Bright Lights Film Journal

Miriam Hopkins & the Pre-Code Menage-a-trois


Imagine Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston deciding to live together and share Brad Pitt! How hot would that be? But no, now we live in a much more (as in less) enlightened age, but once, long ago, these sorts of things happened…in pre-code films… to Miriam Hopkins.

There’s no Miriam Hopkins to be found on the recently released DVD set, Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2, but frankly, when I think of pre-code sexiness, it’s Miriam who comes to mind. Sure, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, etc. are all hot and brilliant, but often they are too full of sarcasm and/or aloofness to be sexy in the demure, warmly inviting way we shy sensitive guys secretly long for.

Hopkins is the benchmark for that sort of inviting sexiness. You can see it all over DESIGN FOR LIVING, when she falls onto the dusty bed in a semi-feigned swoon in the Parisian garret shared by Frederic March and Gary Cooper; or when she calls Gary Cooper “barbaric” and her eyes glaze over in dreamy lust… or check out the warm sapphic frisson generated with Claudette Colbert in THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (avail in the also recently released Lubitsch Musicals collection from Criterion). Hopkins was an actress who could maintain incredible poise and confidence all the while yielding totally to the tide of gushing sexual desire. The tide of sexual desire actually made her smarter! Her whole body and soul seemed to waken and respond to it, like a wave of summer heat on a cold day.

Perhaps it’s this rare gift which makes Hopkins so great in ensemble work: her sense of liberated sexuality overflows the boundaries of the two-person pair-bond. One just can’t imagine her “making do” in a conventional post-code relationship.

Thus, in pre-code films, Hopkins became the ideal third party for any menage a trois–as in Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING. If a menage a trois almost happens but ultimately is not be–as in THE SMILING LIEUTENANT–Hopkins still makes time to work things out with the other woman, she even tries later on in the decade with mean old Bette Davis. Babs or Jean Harlow would be more inclined to “settle the score” with a gun, but sweet Hopkins visits her rival with cheek-turning sisterly goodwill and shared tears, be it Colbert in LIEUTENANT or Kay Francis in TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

Even in the nightmare reflection of this civilized approach she is faced with doubles, forced to endure a DEAD RINGERS-style meltdown dealing with Frederic March x2 in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931). Her pleading with Jekyll for protection from Hyde is the stuff of childhood nightmare.

Hopkins’ penchant for menage a trois action would continue even in post-code films where she played romantic rival/best friends to Bette Davis (THE OLD MAID, LONGTIME ACQUAINTANCE) and for her troubles was forced to pretend she liked George Brent (the censorial inquisition equivalent of being broken on the rack). Davis called Hopkins a real bitch to work with, but that bitchiness doesn’t show much on screen. One wonders if it’s not that Hopkins just aged better than Davis, and was able to convey effortless sexuality and warmth while Davis could only rage along on her splumes of egotistic grandeur. I can’t imagine Davis being a desirable or willing third party in a menage a trois, not unless both other parties payed sole attention to her and ignored each other. Davis almost makes it happen with Warren William and Joan Blondell in THREE ON A MATCH, but gets stuck with the nanny job instead (she’s too practical, eschewing the dope habits and reform school charm of her peers in favor of a drab life in the stenographer’s pool).

Bitch or not, the character Hopkins plays in DESIGN FOR LIVING stands tall in cinema even today, as one of the few free-thinking women who challenge the pair-bond system without flinching, backing down or succumbing to a third act change of heart. Even today that’s all too rare. God knows how many of my friends I’ve had to watch “chicken out” of their radical stances and go marry the Edward Everett Horton of their real life mis-en-scene. Thank god for Miriam Hopkins, who walked it like she talked it, ’til Joe Breen slapped her down!

This post continues with praise for DESIGN FOR LIVING over on Acidemic. You can read more on the unjustly under-celebrated Miriam Hopkins and her upcoming biography on Alternative Film Guide.