A few years ago I wrote a post about about the pre-Code output of Miriam Hopkins. The title of that post asks if Miriam Hopkins was the sexiest pre-Code star of them all, but I’ll now admit that I censored my original title a bit. What I really wanted to ask was if Hopkins could claim title of having played the most sex-hungry characters of the pre-Code era.
A brief survey of that period includes Hopkins’ three movies for Ernst Lubitsch, with the broken gentlemen’s agreement in Design for Living (1933) foremost in my mind; Hopkins wearing nothing but her bedspread and swinging a bare leg at Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); the tragedy she befalls when her estranged husband makes her pay for tucking in her drunken lover in 24 Hours (1931); and the complicated emergence of her sexuality by the hand of Jack La Rue in The Story of Temple Drake (1933). These movies and moments rank as prominent examples of Hopkins’ burning up the screen and censors during her first few years in the movies. I’m of the opinion that Hopkins’ early thirties releases bring more sex to the screen than any other actress, including everyone from Barbara Stanwyck to Mae West.
Right now I’m drafting an article about The Story of Temple Drake for Classic Movie Monthly #5. As part of that project, I decided to put together a more conventional biography of Miriam Hopkins for the site.
Ellen Miriam Hopkins was born in Savannah, Georgia, October 18, 1902. She spent her formative years nearer the Gulf of Mexico than the Atlantic though, way on the other side of Georgia in Bainbridge (approximately forty miles northwest of Tallahassee, Florida, and about fifty miles east of the Alabama border), at her maternal grandmother’s house. Miriam’s father Homer Ayers Hopkins, an insurance salesman, and mother Ellen split some time during Miriam’s childhood (Homer remarried in 1911), leading to a somewhat migratory youth for their children. On a 1922 passport application, Miriam volunteered that she had spent a portion of 1909 in Mexico, though by the time of the 1910 U.S. Census she, mother Ellen, and sister Ruby were all back in grandmother Mildred Cutler’s home, now in Savannah.
At age fourteen Miriam moved north with her mother and attended the Goddard Seminary, then a high school preparatory school, in Barre, Vermont. Around 1918, Miriam lived in Syracuse, where her uncle Thomas Cramer Hopkins (Homer’s brother) was head of the Geology department at Syracuse University. Most sources claim Miriam Hopkins attended Syracuse University, but it is worth noting that one film historian, George Eells, claimed “registrar’s records show no evidence that she ever attended college” (1976, 81). It’s a forty-year-old source, but it does sound as though Eells had actually done some legwork in checking into the matter.
At this point in her life Miriam Hopkins’ theatrical ambitions were focused on dance. She studied under Sonya Serova and Michio Itow, and Miriam was one of two dancers who performed in the prologue to the Norma Talmadge feature film Wedding Bells at New York’s Strand Theatre in August 1921 (Strand 1921). After this she sought out producer Sam H. Harris and asked for for an opportunity to perform in the first Music Box Revue at the Music Box Theatre. She landed the job at forty dollars per week in September 1921, but Hopkins refused to stand still. She won a place with a ballet company that was scheduled for an extended tour of South America, but Hopkins’ future was permanently altered when she broke her ankle after applying for her passport in January 1922.“Of course, I hope to be a star,” a more established Hopkins later said. “But then, if I hadn’t broken my ankle I might have been a Pavlova” (She Broke 1927).
Hopkins’ professional experience was exclusively dance at this early juncture, but now she set her sights on vaudeville as a way to train herself as an actress. She landed in a May Tully sketch and then, according to an early New York Times profile, played ingenue leads in a Shubert unit, danced the Pantages Circuit out west, before landing a role in Give and Take on Broadway (Who’s Who 1925). Hopkins often cited her place with Tully, but the other items seem to have dropped from her biography soon after the Times piece. While in New York she heard producer L. Lawrence Weber needed a blonde who could sing, dance, and act in his new show, Little Jessie James. Hopkins won the part and stayed with the show over the next year and a half as it moved on from New York to Boston and Philadelphia.
Hopkins endured a brief period of struggle after Little Jessie James wrapped. She was fired from one show in Staten Island, and latched on with another that didn’t make it past its out-of-town opening in Washington, DC (Parish 1972, 229). Then, in March 1925, she enjoyed her first major success in Brock Pemberton’s Puppets at the Selwyn Theater on Broadway. Puppets only played for a couple of months, but Hopkins, who had replaced Claudette Colbert to star opposite C. Henry Gordon and Fredric March, gained notice. Later that year she also appeared in Lovely Lady at the Belmont Theater.She married twenty-four-year-old actor Brandon Peters in May 1926, the first her four marriages. It was an even more exciting year for Hopkins professionally, though not without a big bump in the road. She won the lead in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but Loos decided Hopkins didn’t fit the role and replaced her with June Walker. Hopkins quickly regained her footing when cast as Sondra Finchley, one of the lead roles in Patrick Kearney’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. This high profile assignment at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre lasted over two hundred performances into the spring of 1927. Hopkins continued to be in demand afterward, remaining on Broadway for comedies The Garden of Eden (September-October 1927) and the hit Excess Baggage (December 1927-June 1928). She filled the sliver of time in between by appearing in a couple of shows in Chicago (Parish 1972, 230).
In 1928, she met “love of her life” Austin Parker, a writer ten years her senior who was credited with developing Hopkins’ passion for fine art and literature (Eells 1976, 86). They married that year, not without some controversy as to whether Hopkins’ first marriage to Peters had been officially dissolved, and immediately embarked on a four-month tour of Europe. While Hopkins’ marriage to Parker ended in divorce in 1931, they remained close and Hopkins was even at Parker's bedside when he died in 1938.
Hopkins was back on Broadway in 1929 appearing in Flight and The Camel Through the Needle’s Eye, before returning overseas to make her London stage debut in The Bachelor Father starring C. Aubrey Smith in September 1929. She left The Bachelor Father to return to Broadway for Ritzy in February 1930 (Parish 1972, 230). It was while appearing in a revival of Aristophanes' Lysistrata that she was courted and signed by Paramount, who put her to work at their Astoria, New York studio alongside Carole Lombard and Charles Starrett in Fast and Loose (1930). This was Hopkins’ feature film debut. Hopkins alternated between shooting at Astoria during the day, and taking to the Broadway stage at night (Eells 1976, 89). She also appeared in His Majesty’s Car at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and Anatol at the Lyceum while under contract with Paramount.She scored a major film hit in her first appearance for director Ernst Lubitsch, already a personal friend, in Paramount’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Hopkins, along with co-stars Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert, also appeared in Paramount’s French version of The Smiling Lieutenant, a far more natural affair for her two French-born co-stars than Hopkins.
This must have been an exciting time for Hopkins as she shuttled back and forth between stage and screen, but Paramount then moved most of their operations west to Hollywood. Towards the end of her life, Hopkins told film historian John Kobal that she signed her Paramount deal through Walter Wanger, who assured her she wouldn’t have to relocate to Hollywood. “You’ll make any films here,” he said, referring to New York. “But then they decided to close the Astoria studio,” Hopkins said. “So with the equipment, the cameras, the electrical light bulbs and so forth, I was shipped to California. I had to go” (1985, 358).
Upon landing in the west, Hopkins found herself twiddling her thumbs without any assignments. “When five weeks passed and the studio ignored me,” she said, “I marched in and insisted on testing for the part of a night club singer.” This was for 24 Hours (1931), an underrated pre-Code gem that also starred Clive Brook and Miriam’s friend from New York, Kay Francis. Hopkins said she impressed director Marion Gering when she “broke down and started to bawl” in the middle of one of the songs. “I’d forgotten the lyrics,” but Gering thought it was one of the most impressive displays of emotion he had ever seen. “I was in, brother” (Johnson 1950).
After 24 Hours came her classic role as the prostitute Ivy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) for director Rouben Mamoulian. Hopkins had wanted to play the more demure feminine lead, a part ultimately taken by Rose Hobart, but Mamoulian coaxed her into playing Ivy instead. “He said, ‘It’s three scenes. It’s dull! You want to play the little cockney streetwalker of this, it’s the greatest!” (Kobal 1985, 359).
Despite a well-deserved reputation for being difficult to work with, some of Hopkins’ biggest fans were her most respected directors. “Me temperamental? I never was,” said Hopkins in 1961. “Proof of that is that I made four pictures with Willie Wyler, who is a very demanding director. I made two with Rouben Mamoulian, who is the same. Two with Ernst Lubitsch, such a dear man” (Thomas 1961).
Actually, three with Lubitsch, and all three unforgettable. After The Smiling Lieutenant came another two daring comedies, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933).
Hopkins left Paramount to sign with Samuel Goldwyn in March 1934. Under Goldwyn she first worked for Wyler in These Three (1936), which Lillian Hellman adapted from her own 1934 hit play The Children’s Hour. Wyler later utilized Hopkins in colorful supporting roles in films such as The Heiress (1949), which won four Academy Awards; Carrie (1952), an adaptation of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; and the later adaption of Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1961) that starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
As for Mamoulian, Hopkins also starred in Becky Sharp (1935), the first three-strip Technicolor feature length film, an accomplishment which often made it the first Hopkins title mentioned in later career tributes and obituaries. “Some actors and some directors may say she was difficult. I did not find her so,” Mamoulian said of Hopkins. The director offered more about working with Hopkins:
“She was tenacious, but when she discovered that someone could give her something better than she had thought of, she became pliable, and you could get all kinds of things from her that are unavailable from more malleable actresses. And it became a delight because she was so sensationally good” (Eells 1976, 101).
That could have become the Hopkins legacy, but she has become better remembered for her feud with Bette Davis. Before they were first teamed in The Old Maid (1939), Davis had picked up her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Jezebel (1938), a role near and dear to Hopkins. The part was originated on stage by Tallulah Bankhead in 1933, but when Bankhead fell ill that December she was replaced by Hopkins. Hopkins actually owned a piece of the play and refused to sell the property to Warner Bros. unless they allowed her to star in the movie version (AFI.com). Obviously, that’s not the way it played out. Further fueling any professional jealousy resulting from that turn of fortune, were rumors of Davis’ affair with Hopkins’ third husband, film director Anatole Litvak (Sikov 2007, 168).
Hopkins had gone to England in 1936 and starred in Men Are Not Gods (1937) for Alexander Korda. She returned to the United States on board the Normandie, which also carried over Litvak, director of Hopkins’ next film The Woman I Love (1937). Director and star fell in love and married in September 1937. That marriage was on the rocks by the time Hopkins and Davis co-starred in The Old Maid (1939).
“It wasn’t a real feud,” Hopkins said in 1950, long after their second movie together, Old Acquaintance (1943). “The studio thought it would be good publicity … but it was Bette’s studio and I think I fared badly” (Johnson 1950).
Warner Bros. went so far as to pose the two top actresses in boxing gloves in promotional photos for The Old Maid.
“Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially,” Davis said. “Working with her is another story” (Eells 1976, 77).
“Sure, I’d make another picture with Bette. But I wouldn’t get down on my knees and ask to” (Johnson 1950).
Besides the Davis feud, Hopkins is probably best remembered today as one of several actresses who did not land the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). “Miriam Hopkins has been my choice from the beginning,” author Margaret Mitchell wrote friend and Macmillan Publishing associate editor Lois Cole in 1936. “She has the voice, the looks, the personality and the sharp look.” Before getting too excited about the author’s vision of her character, keep in mind that Mitchell’s top choices to play Rhett were Charles Boyer (if he didn’t have a French accent) and Jack Holt (Wiley 2014, 7).
Hopkins spent the early 1940s back and forth between screen and stage. She once again replaced Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, this time in The Skin of Our Teeth, in May 1943, shortly after finishing work on Old Acquaintance at Warner Bros. After The Perfect Marriage on Broadway, Hopkins married for a fourth time to reporter Raymond Brock. Hopkins' final marriage lasted until her 1951 divorce from Brock. Message for Margaret only lasted a few days in 1947, with Hopkins doing some stock work both before and after that brief Broadway appearance. She returned to Hollywood for the the first time since Old Acquaintance when Wyler called on her to support Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949).
“How many times can you come back?” Hopkins asked shortly after finishing work on The Mating Season (1951). “It sounds like you’ve been in a home for destitute actors and somebody has dragged you out” (Johnson 1950).
Hopkins also began making television appearances as early as 1949, appearing on anthology series such as Lux Video Theater, Studio One in Hollywood, and General Electric Theater throughout the 1950s. After The Children’s Hour for Wyler in 1961, she appeared on popular television series Route 66 in 1963, and The Outer Limits in 1964.
There was controversy when she appeared as a madam in Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill (1964), but Hopkins later explained that she took the part because the movie was filmed in West Berlin and her adopted son Michael (1932-2010) was then serving at a nearby Air Force base (Kobal 1985, 354). Hopkins wound down her career with a couple of more movies, The Chase (1966) and Savage Intruder (1970), and a 1969 appearance on The Flying Nun television program.
Back when she had signed with Samuel Goldwyn in 1934, Hopkins had treated herself to a five-bedroom townhouse at 13 Sutton Place in New York. By the 1960s she was subletting that apartment and living in a smaller East Side apartment (Parish 1972, 246-47). Towards the end of the decade she lived in Los Angeles. On July 12, 1972, Hopkins returned to New York to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Paramount by attending a showing of The Story of Temple Drake (1933) at the Museum of Modern Art. Paramount’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary had long been one of Hopkins’ favorites, but John Kobal, who was also in attendance that evening, noted how uncomfortable the actress became by the crowd’s inappropriate reaction to the film. “The sophisticated, supposedly movie-knowledgeable audience … laughed indiscriminately as the film unrolled.”
“Well, of course it’s an old film,” Hopkins said, making excuses for it.
Kobal forged a friendship with the actress by assuring her there was nothing wrong with the movie. She later confided, “If anybody would say to me: ‘What is one of the finest pictures you’ve made?’ I would say: ‘Sanctuary’” (Kobal 1985, 352).
Shortly after Hopkins arrived in New York she had heart trouble and was admitted to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She was released from the hospital on September 9, but continued treatment at her suite in the Alrae Hotel on East 64th Street afterward. She died of a massive coronary attack at 5 am on October 9, 1972, nine days before what would have been her seventieth birthday.
The aspiring ballet dancer instead carved out her legacy on stage and screen, both big and small. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Miriam Hopkins did not appear in a huge number of movies: only thirty-six to be exact. She was nominated for one Academy Award, and that for Becky Sharp, a film better recalled for technical achievement than any individual performance. She didn’t get to star in Gone With the Wind, and her most famous film roles opposite Bette Davis aren’t always remembered for what occurred on-screen. But Hopkins deserves to be remembered on her own merit, especially for her early work at Paramount in her three movies for Lubitsch, plus Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Story of Temple Drake. The movies with Davis and later supporting work such as in The Heiress complement what was otherwise already a very successful screen career.
Perhaps a greater legacy awaits Miriam Hopkins. Towards the end of 2016, film historian Allan R. Ellenberger announced: “After tens years of research, interviews and writing, on Friday, I was notified that my biography of actress Miriam Hopkins will be published by the University Press of Kentucky as part of their Screen Classics series.” Congratulations to him on the accomplishment—I cannot wait to read it!
- AFI.com. 2017. “Jezebel.” Accessed January 4. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=3971.
- Eells, George. 1976. Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who? New York: Simon and Schuster.
- “From Sleepy Savannah to Happy Hollywood.” 1937. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. January 17, C5.
- Johnson, Erskine. 1950. “In Hollywood." Gloversville and Johnstown Morning Herald (NY). August 25, 4.
- Keylin, Arleen and Suri Fleischer, ed. 1977. Hollywood Album. New York: Arno Press.
- Kobal, John. 1985. People Will Talk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Parish, James Robert. 1972. The Paramount Pretties. New Rochelle: Arlington House. 227-247.
- “She Broke Her Ankle.” 1927. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. October 1, 10.
- Sikov, Ed. 2007. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Henry Holt.
- “The Strand.” 1921. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. August 16, 11.
- Thomas, Bob. 1961. “Miriam Hopkins Plays Role of Her Own Aunt.” Rome Daily Sentinel (NY). August 23, 17.
- Wiley, John Jr., ed. 2014. The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- “Who's Who.” 1925. New York Times. March 22, 2.
- “Who's Who on Brooklyn Stages: From Savannah.” 1924. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. November 16, E3.
- “Texas Marriages, 1837-1973,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FX99-4YZ : 5 December 2014), Homer Ayers Hopkins and Katherine Robinette, 06 Nov 1911; citing El Paso, Texas, reference p252; FHL microfilm 25,060.
- “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MLKS-8C4 : accessed 6 January 2017), Mildred Cutler, Savannah Ward 2, Chatham, Georgia, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 56, sheet 3A, family 63, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 178; FHL microfilm 1,374,191.
- “United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV5B-SKTR : 4 September 2015), Miriam Hopkins, 1922; citing Passport Application, New York, United States, source certificate #114538, Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925, 1821, NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,704,483.