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

*contains spoilers

Her Hollywood sojourn over, Hopkins sold her L.A. home to David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attack) and moved to her New York apartment. There her parties continued with writers like John O’Hara (1905-70 heart failure) and Edward R. Murrow (1908-65 lung cancer, three packs a day), whose documentary on Hollywood McCarthyism in 1953 led to the wheels falling off of alcoholic senator and self-styled inquisitor Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist bandwagon.

George Clooney made a great movie about Murrow entitled Goodnight, and Good Luck (2005) set in this period in history.

Goodnight and Good Luck trailer (2005)

Hopkins kept herself busy on television and radio and did the odd movie like The Heiress (1949) for which she got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She squandered any follow-up opportunities by being difficult again.

Drinking became the norm for Hopkins and later in the 1950s she was fired from a low-budget movie for slurring her words and arriving drunk at play rehearsals. She remained accident-prone.

By the mid-60s drinking and overeating and smoking had taken its toll. But in 1965 she was offered top billing for the first time in 30 years in Russ Meyer’s (1922-2004 complications of Alzheimer’s) Fanny Hill. For once the melodrama on the West Berlin set was more than she could ever upstage and Meyer, who was yet to hit his stride with his classic Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965), was impressed by her professionalism.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! trailer (1965)

That she would make a film with a “nudie” director shows the risks Hopkins would take – or the depths to which she had sunk.

One of her common phrases when people would be invited to her place was: “Come over and let’s have a glass of personality”. This line was lifted and used in the film Savage Intruder.

By this stage of her life Hopkins was living back in Hollywood again, although not in a mansion, like in Savage Intruder. She made an appearance in The Flying Nun (1967-70) during 1969 as Major General Adelaide, a character from the silent era whose movie held the record for the longest kiss.

Hopkins in Savage Intruder

Anyway, the only work forthcoming was Savage Intruder. Money and what was a plum role was important and filming began in November 1969. She agreed to do the film without seeing the script. I don’t know how she knew director Donald Wolfe but he seemed to have insight into her at least as an actress.

Cameras started rolling only a few months after the Manson Gang murder of Sharon Tate and friends. It was a time when Hollywood was at its lowest. Hollywood Boulevard and the surrounding streets were full of crime, peep shows and sex workers. It really wasn’t the place it is today where you can easily take your family for a walk down the boulevard in the evening.

Savage Intruder, takes its cue from Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in terms of a forgotten actress living in a Hollywood mansion. And how director Donald Wolfe (1932-2017? I tried to get an interview through his agent and was told he was dead) got use of the Norma Talmadge Estate to film a horror movie remains a mystery.

Sunset Boulevard trailer (1950)

In essence it truly is a twisted and reversed Sunset Boulevard.

Filmed at the Producers Studios on Melrose Ave near Paramount where Hopkins started her career, it’s where Roger Corman shot The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) as well as others, and United Pictures Corporation shot Dimension 5 and Cyborg 2087 (both 1966) there as well. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was partially shot there. It is now called Raleigh Studios and has a rich history going back to the silent movies.

Savage Intruder trailer (1974)

Savage Intruder was filmed at a time when Hollywood had become more permissive and the old system of what could and could not be shown in movies had been replaced. It was this previous system from 1934 that helped end Hopkins’ career with her onscreen sexually liberated pesona. In 1968, a ratings system and censorship came into effect, something which more or less carries on to this day.

The movies of the Doris Day (1922-2019 pneumonia) era were gone by the time of Savage Intruder and Hollywood returned to the era of the early 1930s – which Hopkins had thrived in before it suddenly ended – and went even further with full frontal nudity and heavy gore… there seemed like nothing couldn’t be shown.

Savage Intruder

As a result, the themes, the gore – the horror in general – is more overt in Savage Intruder, more so than many mainstream horror movies of the period and previously.

The Summer of Love had truly ended when Hopkins began rolling on this movie and probably knowing it would be the last starring role she would ever have – she had a ball! Director Donald Wolfe let her, too!!

Director Wolfe

In it she is playing herself, more or less, a faded yet wealthy star, living in a big empty mansion with only her staff for company.

In real life Hopkins had a grown adopted son Michael (1932-2010) and had long ended her final marriage in 1951. She lived in reality with a butler in an apartment.

The actress Katherine Packard is a forgotten alcoholic, much like Hopkins who at this stage had confided in someone that vodka was like “mother’s milk”..

The film opens with a then rotting and rusting Hollywood sign.

The sign in 1969

It is one of the greatest opening credit sequences ever for a horror movie. There is a dark foreboding as the soundtrack has just the sound of loose metal blowing in the wind. It reflected totally the state of decay and disrepair that Hollywood had fallen into…

As the Hollywood sign rots we become aware of a dismembered female body nearby.  Then there’s another dreadful and bloody murder and dismemberment of another Hollywood resident, an aging starlet perhaps, but someone down on her luck.

Mommy in Savage Intruder

The assailant who is unknown has an acid flashback to when he was a child where his mother appears to be a drunken and drug-crazed woman of the night. Anyway she really mucked him up! She may have even given him drugs!

He carries a case with various instruments like some sort of Jack the Ripper.

Then we cut to a bus tour of Hollywood celebrity houses, led by late career Three Stooges actor Joe Besser (1907-88 heart failure).  The tour actually makes a child throw up. One of the passengers on the tour alights when Besser mentions the current home belongs to the once famous and still wealthy benefactress and actress Katherine Packard.

John Garfield Snr with child

The actor who plays this mysterious hippie character is John David Garfield (1943-94 heart attack), son of iconic actor and subject of House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) John Garfield Sr (1913-52 heart attack, some say in saddle).

Both died relatively young of heart disease, so it was likely genetic for them, but David’s father’s heart attack was often blamed on stress because of HUAC and Garfield Sr’s and his cohorts’ Left-wing politics. Simply they were accused of being Communists.

Close your eyes and David’s voice sounds just like his father.

Garfield is the immediate suspect in the movie and he ingratiates himself into the household as a carer for Hopkins, who earlier had a drunken fall down the stairs and broke her leg.

He first introduces himself as Mr Lorelyn Hardy. A joke relating to the great comedy team Laurel and Hardy of course – but the housekeeper doesn’t get it. He is taken on against the better judgment of Hopkins’ private secretary, played by Gale Sondergaard (1899-1985 blood clot in brain).

Stan and Ollie trailer (2019)

It is interesting to note that Sondergaard was married to director Herbert Biberman (1900-71 bone cancer). He was named as one of the Hollywood Ten by HUAC in the early 1950s.

Those unfamiliar will note that HUAC, at its peak, was a product of the Cold War and “The Red Scare”, and investigated citizens, from the government to the army, thought to have Communist ties. It finally focused on Hollywood with the “Communist Witch Hunts” in about 1947. HUAC investigated allegations the Hollywood movie industry had been infiltrated by Communists, who influenced the public with their Left-wing communist propaganda movies.

Joseph McCarthy downfall

The Hollywood Ten was a shortlist of directors and writers, cited for contempt for not appearing at HUAC public hearings, who were known for their Leftist views. Damning many a career, some continued to work under pseudonyms. Many lives and families were unjustifiably destroyed as a result. Foreign-born filmmakers were even deported!

Savage Intruder poster

The Witch Hunts, also known as McCarthyism, were named after the Democrat turned Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-57 hepatitis), who I mentioned earlier. Hopkins’ brush with HUAC was only inasmuch as she was on the FBI watch list for her views and Litvak’s.

McCarthyism even went so far as to victimise the homosexuals around the same era, many of who were closeted, under “The Lavender Scare”.

Like the unsuccessful Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, McCarthyism served its purpose, as there was a real fear that Communism would take hold in the United States, especially since Russia and China had fallen. Then its browbeating went too far and McCarthy over-reached himself in Hollywood eventually causing himself to be “condemned” by the Senate in 1954 after Murrow’s documentary on him the previous year. McCarthy died not too long afterwards.

There’s too much history for you… and the Vietnam War is in there too!

HUAC wasn’t finally disbanded until the mid 1970s.

Salt of the Earth poster

Back to Gale Sondergaard’s husband Biberman who was one of The Hollywood Ten. His film Salt of the Earth (1954) about striking zinc miners in New Mexico, shows he was perhaps the bravest of the ten as a result. It is a remarkable film for the period about feminism, unionism and solidarity. It’s amazing this film was made at all during this period in US history. The neorealist and feminist aspects… all the women want is good sanitation, something every American should have already had!

Coming from a politically progressive family and married to Biberman, Sondergaard’s career literally ended with HUAC. She probably knew John Garfield and apparently hadn’t seen Miriam Hopkins since before the blacklist twenty years earlier.

Savage Intruder was a comeback for Sondergaard after twenty years in the Hollywood wilderness although, I’m sure, she was very busy on stage! She started out doing Shakespeare in the 1920s.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back poster

And it’s not as if she was a slouch as an actress in Hollywood. She received the first Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1937 for Anthony Adverse (1936). She was nominated again in 1947 for her role in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Then came HUAC!

She is probably best remembered for her role in The Spider Woman (1943), the halfway mark for the Sherlock Holmes series (1939-46) starring Basil Rathbone (1892-1967 heart attack) and Nigel Bruce (1895-53 heart attack). Sondergaard is better in the seriously creepy but unrelated The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946) as a nasty piece of work whose blood drinking plants could only have inspired Little Shop of Horrors (1960 and 1986)!

Sondergaard at HUAC

While Savage Intruder received no official release before Hopkins death in 1972, as a comeback vehicle it worked for Sondergaard. Following this up with an appearance in an episode of Get Smart (1965-70) as Hester Van Hooten, she went on to work steadily in television for a decade.

In Savage Intruder, Garfield befriends Hopkins to the point where he gives her nude massages and she deludes herself that he really loves her and lavishes expensive gifts upon him and hosts a lavish dinner party.

Durfee looks on at Arbuckle

At this dinner party, like in the card-playing scene in Sunset Boulevard, there is an appearance by a silent film actress – Minta Durfee (1889-1975). She was married to Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (1887-1933 heart attack in sleep) whose career was ruined when he was put on trial for the rape and murder of the starlet Virginia Rappe (1895-1921 ruptured bladder). Some say it was just an enthusiastic very obese Arbuckle who jumped on Rappe in bed. It was this scandal and another, which prompted the movement to clean up Hollywood and eventually led to the Production Code which strictly enforced what could be shown in movies as mentioned earlier. Again The Production Code helped ruin Hopkins’ burgeoning career.

The other scandal at the time of Arbuckle was the murder of William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922 shot). Minta Durfee left Arbuckle but she stood by her friend Mabel Normand who was one of the last to see Taylor alive. So Durfee was a bit of a legend around Hollywood. It’s a nice touch. So too is the use of actor Lester Matthews in a sizeable role who appeared in many a costumer in the 1940s and appeared in scenes together with Sondergaard in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). Director Wolfe must have been a boyhood and teenage fan!

The Invisible Man’s Revenge poster (1944)

Incidentally, the card-playing scene in the evergreen classic Sunset Boulevard features Buster Keaton (1895-1966 lung and throat cancer), who worked with Arbuckle in comedy shorts before Arbuckle’s undoing.

But rather than truly love Hopkins’ character, Garfield would rather have it off with the cook named Greta, played by newcomer Virginia Wing (no info). Wing is not forgotten today as she was used for a bit part in 2018 in the Batman-inspired television series Gotham (2014-19).

Hopkins is dominated to the point where Garfield brings dozens of  “callow and disgusting” hippie/druggie/freaks back to her mansion for a party, where she is offered: “cocaine, smack, grass or acid”. To which she replies: “The only trips I take are to Europe”.

Meanwhile, poor Greta gets a bun in the oven, while Hopkins starts drinking again… there’s more murder and I won’t give it away, I enjoy the movie so much. Give it a go, but don’t expect the world.

When taken in context writer/director Donald Wolfe’s concoction is a great little horror. Certainly it’s one of the best of its type.

Thanks to Wolfe, Hopkins has a field day, from the beginning, when she skols another vodka and says: “One more glass of personality!”, to singing, to even baring a breast. For a woman in her mid-60s that takes guts and she is a woman before her time in doing so. Even today, actresses of her age rarely show their breasts! She is as intense and over-animated in Savage Intruder as she ever was.

The Richest Girl in the World poster

It’s basically a celebration of Hopkins, starting with the opening montage of stills of her in the 1930s.

The tragedy is this movie didn’t get an immediate theatrical release. I don’t know what happened but it came out in the mid-70s under the title Hollywood House of Horror. I first came across a VHS copy at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus when I was living in London in the early 1990s. It’s a tragedy for Hopkins too.

Immediately fascinated by the mixture of Herschell Gordon Lewis gore, drugged out weirdness, old-time Hollywood and modern horror, I have watched Savage Intruder many times. The ending is suitably bizarre.

As one of the characters says in the movie, it’s like vintage wine: “First all the elements must be right, then it takes time.” The film ages well.

As for Hopkins, after this movie, she retired to her bedroom, rather like Marlene Dietrich and pulled down the blinds. There she would drink vodka and listen to music. A life-long smoker, she had emphysema and in the end, like her character in Savage Intruder, she was wheelchair bound on public occasions.

Miriam Hopkins

One of those last occasions was the 60th Anniversary of Paramount Studios shortly before her death in 1972. There, the festivities kicked off with a screening of The Story of Temple Drake, with its corncob scene. The audience at the time laughed at its dated storytelling, obviously not taking the film in context, or not realising its star was present. She didn’t get the respect.

She died of a massive heart attack in New York at a hotel, the guest of Paramount shortly afterwards. She had dropped in the early hours after another long night owl evening…

Miriam Hopkins was vibrant and sexy, she was radiant and switched on. Sure she could be difficult and overact intensely if given the chance – but she had an intelligent mind of her own, enjoyed a smoke, a drink and good company in the drawing room and in the bedroom!

Watching her in her heyday is like watching lightning in a bottle. If only she could have followed her wisecracking self into an era that wasn’t curtailed by wowsers!!

She is a cult whose final remains are enshrined in Savage Intruder. For Hopkins, it really is a final fling and I get the feeling she really had a really good time!

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

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