Design for Living

Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel by Allan R. Ellenberger

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Very good book on a great actress, still under-rated star, and key figure in the ‘pre-code’ era. The book is as good on her life as on her career. Her relationships with her mother, sister and child figure prominently and are woven throughout the narrative along with her numerous marriages and affairs. The plays, films and performances are well discussed and one also gets the nitty gritty dollars and cents information I at least am keen on. 

The book is interesting on all her key films (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Story of Temple Drake, Becky Sharpe, These Three;). It also gives a very good account of how difficult she was to work with, on the making of The Sisters, Old Acquaintance and the onset shenanigans with Bette Davis that ensued on those films. If Ryan Murphy wants to do a prequel to Feud this would provide very good material. Her reputation for being difficult affected her ability to get work in Hollywood but luckily she always had a stage career to return to in moments were she wasn’t getting what she wanted from Hollywood.

The book is fascinating on her extensive love life: Fritz Lang, Anatole Litvak, Robert Montgomery, and many others. The famous incident with Litvak and Paulette Goddard gets a full airing and Ellenberger also discusses and dismisses the rumours of Hopkins’ lesbian tendencies, locating the sources of the rumours and indicating how and why those rumours might have been propagated.

As an added bonus, one also gets a rich and full account of Hopkins’ career in the theatre. I recommend.

 

José Arroyo

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

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A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by Hetch. The film tell of two artists, playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), who love the same woman, like each other, and decide to share a flat. Miriam Hopkins is the ‘free spirit’ who makes a condition of their living together that she will critique their work but won’t sleep with either (probably everyone’s idea of hell).

Fredric March was a big star, but on the evidence of his work here, his appeal is lost in the mist of time. Miriam Hopkins is made for Lubitsch. She’s simply wondrous as the elegant crook in Trouble in Paradise and her Princess in The Smiling Lieutenant is a continuing delight (Her transformation from princess to flapper, culminating in her performance of  ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’, ciggie in one hand hand, garters visible, and visibly vibrating to post-ragtime jazz,  is priceless). She always exudes a slight harshness but here she doesn’t have enough funny lines to compensate. She seems merely harsh; and not as pretty as Gary Cooper.

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Orson Welles said Cooper was so beautiful he practically turned into a girl whenever he saw him; one look at Cooper here and one understands Welles completely – even Miriam eventually succumbs. He does some good double-takes too. But ultimately he’s unbelievable in the Coward role; whenever he’s discussing art you sense he’d really rather be on a horse. The first Lubtisch I’ve not liked. It is a pre-Code film and as daring as  American cinema would get for another thirty years; but not delightful.

*(Alfred and Lynn, considered the great acting couple of their day and so famous they even figure in J.D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, ‘they didn’t act like people, and they didn’t act like actors’)

José Arroyo