The Cult of Miriam Hopkins and Savage Intruder (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Savage Intruder (1970) aka The Comeback aka Hollywood Horror House was the last movie for 1930s and 40s actress and Academy Award nominee Miriam Hopkins (1902-72 heart attack).

(L-R) Deleted Jekyll and Hyde scene and sultry Hopkins

Like Joan Crawford (1905-77 heart attack, maybe cancer), Hopkins had a long-running feud with Bette Davis (1908-89 breast cancer) and like those two actresses movies in the 1960s, Savage Intruder is an example of an aging Hollywood star making a horror movie a la Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In fact both those movies were partially shot at the same low-budget studios.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? trailer (1962)

Hopkins was a sexually liberated rebel, a woman before her time. At barely five foot two inches, the diminutive star radiated an energy and enthusiasm in the movies she left behind, some bordering on overacting as a result. But we get the feeling this girl knew how to have a good time!

John Gilbert

With her blonde hair and beautiful almond shaped blue eyes, Hopkins’ lovers included actors Robert Montgomery (1904-81 cancer) and John Gilbert (1897-1936 heart attack, some say in saddle), directors King Vidor (1894-1982 heart ailment) and Fritz Lang (1890-1976 stroke) and writers F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940 heart attack, alcoholism) and William Saroyan (1908-81 prostate cancer). Gay writer Tennessee Williams (1911-83 choked on plastic bottle cap), whose career in the theatre was kick-started by Hopkins, called her a “magnificent bitch”, while actor Andrew Prine (1936-) “loved the shit out of her”.

Robert Montgomery

You either loved or hated her – and she the same. She polarised people and she was difficult to work with as a result, as she tried to upstage bigger and more talented stars than herself. Paul Muni (1895-1967 heart ailment) found her “infuriating”, Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973 bladder cancer) called her “a horror” and when Errol Flynn (1909-59 heart attack) worked with her on Virginia City (1940) it was a “war zone”. George Raft  (1895-1980 emphysema) wanted to punch her on the nose!

But it was all pure insecurity from a career that never really scaled the heights.

Let me continue to raid information from Allan R. Ellenberger’s excellent biography of Hopkins.

1931 poster

Born the daughter of a “Southern Belle”, Hopkins became a chorus girl in New York in the early 1920s through her press agent uncle, who was disgusted, and she soon turned to legitimate theatre where she worked steadily while she posed nude for artists and sculptors.

She first came across Bette Davis (1908-89 breast cancer) when they worked in theatre together in the late 1920s. Davis was in awe of “the prettiest blonde hair I’d ever seen” as Hopkins emerged from the theatre showers and there was a rumor that Hopkins had given Davis a bisexual pat on the behind which left her feeling uncomfortable and which eventually led to them being dropped from a play.

Shortly after, Hopkins was contracted to Paramount Pictures and she had her first major role in a Carole Lombard (1908-42 plane crash while selling war bonds) film Fast and Loose (1930), which is a bit primitive to watch today, but Hopkins, with her hair blowing in the wind in one scene, is fresh. She followed this up with her first appearance in what would be three movies by legendary director Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947 heart attack) – he with the Lubitsch Touch. She was his favourite actress, as he had always loved blondes.

The Smiling Leiutenant (1931)

This movie, The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) featured an actual slanging match between Hopkins and co-star Claudette Colbert (1903-96 stroke).

She became a star when she played Champagne Ivy in the 1931 remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring Fredric March (1897-1975 prostate cancer) who won an Oscar for the lead role. It was a plum role for any actress and Hopkins makes the most of it. The straps of her dress fall almost revealing her cleavage in her first scene and it pushed the boundaries of sex in the movies at the time.

The film itself also shows the violent and possessive relationship that Hyde has with barmaid Ivy. In one scene Ivy is reduced to a quivering mess by Mr Hyde’s dreadfulness toward her. It just goes to show how such men can break confident women. She does it all in one scene. Hopkins is great and it shows she had the chops to do drama.

Colbert before the slaps

She did another Lubitsch film, the classic comedy Trouble in Paradise (1932), with Herbert Marshall (1890-1966 heart attack) and good friend Kay Francis (1905-68 breast cancer) where she plays a thief and it’s still funny today. Here she was a star at home with her sexuality and at her best with comedy. Wes Anderson (1969-) said Trouble in Paradise, which made the New York Times Top 10 Year’s Best list, was the inspiration for his The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Trouble in Paradise trailer (1932) (mind the gap)

Then, still at Paramount, there was the very controversial for its day, The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Based on a William Faulkner (1897-1962 heart attack) novel Sanctuary (1931) it was originally about the kidnapping and rape of a Mississippi debutante and her descent into a Memphis brothel.

These Three trailer (1936)

However the censors of the day wouldn’t let that film be made. Still they used the famous scene in the book where the heroine is raped – with a corncob.

How they got away with it: a director was brought in to artistically design the scene. It was a darkened barn littered by corncobs and Hopkins is approached by the rapist… it fades to black with a scream.

Hopkins thought it “fine and artistic” and to liven up a gloomy set, plagued by complaints from the Production Code censors office, there were plenty of corncob jokes.

The Story of Temple Drake press ad

Although described by critics as “sordid” at the time, Hopkins regarded The Story of Temple Drake as one of her best roles.

It was listed the following year as forbidden by the Catholic Church.

Then came her third Lubitsch comedy Design for Living (1934) with March and Gary Cooper (1901-61 prostate cancer). Hopkins sparkles in the movie, she is at her peak as she was suited to comedy and wisecracking. There is a bit of Hopkins overacting as she paces a room but as Olivia de Havilland (1916- and still kicking) remarked Hopkins’ nervous energy was always “high-keyed”.

But despite success with Lubitsch, Paramount was going broke and didn’t renew her contract, due to Hopkins having no real box office clout. The dream was over.

French DVD cover

She would have to freelance and go back to the stage in New York. As a result Hopkins replaced the self-described “ambisextrous” Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68 emphysema, influenza, malnutrition), who had a hysterectomy, in Jezebel for what Bankhead described as Hopkins “accredited Southern drawl”. It was a flop and Hopkins returned to the screen in the first film in three-strip Technicolor for RKO studios Becky Sharp (1935).

It was not a success unlike the first “talkie” and 3D movie.

French poster

The film did win her respect from her peers and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. However she didn’t win and also declined to do the very successful Frank Capra (1897-1991 heart attack) movie It Happened One Night (1934) because she thought it was “silly”. She probably missed out on an Oscar as a result as Claudette Colbert won Best Actress for it.

It was around this period that she got the reputation for being difficult. She was known to “delay, confuse and obstruct”. Her difficulty, which also suggested a problem with alcohol, saw another contract not renewed, this time with RKO. The alcohol may have contributed to a number of falls, which she had during her lifetime including one on the street, which injured her back and left her in hospital for more than six weeks.

Becky Sharp trailer (1935)

Filming Barbary Coast (1935) with Edward G. Robinson, he wrote: “She was puerile, silly and snobbish” and always trying to upstage him. Tensions on the set were political as well as Hopkins was a Republican and Robinson a Democrat. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) recent election was a hot topic. The rest of the cast and crew were apparently polarised making for an unhappy shoot.

Hopkins and Joel McCrae in Barbary Coast (1935)

By 1937 she was at Warners. Hopkins was after the film role of Jezebel (1938) at there but it went to Bette Davis despite Hopkins’ experience on the stage with it.

She also auditioned, like many famous actresses, for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Married four times and usually on impulse, as most of her weddings were elopements, Hopkins’ early marriages were to losers who spent too much and one who almost killed her with a gun.

However, she married director Anatole Litvak (1902-74 undisclosed) in 1937, who changed her outlook on politics, giving her social conscience an “awakening”, something which put her on the FBI watch list as a result and which may have resulted in her being “grey-listed” during the HUAC Witch Hunts in the late 40s, costing possible film roles.

Litvak supervised filming of the D-Day landings and was decorated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953 stroke) for his film The Battle of Russia (1943). I’m a fan in particular of Litvak’s World War II movies Decision Before Dawn (1951) and the obvious whodunit The Night of the Generals (1967) starring an excellent and young Peter O’Toole.

Night of the Generals trailer (1967)

Hopkins, who had always tended to socialise with intellectuals at her parties, was a friend of writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967 heart attack) among others. She had read their books, listened to their music and owned their paintings. She was a shrewd investor in paintings, as she owned works by Picasso and Rembrandt, which would come in handy later on when she lost a million dollars in an investment in shopping malls.

As for losing the film role of Jezebel to Davis, Hopkins said: “Bette stole that picture. She always made me out to be the villain”. Then Davis took Dark Victory (1939) from her. But there was never any question that Davis deserved the roles.

Jezebel trailer (1938)

It was around this time that Litvak produced and directed Davis in The Sisters (1938) and Hopkins accused Litvak of an affair with Davis which he denied.

Davis then won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Jezebel and as a result, after Hopkins heard the news, she trashed the hotel room where she was staying. An early rock and roll star if ever there was one!

Then Hopkins and Davis got cast together in The Old Maid (1939), which if you were cynical, was purely done for the ensuing publicity because of what had grown into a full-blown feud.

In the opening scene, when Hopkins thrusts a garter in front of Davis’ face blocking it from the camera, you know the gloves are off.

Davis who described Hopkins as “a terribly good actress, but a real bitch” was fascinated at how during the filming of The Old Maid, Hopkins used every trick in the book to upstage her. There were deliberate delays on the set as each actress turned up late or didn’t turn up at all claiming to be ill, each leaving the other to wait.

The Old Maid trailer (1939)

Producer Hal B. Wallis (1898-1986 complications of diabetes) said: “It was an incredible feud. Just fantastic!”

Hopkins’ marriage to Litvak folded in the meantime and the director ended any chance of reconciliation when he went out to dinner one night with a group of people and actress Paulette Goddard (1910-1990 emphysema). Apparently during the alcohol-drenched evening at the big round table, Litvak disappeared underneath and performed oral sex on Goddard for fifteen minutes. All confirmed by witnesses at the table, it was a major scandal at the time.

On set of The Old Maid

Davis’ star still on the ascendant, Hopkins continued to lose roles to her, including The Great Lie and The Little Foxes (both 1941). Furthermore she lost the plum role of Maria Tura in Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (1942) when she insisted the script be rewritten to give her more funny lines.

Then came around a second movie to star her and Bette Davis. Old Acquaintance (1943) was written especially for Hopkins and would have the fireworks of the real feud built into the script.

Japanese poster

Much to the amusement of all involved both actresses got up to their old tricks again. As director Vincent Sherman (1906-2006 natural causes) said, he really wasn’t directing the picture, he was “refereeing it”.

Warner Brothers leaked news of the feud purely for the publicity.

Much has been said and written of the “shaking” scene in Old Acquaintance where Davis shakes Hopkins to set her straight. The set was apparently packed to the rafters with onlookers in anticipation of it being filmed.

The ‘shaking’ scene in Old Acquaintance (1943)

When it was done, Davis said: “I can only report it was an extremely pleasant experience”. Hopkins apparently wept after the scene was shot.

Despite excellent reviews Hopkins would be through with Hollywood and would not make a great number of pictures for the rest of her life.

“We’ve always been like sisters,” she would tell reporters through clenched teeth about her relationship with Davis.

While Davis would say: “Perfectly charming socially but working with her was another question”.

Whether it was that pat on the behind during their stage days in the 1920s, the humiliation of Jezebel, or Litvak’s possible affair – Hopkins, in the end, was envious of Bette Davis’ highly successful career, while hers had never soared to such heights and, to be honest, never would. But you can’t help think that Davis was envious of Hopkins’ early success at Paramount while she languished in B-movies at Warners in the early 1930s.

Let’s take a break and then eventually get into Savage Intruder…

PART TWO

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