Celebrating the work of classical Hollywood actor Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson with Fredric March's Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
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In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at the memorable on-screen roles of actor Miriam Hopkins.

In a matter of days, I release my debut novel Diary Of Murders. Set in London 1895, it revolves around two doctors – Miriam Clayton and John Bennett – who are pulled into a fiendish murder mystery. The book is already a high-rated dark romance and horror, and it’s due out on the 23rd August.

Now the reason I am opening my column with this is not just for shameless self-promotion (OK, it might be a little bit) but because I wanted to speak a little bit more about my main female character’s namesake.

Ham-fisted segue aside, I am going to talk about one of my favourite actresses from old Hollywood Miriam Hopkins.

Born in Georgia in 1892, Miriam Hopkins’ first foray into showbiz was at the age of twenty, where she became a chorus girl in New York City. During her time, she acted in different Broadway shows including being the lead of Owen Davis’s 1933 play Jezebel. That’s going to be important later.

Whilst appearing on stage, Hopkins signed a deal with Paramount Pictures in 1930. Here first big role was playing opposite Fredric March’s Academy-Award winning performance in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1931). As the showgirl Ivy Pearson, albeit with a bit of a dodgy accent, Hopkins strikes a brilliant balance between alluring and kind. Her opening scene – where she’s trying to seduce the titular doctor with a pendulum leg swing, overlayed even after Jekyll leaves as she whispers for him to return – is a fantastic character introduction.

Unfortunately for Ivy, she would become increasingly brutalised over the course of the film by Jekyll’s fiendish alter-ego Mr Hyde. But Hopkins does well to show Ivy’s struggles and plight. Her cries of anguish, her tears of fear, and her begging for release from this torture are captured perfectly and brutally.

Another story of woe that features one of Hopkins’ best performances is the utterly brilliant (yet completely tragic) movie The Story Of Temple Drake (1933). Based on a book by William Faulkner, and directed by Stephen Roberts, it revolves around a socialite who is kidnapped and raped by a gangster. The film notably doesn’t include some horrendous scenes from the book, but it makes the film no less horrific. Thanks to Hopkins’ incredible acting this is a true story of survival at any cost, and her final testimony during the court case will shake right through you.

Turning to films more on a lighter note, Hopkins also worked with the great, imitable Ernst Lubitsch three times. The first was the incredible The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Now this isn’t the first time I’ve brought up this whimsical musical, because it also features another favourite actress of mine – Claudette Colbert. Here, the pair are fighting over Maurice Chevalier’s titular character: Hopkins as the naïve ingenue and Colbert as the spurned lover.

In a delightful ditty, Colbert’s character urges Hopkins’ character to “Jazz up your Lingerie” in order to win his affections. The pair share an adoring hug and kiss, which showcased much more chemistry than the women had with Chevalier. Truthfully, Colbert and Hopkins were vying for a prime camera position, a dispute that was both refereed and encouraged by Lubitsch, adding to the sparks on screen.

The Children's Hour

The Children’s Hour

The second feature Hopkins featured in was Lubitsch’s Trouble In Paradise (1933). Starring alongside Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis, Hopkins plays Lily, a stunning countess who is actually a pickpocket. When she comes across Marshall’s conman and thief Gaston Monescu, the pair quickly fall in love and head to Paris.

However, Gaston soon wins the affections of actual heiress Madame Mariette Colet, played by Francis, and soon it becomes a menage-a-trois of skullduggery and passions. Trouble In Paradise is quintessential Lubitsch, and it has become a great source of inspiration for many filmmakers – include Wes Anderson and even Haunted Mansion’s Justin Simien. It’s alive with snappy dialogue and incredible deliveries between powerhouse actors with a juicy plot.

The third and final collaboration between Hopkins and Lubitsch is the 1993 adaptation of Noel Coward’s Design For Living. Whilst it feels like a more sanitised version of the Coward text, Lubitsch’s film is often cited as one of the more groundbreaking romantic comedies because it literally does follow a menage-a-trois.

Hopkins plays the headstrong Gilda who comes across two friends – artist George (Gary Cooper) and playwright Thomas – on a train in Paris. Instantly Gilda is smitten with both of them, and the film follows their attempts to woo her whilst she, in turn, tries to have her cake and eat it too. One can only understand the difficulties one faces when having to choose between Cooper and March. Design For Living may only be a facsimile of the original text, but it is still a clever, subversive film.

One of Hopkins’ biggest triumph was in the terrific Becky Sharp (1935). Reuniting with Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde director Rouben Mamoulian, Becky Sharp is an adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair. It tells the story of the titular character who is a socially advantageous woman who uses her womanly wiles to climb the British social ladder. The movie itself was one of the first to be filmed entirely in three-strip Technicolor and is a luscious dream of pastels. Hopkins is wonderful as a scheming character who utilises her power to further her social standing and is often hilarious, too.

Remember the play Jezebel that Hopkins starred in? Well, when it came to the 1938 film, Hopkins was aghast to learn that Bette Davis had been cast in the role! It began a feud between the two starlets, which was publicised by the studios and press. They had very open spats which were further fuelled by their appearance together in two films – The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943). During this time, they were shown in pictures wearing boxing gloves, and Hopkins accused Davis of having an affair with her husband. Davis would later commend Hopkins but call her a very jealous person.

Some other highlights of Hopkins’ work include King Vidor’s tale of family dynamics, The Strangers Return (1933), her Golden Globe nominated performance in romantic drama The Heiress (1949) and starring alongside Aubrey Hepburn and Shirley McClaine in The Children’s Hour (1961) as the rueful Aunt Lily. The Children’s Hour itself was an adaptation of Lilliam Hellman’s 1934 play, which was previous made into a film starring Hopkins called These Three (1936). However, because of the Hays Code, the nature of the scandalous relationship wasn’t homosexuality but, instead, a cheating trio.

The range of characters and stories which Miriam Hopkins has played is astonishing. The gravitas she had on the big screen is iconic – with a range of strongly written and acted female characters under her belt. It’s no wonder that my lead character is named after her.

Diary Of Murders is out on 23rd August, and you can pre-order it on the Great British Bookshop and Amazon Kindle.

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