner, admitting to both Curtis & Fredric March’s play write Tom Chambers, that she loves them both, but must initially act merely as their muse and not their lover. Hopkins plays Gilda Farrell as a sophisticated, yet impetuous continental, who values art for arts sake, sex for sex’s sake & happiness as a given. When she marries the dullard Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton it is not in spite of Tom George, but to free them to be their best selves. As Max states, “Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.” Immorality, however, is at the heart of Design for Living & Gilda represents the Production Code flaunting embodiment of sin, wrapped in a cute & lovable package. Design for Living is perfection, and ranks among my Top 10 Favorite films in no small part because of Hopkins performance. It is that dynamic and engaging performance that makes Design for Living #1 on this list as well!
While I consider Design for Living Hopkins’ greatest performance, she felt that The Story of Temple Drake was her finest. The story of a spoiled southern girl who teases her way around all the eligible bachelors in town, but takes things too far, resulting in life changing events that threaten her life and potentially destroy her societal position, Temple Drake is a cautionary tale with brazen sexuality and violence. Hopkins plays Drake as a coquettish whirling dervish, who never lets any man get close enough to take her virginity, but does enough to leave them hot & bothered. When she is stranded & runs into gangster Trigger (Jack LaRue), not only does her attitude change, but so does her life and ultimately her character. The shift is painful to watch, but Hopkins carries it off perfectly, using her eyes & petite build to literally shrink within the frame. Her dead eyes, while in the clutches of Trigger, are haunting and reflect a depth of performance unlike her Lubitsch roles. Made between Trouble in Paradise & Design for Living, The Story of Temple Drake, made in 1933, allowed Hopkins to stretch as an actress & clearly show both her range. Her final scene on the witness stand in court is heartbreaking and reflects the completion of the character.
While the smallest in terms of screen time on this list, her performance as prostitute Ivy Pearson in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde had an immense impact on the Oscar winning film. Fredric March’s Jekyl/Hyde won him an Oscar, but it is the tender moments with Ivy that give Jekyl three dimensionality and softens the jagged edges of Hyde’s monstrosity. In fact, it is Ivy’s overt sexuality that triggers Jekyl’s dangerous experimentation that turns him into Hyde and propels his spiral into madness. She’s teases and cajoles him past the sexual repression and frustration brought about by his fiances reluctance to meet his sexual needs. Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde is a wonderful example of Pre-Code sexual frankness laid bare in the personae of Ivy, perhaps the extension of Temple Drake had she not escaped Trigger’s ruthless clutches.
Made just 4 years after Dr. Jekyl & 2 years after Temple Drake & Design for Living, Hopkins star turn in Becky Sharp hinted far more discretely at sexual promiscuity, adultery & sexual manipulation. With the enforcement of the Production Code in the summer of 1934, the predatory nature of Becky Sharp’s character was softly alluded to in an effort to get by censors hell bent on capping the overt sexuality of the earlier pictures. Based on William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp if is the story of an orphan girl who uses her sexuality to seduce manipulate and exploit the men in her life, but pays the ultimate price of prostitution, degradation and being ostracized from society. Hopkins’ performance won her only Academy Award nomination (she lost to Bette Davis for Dangerous) and was a tour de force of emotion. Her scheming Becky uses every word, every gesture to positon herself to take advantage of the hapless men in her orbit, including the equally duplicitous brother of her best friend. While not my favorite performance of Hopkins, Becky Sharp allows her to use the full range of her ability, from coquettish innocent, to manipulative harpy & finally a pathetic loser.
Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins appeared in only 2 films together, but they both make the Top 10 list. Old Maid (’39) & Old Acquaintance (’43) are both great examples of ‘women’s picture’ in that they set in motion melodramatic story arcs centered around lost love, unrequited love or family tragedy (or all three). The wonder in these 2 films, however, is the deep ceded hatred the women had for each other and how in little ways that becomes subtly evident on screen. The wonder of the feud is it burned longer and more deeply than the famous Davis/Crawford feud and that they even agreed to work together at all because the feud started in regional theatre in the late ‘20’s (George Cukor’s repertory company), carried forward on Broadway in the early ‘30’s (Miriam created Jezebel on stage, while Davis took the role on film), well before either of these films was made. The fact that Davis’ feelings towards Hopkins carried on nearly until the day she died is evident in an interview shortly before, when she said “Miriam Hopkins. She was a real bitch! She was the worst, unprofessional-behaved person. She was a terribly good actress, I did 2 films with her, but she was a terribly jealous.” (Ellenberger, p. 151)
Within that quote, however, is the germ of why these 2 women performed so well together, they were both great actresses! In the Old Maid, it is Hopkins character that controls the narrative by manipulating Davis into giving up her illegitimate daughter for Hopkins to raise. Early on, however, the feud rears its ugly head as Hopkins repeatedly moves up stage, forcing Davis into either hard profile or back turned dialogue. Davis had her revenge, however, when she convinced Director Edmund Goulding to cut Miriam’s first scene in the movie. In any case the women play off one another beautifully, with Miriam once again playing a self-centered creature so consumed with herself that she continually hurts those around her, particularly Davis’ character. Davis, on the other hand, milked the attention as the put upon and grieving old maid, a dedicated and heartbroken wallflower.
In Old Acquaintance (’43), on the other hand, the roles are slightly reversed, if a bit reserved for Hopkins’ characters repeated selfishness. Davis plays a writer of serious fiction, and some notoriety, that descends on Hopkins’ upwardly mobile, but quiet domesticity. Whereas Hopkins played an offhanded form of self-absorption in Old Maid, here she is all ambition as she looks to outdo her friend by writing popular, but lowbrow fiction. To the detriment of her family and certainly her husband she climbs the bestseller list. Between the 2 films, Davis had been nominated for 3 Oscars and was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood, while Miriam had made only 3 films. In defending his choice of Miriam for the part, director Goulding convinced Jack Warner to give her the part by noting “This is the kind of thing Hopkins does so well,” in explaining the degree of comedic narcissism needed for the part. She flits about, talking at people or through them as she blows through scenes with both her husband (Gig Young) and Davis. Hopkins is masterful at making the appearance of caring about others, but really not even listening to what she’s saying. It’s heartbreaking when for a moment she realizes the destruction to her life her ambition has wrought, but it’s fleeting, then she moves on. As with earlier work in Temple Drake & Jekyl, Hopkins really does most her work with her eyes and face, creating subtle moments within line readings that lend depth to every performance.
These Three (’36) suffered from comparisons to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour because the play could never be filmed due to its controversial subject matter. Even though the script was written by Hellman, with a heterosexual love triangle substituted for the play’s lesbianism, critics knocked the picture a poor by-product of the restrictive production code, and to a large degree it was. Setting those comparisons aside, however, it really is a wonderful statement against sexual repression, innuendo & ‘mob’ mentality. As co-headmistresses of a girls boarding school Hopkins & Merle Oberon are in love with the same man, but only Oberon’s character is romantically involved. When a precocious and malicious student accuses the 3 of an unnatural 3 way relationship, prejudice, circumstance & rumor combine to undermine the pure intentions of the school, as well as the friendship of the headmistresses. Hopkins is pitch perfect as the lovelorn teacher, in love with the town doctor (Joel McCrea), but always true to her friend. Again, it is the longing that she paints on her face as she watches McCrea & Oberon together that adds depth to the character, but so to do her dramatic outbursts when confronting the accusatory girls. There is no real happy ending in this story, but the comparisons to the play are unfair, because McCrea, Oberon & especially Hopkins give wonderful performances.
Finally there is Barbary Coast (’35), the story of a gold digger (Hopkins), nearly reduced to prostitution, but complicit in exploitation & robbery, who finds redemption in the form of a poet/gold prospector (Joel McCrea), only to see her compromised lifestyle nearly drive him away. With a robust character arc like that Hopkins could do very well, incorporating a bit of Ivy (Dr Jekyl), Lily (Trouble in Paradise) & Temple (The Story of Temple Drake) into her performance, but making it fresh and unique. When she exits the boat in the first scene she is confident and assured, ready to claim her fortune from her rich husband to be. When he turns up dead, she is immediately dropped down to desperation, but using her wiles makes the most of a bad situation, only to be lifted by love, finally willing to give up wealth for the pursuit of love. This rollercoaster of emotions is handled by Hopkins on the surface with cheek and bravado, but just beneath the surface lays the strength of her acting. While she was a stage actress at heart by 1935 she had mastered the subtlety of the film camera and all it captures. While number 10 on this list, Barbary Coast could easily be much higher, based solely on the range & complexity of the performance.
Miriam Hopkins may not be the most famous actress of her generation, but had she been given some of the roles she wanted, or those taken from her or roles she just plain passed on, she certainly would have given Bette Davis, Carole Lombard & Joan Crawford a run for their money. Jezabel (’38) earned Bette Davis her first Oscar, but Hopkins created the role on Broadway. Likewise Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind (’39), but Mariam was author Margret Mitchell’s first choice for Scarlett. She turned down the role in It Happened One Night (’34) that won Claudette Colbert and Oscar & passed on the lead in Twentieth Century (’34), the part that put Carole Lombard on the map. She worked with directors at the top of their game including Lubitsch, Hawks, Mamoullian & William Wyler, but their light shines brighter. It’s not for lack of trying certainly because Hopkins valued her craft and by all accounts put effort into every performance. Finally, it’s certainly not for lack of beauty, brains or talent because Hopkins had all three in spades. I think it’s purely oversight, which hopefully this list will help rectify!
Miriam Hopkins: Life & Films of a Hollywood Rebel. Allan R. Ellenberger. University of Kentucky Press. 2018.