Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Memorable Miriam

The Siren has been contemplating fashions in actors. I'm sure you have noticed how some players command a following to this day, and others go in cycles. To touch on one actress with a huge following, as recently as the 1980s there weren't that many Audrey Hepburn fans around. Now I am, I confess, getting a little tired of hearing about that lovely woman from people who consider the relatively weak and wildly uneven Breakfast at Tiffany's to be her finest hour. (I don't think so.)

Meanwhile, other fine actors have only a fan site or two and maybe a TCM Star of the Month tribute to keep them going. This week, the Siren starts a occasional series of nominations for Stars Who Deserve a Revival, Damn It. I assume that serious cinephiles already know these performers, so by revival, I mean a broader profile with the general public. A full-length biography that makes it to paperback, for example, or a postcard set sold by the Barnes & Noble cash register. A coffee-table book or one of those DVD boxed sets Amazon always emails me about. In fact, let's use the DVD boxed set as a yardstick.

I am starting with a doozy, the great Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins's fame rests today at least in part on a role she didn't get, that of Scarlett O'Hara. She tested for it and wanted it badly. No one could wish anyone other than Vivien Leigh in the role, but I think Hopkins might not have been half bad. No matter. She didn't need to play Scarlett--she WAS Scarlett. From her Georgia roots (like Scarlett, Miriam's connections to Old South aristocracy were on her mother's side), to her string of men, to her foot-stomping, crockery-throwing temper, Hopkins lived the part.

She wasn't a classic beauty, but she had what the Siren calls an actressy face, able to look seductively gorgeous for one film, achingly plain in another. (Cate Blanchett has this same quality today.) She was tiny, about 5'2" and 102 pounds, and it's possible her notorious scene-stealing had to do with a petite person's fear of disappearing. Co-stars like Bette Davis 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, one of Miriam's few Hollywood friends, didn't escape. For a scene with Miriam in Trouble in Paradise, Francis told of having to eat more than twenty boiled eggs before Ernst Lubitsch himself could get a shot with her face toward the camera. When you see the movie scene, and realize Kay is having breakfast in bed and Miriam is sitting beside her, you appreciate how dedicated Miriam must have been to the art of upstaging. Other co-stars fared no better. Edward G. Robinson detested the actress, and in his autobiography he gleefully described filming a scene in Barbary Coast in which he slapped her. (The set burst into applause.) Davis told a similar story about a slap scene in Old Acquaintance. Davis also claimed that in The Old Maid Miriam almost inched her costar off a couch while trying to get a better camera angle.

With tales of such behavior circulating, it isn't surprising that Hopkins' career blazed up very briefly, and sputtered out later in a series of stage and character roles. But it's still a pity. Miriam was gifted. Lubitsch said she was the best actress he ever worked with. Mamoulian considered her a trooper.

Here, then, is the Siren's list of DVDs she'd include in that boxed set:

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). The Rouben Mamoulian film that put Miriam on the map. She didn't want to play Ivy, the dance-hall tart. She wanted to play Muriel, the colorless fiancee who isn't even in the original novel. But the director talked her into it by telling her fine, play Muriel--"but Ivy would have made you a star." Hopkins started to leave, then came back and asked to play Ivy. For once her mercurial nature led her to a great decision. She would never be sexier than she was rocking a leg back and forth in front of Fredric March.

2. Trouble in Paradise (1932). This one, by common consent Miriam's best movie, is available in a beautiful DVD from the Criterion Collection. Miriam plays Lily Vautier, a thief who hooks up with the equally light-fingered Herbert Marshall. Together they try to rob wealthy Kay Francis, but Marshall finds himself unexpectedly drawn to his mark.

This is a romantic triangle plot, but when she watches this one the Siren roots for Miriam all the way. How could she not? The early scene where Hopkins and Marshall recognize that they've both been trying to rob each other blind is one of the Siren's favorites in any comedy. It begins with Miriam drooping around the hotel room and emoting in a manner familiar to anyone who's ever sat through a Norma Shearer vehicle: "Oh, one gets so tired of one's own class--princes and counts and dukes and kings! Everybody talking shop." As they wise up to each other, Marshall shakes her, and out falls a man's wallet. "I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket," he tells her. "In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet." He returns the brooch he lifted from smack in the middle of her décolletage. Hopkins counters by graciously handing him his watch, adding "It was five minutes slow but I regulated it for you." Marshall regains his composure and says, "I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter." Hopkins reaches down to feel for the item, Marshall produces it with a flourish, and Hopkins flings herself into his arms with a cry of "Darling!"

Now that, says the Siren, is true love.

3. Design for Living (1933). Lubitsch again. Miriam plays Gilda, a woman who can't decide between Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Her accomplishment here is to make Gilda thoroughly believable and likable, despite her hopping from March to Cooper and back again and making a fine mess. Miriam's great all the way through, but her best work comes at the end. Her martyred expression when asking "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?" as part of a game with some hopelessly dull clients is something to treasure. But the best scene is Hopkins losing her temper with Edward Everett Horton. "I forgive you," he says. "Are you forgiving me again?" she snaps back, adding later, "I'm sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!"

4. Becky Sharp (1935). Famous for being the first full-length feature in three-strip Technicolor, and for not much else. It deserves another look. The film is static, probably due to the demands of the new technique. It's reminiscent of early talkies, with one medium shot after another, and the supporting cast isn't exactly mesmerizing, for the most part. But the Siren loves Hopkins as Becky. There wasn't another actress who could have captured the character's grasping-yet-generous nature. Mamoulian's film compresses William Makepeace Thackeray's humongous novel into less than 90 minutes, and does so intelligibly, even managing to save some of the novelist's wit. The screenwriters also jettisoned the novel's one major flaw, Thackeray's pompous, moralizing take on Becky's fate.

5. These Three (1936). Miriam plays the goodhearted victim here, a rarity for her. These Three is an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play The Children's Hour, so scandalous at the time that even the title couldn't be retained. Miriam and the ever-ravishing Merle Oberon play teachers who become the target of a vicious, spoiled young girl, played by a delectably spiteful Bonita Granville. (Granville made something of a career of this type of role, later tormenting Bette Davis with thoughtless jokes in Now, Voyager.) In the play the girl accuses the teachers of being lovers; in the movie, she lies about the relationship between Oberon's fiance, played by Joel McCrea, and Hopkins. Miriam does a lovely job portraying her character's slow, agonizing realization that she does, in truth, love McCrea.

6. The Old Maid (1939). This potentially sudsy story of love delayed and denied rises to the level of art through a literate script and unforgettable performances. Miriam plays Bette Davis's bitchy, vengeful--but, in the end, far from heartless--friend. Davis told costumer Orry-Kelly before filming that Hopkins "will be trouble, but she'll be worth it." They hated each other all right, but Bette's scenes with Miriam are some of the best either actress ever put on film. There are critics, such as Lawrence Quirk, who consider this Davis's finest performance. The Siren says actors feed off what they get from one another in a scene, and Davis wouldn't have been as great with a lesser actress in the Hopkins role.

Miriam's film career went into sad decline after the 1930s, despite a few bright spots (Old Acquaintance (1943) and a nice turn in The Heiress (1949) among them). She found work on the stage, but as years passed the parts got weaker and the venues got smaller. One ill-fated onstage role was the main character in an early and dismally short-lived version of Orpheus Descending. When Miriam died in 1972 Tennessee Williams wrote, "I know that Paramount Pictures must be aware of her value, the value of her unique talent and personality, and I trust that there will be continued r[ev]ivals of her films...she has the quality of which a 'cult' could emerge." The Siren hopes time eventually proves him right.

Note: Information about Miriam isn't easy to find, and despite a fascinating life she has never had a full-length biography. The Siren drew most of her facts from George Eells's essay "The Maverick," in his Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who?, Putnam 1976. There's an intelligent and detailed fan site here. Also, if you are wondering why the Siren didn't mention The Smiling Lieutenant, it's because she hasn't seen it.

12 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

I got to see William K. Everson's copy of The Story of Temple Drake about thirty-four years ago. When I checked her filmography, I noticed Wm. Wyler brought her back for The Children's Hour, years before the trend to bring back surviving stars in remakes. The only Miriam Hopkins story I know about is when she and Fritz Lang had their "honeymoon" on a train going cross-country.

Gloria said...

Campaspe,

Your blog entries have the virtue of continuously summoning in me mind cinematographic moments of intense pleasure (hala!).

Cheers to Miss Hopkins! I recall seeing "Trouble in Paradise " on screen (on a lucky time when distributors in my country had a weakness to recuperate Lubistch movies) and I have rarely seen so perfect a film (and so enjoyable!).

(My remembrances about Design for Living are more foggy, but, as usual with Lubitsch, spark an instant desire to check the old VHS box to see if, As I recall vaguely, I had a copy around!... Was it the "Czechoslovaquia"and upper-part of-the-pajamas movie?... ).

Another very plesing memory was raised by the sole mention of "Two for the Road"... I didn't meant to see it the first time: it was on a double bill with "Goldfinger": yes, kick me, that was the one I went to see!... But then Audrey, Albert and Stanley won by a mile! The wonder of it is, you never loose track with the constant jumps ahead and back in time! and you enjoy all the way. I agree with you that Miss Hepburn is far better there than in Breakfast at Tiffany's, by far: "Two for the road" is a film in which I get caught, while I've never been able to keep following the events in Tiffany's.

Exiled in NJ said...

To catch Miriam Hopkins without renting or buying, you have to check out TCM's morning and late night schedules. Last month while getting dressed, I found These Three. Wow! Besides Hopkins, for once Oberon was more than a delicate flower, and not enough is mentioned of McCrea today.

Watching it, I realized another of those revelations that reflect the difference in the times: parents were portrayed as so much older in those days.

As others have pointed out, it is the script that makes Twofer so good.

Lance Mannion said...

We watched Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for family movie night a little while back. I was shocked by the modern-ness of Hopkins' performance. By that I mean she seemed as if she'd been lifted out of the movies in the 21st century and dropped into the role of Ivy. There was something so natural, and naked (sorry) in her sexuality in the first scene with Jekyll. The camera, lighting, and make up of the period couldn't hide the real-ness of her face either. I haven't seen many other movies with her, and I've seen none of the Lubitsch comedies---was she this direct in all of them?

Brian said...

Hopkins is a great pick to start off this series. The first three on your list of her films are among my all-time favorites. I suppose I might just give Becky Sharp another look one of these days. The other two I haven't seen yet but will seek out.

I recently saw two rarer Hopkins films: the Story of Temple Drake and Two Kinds of Women. She was absolutely the best thing in both films.

Annieytown said...

I loved her in Becky Sharp!
Thanks for featuring her F!

Campaspe said...

Peter & Brian: I haven't been able to get my hands on The Story of Temple Drake. I read Sanctuary eons ago and what I remember is primarily the infamous corncob, which I am willing to bet didn't make it into even a pre-Code movie.

Gloria, thank you so much! I intend to respond to your Leslie Howard email asap, I was gone over the weekend.

Exiled - I am not surprised that you appreciated These Three. It didn't seem to suffer from removing the lesbian motif at all, and in fact it works better than the later "Children's Hour", in my opinion.

Lance - yes, I think she was always amazingly fresh and candid, at least in her good movies. With Hopkins, you can *really* tell when she's phoning it in, as in "Virginia City." The Lubitsch comedies are just fantastic, especially "Trouble in Paradise" which I would recommend to just about anyone.

Annie - I am so delighted you actually saw Becky Sharp! I really do think she was born to play that role. If they had waited a few years to make it when Technicolor came into its own, it might have been splendid indeed.

risa said...

oddly enough, i adore Miriam Hopkins in The Children's Hour, the Audrey Hepburn version which i deeply adore. but i'm a Hellmann fan through and through :)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

That Trouble in Paradise scene is genius, and hooks you right at the start of the film. I agree Hopkins deserves more props, and I think her off-screen behavior put a damper on her reputation as a major talent, unfortunately. At least her profile has risen somewhat thanks a good portion of her best work showing up on DVD (I also can't wait to finally see The Smiling Lieutenant, which is out in the new "Lubitsch Musicals" set).

Now you've really got me anxious to see Hopkins as Becky Sharp. I know the film's never had a great reputation, and I don't think it's readily available. Glad to hear you think Miriam's really good in the role. She received her sole Oscar nomination for Becky Sharp but, interestingly enough, years later in an interview she claimed to have as many Oscar "citations" as Bette Davis (ten, if you don't count Davis' write-in vote (I do) for Of Human Bondage).

Campaspe said...

Hi there! I love comments on my old posts, LOL. TCM runs Becky Sharp from time to time. I still have to catch up with The Smiling Lieutenant.

donna said...

Allan Ellenberger is currently working on an in-depth bio of Hopkins. He's been working with her family, so I have hopes for it to be a good one.

Jennythenipper said...

This is lovely. I agree with your comparison to Cate Blanchett. I'm working up a post on classic stars and their modern day dopplegangers and this would be one of them. (The hard part is finding the photos)

I've added your blog to my my humble little roll.

Have you seen Smiling Lieutenant yet? It's one of her best.