Too Smart for the Set
Miriam Hopkins and the fine art of annoying your colleagues
Last night, TCM ran two films by Curtis Harrington, What’s the Matter With Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?. I have tried, but I can't get along with either one. As I explained on Twitter, my Camp-O-Meter simply doesn't go that high. However, it did remind me that Harrington was good friends with Miriam Hopkins toward the end of her life. Did TCM make that connection when scheduling the double feature on the eve of Miriam's birthday, today, Oct. 18? It doesn’t seem that way, but maybe.
Curtis Harrington had plenty of Miriam Hopkins stories, like the time USC was holding a tribute to Rouben Mamoulian and Allan Dwan, and Miriam was invited. Hopkins—born in Savannah and a belle to her marrow—insisted on an escort. A lady does not arrive at an important event unless she is on a man’s arm, perish the thought.
Harrington dug up writer Charles Higham and it went ... all right. Historian George Eells wrote that Higham told Hopkins he was working on a biography of Cecil B. De Mille. “Whatever for?” asked Hopkins. When she found out another guest, David Chierichetti, was writing a book about Mitchell Leisen, all tact was abandoned: "Has the world gone mad?"
Hopkins, you see, started out in theater, giving acclaimed performances in An American Tragedy and Lysistrata, among others. She had the belief, common in her lifetime but much less so now, that theater was an inherently superior art form—more demanding, more intellectual by far than whatever they were doing out in Hollywood. Miriam Hopkins had been bred for better things, and don’t you forget it. True, by some horrid quirk of money, fate, and a father who’d left the family early on, Miriam did wind up in public school for some years. But her last year of high school was spent at high-minded Goddard Seminary in Vermont, where she sported a then-unusual blonde bob that was the talk of the student body, and studied voice and piano.
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She never attended college, but by all accounts Miriam Hopkins was ferociously smart and well-read in ways that were impossible to ignore. In fact, Hopkins was slated to be the first Lorelei Lee in the 1926 Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—but later lost the part, wrote Eells, when Anita Loos decided Miriam “projected too much logical intelligence” to make a believable Lorelei. Miriam bounced back by landing the socialite part in the Broadway version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Eells claims Miriam “could not only recite Ezra Pound’s Cantos but also interpret them intelligently,” and I’m not sure which impresses me more. Miriam’s idea of art encompassed poets and painters, but not Hollywood directors. The Golden Age of Hollywood “was something she had been a part of, and it was not, in her opinion, worth discussing,” said Curtis Harrington. In 1972, the Museum of Modern Art held a 60-year retrospective of Paramount Pictures, and chose The Story of Temple Drake (1933) to open the series. Miriam attended, but was displeased when the program opened with a Ginger Rogers musical short subject. “Who’s that?” she hissed theatrically when Ginger began to sing.
It wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been, much of a surprise that Miriam also wasn’t keen on her own picture. In other years and to other companions, Miriam had cited Temple Drake as a favorite, but she wouldn’t have been Miriam if she didn’t change her mind. Now she complained that time had not been good to The Story of Temple Drake. In any event, it was no Lysistrata.
Hopkins did consider one movie role worthy of her, and she wanted it badly: Scarlett O’Hara. But she didn't need to play Scarlett. She was Scarlett. From her string of men, to her foot-stomping, crockery-throwing temper, Hopkins lived the part.
One difference perhaps worth noting: Hopkins tended to stay friends with old lovers, as well as with three out of four husbands, a pretty good ratio, especially considering that Hopkins wasn’t a commune-peacefully-with-your-soulmate kind of partner. She didn’t alienate men, she wore them out. Miriam was the kind of woman who lived for the intrigue of it all. When at last the excitement stopped, and so did the men knocking on her door, Miriam still said she counted lovers to lull herself to sleep … it usually worked like a charm by number 38 or 39.
Miriam wasn't a classic beauty, but she could look seductively gorgeous for one film, achingly plain in another. She was tiny, about 5'2" and barely a hundred pounds. I’ve always believed Miriam’s notorious scene-stealing had to do with a petite person’s fear of being invisible. That’s my theory, anyway. Co-stars like Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson just said she was a bitch.
Whatever the reason, there was no trick Miriam wouldn’t pull if she thought she could get away with it. Even Kay Francis, a lifelong friend, didn't escape. Francis claimed that Miriam’s persistent “cheating” on angles for a two-shot in Trouble in Paradise (1932) meant that Kay had to eat about 20 boiled eggs before Ernst Lubitsch got a shot with Kay’s full face toward the camera. When you see the movie, and realize Francis is having breakfast in bed and Hopkins is sitting beside her, you appreciate how dedicated Miriam must have been to the art of upstaging. Other co-stars fared no better. In Edward G. Robinson’s autobiography he gleefully described filming a scene in Barbary Coast (1935) in which he slapped Miriam. The set, he claimed, burst into applause. Davis told a (suspiciously?) similar story about a slap scene in Old Acquaintance (1943). Davis also claimed that in The Old Maid (1939), Miriam almost inched her costar off a couch while trying to get a better camera angle.
Then there was Miriam’s dedication to psychic arts like astrology and numerology. Hopkins would turn down good acting roles and well-located addresses if the dates or street numbers added up to two or four, numbers she considered unfavorable. If necessary, wrote Eells, her brilliant mind could turn somersaults to get her where she wanted to go. Her birthday of Oct. 18, 1902, added up to 22, a power number; “when a friend asked whether the 22 didn’t add up to a ‘four’ or a box, Miriam indignantly informed her, ‘Of course not. You don’t add twenty-two.’ ”
With such tales circulating, it perhaps isn't surprising that Hopkins’ film career blazed up, then sputtered out in a series of character roles, even if some of them were splendid, like Aunt Lavinia in The Heiress (1949). But it's still a pity her star years didn’t last longer. Miriam was gifted. Lubitsch said she was the best actress he ever worked with. Mamoulian considered her a trouper.
One reason I’m focusing so much on the Hopkins temperament and love of male attention is that I think it’s part of what makes her so electrifying in the 1930s, especially early on in the decade. Hell, maybe Miriam’s volatile presence lit a fire under a lot of folks in the clockwork world of a studio set. Herbert Marshall had impenetrable English good manners that no amount of actress-y antics could dent, and his screen wooing was plenty romantic, but perhaps not always sensual. Yet in Trouble in Paradise, Marshall’s gentleman thief obviously isn’t in league with Hopkins’ Lily just because he likes the way she lifts his watch. The balancing act of Design for Living rests on believing Gilda (Hopkins) has something, probably a number of somethings, that satisfy both Gary Cooper and Fredric March.
Other films played up her wild side even more. Miriam’s Ivy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is a disturbing creature, one whose headlong attraction to Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde seems to be a sexual desire for death itself. The chemistry she has with March may be the movie’s most frightening special effect. And there’s really no other actress in the Hollywood of 1933 (nope, not even Tallulah) who I can see in the title role of The Story of Temple Drake, a character who makes Scarlett O’Hara’s flirting with her beaux look like Love Comes to Andy Hardy. Temple’s true motivations keep shifting in front of our eyes, the one seeming constant being her refusal, or perhaps inability, to conform to any standard of sexual morality. With a script that excised the most shocking parts of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, there were a lot of unfilmable ideas that Hopkins needed to bring vividly into the audience’s imagination. And she did. Even now, Temple Drake is a depraved movie.
It was columnist Rebecca “Becky” Morehouse who took Miriam Hopkins to MoMA that night in 1972, and afterward, pleased with the publicity, Eells wrote that she brought some photos and clippings to show Miriam, who wasn’t interested. Morehouse ascribed this at first to lack of vanity, then, like her friend, changed her mind. “Later I concluded that’s really the ultimate vanity. She knew she had a place. She knew that she had done worthwhile work, and then she forgot about it.”
(This essay is virtually all-new, but contains a few old observations from a blog post I wrote about Miriam Hopkins in 2005.)
I drew most of the facts here from George Eells's essay "The Maverick," in his Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who?, Putnam 1976.